"…there is no such thing as time…"
More than once, when enquiring the time of day, I have been told: "In Antarctica there is no such thing as time; there is just weather". How true that has turned out to be!
But let me not get ahead of myself…
It's almost time to leave SANAE IV base. Most of the work has been done, the new overwintering team has been taught (some of) the ropes; take-over is drawing to a close. Getting 70-odd people from SANAE base and aboard the Little Red Boat, 300km away, requires excellent planning at the best of times. Usually, some people drive to the ice shelf (for example, the drivers who load cargo back onto the ship) and the rest fly from SANAE to the ship, wherever she awaits them, either at Penguin, RSA or Neumayer Bukta.
On Wednesday evening, a list was posted with the names of those people who would be flown back to the ship the next morning. They would then wait aboard ship until her departure, about 9 days later. I was disappointed to see my name up there as I would prefer to spend that time at the base. However, it is totally understandable that personnel who are not essential to the takeover functions are returned to the ship first, while the rest of the work is wrapped up at the base. The DCO (Departmental Coordinating Officer) had hoped to get the first few loads of 10 passengers each, aboard ship. I stayed up all night, taking a mournful, long, last look at my surroundings, both inside and outside the base.
At 4am on Thursday, the weather officer broke the news that the 5am flight would not be able to fly as the ship was shrouded in mist - but it might burn away, a little later. By 6am it had not improved. By noon, all flights were cancelled.
To my joy, the great mistress of Antarctica, 'Madame Weather', had blown in. She arrived in rather a hurry and according to the experts, will stay until about 12 February. That is the day the Little Red Boat was supposed to turn north to return to Cape Town, already replete with returning cargo and passengers. Thus, it seems to me that the arrival of Madame has turned a tricky challenge into a bit of a logistical nightmare: how and when to get all these people back aboard ship?
The chopper pilots fly under 'visual flight rules'. This means that for the choppers to fly, the weather must be excellent at point of departure as well at the destination. Needless to say, (but I will say it anyway as the flight takes about 1 hour and down here a lot can change in that time) there must be a strong probability that it will remain excellent until the chopper has landed aboard ship. Cloud cover should preferably not be lower than 500 feet (about 170m) otherwise they tend to cause problems with visibility and 'contrast'. By 'contrast', I mean one must be able to see the detail in the landscape, the horizon must be clearly visible and one must have depth perception. Depth perception is usually one of the first things to say goodbye in bad weather, thereby rendering flying as safe as jumping off a cliff. Wind speed is important when starting up the rotors, when it may not exceed 38 knots but during the flight it is not very important.
Yesterday, the weather at SANAE was nothing short of magnificent. The sun shone brightly, the sky was bright blue and the wind lay sleeping. It was about – 8 C⁰ but I did not even notice the cold and comfortably spent most of the day outside.
By now, I know that you know that plans change around here, by the minute. The first plan is seldom the plan that is implemented. Given the weather forecast for the next week and the fact that back-loading must commence soon in order that the ship may depart on 12 Feb at the latest, some very creative planning has entered the equation.
The latest plan is that most passengers will travel to the ice shelf inside a caboose, on a sled, drawn by a Caterpillar. A caboose is a container with a few (non-opening) windows, bunks, a stove and a loo. Some may even travel the distance inside a container, thereby saving an extra trip. As far as I am aware, they will be hauled to Neumayer Bukta, which is the reverse of the 300km Cat Train trip that I did at Christmas. The first trip might commence tomorrow and I will probably be one of the passengers.
I wonder how many people can squeeze into the “Summer Base” at Neumayer? The last time we were there, an important water pipe had burst, thus there was no piped water. The choppers must fly back to the ship from SANAE, as they cannot be sledded to the ice shelf, the journey being far too rough and bouncy. Who knows how long it will be before the weather is good enough for that to happen?
But that is not all. Mother Nature has a few more trump cards up her sleeve, one being the amount and location of pack ice and another being the thickness of the ice. The ship needs to be able to pull right up to the ice cliff, in order for the back-loading to take place. A week ago, when the chopper came to collect us from the ship to fly us to SANAE, the ship was unable to berth at the ice cliff, as she could not break through the thick pack ice.
This morning, the sun shone brightly in a blue sky here at SANAE. I heard that the Little Red Boat was still shrouded in mist. But now it is snowing here. It seems to be falling in ‘sheets’ that are clearly visible, one quickly following upon the heels of the other. It is impossible to tell where the sky ends and the ground begins.
I am enveloped by this glorious, pure whiteness. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I am fortunate enough to be here to see, feel, taste and smell this beautiful, falling ice as it flutters about me.
And as for getting back aboard the Little Red Boat? All I can say with certainty is that I don’t know anything with certainty.