Friday 2nd March 2012

By this morning, all signs of the storms had disappeared. Around midday, I spotted another ship on the horizon. How weird to see that ugly thing and not an iceberg! It looked so out of place and messy. Oddly enough, I actually felt that my space had been invaded.

(A perfect day, with the most intensely blue ocean I have ever seen)

(Soaking up the perfect day on the monkey deck)

(And then a space invader arrived!)

Beautiful sunshine, barely a breeze, lots of people outside, some sunning themselves on the monkey deck, above the bridge. And then we were treated to a spectacular display by a pod of dolphins, darting inches below the surface and leaping out in unison. Wow! They then split up into smaller groups and porpoised all around the ship, to gasps of delight from the onlookers.

(The 'official' dolphin spotters on duty)

(The entertainers have arrived)

(Some passengers lazed about….)

(…some passengers hung about….)

(…and others monkeyed about on the monkey deck)

(…while the crew continued with their daily grind out on the decks…)

(…and way down below, in the galley.)

(Meanwhile, I was making plans with the ice I had imported from Antarctica as a gift to my family)

This afternoon I heard someone yell ‘Land ahoy!’ We could just make out the shape of Table Mountain! Word spread through the ship like wildfire and passengers rushed outside in their hordes to squint at the barely visible landmark. Home -  we are almost there! People started saying their farewells as we all know that tomorrow morning, when the ship berths, things will get hectic.

(Land ahoy!!!! Moving closer and closer to the mountain was an awesome feeling, filled with anticipation and excitement)

A few hours after spotting the mountain, we were able to get cell phone reception. What bliss, to be able to have a loooong conversation with one’s loved ones! All over the ship's decks people wandered about with one arm glued to their ear, yakking away.

(My first call home!)

(The heli-deck, or 'cell phone paradise')

(The sun has almost set, but who needs light for yakking? That was the longest call home ever!)

All the while, Table Mountain was getting bigger and bigger. The ship proceeded to her allocated spot near the harbor where we would lay anchor for the night, before heading into the harbor with a tug boat early tomorrow morning. What a spellbinding view of Table Mountain and the coastline! Darkness fell and the landscape was transformed into millions of tiny lights, like glowing embers in a fire.

(Our last and exquisite sunset on the SA Agulhas, just outside Cape Town harbour)

Back to the future….


And we are almost touching it again. The thought was followed by an involuntary shudder.

After three months in some of the most pristine and isolated places on earth, I wondered what it would be like to once again, see the evidence of man’s ‘progress’ on this earth. The vehicles, roads, noise, smog, litter, colours, buildings, landscaped gardens, crowds. Not to mention the high speed at which we conduct our lives.


“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean –roll!

Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;

Man marks the earth with ruin  –  his control

Stops with the shore.” 

(Lord Byron, 1788 – 1824. Yes, yonks ago!)


Then I started wondering how it would feel to step off the Little Red Boat for the last time? I was jolted by the realization that once again, she had become part of me. By now, to a large extent, my internal rhythm was dictated by hers and it was all about to come to a sudden end. How does one say farewell to a ship? Memories of my first voyage on this ship in December 1986 mingled freely with memories of this voyage. It seemed that time was irrelevant. The only important thing was the connection between me and her. There was a sense of having completed the circle.

Feeling overwhelmed, I walked her decks, up the steps, around and down…soaking in the detail of her lines, sights and sounds for one last time…remembering how safe I had always felt aboard her, even in the worst of storms, such as the ones we braved in 1986. Indeed, I was not the only one who felt a deep sense of nostalgia and loss. I know of some big, strong men who have sailed on her dozens of times, who shed a few furtive tears at the end of this last Antarctic voyage of their trusted and well-loved ship, the SA Agulhas.


Tuesday 28th February 2012

The ship is bucking wildly. Much of our stuff is still lying on the floor in the cabin (I am sharing with two others) and will just have to remain there until after the storm.  At dinner tonight, my chair slid to the right and so did I, until I landed on the lap of the diner next to me. It is quite a thrill to see the huge waves hit the dining room portholes as well as the portholes on the level above.  

(Lurching into the swell, water, water, everywhere!)

I have just been to the poop deck, at the back of the ship, one level below the heli-deck.  When the ship dips down, one looks straight into a 10-metre (30 feet) wall of almost black water. It is both terrifying and exciting at the same time. We shrieked when it looked as if the water was going to crash over the deck, smashing us in the process…Luckily, it didn’t! According to an experienced sailor, the waves will indeed crash over the deck before the night is over. Suddenly it started to hail, but due to the strong wind, it came at us horizontally!

(A great big wall of black water rises ominously above the poop deck)

We have been forced a little off course to cope with the swell and to make life on the ship a bit more comfortable. That means the ‘corkscrewing’ motion is lessened, much, to my relief!

(An albatross, as grand as ever, not perturbed by the storm)

Monday 27th February 2012

Early this morning, the intensity of the storm increased severly. That was apparent to us all. Most of our stuff fell off the shelves and I almost fell out of bed. The chairs have been lying upside for two days already, and there really is no point in trying to keep them upright. Our speed has been reduced to about 4 knots, severely slowing down our progress. Hopefully, the storm will be over by tomorrow, but I hear that there is another on the way that we might just hit or just miss…

(Wild, but pretty exciting! The Little Red Boat is about 110m (330 feet) long  – and is being tossed about by the ocean as if she were a cork in a bathtub)

It is really difficult to do anything when the ship is bucking around like this. Even staying awake is a challenge. I spoke to the doctor and asked why so many of us were feeling so tired. The response was that it is hard work for the brain to maintain the body's balance and its proper, upright position when everything around it is moving unpredictably, especially when one is indoors and unable to see the ocean and the horizon and thereby, anticipate the movement. Makes sense to me. Many passengers spend much of the day in their bunks, emerging only at mealtimes.

(I got soaked taking this photo as the water was splashing onto the deck with great force)

I got up early, had breakfast and was fully intending to be constructive. I sat down and started reading then woke up an hour later, still sitting but just emerging from a gentle coma. I tried reading again. Then woke up another hour later, still sitting up…

Sadly, the Northwesterly wind has transformed into a Southwesterly, which means we get hit by the swell from the side. Thus, instead of a rhythmic up-and-down swaying motion, the ship perfoms an uncomfortable corkscrew motion. My ‘favourite’. Ha, ha! But all that was forgotten for a while when the heavens provided a dramatic and astonishingly beautiful sunset…

(Charcoal clouds barely allow the sunlight to shine through onto the wild ocean)

The weather is not improving and we already lost time yesterday from having to slow down to about 4 knots. The front that was predicted to have passed over us still has not finished passing by. I am not sure that I still have patience for this. I feel so much closer to home and yet still so far away. It certainly looks like this darn storm is following us around!  At midnight tonight, we will set our clocks forward by one hour.

“Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow: Such as creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now.”  (Lord Byron)




Saturday 25th February 2012

The swell is increasing. Part of the sky is overcast and it is snowing, while in another part of the sky, the sun is shining! The swell is already about 4 to 6m (12 to 18 feet). 

The weatherman predicts that we will be rocking and rolling in the next days, as there are a few storm fronts moving through this area. He showed me that if we had been two days later in departing, we would have been caught in a huge storm with winds in excess of 50 knots. We will however, still get caught by the 40 knot winds once or twice.

(This large ice berg reminds me of lemon meringue pie!)

(Snowstorm at sea)

Thursday 23rd February 2012

And so it was that last night, the day that we were supposed to arrive back in Cape Town, we turned around to leave Antarctica. It should take us 8 to 10 days to sail to Cape Town.

We had waited 14 days for the weather to clear so that we could fly the other passengers and some cargo on board. Weeks of cruising east-west-east-west in the open sea, going nowhere, took their toll on my emotions. I was beginning to feel as though I was never going to see my family again! The weather was often so bad that it was thoroughly unpleasant to go outside. My body clock got all muddled up and I ended up being tired when I should be alert and awake when I should be sleepy .

Despite my intense longing to be reunited with my family, yesterday was a tough day for me. I had looked forward to an unhurried, gentle exit from here, slowly making our way out through the pack ice. But it did not happen that way. One moment we were in the ice and the next it was like someone had cut a line and we were gone, out. Open water. At least there were still some icebergs floating around.

(The very weathered remains of a blue iceberg)

The night was dark and cold. It was the first pitch darkness I had seen in a while, as during the last 14 nights that we spent waiting beyond the pack ice, the nights were merely twilight. The Little Red Boat swayed heartily as she built up to about 11 knots  -  the fastest we had cruised in a while.

We have just been given the official estimated time of arrival: 3 March at 08h00. However, we were warned that there are often storms in the lower latitudes that can blow us off course for a day or two…

Although it is not really storming outside, the ship is rolling about. The ocean currents move from West to East and we are going North-ish, aiming straight for Cape Town,  so the swell is hitting us from the side. Earlier, it snowed while the sun shone brightly above. Hey guys, ‘min dae’ (an Afrikaans expression for 'only a few days to go") !

(Interesting shape, I wonder how far this one has travelled with the currents?)

("If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee…" (PB Shelley))

(I just love the clouds and the silver highlights on the ice berg and ocean)


Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Last moments

Some of the last images I took on the 22nd before we turned home:

(Chopper bringing the last cargo load)

(John, flight engineer, checking on the load below)

(The alluring glow of blue ice)

(Pancake ice  -  the new ice of the coming winter  -  covered in fresh snow)

(Icebergs on a silver horizon)

(Blue ice berg, close-up)

(Pancake ice that has turned a bit 'brashy', up close)

(Panorama of pancake ice in all its diversity)

(Close-up of pancake ice, like overlapping crystalline petals floating on top of the ocean)

(Stages of development from water, to pancake ice to pack ice)

(Two crabeater seals emerge from a gap in the pack ice)

(Silken, sleek hunter, totally at home in this ice world)

(This sunset holds promise…)

(The promise is fulfilled -  our last, glorious sunset in the pack ice)

(Moonrise over the open sea, after turning homewards)

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Home we go!

(Again, for this post, all photos are courtesy of the webcam at the Neumayer base)

I think it is about 17h00. The chopper has just landed after dropping its last load on the front deck of the Little Red Boat. The crew rushes past me, where I am standing outside on the walkway, port side. They are animated and excitedly slapping each other on the back.

(An animation of the loading seen from Neumayer – the cargo sled is bottom left (photos from 07:00-18:00)

I ask: "Hey guys, what's up? "

They reply: "The Captain has given the order: prepare the ship for seafaring."

That's it: we are on our way home.

One of the young crew members says to me: "Soon, I will be home, I'll see Table Mountain, my house, my bed and my girlfriend in it."

The ice is dense. Pancake ice surrounded by smallish floes. One lone, beautiful blue iceberg on the horizon.  The ship is moving past it, seemingly faster and faster. Perhaps that is just my imagination. I check the heading on the pc inside the lounge:  we are going North. Within minutes the ice starts thinning out. We will be in the open water soon.

Northward, homeward.

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Morning loading

Wonders never cease! The weather is still good enough to fly! Our one chopper is flying cargo from the ice shelf to the ship. It's a long haul for the pilots, Tjaart and Bees and the engineer, John. Their dedicated support crew stands by on the heli deck and in the hangar, ready to perform whatever needs to be done at each touchdown. It's freeeezzzzing out there. A cargo flight takes about an hour round trip, as the load is heavy and the ship is far from the ice shelf. The pack ice is too thick for the ship to get closer to the ice shelf, and I am guessing that the captain does not want to risk getting stuck in the ice at any cost!

The ice is thick around here, and getting thicker. All around us there is 'pancake ice', i.e. the new ice that is forming as winter approaches. It is quite beautiful.  Imagine a roundish, semi-translucent piece of floating ice, of which the edges are slightly raised and more solid-looking and white. Some pieces are as small as a saucer and others, the size of a small coffee table. I wish I could film it over a period of days to see how each little molecule actually gets added to the bulk until it grows into a floe. Plenty of seals are floating about on top of the ice floes. Generally, they just ignore us. Penguins? Sadly, I have not seen any in a while. It's cold outside. I love to stand on the deck and watch the sea of ice around me heave and give way as the ocean swell beneath it rises and dips.

Tuesday 21st February 2012 – Loading

(For this post, all photos are courtesy of the webcam at the Neumayer base)

This morning the weather did not look promising but in true Antarctic style, it changed.

(The weather this morning)

At about 12h30, the first chopper took off to fetch the first load of passengers. The Germans are helping us to fly passengers from the Summer Station to the ship in their chopper,…

(The German helicopter in the left foreground)

…while the larger, South African chopper flies cargo from the ice to the ship.

The returnees have been given a hearty welcome. Let's hope they all head straight for the showers… 

The idea is to get as much cargo aboard as possible while the weather holds. I  cannot say how long that will be, as no-one knows. More later!

(More cargo loading)

Monday 20th February 2012 – NEWS FLASH!

The weather is clearing up here, at long last. We hope that tomorrow will be 'flying weather'. The priorities are to bring the 19 passengers aboard, then their personal luggage, and then whatever cargo can be flown aboard, i.e. the stuff that has been identified as most important. The rest of the cargo will have to remain on the ice until December. I believe that while we wait aboard ship for the flying weather to arrive, the vehicles that will be left behind here (in Antarctica) are being stored inside the old Neumayer 2 base, which is buried under the ice. It is located a few meters from the Summer Station, where the rest of our passengers are holed up.

In fact, when the Germans vacated Neumayer 2 to move into the brand new Neumayer 3 base (about 8 km inland)  in approximately 2009, they said that SANAP could have the containers that made up the living area inside their old base, but we would have to extricate them from the base at our effort. This was done in one season, to the utter astonishment of some, who had thought that it would take about 3 seasons to achieve. Thus, our Summer Station was built on top of a metal frame, using the old German containers for the living areas.

I understand that the Germans at Neumayer 3 have very kindly offered to help open up a certain access point to their old base, where our vehicles can be parked and stored until the ship returns in December. There is a big trap door that must be lifted to gain access, but first, all the snow on top of it must be removed.  The Germans aboard our ship will also hopefully, fly tomorrow. They need to fly to Neumayer 3 to collect 1,5 tons of geological rock samples to bring aboard.  It is possible that they may help to fly passengers from our Summer Station to the ship.  Their choppers are quite a lot smaller, only being able to carry about 4 passengers at a time. However, at this stage of the game, every bit helps.

But, as I have said so many times, this merely  'the plan'. The Weather will call the shots, as always.

NEWS FLASH:  We have just been informed that the ship will turn homewards on Wednesday. If all goes well, the loading will take place tomorrow and will be completed on Wednesday and then we will head back to Cape Town…!!!!!!