I always said that if I get to go on this cruise to Antarctica I wouldn’t be satisfied with saying “I’ve been to Antarctica” so long as my feet haven’t set foot on the continent and my hands not felt the rock which comprises it. It is with great joy that I can now say, confidently, that I have been to Antarctica.
It all started while Tahlia, Clinton and I were watching the extended version of the third instalment of Lord of the Rings—The Return of the King. Four and a half hours of bliss and numb butt cheeks. Gondor was surrounded by Sauron’s armies and the siege had begun when the news was borne to me that I would be heading to the base the next day. Neither an orc’s blood-curdling yell nor the sonorous blowing of the horn of Gondor could exorcise the spirit of anticipation, disbelief and excitement which had taken hold of me! The dream was to come true! I left to find Steve, who can’t stomach Lord of the Rings, as he was also to go to base and we shared an excited moment of reflection on how it was that we managed to come all this way and now get the chance to go to the mainland. Starting with the indefinite opportunity to go on the SEAmester cruise back in July, to helping out the scientists on that cruise late at night, to getting a possible opportunity to go on the SANAE cruise, to being on the SANAE cruise and now the certainty of setting foot on the mainland.
Bags packed we were swung onto the shelf and made for our means of travel, the caboose. A less luxurious shuttle in Antarctica you’d struggle to find. One can hardly complain, though—the end certainly justified the means. However, for the sake of conveying the experience I’ll describe the conditions in the caboose. It is essentially a one-roomed container sitting on a large metal sled. No suspension, no electricity, no mercy. It smells of diesel and you carry the smell with you when you leave. It has a toilet, but you collect whatever you deposit in a plastic bag. Needless to say most of us resorted to the making of yellow snow. There is gas so one could make food from the supplies inside which are limited and sometimes expired. The caboose is also flippen cold. We would burn the gas as a heat source when the temperature got too cold inside. The journey to the base was excruciatingly cold because there were no sleeping bags or ‘mummy bags’ in the caboose like there usually are. Fortunately for me, by the foresight and experience of Tahlia, she lent me her sleeping bag for the ride so I managed to stay reasonably alive.
The caboose, along with any other cargo that needs delivering to the base, is pulled along in what’s called a cat train. A cat, a big polar-modified tractor called a Challenger, pulls a ‘train’ of connected sleds carrying containers, fuel, the caboose or any other cargo. Our journey made use of three trains carrying fuel, empty sleds and us in the caboose. Our trip lasted fourteen hours. This is rather short compared to other rides. Some can last up to 36 hours depending on the weight of the cargo, the performance of the cats involved and the weather.
As we neared the base we had the opportunity to escape the rattling din and sit atop the caboose on the approach to the base. Little did we know that we had exchanged noise for excruciating cold. Up until this point the coldest temperatures we had experienced on the ship were minor and there was always some cover nearby. Not so on the caboose roof, pal. I thought I was going to lose my fingers. The ride was maybe about twenty minutes long, but those were the coldest few minutes of my life. That being said, the view of the base and the surrounds on the way in was spectacular provided the condensation on the inside of your snow goggles didn’t freeze like mine did. We had arrived, though. It was around two in the morning. We had a meal, settled in and slept in the beds prepared for us, happy to be where we had long hoped to go.
The next day we were given a tour of the interior of the base where many renovations are currently going on. A downside of all the renovations is the pressure on the base facilities, particularly the water and sewage systems. This means the base tends to smell like an orc pit from time to time. The base has offices for all the overwintering team to perform their research, a large mess area, a gym, a sauna, a bar, an entertainment area, a small cinema and a library. It’s big enough for the overwintering team to sometimes have to radio each other to find each other inside the base.
We were then taken outside to tour the exterior and surrounds. It was a warm (relatively speaking), clear day and couldn’t have been better to take a walk outside. We explored the two buttresses of the mountain the base is built upon, visited the radar array, went to the smelly (misleading—short for smelter) where snow is melted into water for use in the base, then we moved along to the fuel depot before heading back to the base.
That night we partook in the takeover games. We played soccer matches, where us scientists didn’t fare all too well and competed as individuals in the boot toss where an old snow boot, the ‘pampoen skoen’, so named for its orange colour, is tossed backwards over one’s head with the longest distance thrown determining the winner. Finally, we had a tug-of-war showdown. Strangely enough, this is where the Scientists team fared best in the sports. Stephen ‘Rambo’ Peel, my cabin mate and esteemed watcher of series, used his tug-of-war expertise gained during his younger years at school to beat our opponents with brainpower. We made it to the finals where we could no longer hold the rope of winners bestowed upon us. We lost to the drivers, who’s job it is to drive the cats and the dozers, playing our third game in a row having lost most of our energy in the cold of the late night. We put up a good fight, however, and rate we could pull out a win with fresh limbs.
The evening of the next day, a day spent resting and enjoying the base, was to be the beginning of our journey back to the ship. Shortly after the previous day’s games, Steve lent a hand in preparing a runway for an expected flight landing that day. All night long did he help prepare that runway. So much so, in fact, that he claimed the runway as his. His experience gained driving the Challenger that night earned him a spot as a cat driver for the return journey. A journey which was to be shorter and warmer than the first, meaning we reached the shelf the middle of the next morning.
The sea at the shelf was in a state that wouldn’t allow for us to be swung back onto the ship. There was a large swell pushing through and too much ice on the water to afford us a safe transfer. So, to our surprise and glee, we were told that we would be fetched by a chopper! Now as far as chopper rides go, this could be considered one of the shortest in history. I’ve seen wheels of cheese roll leagues further. It was an experience I’ve long looked forward to, though, and my first helicopter experience certainly didn’t disappoint! From takeoff to landing I had a smile set across my face. This cruise has been a trip of firsts and it’s been an incredible experience so far.