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In the middle of nowhere and nêrens

10 January 2010 - 02:27 By Tiara Walters

Tiara Walters makes her acquaintance with the Antarctic ice shelf on board the polar research vessel SA Agulhas

Some songs have a singular ability to turn the most mild-mannered affair into an affair one would rather forget. Surely none could be less appropriate than the theme song from Titanic as the official send-off for a 32-year-old vessel about to negotiate the deceitful icebergs of the Antarctic Circle.

Celine Dion’s voice rang out across the waters of Table Bay when the SA Agulhas set its annual course for Antarctica on December 9, taking with her a 97-strong team of scientists, engineers, Challenger drivers, diesel mechanics, logistical support personnel and a helicopter crew to resupply and maintain South Africa’s year- round research station at the bottom of the world.

The music proved portentous. On day two all passengers were hauled out of their cabins for an emergency drill and sausaged into two lifeboats in case disaster were to turn us all into reluctant Leos and Kates.

“Don’t scream when the lifeboats hit the water. It’s not a Ratanga Junction roller coaster and it will be over in a second,” the long-suffering chief mate Gavin Syndercombe told 49 saucer-eyed passengers sweating in beanies, polar gear and bulbous life jackets, donned especially for this inauspicious occasion.

“And remember your wet suit. If you end up in the water, it’ll help you survive in subzero temperatures for two days.”

The lifeboat drill was a sobering reminder that we were, as chef Samantha Browning would put it, in the middle of “nowhere and nêrens”.

Next day it turned savage.

I give you the sounds of flushing johns and pale passengers slumped over the side of the ship. I give you the sight of drawn portholes and a deserted dining room set for patrons who never arrived.

I give you motion sickness on the world’s most violent seas — the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties.

Hanna Dahlgren, a Swedish student doing her PhD in space plasma physics, insisted on attacking the treadmill in the gym during the Roaring Forties.

“One moment I was running uphill, the next downhill,” the bright but bamboozled blonde recalled.

When we hit the Furious Fifties, I watched, from the top of the ship, as the prow ran into a beautiful breaker which reared like a spitting cobra and discharged spume all over the monkey deck, leaving me sodden in salt and sea.

Now I know why fresh air comes so highly recommended for those who suffer from motion sickness. The shock of thinking you’re going to die on a slippery deck is enough to shake you out of any condition you think you might have.

That, or the “Crossing the Line” ceremony, a bone- crushingly cold rite meant to turn ice rookies into genuine sailors when a polar vessel enters the Antarctic Circle at 66.6°S. It is the passport to a guarded land that does not unbolt its gates easily and involves wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirts and being plunged, several times, in a roiling bath of glacial water pumped directly from the Antarctic sea.

“I was dunked five times and the water in the bath was this awesome, churning mass of freezing liquid that sucked the life out of me,” said resident yoga nut and oceanographer Ceinwen Smith. “But I thought of it as a baptism — when I was yanked out of the water for the last time, I felt like I’d finally arrived in Antarctica.”

There was not much in the way of gushing water on Christmas Eve, however — marooned as we had been for five hours already, like astronauts of the ice in a moonscape cratered by the cold.

As the Yuletide revelry continued deep into the Antarctic summer night, two lone penguins, a little Adelie and an emperor, emerged from the water and stared impassively at the stationary ship for ages, dumbstruck by the strange whale that had beached on their ice. Then the emperor left to warn his mates about the preposterous new penguins in their midst.

On Christmas afternoon we finally broke free of the pack ice and steamed right past B15K, a 60km x 5km iceberg that has been drifting around Antarctica in a westerly direction for seven years.

“Jis, amazing, isn’t it?” public works team leader Avelino Rocha said as he quietly emerged through a port-side door and came up behind me, his shoulders bunched and his cold, naked hands thrust deep into his pockets.

“My first visit to Antarctica was hell. I said to myself, ‘F***. I’m never coming back,’” the mustachioed Rocha said, smiling and shaking his head and remembering his first expedition. It was 1991, and the protective Armco shell around SANAE III, an underground base, was being crushed by ice.

“We had to clear a thousand wheelbarrows of the stuff and jackhammered every day, non- stop.

“But the moment I left, I started scheming to come back. This is my seventh trip. It’s this place. Just how it is. I mean, look at that thing. It’s the biggest berg I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some monsters.”

On Boxing Day morning, after 18 days aboard the SA Agulhas, I learnt from the ship’s telegraph that the bridge had first spotted the Antarctic ice shelf at 69°S 2°W, the night before.

While everybody was still sleeping off a miasma of tarts and trifle, I put on my balaclava and visited the monkey deck to greet the shelf for the very first time.

It was -3°C outside and the sky clear and blue, the clearest clear and the bluest blue I’d ever seen, but then this place has a way of delivering things in superlatives.

Penguins lolled on sunbaked meadows of ice and baa’ed like sheep when we drifted past. The sounds of welding near the rigging stores stabbed the still air.

The shelf reared out of the ocean, like a finer version of the cliffs of Dover, and the ocean pretended to be something else, a smooth, navy-blue mirror in which the sky and the penguins and the polystyrene-white cliffs appeared so lifelike that the surface seemed like a parallel dimension.

Floating on the currents, a Wilson’s storm-petrel sailed towards me.

It hovered there for about a minute, next to my hand holding the rail, turning its head this way and that as if waiting for me to shake its claw.

Antarctica greeted me.

  • For more on the South African National Antarctic Programme, visit www.sanap.ac.za

Read Tiara’s blog, Pole Dancing, at: http://blogs.timeslive.co.za/ tiara/

After flying from the SA Agulhas, most participants in the SA National Antarctic Programme’s 50th expedition to Antarctica arrived at SANAE IV, the SA research station at 72°S 3°W, on January 5.

Expedition leader Adriaan Dreyer hopes to have completed all flights and the entire offloading process by today (Sunday). For more on the South African National Antarctic Programme, visit www.sanap.ac.za

  • Read Tiara’s blog, Pole Dancing, at: http://blogs.timeslive.co.za/tiara/