Life, etc

SA Agulhas returns, leaving explorers to tackle The Coldest Journey

By Rebecca Davis 13 February 2013

The SA Agulhas pulled into Cape Town Harbour on Tuesday morning after a journey of just over a month to Antarctica via London. Its mission was safely accomplished: to set up veteran explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his team with the necessary equipment to carry out one of the last remaining polar challenges. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Dubbed “The Coldest Journey”, the mission aims to cross Antarctica during the region’s winter. Prince Charles called it a “wonderful, dotty adventure”. Back in January, the Daily Maverick noted that the expedition currently being undertaken by Fiennes’s team is considered so risky that for years, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office wouldn’t allow anyone the necessary permits to try. But if anyone is the person for the job, it’s Fiennes: even at 68 years old, he remains the world’s pre-eminent explorer (a label he, incidentally, rejects – saying it’s inaccurate now that so much of the world is mapped).

Fiennes went into the journey under no illusions as to its difficulty, saying before he left: “I usually look forward to expeditions, but there is such a big degree of uncertainty with this one that looking forward to it is probably not the exact right word”. The challenges are considerable: the expedition must traverse almost 4,000km, in what will likely be almost total darkness, at temperatures of around -70°C. Why would anyone attempt such madness?

Speaking to the Telegraph in January, Fiennes said: “The Norwegians, who are probably the world’s top polar travellers, refer to a condition known as polarhullar, which essentially means a hunger for the poles; an addiction. I don’t think I suffer from that.” What motivates him is something more prosaic – rivalry. “While my back was turned, the Norwegians managed to achieve the first Arctic crossing in winter,” Fiennes said. “I didn’t want the same to happen in the Antarctic.”

If the expedition succeeds, they will owe much to the efforts of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) and the use of the SA Agulhas. A grand old lady of the sea, for over 30 years the ice-strengthened Agulhas has been ploughing the waters as a polar research and supply vessel, serving South African research bases on Marion Island, Gough Island and the Antarctic. In March 2012 the Agulhas was officially put out to pasture in these roles when her replacement, the blingin’ SA Agulhas II arrived. But she will still be in use for the next few years, having been transferred to Samsa as a training vessel for marine cadets.

It was on board the SA Agulhas that Fiennes and his crew travelled to the edge of Antarctica, in the company of 51 cadets and expedition support members. The Agulhas left Cape Town just over a month ago, on 7 January, from where the ship sailed for London to pick up the six-member expedition and their cumbersome equipment: including two modified Caterpillar D6N vehicles like bulldozers. Upon arriving at the frozen continent, the crew took 12 days to unload all the equipment along the ice shelf in Crown Bay, and thereby set the Coldest Journey team up with everything necessary to begin their mission. On 3 February the Agulhas waved goodbye to Fiennes’s team, and on Tuesday the Agulhas sailed back into Cape Town, just a few days over schedule.

The Agulhas’s journey has gone smoothly, although it wasn’t without the odd incident. Last Friday, as the ship made for Cape Town, expedition co-leader Anton Bowring recorded in his log that his toilet had unexpectedly erupted.

“As I type, the sea is continuing to build up. So are reports from around the ship about the plumbing,” Bowring wrote.

“I am concerned that, if everyone flushes at once (and there are 55 lavatories on board – I counted them), the ship will go down in seconds with all hands. I reported my misgivings to Cap’n Dave at supper. We were all given fish nuggets, spare ribs and macaroni cheese. Cap’n Dave had a nice big piece of fish and fluffy mashed potatoes. We had chocolate ice cream – he had vanilla. Anyway, I mentioned the eruption and its distinctive colour just as he was popping a morsel of fish into his mouth. Like a car carefully backing out of a garage, the fish was withdrawn on the fork untouched and he turned to me with a look that was only half inquisitive. We agreed to discuss the matter later owing to the movement of the ship on the increasingly turbulent sea.”

As it emerged, the plumbing problem was a minor one concerning a build-up of water pressure, and the ship continued safely on its journey.

Speaking to the Daily Maverick just after the ship had docked at Cape Town Harbour, Bowring said that they had left “Ran” (as he calls him) and the team in fine spirits.

“Their morale is pretty good,” Bowring said. “They’ve had some difficult times in the past few days. In 50 knots of wind you can’t move – it’s a blizzard, basically. And there’s six of them stuffed together in one caboose [a shipping container converted into a living space]. So that’s not the best. They’re keen to get on.”

Fiennes’s team, currently at the coast, aims to head next for the plateau in order to lay down a depot. From there, they’ll return to the coast to gather all equipment together and bring it to the depot. On 21 March – the official start of winter – the team will begin their mission for the Pole, pulling everything behind their two bulldozers. Bowring said that they are hoping to cover around 20 miles (around 32km) a day, with Fiennes intending to ski the distance. 

“Ran will travel in front pulling a sledge with a crevasse detection unit,” explained Bowring. “If he goes over into a crevasse, it’s surprisingly not the worst thing – he’s on a rope, so he can be pulled out. And he’ll be far enough ahead so then they can turn the whole rig around if necessary.”

Bowring says that the territory they’ll be traversing is “not too bad” when it comes to crevasses, but he doesn’t downplay the wider challenges. “None of it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be really, really difficult. There’s a reason why nobody’s travelled this area in winter before. Batteries go flat, fuel freezes, and people don’t last long when exposed to minus 70.” The coldest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica is almost -90°C. “That’s pretty horrific when you consider your deepfreeze at home is about minus 17,” Bowring says wryly.

Another major disadvantage is the fact that it’s not really possible to get an airplane into this area if anything goes wrong. “From the end of this month, there’s no search and rescue,” Bowring says. Neither will there be anybody nearby to come to their assistance should something go wrong: other Antarctic bases reduce staff and hunker down throughout the winter. “There’s some Belgians not too far away, but after that they won’t see anyone till they hit the South Pole in June,” says Bowring. “And that’s assuming they [members of an American base] do come out and say hello.”

For the Agulhas cadets and crew who shepherded Fiennes’ team to the ice, their Antarctic adventure is over for now. Bowring paid tribute to their role, saying their professional service had been indispensable to the successful drop-off. Bernard Badohu, a 26 year-old cadet from Ghana’s capital Accra, described his experience as “a fantastic adventure”. Badohu was one of eight Ghanaians on board the vessel, together with cadets from Gambia, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. He admitted to falling a little sea-sick when waters were rough, but said that the cold was bearable due to the thermals they were given and some bracing physical training every morning.

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Photo: Cadets wait to disembark the SA Agulhas after the ship arrives at Cape Town harbour after a month at sea

The cadets are responsible for duties on board including mooring, offloading cargo, and helping with navigation, plotting and radar. “Sometimes you get bored working in a confined space with the same people, but we had TV and movies, and we could play table tennis and Scrabble,” Badohu said. He has only a few days on shore before he sets off on the ship’s next journey – a scientific expedition to Marion Island. “First I’m going to rest, and then maybe have some fun,” he laughed. “It’s quite a long time at sea.”

Capetonian cadet Shuneen van Niekerk spoke in similarly positive terms about the journey. “My favourite part was walking on the ice,” the 21 year old said. The crew was allowed to disembark briefly to set foot on the ice, climbing off a pilot ladder lowered from the ship’s bow. Back on land, van Niekerk said she was most looking forward to the darkness of nightfall. “There it’s light all the time,” she said.

As for Fiennes and the other exhibition members of the Coldest Journey, they have a full year to go before they’ll get off Antarctica. In February 2014, if all has gone well, the Agulhas will set off again – this time, to collect the six and their equipment from McMurdo Sound and bring them home. DM

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Main photo: The SA Agulhas arrives at Cape Town harbour on Tuesday after successfully depositing Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ team in the Antarctic.


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