Reaching the ice shelf

Port Alfred artist JANE FOOTE went with husband Dudley to stay in Antarctica for three months when he was offered the job of team leader of the helicopter crew aboard the SA Agulhas. She shares her experiences in the first of three instalments.

IT was always my dream to go to Antarctica, so I was over the moon when the opportunity arose. It has been a passion for so long.

My husband and I joined the 51st South African National Antarctic expedition aboard the SA Agulhas last December. It was the grand old dame’s last voyage that far south.

VOYAGE OF A LIFETIME: Jane and Dudley Foote on the deck of the SA Agulhas with the Antarctic ice shelf in the background Picture: SUPPLIED

My husband was reluctant to go initially because it was so long – three months in a hostile terrain far from home. I offered to pay to go with but the SA Agulhas don’t take paying passengers so I asked if there was a job I could do.

I was given the job of fireguard and did a course at the local fire station, but I did do other things to keep useful in my time at the SANAE IV base.

By December 8 last year, I was pinching myself as the SA Agulhas was pitching and rolling beneath our feet in the 4 to 5 metre swells. She was loaded to the hilt with all the essentials required for the trip: helicopters, transport vehicles, fuel and tons of food.

Ten SANAE 50 team members had over-wintered at the SANAE IV base and the SANAE 51 team was going to take over from them. The support teams included drivers, maintenance men, chefs, and the Titan helicopter team (nine of us), of which my husband was group leader.

ICE FLOE: The bow of the SA Agulhas moving through pack ice surrounding Antarctica Picture: JANE FOOTE

Nearly everyone suffered from sea-sickness in those first few days, but soon we all had our sea legs. We saw no other ships from that time, only a few birds skimming the endless heaving blue of the ocean.

Anticipation mounted as temperatures dropped. There were informative lectures every day and the bar every night. On December 15, muffled in our woolly hats and gloves, we gaped in awe as our first iceberg floated by.

We saw a colony of Adelie penguins in the concave curve of an ice floe. On another, with an exquisite turquoise foot, chinstrap penguins clambered about. There were killer whales and humpback whales about, and petrels and albatrosses swooping and gliding around the boat. It was all just wonderful.

On December 18 we crossed into the Antarctic Circle and were in true pack-ice. The huge weighty slabs were interlocked by dark blue ribbons of a now calm sea. Nudging her way through, our feisty old lady was jolted rudely, time and again.

We saw less wildlife. Meanwhile “wild things” were happening on board: King Neptune punishes initiates for crossing the line without permission. They are beaten, dunked into freezing water, smeared with eggs and flour and something awful is squirted into their mouths. There was a celebratory “end of that” braai on the heli-deck.

It’s a beautiful evening. We’re stuck in the pack-ice and three curious Adelies enchant us by waddling right up to the boat. They totter about on their pink webbed feet. Then they tire of us and shimmy away on their plump tummies.

COOL CUSTOMER: A crab eater seal on the Antarctic coast Picture: JANE FOOTE

The next day we saw an emperor penguin swimming next to the boat. He plopped onto the ice, tobogganed, stood, preening himself – beautiful. Sleek crab-eater seals lolled nonchalantly on the ice.

Meanwhile, the captain was zig-zagging through “puddles” trying to get to the ice-shelf, but time and again solid ice blocked the way.

On December 22 the 212 helicopter did an ice recce over a mirror calm sea and found a way through. There was huge excitement as the shelf came into view. By the morning of the 23rd the ship had her nose pushed firmly into the 20 metre high ice wall which stretches away in both directions as far as the eye can see. We had reached the Antarctic continent. The unloading could begin.

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