The Coldest Journey (London)

Africa: Out of Africa

opinion

We sailed this morning at 08.00am

Our hosts, the ship's owners, SAMSA laid on a farewell breakfast for us.

It coincided with a breakfast programme 'Morning Live' on television.

The programme started at 05.30am and therefore so did our breakfast. In a harbour building just across the quay from the ship, a sumptuous array of delicacies was laid out on tables with exotic flowers and white linen. Aromatic coffee was in plentiful supply and a trio (accordion, violin and double bass) from the South African Navy band gently played Parisian swing in the background. In addition to the press and media, one hundred guests were invited. Despite the hour, I was hungry and looked forward to tucking in. First we had to meet and chat to the guests who, I could tell, were equally enthralled by the spread before us. They had got up even earlier than us to get to the feast. I and my colleagues had only to fall out of bed, followed by a quick hose down, get dressed and step across the quay looking fresh and alert - not easy when you are 63 and scruffy by nature. However, we did it and before long we were seated and ready to enjoy the meal.

The first shock came when I was presented with a programme of events.

Following the Chief Executive Officer of SAMSA, the delightful Commander Tsietsi Mokhele, and Ran, I was expected to give a five-minute speech. I was not prepared. I was not even awake. I was on auto pilot, ready to eat, which I believe is a basic human instinct (along with self-preservation and reproduction) but not at all ready to embark on a carefully scripted and rehearsed monologue. Anyway, I didn't have one.

Indeed, without coffee (which I had missed) I was like an engine without oil and likely to seize up with an inelegant splutter.

The South Africans like speeches and they make good ones. I have heard Commander Mokhele on a number of occasions. He speaks very well with a sincerity and passion which is truly inspiring. If he was a politician, I believe he would be one of the best - a man of great integrity. Ran is known for his wit and humour and, I would go so far as to say that, at 05.30am he would be quite likely to excel.

And so we began. For the audience the performance blended sincerity followed with wit followed by an unintelligible croak and then an informative speech by the Deputy Minister for the Department of Transport followed by an ovation for the expedition team and the command to "go forth, join your ship and make history". Whereupon, we marched out to enthusiastic applause leaving the wonderful breakfast behind us.

I did hesitate, thinking that perhaps it wouldn't be too rude to scoop up the almond croissants and Danish pastries in passing. I wasn't alone in this thought but history had to be made and the ship's whistle beckoned us with a degree of urgency. Breakfast TV was coming to an end and we had to be under way before the credits rolled.

There was much handshaking, hugging and kissing. Such was the thrill of the moment that I kissed several people I didn't know. In any event, we had made new friends and encountered old ones. We were leaving a secure and pleasant city. We were heading out into the unknown. For the expedition team, this was it. For the next 12 months they will be alone in Antarctica. Once they set off on the winter crossing, no one can help them. They must succeed by employing their skills and ingenuity. Search and rescue are out of the question and everything around them will be contriving to stop them and break both man and machine in the intolerable cold and darkness. At last, the reality of this daunting task was becoming nearer and clearer. The fun of the voyage south from London was giving way to the apprehension and tension that travelling further south was sure to bring. Leaving civilization was inevitable.

This moment was bound to come. It will be extraordinary if something bad doesn't happen during the crawl across 2,400 miles of ice in temperatures of -70°C and perpetual darkness where crevasses can swallow up a 25-ton bulldozer in the blink of a frosted eye. Biting winds and piercing blizzards will replace the balmy splendour of the South African summer. This was the moment that the stark reality suddenly sank in.

A brass band played cheerfully. Arms waved. Helicopters buzzed around the ship and the tugs set up plumes of spray. We quietly steamed past the outer harbour wall in the growing sunshine and out into the south Atlantic swell. Seabirds cheered us on our way. Seals applauded us and darted through the waves. Within half an hour, the ship was under way, gently rolling while unsteady legs marched clumsily to cabins until, for the most part, the accommodation seemed deserted. Barring any problems along the way, we could encounter our first iceberg within a few days and be in pack ice in just over a week. But, for now, the thought of a snatched hour to catch up on missed sleep was compelling indeed. It would be an hour or two until lunch and no one wanted to miss that.

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