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Expedition of a lifetime (Part 2): The ice continent
By:
Maryke Musson
Maryke is the CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation. She is a scientist by training, but an absolute superwoman in general, juggling the daily operations and fulfilling the mission of the Aquarium Foundation.

An icy landscape as far as the eye can see.

I have had the privilege of being far out at sea, for many days, seeing nothing other than a never-ending blue seascape, a view that I absolutely love. Stepping off the plane and onto the ice at the Novo air strip (which really is a gigantic ice rink), I felt that same excitement and appreciation. It felt like I was stepping onto an ice ocean, a never-ending ice-ness, glowing white and blue. I immediately fell in love with the ice, and even with the cold. I fell in love with the world’s iciest, coldest, driest and windiest continent.

The ‘ice-ness’

The flight

I used to love flying, but after one too many bumpy flights, aborted landings and even emergency landings I now only fly out of necessity. I was excited, but definitely slightly nervous, about boarding a cargo flight at Cape Town International Airport for a six-hour ocean crossing by air. The Antarctic Logistics Centre International (ALCI) has been running an incredible service to many research bases in Antarctica for 20 years, and uses Cape Town as the Antarctic gateway. They operate with tremendous professionalism and are fully aligned to all environmental, health and safety regulations and requirements, and pride themselves on contributing to keeping Antarctic programs and expeditions functional. They do this with supply air drops, collection of waste, air support and service, and managing all the operations at the Novo air strip.

We boarded a beautiful Russian Ilyushin, an aircraft that was designed to carry loads of up to 40 tonnes, and to operate from short and unprepared airstrips with the capability of coping with the worst weather conditions, common in Siberia and Russia.  It has also been used as emergency response transport for civilian evacuations, and for humanitarian aid and disaster relief around the world. In short, the perfect plane to get to Antarctica and to service various requirements at the research bases.

The Ilyushin is a not a passenger aircraft, but can carry about 18 people in jump sheets along the side of the front section of the plane. This made the flight thrilling as we had to really hang on to our little seats during take-off, to prevent sliding right off even while being buckled in. It also has no fancy interior, and this fascinated me so much. I really got to see (and inspect) the working bits of this incredible craft. Pipes, fittings, gauges, valves, cables, hoists, strapping and anchoring points, emergency supplies (as in life raft and rations), control panels and of course the two tied down porta loos (I think I was more nervous of using these than the actual flight). We were issued with ear plugs before lift-off as this flight is incredibly noisy because of no internal cladding. I opted for popping in my earphones and had an internal dance party all the way to Antarctica.

The Russian crew looked after us very well and the pilots were excellent, and obviously highly skilled. The flight was a lot less bumpy than I expected.

A very cool boarding pass, the beautiful Ilyushin plane, and a buckled up penguin

Our 2020 Matriculants and the team

2020 was quite a year. I had high expectations for an exciting year full of action and impacts. The pandemic, of course, made for the most unusual year. My eldest, Finn, just started university, and her sister Kai had matric ahead of her. I think they definitely had a far more challenging year than me but I could relate to the strange year that all the 2020 matriculants had. When amazing adventurer, and good friend, Riaan Manser told me about his plan to take five matriculants to Antarctica I could not think of anything more exciting for these kids after a bit of a dud matric year (and of course was absolutely thrilled when he asked me to join). We had a rigorous and very thorough selection process as the application process was run as a competition. The young adults were not judged on their school or academic performances, but on a short essay they had to write about how they believe they could contribute positively to the environment and address climate change. Thousands of applications were narrowed down to a Top 100, and this is where I got the opportunity to start selecting stand-outs. I based my selection 100% on writing from the heart, authenticity, community care and of course that unexplained feeling of just goodness. We worked our way from a top 100, to a top 50, to ultimately a top 10 and the final panel convened to discuss each candidate and rank them in preference. We also had a day of online interviews with the top 10 and we really enjoyed meeting these keen youngsters/explorers online. What was obvious to us all was that the top 10 wanted to learn, experience, bring back new skills and make a difference, which was exactly what we wanted.

The top five were finally announced and we got to know each other really well during our isolation stay at the wonderful Table Bay Hotel, in the V&A Waterfront, when we had a jampacked online program with incredible lectures and presentations (see Antarctica blog Part 1).

Boiketlo is a kind, gentle and very humble violinist from Gauteng who would like to study agriculture to contribute to food security and keeping humans healthy. She cares deeply about her community and all humans in fact, and will spend 2021 doing missionary work in KwaZulu-Natal before pursuing her studies. Her violin travelled with and she delivered a wonderful ice concerto (I still do not quite know how her fingers and violin did not freeze up completely).

Kelby is a go-getter with an incredibly kind heart, from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. She jumps at any and all opportunities while showing fantastic support and commitment to the team. She was our ‘tech wizard’ during our isolation stay and I was amazed by her initiative to give more and gain more from this experience. Kelby had an extra tough matric as her dad passed away during the year, something we only found out after the selection process. What a resilient young lady. She is planning on studying a science degree in genetics this year.

 

Boiketlo, Ayakha, Kelby, Cobus and Thea

The “Matrics in Antarctica’ team: Thea, Fadli, Cobus, Maryke, Riaan, Kelby, Ayakha and Boiketlo

My new ice friends Gonzalo and Alberto from ALCI

Ayakha is already a climate justice activist working with high level politicians and leaders (including President Ramaphosa). She is fully committed to making a difference and understands what the climate emergency is about, and she is not hesitant to raise her voice and demand action. She is planning on studying law, specialising in environmental law eventually. She is fierce, strong and very serious, but when she smiles you just know that there is a lot of eco love feeding her passion for the environment.

Cobus hails from the deep Northern Cape. He grew up on a sheep farm, is a talented rugby player and has never experienced any climate other than serious drought. They use solar and wind energy on their farm and have implemented many water saving and water capture technologies. He is a real ‘plat op die aarde’ (down to earth) gentleman and calls me Tannie (auntie). He loves animals and farming and will be studying Animal Science (production) this year so that he can join his dad back on the farm once done. He is determined to find sustainable solutions to ensure farming in the driest regions of South Africa can continue while having a positive impact on the very arid and harsh environment. He did not realise that Antarctica is in fact the driest continent, even though it is covered in ice. Two extremely dry environments that look completely different. What we did not know was that Cobus was going to be our ice swimming champ.

Thea is going to study geo-spatial science, even though she would be one heck of a good politician. She comes from a rather conservative community in KwaZulu-Natal and believes deeply in equality, inclusivity and using your strengths to make a difference, starting in her own community of course. She has been working on various outreach programs there over the last few years. She is wise beyond her years and it became obvious, on day one, that she could debate just about any topic. She is also one of those people who just radiates love and compassion. Were it not for COVID and physical distancing I reckon she would have hugged us all at least five times every day. Thea was 100% ready for an intellectual experience, and dug deep to face the physical challenges of hiking and camping, activities new to her.

We decided to call the participants students (mainly because I keep calling them our kids, but also because of the incredible learning experience). The students connected immediately and we literally turned into a happy ice family. We had ‘gramps’ Fadli Wagiet, an environmental education expert with more than 40 years  of experience sharing environmental science, impacts and philosophies with young adults. Our adventure guru Riaan had the students literally hanging on his lips as he shared stories of true survival on his many, often crazy and life threatening expeditions. Delecia was the wise older sister during our isolation time, offering tremendous support and guidance with regards to emotional and intellectual growth. As a TedTalk specialist she also shared many secrets on public speaking. She helped them define and analyse their own strengths and really prepared them well to discover how they can use this experience to act as springboard for long-term future impacts.  Delecia is specialising in environmental education and the societal impacts thereof at University of Stellenbosch. She was, and will remain, an incredibly important team member.

I suppose my role bounced between ice mom (as in mom in Antarctica), environmentalist, biologist, experiment designer, motivator and fun finder. I wish I knew a lot more about the geology of Antarctica as my marine fish and sea turtle knowledge was not really exactly what was required over there, but I still managed to inspire the students with turtle tales and sharing life experiences (and many stories about Finn and Kai of course).

Willem and Klein-Jan were the film makers and instantly became the cool older brothers. They brought cold water stoke, nature appreciation, creativity and young adult vibes (I am totally adopting them both as little brothers).

Alberto from ALCI joined us as expedition leader and really delivered the goods with regards to incredible experiences. Everything in Antarctica is weather dependent, and to be quite honest, really hard. With the support of an amazing team at the Oasis base we really had the most incredible time. With 24 hours of daylight, we managed to pack in just about every activity possible. Peter the Russian was our chef and is also known as the best ice driver. He reminded me so much of my late cousin Prof Piet Human that I could not help wanting to hug him every day. We quickly became kitchen friends and he allowed me to wear his apron and wash the dishes daily (This is an honour. Washing dishes is reserved for the most water conscious person as access to fresh water is no easy task. You either need to melt ice or pump water from the lake which is only possible mid-summer, so conserving water is critical. This is also why there was no shower, but more about that later). Gonzalo, an Argentinian, was our adventure guide and also a formidable ice driver. He led all our hikes and our camp out and somehow managed to always have chocolate, nuts or dates in his backpack. Sticking close to Gonzalo meant learning a lot about Antarctica while sucking on a frozen Lindt ball or Ferrero Roche. Gonzalo also turned into my personal chef and cooked up some amazing vegan meals (thanks to the fact that he has a vegetarian girlfriend back home).

The true adventurer and amazing ice man Riaan Manser.

My new favourite Russian friend Peter, who is now also a sea turtle fan.

Mauricio is a fireman from Argentina and joined us on our first hike which was great as we scrambled down a mountain (either covered in ice or with a lot of loose rock, which some legs had to get used to). Mauricio also introduced us to the best homemade tea ever: hot water with ginger and lemon, as is. It is like drinking a hot throat lozenge, which is really lovely when it’s about 0°C, with a wind-chill factor well below that. He reminded me so much of our fireman friend and aquarium volunteer diver Shane, so he was an instant friend as well.

Our daily hikes, traveling around with the ice trucks, and extended meal times meant we had plenty of time to learn about and from each other. Sharing life stories and experiences added tremendous value to the learning process of this program. It was really incredible.

The landing was a lot smoother than what I anticipated and it was almost impossible to contain our excitement to get onto the ice.

When the plane’s door opened we were met by the never-ending ice-scape. I wanted to just stand there and take it all in, but Novo airstrip is a hive of activity and we were sent across to the canteen to go and enjoy our first meal in Antarctica.

I was convinced making snow angels was more of a priority than lunch, until I realised that there is a big difference between snow and ice, and making an ice angel will require a lot more than my body could deliver (I felt a bit like that rat-mouse thing in Ice Age, scratching the ice during my attempt of an ice angel. Needless to say – not very successful).

The Novo ice strip is beautiful with rows of colourful containers used for storage as well as for housing technicians and pilots.

Arriving on the ice

About 40 minutes before our estimated arrival time we had to change into our polar gear. Columbia Sportswear supplied us with the most incredible clothing and boots, so it was excitement all round while we sweated kitting up for the cold. Our base layers (long underwear), as well as fleece jackets, gloves, hats and outerwear are all lined with what looks like space blankets which helps to reflect body heat back onto our bodies. Willem immediately visualised a picture in his head of a bunch of silver aliens trekking around Antarctica, and that is how we decided that we need to wear our clothing, on at least one occasion, inside out. We resembled true space cadets.

Three very zooted up Toyota Hi-lux double cabs arrived with the biggest, and widest tyres, I have ever seen on any vehicle. We decided these resemble swimming armbands, which would come in very handy should the vehicle fall down a hidden crevasse into an under-ice lake. The only way I can accurately explain a road in Antarctica would be to call it an extended ice rink with a flag or marker sort of pointing in the right direction. It definitely takes tremendous skill and experience to navigate the ice safely and I chose not to think about the possible dangers too much, but to rather soak in the incredible ice-ness.

Our zooted up snow mobiles.

Oasis Guesthouse is right next door to the Russian research base Novolazarevskaya. It is owned and managed by ALCI and serves as home base for the pilots of the Ilyushin and often some researchers en route to their bases. It consists of three cladded cabins and has space for up to 25 visitors. Our team occupied one of these cabins. 6 bedrooms and one toilet. No shower. Again, this is directly linked to water availability. The toilet has a small hand basin which has a tank above it that needs to be manually filled for basic hand washing. The toilet is waterless. It is similar to a porta loo, but has an interesting contraption that basically stores the ‘sewage’ out of sight until it gets loaded into an empty fuel drum and returned to Cape Town for treatment. Yes, you read correctly, poop is returned to Cape Town for treatment/disposal.

In front of our cabin with Oscar the seal and a bag full of litter (Boiketlo, Kelby and Cobus).

The main cabin is reserved for the pilots, but has the shared lounge, dining room and kitchen. The cabins are all heated and offered a pleasant reprieve from the cold outside. We quickly found our ‘usual seats’ at the dining table, mine being at the far end of the table against a panel heater. I felt like a slice of toast during meal times, which was very pleasant.

This became our home and we even had two local south pole Skuas hanging around like watch dogs. There is a lake not far below the cabins. This was our water quality testing site, and between the cabins and the lake is the most southern sauna in the world, with an outside ice bath (another water quality testing site as well as our alternative to a hot shower: a 2°C bath).

Our pet, Mia the Skua.

Ayakha with a Sealand bag full of litter.

The students sorting the litter and logging it into the Beach Co-op App.

What did we do?

We were all keen to explore as we arrived at Oasis and we decided to survey the area around our base. We did our first water quality testing of the lake (this also involved water quality tasting  and wow, nothing tastes as pure as Antarctic water). We also initiated our first clean-up. As it was mid-summer, with quite a bit of melted ice and exposed rock, we found a lot of building material that must have blown in and collected over the seasons. We were excited about contributing to cleaning up, but also concerned about the amount of metal and scrap material found below the Russian research base.

The ALCI team appreciated our efforts as environmental awareness and sustainability are top priorities to them.

We watched Willem the film maker’s documentary about Antarctica and climate change that evening. Beautifully produced but with the harsh reality of the impacts of climate change and global warming on the ice continent. Once again a great opportunity for solid engagement and an ‘ice family’ discussion around the climate emergency and what it means, and what we can action to make a difference.

We let the ‘kids’ sleep in a bit in the mornings, which gave me the opportunity to go for ice jogs which were spectacular and exhausting. Riaan and I also had a quick spin on the fat-bikes, but without a riding helmet I did not want to go crazy down the slippery slopes in ‘adult fear’ of injury in the most remote location I have ever been to. It was great fun though.

Our amazing expedition leaders took us on various incredible hikes. It was tough going at first as everybody had to get used to mostly slipping (on ice, slush puppy crystals or very loose rock), always up or down a steep slope. We had fast sections and slow sections, but left no one behind and team spirit always shone through. The views from the ice peaks were incredible. My never-ending ice-ness. I fell hard for this incredible landscape, this intense and vivid ice-ness. The crispy cold air permanently chewing at exposed skin. I wanted to feel and experience real cold, something I have been avoiding for the past few years. Antarctica summer cold is very manageable with the right gear, and this taste of polar coldness has made me hungry for more.

We had loads of fun making ice-creams from pieces of stalactites and slush puppy ice. We built an ice man (I think much harder, literally, than a snow man). Our ice man was then high-tackled by Cobus and this made for a spectacular slow motion video clip. Riaan also offered himself as snowball target, another spectacular slow motion reel of an ice ball  exploding on his forehead. Not many people can claim pelting a world-renowned adventurer with ice balls.

I really enjoyed my ice runs early in the morning.

The freshest ice lollies ever.

Our iceman.

We were very keen to visit the ice tunnels, but due to the unusually warm weather both entrances to these ice tunnels collapsed. A real indicator of climate change. It seems to happen a lot faster in Antarctica than what we see here in South Africa.

We spent a night camping on the ice. This was to get a sense of what is was like for the early explorers. It was incredible, and also incredibly cold. I also came to realise that perception makes a big difference on how you experience things. Night time seemed less cold, purely because it was not dark. Boiketlo’s ice concerto was most likely a first in Antarctica. Her icy fingers still found the notes and standing in front of an ice wall, with Kelby acting as music stand, she shared her passion for music with us, on the ice. Half way through the ‘concert’ I had to warm her hands. She smiled and continued to create a very special memory.

Willem the film maker is very attuned with his emotive and physiological state. Together with Klein-Jan and Cobus they started a daily ritual of a triple repetition of an ice swim, followed by a sauna session. Needless to say, they were the cleanest members of the team.

Prior to leaving, Erik Joosten, CEO of the Arion Group connected with me around sustainability. He is a businessman and innovator based in Denmark and believes that irritation leads to innovation. He developed various health care products such as SWASH, a product used in many hospitals for patient care. The SWASH products can be used without water as a wash and even shampoo. We were going to try this in Antarctica, not realising that we were not going to have access to showers and thus be fully reliant on SWASH for personal hygiene. The SWASH products’ impact on the environment is less than 70% of a standard in-hospital bed-wash. The SWASH products certainly kept us fresh during our journey, and a great example of eco-conscious innovation with direct social impact

It was really windy for a few days, and the chill factor of the wind caused some reluctance in me to tackle an ice swim, until Riaan and I decided, come what may, we are going to swim.

Having a bit of a cold water phobia I was slightly nervous of how my mind was going to react, but jumping into that 1°C lake was refreshing and so much fun. We swam across to the icy edge, checked the depth, had a good laugh and swam back, with our Table Bay Hotel seal mascot Oscar. It was fantastic. I am not quite sure whether I felt the real cold, or was too numb to feel anything. The water temperature and air temperature were quite similar and we headed for the sauna, a proper hotbox at 100°C. After a few minutes in here we were ready for another cold stint and decided to take turns in the cold tub outside. This was at about 2°C. We set the target at 1 minute. Riaan made it comfortably and I decided to go for 2 minutes, which felt great. After another quick hotbox session Riaan jumped back into the cold tub and I ran down for another swim. On my return Riaan pushed our ice tub record to 2 min and 35 seconds, which I obviously had to at least match. I jumped into the ice tub (after my 1°C ice swim) and eventually stayed in for 5 minutes. This is a lot less than our friend Ryan Stramrood’s Antarctic mile swim time of 32 minutes (which might be my new target), but I must admit, I was cold to the core for at least 2 to 3 hours after that ice bath, but it was worth it.

Ice swimming is fun, especially with Oscar the seal. 

Our swim session was followed by a shrieking and fun swim and ice tub session by the students. Willem and Cobus were pros by now, Kelby and Boiketlo on their second swims, with newbies Thea and Ayakha joining too. Very few people can claim an Antarctic swim, and these adventurous students are now on that list.

We spent a lot of time in Antarctic nature, which meant exploring ice, rocks, frozen lakes, slush puppy ice and crevasses. We followed up with another set of water quality tests of the lake water, and also the ice tub water, which delivered interesting results including higher levels of ammonia (we concluded that somehow somebody managed to wee in the tub. This was luckily before our ice tub afternoon and necessitated a refill of the tub directly from the lake). It was great discussing experimental design and methodology with the students. How to take samples, why we need to have repeats and what conclusions we could draw (lake water is as pure as it can get, consistent testing methodology is important to ensure comparable results, and that you can’t get away with wee-ing in the tub).

We also did some physiological measurements. The students measured resting, maximum and recovery heart rates during and after our quarantine Zoom exercise sessions, and in Antarctica I taught them how to measure blood pressure (old school style), and we discussed the various blood pressure ranges.

While in isolation at the Table Bay Hotel I had the bright (or not so bright) idea of doing a combined ultra-marathon in our rooms to highlight climate change and our carbon footprints. The aim was to run about 65 000 steps (footprints).

I did a 5 km run, followed by a 10 km run the following day and then decided to aim for a 21 km in my room, running from door to window about 2100 times. The students and Delecia all committed to running 5 km each, making up our ultra-marathon of 51 km, a first in the Table Bay Hotel.

I started just before 6am, the day before our departure to Antarctica. At 7am I hit the 12 km mark and the students started running in their own rooms. An amazing team of supporters from the Aquarium Foundation, dressed like sea turtles, and carrying a giant penguin soft toy, arrived below our windows and cheered us on until I clocked my full 21 km before 8am (and just before the press photographer arrived of course). We were all so full of turtle supporters energy and happily added some more actions for the photographer. This was a proud moment for our students and another first. Who would have thought we would complete a combined ultra-marathon, during full quarantine, in our rooms. This reinforced to all that saying and doing are two different things, and this journey was about doing

 

Our final clean-up yielded more than 900 items, which we sorted and logged into the Beach Co-op application, another first in Antarctica. We again collected a lot of building material, now exposed due to melted ice. The sorted litter was then placed in the recycle bins which will be sent back to South Africa for final sorting, recycling, repurposing and waste management. Once again our clean-up was appreciated by the ALCI team and our students were proud to have contributed directly to keeping Antarctica pristine.

What we logged during our cleanup.

We also started logging wildlife spotted during our journey. From our hotel windows in the V&A Waterfront we spotted seals, a variety of birds, dusky dolphins and even sunfish. This was all logged on iNaturalist. In Antarctica, we spotted skuas, petrels, some lichens and moss. It was quite incredible to find some greenery under the ice actually.

We also found a dead Adelie penguin, about 40 km from the coastline, clearly lost and very far from a food source. It is quite remarkable to think that this little bird waddled that far. It was well preserved due to the low temperature, has been dead for quite some time, did not look particularly thin, but rather quite old. We concluded that it was an old bird that possibly just lost its way.

Our two final highlights of the journey was a flight on a DC-3 over some of the mountain peaks and along the continental shelf. This time I got to see, and appreciate, from the air that never-ending ice-ness, the most beautiful landscape. Where ice and ocean meets is another magical site with very geometrically shaped ice pieces floating everywhere. The view from this flight was spectacular and the vastness of the ice continent very obvious.

The amazing DC3 that took us on a scenic flight.

We also headed off to go and explore a huge ice wall. It was quite a long drive from base camp, and again we experienced the skill required for ice driving. The ice in this area was incredible slippery and we had to make use of crampons to safely move around. This was such fun. The sound of walking on this glassy smooth surface was amazing. Riaan and Kelby attempted climbing up a steep and slippery slope only to come sliding down rather uncontrollably. It was fun, especially to watch, but another reminder of the danger of ice.

We looked like little ants against the giant ice wall.

The journey came to an end far too quickly. Flights are planned around weather, and we were notified with a few hours to spare to pack up and get ready for departure (a day or two past our original departure date for which we were very grateful).

It is the end of the summer season in Antarctica, and the Ilyushin will make one more flight before everything is shut down for the harsh winter months.

The students discovered a new environment, a continent they have only dreamt of, new friendships, a wealth of information from science to psychology. They learned about pushing through and making a difference. They learned about teamwork, support, communicating, finding solutions and believing in themselves.

They also learned, as Riaan often states, that ‘there is an ocean between saying and doing’.

The flight back. It was a busy week indeed.

What a privilege it was to be part of such an incredible journey. I remain ice hungry and now need to find a way of getting back to the incredible ice-ness soon.

Huge appreciation to all the partners and supporters who made this journey possible. Deep Blue Aqua provided me with incredible water testing equipment. Sealand Gear issued us with environmentally responsible bags and masks, and always have my back (with a backpack) when I travel across sea and land. WaddleOn socks made sure we had penguins on our feet. Arion kept us fresh and clean. Buffoons and the Aquarium Foundation made us the best and coolest buffs ever.

Program partners Columbia supplied incredible gear and PPS covered our insurance needs. Woolworths made sure we had healthy snacks and meals before our departure. Canon issued all the students with amazing cameras to record their journeys. National Geographic is the media partner, and thanks to them we had Willem and Klein-Jan on board. Kulula got the students safely to Cape Town and URUP supported the program and online communication needs. ALCI arranged all the logistics, provided the flight, accommodation and activities on the ice. The Table Bay Hotel provided the most incredible and comfortable quarantine location. It was an absolute treat being ‘stuck’ there.

Riaan Manser and his team made all of this possible. Matrics in Antarctica is a five-year program and Riaan will be selecting another cohort to join him on the ice again at the end of 2021. Opportunity of a life time.

3 Comments

  1. ‘n Heerlike entoesiastiese verslag van ‘n wonderlike belewenis. Baie dankie , Maryke Musson

    Reply
  2. What an amazing account of this adventurous trip. Loved reading every word. It felt as if I was really experiencing what you guys did, Maryke. Also thank you and Riaan for taking such great care of our new climate ambassadors. Wishing you much success in planing for the trip with a new set of Matriculants. God bless. 🙏

    Reply
  3. What an amazing adventure Thank you for sharing

    Reply

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