real-life tales of antarctica

Sailing out to sea on thin ice

Adriaan Dreyer has been leading South African expeditions to the treacherous Antarctica for years and loving it, writes Tiara Walters

Apr 11, 2010 11:31 PM | By Tiara Walters

SNOWMAN'S LAND: the SA Agulhas off-loading on the ice shelf Picture: TIARA WALTERS

SNOWMAN’S LAND: the SA Agulhas off-loading on the ice shelf Picture: TIARA WALTERS

quote ‘Blunder into these subzero currents and you’ve got about seven seconds to live’ quote

Antarctica is a place so solitary, surrounded as it is by 360 degrees of the world’s iciest and most tempestuous seas, that no one lives there permanently – neither is there any evidence of prehistoric societies who might have once lived and loved in this frigid zone.

Tourists go there every year, yes, in their well-heeled hundreds. They fork out the price of a house for a cruise, which takes them through seas that squeeze at their stomachs and make them curse the fact that sea legs cannot be bought in stores. They step onto the ice for a couple of hours, snap a few thousand penguin shots, shutter fingers shaking in cold-weather gloves. And then they leave, possibly quite delighted to have breathed a glimpse of paradise and to return to a life sponsored by supermarkets and satellite TV.

So what, I wondered one night in late December on the SA Agulhas, South Africa’s polar research vessel, would drive one South African to sacrifice almost 40 months of temperate summers to live in this iced-up Heaven-Hell?

That night, Adriaan Dreyer, the leader of the South African National Antarctic Programme’s 50th expedition to the white wilderness, looked like a man trying to keep up appearances. A loner with a cool, steely gaze and a habit of watching the crowd from the fringe, Dreyer, the chief of 12 expeditions to Antarctica and several more to Marion Island, had been venting in his cabin about the skirmish this year’s voyage had become.

“It’s been the most difficult off-loading I can remember. We’ve driven our stress levels to the max,” the 46-year-old Pretoria native said crisply. And then he pursed his lips, because there was much more to say, but he is not given to displays of emotion.

In a good year, provided the bay ice has thawed sufficiently for the SA Agulhas to break through and reach our off-loading zone on the ice shelf near the German station, Neumayer, the ship’s entire payload can be deported for the 315km trek to Sanae IV, the South African research base, within three days.

This December, however, the bay ice was too thick for the SA Agulhas – an ice-strengthened vessel, not an ice breaker – to penetrate. So she dropped anchor miles from the shelf, forcing the drivers, cold-hardened bruisers from the defence force, to haul heavy-duty cargo across 30km of bay ice only 1.8m thick in parts.

“If you drive on ice thinner than 1.6m or 1.7m, you risk lives. Here, in front,” Dreyer explained, gesturing towards the prow that had been thrust into the bay ice, “where we off-loaded the cargo, the ice is just 1.4m thick, which was why getting those 18t Challengers off the ship was so damn hair-raising.”

“Blunder into these subzero currents and you’ve got about seven seconds to live.

“In 1992, conditions were similar and we had to back-load all our cargo from the bay ice,” Dreyer, who began with the Antarctic programme back in 1985 as a supply clerk, recalled.

“It was around -25 and, as [engineer] Phillip de Wet and I drove across the ice, this hairline crack we hadn’t seen opened up beneath the Caterpillar.

“I yelled at Phillip to jump – he escaped out of the right door and I jumped out of the left and, when I landed on the ice and turned round, the vehicle was gone and the crack had closed up. In less than five seconds. Like nothing had happened. We weren’t even 80m from the ship – all the passengers were just hanging over the sides, gaping at us.

“On that same expedition, I jumped over another crack but I didn’t make it and plunged into the sea up to my waist. I remember clinging onto the side and everybody came running, hauled me out of there, covered me in blankets. Then they flung me onto a skidoo and sped to the emergency base, about 8km away, to warm me up.

“I’d been wearing my full protective clothing but still my legs had turned blue. Nothing a bottle of OBS couldn’t fix . but it changed the way I looked at things.”

After those gut-punching moments, Dreyer turned into an obsessive-compulsive list man. There’s nothing, he said, he wouldn’t put on a list.

“You don’t play with Antarctica. My experiences here have made me very meticulous. I’m never late. I double-check everything I do. And I don’t go anywhere without a list in my pocket.”

But, after leading more expeditions to Antarctica than any other South African, even Dreyer – especially Dreyer – knows things can, and still do, go wrong.

“At about 5pm yesterday, Eberhardt [Kohlberg, the German station commander], radioed us. He’d been out on the ice and was the first to see these cracks splitting up the bay, which was why we evacuated everybody immediately and put a dead halt to the final cargo hauls,” he sighed, recalling how he had never seen the drivers, in spite of having racked up many ice years between them, so scared.

“They were shaking when they got back on board.

“We can’t stay here. We need to retrace our tracks, find another off-loading zone,” he said.

“RSA Bukta?” I asked tautly, because that would mean another day’s sailing and even more time at sea after leaving Table Bay almost a month before.

“RSA Bukta. As in Plan G forward slash F stroke 14,” he replied, because RSA Bukta was exactly where we were headed.

As I left Dreyer’s cabin in a funk, feeling like a hard whisky from the bar and wondering whether we’d ever make it to Sanae IV, I asked him why he did this: swapped summers on the beach for the ice of Antarctica; sacrificed valuable family time with his wife and two girls, year after year, to face this kind of logistical nightmare.

“Antarctica, it’s the most beautiful thing on Earth. There’s nothing – just whiteness; it’s nothing but white and yet it’s a canvas for colour, for blue ice, for these spectacular rivers of ice,” Dreyer replied, unexpectedly morphing into a spoken-word poet.

“When things at Sanae get a little rough, I get on my skidoo and ride into the white fields, where you can see 200km into the distance. Then you sit there, for a long time, and you listen to your heart, and the blood pumping in your ears. If you’ve never had the opportunity for real introspection, never had the chance to clear your head, you can do it there.

“And when it’s a beautiful day, say -3 or -4, you whip off your kit and tan on the ice.”

“What? That’s like lolling in your home freezer – are you crazy?”

“Probably,” Dreyer said and, for the first time since I’d met him two months before, I saw him laugh so hard his entire boep shook.

The SA Agulhas embarked on its latest expedition on April 8 to complete the construction of South Africa’s base on Marion Island, one of the South African National Antarctic Programme’s scientific-study areas. The ship is expected to return to Cape Town on May 20.

For more on the programme and its 50-year legacy, visit


About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on April 12, 2010, in antarctica, research. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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