Earlier on in the day I had a lengthy discussion with former French prime minster, Michel Rocard, now Polar representative, about the Arctic, Northwest Passage and future of the Arctic people – a subject closest to my heart – having spent a considerable amount of time up there getting to know the people and their challenges. Feeling sleepy and depressed by what I heard from Monsieur Rocard, after dinner’s cheese and wine, I fell asleep in my bunk.
There was no official sign on the side of the path, or a formal welcome to Antarctica’s dark territory. Instead I was given a welcome typical of the most inhospitable continent on the planet- jolted straight awake from my nap, by several impacts as the vessel pounded raw Antarctic ice. That’s why they call it an icebreaker. Our polar class vessel now had met its match. I jumped out of bed and grabbed the camera.
I put on several layers to hand, and a Pertex windproof suit over the top, which Graham at Brenig had specially made for me. Underneath, I made use of a new invention – a heat reflective and breathable fleece material – I am the first person to wear for testing for Brenig. I had some input in the design of this jacket – providing the simple wish- when the collar is made – take the average height for a collar and double it and then add on more. I am left with a collar, inspired by Elvis, which zips high up over my nose and ears. Good job Graham. Its minus under but I am Toastie.
It was 11pm and we had hit the ice pack. Literally. Ice islands as far as the eye could see. An infinite belt of broken and fractured ice pieces floating in union, surrounding and guarding Antarctica, like an asteroid belt and as just as hazardous.
I climb to the top deck. The cold steals my breath away. Before me unfolds a strange world, an ice world. We float across the liquefied, molten surface of this frozen world. It may as well be another planet. Looking around, we really could have been floating on the surface of one of Jupiter or Saturn’s many moons. Cold, hostile and faraway from home comforts.
There was still an eerie fog hanging over the horizon. I look at my watch 11.37pm. It is correct. The midnight sun is up.
Three weeks ago I was sat watching the BBC’s Frozen Planet – a monumental feat in Natural History filmmaking. Now, here I am sailing through it, episode by episode. No need for 3D HD glasses I thought… this is real. Though a hot water bottle would be great.
This is what I came to see. Now, This Is Antarctica.
I started filming.
Up on deck, after others had gone to sleep. Stan (the captain) made me a cup of tea and began to tell me a tragic story involving one of his Ukraine crew some years ago that had committed suicide in these waters – they only found his body 4 hours after he had jumped overboard. I looked down at the water- deathly black. The depth sounder read 1000m. You’d never have known. It’s the kind of water where mermaids lured sailors, to seal their fate and take their soul. Of course, I should point out that such mermaids would either have to be a specially evolved polar subspecies or wrapped up Toastie, otherwise they would perish as well, since they most frequently feature in stories from distant, tropical islands, bathed in sunshine.
After this temporary distraction, I said to Stan I was surprised that there were no icebergs in sight. I suppose it’s the ones you don’t see that should concern you. I then asked The Captain if he had ever heard of Titanic. He waved his arm across towards the window, highlighting half of the near horizon and said what about that one. From the fog, a giant appeared. Right above the window. Part of a 2km long majestic high rise Antarctic iceberg. There she goes! A silent Antarctic assassin. Unnoticed.
I checked the radar. It displayed a long slug of ice some 300m high, lying across a portion of the screen. And a tiny bright green dot in the middle, bleeping, pulsing with life in otherwise still waters – that was our vessel – dodging icebergs like asteroids.
I recalled being on a London bus and being told off for trying to stand in front of the line and asking the driver a question. There’s a lesson to be learnt here folks – don’t distract the captain of an icebreaker roughing it through the Antarctic asteroid belt – even if there are polar mermaids to be seen.
I look out and see three birds on a piece of ice in our path. Hold on… is it a bird… No… Is it a plane… No… oh right, it’s three Adelie Penguins. My first penguin encounter. What a special moment for any Antarctican. You will always remember the first time you see Penguins one chap from the Scott Polar Research Institute back home had told me.
As the boat neared, the penguins were observed to break their formation of relaxation and flee for their lives. Not knowing whether to stand and penguin waddle or lie down and belly push along the ice, they fled just in time before their piece of ice was obliterated. I looked back and thought I saw one raising a fin and gesturing, mouthing, ‘You Crazy Driver… nearly killed us… must be French.’
I take the opportunity to make use of the empty washing machine and dryer and put my clothes on. No neighbours here to disturb here I thought. Any noise it would make would be ‘subtly’ masked by the gentle purr, possibly a roar, of a diesel-fuelled icebreaker’s engine in full throttle. That’ll hide the noise of the washing machine I thought. They will never know. The perfect crime. I expect I will arrive at Concordia on Sunday perhaps. Now we can’t have an Englishman turn up on Sunday not wearing his Sunday best. I throw in my Crocs – I had better wash those too.
I had a Kit-Kat to celebrate the evening. You never know, it could be my last for sometime.
Its 1.52am and even as I put my head down to try to sleep, there are shudders through the skeleton of the vessel into the springs in my mattress, overwhelmed by the sound of an engine powering and smashing forward through dense blue ice. I imagine a large semi-frozen lake with a toy boat being blown and hammered by howling winds. Or was that my washing going round and round at 60 degrees hot wash?
The Antarctic seascape really affects your thinking. I thought to myself, if I was a God of any kind – this is where I would hide my secrets- in this sailor’s graveyard.
I roll over in bed.
Be careful what you wish for. Garrard’s words rang again… ‘the worst place in the world, to have the best time of your life’.
I came here to do a job. I have to get in and then get the hell out. This is no place for a holiday. In and out with 10 fingers. That’s it. Piece of cake, right?
Yes please… chocolate. With extra cream. Warmed. Hmmmm… Chocolate Cake.