The South African polar ship SA Agulhas is en route to the Antarctic with a team of adventurers on board. They will attempt to cross the frozen continent in the dead of winter, a feat never attempted before.
The SA Agulhas was given a rousing send-off in London by an audience that included the Prince of Wales.
The team set sail from Cape Town - known as the gateway to the Antarctic - on 7 January after docking on 28 December 2012 from the UK. The trip is expected to take about two weeks, allowing for icebergs and pack ice. However, this will depend on the sea and weather conditions.
Renowned adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is leading the daring six-member squad on what they have dubbed The Coldest Journey. This adventure represents a major collaboration between Commonwealth countries, as the entire ship's crew and all the scientists, engineers, operations team and explorers come from its 54 countries.
The 68-year-old Fiennes is known for his many exploits, which include being the first person to reach both the north and south poles via surface travel. The former British Army officer is regarded by many, including the Guinness Book of Records, as the world's greatest living explorer.
The team's co-leader is veteran sailor Anton Bowring, and the remaining four members are engineer Ian Prickett, medic Rob Lambert and mechanics Spencer Smirl and Richmond Dykes. All but Dykes have previous polar experience.
Education as well as adventure
The expedition, prominently featuring the 35-year-old SA Agulhas, will also showcase South Africa's maritime skills development programme and its participation in Antarctic research.
Since her retirement from Antarctic service in April 2012, the Agulhas has been fitted with extra equipment so that she can be used as a dedicated training vessel.
This is her maiden training voyage and she carries 50 sea cadets, 40 of whom are South African maritime studies graduates from the Cape Town and Durban universities of technology. The remainder hail from other African countries and were collected along the trip up the continent's west coast.
Through educational content, including competitions, an interactive map and access to exclusive audio-visual and scientific material as well as regular interviews with the team, The Coldest Journey also aims to inspire thousands of children to become scientists and engineers.
Interested schools from across the Commonwealth are invited to register on the website. They will be asked for a modest fee, but this can be recouped through related fundraising activities, suggestions for which are provided as part of the package. The fee will also allow two years' access to the content.
The SA Agulhas is playing an important role in this aspect too, as she will provide real-time educational content on the scientific activities undertaken during the voyages to and from Antarctica.
The chilling facts
The six-month expedition will take place in the southern hemisphere winter, which starts around the end of March. Unlike most people who will have at least a few creature comforts during the chilly season, The Coldest Journey team will have to contend with almost perpetual darkness and average winter temperatures of -50 to -80 degrees C.
They will also have some 4 000km of snow and ice to traverse.
The goal of The Coldest Journey is to raise US$10-million for Seeing is Believing, a collaboration between Standard Chartered Bank and the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness. The initiative tackles avoidable blindness and is active in 25 developing countries - they include Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Brazil and Jordan.
"I have had snow blindness before, for about 10 days," said Fiennes, "and it made me feel useless. Seeing is Believing is our motivation, however cold it is, however dark it is, because the further we go, the more people will donate."
A perilous trip
The Coldest Journey has been some five years in the planning, said Fiennes. He said the golden era of exploration over the last 100 years has seen almost every polar challenge successfully met, but for one - that of crossing Antarctica in the winter.
The team will land in Crown Bay in Queen Maud Land, east Antarctica, where the crew will set up a base camp and spend some weeks testing the hi-tech equipment. The explorers will set off on the first stage of the journey to the geographic South Pole, some 2 200km away, on 21 March, near the southern hemisphere's autumnal equinox.
From here they travel a further 1 600km to the Ross ice shelf and then on to their final destination, McMurdo Station, a US research centre. McMurdo is just 300m from Discovery Hut, built by Robert Scott in 1902 and still in much the same state as when it was last used in 1917. Crown Bay is south of South Africa, and McMurdo is south of New Zealand.
The bold explorers plan to arrive on the other side of the continent in September. The first stage is expected to take 84 days, including 21 rest days, and the second 61 days with 15 rest days.
The Agulhas will be back to pick up crew and gear in February 2014. They have to wait until the winter ice retreats far enough to allow the ship to approach.
The team plans to cover an average of 35km over eight hours per day, with rest days in between. A typical day on the ice will start at around 06h30 with a check of the weather and the vehicles and equipment. After a meeting to plan the day, the team will set off at 08h30 and travel until 16h30 with intermittent breaks, until 16h30 when they will set up their overnight camp, check their correspondence digitally, ensure that the vehicles have fuel for the next day's trek, and have a meal.
Two skiers - one Fiennes, the other alternating team members - will lead the party with the rest following in a convoy.
Up front are two modified Caterpillar D6N track-type tractors pulling two specially developed cabooses - one for accommodation and one with scientific and mechanical workshops - followed by storage and fuel sleds. The fuel contains an ice inhibitor which is active down to -75 degrees C.
Because of the darkness and the temperatures, it will be almost impossible, should anything go wrong, to send an aircraft on a rescue mission as its non-modified fuel might freeze.
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