Doctor Joan Louwrens of Knysna, the official doctor on board the SA Agulhas which took Sir Ranulph Fiennes's Coldest Journey Expedition the ice, takes a stroll on the frozen continent. Picture: ANNE TREASURE

Melanie Gosling

AFTER a polar party on board the SA Agulhas on Saturday night, the ship sailed from Antarctica yesterday, leaving Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his five team members waving farewell on the ice shelf.

On March 21, Fiennes’s team will begin their Coldest Journey Expedition, attempting what no one has done before: walking across the frozen continent in the dark of the polar winter, in temperatures of up to -70ºC.

The expedition team are carrying on with their preparations for the tough trek while living in a “caboose”, a container converted into living quarters.

Fiennes, called the world’s greatest living explorer, hired the SA Agulhas to take his team to the Antarctic.

On board is Joan Louwrens, who is from Knysna and employed as the ship’s doctor.

“We’ve just left and waved goodbye to the six left on the ice. We had a big party last night, and the ice team came on board for that, and the galley crew really pulled out all the stops. It was a happy occasion,” Louwrens said in a phone interview.

Fiennes is to cross the continent on foot, and the expedition team have vehicles to pull the caboose and the fuel.

“(Fiennes) made a short speech and said it was originally envisaged as a small expedition, but it changed into a big affair with lots of fuel and equipment. He said he just wants to ski or walk, and the rest of it is all just back-up. He’s a delightful person. Very, very tough between the ears.”

Louwrens, who runs a “floating locum practice” for private practitioners, is no stranger to tough challenges. She has been the official doctor on voyages to Gough and Marion islands, has lived on Tristan da Cunha for six months, and has cycled from Cairo to Cape Town and from Istanbul to Beijing.

She was one half of the first mother-and-daughter team to compete in the Cape Epic mountain bike challenge.

“It’s been my dream to go to the Antarctic. When I got the call to ask if I would be doctor on this trip, they said I’d also have to teach PT classes to the cadets. I said, ‘I’ll teach them cooking if I have to’.”

Louwrens was itching to set foot on the ice, but the ship’s captain wanted her on board until it was fair weather as he could not risk the doctor getting injured.

“I’m so relieved there have been no serious injuries during the whole of the off-loading. One day the wind and swell were bad.

“I can’t even watch because I think of all the injuries that could happen.”

The SA Agulhas is due back in Cape Town in about 10 days.

[email protected]