SA-built Arctic Hilux has survived its first challenge  2000km over the icy expanses of the Antarctic
SA-built Arctic Hilux has survived its first challenge  2000km over the icy expanses of the Antarctic
At this altitude the cold was so severe that the big tyres stiffened to the extent that it could not provide flotation or grip until they warmed up
At this altitude the cold was so severe that the big tyres stiffened to the extent that it could not provide flotation or grip until they warmed up

The first Arctic Truck (AT) Toyota Hilux built in the Sandton workshop of Toyota SA has just reached the South Pole after an arduous journey of more than 2000km over the icy expanses of the Antarctic.

The red AT44, built for the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research by a team from Arctic Trucks with assistance from TSA, is one of six AT Hilux vehicles built in South Africa for expeditions and duty in the Antarctic.

The vehicle reached the Pole on Sunday 21 November - eight days after the expedition set off from the Novolazarevskaya (Novo) air base and research station located in the Schirmacher Oasis in Queen Maud Land, about 75km from the Antarctic coast.

The team of scientists in the AT Hilux, accompanied by three similar vehicles that have been in Antarctica since 2008, were the first overland expedition to reach the South Pole this year - in extremely challenging conditions as the temperature at some stages dropped to -58°C!

The primary objective of the expedition is to conduct research for the Indian NCAOR, but the secondary aim was to identify a location in the vicinity of South Pole for a fuel drop. This was successfully accomplished.

The group was due to start their journey on 10 November, but was delayed because of the late arrival of spare parts and a rescue operation where a member of another group's life was saved by using the crane and pulley on the AT Hilux to winch him out after he fell into a crevasse.

During the first three days, with the Hiluxes operating in power sapping altitudes of nearly 3000 meters on the high plateau, the group covered over 700km. At this altitude the cold was so severe that the big tyres stiffened to the extent that it could not provide flotation or grip until they warmed up, and some of the group members suffered from altitude sickness.

The group arrived at the first fuel depot - 800km from the Pole - on 18 November and one vehicle's radiator was replaced after it started leaking because of the wrong mix of antifreeze in the extremely cold conditions. Shortly after leaving the depot the next day another vehicle suffered a rear axle problem due to a broken bearing, but this was replaced within 30 minutes.

As one of the AT crewmembers reported, the team was impressed with their progress: "The last two days we drove almost 900km at an average speed of around 40 to 50km/h. We are extremely happy and proud of how the cars are coping in the difficult situation."

After another 18 hours of non-stop driving the expedition reached the South Pole. They completed their ice odyssey at a higher than expected average speed, and will start their return journey of 2400km back to Novo as soon as some running repairs to the vehicles have been made.