The team struggles to fill the water smelter, or "Smelly", in the middle of a white-out. The Smelly is about 200 metres away from the base.
 
Photo: Kristen van Schie
The team struggles to fill the water smelter, or "Smelly", in the middle of a white-out. The Smelly is about 200 metres away from the base. Photo: Kristen van Schie
Sanae IV, the South African scientific base in Antarctica, is located on the edge of the 200 metre-high cliffs of the Vesleskarvet nunatak. The base took five years to complete and was designed specifically to withstand the harsh storms in the region.
Photo: Kristen van Schie
Sanae IV, the South African scientific base in Antarctica, is located on the edge of the 200 metre-high cliffs of the Vesleskarvet nunatak. The base took five years to complete and was designed specifically to withstand the harsh storms in the region. Photo: Kristen van Schie
Sanae IV, the South African scientific base in Antarctica, is located on the edge of the 200 metre-high cliffs of the Vesleskarvet nunatak. The base took five years to complete and was designed specifically to withstand the harsh storms in the region.
Photo: Kristen van Schie
Sanae IV, the South African scientific base in Antarctica, is located on the edge of the 200 metre-high cliffs of the Vesleskarvet nunatak. The base took five years to complete and was designed specifically to withstand the harsh storms in the region. Photo: Kristen van Schie

The good weather had persisted for over two weeks. The winds were sometimes strong and the temperatures were always low, but the sky had been clear above the SA scientific base Sanae IV.

And so the summer takeover team of the annual Antarctic expedition worked.

That was the motto: as long as the sun is shining, we work. An exhausting philosophy under the never-setting sun.

We started watching the weather models, infuriatingly clear.

Then, slowly, it began changing. The winds were picking up, the sky was growing darker. The storm was coming.

Frigid katabatic winds – pockets of high-density air, cooled as they sat trapped between the nunataks and rolling snow fields – began streaming, rushing, charging over the edge of the 200m-high cliffs of Vesleskarvet.

The base rattled and shuddered.

She was 15 years old, stronger and sturdier than any of the SA bases that had come before her.

The other Sanaes had been simpler structures, slowly covered and then crushed by the persistent build-up of snow.

The designers of Sanae IV had sought to avoid this, to give this base a longer life-span than any of her predecessors.

Her three, double-storey units stood about 4m above ground on stilts anchored into the rock below. Her corners were rounded to prevent wind drag. Even her location was deliberate: on the lower, southern buttress of Vesleskarvet, where her exposure to the beating winds from the east was lowest, where the snow would be pushed over the edge of the cliffs.

All of it to save her from the fate of the Sanaes that came before her.

But she was creaking now, groaning and straining against the weather. In the dining room, the cups rattled on the shelves, the floor vibrated beneath our feet.

At midday, a sign went up at all exits: “NO personnel may exit the base until further notice. Please DO NOT open the doors.”

But the base was home to nearly 80 personnel – scientists, mechanics, cooks, pilots, mechanics and maintenance men.

We were going through 30 kilolitres of water a day. And it had to come from somewhere, storm or not.

Antarctica is home to 70 percent of the world’s fresh water, but it all lay trapped beneath our feet, frozen as snow and ice.

Every glass of water, every basinful of dishes, every shower – a five-minute soap-and-rinse luxury we had only every second day – meant a trip down to the water smelter. Outside.

The space scientists volunteered.

As they kitted up, they grabbed a walkie-talkie and a rope. The “Smelly” was only about 200m away from the base, but the wind was pushing 35 knots. This was no time to be taking risks. And people had died at Sanae before.

During construction in November 1995, a massive storm rolled over the site within minutes. By the time people knew what was happening, a team member was missing.

A search party was put together to visit the next closest shelter. It was only a 5m journey, and when the party realised the missing man was not there, they turned back. Three men had left the shelter. Two returned.

In the white-out conditions, SA Air Force medic Corporal Pierre Venter lost his grip on the safety rope for just a moment. The wind took him.

It was days before the weather cleared.

When they found Venter, he was only 40m from the base, still fully dressed in his polar gear: thermals, overalls, windbreaker, inners, outers, gloves, socks, boots, balaclava, beanie, goggles. It wasn’t enough. He was 22 years old.

His picture hangs on a wall of remembrance in the base library, only one of several young, happy faces smiling out at us.

Gordan Ian Mackie, died 1969, 23 years old. Dewald Voigt, died 2006, 24 years old. Johann Jamneck, died 2009, 25 years old.

A reminder that for every magnificent landscape and snowball fight and skidoo race, we were in Antarctica.

And we were completely at her mercy.

As we stumbled down the stairs, the wind hit us like a wall.

We were walking straight into it, every step forward a push against the elements.

The snow was soft and without sunshine, contrast disappeared.

We staggered into dips and tripped over sastrugis, unable to see the difference between one or the other as we made our way to the Smelly. What would have been a 15-minute exercise on a good day felt futile.

What we could get down the chute into the smelter was not hard, compacted snow, but powder – airy, white nothingness. It wouldn’t give us nearly enough water.

The wind sabotaged every shovelful, picking it up and throwing it into our faces.

Our goggles misted up and our vision blurred. Every sliver of exposed skin – those cracks between goggles and beanie, sleeve and glove – burnt from the cold, a deep, searing sting.

We passed the Stellenbosch University wind turbine as we climbed the hill back to the base. It shook unnervingly, swinging back and forth. Surely it wasn’t supposed to be doing that?

When we finally tumbled back into warmth of the base half an hour later, our faces were red from the cold, our pockets and jacket linings somehow caked with snow.

By that evening, the Stellenbosch team’s anemometer was picking up gusts of close to 90km/h, then 100km/h, and as the storm peaked, over 150km/h.

Sparks jumped between the ends of spare cables from the static build-up in the air. The scientists measured 1.5kV.

As we lay in bed that night, it felt as if we were back on the SA Agulhas, the wind roaring like the sea, the base moving below us.

It was four days before the weather finally cleared.

The winter build-up of snow around the base that Oom Koos had spent two weeks clearing away was back, and he climbed back into his bulldozer to start again.

The wind turbine that was supposed to deliver renewable energy to the base took the brunt of the storm.

Its nose cone – welded on, though it was – was ripped off by the force of the wind and flung over the cliffs.

It lay 200m below us, somewhere in the expanse of Queen Maud Land.

And though the sun was shining again and the snow was soft, perfect for the next snowball fight, we were in Antarctica, and we were completely at her mercy.