Ruhann Steyn

“On 4 Dec 2014, we departed from the Cape Town harbour on the SA Agulhas II to start a three-month research expedition at the SANAE 4 (South African National Antarctic Expedition 4) base in Antarctica. Due to severe ice conditions on the ocean, it took us three weeks on the ship to reach the ice shelf. From the ice shelf, we were transported by helicopter to the base. For many years I have dreamed about the day I would see the SANAE 4 base with my own eyes, and finally it became a reality. Once we were at the base, we immediately started working. We worked for 18 hours a day, every day, no weekends or public holidays. The window in which to do research and do maintenance on the scientific equipment during the summer in Antarctica is very small, so we have to fit the most amount of work into the smallest amount of time considering the weather can change very fast. We worked on the HF (high frequency) radar, the VLF (very low frequency) radar, the riometer array and we installed a new magnetometer at the base. All these instruments are used by SANSA (South African National Space Agency) to do research on space weather.

Living on the base is very nice and very interesting. The water supply on the base is maintained by shoveling snow into the ‘smelly’ or snow smelter. This has to happen six times a day in order for the base to have enough water to operate. The electricity supply on the base is provided by three very large generators. During the little downtime we had, we made use of the movie theatre, the pool tables, table tennis tables, the gym, and the climbing wall in the helicopter hanger. When the weather is bad, we have to stay inside the base unless we have to go shovel snow into the snow smelter. In January, we had a two-week-white-out. A white-out is when the visibility is so bad you cannot see your hand in front of your face, the wind speed goes up to 75 knots (140 km/h) and the temperature drops to -27 degrees Celsius. During white-outs, we try and do all the laboratory work inside the base.

After seven wonderful and tiring weeks on the base, I returned to the ship on a CAT train. A CAT train is a train of snow sleds pulled by Challengers. A Challenger is a very smart snow tractor. It takes the CAT train 38 hours to get to the ice shelf where the ship is because the CAT train only travels at 20 km/h when the weather is perfect. The ship departed from the ice shelf on 7 February 2015 and only took 10 days to reach Cape Town again. The northbound voyage takes less time because most of the ice has melted by now due to the summer conditions. On our way back from Antarctica, we picked up the research team we left at Bouvet Island on the southbound voyage.

Going to Antarctica was an amazing and life-changing experience. It was difficult, it was challenging, it was cold, and we didn’t sleep a lot, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. “

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