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Ranulph Fiennes' Coldest Journey: the blog

  1. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, he of monstrous, explorery man-parts, is about to embark on a 2000-mile journey across the Antarctic, making him the first man to cross it in Winter. And by cross we mean WALK. Oh, and he’s taking two modified bulldozers as back-up. In minus 70 degree temperatures.

    The convoy of two adapted CAT 6DN track-type tractors (or, erm, bulldozers) double up as mobile science labs studying the effects of global warming, and the extreme sort of load-luggers. They’ll stow enough food for a year, 112,600 litres of fuel, spare parts, medical paraphernalia, extra ski equipment (Ranulph’s mode of transport)… the only thing they’re not taking is water, because they can just melt the ice. And there’s a fair bit of that in Antarctica…

    And guess what? We’ve got a series of blogs filed directly from the expedition, as it happens. Click on to join the team.

    Keep checking back for updates. And click here to learn more about Ranulph’s bonkers expedition

  2. UPDATE: January 1

    Spencer Smirl, Engineer

    “The last night before our flight to Cape Town was a pretty quiet one. Although it was New Years Eve, we had a flight to catch from Heathrow the next day and it was one we couldn’t afford to miss. We decided rather than going out and partying our faces off we would have a nice quiet dinner and get to bed early. I maybe should have partied though. When I woke on the morning of the New Year I had overwhelming feelings of anxiety and nervousness. It was strange - up until this moment I had little fear of my upcoming adventure. 

    As I drove to Heathrow, Richmond slept peacefully beside me. I listened to my music almost as loud as that little Toyota would play it. Not only to drown out the rumble of Richmond’s insistent snoring, but because I knew this would be one of the last times I would be able to hear my music played so loud. We arrived at Heathrow Airport with plenty of time to spare. Which we needed to accommodate for the huge amount of luggage we had to drag through the terminal. Because there was so much kit that failed to make the shipping deadline of the 6th of December when the Agulas left London, the members of the Ice team were left responsible for the transportation of this final bit of kit.

    Richmond and I each had 4 bags to check. Each of these weighed a maximum allowable 32kgs. In these bags were mostly CAT parts and medical supplies. There was a large amount of audio and visual kit from the documentary company. 

    When we arrived at check in, to our surprise, we had been upgraded to business class. We had all thought that Sir Fiennes had left a few days earlier so that he would be able to upgrade without the complication of the rest of us being left to grumble from our seats in economy. We boarded the plane and were directed to our plush seats in business. After I sat down I started to take off my shoes, something I do for every flight.

    The Doctor, Rob Lambert sat down beside me and looked at my feet as I slipped them free of their confines. I thought I seen him make a funny face so I was quick to apologise if he could smell something. He said “no worries dude, I always ditch the shoes too”. As I reclined my seat and prepared for my first flight into the southern hemisphere, I checked my pocket to make sure I had my lucky stone. Around the time I was accepted into the team for this expedition, my mother gave me a piece of red jasper with a little booklet explaining how it brings good luck and safe journey to travellers. I was never a superstitious person but if I lost this stone now I would have a fit of sheer panic. I never go anywhere without it.

    As the plane lifted off, on its way to Cape Town, I felt that wave of anxiety and nervousness surge over me again. I pulled on my head phones and found a movie to clear my head and remind me of the beautiful vacation I was about to have in Cape Town. It had been quite a while since I had watched the Lion King. After dinner I had a couple glasses of wine while I finished my movie and then tried to fall asleep. I couldn’t do it. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was excitement. I can’t say for sure. I do know that after four more movies and an hour of playing Texas hold’em against my phone, we were landing in Cape Town.”

    Pic: Geoff Long

  3. UPDATE: January 2

    Spencer Smirl, Engineer

    “After landing in Cape Town we cleared customs right away - probably the fastest I have been let into a new country. But, we must have stood next to the baggage carousel for what seemed like an eternity waiting for all of our luggage. Out of the 11 pieces of checked luggage we had, three were cardboard boxes. Apparently this is a huge red flag for the customs agents in South Africa.

    Somehow all three boxes ended up on Richmond’s cart and he was pulled aside at first sight. After a quick inspection of the boxes we were waved through and out into the blistering heat of Cape Town.
    There was only one individual in our welcoming party, Jill Bowring. She had arrived with a small Hyundai that she had planned on transporting the 5 of us plus luggage back to the ship. After we stuffed all the luggage into the car, I don’t think any of us were shocked at Jill’s request for us to take a taxi. We sent Jill on her way and the 5 of us climbed into a rickety old taxi and directed the driver to East Pier where the S.A. Agulas was awaiting our return.

    The taxi wasn’t missing any parts, not yet any ways. As we sped down the highway I feared that very soon it might be however. The axles rattled and shook the entire time we were moving and every time the driver applied the brakes it sounded like the sea captain from Jaws running his fingernails down a chalk board. The scenery was breathtaking and soon I forgot about the death trap taxi beneath me. Table Top Mountain stands 1000 meters above the city.

    With its giant plateau it looks like it has a massive table cloth draped over it, as the clouds drift over and down its mighty cliffs. The city stretches for miles along the lower levels of the mountain and out to the water front. Beaches riddle the coast line. Like a big flower garden, colours explode from the sky over kite beach. “There must be a thousand kites in the air” I said as we drove past. Ian, who had lived in Cape Town for nearly 2 years, told me that is why it is called “Kite Beach” the kite surfing capital of South Africa.

    It was nice to be reunited with the team in its entirety and our mighty Ice Breaking vessel, The S.A.Agulas. Richmond and I didn’t waste any time climbing below deck to reunite with our machines as well, Seeker and Rover. They looked even better than I remembered. I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t get into the cab and make tractor noises as I pulled on the controls. 

    During the five days of leisure we had in Cape Town, the team re-bonded as we experienced local food and drink at various locations along the Waterfront near East Pier where we were moored. Our days were mostly relaxed. There was a very small amount of press but nowhere near the amount we had gotten used to in London. Ian took a few of us out to a beach for a surf lesson. I don’t think I had ever swam so hard in my life. It was like being inside a washing machine. There was no break in the set at all. We could barely get past it. When we did, we would be so out of breath, me especially, that we didn’t have enough strength left to paddle into the surf. 

    The last night was a late one. Richmond hadn’t showed much interest in staying out very late any other night, but on the last one, we stayed out way too late. Maybe he was starting to feel as nervous as I was. The excessive indulgence definitely pushes those feelings aside. We closed down a pub along the water front then had to make a final stop at McDonald’s on our way back to the ship. It was near 4 o’clock as we lay down spinning in our bunks. The worst part was we had to get up in an hour to involve ourselves in the glorious send off.”

    Pic: Geoff Long

  4. UPDATE: January 7

    Spencer Smirl, Engineer

    “We set sail at 08:00 Monday the 7th of January 2013. It was the most publicity we had seen to date in Cape Town. There was a thousand people lining the banks of the East Pier. There was a nine piece Dixie Jazz Band playing in the background, they even had a tuba grunting along. As we sailed out past the Pier, there was a cannon with blanks loaded that rung several deafening blows across our stern as we passed. Two helicopters followed us out, filming from above as we left the harbour gliding out to sea. It was all very impressive.

    We all stayed up on the upper deck above the bridge and watched as Cape Town disappeared into the distance. We talked about the send-off and the morning events as we listened to the ocean waves crash upon the bow. It was calm but it wasn’t dead flat. I had popped a sea sickness tablet before bed and again in the morning but I could feel things starting to take a turn. The swell was a little over a metre, more than enough to make a full time land lubber forget how to walk down stairs. As I stumbled into my cabin, I found my tablets on my desk, popped one and climbed straight into bed. It was around 10:30 when I dozed off. 

    After a little more than an hour I awoke to an awful mechanical grinding, screeching noise. It was very difficult to tell what it was. I looked out the window and noticed we had stopped moving. We just sat there bobbing in the sea like a piece of drift wood. It was near lunch time so I went to the galley to see if anyone was there. The team was there waiting for lunch. Nobody knew what had happened yet but the food smelled good so I stuck around. After lunch the captain came and told us there was a slight problem with one of the engines. They still had one running and we would stay on course as mechanics assessed the repair. There was no point in turning around if they could get it fixed at sea. However, we were barely moving, only about 3knots. A long way from her top speed of 12knots. At this rate we would take 25 days to reach the ice when it should only be 10 in good seas.

    I went back to bed as I still wasn’t feeling very well. Again, after only a little more than an hour of sleep, I woke to a crackly voice explaining there would be an evacuation of the ship and the alarm would sound shortly, and to proceed to the muster location. I climbed out of bed, almost in a state of panic. At this moment, I wasn’t sure if we were just practicing. Richmond and I donned our life jackets, grabbed our survival packs and began to make our way back to the helipad. To my relief, soon after arriving at the muster point, the rest of the evacuees assured me it was only a drill. As we made our way along the Port side to our life boat, I noticed we still were not moving very fast.

    I asked if we were still headed south. Luckily the answer was yes. Strange we were still only running one engine though. I couldn’t be too worried. I was hungry and it was quite close to dinner. One great thing about being at sea I had noticed thus far, was that the food was surprisingly good. Our first supper was hot and sweet spare ribs on rice with a very nice salad. I expected good food after the sampling I had when she was docked in London. If it keeps up to this standard though, I’ll come home bigger than when I left. A rarity in exploration.

    I made my way back to my cabin and flopped into bed to watch a movie. I was working my way through the Bourne series again. If there is one thing we brought too much of, its movies. We would have to be in Antarctica for a year and a half and watch non-stop to get through all the movies we brought. It doesn’t hurt to have selection though. Around 9pm, after three hours of Jason Bourne, I heard the engine stop. We were dead in the water. Again.”

    Pic: Geoff Long

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