Shattering 100 years of solitude

It has been one hundred years of stone, cold silence in Antarctica since Scott and Amundsen raced each other to the South Pole. Scott, a proud Brit, carried journalists and scientists on his ship, while Amundsen and his significantly smaller team was singularly focused on claiming the honours for young Norway, only just independent from Sweden seven years earlier. Amundsen’s team got there on 15 December (14th depending on the dateline one uses), 33 days earlier than Scott and made it back safely within a three month turn-around. Scott’s whole team perished as they got trapped – a grim reminder of the harshness of this last untouched region. Antarctica is the place for men who live big lives and have big dreams.

One such character is Danie Ferreira, who we met years ago as a student when he had just returned from Antarctica as a meteorological observer. At the time, Danie was setting out to build what would eventually become South Africa’s biggest TV production house, Urban Brew Studios. Through the years, he has retained his passion for photography, adventure and wide open spaces, sometimes breaking in wild horses on his desert farm on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. But the fascination with the South Pole remained strongest, and Danie has on more than one occasion chartered his own icebreaker to go on photographic and film excursions to this remote region.

No surprise, then, when Danie called last year to say he was back from a training camp in Iceland, as he had landed the broadcasting rights for the Scott-Amundsen Centenary Race to the South Pole, a race of six nations, seven teams and 17 athletes, and that they had been acclimatising in preparation. Danie was planning to film a documentary, Cold Sweat, about the race. The team touched base in Cape Town in early December and had one quick media event to introduce the participants who would compete for top honours across 742 kilometres of harsh ice and snow.

With his TV-coiffure, we mistook South African team member, Braam Malherbe, to be the Woolworths PR liaison when he was introduced. Mistake. Big mistake. He is a serious conservationist and environmental activist, and he’s the guy who ran the length of the Chinese Wall. That is the equivalent of 89 marathons everyday for 89 days! His team mate: Peter van Kets, who has solo-rowed across the Atlantic. Van Kets’ routine to accomplish this feat? Row one hour, sleep one-and-a-half hours. Endurance men with surprisingly unimpressive bodies but evidently with minds of steel. We learnt later that the lack of buff was because of their fattening up in advance for the cold down South.

The TV crew was not going to rough it in any similar fashion as the athletes. Danie had arranged the famous arctic trucks once featured on Top Gear (Toyota Hilux vehicles built in Durban and converted to handle the extreme terrain, including two 6×6 AT44s) to support and follow the teams, made a plan to strap cameras onto each athlete, and had his favourite wine estate in the Cape make special “papsakke” for his crew. Steaks were being flown in from Namibia. No such luxury for the athletes, who would carry all their own equipment, drawn on a pulk behind their cross-country skis, and with only one refurbishment break midway through the race.

The photos tell a thousand stories and Namibian photographer and TV-journalist Paul van Schalkwyk wrote a stunning daily blog that is available to read on the Cold Sweat website. The outcome – nobody died this time, and like Amundsen, the Norwegians triumphed again. Braam and Peter showed the best of South African character, stopping off to assist the injured Andrew Carnie of Team British Green/Centrepoint who fractured his arm just before arriving at the halfway mark. The Norwegians finished the race in 15 days, with the Welsh team arriving second in 22 days. Third place in the Scott-Amundsen Centenary Race to the South Pole belongs to Team South Africa and British Green, who finished in 24 days.

At their arrival in Cape Town, people were abuzz with the precision planning of the Norwegians and how it paid off. Their strategy involved converting, in advance, every minute of time into potential metres they could rather be skiing, and they prepared accordingly. So, for example, when the tent was still in the process of going up, a third team member would be inside melting ice on a stove. They designed a special pot to hasten the process, as dehydration on ice is a real danger yet melting water can take up to five hours a day. The biggest surprise they sprang on everyone was pitching up at the starting line with skis under their pulks. Not exactly disallowed, but no one else had thought of it. Amundsen would have been proud of his countrymen. Cold Sweat will be broadcast in four episodes on SABC3 later this year.
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by Charl du Plessis
Published in Playboy South Africa March 2012