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Once Upon a Fine Antarctic Morning…

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nice dark sunset peter I

I kind of wake up. I don’t really want to wake up. I just want to sleep. My body and mind are tired. Tired of days on end working, battling against the snow, wind, cold. Fresh snow slips through the small opening I make in my sleeping bag, trying to take a peek at the inside of the tent. I see the dim light through the tent cover, but that is no indication of time. It is always light this time of the year on the Antarctic. My watch tells me it is 5 o’clock. I have to think a while if that would be 5 AM or 5 PM.. Hmmm, AM it is. Soon my shift will start. I have to get up, but my body refuses. I stare at the side of the tent.

The sleeping tentThe storm started yesterday evening, and is still blowing in full force. It pushes and pulls violently on the sides of our Weatherhaven tents as if it is trying to get rid of it. The thick nylon cargo lashes we pulled over the tents vibrate in the wind as if they were huge strings. The storm howls and roars as if it were nature’s way to say “you guys don’t belong here”. It is true, we don’t belong here. It has only been 60 years since the first people set foot on this godforsaken island near the Southpole. There have been more people on the moon than here, on Peter I island. People should not be here. Living creatures don’t belong here. This is a land of ice, an Antarctic desert.

I pull one hand out of the sleeping bag and brush off the fresh layer of snow which was blown into the tent. No matter how much we tightened the tent cover, the snow always finds a way in. The two meter high half-cylindrical frames move with each new violent pull from the storm. Most of our clothing hangs lined up on cloth hangers. They swing slowly on the frames. It looks Getting dressed in the morning: Strip one layer and put 5 other layers on...like a line-up at the dry cleaners… We are far away from the nearest dry cleaner. Apart from our group of nine expeditioners, we are more than one thousand miles away from other human beings… I pull myself up, and sit on my cod. It is freezing. Must be minus five or ten degrees Centrigrade inside the tent. We don’t dare to light the heater anymore, after the small fire we had a few nights ago. Shivering, I unzip my thick thermal underwear, and put on several layers of polar fleeces, thermal longjohns, and then the Goretex outerwear, thick socks and my leather boots, a cap and a hat, ski goggles and two layers of gloves. There is no part of my body uncovered. With the wind blowing that hard, the windchill drops the temperature down to minus 80 Centigrade outside. Any uncovered piece of skin freezes in no time. A few days ago, we had problems with one of the radio antenna masts. Trying to fix some bolts, I was stupied enough to pull off my gloves so I could fit the nuts onto the bolts. I grabbed hold of the mast with my bare hand and instantly, my skin frooze to the mast. It took three of us breathing onto my hand to melt it off the damned metal.

Willy gets dressed too. Our shift is about to start. A new day is born. The morning shift goes to work. Well almost, as the outer zipper from our tent cover is froozen. I can’t use my lighter as it would melt the plastic. Willy pulls some bags of active carbon from his pocket, shakes it to get it heated up, and holds it against the zipper to warm it up. It takes at least half an hour to move the zipper half a meter. As by miracle, all of a sudden, with a firm pull, the damned cover unzips, and a wall of snow falls into the tent. We are too tired to curse. We know this can happen. Our life here consists mostly of battling against the wind and the snow. The only thing we can see through the half-open tent cover, is a wall of snow. It must be at least three meters high. Trying Picture taken the morning afternot to spill too much of it into the tent, we delve into it, trying to get out. The snow is soft and provides no grip. We have to firm it up by kicking it with our boots. We can only “feel” we are out, but can not “see” anything to confirm it. The wind bites us in the face. Everything is dim grey-whitish in the faint light. Visibility is nil. Totally nil. Ziltch. The snow beneath us, the snow blown up by the howling wind, the sky, all white.

On our belly, we pull ourselves up, and slide down the snowpile which has formed around our tent. When I stand up, I sink up to my waist into the snow. It is light. The snow below is almost as air, so thin, so… well air-y. Walking is almost impossible. We wade through the snow. With some efforts, but at the same time, everything around us is almost psychedelic, making us numb of any physical feeling. This is what they call a white-out. The snow below, the snow blow up by the storm, the air, the ground. Everything has the same shade of white. I tumble over my own feet, and fall. But it is even hard to tell that I fell. There almost no difference in the density of the snow in the air and the snow on the ground. I fall like onto an airy cushion of white. My goggles get covered up, and my own breath sets moister onto it. Makes it even more difficult to see anything. I am floating. A light gaiety wraps around me, I laugh. I am floating. Unaware if I am laying down or standing up. Am I feeling the resistance of the snow on the ground, or the resistance of the wind pushing onto my body? The layer upon layer of special clothing keeps my body warm, makes a protective shell around me, making me even less aware of my surroundings. I float. I laugh. I am flying. Gliding through the whiteness. I could be meters up in the sky, or just wading through snow, I do not know. I.. I just float. Without knowing, I become desorientated. There is no trace of any of the crates we have stacked around our tents, nor of the cables. I see no tents, not even shades of them. Through the howling of the wind, I still hear the faint noise of the generators, and turn my head trying to find a bearing, purely on the noise, but the wind disperses even that. Even the noise comes from everywhere. This is surreel. A dream.

I start walking, wading through the snow to what I think is the direction of the kitchen tent. A dozen yards further, someone pulls me from the back. Willy. He pulls my head close to his mouth, and shouts ‘Are you nuts? Where are you going to?’. I can hardly hear his voice through the storm. I stretch my arm to give an indication of where I am going, but Willy waves his hand. ‘No! It is that way, come’. By myself, I had wondered a hundred meters from the camp, straight into the area we know is full of crevasses. If Willy had not stopped me, I might have disappeared. Nobody would have found me in time. And I would not have been able to get out by myself, tumbling down ten, maybe a hundred meters down the ice caves of the glacier we put our camp on.

Hand in hand, Willy and I make our way to one of the generators. In our efforts to keep them ice and snow free, we tried everything. Our latest experiment was to build a wall of crates around them, but still the snow getss into the sheltered hole. Luckily as we keep the engines running, their heat melts off anything. The disadvantage is that the heat also has the generators dig One of the generators. This one actually stalled and froze up in half an hourthemselves into the snow. The glacier is hundreds of meters thick here, so they still have some way before they literally hit rock bottom. The disadvantage though is that it makes a hell of a challenge trying to service them, or fill them up with gas. I crawl over the wall of crates and jump into the hole. Willy hands me the jerry cans, and I flip the lid open, put the funnel into the generator’s gas tank and pour the gas in it. The wind sprays the fuel all over my legs, and hands. I can smell the fumes. I have to be careful as the generator is hot. If I spill too much, the whole thing will go off in flames. Willy crawls into the hole and makes a joint between the jerry can’s lid and the gas tank. “Pour!”, he shouts, trying to lift his voice above the wind and the deafening noise of the generator. And I pour. Thinking how much I hate this ‘morning duty’ to refill the gensets. And this is only one. We have four of them. But still, I love it. I love this challenge. I love to find my own limitations, I love to face my own fear and laugh at it, in the face. I love doing this, this expedition, that people said to be impossible. I love to laugh in their face. Even as a new blow of wind sprays fuel all over me.

One of the working tents, after we cleared the snowAn hour later, we unzip the opening of the working tent. In the small space of 2.5 by 2.5 meters, three guys are sitting, working on the radio. They have the gas heater on, and are sweating in their Tshirt. They are concentrated trying to decypher the radio messages, and only look up at the distraction of two people crawling into their oasis of heat. Willy and I look alike. All covered up with patches of froozen snow, mucus dangling off our nose, damped ski goggles and smelling like we fell in a petrol pump. We pull off our caps and goggles, and smile at our team mates. “Goooooood moooooooooooorninggggg Vietnaaaaaaaaaaaaam!”, we laugh… A new day is born on Peter I. The most isolated island in the world. How we love this life.

Another Fine Antarctic Morning. At least on that one, we could SEE something!

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

October 29th, 2007 at 10:49 am

Nights on Deserted Islands

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“Nights on Deserted Islands.
Lesson #1: Don’t walk between the trees”

Around midnight, I give up. I can not sleep. The cod I lay on is too hard. I don’t have any cover, and there is no space anymore in the tent. Half of us sleep under the sky. Seems romantic, sleeping under the open sky on a Pacific island, but the combination of the wind with my wet T-shirt and shorts, make it too cold to have romantic thoughts.And above all, adrenaline pumps in my veins.

Clipperton, a deserted island in the Pacific, one thousand miles off the coast of Mexico. We traveled for weeks to reach this forgotten piece of land. I don’t see much of it, in the darkness. The ground is covered with a thick layer of grinded light coloured coral. I can see the shades of the palm trees a few hundred meters from where we pitched our tent. I can see a few stars in the moist sky. Clouds are passing by regularly. In a distance, I hear the waves braking.
This scenery could have been from anywhere. Somewhere in Africa, the Caribbean, or Mediterranean. But this is much more exotic. This is the Pacific. We are the first people to set foot on this islands since months. Years probably. And that makes it special, exotic, exciting. A deserted island called Clipperton.

Jay sticks his head out of the tent.
“Shit, I can’t sleep”, he sighs.
“You know, Jay, what we could do? We could go to the landing spot, and get some of the sleeping bags, and cushions. I just can’t sleep on this cod without covers.”, I wisher softly not to wake up the rest of the landing party.
“Cool, let’s do that. Here is a flashlight. Let’s go”.

I put on my wet shoes. It was a pretty rough landing on the island, this afternoon. There is no port nor jetty here. We had to steer the dinghies through the surf and jump in waist-deep water to offload our gear, wading through the water, trying not to trip over coral heads and not to step on sea urchins. My shorts are still wet too, making it difficult to walk.

The beam of the flashlight veers left and right, lightening up the hundreds of land crabs crawling over the broken coral, in between the boobies, sleeping with their beak tucked in their wings. Most birds don’t even move as we walk close to them. They don’t know these big creatures, called humans. The boobies are not conditioned to be scared of humans, that is clear. One flies straight into Jay in a typical booby-clumsy attempt to land. The more gracious these birds are in the air, the more silly they behave on the ground. Their way of landing and taking off, often involves tumbling upside down, tripping over their own feet. Nature can’t be perfect in everything.

We get close to the palm trees, lining up at the beech.
“I hear the sound of rain coming closer”, says Jay.
“Hmm, rain, and all we have is T-shirts and shorts..”, I mumble.

As we negotiate our way inbetween the palm trees, the first drops fall. Big drops. Platsh, platsh, platsh. Warm drops. The strong smell of ammoniac cuts off our breath. As we sway the flashlight to and fro, the beam catches the side of Jay’s head for a moment. I hold his hand, take the light, and shine it onto his face. It is covered with a white thick glue-y stuff.

“Jay”, I can’t catch my breath from laughing, “that ain’t rain, man, that is bird shit”.
Jay shouts “Oh shhhhit”, as he starts running to the beach, from under the trees. “Oh shhhhit”!
“Yeah, shit indeed!!”, I laugh.

We shine the light in the trees. The palm trees are full of boobies. Dozens of birds sit on each branch. Hundreds of boobies in each tree, thousands of them in the small bush we just walked through. And it seems like they don’t do anything but shit in their sleep. The palm trees, the leaves, the ground, is covered with white smelly guano. And so are we. From top to bottom.

Welcome to the deserted island of Clipperton! Welcome to paradise!
Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

October 27th, 2007 at 10:18 am

A Lot of Crab -eh Crap?- !

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1. A lot of Crab!
While editing my Dutch eBook, Addicted to the horizon , a lot of memories are coming back. Tine and I were scanning through some old pictures when she reminded me how intriguing some of this stuff was. [there is a lesson here: one gets easily used to the extra-ordinary].
I guess I got used to all of it, having gone over these pictures so many times already. And having been there. Things like the shot above, taken during our expedition to Clipperton, a deserted island in the Pacific. The land crabs were piling up trying to devour the bone of a spare rib. That is a lot of crab! They would eat anything. Plastic, cardboard, sleeping bags, ropes,… This made the island pretty clean!
Human waste was considered a delicacy. While squatting ‘au naturel’ on the island, shorts around our ankles, we had to scuffle forward as dozens of crabs would be fighting for your waste, piled on top of each other. If you were not scuffling fast enough, they would grab hold of your private parts… Tell ya, there are more pleasant things in life.

2. A lot of Crap!
Read an article today about the amount of garbage the world produces.. As an example, every day, the US [not trying to pick on the US, but it was the only figure I found!] produces enough non-recycable waste to fill the New Orleans Superdome twice. That is 230 million tons of solid waste per year. The amount of pollution and toxic leaching produced by a landfill receiving 1,000 tons per day of waste is 22,000 lbs. After a landfill closes, it is estimated that emissions could remain constant for as long as 30 years.

3. Let’s launch “Crabs for Crap”!
I think I will run for prime minister, with only one single programme item: I will introduce the use of Clipperton land crabs in the processing of our waste in ‘developed countries’. Think I stand a chance?

Written by Peter

February 11th, 2007 at 11:32 pm

How Cigarettes Once Saved My Life

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Wednesday February 3 1993, 5 am

My watch beeps me out of my sleep. For a moment, I don’t know anymore where I am. I lay on a hard cotton cot, in a wet sleeping bag. The side of the tent drips. I am cold, wet. My muscles hurt, my skin is sunburned, my head aches. All I want to do is sleep. Just another hour, just another minute, but I know I can not. I fumble under the cot to find my glasses. They fog up. I step through puddles of water in the tent, and grab a flashlight. It is still pitch dark outside. The flashlight beams over our surroundings. Sand, low thorny scrub bushes. Hundreds of tiny hermit crabs with shells on their backs scavenging in between the huge boobies and frigate birds sitting randomly around us. The sound of the waves crashing onto the coral reef and rolling out onto the beach a bit further away. The smell of guano in the damp tropical air. We had a huge storm last night. I remember we were fighting to keep the tents up, and the water out. It was never supposed to rain here. They call it the desert of the Pacific, this place. Howland island. On the crossing of the equator and the dateline. In the middle of bloody nowhere. Emilia Earhart, the first woman to fly around the world was supposed to land here to refuel on July 3 1937, but she disappeared, never to be seen again. They had even flattened part of the island as a make shift landing strip for her, and put a fuel on shore.

For a second I curse the pain I feel in my body, curse my constant urge to ‘go where no man has gone before’. Well few men at least.. Why this constant drive to do the unusual? To take the risks? ‘Adrenaline junky. Peter, you are an adrenaline junky’, I repeat to myself as I walk over to one of the main tents. Well, ‘stumble’ is more like it. Stumbling between the pieces of coral and trying to avoid the thorns of the bushes. My legs are scratched a thousand times already. Every evening, I have to pull the thorns out of the soles of my feet. Everything hurts.

I open the flap of the tent, and see Mike sitting at a table in front of the radio. He has his reading glasses on the tip of his red sunburned nose. He looks up and winks at me. I smile at him. The small light, dangling by its electric cord from the top of the tent frame, swings slightly in the wind. The light dims as Mike is transmitting on the radio. I just hear the click-click from his morse key. Randy lays on a couple of plastic bags on the tent floor, amidst puddles of dirty rainwater filled with sand. I pull his shoulder, and tell him my cot is free. Without saying anything, he smiles as if he is still in a dream and shuffles off towards my tent. I take a seat in the plastic chair in front of the second radio and computer, put the headphones on, and listen to the cacophony of noises. It seems like these are people transmitting from Europe.. Let me see if I can create some order in this chaos..

Several hours later, my shift is finished. The sun is already straight above us and has heated up the tent to 40oC. Sweat is dripping off my back. My shirt and trunks are wet. I need a bath. But there is no fresh water. There is nothing on this godforsaken island, unless if we had brought it with us. Bathing is in the sea. Plenty of sea water, though, surrounding this half a square mile island. The sea is wild. The waves created by the immense storm last night thunder over the coral and run deep onto the shore. Where there was a hilly white beach yesterday, the sand is flattened to a perfect spotless even plain today. No traces yet of footsteps. As sand was scooped away by the storm, parts of the remains of a second World War amphibious plane surfaced. I take some soap and shampoo from my tent, and walk to the sea. Kurt, the ship’s cook is standing at the shore line, looking at the Machias, our chartered sailing ship. A wave turned over the dinghy he and Captain Bill were using to deliver our daily rations of water and food. The Captain broke his wrist when he smashed onto the coral. ‘We were supposed to get off this island today. Guess not, hey’, I smile sourly to Kurt. ‘Nope, the waves are too high, man’, Kurt says, ‘No dinghy can get through this’. There is no port on this deserted island. Nothing. All transport between the Machias, anchored outside the reef, and the island is done by shuttling dinghies, riding the waves. But with waves this high, it is pure suicide.. I see Bob and Walt walking towards us, coming from the second radio tent. They say nothing, but think the same as we do: yesterday, we made a huge error. In a hasty effort to start evacuating the island, when we saw the storm clouds gathering, we first ferried water supplies and food rations off the island. We thought: ‘This is the only stuff which can get wet, so let’s see how well it goes’. But the waves got bigger and before we knew it, there was no way we could get through the walls of white foam crashing onto the coral. The waves now run fifty meters deep over the beach and then retract back. What a difference it makes from the babbling waves when we landed two weeks go. The sea had resembled a lake then, compared to this raging madness.

I pull off my T-shirt, sit down in a coral pool filled with 50 centimeters of water, and start rubbing soap over me. The waves come over the pool, filling it up, and a few seconds later, the water gets sucked out as the wave retracts. I feel like a baby in a cradle, rocking to and fro with the waves coming in and out. Kurt pulls off his shirt and shares my pool. ‘Lovely’, he smiles.. A bigger wave comes crashing over the edge of the coral pool and hits us off balance. We giggle, floating in the current. But as the wave retracts, the force is so strong, it sucks us with it. In a flash, our smiles change into disbelief, fear, panic. My heart skips a beat. The wave pulls us over the edge of the pool, into the water. I can not believe water of only 50 cm deep can have this force. We try to stand up, holding on to whatever we can grab, but we are sucked into the sea. We know the edge of the coral is only a few meters away. It has an underwater hole in it. The water gets sucked through the hole, and pulls me with it. My legs get stuck into the hole. Kurt holds on to the coral with his hands. An incoming wave is not strong enough to push me through, back onto the shore. I am stuck in the underwater hole. Kurt gets smashed onto the shore again. I lose my glasses in the thundering whirlpool of white foam. As the wave retracts from the shore I now get sucked underwater. My body is pulled through the coral hole, and I can feel the sharp edges cutting into my legs, arms and back. A few seconds later, I appear above water at the other side of the coral. I don’t feel the bottom anymore, I can not stand up anymore. The water is too deep. Having lost my glasses, I can hardly see. There are waves all around me and the current drags me with it, probably way from the shore. In the background I hear shouting on the beach. I paddle with my legs so I can look around. I can not see Kurt. I look at the Machias, shout at the crew, but don’t hear any reply. Probably they had not seen the accident. Suddenly I realize I still have my soap in one hand and the plastic bottle of shampoo in the other. Here I am floating in a rip current, with my body bleeding, peddling with my feet to stay afloat, but still holding on to my soap and shampoo as if these were the last earthly belongings I wanted to take with me into the next world… I let go of them. They sink. All I can think off is staying afloat. The current is too strong, I can not swim against it. I have to preserve my strength. I kick off my sandals and strip my pants as they hinder my movements. Suddenly I see a reddish colour in the water. I see the scratches on my arms. Can not see the stuff on my back, but it must be bleeding badly. This is not good news.. I know the sea around this island is infested with sharks. Bleeding in between sharks…. I remember people always said to lay still in the water not to attract sharks, and I temper my movements.. Have to, to preserve strength also. My hope is that the guys on the beach have witnessed the accident, and would do something to get me a rope or whatever.. I can not really imagine what this ‘whatever’ might be. I look at the Machias again. I am drifting away from it, towards the open sea. I am now probably 100-150 meters from the shore. And counting.. This current is strong… Suddenly, I hear splashing. Sharks? I am seriously contemplating I might not survive this. Either I will drown or sharks will shred me to pieces. Funny, I am not panicking. I actually think about how in the books people describe how ‘they see flashes of their life passing before their eyes’. I don’t see fuck before my eyes.. Maybe it is because I lost my glasses. The only thing I see is the fucking shoreline disappearing, and the fucking Machias disappearing, and the only fucking thing I feel is that this fucking current is dragging me with it, and that the fucking sharks will have a feast with me. In the best case scenario, I might only loose an arm or a leg. For a moment, I think how Tine would be mad at me, when I would come back home less one arm or a leg. She would tell me ‘And I warned you so many times before you left, to be careful, you fool! I have more problems with you than with a class room of three year olds!’ Tine is a kindergarten teacher.
No, the splashing is caused by something else. The first thing I see is something orange. My eye sight really sucks.. Orange. And then I see a head.. It is Kurt. He is wearing an orange lifejacket. ‘I have a rope, hold on’, he shouts. I swim towards him. We touch. I never could have imagined a man’s body could feel that welcoming… ‘Man, I thought, I thought’, I stumble over my words.. Kurt smiles.. He is a strange character. ‘He is a lunatic’, Bob once said. True, Kurt could get these sudden rages, shouting and waving a knife when someone would appear in ‘his’ kitchen while he was preparing the meals. But Kurt and I had a bond. A special bond which had been building for weeks now. I had cigarettes, and he had none. ‘Here, take the rope’, he says smiling, ‘The guys on shore will pull us in. You ok?’. I nod, grabbing the rope knotted at the back of Kurt’s life jacket. We shout and make signs to the shore party they can start pulling and before we know it, we are moving like a speedboat against the current. ‘Watch the coral’, Kurt shouts, spitting out water, ‘Watch the coral as we go in. Protect your head’. We are catching the surf again, as we get closer to the shore. A huge wave towers two meters high behind us, and picks us up. Now it is the white foaming whirl which pushes us onto the shore. Well, it does not push us, it tumbles us, throws us head over heels, literally, as one of my knees bangs my forehead. I grab my head, protecting my face with my arms and elbows while still holding onto the rope. The wave does not hit us onto the coral, but drags us over in a tumbling rage. I try saving whatever parts of my body which were not bleeding yet. The next thing we know, is the feeling of soft sand below us. When I stand up, I realize I am only in 10 cm of water. Kurt tumbles in behind me. I sit on my knees, catching my breath, spitting up water. Kurt comes to me and grabs hold of me.. ‘Hey what a surf, hey?’.. I stand up. Must be a funny sight. I am stark naked, with blood running off from me. Someone found my glasses. I put them on. They are wet and full of sand, but I don’t see anymore.. Blood gushing in my eyes…
The guys help us into the shade of one of the tents. Kurt limps. He has hurt his leg as he was dragged with me into the sea. He said he only made it because I got stuck in the hole, and ‘the hole was not big enough for both of us’, he laughs, with his nutty giggling sound. ‘Yeah, I think he is a nutcase’, I say to myself, ‘but he bloody well saved my life’.

Burt, one of our expedition doctors appears with a white plastic bottle and a rough sponge… ‘You know life coral in your blood stream will kill you. It will consume all the oxygen in your veins and kill you. We have to dissolve it with distilled vinegar.’, he says softly, ‘This might hurt a bit’.. ‘Distilled vinegar on open wounds?’ ‘Yep, and I have to rub it in a bit, to ensure it is all properly cleaned’, Burt says in a calm occasional tone, as if he would be talking about the colour of the sky.. I don’t think I felt pain like that before. Two guys had to hold me onto my chair, while Burt, with no sign of mercy, rubbed all the wounds and poured the damned vinegar over it.. Thousands of needles were pushed into my body.

I cry, I shout.. So does Kurt. With chuckles and sniggers in between. After it is all over, he turns to me, smacks his hand on my shoulder and smile ‘Hey Peter, can I have a cigarette from you now?’. He might be nuts, but he is a hell of a guy.

No, I never felt that kind of pain again. Once it came close. A couple of months later, back in Belgium, when I got a kidney crisis due to the dehydration after being stuck on Howland Island for another week after the incident, without sufficient drinking water, the boat breaking down, the engines of the dinghies failing… Kurt was crucial in getting us off in the end, but that is another story.. It is also another story how I got back to work a week too late. My boss shook his head in disbelief and anger ‘you always want to do weird stuff, don’t you?’. He clearly did not agree with me wanting to take three months off next year to go to the Antarctic. I quit my job a week later.

Why I do all this? I don’t know. Maybe it makes a nice story to tell afterwards.. Maybe it is to learn a few lessons. Lessons for life like “Always listen to your wife’s advise”, or “Soap and shampoo are of no use when drowning” or “Sometimes cigarettes can safe your life”… I don’t know…

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 4:07 pm

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

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Peter I Island - Antarctica, view offshoreSaturday January 29, 1994.
Off the coast of Peter I island, Antarctica

For days now, we have been sailing in between icebergs. Each of them has its own micro-weather system. It looks as if each of them is a little island on its own, each with its own private cloud. The white from the ice, and the white from the clouds above them contrasting very little from the grey sea and the grey overcast clouds much further above it all. Everything is a shade of grey and white. No colours, just shades.
We are getting anxious. Today, after two years of preparation, after two years of logistical challenges, fierce discussions with the Russian Antarctic Division on the chartering of their boats and helicopters, we will arrive at our destination: Peter I Island in the Antarctic, appropriately called ‘the most isolated place on Earth’. There have been more people on the moon than on this island. We were to be the first crew ever to remain on the island without a support ship staying off shore. We almost cancelled the trip several times. Problems with funding, cargo shipments, and above all the endless problems with our transport. It looked hopeless just 14 days before we left, as the Russians wanted to cancel the pick up ship. I had to fly over to St.Petersburg and renegotiate the contract with them.
But now, this is all past. Now, we are standing on the bridge of the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker converted to a tourist cruise ship touring the Antarctic, looking at the scenery at the edge of the world. Our expedition crew of nine, is almost like one of the many attractions for the sixty tourist passengers on the boat. Over the past two weeks since we left Port Stanley in the Falklands, they have been asking us endless questions about our expedition. The Japanese took pictures of us like we were the 8th wonder of the world..

The weather closes in, a slight fog comes in. The sea closes in too, no more water, the surface is completely covered with ice. Slowly, the Kapitan Khlebnikov pulls itself onto the ice and breaks it apart. The cracking of the ice sounds like fierce artillery shelling as the shelves give in to the mere weight of the ship. Sounds echo bounce off the fog.

Very slowly, as we get out of the grey foggy sky, the grey ice covered sea, out of the grey void, specks of black appear. It takes endless minutes before we realize this is not a mirage in the ice desert, we are not imagining this.. We can clearly see pieces of black rock appearing. We have arrived. As by magic, all of sudden, the fog lifts. In one minute, the bright sun pops through and shows us the island in all its glory, 1,700m high. To the north of the island, a long and wide glacier, hundreds of meters high, spreads out and then breaks off with a straight vertical drop, into the sea. This glacier will be our home for the next weeks.

We are spread all over the ship, sweating in our Arctic weather gear, as we pull crates, drag bags of personal stuff and roll barrels of fuel into the helicopter hanger at the aft of the ship. With walkie-talkies, we coordinate the lifting of our cargo from the ship’s hold. There is nothing on the island, so we had to bring shelters, generators, fuel, cooking gear, food, emergency kits with us, in total about ten tons of supplies.

The two small Mil-2 helicopters are being prepared on the helicopter deck. For months now, we have been telling the ship’s crew they had to ensure the helicopters had a cargo hook system, as some of our crates are just too big to be put inside. The Russian pilots always said ‘No problaam’. They just took off the two side doors, put a huge rope through both and put a big knot in the middle. ‘No problaam’.. I hope not. As they hook on half a ton of cargo below, there is no way to release the cargo in case something goes wrong.

One Mil-2 starts its engine, idling the propellers. Bob and Terry, who have the most experience with glaciers, get in, and are ferried to the island. The lack of perspective, of references, in the panorama, has us underestimate the distance to the island and its height. We are alone in this icy world. Only us, and the island. And one helicopter with our two crew on board disappearing in the void. It takes thirty long minutes before we hear the crackling voice from Terry on the walkie-talkie ‘Khlebnikov, this is Peter I, we have landed’.. Ralph, our expedition leader, answers ‘Ok, we will get the second helicopter in the air. Let’s start to get this show on the road. Mark the landing area for the choppers as we agreed last night’.

For the next hours, the two choppers ferry our cargo and crew. I remain as the last one on board to ensure all the crates are lifted in the right sequence. Emergency survival kits first, in case the landing has to be aborted due to a change in the weather. Then a tent kit, a generator, food and cooking gear, followed by the personal stuff. I tag the crates on my list as they lift off.

The ship’s cook has put up a barbeque on the bow. The tourists took deck chairs to sit and watch all the activity as if it was a spectacle set up for them. A circus of helicopters and cranes, balancing crates and barrels . I guess we are an interesting sight.. After all, this is only the third time ever someone will land on this island… But the tourists are an interesting sight also. Almost surreal. A group of tourists from all over the world, sitting in deck chairs, eating barbequed sausages and lamb, in the middle of the absolutely ‘nowhere’.

After three hours, all of a sudden, there is no more cargo, and it is time for me to go. I wave at the tourists, shake hands with the ship’s captain and first mate, thanking them for a job well done, and get into the helicopter, in between bags of clothes and crates of food. We lift off and join the other chopper which has been circling the ship, waiting for us. It has a big cargo load swinging slowly in a net below. Together, we circle the ship for the last time as a sign of goodbye, and parallel to eachother, slowly fly towards the island.It is at this moment, the music which has been in my imagination for two years now, really comes blasting out. While watching the Khlebnikov shrinking and the island growing, towering almost above us, both helicopters are only two specs in the eternal emptiness of the Antarctic, the soundtrack of ‘The Mission’ plays in my head. ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’, the title track. You should try it… And close your eyes imagining what I see at that very moment, and feel what I feel. For this expedition, I quit my job and worked for a year. But despite all the preparation, the real work was only to start now. Here and now. We are here to set world records, to set examples on radio operations, to experiment with new technology. From this remote place in the world, we will talk to tens of thousands of people all over the world.

We touch down on Peter I, and I jump out. My boots sink in knee deep snow. The second chopper drops the net, just above the ground. While lifting off, the pilot blinks his landing lights, and rocks the chopper in a short left-right, as to say good bye.

And suddenly, suddenly, after all the hectic activity, the shouting trying to raise our voices above the screaming sounds of the helicopter engines, the frantic to and fro of shifting crates on the boat, suddenly… as the last chopper disappears, there is no sound anymore. Everyone realizes it at the same time. We stop doing whatever we are doing. Bob and Tony with hammers in their hands as they put the plywood for the tent together, Ralph with the craw bar opening the crates. Martin and Tony on their knees, setting up a generator. Suddenly everyone stands up, as if in a prayer. A prayer for the silence which surrounds us. For a moment, only the muffled sounds ‘zwomkrr, zwomkrr’, of our boots in the snow, but then it all stops. There is nothing. nothing. nothing… This is the void… We are standing with a big white mountain behind us, looking over a 250 degrees panorama of the white ice sea, with the Khlebnikov just a tiny speck deep and far away, and the helicopter disappearing towards it. The “voidness” of the panorama, even if it is dotted with huge icebergs, which are only small dots or snow flakes from where we are standing. The grey-white of it all. And the lack of sound as it is absorbed by the huge glacier, and disappears into the thin freezing cold air. This is truly the most isolated deserted place on Earth. There is nothing here. Just us, nine people and some thirty crates. Just us, alone in the world. Alone in the void, in the white grey. This moment, I know, will last in my memory for ever. Of this moment I will tell my grandchildren while holding them on my knee, forty or fifty years from now. This moment, I realize: if there is a heaven, this is how it must feel. This moment, we are in paradise. We all look at eachother. Tears roll over our cheeks. We know we are sharing a moment where it is ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

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Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 4:05 pm