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Shit No Go, We No Go!

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Our camp on Peter IIt has been three days now. For three days we are huddled with seven people in the last of two tents we still have up. Two of us sleep on the kitchen table, the rest of either in a chair or on pieces of luggage which we stacked in the corner of what once was our kitchen tent. The other tent is full with our personal gear. All the rest of our equipment is crated and lined up near the helicopter landing site.

When the Akademik Fedorov, our Russian pick-up vessel (the largest in the Antarctic by the way!) arrived at the island three days ago, the sky was covered. After they landed their big Mil-8 helicopter near our expedition camp, we loaded it up as much as we could, but the mist came in from above the sea and in minutes. The visibility turned real bad. So bad that the pilot had to fly on radar trying to find the ship back. The evacuation was aborted then. Three days we are now waiting to get off the Antarctic. On the ship, a few miles off shore, hot showers and proper meals are waiting for us. But it could just as well have been thousands of miles away, so un-obtainable it seems to us.

Sleeping crampled in the kitchen tent. Ralph found the best spot: the kitchen table!And each day we wake up, we hope for the fog to clear up, but it does not. Luckily it does not storm anymore. For weeks on end, we have been fighting against the storm, the snow, the cold, and now, everything seems quiet outside. Dead quiet. Since we landed here, the only sign of life we have seen is a few birds which seem to nest at the bottom of the glacier, hundreds of meters below our camp. The only connection to the ‘other side’ of the world, the ship, we have, is our radio.

Willy’s voice comes crackling through the speaker. “Peter I, this is Fedorov, over”. Ralph takes the microphone, and answers the call. “Sorry, still no chance for helicopter flights”, says Willy.. Martin and him are the only two from our crew of nine who got onto the one and only flight we Two remaining sheltershad to the ship. Three days ago. Three days. We are bored. After the excitement of landing on the island, building up the camp, setting up the radio stations, and in two weeks, breaking the world record – we made 62,000 radio contacts from this island, 10,000 more than the previous record- and the excitement of the first sight of the Fedorov, our pickup vessel, we have nothing to do anymore, but to wait. Wait for the weather to clear up. Reading a bit, making coffee, eating some of our survival rations, sleeping, reading, eating,… We can not do much else. But to look at the grey sky of course.

The Mil-8 helicopter from the Akademik Federov is landing. See the orange smoke?In the afternoon, as by miracle, we start to see a faint sun through the clouds. The cloud cover becomes patchy. Would there be a chance? Willy calls us on the radio saying they will give it a go. As if we were bitten by a snake, everyone jumps up, and gets dressed. Indeed the clouds are breaking up. At times we can even see the sea. Somewhere the ship is there.
Half an hour later, we hear the roaring noise from the big helicopter. We fire up a smoke signal, and turning the low hanging clouds into orange. The pilot spots the signal and very slowly descends, touching down onto the snow. As by magic, the clouds disappear. While the pilot keeps the turbine generators running, the back doors open up, and the heli crew jumps out. They make signs we have to hurry. We drag boxes, crates, bags towards the helicopter, and stuff as much gear as we can into the haul. Half an hour later, they lift off.

We take a break, hoping the weather stays clear. And it does. In no time, the gray-orange helicopter hovers above our camp again, approaching our landing site. Again we drag all we can, The Mil-8. But you also see how foggy it is!as fast as we can to the helicopter. Some stuff is too heavy to carry, so we drag it over the snow, pushing and pulling with all the weight we have, with all the force we can handle. If we don’t make use of this break in the weather, god knows when the next opening would come.

Digging out cratesAnd we have plenty of gear. Tons of it. Masts, tents, antennas, boxes of radio equipment, personal stuff, left-over food rations, heaters, fuel barrels, gas bottles, generators, tools. All of it is carried, dragged, to the helicopter.
Three hours and several flights later, there is nothing left, but two tents and a survival kit. Now is the critical moment. If we take down our last two tents, we have no more shelter. If a storm comes up, we will have real difficulties to set it up in the wind. Would almost be impossible to put Loading up the cargo haul of the helicopterthe huge heavy-insulated covers over the metal frames. Ralph, our expedition leader, looks at the sky. “Let’s do it. Let’s break it up”, he shouts. Like animals we ‘attack’ the shelters. In no time, the covers, frames, wooden floors are all dismantled and stacked up, bagged and tied.

The last helicopter flight comes in. We stack all material in it. The last things to go are the white trash bags, with our human waste. We promised the Norwegian authorities who gave us the landing permit for this isolated island, we would take everything off. And everything has to go. Even the human waste. The pilot looks at the bags we carry. He opens one of them and looks inside.. With a disgusted face, he says “Njet”, making signs as if we are crazy. We start a discussion. In the end, I shout, trying to lift my voice above the noise of the engine turbines, in my most simple English: “Shit no go, we no go!”.. The pilot smiles, and gives in. We dump the bags of frozen waste into the helicopter, and get on board. The engines rev up and the huge propellers start turning, chopping into the air. With a deafening sound, the huge thing lifts up, and before we know it, we hover several meters above the ground.

Through the small windows, we gaze at our camp site below. There is nothing left to witness our presence on the island. Nothing but our footprints and two square imprints of where our last two shelters stood, soon to be wiped away with the fresh snow. Soon our presence will be covered, erased from this island’s memory.

Is this symbolic to our presence in the world? Is all of it just temporarily setting our footprints on the earth’s surface, and the moment we go, the moment we leave this existence, those prints are wiped away, to be forgotten? We come, think we can conquer it all, but still, all is temporarily… As I look at the pensive faces of my companions, I smile… At least on this ride, we also took our shit with us! Hopefully they will not ask that from us when we go to heaven. And if so, would St.Peter at heaven’s gate have the same look on his face as the pilot? And would we answer the same to him too: “Shit no go, we no go?”

Group picture from the 1994 Peter I expedition. All a memory now.

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

Written by Peter

November 4th, 2007 at 11:33 am

Ham Radio, Anyone?

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November 2001. Somewhere on the road between Bagram and Kabul.

Bombed bridge and a tank stuck in the river on the road from Bagram to KabulI am not a happy camper. And that is an understatement. Before we left, I emphasized them to keep a watch for us on our monitor frequency. And now, I call them, and … nothing, nada, ziltch. The sun is already set behind the mountain tops. Even though the sky still has a hint of a dark-blue afterglow, it is already dark. And when I say dark, I mean pitch dark. There is not a single light. The headlights of the trucks in our convoy beam into a void as they negotiate twists and turns of this bombed road. They light up nothing but emptiness. And bomb craters. And little flags marked ‘Mines’. But for the rest, I can not describe it in any other way but “Void-ness”. Absolute empty-ness. There is nothing in this part of the world. There is nothing that grows. There are no houses. No-one lives here. There is only light brown dirt. Dirt and bits and pieces of mangled war-toys. A rusted tank, half buried in the sand. Or a rotor blade from a helicopter sticking from a pile of rubble. But for the rest, dirt. I can not believe this part of the world has been a battleground for the past twenty years. The last fierce battle was only four days ago. The Northern Alliance meets the Taliban. One-nil. Taliban lost and evacuated Kabul. And we moved in with the relief convoy.

Offloading the C130 earlier that day.I curse, check another frequency they sometimes use, but still nothing. The radio room is not answering. It is Ramadan, and this time of the day, the radio operators in Kabul, twenty kilometers away, are probably gone praying, or are already at the Iftar, breaking their fast. We just flew in a C130 cargo plane full of food, and I went with a convoy to pick it up from Bagram airport, few hours truck-drive from Kabul. We can’t use Kabul airport yet, as a one ton unexploded bomb sticks out of its runway. And we don’t have any deminers in yet. Nobody is allowed to come into Kabul, except twenty expatriate aid workers. I am one of them. And the only one on this road. The only one outside the Kabul safe haven. I must be crazy to do this. At any time, I expect to see the flare of an RPG coming straight at us, as rumours say there are still rogue Taliban roaming in this area. We desperately need to get hold of “someone” in Kabul to inform them this convoy is on the move, and that “someone” needs to monitor us, just in case something would go wrong.

“What to do? What to do? How on earth can I get hold of Kabul.. Hmm let’s see.” I dial another frequency on the HF radio in the car. No UN frequency, but a ham radio call frequency this time. One push on the auto-tune button and in a few seconds, the radio beeps and displays: “14.195.0 – Antenna Tuned”.
I push the button on the microphone and ask “Frequency in use?” Not a beep. I wonder if this radio is receiving or transmitting at all. Maybe that is why the radio room did not copy me. Even though all worked well before we left.
- “Frequency in use?”. Nothing again. Hmm.. Ok, well… let’s try.
- “CQ 20, CQ 20, YA5T/m YA5T/m YA5T/m , CQ 20 and by.”, I launch my call. “YA5T is my callsign in Afghanistan. With the prefix “YA”, the hams will know what country I am transmitting from.
And the world explodes on this tiny radio. Dozens of hams answer my call. From Europe, North America, Asia. Shivers run down my spine. I can not believe this. Here I am sitting in a car, driving on what once was a road, with probably dozens of Taliban waiting to take a shot at me, in the middle of bloody nowhere. And still, with this small piece of hardware, I have the world talking to me… You have no idea how this feels. YOU HAVE NO IDEA…!

It takes me one minute to get ‘ON4WW’-Mark, my friend in crime on frequency. He is at home in Belgium, I am in a car in Afghanistan, but his radio signal booms in. I pass him the satellite phone number of the control centre in Kabul –just in case something would happen- and he remains on standby for the next two hours until we safely reach Kabul.

Even though in the middle of nowhere, we were not alone. I had hundreds listening in. From all over the world. Weird stuff, hey, ham radio? How do you explain that to outsiders? How do you explain not only what ham radio is, but also what it meant to you, in your life? How it changed the course of my life in many ways? Last year, I started to write down some of these stories in my eBook.

Ham radio. A sharp bend on the road of my life.

ON6TT at AH1A - Howland Island 1993 expeditionAs I wrote down these stories, I started to realize – it does sound rather melodramatic, but it is true to state – that “ham radio has changed my life”. If no ham radio, I would not have done the Clipperton expedition in 1992, I would not have experienced the adrenaline kick that operating from a remote Pacific island gave me. I would not have done the expedition to Howland the year after. Then I would not have met Paul, F6EXV. Paul as co-operator then, and as one of my ham contest partners at John-ON4UN’s home. He would not have received the telephone call –during that contest- offering him a job at the UN in Congo. He would not have explained me what that work was all about, which raised my interest.

Less than year and one expedition (Peter I island in the Antarctic) later, I flew to Angola, for the Red Cross, on my first humanitarian mission. My job had nothing related to my education – I am a graphical engineer – nor with my professional experience – I was an IT manager in my last ‘normal’ job-, but I was to install radios. I did work which was solely based on my experience as ham operator. In the end, there is no difference between going on an expedition, fiddling around with generators, debugging antennas and raising masts, if it was on Peter I island, or in the middle of Africa. Well, true, they did not shoot at us on Peter I… But for the rest, there was no difference.
Angola, where I operated as ham with the calls D2TT and D3T later on, was my first mission in the humanitarian world, to be followed by hundreds of missions, to over a hundred countries. Never kept count how many. I did keep track how many countries I operated from. 85 so far…

ON6TT as 5X1T in Uganda 1996-1999Over the past 14 years, there were many exciting and memorable moments. Many are explained in stories on my website, and often have a mix of an exotic location, work and ham radio. Being the first to transmit ham TV signals from Zaire (now DRC), during the midst of the Kisangani refugee crisis. And a few months later to be the first on ham TV from the Vatican City. Or the 60,000 radio contacts I logged from our home in Kampala as “5X1T”, in between power cuts, baby sitting, bombings and evacuations. All the friends I made when on mission, and hooking up with people I have spoken with hundreds of times, but never met. I met them while on mission, and they welcomed me in their homes. Be it in El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, South Africa, Tajikistan or dozens more)… And even more so, they often gave me a head start for my work, providing me with much needed connections to the local PTT officials or trustworthy local telecom repair shops where I could find that long-sought-for cavity filter…

There is not one single memory that stands out. They are all different in their own way. But if there was one time where I felt *really* lucky I was a ham radio operator, it was that one night, in the midst of nowhere, in Afghanistan, just a few weeks after 9/11 !

Peter, ON6TT

This is an edit from an article I wrote for the 2007 yearbook of the Northern Californian DX Foundation (NCDXF). Check out more ham radio related stories in my eBook.

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

Written by Peter

November 1st, 2007 at 1:06 pm

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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

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.

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Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 4:07 pm