Roving environment reporter Tiara Walters reports from Marion Island:
If the word “awful” originates from something that fills you with awe, rather than dread, then that’s what Marion would be.
We rose at sparrow’s on Tuesday morning, praying with a photographer’s optimism that the island would be bathed in the honey light of dawn for our arrival. We were keenly hoping to see Marion in exactly the way the author John Marsh had described it in No Pathway Here – a “lovely picture” which “rose, a jade jewel, out of the sea”.
Fortified with cameras, we marched, at 6am, up the seven flights of stairs to the bridge, where one of the officers warned us he wouldn’t proceed to the monkey deck if he were us because the wind was gusting at 140km/h. I was with Go magazine assistant editor Jon Minster and John Yeld, the Cape Argus environment reporter, so we did what any self-respecting journalists would do: the opposite of what we had been told.
Doom and destruction were waiting for us – and it was an invitation too good to turn down.
It was frigid out there, about 5°C, the wind howling something awful and chasing chariots of spume across the waters. From horizon to horizon, it seemed more CGI than anything that might’ve been happening to us in real time: the storm winds pressed us hard against the railings and so we sheltered in the monkey-deck lee, dumbstruck by the sort of scene that understandably put the fear of God into the early sailors – an aquatic Hades that had them believe the edge of the earth lay just beyond the horizon and that they were about to fall off it.
Back on the passenger decks I bumped into the wiry and hirsute Johan van der Merwe, an SA Antarctic Programme (Sanap) legend who has over the years made 21 voyages to Antarctica, Marion and Gough Islands for the SA Weather Service. One of these missions killed his best friend during an expedition accident in 1969.
Now the retired meteorologist lives in Centurion, where he presides over the most surprising workshop I’ve ever seen: it’s masculine in every respect, with all the trappings one would expect of a male living north of the boerewors curtain – only among the turntables and man gadgets is a lifetime of artefacts Johan has brought back from his weather-service expeditions to Antarctica, where Sanap has maintained a scientific-research station since 1959.
He salvaged a toboggan steering wheel, and the propeller of a downed aeroplane, among other things, but most startling of all are the tens of mermaid and fairy figurines he has positioned among his power tools.
Johan has been painting and drawing at his Centurion home since hanging up his weather-service boots a few years ago and, after a lifetime of exploring worlds most of us will never know, you can perhaps understand why this somewhat reclusive, 64-year-old Antarctic wanderer has retreated into this lair, a universe as fantastical as the one he used to inhabit.
“You know, I was a junior meteorologist. Twenty-one years old. And they just put me in this snow vehicle and said, ‘Take this freight to the base,’” he recalled over tea and home-made scones when I visited his home in 2009.
“It was the first time in my life that I’d arrived in Antarctica. First time that I had sat in a Muskeg. First time driving on the ice flats. And off I went. On my own. Without food, a sleeping back or a radio, and I was like, “Oh hell. What now.” It was a bit idiotic. But that’s how they did things then. Today you’re already trained in Cape Town. You get the sleeping bag, the food, GPS. The works.”
Now he is back at Marion, if only for a few days to witness the launch of Sanap’s new research base on the island, and it was good to bump into him in the corridors yesterday morning, his eyes shining like someone whose spirit has been reignited by the fire of a furiously beautiful place.
Later a few of us went back up to the monkey deck. The sky had cleared. A colony of 10 000 Macaroni penguins were squawking on the shore and two king penguins darted through the icy spray. A double rainbow shimmered in a perfect arc over the island.
A sign of promise, I think someone had said.
A construction crew from the Public Works Department and a few Environment Department officials were flown off the SA Agulhas on Tuesday afternoon to make final tweaks to the new Marion Island research base before its official opening on Friday. The rest of the expedition was to due to be flown to the base on Wednesday but was delayed by poor weather.
The SA National Antarctic Programme runs South Africa’s Marion Island, Gough Island and Antarctic research bases. For more, visit www.sanap.org.za