I am in fact up at 3.30 a.m. and phone through to make certain Ian is also ready on time. I have some tea in the lobby and am checked out by 6 a.m. Amazingly Lesley and Fay are already waiting outside in the van to take me to the plane. Now that’s what I call service! We pick up Steve, Ian, Hans and Christian on the way. Now to find out whether we can fly out or if we will have to abort our plans and return to the hotel. Ian tells me, as the weather has been so volatile for the last two days, he is not expecting anything different today. I discover he is always generally pessimistic about things throughout our time together and I am continually pushing him to expect the best, not believe the worst. Luckily the omens are looking good and weather reports so far are excellent.
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We are driven out to the Presidente Carlos Ibanez del Campo airfield and meet our flight crew. They are all South African and we will be flying with the airline SAFAIR, whose headquarters are actually based at Johannesburg International Airport. The crew had moved out from South Africa to take up overseas positions after the wonderful, to me at least, collapse of apartheid. Because of apartheid, I hadn’t been able to visit South Africa up till now, but it is certainly on my future travel itinerary. No nation owns Antarctica and therefore there are no customs facilities to go through in or out. There is no need to show a passport to anyone. This is definitely a first!
We board an old Hercules C-130, which obviously has done Trojan service in its past flying life. It certainly carries many battle scars and resembles a huge ship with wings. It has an enormous, cavernous interior and gives me some hope that if it comes down in the sea it might float, for a while at least. It is the kind of plane that was used in Vietnam and other war areas to ferry huge numbers of men, quantities of equipment, supplies and sometimes even tanks. Now it resembles an empty circus tent after the circus and the crowds have left. There are wires and ropes hanging down, untied straps and loose items everywhere. The toilet is at the front of the aircraft, just outside and to the right of the cockpit, half-hidden behind a torn curtain which will hardly cover anyone’s modesty. The curtain has to be hand-held when used, which makes it a rather precarious activity.
We have been joined just before take-off by Lorna, the girlfriend of the Patriot Hills camp manager. She is feeling very anxious on how she will be received and I try to cheer her up, telling her not to be so forlorn. I nickname her
Lorna Doone. Travelling south to the land of frozen water it seems appropriate for her to be considered a Sir Walter Scott heroine. It’s time for all of us to go with the floe!
On board there are only the six of us and the crew of four. There are no announced regulations or instructions to follow and we settle in for the six-hour flight, of 1,000 kilometres. The only thing the Captain tells us is that we can expect some turbulence as we hit differing air currents over the mountain ranges, sea and ice fields, and to be prepared for a few sudden jolts. His voice is nonchalant but creates an expectancy of unusual surprises. In my inner ear I hear the legendary star Bette Davis, in her 1950 film classic All About Eve, drawling to her friends in that incredible husky, sexy voice, ‘Hang on to your seat belts, darlings, you’re all in for a bumpy ride.’