By Nicole Hennessy
In a crevasse as blue as ice can only ever hope to be, Paul Booyens moved forward, beneath a ceiling he knew wouldn’t collapse. An expedition leader in the Antarctic, he’d studied crevasses and learned they’re unlikely to break apart, only lengthen.
In the Antarctic, the sun was either always up or always down during his 15-month trip.
He remembered thinking at first that he could stay there for years. But eventually, he was relieved to sail away from the only continent where there are no wars, electricity, currency, TV, shopping centers and so on.
“Our currency was chocolate,” he said, smiling.
After he’d read all the books, watched all the movies and dealt with the loss of his team’s family members, he was ready to go home, right after one last look at ice formations wading out in the ocean, melting so much on top that they would flip over, revealing what the water had been licking at all along.
More of an administrative position, as far as scientific expeditions are concerned, Booyens worked for the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP). He supervised scientists extracting iceberg cores and measuring the ozone so close to the sky swallowing all the scenery the coldest continent provides.
More so, he prepared them for the worst possible circumstances. He said, if you’re outside and can’t see through the wind blowing blinding snow around, dig. Don’t walk. Wait for the air to clear.
It was advice like this that he knew could save lives. Living on Antarctica requires a plan for any given situation, a harsh environment only penguins seem to embrace.
“South Africa’s involvement in Antarctica and the sub-antarctic islands dates back to the earliest voyages of discovery, due to the then Cape of Good Hope’s position as a stopover for explorers, whalers and sealers,” the SANAP website says.
After World War II, South Africa became more involved. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which is now recognized by about 48 member nations, was formed to ensure that the Antarctic region will be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only. Its purpose is to protect and preserve the environment of the Antarctic, a lone continent that offered humanity nothing – until it realized there were minerals for which to drill. When the treaty expires within this century, Booyens is fearful countries will go to war over the continent. But for now, all he can do is remember.
Thinking of the stars so bright in a constantly black sky or the never-setting sun, he shows photographs of orbs of light only circling the horizon, never sinking. And then sinking more. And then sinking. Then dark for as long as anyone can stand.
Booyens pours over these things as if it was the best time of his life, but admitted that enough is enough on a continent with nothing at the end of 15 months. He sailed away sad to leave people he’d formed unique bonds with and what he’d come to accept of the environment. But if asked about his trip, he’ll tell the whole story.
This lecture is part of a series called Friday Nights With Nature, which takes place at the Rocky River Nature Center every Friday night in January and February beginning at 7:30 p.m. This is the last lecture of the yearly series.