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Saturday, 10 March, 2001, 14:52 GMT
Antics in Antarctica
By Dominic Hughes in the Southern Ocean
Not many people get the chance to travel to Antarctica, one of the most remote and hostile environments on earth.
So when the opportunity arose to cover the first crossing of the continent by two women attempting to ski across the Antarctic, I jumped at the chance
As I wandered around Sydney on a sweltering summer's afternoon, I felt slightly absurd buying long johns and thermal underwear.
In my mind I was already in the ice, with little thought of the 2,000 or so nautical miles I had to cross before I got there.
In fact, I failed to appreciate the kind of distances involved until we were midway through the journey.
Up and down and side to side
A large map stretching from Tasmania to the Antarctic adorned the wall of the saloon at the front of the ice ship, Sir Hubert Wilkins, but after three days we had progressed only an eighth of the way down it.
We seemed to be travelling incredibly slowly, possibly because the ship seemed to be moving up and down and side to side instead of forwards, even in what the crew assured me were calm waters.
That sounds impossible, but when you appear to be standing upright while actually lying flat in your bunk anything becomes logical.
Apparently the ship's movement is due to its unusual, rounded hull which stops it getting caught in the ice, but does little to prevent the bucking and rolling.
One night my cabin mate's face actually made contact with the roof while he was lying in bed.
For the first few days I manfully fought off all thoughts of seasickness, but soon I too was on a diet of water and crackers.
Cold War relic
The Huey itself is a relatively small ship for Antarctic waters, but the cabins are comfortable, the food and crew both excellent.
Originally built as a small cruiser for the President of Finland, the Huey played a small part in the history of the Cold War, hosting meetings between the Americans and the Russians.
But cruising around Finland's lakes and fjords is very different to crossing the southern ocean in blizzard conditions.
Eventually we reached the ice and the water became incredibly smooth as new ice formed among the floes.
Cast of characters
People stopped feeling too ill to socialise, and as they emerged from their cabins we got to know each other better.
Ian the engineer most closely resembled the archetype of the seadog, with a fantastically bushy beard and eyes lined from squinting at the sun.
He told us that he got rid of his stomach cancer by telling it to go away, only in language you would expect from a sailor, and it has not dared to bother him since.
The first mate was an incredibly upper class Englishman who first went to sea when he was 16 and never looked back.
He had a knack for brilliant opening lines in conversations, delivered completely deadpan, like "when I met Deng Xiaoping .... " or "while driving a bus to Kathmandu...".
Our Antarctic expert was a New Zealander who, in younger days, had driven motorcycles across the ice pack and sampled 80-year-old cocoa from the stores left in the hut of the doomed Scott expedition in 1912.
Crazy place, crazy people
Other things happened that I was not expecting.
First, I became a film star in what the director assured me was the very first Antarctic drama to be shot on location: a demanding role which involved running backwards and falling over.
New Zealand film-maker Jonathan Brough's script is about the speeding up of time, but I am afraid I did not fully understand it.
The other strange thing was that I found myself naked on the deck in -7C, the ship surrounded by water that was literally freezing.
Being of Finnish origin, the Sir Hubert Wilkins has a sauna and after a hard day on the ice, it was just the ticket.
One of our party suggested swimming and peer pressure did the rest.
The water was easily the coldest thing I have ever experienced, and it is no surprise that I shot back up the ship's ladder.
People come to the Antarctic and get hooked, having to return year after year, but I am not sure that I am among them.
I do not for a second regret going, but you would have to pay me good money to get on a 37-metre ship for another 30-day voyage, especially one called Huey.
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