Alex Harris and Sibusiso Vilane have gone down in the annals of history as the first South Africans to walk to the South Pole unaided, in a journey unlike anything one could imagine.
The starting point was Hercules Inlet on the edge of Antarctica on 14 November – 1 113km away from the spot that marks the most southern place on the planet. It took 65 days of unimaginably uncomfortable conditions and an average of 15 kilometres of walking when the weather permitted, lugging 120kg of supplies to reach their goal on 17 January.
The South Pole has an exceptionally harsh climate, with temperatures ranging from -8 degrees to about -40 degrees Celsius and ferocious winds and snowfall making the terrain even more difficult to traverse. “I grew up in Kensington in Johannesburg and the coldest it ever got there was five degrees,” says Harris. “I am African and when the sun is out I expect it to be warm, so it’s quite a shock to be in freezing temperatures, outdoors, for such a long period.”
Despite having all the necessary gear, they said nothing could have adequately prepared them for the challenges they experienced. Still, every step of the journey was memorable for the two.
“There is nothing we would change about this project,” says Vilane. “We thought we had an idea of what to expect because we’ve done Everest and other challenging climbs but this walk really tested our limits.”
Harris and Vilane are no strangers to extreme feats. Vilane was the first black South African to summit Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, in 2003. In 1996, Alex became the youngest person ever at the age of 25 to lead an expedition to Mount Everest and in 1998 he became the first South African to have climbed mountains on all seven continents.
Overcoming the challenges
Both men are deeply religious and they say daily prayers and singing hymns is what kept them upbeat – even though they had to deal with broken skis, tight timelines and conditions that seemed to make their goal impossible. To add to their woes, Harris suffered frostbite on his leg, their pain medication was accidentally left behind and iPod that he was counting on to keep him distracted broke within the first week of their travel.
“Mother Nature was also a bit temperamental,” said Harris. “Although the place is constantly frozen it doesn’t usually snow but we experienced what is called a white-out which kept us in our tents for six days. When we finally decided to keep going the only thing we could see was our skis even though there are 24 hours of daylight.”
An extract from Harris’s diary on Day 30 gives a peek at what the pair endured during the days it snowed. “This place deprives us of the luxury of night time but the gloom of the day robs us of the light. Instead we move through a grey twilight that knows not dawn nor dusk. It is fit for neither the living nor the dead.”
“The one thing we did a lot of though was think. The whole experience gave us the chance to contemplate so many things that we can’t give a second thought to in our hectic daily lives,” says Harris.
Next on the cards for the adventurers is crossing the Empty Quarter, also known as Rub al Khali. It is the biggest sand desert in the world – the combined size of France, Belgium and Holland – with sand dunes up to 300m high, and temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees Celsius.