With a record 23 trips to Antarctica under his belt, Garden Route-based structural engineer Hennie Stassen is a legend among those who work on the icy continent, and his credo – “’n boer maak ’n plan” (a farmer makes a plan) – is firmly imbedded in international Pole-speak.
WORDS Heidi Sonnekus PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré, Hennie Stassen and provided
Hennie Stassen’s heart beats in three distinct colours: white, green and burnt umber.
The first time he set foot on Antarctica as part of a South African Department of Public Works maintenance team, many years ago, his soul recognised home and he lost a large part of his heart right then and there – irrevocably.
When not down south, he yearns for the white, vast, minimalist world where life is lived in its simplest form. “There are no distractions. For the duration of the short summer – during long, 16-hour shifts, seven days a week – you are intently focused on the job at hand. A lapse in attention or judgement can mean the difference between life and death, for yourself and others,” says Hennie.
During the Antarctic winter Hennie lives 4000km to the north at Kalanderkloof, a farm perched on a hill overlooking the Karatara River near Sedgefield. It’s a lush, permanently green world of indigenous trees, among them the famous Outeniqua yellowwood (kalander).
His wife Helga – she of the long, umber tresses – uniquely ties Hennie’s two worlds together. Helga is an architect with experience in design for extreme conditions. She became part of Hennie’s design team and once, while seven months pregnant, even accompanied him on an Antarctic trip. The experience strengthened their bond and that of their family, which includes Daniel, now six years old, and Ida, aged three. Like their siblings from Hennie’s previous marriage, the children understand their dad’s need to visit his white world as often as he can.
Internationally respected, Hennie joined the Department of Public Works after completing his studies to honour his bursary specifications. It became his job to maintain state-owned structures, including those on Marion- and Gough Islands and the fast-disintegrating South African National Antarctic Expedition (SANAE) III base.
It was on Marion that Hennie met Helga, who designed the space-age base built there in 2007. The nitty-gritty of working at impossible jobs in improbable terrain is fascinating: for the Antarctic base, they casually toss into conversations figures like “600 tons of nuts and bolts, 11 000m² insulation, 4km of optical cables and 9km of electrical wiring”. Every component has to be labelled and packed in crates within the weight-capacity of being airlifted onto the ice. And if they forget something? Tough. The next trip to the local hardware shop can only happen at the end of the Antarctic summer – on another continent!
Hennie selected the spot for the South African National Antarctic Expedition’s fourth base, designed and built from the rock base of the Vesleskarvet escarpment, part of the Nunutak mountain range in Queen Maud Land. Work was done in short bursts over six summers. SANAE IV is 150km from the sea, a trip by bulldozer-pulled sled train over washboard-like snowdrifts.
Just getting there is not for the fainthearted. “We travel – in best circumstances – at 10km/h in very, very cramped conditions. Hours of mindlessly bumpy tedium go by before you can stretch our legs.”
And that is after a 4000km trip in very confined quarters on the SA Agulhas II icebreaking vessel, crossing the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties (degrees latitude).
Most of the work is manual labour. Over December 2014 and January 2015 Hennie’s team had to hydraulically lift the South African summer base and underground vehicle compound two meters to prevent them from becoming ice-logged.
This meant pick-axing and jackhammering 130m by half a metre of blue ice – melted and refrozen to be “hard as concrete and slippery as snot” – from around the compound before painstakingly lifting it out of the ice, section by section, and then securing it in place to withstand the pile-up of winter drifts and storms of over 200km/h.
“In Antarctica there is no time – only weather. Storms visibly approach and we sometimes literally have minutes to secure new work and anything that can blow away. Katabatic gales can last for days and bury every single thing, including bulldozers and ‘ground won’ yesterday. Repeatedly,” he explains.
It is in a film about his work that one realises just how dangerous this is – while building SANAE IV a team member was unaccounted for. Venturing out into zero visibility and a 193km/h wind, three volunteers braved a “white wall of air” to search for him. One of the volunteers lost his grip on the rope and was blown away.
“You simply get blown off your feet. There is no traction on the ice, nothing to grab onto. The new base is close to a 250m cliff, specifically to prevent snow build-up, but this increases the danger. It is possible he was blown off the cliff.”
There is the immediate push-pull of wanting to send out more search parties – but always at the real risk of losing more men. Searching means teammates lashed together on 20m ropes, walking blindly in circles, hoping to stumble over the lost person. Ice goggles steam up. If you take them off, your eyelids freeze. Hard decisions have to be made by strong leaders who have to consider the bigger picture and risk to the rest of the team. In a tragic irony, the original lost team member miraculously found his way back to base.
The lingering trauma and sadness leaves Hennie quiet, and Helga says: “There is no place for romanticism or aesthetics there. If things go wrong people can die.”
Hennie’s years of experience in the ice also led to him becoming involved in the design process of other international projects. Micheal Pinnock of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) recalls Hennie and his men helping BAS erect radar masts for a project shared by 44 countries. “We were proudly admiring our completed work when Mr Stassen commented, drily, ‘Tsk. Pity it won’t last.’ Indeed it did not: quite a few masts were promptly blown away. We made sure to involve him in designing the next batch.”
Adapting plans to the sub-zero temperatures, and the ability to tread lightly and pack up quickly, has become a mind-set. Materials do strange things at -50˚C – rules change at the end of the earth.
Mentally, survival on the ice depends on relaxation in between prime focal periods and during weather-enforced tool-downs, often of undetermined duration. This is when you get a chance to try out the base gym and enjoy a round in the pub, where Hennie’s name has been immortalised in copper plate. Appreciative Polies understand that his mind travels there, even from Kalanderkloof, pondering their problems and designing solutions.
Hennie stresses the importance of teamwork and praises the last batch of men who accompanied him.
“The team cooks together and each has his own speciality. Fitter and turner Louwrens Dreyer was our go-to pasta cook; carpenter Michiel Senekal’s mieliepap will be forever unbeaten. His brother Martin – welder/carpenter – made a delicious duck. Bulldozer- and crane operator Polla Malherbe’s leg of lamb was legendary and electrician Gerrie Kotze the team braai-champ.” Hennie makes a mean chicken dish and also boasts having amazing dishwashing capabilities.
The team leader’s state of mind has a huge influence on morale. He has to plan Christmas celebrations in October already. “This year we used washers and jelly babies for the tree,” Hennie smiles.
What’s next? “Aah, I so wish for an impossible project that will occupy his mind like his Antarctic work – but closer to home,” says Helga. “Daniel, Ida and I could do with him being home this coming Christmas. But not at the cost of feeding his soul.”