The ice­man cometh — with an axe

Fight­ing and food short­ages on SA’s sub-Antarc­tic is­land

Sunday Times - - News - By BOBBY JOR­DAN

A dream sci­en­tific as­sign­ment has turned into a hor­ror show for a South African mis­sion on the re­mote Mar­ion Is­land.

The mis­sion is stranded with an “un­sta­ble” team mem­ber, a faulty gen­er­a­tor and a crit­i­cal food short­age.

The Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs is mon­i­tor­ing the be­hav­iour of a mem­ber who is “tak­ing strain”, prompt­ing in­ter­ven­tion from me­di­a­tors. There are al­le­ga­tions of a vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion be­tween two mem­bers of the team of about 20 who have been sta­tioned on the is­land since April.

“There has been one in­di­vid­ual who has been tak­ing some strain; we had quite a num­ber of meet­ings,” said deputy di­rec­tor­gen­eral: oceans and coasts Judy Beau­mont.

“There has been a dis­cus­sion go­ing on for a num­ber of weeks.”

Emer­gency sup­plies have been sent to the is­land on an In­dian ship fol­low­ing a pro­vi­sion­ing er­ror and equip­ment fail­ure, Beau­mont said. She said the sup­plies short­age was partly due to an in­ven­tory mis­take that re­sulted in canned food be­com­ing ex­pired.

The Sun­day Times is in pos­ses­sion of cor­re­spon­dence de­tail­ing some of the prob­lems on the south At­lantic is­land.

“What I can tell you is that we all fear for our lives at the mo­ment,” says a note from one of the team.

Food sent to sev­eral overnight huts on Mar­ion Is­land has been re­turned to the main base at Transvaal Cove in the north­east of the is­land “due to the low stock at the base”, the cor­re­spon­dence says. The huts are used by re­searchers con­duct­ing field stud­ies.

A source in di­rect con­tact with the team said con­flict be­tween two mem­bers had de­gen­er­ated into a phys­i­cal fight. A fry­ing pan was used in the fra­cas. One per­son was in­jured and re­ceived med­i­cal treat­ment. The al­leged ag­gres­sor then trashed the vic­tim’s room with an axe.

“We is­lan­ders are a very, very close bunch. We are not happy with what is go­ing on,” said the source, who ques­tioned the govern­ment’s com­mit­ment to en­sur­ing the safety of the team.

“When you put in blood, sweat and tears and you know how things can be and you see the guys just screw­ing it up, it re­ally up­sets us. That’s our home. I would not go back right now.”

An­other mes­sage from one of the team de­tails the ex­tent of the food and equip­ment prob­lems: “We are run­ning danger­ously low on food. We are also now shut­ting down our power gen­er­a­tor in the day to min­imise its use as we have run out of oil to service it. Two of our three power gen­er­a­tors have bro­ken down with ir­repara­ble dam­age and our last main gen­er­a­tor is go­ing to break down soon due to lack of main­te­nance.

“When that hap­pens, we have been told to move to our emer­gency base and go live there for the next three months.”

Beau­mont de­nied that there was a cri­sis on the is­land and said sup­ply short­ages were not un­com­mon.

“Teams are there for quite a while, for be­tween 10 and 12 months. In­evitably you need some­thing, or some­thing could break down.

“There is no crit­i­cal short­age,” she said, adding that us­ing the In­dian ves­sel, which will stop by the is­land, was more prac­ti­cal than an ex­pen­sive air drop.

En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs Depart­ment direc­tor-gen­eral Nosipho Ng­caba said she was un­aware of the sit­u­a­tion but would in­ves­ti­gate.

Depart­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy spokes­woman Veron­ica Mo­hapeloa said she was await­ing com­ment from govern­ment of­fi­cials.

Sev­eral for­mer is­lan­ders ques­tioned whether the govern­ment was still con­duct­ing the nec­es­sary psy­cho­me­t­ric tests to en­sure proper team se­lec­tion.

Beau­mont said man­age­ment sys­tems were in place to en­sure ad­di­tional in­ter­ven­tion if the sit­u­a­tion de­gen­er­ated.

“There is quite an ex­ten­sive train­ing that a team go through be­fore they go so that they are fully pre­pared.

“Some peo­ple in­vari­ably take more strain than oth­ers,” she said, adding that the Christ­mas-New Year pe­riod of­ten proved par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult.

The Mar­ion Is­land base at Transvaal Cove, one of three sci­en­tific re­search sta­tions that fall un­der the South African Na­tional Antarc­tic Pro­gramme. The oth­ers are on Gough Is­land and in Queen Maud Land, Antarc­tica.

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