London's Tower Bridge was raised yesterday to allow the South-African icebreaker - the SA Agulhas - to sail down the Thames, marking the start of its journey to Antarctica for the first-ever winter crossing of the frozen continent.
The Commonwealth-flagged expedition under the leadership of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, is considered the last great polar challenge: a 2,000 mile trek across the South Pole, in near darkness and with temperatures that could reach minus 90 degrees Celsius.
Their 'Coldest Journey' aims to raise $10 million for Seeing is Believing, an international initiative to combat preventative blindness, which operates in 15 Commonwealth developing countries.
Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, who attended the launch, said the venture would be an inspiration, particularly to young people: "As we follow their epic journey, I have no doubt that it will both encourage and challenge our youth. This is about working together to achieve a goal, against all odds."
The expedition will also enable new scientific research on climate change and its impact on the polar regions.
The SA Agulhas, which is sailing under a Commonwealth flag, will arrive in Cape Town over New Year and will reach Antarctica at the start of the 21 March equinox.