Last December, I was lucky enough to achieve the goal of a lifetime and book a trip to the Antarctica. I planned to keep a diary of this extraordinary expedition and then I thought it would be fun to view it through the prism of a Toastmaster. There were to be lots of lectures on the agenda from expert ornithologists, geologists and suchlike and I was keen, not only to learn but to assess their presentation techniques and impact. A short precis follows;-
Thursday 5 December 2019 MS Midnatsol
62 25’S 59 55’ W
I was woken at 5 am by bangs and shudders. I was aboard the Norwegian MS Midnatsol bound from Ushuaia to Antarctica and we had just entered the infamous Drake Passage. We’d been cocooned and shielded (words that since COVID19 now have a different meaning) by the Beagle Channel until this point, so I’d rather been lulled into a false sense of security. This is the most hazardous stretch of water in the world, incorporating Cape Horn.
It is hard to describe the sensations of being at sea in a 7,500-ton vessel in rough weather. That sounds like a lot of tonnage, but it is classified as a small to medium vessel. I think the most extraordinary thing was the sense of intermittent weightlessness. Looking back, this must have been the interval between crashing head on into an enormous wave and re-connecting with the sea! BANG! It felt as if I was being dropped onto my bed from a height of 12 inches and then thrown up into the air again. I looked around the small cabin; the curtains over the porthole were gyrating and creating cold drafts of air (How? The porthole is sealed?). The clothes hanging on the back of the bathroom door were moving in a different direction which I couldn’t get my head around. It reminded me of the man asked to pat his head and rub his stomach at the same time. I looked over to my friend Hugh, asleep 18 inches away (the cabins are ‘cosy’), and he was indeed rising 12 inches into the air. Rather pathetically, in his sleep, he’d flung out an arm to steady himself and looked as if he was clinging for dear life on to the wall.
My lotions and potions were sliding around the bathroom shelves (now I realised why every surface had a ‘lip’ at the edge) and all this counter motion and noise was making me nauseous. On top of this were the sideways shakes and thumps, known as the ‘Drake shake.’ Sitting up in bed had to be done cautiously as too the making of tea; imagine boiling water sloshing around the cup! The journey to breakfast was full of its own literal ups and downs and there were many empty tables. We breakfasted with Ken, a softly spoken retired US Marine and his son Eli. Ken explained that 20mm Howitzer guns detonating close by during active service had left him very deaf. Or maybe it was just a line! Better than ‘my ears need syringing.’
Lesson 1: Unless you are President Trump ‘Speaking to Inform the Nation on the Coronavirus Crisis’ you can use artistic licence in a speech!) Eli was eating a mixture of Nutella, oatmeal and boiled eggs, which was rather challenging for those of us with impaired digestions. You may be surprised to hear that Eli is a grown man and not a 5-year-old!!!
After breakfast it was out onto the deck for a brief ‘constitutional’, but we were soon driven inside by 30 knot winds and almost zero temperatures. The Painted Petrels and Albatrosses didn’t seem to mind and followed the ship, banking through the foam and wheeling as if it were their plaything. The next 1 ½ days were similar – and then we woke to the pristine, ethereal beauty of Deception Island. This is a hollowed-out caldera of an active volcano and we had moored at the centre of the caldera.
Antarctica is a series of stunning, immaculate snowy peaks, crystal clear water and dazzling vistas. And LOTS of penguins. Lots & lots of penguins, they definitely are not short of a penguin. The silence is not broken by planes, trains and automobiles and there are no roads or houses to sully the landscape. Every visitor must sign up to a very strict code to preserve Antarctica’s beauty in its current condition. It is indescribably beautiful.
Naturally, the people who work on these ships are incredibly passionate about it and I was looking forward to the first lecture.
This talk was delivered by Helga, a feisty Norwegian with a naughty sense of humour. Helga was one of those young, gorgeous, intelligent women who take no s**t! Men would say patronisingly ‘you know, she’s actually quite attractive’ as if it came as the biggest surprise to them. Helga was fiercely patriotic and would use every opportunity to display photographs of famous Norwegian explorers. She showed us Roald Amundsen, a great favourite of hers, looking sternly serious and thoughtful in a black and white headshot, but apparently totally naked underneath!
Helga was terribly informative. We were told that penguins are BIRDS and that as it was the mating season, we would see lots of penguin nooky. Apparently, out of water, penguins are physically a little awkward, so the female penguin has to be terribly PATIENT. Not just penguins, I said! Penguins are also ‘woke birds’ a la Lawrence Fox (?) and they have parental surrogacy and homosexuality. Two gay penguins might steal an egg from parents who have more than one egg and bring up the little penguin as their own. This seems particularly selfless as penguins nest high on icy cliffs and they waddle all the way down to the sea to get food for their mate sitting on the egg. I wondered why they don’t ‘ski’ down face first on their waterproof plumage, but apparently this only happens accidentally. All this talk of sex prompted a flurry of surprisingly frank questions from the audience; – ‘Do gay penguins have sexual relations and if so, what do they do?’ Helga said she didn’t know the answer to that one, or maybe she thought she ought to try and get the genie back into the bottle at this point!
Lesson 2: If you are charming and drop-dead gorgeous, people will listen VERY ATTENTIVELY to your speech. Also, humour almost always makes speeches more entertaining, but beware anything remotely racy, as the Penguin Mating Season topic proved!
Impromptu speeches on ice (which are not table topics)
Just to give a bit of background here, I haven’t always been chubby, middle-aged and unfit. Before I was struck down with arthritis just about EVERYWHERE, my hobby was mountaineering; my idea of a holiday was 3 weeks trekking in the Himalayas, not 2 weeks on a cruise ship stuffing my face morning noon and night. The problem on a cruise ship is the quantity, variety, and availability of food. Before the excursion I am about to describe, I dined on lentil soup with a roll & butter, followed by chicken salad (so far not bad), but followed by two small cream cakes (one chocolate, one sponge). Not an insignificant amount of food and most delicious.
We had been told the night before that today’s excursion involved a ‘challenging’ boat landing followed by a steep icy climb. The boats are RIB’s on steroids (the sort of thing lifeboats are made of with huge engines) The engines need to be huge as the weather can change very quickly and they need to get us back to the safety of the cruise ship swiftly, before we drown or freeze to death. The normal mode of disembarkation is to swing your legs over the side on a beach landing and then wade ashore (wearing galoshes of course). This landing involved rocks and the climb looked very steep, a long zig-zag up a looming cliff with a penguin colony at the top. The little blighters like to nest a long way away from predators such as leopard seals.
Every day had been gloriously sunny but cold, so I had had a large lunch and was probably overdressed for such a steep climb in ski jacket, gloves, fur scarf etc. I survived the landing and was handed two ski poles and started the long, slow climb upwards. The walk etiquette involved standing to the side of the path to let downward walkers through and the snow was quite deep there. I fell into holes a few times and getting out made me hotter still. Anyway, the upshot involved me emerging to a little plateau at the top, stripping off my jacket, mopping my brow and struggling to catch my breath. I really hadn’t time to notice my surroundings or where people were standing. I was glugging water and in a spot of bother. ‘I’m at a difficult age’ I told the fitter people, who were bounding up like gazelles.
Once I was in less of a lather, I was able to look around and see what a stunning spot this was. Icy pinnacles jutted into dazzling blue skies and down to an ink dark sea. A young couple asked the group photographer to take a picture of them and I enjoyed gawping from my vantage point a few feet away. They were a very attractive, slim young couple and they had chosen a particularly scenic spot for the photograph. They thanked the photographer and then the young man bent down. I looked on in amusement expecting him to tie his shoelace and make a joke of proposing. But no, he said ‘Sarah, since I’ve known you, I’ve been the happiest man alive. You are such a lovely, beautiful woman and I want you to do me the honour of becoming my wife. Will you marry me?’
Picture the scene; – Perspiring, breathless middle-aged woman, a few feet away from a gorgeous young couple, watching, frankly agog! I nearly fell over the cliff in shock, it was so theatrical! By this time, she was brushing away tears and they were both trembling like aspens in a breeze. Thankfully, she said ‘yes’ and they embraced and he said ‘oh, I forgot the ring!’ But he hadn’t, it was in a pocket in a box in his jacket and it was a gorgeous oval-shaped diamond (I leaped over ‘let me be the first to congratulate you!’). They were both shaking like leaves, it was so emotional. I went around telling everyone else and all the other passengers went over to congratulate them. I had never seen anything like it. I rushed up to a friend Jane ‘guess what I’ve just seen?’ Her husband thought it might have been an Orca and was quite disappointed, but she was thrilled.
When I was over all the excitement, I was left with a lot of reflections; ‘Why do some people get taken to Antarctica and proposed to in bright sunshine on top of a dazzling glacier, whilst others…..?) ‘If the proposal is in Antarctica, where will the wedding and honeymoon be?’
Lesson 3: Impromptu speeches can be impactful and life-changing. Do you really want some chubby, grubby woman breathing (heavily) down your neck when you do it?
I was going to continue my reflections but decided with hindsight, that would come as an anti-climax. So, I’ll leave them for another day. As Carrie, our President says, ‘Is there ever an end to learning?’