VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY

“Events, dear boy, events!”

WHEN I offered this course last year, I had only the most vague idea what we might cover, but knew that it would have to be based mainly img_u3a_tripon bits of British maritime history. We could start with the rather poorly known 17th century voyages of Edmund Halley; much more famous as the comet man, then take a look at the 18th century Pacific voyages of Captain Cook and finally wander through some of the amazing voyages of the 19th century, to end with the heroic expeditions of Scott and Shackleton in the early 20th century. In fact, we managed less than half of this, partly because I talk too much and partly because of “events, dear boy, events” ; the unexpected defined by Macmillan.

I could hardly claim that the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson on October 5th 2005 were unexpected, but I prepared at short notice a talk for Farnham’s “From Trafalgar to the Crimea; the birth of the modern navy” in December. So one session of Voyages was dedicated to a practice for this.

Just before Christmas I was asked to be a guest lecturer on a cruise in an American ship sailing down the Amazon and then up the coast of northeastern South America to end up in Barbados at the end of March.

My knowledge of the Amazon, when I got the phone call from my agent on 17th December could have been comfortably written on the pointed end of a pin! However, I am not a man to let a little thing like incompetence get in the way of a chance to see one of the earth’s most fantastic environments. So although I admitted to the cruise company that I was less than expert on the Amazon, I offered to give a series of talks under the general title “Amazon to Abyss; two of the largest environments on earth” – and they fell for it! January and February were largely devoted to reading everything on the Amazon I could and making up presentations, which would enable me to appear more or less credible:. bang went yet another “Voyages…” session, when I used my folks as guinea pigs to help me improve the Amazon bits – and they did!

Those of you, who are experienced cruisers, will know that taking holidays based on these mobile gin palaces is the fastest growing sector of the vacation industry, particularly for people of U3A age.

Between the meals, stage shows, dancing lessons, meals, origami, flower arranging, bridge and more meals there are lectures on a whole range of topics given by so-called experts who, like the musicians, dancers and so
on, are basically pretty old and/or second rate. So I was to be one of these.

When we reached the MV Insignia at Manaus, an incredible city of 1.5 million souls bang in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, I was a touch nonplussed to find that I was the one and only “enrichment lecturer” charged with satisfying the cultural needs of 600-odd mostly American passengers! I need not have worried. No more than 150 of the passengers ever bothered to come to the talks, but those who did were totally charming and extremely appreciative and not a single intelligent designer among them! So my worries about being almost lynched at any mention of evolution were completely unfounded.

The experience of sailing down the Amazon was unforgettable. In fact, the only downside was that standing on the deck of a cruise ship is no way to see Amazonian wildlife. Despite the Amazon being one of the most bio diverse environments on earth, you would see more birds and certainly more species, in a ten-minute walk in Anstey Park than we saw during a week on the Amazon! Continued on next page VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY “Events, dear boy, events!” “Devil’s Island from Ile Royale, French Guiana”. Continued from previous page In fact, the natural history highlight of the cruise for us was not in the Amazon, it was an enchanting visit to Ile Royale, off the coast of French Guiana, one of three tiny specks, each no more than a mile across, including the notorious Devil’s Island, used as a French penal colony from 1852 to 1946 and made famous by the scandalous imprisonment there of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1895 and of Henri Charrière, whose book Papillon was made into a hit film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Most visitors spent their time viewing the remains of the prison buildings, including the house of the governor, whose sentence must have seemed almost as harsh as that of his charges. We chose to walk gently round the island surrounded by an exotic flora dominated by emotive palms and agoutis, Jack Russellsized rodents a bit like tail-less squirrels, squabbling over coconuts. We also saw quite a lot of red-faced monkeys, unidentifiable birds, butterflies and other insects and, as we came back to the tiny quay to get the tender back to the ship, marine iguanas basking in the remains of the afternoon sun. All in all, for us it seemed an utterly charming tropical paradise – but knowing that we were there for only a few hours and could retreat to a pampered lifestyle in airconditioned luxury!

We moved on to Santa Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela, then to Grenada before finally flying home from Barbados. The cruise was an amazing experience and one, which I shared with my Voyages Group, when we got home, resulting in the loss of at least another half session.

So what “events” might occur to interfere with whatever subject I offer next year? Goodness knows, but, just in case, I have decided to put even less planning into it than I did last year. I will call it simply “Oceans”, which is so vague that I shall be able to cover more or less anything; biology, science in general, history or even politics, as long as it has something to do with salt water! So if you are an adventurous soul with eclectic interests, or just want somewhere warm to sleep for a couple of hours, why not sign up on registration day. Do not ask me what it will be about; the title says it all. Tony Rice

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