I’ve got those polar whiners and nappy-wearing Mars tourists beat
Sure, the explorers lost limbs, and Mars is a special kind of holiday hell - but let me tell you about my St Helena trip
Apsley Cherry-Garrard has always rubbed me up the wrong way. Sometimes in life you encounter those loudmouths who bellyache on about what a hard day they’ve had at work, or how their sister is the worst sister in the world, or how no one has ever had such a bad haircut as them.
With most people’s grousing I can feign sympathy and nod encouragingly as they gargle on, but there are others who, for no clear or rational reason, spark an unpleasant competitive urge in me, as though I’m one of the grumpy old men in a retirement home kvetching about who has the weakest bladder. “Oh yeah?” I want to say. “You think that’s bad? Listen to this.” Apsley Cherry-Garrard is one of those guys.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a polar explorer. He joined the Terra Nova expedition, Captain Scott’s attempt to be the first man or woman to reach the South Pole, and his main job was to spend a winter season trekking out into the ice plains and snow fields to bury caches of food and fuel so that when Scott returned triumphant from the pole, hungry and cold with the howling polar winter on his back, he could survive by finding stores he hadn’t had to carry. It wasn’t a fun time for Apsley. He was badly shortsighted, and couldn’t wear glasses in the sleet and blizzards, so he couldn’t see a damn thing for months on end. He wasn’t even allowed to go to the South Pole with Scott’s final party – he had to wait for them to come back to home base high-fiving and telling each other how nice it was to make history.
At one point Apsley was sent out to look for emperor penguin eggs, for no good reason that I can ascertain. He and his little team found three eggs, but also a sudden storm in which their tent was blown away. They had to sleep in the snow and crawl back to base three weeks after he left, covering a mile a day in non-stop darkness and temperatures that reached -60ºC. Apsley’s teeth chattered so uncontrollably that they shattered while he slept. Years later he wrote a book about it called The Worst Journey in the World.
It’s a good book, and no doubt it wasn’t a great trip, but was it really the worst journey in the world? Wasn’t it better than, for instance, Captain Scott’s journey, considering Scott never actually made it back from the pole at all, which you’d think Apsley would know considering he was part of the search party that found his frozen body?
But you know who else has had a bad journey? Me, that’s who. I don’t mean to minimise anyone’s suffering but I would rather shatter my teeth or lose an extremity to frostbite than ever relive the time when I embarked on a voyage to the island of St Helena with my girlfriend. This was before you could fly to St Helena, so the only way to reach it was to spend five days in a microscopic cabin in a small seasicky mail ship, then spend eight days on the most remote inhabited island on Earth, a place so distant and self-enclosed that they sent the Corsican ogre Bonaparte into exile there, then spend another five days rolling even more seasickishly home in the same microscopic cabin on the same small ship.
Doesn’t sound so bad, you say? Well, what if I told you that 10 minutes before the ship set sail, in the cramped confines of our tiny berth, I suddenly became convinced, like a small boy at the edge of a high-diving board, that this was all a terrible mistake, that I no longer wanted to be in a relationship with my girlfriend or forced into confinement for most of a month with her, and then confided those thoughts to my journal, and what if I were then to tell you that one minute after the ship set sail, while I was pacing about the deck alone, just managing to quell my panic, she read that journal and came storming on deck to tell me to go to hell?
In that moment I turned to look at the harbour, and the water widening between us, and if I had had the nerve to jump overboard and either blessedly sink or somehow swim to shore, I wouldn’t have had to spend the next 18 days in a heaving, pitching, rolling prison cell with a person who now regarded me much the way that everyone who wasn’t French once regarded Napoleon. I think we can agree that compared with me on that boat, Apsley Cherry-Garrard had it pretty sweet.
But I’m pleased to see that the spirit of innovation isn’t dead, and people are still trying to perfect the worst journey in the world. This very week I opened a newspaper to discover that a company called Astroland is offering holidays on Mars. Not the real Mars, which is a very uncomfortable holiday destination with a lot of travel time and not much to do when you get there, but a simulated Mars, deep in a cave in Spain.
For a small price, Astroland will offer you a space-staycation, enabling groups of 10 people at a time to spend a long weekend under the good Cantabrian soil, experiencing what it would be like to live in a human colony on the Red Planet. Does that sound good? Have you seen much of Mars? For those three days you’ll be allowed to see no natural light, will be allowed only one brief telecommunication with Earth (presumably with a very long Skype-like time lag), and will be required to wear, I’m not making this up, “biodegradable nappies to minimise your environmental impact on the cave system”.
Three days is quite a long time to be in a sunken fluorescent-lit bunker with strangers, wearing your own bodily waste, I would have thought, but at least the price tag is reasonable. In order to persuade Scott to take him along to Antarctica, Apsley Cherry-Garrard donated £1,000 – the equivalent in 1911 money of R2.2m today – to help fund the expedition. Your long weekend on Mars will set you back a mere R160,000.
Does Astroland’s half-week of horror with nine diapered strangers strike you as the special kind of hell that in a just universe might be awaiting Isis fighters and Cape Town drivers when they finally shuffle off to meet their eternal reward? Sure, but unless it comes with a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend illicitly reading your most private thoughts, I still think I have it beat.