Reflections on Antarctica

It is hard to put the most magical place you have ever had the privilege of visiting into words, yet here goes.

Antarctica
Magnificent. Beautiful. Colossal. Vast. The grandeur and scale of this lost world is beyond comprehension. Twice the size of Australia. 14,000,000 sq km. You could fit the United Arab Emirates into Antarctica 168 times, New Zealand 52 times. From the tumultuous waters of the great southern ocean, past the furious fifties and shrieking sixties, rises this magical land – the highest continent on earth, which is covered in ice up to 1.9 km thick. It towers above the sea, majestic, with huge glaciers and sheer cliffs guarding its plateaued interior, these giant walls of ice slipping into the sea on occasion with a thunderous roar.

It is the coldest, driest, yes driest, windiest continent on earth, and the highest in terms of average elevation.

Antarctica is dynamic, always changing, the sea ice around it growing and shrinking with the seasons, glaciers calving, clouds moodily shrouding it then releasing its beauty to the sun at the whim of the wind.

It is the most spectacular place I have ever laid eyes on.

And then the eyes wander, to the sea in front of this great southern land, the mid range of a man or woman’s eyesight, to a sea covered in icebergs, like crystals, the most beautiful pieces of natural art alive. And then they wander to the near range of human eyesight, where smell and hearing are also useful allies, for in the near range, some of the largest beasts in our world, the mighty whales, gently glide, communicating through song, every once and a while diving into the depths to feed on krill, the shrimp like creature that is the nourishment and lifeblood of this lost world. There she blows. And another. And another. Families of whales, in relative abundance, all enjoying the summer riches of this kingdom of kingdoms.

The biodiversity is like I have never seen. The whales, the seals – sleeping and barking and jostling for dominance, the penguins, those loveable creatures whose antics can’t help but make one smile. Never have I seen anything like it in my lifetime.

Antarctica is magnificent. It’s biodiversity is like a portal to another world. In the unknown sphere, it has a mystical aura that is difficult to explain – yet you can sense it. On an ecocsystem nature-society level, it carries 90% of the world’s fresh water.
Our Antarctica is fundamental to the human race’s survival.

Paddle boarding in Antarctica. Day 1.

 

The whales are returning to Antarctica after being hunted to near extinction.

The Mission. The ClimateForce International Antarctic Expedition 2018.
Ninety environmental ambassadors from over 20 countries took part in the two week expedition to Antarctica, the purpose of which was to learn about the continent and climate change through the Explorers Passage and polar explorer Sir Robert’s renowned ‘Leadership on the edge Programme,’ with each leader then charged with the responsibility to return to their respective countries to ignite the change to a low carbon economy. Sir Robert was the first explorer to walk to both the south and north poles and has since become a fierce environmental ambassador and advocate for the ongoing protection of Antarctica. In 30 years’ time, when the Antarctic Treaty and its environmental protocols are able to be reviewed – which preserves Antarctica for non-military use and scientific research, those that took part on the expedition will be charged with re-negotiating it for the greater good of nature and society. I personally pledged that in 30 years, at age 65, if lucky enough to still be here, that I would somehow be at the negotiating table. The word of the 90 2018 ambassadors is our bond.

ClimateForce International Antarctic Expedition 2018

The people
Never have I met such a talented and inspirational group of people in one place. Every single one of those 90 people from 20 countries. There were explorers, government officials, master film makers, scientists, rock stars, executives in business, entrepreneurs, authors, and youth. Every single person had an interesting story, had had challenges in their life, but had persisted on their path to work in a field of their passion, and overcome those challenges. And all were committed to working tirelessly in their respective countries and fields, to be change makers working toward a low carbon economy. Antarctica needs them. And we need it.

A period of two weeks, with no internet, no cell phones, embedded in nature, with an incredible team; there really was something fundamental to the concept ‘disconnect from the world to reconnect.’ There was nothing better. Everyone getting out of their comfort zone and engaging with people – having a conversation – sharing challenges past, lessons learned, debating theory, getting insights, reflecting on it all, and making friends for life.

Reflection. There was time for reflection and journal writing. And from those conversations, so much was learned about the world, about people, about motivations, about beliefs, about what we need to change as a society.

One concept was ‘graduation of mindset’, where a person removes themselves from their day to day routine, immerses themselves in nature with like minded people, and broadens their horizons from the narrow to the broad. From the phone to the horizon. From the dream to the reality. From the ‘I’m not sure if I can’ to the ‘I will make that happen.’ And ‘I will do that,’ whilst sharing it with others, because the best things in life are shared.

Open your eyes. Turn off your phone. Talk to the person next to you. You may be surprised to find that they have a lot to offer. Laughter and friendship even.

Team Zayed and the Solar Lights – Our message to the world.
Team Zayed was a team of three representing the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and Dr Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, in honour of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, in this 2018, a celebration of his life, the Year of Zayed. The team consisted of the Environment Agency’s communication’s specialist Mariam Al Qassimi; Scientist of Mammalogy, Rashed Al Zaabi; and myself, Winston Cowie.

Team Zayed representing the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi. Left to Right. Rashed Al Zaabi. Mariam Al Qassimi. Winston Cowie.

We were incredibly privileged to represent the agency and grateful to our inspirational Secretary General, Her Excellency Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, for the opportunity to take on the challenge of bringing the stark reality of a global issue – climate change – the challenge of our time – back to the UAE for further discussion and debate.

Whilst in Antarctica, Team Zayed led an initiative where with 102 solar lamps, with all delegates, we held a solar lights show, making words with the lights in the cold and dark of the Antarctic night, and sending them to the world.

Our message, that of 90 people from 20 countries, was: ‘Hi World – from Antarctica. Please listen: climate change and plastics are our challenge. Let’s change. All of us. Individuals and countries. Stop. Think. Act. Energise. Be the Change. #ClimateForce.”

Team Zayed Solar Lights Show

The launch of the Zayed Solar Lights Show. From the Ocean Endeavour. Antarctica.

As we lit up the Antarctic night, one of our colleagues on the expedition, Inch Chua from Singapore, a talented musician, sang our message in the Antarctic night. We could hear whales surfacing as we sung, in union. It was one of those incredible unforgettable moments when time stood still.

Inch Chua. Singer / songwriter from Singapore. Inch was one of the awesome people on the expedition. Jamming here in a volcano and old Whaling Station. South Shetland Islands

The full message to the world and UAE leadership will be released soon. 

If we can send a message to the world from Antarctica using renewable energy, if Robert and his son Barney, a 23 year old champion, can walk to the South Pole using only renewable energy, we can transition towards a low carbon society. Please! Heed the words – on the individual level. Stop. Think. Act.

Graduation of mindset. ‘Why’ is the question. Why are we doing what we are doing as a society?

Do we really need that plastic bag that we will use once and throw away? Do we really need that straw? Do we really need to have that take away coffee twice a day and throw away both cups? Stop. Think. Act. Be an energiser or change maker in your peer group and community is the summary.

As a society we have got too comfortable with using something once and throwing it away. It’s not ok any more. It wasn’t in our parent’s generations, so why is it in ours?

Why.

………………………………………….

With the lights we also honoured our visionary UAE leadership, the Environment Agency, inspirational woman, service men and women and some global environmental heroes like Dr Jane Goodall, and Sir Rob and Barney Swan.

It is important to say thank you.

Two other names I would like to mention.

Steve Irwin is one.

What an amazing man he was – passionate, caring and determined. He really did inspire a new generation of environmental ambassadors globally and it is wonderful to see Teri and Bindi and Robert doing the same. The agreement from those completing the solar lights show was unanimous – in honour of Steve and his family, we lit up the Antarctic night with the word Steve.

The second name. Well it was before we headed back across the Drake Passage, the waterway that the late New Zealand yachtsman Sir Peter Blake had travelled around numerous times, that he was foremost in my thoughts. It may have been that I grew up a Kiwi kid, looking up to this role model who sailed the world’s oceans doing good things; it may have been the wandering Albatross that followed the Ocean Endeavour, it may have been his environmental legacy on his last voyage, the Seamaster, it may have been the way he passed too early, killed by pirates in the Amazon. Regardless, the group on the deck of the Ocean Endeavour had a moment and wrote his name, in honour of all he achieved and for his family.

They were quiet moments in the dark and cold of night, when we wrote those names.
And all in solar lights. Lighting up the great southern ocean sky. Blinking in the wind and the spray of the waves. Looking to the past to inspire the present and the future.

What’s next?

More on how Antarctica is being effected by global warming in another post – and what we as individuals and what countries can do to reverse the melt. It will be a huge challenge, but on leaving Antarctica, my overwhelming feeling was optimism. It really was and still is.

I do feel optimistic for the future of Antarctica, optimistic because it is a place where we got things so wrong in the past – hunting whales nearly to the point of extinction, only for the global community to come together and protect them, and the Antarctic continent for science and peace. And they now live in that magical place, still recovering, but noticeably there. We can get it right with global warming and plastics too. I am sure. With good people and motivation.

Each of the 90 persons on the expedition received a ‘Zayed Torch’ from the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi – one of the solar lamps that we used to send the message to the world with, from Antarctica. Each person, now friends for life, will go back to their respective countries and with their passion and energy, with their metaphorical Zayed light, make positive things happen for nature and society – rise to the environmental challenges of our time – plastics and global warming. For Team Zayed in Abu Dhabi we will be doing the same.

Personally I think I had a graduation of mindset moment on the Ocean Endeavour in Antarctica. It was on the last evening as we rounded Cape Horn. As we sat there and shared lovely moments with our new friends, and in Sir Robert’s final speech, with my new good friend and an inspiration, rock star Inch Chua from Singapore, we were awarded the Sir Robert Swan Leadership Inspiration Award for outstanding contributions to the expedition. It came as a surprise – an award from the legendary polar explorer. On reflection I was incredibly grateful and humbled but also motivated by it to deliver and make the candle burn bright. It is motivating and the Zayed and Sir Rob Swan torch will be burning bright, working hard, seeking positive outcomes, rest assured.

Sir Rob Swan Leadership Inspiration Award. International Antarctic Expedition 2018. Winston Cowie. United Arab Emirates.

 

Sir Rob Swan Leadership Inspiration Award. Inch Chua. Singapore.

From the narrow to the horizon. From the dream to the reality. From the I’m not sure if I can to the ‘I will make that happen.’

Together we will. All of us. Including You. Because deep down you know what is right, that we need to change. That we can, with a little motivation. So You, reading this: Stop. Think. Act. Energise. Be the change. Climateforce.

In the words of Sir Robert Swan, ‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’

Not on our watch.

W J Cowie. Reflections on Antarctica. March 2018.

A long road but worth it.

25 March 2011.

The West Asian Championship Club Rugby Final. Doha RFC v Dubai Hurricanes. Six and a bit years’ ago.

It was set to be a good day – a home final for Doha, the team I captained passionately at the time, and going for the club’s first silverware in 40 odd years of history.

The day didn’t turn out as planned. You always remember the day and date. I dislocated my knee in the 10th minute of the final and tore everything (ACL,PCL, Lateral ligament, Hamstring, IT Band, Medial ligament) and was rushed to hospital.

The damage? I have never really gone into it – don’t talk about it at all – it’s been my challenge to own and meet. No one else’s.

 But this week, I have sat back and reflected on it after hitting a bit of a milestone.

It’s been a long road.

Going back six years, to when it happened, I was playing at No.8 tracking our 7 from a scrum. The Hurricanes 10 and 12 did a cut. Our 7 got him and swung him, a big lad, around. I planted my knee and the guys’ legs came around and basically axed my knee in half.

Initially it was the pain. I have a pretty high pain threshold I reckon but when that knee was dislocated out, I was screaming. For a good 5 mins. It was out for two hours until it got put back in when I was in hospital and xrays had confirmed what the scenario was. By then the screaming had quietened  to a dull whimper. The reason was my common peroneal nerve was being crushed by my femur which had shifted an inch down and was close to compound. I put the pain up there with being electrocuted – true story – an indescribably horrible feeling that you can’t escape from because the electricity has got hold of you and you can’t let go. 240 volts for 10 seconds back in 2007.  That story is for another day. I still touch any door before I open it so I don’t get one of those little shocks when I touch the handle.

Back to Doha. When the knee was finally put back in the damage was done. Seven centimetres of nerve was crushed. What this meant was that I was numb from the knee down and couldn’t pull my foot up from the ground. If you sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground and then pull your foot up, mine stays flat.

It means I walk with a little bit of a jilted gait and have to flick my foot a little before I put it down. It has taken a while to get used to it. Six years.

We lost the West Asia Championship final by the way, 24-20. Devastated would be a way to put how the season ended up for the DRFC. Losing is hard to take when you put so much effort into something. But such is life sometimes.

And life had thrown me a challenge.

In those first two years, because the nerve wasn’t working (and still doesn’t), my calf muscle had atrophied (wasted away a lot). After two ops I had to get used to walking again, and was living in New Zealand at the time with a young family, on Whangaparaoa Peninsula. They were hard days on the recovery front. I would try and go for a jog from Big Manly Around to Little Manly and would pull either calf muscle within a couple of hundred metres. It was always a slow, frustrated walk back to the house, especially during winter.

After this had happened a few times, and frustration levels were sky high, I resolved to start off slowly and walk before I could run so to speak. With a very understanding and supportive wife, and  spirited two and one year old daughters at the time, I started walking initially, needing to  build up the muscle again on the calf. We would go out to Shakespeare and Tawharanui Regional Park, and hike the hills. There were a few mishaps, falling over with my daughters and rolling down the hill a bit. The family was key. Sometimes you have to go down to get back up.

At the time and feeling like I was making progress, I made two goals, this was back in 2012-2013. The first was to surf some solid waves like I used to pre injury, and the second was to try and play a high level of rugby again. Both were looking doubtful at the time.

On the surfing, in January of 2013 a solid cyclone swell hit the East Coast of Northland. Six to eight foot. Offshore. I had a mare of a session. Every time I would go to take the drop, I’d  be thinking, ‘Up, flick foot, stamp, then go.’ I must have fallen on 9 out of 10 and got absolutely rinsed in what was a sizey swell. Like those initial runs when I pulled my calf, I was so frustrated. The two things I loved doing the most – and used to be pretty good at – surfing and rugby, I couldn’t do either.

Northland. Surf.

That swell. Northland, New Zealand. Things didn’t go according to plan.

For me there was nothing more frustrating than not being able to do what I loved.

Over the next six months I worked hard. Morning and night I would be doing exercises to strengthen the calves. Walking and then running a slow jog around Shakespeare or around Big Manly Park. I had to stick to the grass as the road jarred too much. I also learned to balance on a paddle board.

I would catch up with people and I got the feeling that they felt sorry for me because I walked with a bit of a limp. Stuff that. No one was going to feel sorry for me. Pride can be a good motivator.

Worked harder. And harder and harder.

About that time we made the decision to return to the Middle East, Abu Dhabi. I was due to have a third operation a month before this; this time to tie my foot into neutral with a ligament from another part of my body.

A big winter East Coast swell hit – bigger and hairier than the failed January session. Me and a mate hit the coast. I was feeling pretty good although it was huge. My mate got injured early and sat on the beach so I was out there by myself. I went for it, didn’t overthink it, just charged and backed the hard yakka that had been put in over the previous two and a half years, and particularly the preceding 6 months.

It was a special day that. I surfed for six hours straight.

I was back.

I saw the doctor the next day for the pre-op check up. I told him I didn’t want to have the op anymore. I told him about the surf. He told me that another op, to permanently alter my foot would be another year of recovery and rehabilitation.

“I’m not doing it,” I said. He shook my hand and backed me.

“Good on you,” he said.

I think my family were pretty surprised I didn’t have the op. I’m pleased I didn’t. I was getting where I needed to go.

Fast-forward to 2014. And not being satisfied with the status quo, I travelled to Indonesia with a good mate and pushed the surfing harder at Gland, East Java, a renowned big wave spot. After a couple of near drownings, including my fin nearly chopping my wrist off, and getting coral cut fever, I got in the flow and got some good waves.

Winston Cowie surfing GLand, Indonesia

Getting back in the mix. GLand, Indonesia

Goal 1, achieved. I could surf again.

And then there was the rugby dream….goal 2……

We moved to Abu Dhabi with our young  family. I helped coach one of the local footy clubs, the Harlequins initially. It was good for me that, and the knee rehab. I would do the fitness with the boys – and after Year 4 since the accident had reached a pretty happy medium.

Occasionally I would get a bit of nerve flaring, and the numbness was always there – at night it would annoy me a bit, but it was manageable. Through regular exercising I could just hold the foot in neutral.

With the goal at the back of my mind, to play some good rugby again (not really having defined to myself what this meant), I tentatively started again. Admittedly I was a lot edgier about playing a game of footy than surfing – the landings in rugby are hard, especially on the pitches in the Middle East.

I started with Sevens, and with a group of mates we set up the Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors – a charity team to support our mate, Mike Ballard, who suffered a serious spinal injury in 2014. Mike’s story is inspirational – the guy is incredibly mentally tough – since his injury, and six operations, he moved back to Abu Dhabi to take up his old job and now is a huge part of the fabric of the community. Mike epitomises the words ‘positive attitude.’ He inspires all around him and has certainly inspired me on this journey. Four and five years on from the injury I played in the Dubai 7s with the Conquistadors. It felt good to be playing footy again and the body got through ok, with Mike and a great bunch of lads.

In 2016, five years after the injury, I moved over to coach the Abu Dhabi Saracens, a good bunch of lads with a real family vibe. I started the season as coach – that was the intention initially. I still wasn’t one hundy into Goal 2. During Match 2 of the 2016 season that all changed when we travelled to the same field that I had initially got the injury, to play my old Doha mates.

Eight of our team’s visas were rejected, so we had a bare 17 to play Doha in Doha, including our physio. Not having too much time to consider it, I went for it, not wanting to forfeit. Not in the DNA. I played 80 minutes at No.8 in 40 degrees.

After getting through that game, and the knee feeling solid, I sat back and after knocking that monkey off the back, I wanted to play better.

A good article on that Doha shift was written by Paul Radley at The National.

We had a few injuries during the course of this season – 2016-2017, so I ended up playing at least 20 minutes of every game – 12 in total.

Admittedly at the start I was a little tentative, and I think naturally so after the rehab frustrations and the numbness, but by the start of this year, 2017, I was throwing myself into games like I used to. Six year’s older, a little slower, but getting stuck in. While the numbness was still there, I ignored it and got on with it. Goal 2, playing a high level of footy, was starting to look like a possibility.

At this time I had just clocked over three years in the United Arab Emirates, which made me eligible for the national side.

Like surfing at Gland, I thought Stuff it, I was going to have a crack.

I pitched up to the first UAE trial training in January 2017. The UAE, ranked No.72 in the world, was coached by former Samoan dual international superstar Apollo Perelini, and had earned promotion to Division 1 in Asia, where they would be competing with Malaysia (54), Sri Lanka (40) and the Philippines (58).

Attending that initial training, and as a loose forward and hooker, the quality of players was high – I thought that this was going to be a hard team to make – there were good players in all of these positions.  I went hard, trained hard, doing a lot of extras on the grass field at the compound our family lived in. I must have done over a hundred set of sprints on that 80 m patch of grass under the Palm Trees.

There and back. There and back.

Apollo, an outstanding coach, asked me if I could play prop. In day’s gone by, a loose forward may have taken such a query to heart – prop is not the most glamorous of positions. I was just stoked to be in the mix.

Yes I said, only having played it a couple of times 10 years earlier when at Oxford University in the Varsity Match campaign.

I started watching a lot of footy, in the evenings when the kids were in bed. I mainly watched the scrums, trying to learn as much as I could. I also enlisted the help of my team mates at the Abu Dhabi Saracens for some technical scrumming tuition. I also started smashing the gym.

Rather quickly I found that playing prop is hard. Respect to all props around the world. You don’t get a rest. When its scrum time, you are pushing with every ounce of energy you have, and then you have to get up and run around the field as well. It’s physically challenging. You walk off the pitch absolutely shattered.

A long story, short, after six years since that day in Doha, on 20 May 2017, numb knee and all, I made my international rugby debut as a loose head prop, representing my adopted home, the United Arab Emirates v the Philippines.

Winston Cowie rugby UAE

Winston Cowie. International rugby debut for United Arab Emirates v Philippines. May 2017.

Goal 2 knocked off.

A really well written article was written on the journey by Matt Jones at Sport360.

A big thank you to everybody who has supported me in eventually getting there over the past six years.

My family, Lucy Jones, who must be the most understanding wife in the world, and our kids Issy, Evie and Zac for not rolling their eyes too much when Daddy had to go to another rugby training, especially the past six months.

My friends who have kept me motivated and consistently pushing myself.

The Doha Rugby Community were incredibly kind in supporting me with my operations back in 2011. I am always indebted to you. And this year the Abu Dhabi Saracens family have been just that, a family of mates.

And four months ago I met a great bunch of gents from the different clubs in the UAE. We became a team, a close knit bunch who for the past 10 days have represented out adopted country, the United Arab Emirates, in Malaysia with pride. Thanks to all of these gents, now mates, for sharing that journey. Thanks to Apollo Perelini, our coach, and management for doing an outstanding job in preparing us. While the results didn’t go our way, we learned how competitive this top level in Asia is, and will be better for it next year….there is always next year….

UAE Rugby Team v Philipinnes. May 2017.

UAE Rugby Team v Philippines. May 2017.

This was a story I was keen to share.

A long road but worth it.

Never say never.

If it’s your challenge, own it, work hard. And nail it.

Onwards.