I meet Sandra in the beautiful botanical gardens of Bella Tiamantini - a Botanical Gardens set in the humid heat and jungly backdrop of Santo Domingo, Northern Ecuador. The gardens are run by a delightful old couple Don Marcos and his wife Estrella who are committed to rescuing and nurturing over 1000 native plant species from deforested areas of the Amazon, in oder to protect plant diversity in Ecuador.
I have turned up at the gardens by myself and am not sure what I'm letting myself in for. With relief I see there is another English speaker amongst us!
Sandra is a softly spoken Aussie from Melbourne with a flush of blond curls around her face, twinkly blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She is sitting outside the concrete breeze block guest bedroom on a plastic stool helping Estrella shell corn.
Welcoming me with a warm smile she speaks with an endearing shy humility about herself and quiet enthusiasm for her time volunteering with this delightful family. I'm about to turn 40 and as the conversation drifts to this milestone of a birthday I ask Sandra (now in her mid fifties) how she felt about turning 40. Apparently she felt that she'd lost some of her physical shape and fitness due to being a full time mother. What did she decide to do to regain her fitness? Renew her membership at the local gym? Nope. Sign up for an extra Pilates class? Nope. No ladies, Sandra Floate decided to go to the South Pole....!
As a sensitive introvert myself I'm fully aware of the magnificent adventures, physical feats and courageous acts us quiet ones are capable of.. .however I have to admit to still reacting with some surprise when this gently self effacing woman drops into the conversation that when she turned 40 she once led an all female expedition of mothers called The Ice Maidens, on a trek to the Antarctic.
Excuse me, you did what????
Time for an interview!
WW: OK would you like to start by giving me a little bit of background? a brief life story! You were mainly based in Melbourne is that right?
SF: Yes I was born and bred in Melbourne and went to school there. After leaving school I did a diploma in advertising and then travelled for 2 years to Asian and Europe and worked in Londo for a year as a nanny, and then to India, Nepal and then in Australia met and worked an Indian.
WW: How old were you when you were married?
SF: I was 25 and I had two children in my mid thirities and worked in our family business cabinet making business, my husband and I had been in business for 30 years.
And then when I was 40 I did an expedition to the Antarctic. Which is 3 years training for 2 weeks on the ice.
WW: And had you done any training, hiking or professional trekking before then?
SF: No I was a mother! ...I'm a skier and a snow skier and I've done that all my life so I've always loved skiing i learned to do cross country for Antarctica. We went out and found women and they had to be mothers.
WW: So you decided to do this trek and they had to be women and they had to be mothers!?
SF: Yes, we found women and they had to be mothers because there are many constraints when you're a mother to be able to go out and train. You need a sympathetic partner, because men can go off and work and then train in the evening but women can't do that when they've got children, they cant just walk out of the house and say "well i'm off to go train" five nights a week so you needed a certain sort of sympathetic partner as well to accommodate the expedition.
WW: But it was part of the expedition requirements that everyone was mothers? why was that?
SF: Because the English group that did it (it was first done by an all female group in Britain) some of them were mothers and some of them were single. We based our group on 5 english women that did it, and one of them was a mother, and there were different problems for mothers, we had to go away at weekends and leave our children or train at 5am or train while eveyone was asleep and that's hard. If you have a family you've got to find time train. When you are working part time or full time its very difficult to find the training time. So because the three or four of us had kids we all had to realize the dififciulties in having an expedition as well as the constraints around doing it around family, and having the money. It started as 5 but there were 3 in the end because they drop off.
WW: I can imagine! (laughs)
SF: We all started of from zero fitness.
WW: It seeems like an extraordinary thing to suddenly decide to do...what prompted it?
SF: Just one of the women always wanted to do it an expedition to Antarctica and so she asked around and I said yes and then a couple of others said yes, and then we just went along with the process without really understanding what that process was...
WW: Did you know it would take 3 years?
SF: No we just knew it was a lot of training. Then we needed to find all the sponsors, doctors, physios, runners, gym membership...we had 40 - 50 sponsors in the end, plus Quantas (major Australian airline) who came on board.
WW: In order to raise the funds to do it?
SF: To raise the funds to do it, to get us to South America, tro get us to SA to bring our canoes ( we didn't have sleds we had canoes) because they are round so they are very easy to use. Then we had to tap into...because it's such a small population who had done expeditions we had to tap into that community. So for example we had conversations with Eric Phillips and Peter Hillary to give us guidance on the best way to do it and complete it.
WW: And did you also do it for charity?
SF: Yes we raised money for the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. In the end the flights, our gear (sponsored by Mountain Design) so we probably raised about $300,000.
WW: That's incredible, what a fantastic achievement.
SF: But the flight costs from Chile to Antarctica is probably about $80,000.
WW: Oh wow, just to fly to Antarctica?
SF: When you are in the base camp at Antarctica and you go out to the South Pole they've got planes there. If you have a problem they can come and pick you up.
WW: how long did the expedition take?
SF: It was supposed to be 10 weeks but we didn't get to the south pole just to Antartica, we only lasted 2 weeks.
SF: We always dreamed to get the South Pole but we didn't get there. We didn't dream it enough... you know you have the image in your brain? It was hard enough just to get to Antarctica, leave our children do all the hard work and the training, get all the money.
WW: and what happened that meant you had to cut it short after 2 weeks.
SF: At the end of the training there were only 2 of us left out of the 5. We needed one more person and she only joined us 9 months previously. So we didn't have that bond that you needed and she turned inot a bit of a loose cannon. She hadn't as much experience in the snow as us and we had problems with her breathing and her hypothermia. So she was very physical but she hadn't had enough snow and ice training.
WW: Did you have to have another person?
SF: Yes it's best with three. Because if something happens like you fall down a crevasse or something and there's only two people - you're only leaving one person to make a decision on what to do whether or not to leave you. Whereas if you have three people you have two people to take that decision.
WW: Oh gosh I see, because of the probability of having to make a life or death decisions. How do you prepare mentally for that?
SF: We had an Englishman, Roddie, who was a former SAS teacher who would do meditation with us...he was former SAS but turned Buddhist.
WW: Wow he sounds like a good person to talk to. So you would visualize scenarios that could happen?
SF: Yeah we had a lot of discussions around all of the scenarios that could happen, with other people that had done expeditions. Unfortunately also, Quantas airlines lost our gear.
WW: Oh no!
SF: Yeah! So we were 2 weeks in Chile instead of 3 days before we got going, so by that time we were very apprehensive. We had been raring to go so we were really uptight by the time we got going. You only have a certain window of time. Because if you start your expedition too late and you're not quite at the pole they have to come and get you to fly you back to Chile, so we were very stressed by the time we got to Antarctica to do this trip.
WW: Was there anything at that point in your life that prompted it? Or was it just your friend saying "I'm going to Antarctica do you want to come along?" I'm trying to work out what the appeal was?!
SF: The appeal was, I was reaching 40 and didn't have any fitness because i'd spent all my time looking after children.
WW: How old were your children?
SF: They were 12 and 9. And feeling like I was running out of time and that I might not be able to get fit for something like this.
WW: I'm turning 40 tomorrow...(laughs)
SF: The possibility of even considering it was way off the planet. But you just start with something and see where it leads to. To know that we actually got there and got onto the ice. We had two trips to New Zealand also in preparation on the Fox Glacier.
WW: And you were called "The Ice Maidens" - brilliant.
And what lessons did you learn emotionally, how did you overcome challenges in preparation or on the trek?
SF: Yeah it was very stressful. So it was about being safe because we had children.
And we were looked on differently because we had children. We got emails saying "you shouldn't be leaving your family! blah blah blah"
Mentally to do these trips - at 40 and beyond is best. You'll find most expeditions are with older people because you have to have that maturity as an adult to take it on.
WW: That's interesting isn't it you wouldn't think that would be the case, that you would need to be young and physically fit foremost.
SF: Yeah look at Ralph Fiennes he's just done a night one - he's 65? and he thought he'd do Antarctica in the dark in winter. I mean, that's bizarre! But there's no limit to your physical age, he's just thinking "I can do that."
WW: And because he's thinking he can do that he can?
SF: Yeah and because he's older he can, a lot of them are older, late thirties, forties. It's better.
WW: This is a very small example in comparison but it's made me think of the time that I did Kung Fu in China with a bunch of 18 years. And I did the Shaolin, and it was the same kind of thing, I was really trying to push my myself and I was pretty out of shape and I was crap at it (laughs) but I did it. But lots of people in the 18 - 25 category would come try it for a bit and then drop out because it was too hard and they couldn't be bothered. Just before I joined 7 people dropped out of the Shaolin Kung Fu class so as a then 37 year old woman everyone was expecting me to fold, but out of sheer mental determination (and some may say stubbornness!) I persisted. When you get to a certain point you're proving it to yourself and that mental discipline isn't necessarily always there when you're younger.
WW: Did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn't realized before?
SF: Yeah lots and lots. Mostly mental strength. I"ve had to keep applying that. When I got back my daughter got sick and was very ill for 6 or 7 years. So i had to apply mental strength to keep her well and sane for the years that she was ill.
WW: And how did what you learnt on the trip help you do that?
SF: Finding that inner strength that I had, that we've all got. Always being tested emotional, physically and needing to push yourself that little bit more.
SF I had that strength, emotional strength to get through because it was an awful time. If you're children die or get sick its awful.
WW: What did she have?
SF: She had chronic fatigue and then depression because her body shut down and wasn't working.
WW: How did it change you?
SF: Yes it changed my life.
SF: I wasn't ever a team player and never played in teams, so with an expedition you have to rely on your team members because they may have to save your life. And that you can do just about anything if you're physically able and believe it. Believe in wanting something badly enough that you can do it.
And making other people believe that you can do it. So that you're getting that people behind you. There was a group of people behind you another group of people helping you to get to the goal.
WW: And your husband was supportive.
SF: Yes very much.
WW: Great. So now, we're meeting in Ecuador...so that was 10 years ago for you...I was 45 years when I did it. Did you do any travelling between then and now?
SF: I went skiing in Japan and a brief trip to Vietnam, but otherwise no...no.
WW: So what prompted you to suddenly go to Ecuador in your mid fifties?
SF: Because I wanted to volunteer in Ecuador and by this time my children were old enough so that I could actually leave them.
WW: And why Ecuador?
SF: The first time was with a friend because it had the Andes, the Amazon and the Galapagos in one country and because it was small. It was supposed to be the 10th year anniversary of our expedition to the Antarctic and i was supposed to come here with Michelle from that trek. We were going to go to Siberia to see lots of volcanoes but we wouldn't have had the culture and in Ecuador we got the culture, the sea, the mountains and the jungle,
WW: And that was a 10 week trip?
SF: No that was a month or 5 weeks and 10 year anniversary celebration of Antarctica. And then I decided to come back as a volunteer as I felt comfortable here the first time.
WW: And at that point, was that when you were splitting up with your husband ?
SF: No but i was thinking about it, so travel was a way of getting time out from family and friends and husband to think about things.
WW: What advice would you give to women wanting to travel in their forties and fifties who are a bit frightened of going to a country solo.
SF: Sometimes its good to do a quick trip, and then go back. If yo feel comfortable in a country do a quick overview first for a holiday and then go back and see it more in depth. That's what you did isn't it?
WW: Yeah it wasn't deliberately planned like that, but that is what ended up happening. I started travelling five years ago when I took a month of extended leave off work to travel South America. So I started by doing group tours as well so I wasn't completely by myself.
SF: Yeah i started travelling when I was 21 and did a couple of years by myself so I already had that inner strength and belief at that age that I could do it and knew at this age I could do it again.
WW: And now you're trying to combine your time between Ecuador and Australia?
SF: Yes by helping out here with volunteering.
WW: How do you support yourself when you're travelling?
SF: I work in Australia and save up to travel. I prioritize the money and go without certain things knowing that i'll need to save up for airfare. I met a lady a few years ago and what she said to me really stuck in my mind...I was just turning 50 and she was 65 and she said?
You are in the best years of your life right now, after you've had children is the best time you've got left. Because you're still relatively fit, Its a time for yourself again. You get your time back without commitments and family.
WW: And you took the decision to split from your husband is that right?
SF: Yes I've made the decision to separate because my husband didn't want to back me in this volunteering. I felt in a marriage when you get to an older age with a partnership you should be able to take time to explore other things that you want. Life is for living it's not long and you don't have a lot of good years, they go quickly. Soon you won't be able to .
WW: You're volunteering for Bella Tiamantini, what has that brought you? Why were you drawn here?
SF: Because of the garden and the family and i thought i could offer western eyes to help with their project and enjoy a different lifestyle.
WW: And how do you see the next 20 years for you?
SF: One of travel and splitting time between countries and learning new languages.
WW: Perfect! Thank you Sandra!