In the beginning there is fear. All the what-if maybes. At the bag drop the self service machine advises me that check-in has closed. Panic descends. There is a human on hand to tell me that my flight did not leave yesterday. There has been a delay and I should be able to check-in in 15 minutes. I’m gifted a £5 voucher for my troubles and go and spend another £7 on a book I didn’t know I was going to read. In a classic move from the Chris Orr playbook, I buy a self help book; “Calm the F**k Down”. Reading about how to solve your problems is my go to for when I should be trying to solve my problems. I went back to the check-in desk and everything worked fine. Calmed down, my journey to the end of the world had begun.
I stepped off the plane into the late summer heat of Buenos Aires. I had packed for a cold holiday and the need to wrap up warm. Hot and tired from the 14 hour flight, I grabbed a taxi into the city to find my Canadian amigo. How long does it take to make a friend? Little more than a few hours. Mike and I met in a hostel in Stockholm eight or nine years ago. After a few beers and a fruitless search for a place to keep the drinks flowing I would say we were friends. We saw each at least once in the first two to three years and then nothing. A total communication blackout. When you meet people on the road everyone always talks about seeing each other again. Of visiting one another at home. It happens, but for the most part these remain hopeful, unfulfilled wishes. I found him on the other side of a hostel door, the same face, maybe taller than I remember, the same accent. We brought each other up to date on the last six years and decided to see some of the city. Mike and I attempted a walking tour but after three stops, and Mike finding a concrete bench with both of his shins we decided to abandon the city and whatever sights it may hold. Neither of us were here to see the cities and the culture that comes with them. With a 4am flight out of the city the next morning we both decided to lie down and wait it out.
Cruising over the snow capped southernmost tip of the Andes we landed in Ushuaia; the city at the end of the world. This was more like it. 30 million people in one urban area is too many for my tiny mind to comprehend. 58 thousand is a lot more manageable. Fittingly, the city’s motto is ‘end of the world, beginning of everything’. From here our journey becomes more and more remote. It also got colder, a lot colder. We checked into the Antarctica Hostel, found out there was more to do here than we had time for. We decided to grab breakfast and then explore. I’m not sure if Argentinian hostels give the best impression of a typical South American breakfast. The offering here was plenty of bread, dulce-de-leche, and eggs. Mike told me a cautionary tale of eating a raw egg in Buenos Aires in fear of offending the locals. I carefully chipped the shell of an egg to find it still needed to be cooked, off I went to cook my eggs. Disaster avoided, we headed into the city.
There are several tours available in the Beagle Channel. All catering towards the penguin fan in everyone. Only one allows you to walk on the beach of the penguin island. I was certain this was the tour I had booked us on to. It wasn’t. Mike and I jumped on a catamaran and grabbed a window seat. We sailed away from Ushuaia, the tiny city soon fitting into the scope of a single photograph. The boat drew up to a series of rocky islands covered in brown velvet; sea lions lounging on the shelves. The boat continued to another island with a lighthouse nestled on top. The tour operator talked at length about the history of the lighthouse. This wasn’t the lighthouse at the end of the world. There’s another, even closer to the end. The island was now home to a colony of cormorants, from a distance they could have been penguins. Up close they were unmistakable.
On either side of the channel, icing sugar snow dusted the broken bottle peaks of the mountains. The islands in the channel were dusted with bird shit. As we got downwind we discovered large bird colonies smell, really bad. Mike and I would switch between the cabin and the deck, getting a screen free view of the bird life only to put a screen between us and the birds to take a picture. It was going to be important to remember to see the things as well as taking pictures of them. A cry went up, not from an animal but the human joy of seeing something for the first time. Humpback whales breached ahead of the boat. A pair of them swimming to or from who knows where. The shared excitement of seeing these magnificent creatures was almost as rewarding as the glimpses of the tails and dorsal fins. The whales carried on, showing no interest in our pleasure.
At last we came on to the final island, the main event; the penguins. A small horde of Gentoos and Magellanic. Standing tall amongst the littles ones a lone King, was he lost or simply late to leave? A few pairs appeared as if by magic on the shore, leaping out of the sea and up the beach to their buddies. Little waiters in suits looking for tables to serve. It wasn’t close, but it was enough. Looking around, I could see the sea, the forest, the mountain summits with ice on top. This view matched a recent description I’d heard of happiness. Add a creature or two somewhere in the layers and you’d have everything you need. Here I was, looking right at it. After a while of watching the penguins be penguins the boat pulled away from the island and we were back in the channel. Speeding back towards Ushuaia most of the passengers retreated to the wind-free cabin. Standing on the bow, enjoying the simple feeling of being alive and outside with the wind in your face. Walking back to the cabin wondering if I’d make it or if I would be blown overboard. The sun was going down, the clouds and mountains combining to block most of the light. What could squeeze through reflected as lines of gold on the surface of the water. For a few moments the grey clouds turned yellow. There were more screams on the return. First another whale, and then one of the biggest pods of dolphins I’ve ever seen. They played around the boat for almost 20 minutes before we decided to leave them to their games and return to shore.
Next we made our first venture into the wilderness; Tierra Del Fuego National Park. We took the short bus ride into the park, paid our entrance fee and were released into the wild. Grey clouds blended with green trees, mountains rolled into the distance beyond the bay, no sign of the summits through the overcast skies. On arrival a few dolphins were playing in the coastal waters. We didn’t watch them for long. I asked Mike which way we had to go. He looked me dead in the eye, squatted down and picked up a handful of leaves and soil and cast them into the air. He pointed straight at the yellow post marking the start of the trail. “It’s this way.” A pair of caracaras, unfazed by the humans in their space, perched in a tree, swaying in the wind. The forest was green, only a few trees had started to put on their autumn jackets. I remembered the beech forests I had walked through along the Milford road in New Zealand. It looks the same but it feels different. This was one of the reasons why I decided to come here. Mike and I followed the coastal path, warming up our legs, stretching the muscles. This was something to see, but also preparation. The final pack-free hike before the W Trek. We crossed streams, explored beaches, and roamed the thick forest. The tap-tap of a woodpecker caught our attention. A giant woodpecker with a bright red head. It isn’t Woody but he looks the part. We continued through the park, past perfect campsites, beautiful green lakes and more forest until we arrived at the very literal end of the road. The pan-American highway stretching the length of the Pacific coast from Alaska terminates here. Please take all personal belongings with you.
Mike had taken an interest in a restaurant on the corner the night before. Peering in the window at the split lamb carcass roasting over the open fire. Tonight he decided we should call in for dinner. If there is one thing I would like more than anything else when travelling, it’s a standardised, global approach on what to do when you enter a restaurant. I panic. Do I take a seat? Do I wait for someone to approach me and ask me what exactly it is I’m doing in the restaurant? Do I approach someone else and make unreasonable demands for a table for two? In the end I opted to look hopeless and wait for someone to tell me what to do. We were seated, declined the wine list and ordered a coupe of beers. I ordered a flank steak and Mike ordered what sounded like a sample of all the meats. We were not disappointed. I was provided with two pieces of rare beef which combined to be the size of my head. Mike received a skewer of lamb, pork belly, chicken and rib eye. We ate until we could eat no more, then ate some more. I retired, leaving a little of the meat for the dogs. Mike powered through, polishing off everything left on his plate. Safe to say we were satisfied customers. We returned to the Antarctica Hostel for the final time. We joined our fellow travellers in the lounge area, falling back into that familiar pattern. Where are you from? Where are you going? How long are you going there for? It felt good to be back. I couldn’t help the jealousy building in my mind as people threw a month, three months, six months on the table. The disappointment on faces when we revealed we had only three weeks didn’t help. It’s better than nothing I suppose. I’m still surprised by how easy conversation is on the road. I shouldn’t be. Like minded individuals, people following in the footsteps of one another. Everyone looking for a hot tip. The tip for Ushuaia was to come back, loaded with cash, and board one of the cruise ships bound for Antartica. To tick off that elusive continent. Next time.
The bus for Puerto Natales, some 800km away, left Ushuaia at 8:15. Clouds had taken roost in the tree tops. We followed the mountain road as it snaked away from the southern pole. The bus climbed out of the flat bottomed valley into the jaws of broken teeth. Then we disappeared into the cloud along with everything else. I thought about the things we had missed. A glacial hike, the emerald lagoon, the final continent; Antartica itself. We could have had another day. How much better it might have been, then again how good it is that we’d been at all. Vast plains of brown grass replaced the mountains. We had arrived in the Patagonian steppe. The ocean was now on our left and we had crossed the island at the end of the world. Next stop Chile.