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#4 Exploration

In 2016 I boarded a plane from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Located in a wide bay on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel, the town has an otherworldly feel. Disembarking the plane felt like stepping foot onto another planet—on the coast, a tall ship leaned into gale force winds carrying Arctic winds north through the Beagle Channel, winds so forceful and wondrously cold even in this, the month of February— the height of summer at the end of the world.

This would mark my second excursion within six weeks to the mountainous, glacier-filled, glorious expanse of land known as Patagonia. I stood in awe at the city spread before me, small houses and shops in brightly painted shades of red and yellow and teal stretching up and up the hillside beyond the bay, ships as far as the eye can see, the great Martial mountains rising up majestically, grateful to have set foot where so few travelers have gone, this place of undisputed beauty.

I spent the next several days doing the usual adventure-ing and exploring one might embark upon given the opportunity. Sampling the local fare, roaming aimlessly around town, staring endlessly out to sea. One particularly sunny morning I boarded a small vessel of fifty or so people that took us a few hours out to view sea lions and penguins in their natural habitat—small islands and rock masses in the middle of nowhere. The wind grew fiercer the further south we traveled, the weather misty, cloudy, unpredictable. We stopped off at an uninhabited island and learned that among the city’s first settlers were some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, who had been sent to what was once known as the “Siberia of Argentina”. Notable inmates included Mateo Banks, an estate owner of Irish descent who in 1922 was convicted of killing eight people – including three of his siblings – and Cayetano Santos Godino, a criminally insane child murderer nicknamed El Petiso Orejudo (The Big-Eared Short Man). I tried to imagine the life they must have endured in the colder months, the meaner months, and whether they all survived—or maybe that was the point?

On the trip, we also learn that some ninety-percent of the world’s cruises to Antarctica (South Shetland Islands) disembark from Ushuaia. This fascinates me—the idea that this one small corner of the world is responsible for opening the window to a much larger, vast expanse of the world, an entire continent that cannot be reached by commercial plane or submarine or helicopter or jumbo jet. (Not by the regular masses, anyway.) Intrepid travelers wishing to make their way to the Great White Continent can expect to pony up anywhere between eight thousand and fifteen thousand dollars (or up to eighty thousand dollars, for the luxury-seeking among us), and allocate at least ten days to make their way down and back, with strict rules on how long you can actually set foot on the continent, how many people can go at once, and who is authorized to lead them. Other stops along the way include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the latter of which have been uninhabited since 1982, a few decades after the whaling boom went bust.

(Read here for more info on that topic. In summary, due to overhunting, whale stocks around South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands diminished rapidly and whaling became unviable by the 1960s. Grytviken closed in 1964 and the last whaling station, Leith Harbour, closed the following year. Ships relating to the whaling industry lie rusting around the bay along with industrial buildings and fixtures relating to the whaling industry.)

The islands and South Georgia have a combined average population of only 30 people.

As you might imagine, visiting Antarctica is on my bucket list. Minor details such as cost, time and likelihood of extensive sea sickness have led me to slot this as a “fifty or over” excursion, though perhaps it should be the opposite, given our human tendency to become more risk averse as we age. If you’re not familiar, the Drake Passage is the body of water between South America's Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, and is known as one of the most volatile bodies of water in the world—at an average depth of 11,000 feet, 20,000 sailors have lost their lives there and its waters hold more than 800 shipwrecks. It takes around 48 hours to cross the Drake Passage by boat, and around 1 in 4 crossings (if not more) will experience turbulent seas. What makes the Drake Passage so infamously rough is the fact that currents at this latitude meet no resistance from any landmass, anywhere on the planet.

Imagine that—an entire strip of the globe free to act as it pleases, free to roam, free to throw violent fits, free to behave in any manner at any time regardless of who—or what—lies in its wake. If you are in any way considering this extended cruise south, I strongly discourage you from googling any videos on crossing the Drake. Best to leave that to the imagination.

Six years on, I reflect often on my time in Argentina and the two weeks spent exploring various parts of Patagonia (El Chalten and El Calafate were other stops, including hiking both the Fitz Roy mountain and the Petite Moreno glacier.) I look up videos on the far-flung islands, learn about their habitat, uniqueness, former industry, wildlife. During one particularly enlightening video on South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, I notice the date the video (by Redfern Natural History Productions) was posted. March 28th, 2022. What would have been my mother’s sixty-eighth birthday—four years post-mortem. That means she has been gone four-and-a-half years already, which most days feels like an eternity already. Will we reunite one fine day at a great big party in the sky? Or will I see her only in my dreams and memories, a fleeting presence that shape shifts, details that alter over time—a phantom, a vision, a ghost?

My mother was my number one supporter in my travel ambitions and goals. She never wanted her situation to prevent me from my wildest dreams. I choose to believe she is with me here now, in this video posted beyond her expiration on this planet, saying Shannon, make the trip—Shannon, do it now!

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