They don’t speak Gentoo on this island
So what would you do with your last few hours at the end of the world? How would you spend your remaining time before sailing off into what was once marked as “Here be Dragons” territory, or possibly over the “edge” if you are of the “flat earth” persuasion?
Having paced up and down the promenade in Ushuaia multiple times. Having stared in awe at the gothic Patagonian spires that loom right above the town, as their peaks play hide and seek with the clouds. Having photographed the docked ships, including the half-sunk wreck of a tug from every angle.
And having checked and rechecked until finally convinced, that YES, not only have you managed to locate the correct port (there is only one in Ushuaia), but even the appropriate dock. And, you have actually caught a glimpse of the Plancius (it is definitely docked!!) I swear it wasn’t there before. Having done all this, there is little more to be done with your remaining hours at the end of the world, except wait.
El fin del Mundo
Waiting in the tourist office opposite the port, I contemplate my fellow travelers. Who else is waiting to board a ship? Will they be on my ship? What is a would-be Antarctica tourist supposed to look like anyway? It soon becomes apparent for whom Ushuaia marks their journey’s end and whom is venturing beyond.
Ushuaia is a buzzy place - and you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of international outdoors convention, given all the puffies and backpacks. The excitement is palpable before the plane has even landed. Just having made the journey to el fin del Mundo is an enterprising quest - it is not exactly on the way to anything else, other than Antarctica, that is.
So your fellow travelers, while they hail from every other continent, and a few islands in-between, are all, by definition of their location, an intrepid bunch. Everyone is in full tourist mode here and not ashamed to flaunt it, as evidenced by the impressive display of camera equipment. And the thing about an Antarctic voyage, is that everyone, no matter how well travelled, is just as anxiously excited and awed to embark on this journey.
Also, el fin del Mundo is the type of place where you could legitimately make use of the following phrases and nobody would think it at all odd: “Where do I catch the boat to Antarctica?” or “I am sailing to Antarctica this afternoon, what are you up to?” or “I’d love to take the train to the end of the world, but the thing is I need to be back in time to go to Antarctica later today.”.
The “End of the World”, is not the end of the world
As it turns out, the “End of the World”, is not the end of the world. Beyond there is a place that is not even a country, a place where there are no nationalities, no designated language, no currency, no trees and no time zones, not even night and day - only night or day, entirely cordoned off by the Southern Ocean. A place where the permutations of ice, rock and snow are infinite.
So why would you travel such a vast distance to witness all this nothingness? Why would you willingly pay the Drake Tax to experience it? What exactly is there? The vastness itself, the silence, the emptiness, the aching beauty, the unclimbed peaks as far as the eye can see, the whiteness, the solitude and the un-touchedness. Perhaps you go simply to bear witness to the very existence of terra incognita.
Setting foot on Antarctica
Actually setting foot on The Ice, on the very continent itself, is akin to a personal lunar landing. And then there is the first penguin encounter. After that, you will become obsessed with penguins. Not only will you take thousands of penguin pictures, but the penguin will become your new, most favorite animal, even surpassing dolphins. And you will demand that “March of the Penguins” be included on the Plancius reruns schedule on the expedition survey.
You will even recall individual penguin encounters, because they are just that enchanting. The thing about penguin colonies, is that every member seems to just know exactly what they are supposed to do. Everyone knows the rules of the road on the penguin highway, single file (unless it is the multi-lane autobahn on Cuverville Island), no pushing or cutting in. Everyone read the dress code. And everyone knows which penguin convention they are attending.
Everyone that is, except the somewhat confused gentoo wandering around the chinstrap rookery on Orne Island. Clearly there were a few language barriers - they don’t speak gentoo on this island. And you won’t forget the time everyone played “spot the macaroni” at Half Moon Bay, when he was there all along, hiding in plain sight, in a sea of chinstraps. In this rookery, it seems the “stranger” was welcome.
In homage to the original polar explorers
In homage to the original polar explorers, you will camp out on the ice, sans tent. The prospect of literally digging your own shallow grave in which to spend the night, will not seem at all macabre. In fact, you might even willingly share your icy crypt with a complete stranger, when asked “would you like to share a grave tonight?”
And as you lie there, entombed in your high-tech layers, so many - it is hardly worth the effort to move, you will marvel at how Shackleton and his men survived. All without the benefit of gore-tex, down or bivy bags. Alone, in your gore-tex tomb, you will be confronted with your deepest thoughts and fears: convincing yourself that you do not really need the bathroom; concern that your nose might be frozen off your face; and anxiety that a stray penguin might peck you or a random leopard seal might mistake you for a snack.
Yet at some point you will have drifted off, and realize that not only did you manage to be unconscious but you (and your nose) actually survived the night out there on The Ice. And as your fellow campers wait on the frozen shore of Ronge Island, standing there like a penguin colony, staring longingly at the Plancius. And as you impatiently wait to be zodiacked back to civilization (or at least hot coffee), you will forever carry a far deeper reverence for those explorers, and just what it took to discover this place.
Forever touched by the very un-touchedness of terra incognita
And when you return to the mundanity of the other six continents, sporting your Antarctic tan, you will not be quite the same. You will have been forever touched by the very un-touchedness of terra incognita. And you will yearn to return one day.