Every place has a story. The story of every place is shaped not only by its Physical Geography (mountains, rivers, climate, vegetation, etc.), but also by the people that live there. Human Geography (culture, economics, demographics, politics) is intrinsically interwoven with the Physical landscape, as both affect one another.
Out of the way places interest me, as there is something to learn from every place and something to learn about ourselves and our place in this world. Describing the cultural meaning of PLACE is an interest of mine. Most of the places that I will write about are known to some, but not necessarily popular tourist locations. If there are pristine and undiscovered places that I may write about, I may take editorial license to give them different names to keep them protected. How places change over time or how we perceive them differently as time passes is also an interest of mine.
I am continuing to travel and explore our world. Posts are categorized by location or topic. There are a wide variety of locations to choose from, including Alaska, Oregon, International (which includes trips to Spain, Norway, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Canada, and Morocco, just to name a few). Topics include nature, travel, and memoir. I invite all of you to come explore and take a geographical journey with us. We hope that you will not only experience new places with us, but also gain new insights about your place in this world.
I stated on a previous post that I would never attempt to try to return to Antarctica due to the amount of hydrocarbons it would take to get me there. However, I must confess that I have recently made several trips there in the last two months, except for Sundays and Tuesdays, which are nights before I have to teach a class the next morning. Those two nights, I go to bed early in Central Oregon to get enough rest to be fresh in the morning. But on Wednesday nights, I usually make the weekly journey back to Antarctica!
On one particularly memorable Wednesday night in early March I found myself camped out on a floating piece of pack ice in the Weddell Sea, as part of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition party. Our ship had just been crushed by shifting pack ice and we had to salvage as much as we could before it sank. It was cold and snowing that evening, and I shivered in the 19F temperature dressed only in slippers and a bathrobe. My shipmates and I feared that we might never make it out of there alive. The 20 mph wind made it feel much colder and the exposed skin on my legs and face began to tingle. The cold penetrated deep into my bones. I pulled out a small ration of beef jerky that was in my bathrobe pocket and ate it, in lieu of eating the greasy morsels of Emperor Penguin that my shipmates were eating that night!
We were over 100 miles away from any solid land and we had drifted far enough north that the ice pack was beginning to break up. Our route to safety was at the mercy of the winds and currents as to which direction the floe would take us. Every opportunity that we had, we took observations of the stars to try and fix our position, hoping that we would drift towards the west and toward solid land of the Antarctic Peninsula. But it was snowing hard that night and there would be no stars visible in the sky to enable us to fix our position.
After what seemed like an eternity, the snow finally abated that evening. However, the wind kept blowing hard. I could see a few stars peeking out through the holes in the high cloud. My teeth chattered as I shivered when I looked up. Minute by minute the wind blew away more and more of the cloud cover. I borrowed the sextant from Tom Crean and scanned the sky for a familiar constellation. The Southern Cross was nowhere to be found. The Magellanic Clouds were nowhere to be seen either. I scanned the northern horizon to see if Polaris had come into view yet. Nothing.
Then, to my great surprise, the Big Dipper appeared high in the sky. That couldn’t be!!! Even with the rocking of the ice floe in the wind, making it harder to fix an exact location, the sextant told me that I was near 44 degrees NORTH latitude. Damn! I must be back in Central Oregon….
With that unfortunate discovery, I picked up my wine glass, opened the sliding glass door and walked back into a warm house. My Antarctic sojourn was over for the night. Forty-five minutes in the freezing cold was enough to give me a taste of what life was like on the Endurance Expedition. I can’t begin to comprehend how strong Shackleton’s men had to be to survive for TWO FULL YEARS in the Frigid Antarctic!
I am in the midst of re-reading “South”, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, where he recounts his epic Antarctic Polar voyage from 1915-1917. After reading a chapter, I often open the sliding glass door to the back porch and go outside into a Central Oregon winter’s night, to feel the cold and to try to relate to how the members of the expedition must have felt.
All of this brings me to the concept of Virtual Travel. The amount of hydrocarbons and methane spewing into the atmosphere are warming the planet and wreaking havoc around the globe. The people who are suffering the most from climate change are not the ones most responsible for the anthropogenic greenhouse emissions. While I may not go as far to say I will never fly in an airplane again, I can say that I will attempt to lower my carbon footprint. One way is to change our diets to eat more plant based foods or foods that are locally sourced. Another method is to reduce travel miles, or to travel in a method that uses renewable energy. Virtual travel is a method to meet our desires to explore exotic environments without leaving behind a large carbon footprint. With just a little bit of imagination and a quiet and secluded back yard, I can virtually travel to far away places without using any fossil fuels to get there.
On another night, I opened the sliding glass door and stepped outside into a calm Antarctic night, with the full moon reflecting off of the previous night’s snowfall. The clear skies enhanced the radiational cooling of the atmosphere, and the temperature dipped down into the low teens. But with no wind, it didn’t seem all that cold! There were no bergs crashing together to form pressure ridges on my ice floe. Our camp was intact, and secure. We fired up the blubber stove from the seal oil that we rendered from a Weddell seal we had killed the night before and heated up some water for some tea. With a warm drink to counter the frigid temperatures, our frozen wilderness became a place of contentment. Our thoughts drifted to loved ones back in England. We hoped that they were okay, and wondered about the world at war at that time. Suddenly, the pack ice seemed like a refuge instead of a prison.
At that moment, one of the sled dogs started barking. No, wait….that actually was my next door neighbor’s dog….her barking ended my peaceful night in the Antarctic and transported me again, back to the suburbs of Bend, Oregon. Not to worry, though. My tea is getting cold and I think I’ll go inside and fire up the microwave oven and heat some water for another cup.
Sometimes, when I am virtually travelling in my backyard, I end up sitting in 105F water in our hot tub. There, I can have my body warmed up to my chin, while snowflakes fall on my head. When I close my eyes, I can imagine myself sitting in a desert hot spring in Northern Nevada in the middle of winter. Or pretend that I am competing with snow monkeys for space in a hot spring in northern Japan in the winter time. And I didn’t have to burn any hydrocarbons by driving or flying to get to these places. The electricity needed to keep the water hot comes from renewable hydro and solar.
Now that the Spring equinox has just passed here in the northern hemisphere, I begin to think about traveling to warmer climes. Recently I have taken a couple of nights off from my Antarctic sojourns and begun to explore Thailand. My wife has a friend who is planning a trip there. Being a geographer, I offered to help with some of the research. I’ve read other folks travel blogs, gathered climate and physiographic data, read old issues of National Geographic, used Google Earth street view to ride a bicycle down narrow paths near Chaing Mai, and looked at a lot of maps (both physical and thematic). I’ve explored the ruins of the ancient capital of Siam at Sukhothai, and explored the old city of Ayutthaya outside of the capital city of Bangkok. That led me to get interested in the history of the country. Now, when I climb into the hot tub, I can imagine myself in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea, surrounded by towering limestone cliffs. Hopefully her friend will find some of that information useful. As for myself, I so enjoyed my virtual journeys there that all I lack is a trip to one of our local Thai restaurants in downtown Bend (Noi Thai, Wild Rose, or Toomies) to satisfy my desire to travel there in person. And if that turns out not to be enough, I can still experience Thailand vicariously through the accounts, pictures, and stories that my wife’s friend may share with us when she gets back home.
The definition of Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without jeopardizing, or compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. While virtual travel cannot be the only way for us to achieve a sustainable world, it certainly can be a step in the right direction.
Virtual tours became popular during the lockdowns during the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020. They are also popular with people who have disabilities who can’t physically travel. But now, with high inflation and concerns about safety in many tourism locations, it may fill a need for much of the rest of the population. There are dozens of sites on the web dedicated to virtual travel. All you need is a computer or a cell phone to connect to the internet, and you are on your way to exploring the world. And for those of us who still like to read books, our local libraries can fill in the gap.
Another good practice is to read literature of local authors of the places that you are considering traveling to. One of my favorite places to check is British author Ann Morgan’s website “A year of Reading the World” (ayearofreadingtheworld.com). She has a list of books that have been translated into English by authors from 196 countries! I had always wanted to travel to Greenland, but reading “An African in Greenland” by Tete Michel Kpomassie fulfilled my need to travel there.
Simply educating ourselves about the world that we live in and share with diverse cultures is one of the most important things we can do to hope to build a sustainable world. Whether you learn about places first so that you can be a more responsible traveler when you get there, or learn about those places just to give them an existence value, I wish you all HAPPY VIRTUAL TRAVELS to wherever you may go!
How many times do you get a second chance at a dream that seemed to have evaporated? Our unexpected return to East Falkland gave me a second chance to explore the history of the Falklands War of 1982 and climb Mt. Tumbledown. I had to remember that I owe this opportunity to a fellow passenger, whose untimely accident and subsequent death was the reason for our return to these islands. Whenever you get ONE more shot at something that you will never have to opportunity to do again, you make the most of it.
Plancius anchored in the harbor within sight of the Stanley town pier and we waited for the authorities to take the body of our fellow passenger into town to be prepared for his return to family. Later, we boarded zodiacs to make our landing at the pier. Most of the other passengers either stayed in town or went on a guided excursion to the south of town to another penguin colony. I let the guides know of my plans to hike alone out of town to climb Mt. Tumbledown, so in case something happened to me, the expedition crew would know where to look to find me.
After visiting the lonely outposts on West Falkland and practically deserted South Georgia, Stanley (population 2,800) seemed like a cosmopolitan big city in comparison. I picked up a hiking map at the visitor center adjacent to the pier. Then, I started my journey toward Mt. Tumbledown by following the Ross Road out of town towards Moody Brook, which ran along the harbor.
One of the first sights in town on my walk was of the Anglican church and the Whalebone arch adjacent to it. Much of the cultural landscape spoke of British influence, although historically the Falklands had been controlled briefly by other powers, including France, Spain, and Argentina. However, the present day architecture, types of businesses, garden types, and English signage in the streetscape, signal to the visitor that this is a very British place.
The hike through town included some other quintessential British sights, like the twin telephone booths outside of the Post Office. If you were to remove the sign above the door and ask anyone where this picture was taken, most people would guess one of the countries of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland).
Further down the street brings you to the home of the local newspaper, the Penguin News. Originally opened in 1979, the paper is the only Newspaper based in the Falkland Islands, and they publish once a week, on Fridays. Originally they only published once per month, but after the Falklands War in 1982, they moved to publishing once per week in a news rich environment.
I stopped for a second and transported myself back to April of 1982. I would no longer be walking in the Falkland Islands, but found myself in “Las Islas Malvinas” (The Malvinas Islands). I had just finished reading the book, Efemerides #Malvinas when I was back in Ushuaia a short time ago. I am re-reading it again as I write this post. Written in Spanish, it is an account of the day by day events of the 74 day war between Argentina and the U.K.
I imagine that it is now April 2, 1982. Residents have been uneasy for the past several weeks as the Argentine dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, known for human rights abuses in Argentina’s Dirty War in the late 1970s, had come under intense political pressure for the military junta’s inability to calm domestic inflation. In January of that year, he formed a commission to plan to invade and retake the Falklands in June of 1982. But mobs of angry demonstrators outside of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires convinced him to invade early. I can imagine the terror felt by Stanley residents on April 2 as they looked out of their windows to see hordes of Argentine troops marching through town. The army renamed Stanley as “Puerto Argentino.” One can imagine similar sentiments felt by Ukrainians last February, during the days leading up to, and the day of, the Russian invasion.
For the few weeks after the April 2 invasion, local residents were powerless to resist. World leaders scrambled for a diplomatic solution to the problem. Argentine soldiers, many of whom were young conscripts, had little to do besides bask in the glory of retaking the islands for their country. They were not prepared for the response that would await them in a few weeks.
It is now December 2022 again. Further down the road towards the outskirts of Stanley town, I saw students from the local school playing soccer. They seemed to be having a good time. I wondered if local students played soccer during the time Stanley became Puerto Argentino. Or, were they afraid to come outside?
I noticed that in 2022, many of the students came from African countries which had ties to British colonialism, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe. That probably was not the case 40 years prior.
The edge of town ended abruptly as the road continued into the countryside following the shoreline. Only a couple of cars passed by on the 3 mile hike out of town to the end of the inlet. The paved road became a gravel one. The sight of the slopes of Mt. Tumbledown ahead beckoned me to keep walking.
At the end of the inlet at Moody Brook, a gravel road forks off to the left towards the base of the mountain. The trail to the summit starts at the end of this road. Along the side of this road, the uplifted sedimentary rocks suggest some of the tortured geologic history of these islands. Further uphill, the tussock grass grows higher, which obscures any hint at what was once a trail. But the hiking is not too difficult. The summit of Mt. Tumbledown is only 551 feet above sea level. Not exactly a lung-busting Kilimanjaro climb.
The name of the mountain comes from an event a few centuries ago. Residents had cattle grazing on the slopes of the mountain. When they went to round them up, a stampede started and many cattle were lost as they fell off a cliff at the edge of the mountain. The animals “Tumbled down” the mountain to their deaths.
I have two objectives in mind as I climb Mt. Tumbledown. One is to visit the site of the last battle of the Falklands war to better understand the conflict. The other is to search for the marker for the planet Pluto on the Solar Systems trail. As I draw nearer to the base of the mountain, I can faintly see a cross on top of the hill, which is a memorial to British soldiers who gave their lives in defense of the Falklands. Somewhere below the summit, I heard that there are the remains of the Argentine Army encampment, where some of those soldiers died in their attempt to reclaim the Malvinas for their country.
There are several possible routes to the summit, but the one I took led me to a place where someone had constructed a ladder to climb the last few feet to the top.
A couple of minutes after climbing the ladder, I am at the summit. Below the summit cross lies artifacts, memorabilia and tributes to fallen British soldiers. The battle of Mt. Tumbledown was where the war ended after intense fighting on June 13-14, 1982 for this strategic hill overlooking the town of Stanley.
Before descending and exploring the old Argentine encampment below the summit, I set out on the ridge line to try to find the marker designating the planet Pluto, which is part of the Solar System Sculpture Walk. Designed and constructed by local sculptor and artist Rob Yssel, this 1:1 billion scale model is made from recycled local materials and is the only one of its kind. Starting from Stanley, it takes an all day hike to visit all of the planets. Since my main objective was climbing Mt. Tumbledown, I only had time to visit Pluto and possibly Neptune. Gotta make the most of this one-time opportunity!
I walked for over an hour crisscrossing back and forth around the ridge, but never did find the marker for the planet Pluto. I hope the diameter of the marker was not exactly to scale with the other planets. Otherwise, I might be looking for a marker the size of a dime in the middle of the tussock grass.
Frustrated about not locating the Pluto marker (it’s a dwarf planet after all), I descended a short distance to find the remains of the Argentine encampment situated directly below the summit. This location represents the last stand of the Argentine army in the Malvinas. The remains of field kitchens known as Ranchos lie at the eastern end of the base of Mt. Tumbledown.
On the 40th anniversary of this battle (June 14, 2022) a group of archaeologists and veterans surveyed many of the Argentine defensive positions of the 1982 war. They mapped rock-built fortifications, artillery craters and firing positions to better understand what exactly happened at that site 40 years ago to have a better understanding of the events. They found a few pairs of Argentinian civilian shoes wedged in a rock crevice, along with some other personal items. These shoes were not only inappropriate for the terrain, but were totally unsuitable for winter weather in the Falklands. June 14 may be near the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, but it marks the onset of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. I can hardly imagine the suffering that these young, ill-equipped, and poorly trained conscripts endured on those frigid, final days of autumn long ago.
Next to the rusted camp stoves is an overhang in the side of the cliff that is enough room for a campsite for just a couple of people. I would imagine that Argentine soldiers took turns getting shelter here during cold, windy nights with precipitation. From this viewpoint, they could see Puerto Argentino (Stanley) in the background. In December of 2022 when I was here, I could see my ship (Plancius) moored in the harbor in the background of the picture below.
I looked off to the south and saw another mountain poking up above the plateau. The day was still young enough for additional hiking, so I set off to climb Mt. William, in the picture below. I started to follow the faint outline where a vehicle had once made an old track through the tussock grass, but that route soon faded away. I heard that all of the land mines that were placed here in 1982 had been safely removed by now. However, in the unlikely case that one was not found and might still be active, I watched each step carefully. I did see some remnants of barbed wire fencing strewn about and an occasional rusted tin can would show itself in the tussock grass. Without any trees to block my view, I steadily made my way towards the mountain, and then climbed to the top.
Although I didn’t encounter any war relics on Mt. William, the view from the top was even more spectacular than the view from the summit of Tumbledown. The picture below is looking to the east, with a better view of Stanley, and of Plancius in her harbor. To the south I looked out over the southern ocean and knew that nothing but sea was between the coast and the Peninsula of Antarctica. I took a moment to reflect on the events that brought me to this place in time. In silence, I remembered the man who gave his life so that I could climb this mountain. His name was Frank.
I doubt that a dead man could hear my words, but I spoke them aloud anyway. Nobody else was around to hear them either. I not only thanked Frank for giving me another opportunity to visit the Malvinas, but I told him not to feel bad about being the reason for us not experiencing Antarctica. It’s bad enough to be dead. One shouldn’t also feel guilty about it.
It was time to head back into town. I contemplated taking a different route and following a different road into town, but I ended up retracing my steps back toward Moody Brook, and taking the same Ross Road back into town. There were things I passed by without photographing the first time, that I still wanted to document.
I walked for a couple of hours without seeing anyone. As I walked on the road into town only one car passed by. Then, I thought I heard footsteps behind me and closing in on me fast. It was two British hikers who had climbed the Two Sisters, two mountains farther from town than where I had hiked. They were tired and worn out from hiking all day and exclaimed, “We’re shattered!” in their Cockney accents. I think I will take that colloquialism back to the States with me.
Coming into town again on Ross Road brings you to the Falklands War Memorial on the south side of the street, commemorating the British soldiers who lost their lives during the 1982 War with Argentina. This memorial is for the over 300 British soldiers and Falkland Islanders who perished in the conflict. All over Stanley you will find tributes to veterans of the war.
Over 1000 soldiers died during the brief war, over 600 of them being from Argentina. Their memorials can be found in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego province. The picture below is but one of the memorials located in Ushuaia, which considers itself to be the true capital of the Malvinas. I won’t go into great historical detail as to whose country’s claims are deemed to be more righteous. I would suggest that when you study the history of these islands, you focus on the events and the world situation starting in the late 1700s and leading up to the date of 1833. Both sides feel wounded. Forty years after the Falklands War, there is still no trade or commercial transportation route between Argentina and the Falklands.
Back on Ross Road in Stanley, on the south side of the street, you will see a bronze bust of Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister of the U.K. during the Falklands War. She was not all that popular in Great Britain, but they do think a lot of her here in the Falklands.
Once back in town and thirsty after a long hike, I visited the local tavern to sample a local brew. I did not have any British currency in my wallet. I only had Argentine Pesos and that surely wouldn’t work here. But I did have a credit card. However, the Globe Tavern does not take credit cards. Luckily, I ran into some fellow shipmates who had Pound Sterling or Euros and they fronted me a beer. I opted for a Peat Cutter Ale and we all enjoyed our brews sitting in the sun outside of the tavern. We bonded. A day later at sea, I would buy them a round at the ship’s bar.
After taking the zodiac back to the ship, I stood on deck and looked to the southwest and took in the view of the two mountains (hills really) that I climbed today. It was a memorable day that I’ll never forget. The mountains looked so much closer to town when you used a zoom lens to photograph them!
After dinner in the dining room, we walked out on deck to take in one last view of Stanley. The beautiful sunset made us feel that the Universe was smiling at us.
As we sailed north around East Falkland that evening, we saw the spouts of several whale species (Fin, Sei, and Humpback). One pair of humpbacks swam with us right at the bow of the ship for a few moments. We would have a few more landings the next few days at a few sites on West Falkland. I went to sleep, content with the satisfaction of knowing that I got what I came here for and more.
We never know what each day in life will bring us, or if we will even survive the day. As I awoke bright and early the next day, I looked out the porthole window and was greeted by a beautiful sunrise over West Falkland. I thought of Frank. I don’t know how many more beautiful sunrises are in my future, but I vow never to take another one for granted again.
Many books have been published about the Falklands War. But reading on the entire history of the islands will give allow you to get the Big Picture of the various perspectives held by both sides. For further reading, I might recommend Graham Pascoe’s book, Falkland Facts and Fallacies: The Falkland Islands in History and International Law, published just last year during the 40th anniversary of the War. ISBN-13 9781803810881
You should never take a voyage in the Southern Ocean for granted. There is a reason why the latitudes in this region are called the roaring forties and the furious fifties. The storms there are of legend. And the closer you get to the higher latitudes of Antarctica, the latitudes become the screaming sixties!
We got our first taste of it even before we left the south side of South Georgia Island. Our last planned excursion on South Georgia was a cruise up into the stunningly beautiful Drygalski Fjord with its tidewater glaciers. As soon as we turned the corner to access the fjord, we were met with headwinds greater than 50 knots. The amount of whitecaps made the surface of the sea look like meringue on a pie. Some of those winds were katabatic (1) winds coming down off of the high glaciers, but a lot of it was what you normally see in the Southern Ocean. The captain decided to bag the fjord excursion and slowly turn the boat back toward the open ocean. We all had to have at least one hand holding onto the ship. As he turned, we exchanged the upward and downward pitching of the ship for side to side rolling.
Once we hit the open ocean in the Scotia Sea, the effect of the katabatic winds were gone and we were left with only 40 knot winds; but still a rough ride. Our position was about 55 degrees south and we will have two more days of this before we get to the South Orkney Islands and another day after that to reach the Peninsula of Antarctica. Our emotions were a mix of excited anticipation and dread as we headed further south into the most perilous waters on the planet.
With nothing but open ocean and foul weather to look at, we stayed in bed or sat in the observation deck most of the time. Even getting up to go to the bathroom was an adventure. One had to hold onto something or brace against whatever was available and lunge toward the next hand hold to make your way to the potty. I recall waking up in the near dawn hours with the feeling that I needed to relieve myself, but not wanting to get up after seeing 25 foot swells through the porthole window. Our ship, the Plancius, was bucking like a mad rodeo bull. To go or not to go…that was the question! If only I could stay upright for the eight seconds it took to get to the bathroom, I could get relief.
I hadn’t planned on this. Times like these are when you rehash the decisions you made in the past to get you to this point. Should I have booked this trip on a larger ship? If so, I might have less rocking, but the small expedition ship that I am on has provided me with more shore excursions and zodiac cruises than I would have had on a larger ship. Plus, it is small enough that I am finally getting to know my fellow passengers. Maybe I should have anticipated something like this and brought some depends so I wouldn’t have to get up to go to the bathroom. But I didn’t do either of those things. Therefore, I got out of bed. And it took me more than 8 seconds to get to the bathroom. But I got there safely.
Rolling and pitching. Pitching and rolling. Rock n’ Roll. With the bathroom door closed and no porthole to look out of, you can’t anticipate which way the room will be moving. So you prepare for both. I wondered, “How did Shackleton take a leak in these waters while living in a rowboat for 17 days?” With head leaning against the wall above the commode, and leaning at a 45 degree angle with feet splayed out wide, I had one hand firmly on the sink to brace myself and the other one on Moby to help with aim. It was a struggle to hit the moving target. If the commode were a canvas, I could have made a Jackson Pollock painting on it! Now to get safely back to bed…
Once safely tucked in under the covers, I decided to skip going to breakfast and ride out the waves in bed. However, midway through the morning an announcement came over the loud speaker. The ship was changing course away from Antarctica and heading back to the Falkland Islands! Apparently, one of the passengers took a bad fall and suffered severe head trauma. He was currently in the ship’s hospital in serious but stable condition, but needed further medical help. The closest facilities were back in Stanley, on East Falkland, which was a three day sail from here. We were too far out for a helicopter evacuation.
While I was disappointed about possibly losing the chance to visit Antarctica, I realized that this could have happened to any one of us, so was understanding of the reasons to divert the ship. The rest of the day the seas were still lumpy, but waves had lowered to less than 20 feet. I used two hands on the guard rails on my way to lunch in the galley that afternoon. At that time, we still thought that there might be a chance to still go to the peninsula after we got our comrade some medical help.
The next morning, I sat with some staff at breakfast. Without anyone saying anything, I knew something was amiss. I realize they must have been tired, taking turns in the infirmary attending to their patient. The expedition staff had to sleep in four hour shifts so that a minimum of two staff members could be in the hospital sitting with the patient at all times. But no information was shared at the table that morning.
After breakfast, an announcement was made for all passengers to meet in the observation lounge for a meeting with the captain. Afternoon briefings were common, but morning ones were not. Also, the captain was not usually part of our daily briefings with expedition staff. People had questions about the itinerary for the rest of the voyage.
Our lead guide was visibly shaken as she informed us of the passing of our fellow passenger, who succumbed to his injuries the night before. He was traveling with a group from the Sierra Club. The leader of that group, who had traveled with him before, said a few words about the life of her fallen friend. She said that while this is a sad moment, he died doing something that he loved. I wonder how many of us will be able to say that when our time finally comes. Many of us cogitated on the meaning of our lives.
A sea voyage can be a metaphor for our journeys through life. Sometimes the voyage takes us to unforgettable places of exceptional beauty, like St. Andrews Bay on South Georgia. Other times we suffer through the unpleasantness of stormy waters. At any time, a rogue wave may knock us off of our feet and cause us injury…or worse. And will anyone be with us to share those beautiful moments or dark times? And who will they be?
Our lives may seem like a vapor in the wind; fleeting and able to be tossed about by the circumstances that we find ourselves in. But even if our existence on this planet is so ephemeral and may be snuffed out at any moment, shouldn’t we live our lives in such a way that our “vapor in the wind” produces an agreeable scent to those living downwind of us? Events like what just happened are catalysts for deep introspection.
Some of the passengers peppered the captain with questions. By the nature of their questions, a few gave the impression that getting to Antarctica was the most important thing in their lives. The captain re-explained that since the death happened in international waters, they were required to go directly to the nearest port, which was Stanley on East Falkland. We would arrive in Stanley just five days before the voyage would end in Ushuaia. There would be an investigation and paperwork and there would not be enough time to travel to Antarctica and back in the time left on our voyage. At best we would have to cross the most treacherous waters on earth with only the slight possibility of only spending a couple of hours on the peninsula. At worst, a multitude of scenarios were in the realm of possibility. The slight possibility of a short reward did not justify the risk that we would all have to take. Alternate plans would be made to spend more time in the Falklands.
That should have been enough to be said. Even so, I couldn’t believe that a few people were still trying to lobby the captain to make the trip anyway. A couple of others didn’t read the mood in the room very well and were laughing and telling jokes. A man had just lost his life. He was a husband, a father, a brother, and a friend to many. Sadly, it seemed like they would have been content to wrap our companion in a bed sheet and give him a burial at sea so that their trip would not be interrupted. Thankfully, those few were in the minority. Although we all shared in the disappointment of a dream that did not come to fruition, most of us focused our thoughts on our fallen companion and his family and friends. In the context of it all, Antarctica didn’t seem so important to me anymore.
Last night (Jan. 2, 2023), the Monday night football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals was postponed after Damar Hamlin, a defensive back for the Bills, collapsed on the field after making a tackle. The young man suffered a cardiac arrest and a defibrillator was used to restore his heartbeat. He remains in critical condition in the hospital. All of the players walked off the field after kneeling and praying for him. Nobody cared about playing football after witnessing that. I had a similar feeling about Antarctica.
The next day the seas began to calm. The winds abated to about 15 knots and the swells were only about 6 feet. It was deemed safe enough to go back out on deck again. After dinner, I went upstairs to the bar for the first time on the trip. I hadn’t purchased anything on the ship to this point, but I bought a round of drinks for my roommate, for one of the staff members, and one for the friend of the deceased man. There, four total strangers shared a deep heartfelt conversation about the meaning of life. And ironically, how death plays such a role in giving meaning to our lives. As a result of his death, I got to know the fallen man much more intimately than I did in life.
The following day brought more reflection about the events that changed our trip. Would we be coming back another day to go to the peninsula? For some, it is the holy grail of travel. The company offered a 30% discount on future Antarctic trips in the next two years. Two people have already made plans to stay on the ship, which heads directly to the peninsula after we disembark in Ushuaia. Too much money and not enough time for most of the rest of us however.
I thought of our fallen comrade. I knew him for the most brief of times. He was directly in front of me in the line to get fitted for boots at the beginning of the trip. We exchanged only brief pleasantries, but I could see how joyful he was to be on this expedition. He didn’t get to see Antarctica, but he certainly did experience the fullness and magic of South Georgia before he died. He walked among 700,000 king penguins, rode in zodiacs next to fur seals, visited an albatross colony and dodged elephant seals on a deserted island beach in the remote South Atlantic Ocean. He had a shot of scotch on Shackleton’s grave and had visited West Falkland. Those things are so unique, and most people in the world will never experience them. Was that enough for him to die in peace? Would it be for me if today was my last day on earth? Yes, I think it would! But I still have some other things that I want to do while I am still here.
It was then that I decided not to return to Antarctica in the future. I am scheduled to teach a college class in Sustainability this winter. Since I have already been responsible for spewing a lot of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere for this one chance to go to the frozen continent, I feel I can’t really justify a return trip. The universe has spoken.
In the past I had already previously visited the High Arctic. Making another trip all the way down here just to say I’ve been to Antarctica seemed kind of selfish. South Georgia would be as far south as I am ever going to get. And, since I’ll never cross the Antarctic Circle, I guess I’ll never be considered to be bi-Polar. That’s okay. I have the memories of South Georgia and now the opportunity to visit East Falkland. If you read my post on West Falkland (Las Islas Malvinas) you know that I was disappointed that we previously had to bypass East Falkland due to weather. Now I will get to visit there and hike Mt. Tumbledown and explore battle sites of the Falkland War of 1982.
The gentleman who died on our voyage did not take Antarctica away from me. He ended up giving me the gift of Mt. Tumbledown and East Falkland, for which I am eternally grateful. My next post about climbing Mt. Tumbledown and walking East Falkland will be my final post about this Southern journey. As I think of the gift he gave me, I wonder what gifts I can give to others, in life as well as in death. Dear readers, may whatever voyage you are on be epic and may the fragrance of your life be pleasant to those downwind of you!
For those of you who have not read the prior post about visiting West Falkland, the link to the post is below.
Besides being infused with such abundant wildlife, South Georgia also has an incredible historical significance. The island is central to the most remarkable survival story ever told; that of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s journey there in 1916.
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Our first stop at South Georgia’s capital “city” of Grytviken (pop. 7 in summer) was to visit the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton. We were greeted by elephant seals and fur seals as we landed on the rocky beach. You couldn’t have asked for a better weather day, as it was sunny and the winds were calm.
We dodged a few fur seals guarding their beach territories and made our way to the cemetery at Grytviken. There we each had a shot of Shackleton Scotch whiskey to toast the great Antarctic explorer at the site where his body lay.
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Sir Ernest Shackleton had South Georgia on his mind in April of 1916. And it wasn’t because he wanted to view the abundant wildlife of the “Serengeti of the Sea”. He came there to find help to rescue sailors stranded back on the frozen continent of Antarctica. Indirectly, the marine life played a role in his salvation. Without them, no men who wanted to harvest them for a resource would be on that remote outpost of an island. But because of whaling and sealing over 100 years ago, the few men that lived there represented the only human help available for hundreds of miles. Shackleton’s epic 17 day journey from Antarctica in a row boat across the most forbidding seas on the planet would have been an epic journey in itself. Just navigating the 800 miles to that tiny island from Antarctica was quite a feat. They were only able to take three sightings of stars during the whole voyage, due to cloudy skies or heavy seas. Had they been off by just a degree on the compass, they would have missed the island and would have had to travel over 2000 more miles to reach land at the southern tip of Africa. However, some of the most perilous parts of the journey still lay ahead. They landed on the southern part of the island in a storm and had to cross high, snow capped mountains to reach the whaling stations on the other side of the island. This had never been attempted before.
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Grytviken is the site of a former whaling station. A total of over 175,000 whales have been processed through the whaling stations of South Georgia from the industry’s inception in 1904 until its closure in 1965. Prior to the start of the whaling industry, Grytviken was the site of fur seal harvesting. Nowadays, fur seals and elephant seals have reclaimed the grounds as their own.
Almost fifty years after their closing, the whaling stations are disintegrating and are in various states of collapse. For this reason, most of them are off limits to travelers due to unsafe conditions. Grytviken is the exception, as the government invested more than 6 million British pounds to clean up the area by removing asbestos, fuel oil and other hazardous materials. The government also maintains buildings such as the church, the museum and a few other buildings for historical preservation.
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When Shackleton landed on the southern side of the island in May of 1916, he and the four other men who accompanied him on the James Caird (a rowboat) rested for a few days under the upturned boat before they began to cross the island. Grytviken was not their first destination of choice. There was another whaling station at Stromness, which was closer. The interior of South Georgia Island had never been surveyed, and they had to guess their route. To cross the glaciers they hammered nails into their boots to act as crampons. On their way over the island, they heard a factory whistle, the first sounds of civilization they had heard in 18 months. As they entered Stromness, workers at the whaling station were astonished to see something they had never witnessed before; men coming toward them from the direction of the mountains. They ended up making the crossing of the island on foot in only 36 hours, a feat that has not been equaled in modern times by contemporary explorers with modern equipment.
They were now ready to outfit a rescue mission. After a few unsuccessful attempts to reach the men stranded on Elephant Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, Shackleton reached the men on the third attempt via the Chilean ship “Yelcho”. Miraculously, all of them had survived the Antarctic winter and all were rescued on 30 August of 1916. They had survived by eating seal meat, penguins and their dogs. The story remains today as one of the most remarkable stories of human endurance and survival ever told.
His original ship, the Endurance, which was crushed by ice and sank in 1915 was recently discovered on March 9, 2022 at the bottom of the Weddell Sea.
For further reading, I would recommend the following books
South:Shackleton’s Last Expedition, Sea Wolf Press, ISBN 10-1952433541
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, by Sara Wheeler. Modern Library, ISBN 10-9780375753381
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After a most wonderful day exploring the Environs around Grytviken, we boarded the zodiacs at the beach and went back to Plancius where the ship’s crew had prepared a barbecue on deck for us. They even made batches of spiced wine to go with our meal. What a great way to top off a memorable day. One more day of exploring another location on South Georgia and we will finally be on our way to Antarctica!
I’ve had Georgia on my mind for some time now….SOUTH GEORGIA that is. That remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. I wrote a post about it last year. I’ll leave a link to it at the end of this post. Now, I finally made it here in person! And it is even MORE AMAZING than I dreamed it would be.
The voyage from the Falklands took a full three days though some “lumpy” seas. The South Atlantic can be an unforgiving place. We saw spouts from several types of whales on the way over (Humpback, Sei and Fin Whales), along with some porpoise. I’ll never forget the sight of high rugged snow-capped mountains jutting out from a frothy sea, with the black heads of fur seals rivaling the amount of whitecaps in the ocean. The amount of wildlife in the sea was almost unimaginable.
Of course Geography has a lot to do with the abundance of wildlife here. The seas surrounding the island are rich in phytoplankton, on which the food chain is built. Long summer days provide the sunlight for photosynthesis and iron leaching from the landmass provides critical fertilizer that phytoplankton need. These provide the sustenance for krill, which keep fish, seals, penguins, seabirds, and whales alive.
“The nature of South Georgia’s ecosystem is also greatly influenced by its position in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), which is a strong current flowing in an easterly direction. Where the ACC runs into South Georgia and the submarine rampart of the Scotia Ridge, there is massive upwelling and mixing of water that brings nutrients to the surface where they promote phytoplankton blooms.” (1) Just north of South Georgia island is where the Polar Front occurs where warm water and cold water meet in a convergence. Krill are seldom seen to the north of this line.
The other reason for so much wildlife on the land is that it is the only landmass within a huge area of sea where seabirds and marine life such as pinnipeds can breed and raise their young.
Our first planned spot for landing was Right Whale Bay, but due to heavy winds again, we altered our plans and opted for Prince Olav’s Harbor, which offered us some protection from the 40 knot winds elsewhere. The morning zodiac trip was chilly and damp (it was 4C and misting), but we cruised close to shore where a large horde of fur seals were lining the rocky shores.
Since the tide was low at the time, we had to make our way through kelp beds, and we had to clean a few fronds from the propeller at times. Further up the cove we came across the remains of an old whaling station and the wreckage of an old ship. Now the wildlife has reclaimed an area where they were formally hunted. Presently, the whole island is a nature reserve and no fishing is allowed within 12 km of the island.
After lunch we made our way to Salisbury Plain to visit a King Penguin colony. However, the wind picked up again to 40 knots and the ship was unable to hold anchor and we were unable to use the zodiacs to land. But we cruised up and down the coast and marveled at the beautiful landscape of a large glacier in the background with a nice sandy beach in the foreground. After about an hour, the wind started to abate to around 20 knots. Now we could safely land at Salisbury Plain.
Upon landing, we had to run the gauntlet straight up the beach past the fur seals who were guarding the beach like sentinels. They are very aggressive concerning their territory, and a bite from one of them would more than ruin your day, especially since we are three days away from any medical facility. Once we were at the top of the beach, we put our life jackets in a pile and walked toward the penguin colony. The noise and the odor from bird guano were both pretty loud. This is probably the most remote place I have been to on this planet (and that is saying a lot), and it is so full of life!
We were all very happy with this experience, but the best was yet to come. The following morning we woke up to clear skies and calm winds at our new anchorage at St. Andrews harbor. This time when we landed on the beach, elephant seals and king penguins awaited us.
What a gorgeous day it was! Just the scenery itself would have been enough to replenish a wounded soul. But we had the opportunity to hike around and explore a bit. The expedition staff flagged a route for us to hike up over a knoll to overlook a colony of 300,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins with their chicks.
We had to first cross a running stream with penguins lined up in a queue, and then watch out for fur seals strewn all over the landscape. Giant Petrels, Albatross and Terns flew overhead as we watched our steps crossing the landscape.
I thought we had seen a lot of wildlife at Salisbury Plain, but what I saw below me when I topped the crest of the hill just blew my mind. Below were the 300,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins, with at least 100,000 more large brown chicks who were almost as large as their parents. I’ve been to the Serengeti Plains of Africa, but the concentration of wildlife here cannot compare to anywhere else on our planet, including the high arctic in summer. A very large elephant seal was far away from the beach and quickly bounded his way toward the water as the frightened birds parted to make a path for him. These five adult kings in the picture below watched all of this with me.
After a few glorious hours of being in this magical place, it was time to make our way back to the ship, as we had another place to explore after lunch. When we made our way back to the beach, it seemed like a young elephant seal was waving goodbye to us.
While we waited for the next zodiac to arrive at the beach, the king penguins, who had no fear of humans, began to come over and give us a closer look. They seemed especially interested in our footwear. Maybe our rubber boots made us look like we didn’t have any toes.
As we boarded the zodiac, we took one last slow cruise past the colony.
After lunch, we were scheduled to make a landing at Godthul harbor, where there is a Gentoo penguin colony. But I have already had a full and satisfying day. If this were a football game, I would be leading 56-3 at halftime. Instead of running up the score, I decided pull the first string and opted out of the Godthul landing. I just had a morning of sensory overload and needed time to process it all. Rather than take the afternoon excursion, I chose to take a shower while the boat was at anchor, wash out a few clothes and catch up on my journal writing. Looking from the ship, Godthul was an impressive looking harbor. We did managed to see some more humpback whales on the way there, but I could not have had a better day than this already was! I felt very fortunate to experience this magical remote outpost that very few humans get to visit.
Our next stop will be the old whaling station at Grytviken and visiting the grave of Ernest Shackleton, and reliving his heroic epic journey from Antarctica in a life boat over 100 years ago.
This seldom visited and little known archipelago has a lot to offer for the adventurous traveler. Our two day voyage to the from Argentina to the islands began with the good omen of a rainbow in the Beagle channel. Once clear of the channel, the seas became rougher.
Most people who are not Argentines have never heard of the Islas Malvinas. Likewise, many folks who are not British have never heard of the Falkland Islands, especially if they are younger than 50 years old. A war was fought between these two in 1982 over whose nation would control them.
When people asked me about the next trip I would be taking, I got blank stares when mentioning either name for these islands. When I mentioned that I am also going to South Georgia Island, I got a nervous half smile. Finally, when I mentioned that my last stop would be in Antarctica, their eyes lit up! Finally someplace that they could imagine where it was.
My old high school friend in New Jersey is the best example of this. While most of us moved away after graduation and found new geographies to identify our lives by, my friend remained there and never traveled anywhere. But we have a shared history long ago and we still keep in touch from time to time.
“Where are you off to this time?”, he asks.
“I’m off to explore the Malvinas Islands”, I respond, always trying to pique someone’s interest in Geography.
Silence. “Maybe you know them as the Falkland Islands”, I added. He was surely old enough to remember the war.
“There’s millions of F**king islands in the world”, he exclaimed. “Which F**king islands are you talking about?”, he asked in a thick Jersey shore accent that hadn’t changed in 45 years.
“NOT the F**KING Islands!”, I shouted back. “THE FALKLAND ISLANDS! The name has an L in it. They are located off the coast of Argentina and are a British Overseas Protectorate. Don’t you remember the war that happened there in 1982?”
“Oh, never heard of them”, he replied calmly. You would have to have an interest in the rest of the world if you were to ever want to travel.
Certainly all Argentinians know about the Malvinas. And don’t ever use the F word (Falklands) when referring to them. All over their country, they are still angry with the English for taking what they feel was rightfully theirs. The history is complicated, but the islands were uninhabited by people when the British discovered them in the late 1600s. The French, Spanish, and for a brief time the Argentinians had control of the islands. In 1690, John Story of England named the islands after Viscount Falkland. 74 years later, Bougainville of France named the islands Les Malouines after the many fishermen who came there from St. Malo. Malvinas is the Spanish derivative from the original French.
Britain regained control of the islands in 1833. One would have to go back to the Arana Southern Treaty in the mid 1800s between Argentina and the United Kingdom, which would have a negative impact on Argentina’s modern claim to the islands. But that didn’t stop the military Junta of Leopoldo Galtieri from invading the islands in April of 1982, as he faced a slumping economy and increased civil opposition to military rule. He hoped that fostering pro-nationalist sentiment over the sovereignty of the islands would keep the military in power, but Argentinian forces surrendered in June of 1982.
Our amphibious landings in zodiacs on Grave Cove and on West Point Island in the West Falklands were much more innocuous than those of the Argentine Naval invasion 40 years ago. The only denizens that awaited us on the beach were a small colony of Gentoo Penguins, some Cari Cara raptors, a few fur seals and an albatross colony. We came well armed with cameras and were ready to shoot. However, we were polite enough to do it at a distance and not disturb the wildlife. Nature tourism has been growing the past decade and the Falklands government has stressed conservation measures and biosecurity. All people who land on the islands must make sure that their boots are impeccably clean and sanitized with Virkon disinfectant before landing, a broad spectrum disinfectant designed to be effective against 61 strains of virus and several strains of bacteria and fungi.
After a zodiac landing, we made a short hike to a Gentoo Penguin colony.
The Gentoo Penguins had bigger problems to worry about than our presence. Nearby were Striated Cara Cara raptors, who are opportunistic thieves and will grab an unattended penguin egg any chance that they get. The Falkland Islands are home to 98% of the world population of Striated Cara Caras. The one in the picture below came so close to me that I didn’t need a zoom lens.
Penguins like to march in single file from their nests to the sea. When viewing them, it is important to not block their “Penguin Highway” for the least amount of disturbance to them.
After Grave Cove, we weighed anchor and went a short distance to West Point Island to hike across the island to see an albatross colony which was shared with some rockhopper penguins. The Falklands are home to five species of penguins, along with a multitude of bird species.
The Falklands have about 3,400 residents, with almost 2,800 people clustered near the capital of Stanley, on East Falkland. That leaves just a few hundred residents scattered over the rest of the nearly 4,700 square miles (12,000 square km). When you see a village on a map, it may only consist of a family or two. The “village” of the Napier Hill settlement in the picture below was a one house farm first leased to Arthur Felton in 1879. Lease and ownership of the island has remained with his descendants. Sheep were raised here for years, and trees were planted here as windbreaks. The ashes of Lars-Eric Lindblad, one of the pioneers of Falkland Islands tourism and Antarctic Tourism, lie here. Ever heard of the company Lindblad Expeditions?
After landing in zodiacs, we took about a 1.25 mile hike across the island to the Devil’s Nose, where there is an albatross colony located on a cliff overlooking the sea. The Falklands are essentially treeless, so residents historically cut peat for fire to heat their homes in winter. Peat cutting Monday in October is a National Holiday here! They also used seals and penguins for their oil in the past. Sheep production for wool and meat were historically important. Today, fishing and tourism are important, and some remote farms are turning into ecotourism lodges where guests can mix wildlife viewing with agro-tourism.
When we got to the cliffs on the other side of the island, the ocean breezes became stiff. This is the perfect place for large birds such as the albatross to spread their huge wings and get a liftoff. It also provides the ideal conditions for chicks to take their first flight. Albatross mate for life, and it was interesting to watch the courtship of a pair that had recently been reunited from their long time away from each other at sea.
Some rockhopper penguins had also found their way up the cliffs, and were intermingled with the albatross. After sharing that special place with them for a while, we hiked back over the island to catch a zodiac back to the ship. The picturesque view of bright yellow gorse hedge, green grass and tussock, mixed with the deep blue water is a vision that I will never forget and will endear me to West Falkland forever.
The following day brought a change in the weather and a storm was heading our way. We were supposed to go to Stanley and visit East Falkland, but the winds were forecast to be 50 knots and the harbor would be closed. Too windy and dangerous to launch a zodiac! Rather than wait around and possibly still not have the opportunity to land, the captain and expedition staff decided to bag on the idea of visiting East Falkland and head straight away to South Georgia Island, another three days sailing on open ocean. I had really wanted to visit some of the battle sites of the Falklands war there and was disappointed that we could not do so, but being a former guide myself, I understand that you need respect Mother Nature and only do what she allows you to do.
We have three days of sailing on open ocean to get to our next destination. My next post will be about South Georgia Island, which has the largest concentration of wildlife on the planet and is known as “the Serengeti of the Sea.” That ONE place is the most important place for me on this trip and look forward to that experience with anticipation and excitement. I pray we have good weather there.
For books on further reading about the Falklands War……
74 days: An Insider’s Diary of the Falklands Occupation 1982; John Smith, Quetzal Publications, 2002. ISBN 1-90365703-2
Efemerides #Malvinas: 74 dias en 280 Caracteres: Hernan Favier, Instituto de Publicaciones Navales del Centro Naval, 2022. ISBN 978-950-899-157-7
I traveled all of the way to the End of the World and found that there was a post office there.
It took two days of flying, through five different airports, two bus rides and some walking to get here. Almost 10,000 miles later I’ve finally arrived.
Ironically, many people who take this journey only use this place as a stopover to BEGIN their journeys on an Antarctic Voyage. But the end of the world is a worthy destination in and of itself.
I’m in Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the southernmost populated city in the world. It’s referred to as “El Fin del Mundo” here, which means “End of the World.” Technically speaking, the town of Puerto Williams in Chile is a few miles further south. But in reality Ushuaia is the end of the civilized world as we know it. In a few days I will be boarding a ship headed to the Malvinas Islands (Falklands), South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (with its rich and abundant wildlife), and finally crossing the dreaded Drake Passage to visit my sixth continent (Antarctica). But we will talk about these in subsequent posts.
For being considered to be the end of the world, Ushuaia is a bustling municipality. It is the center of commerce for the region of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Located on the shores of Beagle channel with high mountains and glaciers for a backdrop, it also is the hub for local adventure tourism for both land and sea.
The dock is the center of tourism activity for the city. Many cruise ships, both large and small, make port here. The Plancius (center of picture above) is the ship I will be taking. The advantage of a smaller ship means more time ashore. Also, smaller day cruises are available from the dock to cruise up and down Beagle Channel for sightseeing or to visit Penguin colonies, or to look for whales.
Once just a seaport and transportation and shipping hub with a Naval base and a fishing fleet, the town now has a thriving commerce built largely on tourism. The city is built on a hillside, with streets in a grid pattern. If you could compare it to somewhere else, it would be like a Spanish speaking Juneau, Alaska, only without the bears. Also, one would need to substitute penguins for the bald eagles.
With the cafes and chocolate shops you might think you were in Bariloche, Argentina. But the smell of salt air would tell you otherwise. But before you buy anything, you should have brought a lot of cash either in dollars or euros. But don’t expect a good exchange rate at anywhere else except a few exchange houses (Casa de Cambio). The official government rate was only 160 pesos to the dollar. If you use credit cards, businesses have to go by the official government rate. However, at exchange houses they will give you between 280 and 290 pesos to the dollar. Be sure to ask for the “dollar blue” rate. Just make sure the bills you are trading are larger ones ($50 or $100, and not torn or wrinkled). Inflation is rampant in Argentina and the economy has been crashing and the peso is in a free fall. In 2009, the last time I was in Argentina, there were four pesos to one dollar. Most of the collapse has happened recently. Devaluation is a weekly occurrence. And you thought that inflation was bad where you live!
Now that you have a lot of pesos in your pocket, you are ready to enjoy the town. Craft beer has made its way this far south, and you can sip on a Cape Horn Beer from the world’s most southernmost brewery at the Casa Olmo (Avenida San Martin 87).
Ushuaia even has a Hard Rock Cafe (Avenida San Martin 594). Most of the tourist shops and eating and drinking establishments are located on this avenue, which is parallel to the coast and one block uphill.
But Ushuaia is more than just city life for cruise ship tourists. The region of Tierra del Fuego is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking, climbing, and trekking options available in almost any direction. I did two hikes starting from town. One day I hiked up to the Martial Glacier above town. The views are stunningly beautiful. For the less energetic, one can take a taxi most of the way uphill, which will shorten your hike. Remember that it is the south-facing slopes that receive less sun in this part of the world. I didn’t bring my ice axe with me, and as it is only late Spring here, I didn’t climb high up the snowy slopes.
One other hike I took from town was suggested to me by a friendly local. It follows the shoreline to the east of town, first through the industrial district along Hwy 3. Then as Hwy 3 curves to the left, you take a dirt road paralleling the shoreline until you reach Playa Larga (Long Beach). There is a nice park there with picnic areas and a nice view of the city.
After walking Playa Larga, you can hike back up to the dirt road and continue down the coast until you reach the trail to Estancia Tunel, which continues for another 8 km along the coast. As it was very windy that day and I had already hiked a long way, I chose to only walk another 1.5 km further before turning back and hiking back to town. In all I hiked about 14.5 miles that day. For those who want less walking, take a taxi to the beginning of the hike to Estancia Tunel and cut off about 8 km of hiking through the industrial part of town.
Most hikers who come to Ushuaia and spend a few days here will end up visiting Tierra del Fuego National Park, which is several kilometers to the west of the town. The bus ride costs 3,500 Argentine Pesos (about $12.50 if you changed your money at a casa de cambio; almost $22 if you pay in foreign cash or credit card). This does not include the park entrance fee which is an additional 3,200 pesos for foreigners. I was sure glad I changed my dollars to pesos at the better rate!
There are several great hikes to take in this park. One could spend several days here. If you do, subsequent days are half price. I chose to go early and hike like mad for one full day. I got off of the final bus stop at the end of Hwy 3 and hiked back to the Alakush Visitor center, which is the only place to get a coffee and some lunch. From there, I took another trail along Acigami Lake until I reached Hito 24 (border marker 24) where there is a small tower demarcating the border between Chile and Argentina.
From here I had to hike fast to get back to Alakush and catch a ride to the Senda Costero trail. The Fin del Mundo post office is located at the beginning of this trail. As the day was getting late, I did not have enough time to hike the whole trail, but I did manage to mail a postcard from here before the post office closed. After a brief hike, I caught the last shuttle back into town.
I could have spent several more days exploring this region, but my ship is leaving tomorrow. My first stop will be in the Falkland Islands, but we don’t use that F word while in Argentina. They refer to them as the Malvinas Islands, and there was a war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over those islands just 40 years ago. All over Ushuaia you will see pro-nationalist signs and statues about the Malvinas and it is ingrained in the national psyche.
I will be posting a few more times about the journey I will be taking as I prepare to leave the End of the World and journey into the unknown. Next stop…..Las Malvinas.
I need some of that magic of Montenegro right now! It snowed here yesterday in Oregon and it is unseasonably cold. After shoveling the driveway and sidewalk, I soaked my tired body in the hot tub and reminisced about a summer kayak trip in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. Now that’s a trip worth taking again!
I gazed up at the November night of Oregon as I shivered and saw the planet Mars next to the waning gibbous moon. Then, as I closed my eyes, I allowed myself to be transported back to the warm waters of the Bay of Kotor. The moon quickly metamorphosed into a bright sun which warmed my face. I went into the depths of my memory and my brain triggered the smell of the salt water on that most perfect day. My body momentarily left its interior continental location in Oregon and traded it for Mediterranean climate on an indented coastline off of the Adriatic Sea. It’s amazing how a place, especially a special one, can make such a lasting imprint on your memory. And that day was only ONE of many magical memories I had while in Montenegro.
For one of the youngest countries in our world, Montenegro has a lot of old world charm. Long a part of Yugoslavia in the 20th century, it became independent from Serbia in 2006. They use the Euro as their currency. Besides its beautiful coastline, Montenegro boasts high mountains and the deepest gorge in the continent of Europe. The name means “Black Mountain” in Spanish, but they don’t speak Spanish in Montenegro. The name of their country in Montenegrin, a Balto-Slavic tongue, is Crna Gora.
Traveling by bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia, the first town you come to is Herceg Novi on the north side of the Bay of Kotor. It is well touristed, but without the huge crowds of international travelers that flock to Dubrovnik.
The tourist office near the bus station can hook you up with an affordable homestay. Herceg Novi is built on the side of a mountain, and it felt like an old-world version of San Francisco as I climbed the steep streets and alleys to get to another main road, where my host met me. When I went down the street and had dinner at a restaurant overlooking the beautiful Bay of Kotor, I wondered why I was the only patron in the establishment. Was it because the food was no good? Was I there at the wrong time? Because it was 7PM and the meal ended up being an excellent one, I thought it must have been something else. Maybe it was just because all of the tourists were still jammed packed back in Dubrovnik!
The next day I took a bus around the Bay to the larger town of Kotor, where the old town has the feel of Medieval charm as it is surrounded by fortress walls. It is a good place to set up a base for a few days to explore the surrounding environs, both on land and sea. Like in the old days, there is safety and comfort behind those walls at the end of the day! There are boats to rent at the harbor to explore the sea and some great hiking trails in the mountains right behind the town. It is busier than Herceg Novi. Although crowded, the amount of people was not as large and overwhelming as you would experience in the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
With my eyes still closed to block out the chilly Autumn night in Oregon, I began to move my arms in a paddling motion and my mind began to transport me back to the scene below. My damaged shoulder slowly started healing itself and soon my arm was back to pre-accident strength. How fortunate I was to have kayaked the Bay of Kotor when I did! I had paddled all the way from the shore in the distance. It didn’t seem to me that it was so far at that time. I took a moment and thanked my former self for providing me with such a vivid memory and a proud accomplishment.
A small island was just off to my left, out of sight from the view before me. The seas were mostly calm. I remember the warmth of the sun on my face and how my sunglasses shielded my eyes from the glare of the shimmering water so that I was free to drink in the totality of that moment.
Taking a quick turn to the Northeast brought the Roman Catholic Church on Our Lady of the Rocks islet into view. Another smaller island, St. George, lies nearby. A few power boats are anchored just off of the islet. What a lovely place to be in!
Just then, the motor from the hot tub clicked on and interrupted my euphoric dream. I opened my eyes and felt the bitter cold of the Central Oregon autumn night once again. The ache returned to my damaged shoulder. There was no way I could paddle the distance all the way back to the shore with my injured arm. Clouds now blocked out the light of the moon. The Red Planet of Mars had disappeared. I sank back down until the level of the water was at chin level. Time to warm up for a few minutes, pause, and recover from a dose of reality. After that, I could be free to transport myself back to Montenegro for a few more minutes. However, this time it would be for hiking!
Warmed once again, I closed my eyes anew and allowed myself to be transported back to the edge of the city of Kotor at the start of the hiking trail. The trails climb steeply from the edge of the city. One could theoretically walk all the way to the ancient capital of Cetinje near the other side of Lovcen National Park, but that hike would take longer than one day, unless you were a triathlete. I settled for a hike far up the hill and to maybe reach the border of the national park.
The architecture revealed a history of Orthodox Christianity, and also influences from the Venetian Empire. Further inland, the mountains provided a barrier to Mediterranean peoples venturing further inland. A modern cruise ship was now in the Bay, so industrial tourism does seemed to have found its way here. The breeze, although gentle, was just strong enough to have the flag of Montenegro show its full colors for a moment.
Montenegro is definitely for those who like hiking. The trails are lightly traveled and the scenery is magnificent. The only problem is that free camping is illegal, even in National Parks. One either has to camp on private land and pay the landowner for the privilege of sleeping in a pen with his livestock, or be very discreet and clandestine about camping in the wild. I chose the latter when hiking in Durmitor National Park. It’s not that I don’t mind paying to camp on private land. I’d just rather not sleep with pigs and sheep when I do!
The mountains around Durmitor are rugged, high and impressive. I had planned on trying to climb the nation’s highest peak, Bobotov Kuk, but I got no further than a private ranch. I won’t show you the picture of where they wanted me to pay to sleep for the night. They wouldn’t allow me to take that picture. So, I turned around after a half day’s walk, shot a picture of their nice ranch from inside the pig pen, and headed back towards the town of Zabljak. But I did end up seeing some nice country that day.
On another day I took a long hike towards the Tara Gorge, the deepest gorge in all of Europe. I underestimated the time it took to get there and the ruggedness of the terrain, but I did get away with a night of free camping far away from civilization. There were some crude structures that I passed that were used by ranchers that might be shelter for someone in a rainstorm, but I quickly bypassed these as rain was not in the forecast and I didn’t want to be discovered. I never did make it all the way to the Tara Gorge, but I did see the cut in the earth from a distance. The whole of the landscape was simply Gorgeous (pun intended).
Just then I felt some snow flakes hitting the top of my head. I looked up and saw that it was snowing! The hiking trip in Montenegro was coming to an abrupt end. I was immediately back in Oregon’s High Desert. There would have to be time to relive that trip another day. However, I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to relive times in a special, magical place called MONTENEGRO. It makes me realize how brief our lives are and that we should cherish each moment we have and strive to make a memory worth reliving, wherever we are.
I’ll leave you with a few pictures I took while hiking there and let you dream of your own trip and make your own story of that place. Bon Voyage!
Last weekend, Kathy was to make her way back to the states via Aer Lingus, with a change of planes in Dublin. Since it was her first trip to Europe, we talked her into a two day layover on the Emerald Isle on the way back, and all three of us left on the same plane on Friday. We booked an apartment in the heart of town on the river Liffey near the Temple Bar district and planned on seeing the capital city on foot for a couple of days. An obligatory visit to McCann’s Bar on James St. was also on the agenda.
We had a snafu right out of the gate. After two and a half weeks of riding the metro without incident, with me always riding up the escalator Directly behind Kathy to protect her backpack from being robbed, I was handling her big suitcase and did not guard her back for the first time since she arrived in Barcelona. When we got to Placa Catalunya to take the bus to the airport, Kathy found that her backpack was open at the top and her wallet was stolen. Thankfully, she still had her passport, so we called to cancel the credit card. The thieves are very professional here, and it leaves one with a sour taste on the Barcelona experience, but we continued on to the airport to spend one last weekend together.
We rode into town in a double decked bus on the wrong side (left) of the road. We checked into our apartment and were underwhelmed. We had two sets of keys, on for the outside doors of the buildings and one for the door to our apartment on the third (fourth) floor. As in the rest of Europe, the ground floor is floor zero and the first floor is above that. We used the outdoor keys for three different doors, before getting to the elevator. The building had an odd shape, with a hallway that went to nowhere.
Another quirky thing about the place was the design of the bathroom, in which the toilet must have been placed in that location for a one legged person, since the side of it touched the wall. I joked that this was more evidence of why the Irish people never colonized or conquered other peoples…more evidence of their ineptitude. Since I myself am Irish, I feel more comfortable in criticizing my own people.
The first day, we crossed the river on the O’Connell st. Bridge and strolled around the grounds of Trinity college. We then visited the Dublin castle, and found that most of it was built by invading Vikings. That afternoon, we also discovered why Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle”, as fresh rains soaked us. The polar front jet stream was overhead and the air was chilly. The cold and damp chilled us to the bone even though we had warm jackets and raincoats. We found shelter in a restaurant in the Temple Bar section of town, so named for Mr. Temple who bought the land on the river bar and then built it up after the river was confined by building stone walls.
Saturday November 2 was the day I wanted to do something special. I clearly remember last year’s November 2, and I vow to do something memorable each year on this date. This year would be a pilgrimage to McCann’s Bar with my only sibling who was a McCann by birth, and my wife who is a McCann by marriage.
Last November 2 was a day I will never forget. It was a day that I made a new friend and lost an old one. I had worked 40 straight days without a day off, so I headed out east of town to a special place I have camped before, tucked away in a remote corner of the Deschutes National Forest. It was a cold night, and I set up my tent close to the car down an abandoned logging road and set up my folding chair and opened a beer. Soon afterwards, a chipmunk approached and hopped up on a stump and stared at me seeming to beg for food. I told him to forget it and that I don’t feed the animals and that winter was coming and he should spend his time preparing for it and not begging from me.
The chipmunk tilted his head and stared back as if to say, “I live here. Don’t you think I know that?”
I replied, “ Yes, I guess you do know that, but I bet you don’t know WHY it is getting colder!” With that, I gave him a lecture on Physical Geography, explaining earth-sun relationships, layers of the atmosphere, properties of different gases of the atmosphere, the differential heating of land and water…..essentially what I would lecture to my students in a climate class. Since he listened more intently than most of my students do, I kept on explaining. We became friends. I named him “Chirpy”, as he would occasionally comment back with chirps. Every once in a while he would jump down off of the stump and run around in circles, as if I had just blown his mind with new information about the world he lived in. Each time he would jump back up on the stump as if to say, “Tell me more!”
When it finally got dark and it was pretty cold, we both said goodnight and headed to bed. It was then that my thoughts turned to Mike Van Meter, a colleague who was having a difficult battle with cancer. I spent the next hour thinking of him and praying for him and vowed to contact him when I got home the next morning.
When I woke up at dawn, frost was all over the tent, so I packed up and drove back into town, got a coffee and went home. It was then that Beth told me that Mike had passed last night, close to the time he was on my mind. Since then, I will try to do something memorable every Nov.2, while reflecting on what is important in life; the people we care about, and the environment we live in and share with other living beings. It also reminds me how ephemeral our lives are here and to cherish each moment that we have breath.
With this thought in my mind, I am strolling in a light drizzle towards McCann’s Bar. At each crosswalk I look down to a reminder to Look Right as I cross the street. We pass by the Guinness factory, a couple of distilleries and finally spot McCann’s. We take our pictures outside (maybe our 2019 Christmas card?) and step inside
The bar was almost empty, except for the bartender and one slumped over patron. I asked if any McCanns were around, as I wanted to buy a round for any McCanns. I got off easy, as the girls didn’t want to drink anything but water, and both the bartender and the patron had different surnames than ours. So, I can say I went to my namesake bar in Dublin and bought a round for all the McCanns there. I ordered a good craft red ale and counted my blessings and thought about Nov 2 and how I would remember this one as well.
We are now back in the warm weather of Barcelona. Kathy is safely home in Connecticut. We have plans to go to Pais Vasco in a couple of weeks and to Prague the weekend after that. We think of all of you and will count as among our blessings anyone who has taken the time to read this post all the way through!
This most recent November 2, 2022, I virtually camped with Mike in my backyard and we had beers together. It was really cold that night and we spent a lot of time sitting in the hot tub before camping on the back porch. I had to use the winter sleeping bag, as it was below freezing that night. Mike never complained about it being so cold!
Suburban landscapes are not usually associated with blissful camping experiences. However, we often travel great distances to achieve what we already could have in our own back yards. In fact, it may be an important factor in achieving sustainability in our society.
Do you remember the first time that you spent the night outdoors? For many of us who grew up in a suburb, our first time sleeping in the outdoors was in the wilds of our backyards when we were children. We braved the dangers of sleeping among the wild starlings and sparrows. We might have even suffered from a mosquito bite. If things got too rough or too uncomfortable, we could go always go back inside. But how accomplished we felt when we first spent our first whole night in the wilds of our backyard without our parents’ help.
But, as we entered adulthood, we felt like we outgrew that stage, so we ventured further afield. Nothing wrong with that, as I still venture into the great outdoors to camp. But just recently, I have come to not only appreciate what my backyard has to offer, but to actively spend time camped in it.
It is midnight in my neighborhood. Most of my neighbors have gone to bed for the night. Through the rising, spiraling wisps of steam emanating from my hot tub, I take a break from my Physical Therapy exercises for my damaged arm and shoulder. I look up into the dark sky. The waning crescent moon has not yet risen. The brightest looking “star” is high in the sky and is perched just above the Mountain Ash tree in my backyard. Actually, the “star” is the planet Jupiter. A few weeks ago, I looked through a powerful telescope at it and saw three of its moons orbiting around it. The largest of these was Ganymede, which is bigger than the planet Mercury. I remember that my parents would exclaim “Great Ganymede” for something that startled them. I never suspected that either of them were closet astronomers!
The wind from this afternoon has mostly abated. The seemingly calm is momentarily interrupted by a gentle breeze from the West, carrying with it a subtle hint of the lavender planted in that part of my yard. Life is good.
I step out of the tub into the cool, early autumn night. The mock orange bushes on my porch have not yet lost their leaves, so they shield me from my neighbor’s view. With no moon out and lights off and shielded by vegetation, I stand naked on the porch and let the water evaporate off of my body as I look toward the heavens. When I am not yet completely dry, but before I start to shiver, I put on my bathrobe, good arm first. Then, I have to work to get the bad arm in the other sleeve.
I am not ready to go to bed yet, so I go into the kitchen and make a cup of hot tea, and also pour a glass of burgundy. Back to the porch I go with a cup in each hand. I have to just sit and be still in this moment…. drink it all in and be grateful. The hot tub motor cycles on again, drowning out any faint noise of vehicle traffic of a busy street four roads away.
It takes a very long time to finish my drinks and the tea is cold by the time I finish it. Finally, I unzip the sleeping back that I put on the bench on the porch, crawl inside it and lay my head on two of the small throw pillows on the bench. Staring up at the constellation of Cassiopeia through the slats of the pergola over the patio, I dream of geographical journeys through our solar system and into far away galaxies.
One usually associates blissful camping with a secluded rural area. Urban camping conjures up scenes of homeless camps. But you probably didn’t think that a suburban landscape could be associated with a blissful camping experience. But not all suburban landscapes can be described as blissful. What characteristics does your suburban neighborhood have to have in order for one to have a blissful camping experience?
Characteristics of a neighborhood where you can blissfully camp
First of all, you need to live in a neighborhood where neighbors respect one another. I can’t say much for the rest of my hood, but our little section of it has recently changed for the better. We used to have all owners, until the recession of 2008 hit, which resulted in an influx of renters. Much of the following decade was full of sad stories that I don’t want to relive. But recently, we have had some new folks buy the rentals on our block. Now, most of the residents own their own homes. And they seem to take pride in keeping them up. Most of the people on our block now know one another and are friendly to each other. I’m starting to feel upbeat about my hood again!
Secondly, landscaping is important. Besides having a privacy fence, we have a lot of trees and shrubs surrounding our yard. I planted these the best time it is to plant them…..which was 25 years ago! When a neighbor forgets and leaves a back porch light on, then any possible light pollution is mitigated. The trees I planted two decades ago are now large enough to make me feel like I am in a forest, even if some are non-native ornamentals. The mock orange bushes, besides giving me cover to bathe in the hot tub au naturel (during a new moon), also act as a windbreak for the bench that I will sleep on. In the Spring and early summer, their pungent fragrance fills the backyard and my olfactory senses with joy.
Finally, your neighborhood should be quiet. And you should feel safe in your hood. All suburban neighborhoods have noise on occasion. Someone has a party one night, or sets off fireworks on the Fourth of July, but for the most part it should be free of loud noise, especially late at night. When I close my eyes on a quiet night, my mind is free to travel to far away places, some of which are located on this very planet!
How Suburban Camping can lead to a more sustainable world
I used to pack up the car with my camping gear and head either up into the mountains or out into the desert to camp, depending on the season. Years ago, I didn’t have to go far. Now however, with an exploding population and lots of homeless people squatting in the public lands surrounding our community, I have had to go further afield to find peace and solitude. My carbon footprint would keep rising with each further sojourn to our public lands.
By camping in my backyard, not only am I saving the money for gas and wear and tear on my vehicle, but I am not spewing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. In the past, I used to drive a few hours to visit a natural hot spring. Since I have a hot spring Spa in my backyard, I rarely make the long trip to visit a natural one. Even the electricity needed to run my hot tub comes from renewable energy sources-(hydro and solar). Also, revisiting former sojourns in my mind satisfies my itch to travel as much, further reducing my possible carbon footprint.
In late September, my spouse tested positive for covid-19, so besides wearing an N-95 mask in my own house, I planned to camp on the back porch for at least the next five days. I would have been in a pickle had we lived in a garden apartment. The weather is unseasonably warm for this time of year, the smoke from the forest fires are hardly detectable, and the stars will be out again tonight. Another reason to be grateful to have a blissful location for more nights of suburban camping!
Two weeks have gone by since then. I suffered from my own bout of Covid and have now recovered. I suffered that malady while indoors, but now I am feeling better, and am itching to get back to camping on the back porch. The moon has been almost full, so I wear swimming trunks, as the leaves are starting to fall off of the mock orange bushes.
The days and nights have been unseasonably warm for late October. That is, until a few nights ago. A cold front just moved through, bringing much needed rain with it. It also abated the smoke from the recent forest fires. The month of Smoketober is now over! Late at night, there was a break in the clouds. Time to go outside!
Jupiter is much higher in the sky than when it first showed itself that September night. It is now above the Juniper tree. Mars is now visible in the East. From my vantage point, it appears to sit atop the Crab-apple tree. Fall is in the air and the temperature has dropped from the high 70s during the day, to the low 30s overnight. Frost appeared on the outside of my sleeping bag last night! And a fresh coat of termination dust appeared on the mountains this morning. Summer, which used to be defined by the equinox, is now truly officially over…..
The only thing lacking in my blissful suburban camping experience is a friend to share it with. However, having someone else camping in the backyard might end up being too noisy for the neighbors. Just then, I thought of the perfect person to have over for a backyard camp out. There won’t be any worries about him making too much noise, since he passed away four years ago. And, since he never has been to my house, I think that next week will be the perfect time to invite him over.
November 2nd is coming soon. It is the anniversary of Mike’s death. Ever since he died, we usually go afield to camp and have a beer with each other. We always go someplace new and special. But I think we will enjoy our time together in the back yard this year. And I think he would approve of the sustainability aspects of suburban camping. We will taste a couple of different brands of local craft brews and have a deep discussion about the state of the world today, even if we are unable to solve all of the world’s problems together.
But what about all of the people who have no safe haven or home in which to blissfully camp? What would it take for more of us to have a place of our own that provides a safe place to contemplate nature? These are the things Mike and I will talk about.
Dear readers, I hope you may have a blissful camping experience or a quiet, safe place of solitude for contemplation wherever you may be!