Pictures of an Expedition
By Susan Farewell
“Patagonia is a beautiful gift for your spirit.”
So said Francisco Cárdenas Marusic, an expedition guide on the M/V Stella Australis, the expedition ship I recently traveled on in one of the most remote wilderness regions in the world: Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
The words were like magic to me, instantly taking away the anxiety I had about having to disconnect from the world for five days. What unfolded in the following days was a complete letting go and living in the moment.
Some of the moments were spent just looking out the window from my bed, propped up with pillows, tea or coffee cupped in hands. My cabin had a wide floor-to-ceiling window which was constantly filled with beauty—be it in the form of fjords, virgin forests that seemingly went on forever, the vast expanse of the Strait of Magellan or wind-sculpted icebergs floating like croutons in soup. I was too distracted to read, let alone want to think about mundane chores such as the e-mails I was unable to receive.
I was traveling with a small group of colleagues so we had our own little community onboard. But I also felt an almost-instant camaraderie with the other passengers who hailed largely from Western European countries (especially Switzerland, Austria and Germany), the UK, Australia and elsewhere in South America and the States. Within minutes of meeting one another, we’d inevitably launch into sharing stories of other meaningful trips we’d taken. We’d snap photos of one another on the decks, backdropped by are-we-really-here scenery. And we seemed to forever be exchanging looks that said, “Wow, it is so cool that we are doing this.”
We all came together for what was the highlight of the journey for me—sailing through the northwest arm of the Beagle Channel through “Glacier Alley.” There we collectively watched—as if in a theater—as we passed one glacier after another.
Our days of traveling through the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel were punctuated by excursions to nearby islands and peninsulas. We’d pile into Zodiacs and tear through the icy water, occasionally squealing as a curtain of icy spray would soak us all (glad I followed the packing list suggestions of waterproof pants and parka).
Once on shore, our naturalist led the way, telling us about the creatures we’d spot which included voluminous elephant seals, Magellanic Penguins, and Patagonian Cormorants. He’d point out various plants and flowers and explained how they not only managed to endure the relentless weather hardships, but actually triumphed, perpetuating themselves into bigger, stronger, we-will-survive species.
There were some very memorable hikes—one taking us up close to a glacier, another following the footsteps of Darwin and the Yamana aboriginal people he encountered, and another, across Cape Horn’s wind-stripped landscape. At the end of every outing, we’d be treated to hot chocolate or whiskey—always just what the doctor ordered.
Meals on board ship included lots of local fish, crab and lamb—which is hugely popular in Patagonia. There were also Chilean and South American favorites including ceviche, empanadas and of course, rice and beans. Carefully selected wines accompanied the courses and all matter of flans and cakes completed the picture.
Evenings always started off with briefings about the next day’s excursions along with history and science presentations. And later, shipboard gaiety prevailed, with karaoke and bingo nights and international conversations often evolving in to all-in-good-fun arguments. One of the highlights of the last night’s Farewell Dinner was a raffle where the winner (not me…maybe next time) got the now tattered flag that proudly adorned the ship’s bow through our trip. And there was an auction—where the highest bidder walked away with the actual navigational map that was used for our voyage (also not me, maybe next time).
Sometime during the closing festivities, our ship had reached its final destination Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost city in the world. And with that, the world I’d abandoned for several days suddenly intruded. I heard the tones of e-mails loading into my iPhone. As I reached for it, something stopped me. It can all wait, I thought, as I switched the sound to the off position. I’d been to the end of the world, and I wasn’t so quick to leave it. As you can see by the smile on my face, home could wait.