The Meeting Place of Explorers

Whoever said that the world is a small place, never travelled in Patagonia. We have been driving south on the Chilean side for several thousand kilometres. There seems to be no end to the landscape. I feels like we could drive for a million more.

It’s not that the spaces in between appear to be getting wider, in the commonplace, horizontal understanding of things. It is more like Neruda said, this is a land that should be apprehended vertically. It becomes almost too much. Certainly, this is not a task for tourists, maybe not even travellers. Grasping Patagonia is a job for explorers.

At first, the beauty of the scenery keeps you entranced. Touching notes of blue precipitate swiftly from slopes of green incarnation. Rock giants look upon our tiny car and with Andean serenity shepherd us to the southernmost stretches of this Earth. It is moving, moving to the core of your being!

But it wears off. Like most sudden bursts of inspiration, it is short-lived. We keep driving.

My wife Sandy and I soon revisit our favourite conversations. There is enough time ― and space ― to spare, to ponder and consider carefully. The farther south we travel, the traces of civilisation become sparser. The skies in turn become deeper. Being thus exposed to the enormity of the cosmos is unsettling. Like the landscape, the night sky is ever expanding, the weather is turning colder. Two human stars become closer together, the nearer they get to the End of the World.

We too run out of words. So we keep driving. Now begins the work of the imagination. I turn the pages of books in my head. I brought some of the most meaningful to me on this journey. But I’m driving, so I must use my memory. Take the journal of Antonio Pigafetta. He was one of the few survivors of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. These 16th century explorers went into the unknown, despite enormous hardship and mutiny.

Expeditions converge.

Magellan had heard from an obscure German trader that there was a passage that would allow ships to sail on to the East Indies. As it turned out, it was the estuary of Río de la Plata, where Buenos Aires is today. When Magellan figured out it was a river, he pushed on, ever southward, despite his disappointment, towards a land that became progressively more inhospitable, colder, storm-ridden.

Magellan found his passage and now Sandy and I arrive at the strait that bears his name. The Portuguese explorer and us came here from very different routes, and almost 500 years apart. That does not mean there is no connection between us. We climb to higher ground and gaze across the Strait: Tierra del Fuego. Before crossing into the next part of our voyage, I ponder the meaning of it all. Magellan wouldn’t land on the south shore: it was a land reserved for the gods, otherworldly. His seas were populated by monsters and there were limits not even he would cross.

The Strait of Magellan is very mountainous. Another beautiful landscape! But this is special. Why? Because we discovered it, after our own fashion. The mountain we are standing on, well, Darwin stood here too.

“Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet. I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.” So ends the first chapter of Neruda’s memoirs. I begin to look around, and the images of the poet come to life, they are embodied in my experience. So I become more attentive and come across a beautiful tan ball, lying there, forlorn in the duff. It is Darwin’s fungus. He discovered it and took it back on the Beagle. Who is to say I didn’t discover it too? Who is to say you can’t discover it also, if you look carefully enough? We might be 200 years late, but the discovery is just as powerful.

We continue south, and come to Beagle Canal. Isla de Navarino stands on the opposite shore. The island has a relatively known hike to Dientes de Navarino, an inland mountain range. The hike starts at Puerto William on the north side of the island and takes you around Los Dientes and back to where you started. But Sandy and I have something different in mind… we keep going south.

We leave the trail and, with the words of explorers fresh in our minds, we reach the south of the island. From here, we can see the archipelago of Cape of Horns. There are no more roads here. We are quite literally looking at the end of the world. We pushed past our physical capabilities, and we dared to go beyond. It is a hard hike, even without creative detours. Are we in the same league as FitzRoy, Magellan, Darwin or Drake? Perhaps not. But we have explored our dreams and our fantasies. We have come to the meeting place of legendary explorers, and we have discovered a new way to relate to the world.

For the first time we turn north.

In Villa Ukika, in Navarino, lives Cristina Calderón the last of the Yaghan, the southernmost people on Earth. She is also the last remaining speaker of the Yaghan language. It is a language isolate, such as Basque and Mapudungun. In their travels, Magellan and other explorers recorded many strange things: giants and men with ears so large they used them to cover themselves while sleeping, monsters and wonders of every kind imaginable. For me, a lover of words, meeting her and learning more about the people of Patagonia is a dream come true, like seeing a unicorn.

The drive north on the Argentinian side is marked by nature of a completely different character. Glacier Perito Moreno is widely known, and when we get there there are a lot of people. It doesn’t matter, it is a place one must see. The enormous mass of the glacier and the towering walls of ice are one of nature’s most interesting expressions. However, I have a problem with it all. You drive to the glacier, the tarmac is perfect. You walk on this tarmac onto a metal platform, see the glacier, take a few pictures, and then go back to your car… all the time you didn’t have a change to touch nature!

We have thousands of kilometres left to drive. If on the Chilean side we were awed by a sense of verticality, here the sheer extension is overwhelming. It is, if you forgive me the expression, a land filled with space to the brim. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, wrote about the desolation of the Argentinian Patagonia. He was one of the pioneers of night flight and he flew over these great expanses. An explorer of a different frontier. The empty spaces gave him freedom.

The journey comes to a close.

Near the end of our journey, we come to Cerro Torre, once believed to be the hardest mountain to climb. It is rife with controversy. The first ascent was claimed by Italian climbers, but the methods they used were rather questionable for mountaineering purists. Using a compressor drill, the Italians “defaced” the mountain and left a series of bolts that made the climb possible. They even left the compressor hanging on the side of the mountain. This was in the 70s. Only in 2012, the first “fair-means” ascent was achieved.

Alpinists come here to try different routes, to attempt ascents with less equipment, or faster ones. It is an impressive mountain and yet it is but a small part of Patagonia. The human will to discover is concentrated on this deadly wall of rock. It is a lure for the spirit, because of its prominence. However, on this journey I have learned that one can be an explorer as long as one is willing, really willing, to take a good look at the world.

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