Nobody said getting to Antarctica by bus would be easy, but even Andrew Evans didn’t think he’d feel this close to death as he crossed the Strait of Magellan.
I almost died on my last bus. I think it was the “almost” that was so terrifying.
Never mind my crossing of militarized Colombia or dodging falling boulders in the Andes and dealing with various misadventures on my way down the globe. Turns out, it was the very last leg of my journey that proved the most hazardous.
My very last bus on the bus ride to Antarctica was a double-decker that catered largely to tourists who aim to reach “the end of the earth” and enjoy the rugged outdoors of Tierra del Fuego. I found only two Argentinean bus companies that run the route to Ushuaia, and the soonest ticket I could get was on February 9th, with Marga.
By road distance alone, the drive should only take about six hours. However the road from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia is fraught with obstacles that include two international borders (Argentina to Chile and then Chile back into Argentina), the notorious Strait of Magellan, and the slippery mountain passes and high winds of Tierra del Fuego. When I asked the bus driver how long it took to get to Ushuaia, he grumbled robotically (as if asked this ten thousand times per day), “eight to twelve hours.”
He was entirely wrong, because it took us twenty-four hours.
We left Rio Gallegos in a busload of perky travelers–most of them Europeans in search of adventure in Patagonia and beyond. My seatmate was an Italian high school teacher of geography who was eager to explore this final stretch of the South American continent. About 20 Israeli backpackers (a South American phenomenon in and of itself) made Hebrew the dominant language on the bus. We settled in for a day of nice scenery and within twenty-five minutes, met up with the Chilean border.
I must laugh at this particular part of the Argentine-Chilean border because Patagonia is truly the most borderless bit of landscape in the world. And yet we all had to pile out, line up and get our passports stamped (two hours)–then we had to get back into the same line and do the same thing but this time with the Chileans (one hour). Then we drove sixty feet and were in Chile.
For me, laying eyes on the blue water in the Strait of Magellan was like seeing the finish line. I was ecstatic–I was going to make it after all–all this time on buses would end with me getting to Ushuaia on time and making my ship to Antarctica. We drove right up to the water’s edge and a small open-air ferry came to meet us. Within five minutes we were floating out on the water–a bus on wheels floating over the waves.
Not for long. Within minutes, the ferry had turned around and the bus had driven back onto terra firma . . . and there we parked. There was no explanation from the bus driver or anyone else–although it was soon apparent that the seas in the Strait were too rough to cross. Incoming cars and buses lined up behind us–dozens turned to hundreds of cars parked and waiting.
We waited and waited and waited. For two hours, then four hours, then six. Meanwhile the wind picked up and big white caps whipped across the strait. An abandoned café near the roadside became a travelers’ refuge and filled up with people in search of warmth. The strong wind brought the air temperature down to near freezing.
I tried to remain optimistic but also acknowledged that I didn’t have much time. I had one day to spare and if for whatever reason I couldn’t cross the strait that day, I would miss my boat. This concerned me a great deal–the bus driver seeing my agitation invited me into his cab–a warm and heated refuge from the wind (although the bus continued to shake with the strong gusts). The bus driver and reserve driver had also handpicked two female passengers to keep them company and then boiled water for maté–Argentina’s ubiquitous and strong herbal tea–drank communally from a single gourd and a silver metal straw.
For another two or three hours I hung out in the cab, passing the maté gourd and listening to the bus driver’s stories. He worked six days a week and only ever slept in the tiny compartment on the bus. This route–he pointed across the water–was one of the most dangerous in Argentina because of the ferry crossing.
I eventually got cabin fever and went outside to visit the other stranded travelers. Traffic stretched for miles behind us and yet the waves seemed to grow by the hour. I met a young Chilean family returning from vacation, a German student from Dresden who wanted to walk the last five miles of the Pan-American highway, and a Hasidic Jew from Israel who hoped to find some last-minute ship to Antarctica.
At 10 p.m., after nightfall–we saw lights across the water. The ferry was coming to get us–after ten hours of waiting at the edge of the Strait, the ferry had started up its run and yet in my opinion the waves were just as high as before. The only difference was that now it was pitch black outside and I couldn’t see a thing.
It began to rain, as if on cue. Our bus trundled onto the wobbly little ferry–with five other cars we filled the boat’s capacity. Beneath me, I felt the change from the unmoving earth to the high-motion seas. It was an uneasy feeling that became more uneasy the more we moved.
The ferry rocked in the waves. The bus rocked on the ferry. Unlike other ferries I’ve been on, the bus was not attached to the boat. As we pushed deeper into the channel, the seas hit us hard. I was sitting on the second floor of the bus and yet ocean waves were crashing against my bus window. With every wave that hit, our bus rolled opposite the roll of the ferry. I quickly lost confidence in this whole mechanical set up. We tilted more and more, so that one minute I could see the pitch black cloudy sky, the next I was staring straight down into the pitch black sea.
Ten minutes into our venture, the ferry began to turn around and head back to shore. Once again, the pilot realized the seas were too rough and they were going to have to return. And yet that didn’t work either. Suddenly the little ferry got hit hard from the other side and we began to rock precariously. We were being swept downstream–out to sea. I could feel the pilot’s indecision–either we crossed or else we didn’t make it–and so we spun around again and began pushing across huge currents and strong wind to the other side.
Occasionally I could see the glimmer of lights on the opposite shore. The distance was only a few miles but the lights were so tiny and so faint it seemed much greater. We were sailing parallel to the shore–pushing forward and then getting pushed backward.
A small comfort–dozens of dolphins came leaping up in arches behind our boat. I got up from my seat to take a look. The view was bizarre–staring out a bus window at the dark open sea with dolphins chasing behind a bus.
Our excitement at the dolphins quickly faded as the bus began to wobble dangerously and the ferry spun every which way. Instinctively I began to look for a way out–on every bus I’ve ridden on this journey there has always been an emergency exit–typically a metal hammer positioned near a glass window that says “Break Here.” Lucky for me, I was sitting next to the emergency exit. Unlucky for me, the little steel hammer was missing from its case. I looked up at the emergency exit from the roof and built a strategy around it–that when the bus plunged into the icy water I would push straight through the top and swim to the surface.
Perhaps it sounds irrational right now, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a deep sense of fear in my life–a deep dread like a hole in my stomach. The bus grew totally silent as we all realized what a dangerous situation we were in. A quiet sense of claustrophobia set in. I lowered my head into my lap–tried to imagine myself anywhere else besides the very back of the second story of a locked bus on a tiny platform of a boat in the middle of very rough seas.
We made it in the end alright–but I think for a few minutes at least, we all believed that we wouldn’t. It took us nearly an hour to cross the three-mile wide channel and as our bus jerked onto the shore, we all broke into an explosion of joy. Strangers hugged strangers, some cried, others laughed, and others crossed themselves. We applauded our bus driver down below and made peace with our various gods. Then we drove as fast as we could back to Argentina.
At Argentine customs I finally broke the silence and asked in English, “Is anyone else recovering from a near-death experience?” Suddenly I had friends and allies. The British backpackers showed me the nail marks they had driven into one another’s wrists, the Argentine girls confessed they too were convinced we were all about to die. Even my stoic German friend nodded yes–it was the most scared he had ever been.
It was sleeting at the border and the wind was blowing so strong I had a hard time snapping a picture of the welcome sign. It said, “Welcome to Argentine Antarctica” and I think it was the most comforting thing I had seen all day long. I wanted to cry with relief and at the same time, laugh at the joke of the assuming Argentineans who had the gall to welcome the world to Antarctica nearly a thousand kilometers from the actual Antarctica.
Instead I fell fast asleep with the rest of the bus, trusting our driver to wind us through the mountain passes of Tierra del Fuego. Periodically I would raise my head, wipe the wet frost from the window and stare out into the gloaming. Scattered snow patches pronounced the landscape as one step closer to my goal. I had come so far south that it was cold again.
We arrived in Ushuaia at dawn and my mind raced to give names to everything I saw. The grey water in front of me was the Beagle Channel. The mountains covered with fog were the end of the Andes. All of it together was Tierra del Fuego and out in the harbor was the dock where my ship would arrive that evening.