National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Andrew Evans traveled for over 45 days, taking buses from Washington D.C. through the Americas with one mission in mind: Getting on board the boat that would take him to Antarctica. Here, he describes the bliss of actually climbing onto the deck of the MV National Geographic Explorer.
The world’s southernmost bus station is merely a roadside curb next to a gas station. I arrived there on a drizzly morning with just one day to spare–I just stepped off the bus and looked across the road at the open water ahead. Next stop, Antarctica, I thought.
This was the end of the road–not just my road but everyone’s road, for the world stops suddenly in Ushuaia. There is no beyond this beyond for buses or cars or any other land transportation. My next bus would need to be of the floating kind.
Ushuaia marks the grand finale of Argentina–some say “the end of the world” (even my hotel was called “the guesthouse at the end of the world.”) It’s an odd yet likable little town hunkered along the slopes of Tierra del Fuego’s grand mountains and the coldwater shores of the Beagle Channel. Ushuaia itself is part Colorado ski town, part Norwegian fishing village. The influx of high-end tourism has spruced up the main streets down by the harbor into a line-up of cheerful shops, posh restaurants, bars, and outfitters whose half-dressed mannequins made me feel cold. Best of all, Antarctica is in the air.
All around I saw signs for all things Antarctic: the “Antarctica” youth hostel, last-minute cruises (a steal at $3,995!), clothing stores catering to Antarctic travelers, Antarctic artwork framed and ready to be shipped back to living rooms across the world.
I felt the double thrill of having made it all the way to Ushuaia by bus and the anticipation of boarding my next transport, the MV National Geographic Explorer.
My noble ship pulled into the harbor that evening and I stared out at its bright lights as I ate a delicious bowl of king crab soup in the local dockside restaurant. All prejudice aside, she is a beautiful vessel. All of the great explorers through history had their ship that got them there–I had my 40 busses that got me mostly there but now I had my ship, too.
So let me tell you about my ship–the almost-perfect National Geographic Explorer. I say almost because someday I am going to have to get off it (If I could stay on forever than it would be perfect.) Anyway, I boarded the boat the following afternoon, walking up the gangway with bags in hand and bidding farewell to the South American continent that I had just crossed.
Stepping onto the Explorer felt like somebody had changed movie reels at the cinema. In a flash, all the buses, squalor, and salsa music of South America ended abruptly. In its place was this pristine and elegant world of classy décor, quiet classical jazz, bubbling champagne and smiling professionals who guided me through registering–handing me my key card and taking my luggage.
I had to stop and let my new reality soak in: Last week I was up to my knees in red mud and was pushing my bus out of a ditch in Bolivia. Now I had someone carrying my bags down mirrored hallways whose carpet was so clean I felt like I should be taking off my shoes.
It’s roomy–much larger than most ships I’ve been on, with a big desk, my own copy of the National Geographic Atlas, polished wood cabinets, drawers and closet and a beautiful bathroom with a rain shower.
The Explorer is Lindblad’s newest ship–built expressly for taking serious travelers on expeditions across the globe and getting them into some of the most exotic and remote places out there. The technology and design of the ship represents the culmination of centuries of polar exploration, while the comforts afforded passengers are just that–true comforts to make the expedition more enjoyable, rather than outwardly signs of wealth and luxury. As much as I wanted to run about the ship like a dog chasing its tail, I settled into my cabin and unpacked my freshly-arrived suitcase (clean clothes!). This would be home for the next three weeks and so I really wanted to move in properly.
In may ways I will miss the adventure of the bus and the open road. At the same time, standing under a hot shower, then wrapping up in a Turkish bathrobe and staring out one’s window at the open sea–well, that really can’t be beat. We set sail that evening and as we cruised the length of the Beagle Channel I could barely contain myself. I perched myself high up in the all-glass library of the ship’s top deck, surrounded by stacks of National Geographic magazines, open atlases, and shelves stuffed with the famous books of exploration written by famous explorers. There I sat and watched the disappearing continent behind me turn into the open sea before me. It was all so beautiful and overwhelming–I was on my ship, I had made it, and I was going to Antarctica.
Long after midnight I laid down in the soft bed of my cabin with a white duvet pulled up to my chin. I heard the hum of the engines taking me south, which for me is the greatest lullaby of all.
Andrew Evans has reached Antarctica, and is tweeting about his travels aboard the National Geographic Explorer at @Bus2Antarctica. Want more? Follow the map of his journey, bookmark all of his blog posts, watch videos, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans.