In all my travels I've never experienced a more potent downer than when I departed the waters of Antarctica. So extreme was the emotional tug of that stark, silky-iced Eden; so rare that feeling of being alone within it – even on a cruise with 2,000 other people – I couldn't help feeling depressed that a smaller, dimmer existence awaited back home. From Deck 10 of the SS Celebrity Infinity, I tried to believe that something else would capture my imagination like that final view of an iceberg burning in the pale sunlight as the ship made its northerly turn. My captain understood this, and he was on the speakerphone reminding us, first in English and then in Spanish, of the wonders lying 700 miles ahead: The Falkland Islands.
The Falklands are a marooned British territory that could easily fit off the busy coast of the United Kingdom, yet as you drift toward tiny Stanley, the capital, your attention is drawn to the stark, outlying houses of Brit-blooded loners, the South-American style, brightly-painted aluminum sheds, and the large, battered Land Rovers parked under stooped, struggling trees. When the ship comes to a sudden halt almost a half-mile out from the harbor, you're reminded that the shallow waters and virgin beaches weren't quite made for the extravagant, overcrowded world beyond. And when we powered up to the dock in orange tender boats, then clamored up the ramp in our droves, I had a strange sense of betrayal, of being both dwarfed and swallowed by a land that demanded, in the stubbornness of its breeze, that I meet it one-on-one. And that’s when I decided I needed to explore the Islands alone.
I already had a shore excursion lined up – $150 for a guided tour of Gypsy and Whalebone Coves in a group of 75, behind a dozen or so other groups of 75 – but I suddenly realized that was the last thing I wanted. How could I possibly absorb the subtle mysteries and delights of this raw wonderland in the presence of so many others? I'd boarded the cruise alone, and although I'd made friends over the past ten days among my fellow cruisers, I needed a personal experience, and I saw my chance. I found what I really needed at the tourist information booth across the street: a map with more visuals, arrows, and pictures of animals than actual street names. This was my kind of map. It was an open road, or rather, an open trail, to the Coves. I didn't start to follow the crowded buses and vans down there; they followed me. And then, all of sudden, I was standing solitary in a field of flowering pale maidens.
I passed the last ranch, the cemetery, a small military compound, and the harbor. The path to the penguins narrowed to an eight-inch board, then expanded along an unpredictable stretch of spongy shrubs dotted with places to step. Eventually I found the road to the airport and the two coves; it wasn’t even paved. A horse watched me kick up dust as I pulled closer to what I can only describe as a moonscape: rolling hills of ashen, studded rock and chalky sprouts of vegetation. It went on, and on, and on. At any other time, in any other place, this walk would have been boring. But I was drifting somewhere deep in my mind's eye, in the spell of the last seventy-two hours, struggling to process the change from one continent to another. I tried to remember all the ice formations and wildlife I'd seen in Antarctica, but all I could think of was white. And now gray. And soon green. The chilly Falklands sky continually drew my attention to the verdant horizon. I never had such an awareness of pure color in my life as I did during that walk.
Once I reached the plateau of Blanco Bay, I could look across the water at Celebrity Infinity, motionlessly afloat against a backdrop of silted sand. And I remembered that I had a sparkling clean stateroom, buffet dinner, and my choice of six hot tubs tonight to close my eyes in as the smell of the Falklands washed off my skin. At that moment I had the dichotomous feeling of being both a crusty, lone explorer on a mission, and a pampered, cherished guest – everything I so needed and wanted all in one day.
Two miles up the trail of Gypsy Cove gave me one of the more bizarre sites of these islands: Magellan penguins on a grassy beach. Meeting, flapping, and turning around and around on sand as white as… snow. They toddled like naughty convicts gleefully banished from their perennial winter wonderland. Perhaps their wanderings had a higher purpose: they were trying to spread the feeling, the pure enigma of Antarctica beyond their natural border. Or maybe, like me, they understood that being away from their homeland was the only way they'd ever fully understand it.
The landscape beyond the penguin colony was a mass of rock and raw earth squeezed against bits and pieces of slippery ferns and craggy flowers on one side, and cliffs on the other. I'm 36 and have no great physical ability, and I didn't have any hiking or climbing gear with me, but what I lacked in skill and preparedness, I made up for in determination. There was a choice, after all: walk along the cliffs, or stay fifty feet inland and wonder what I was missing. So I stumbled along, and I swore, and sometimes crept on all fours. I looked straight down on faded lighthouses and seaweed hard as clay. I found daydreaming sea lions arching in the wind and wriggling on the shore, those eyebrows of theirs cinched in mild bewilderment, as if they were somehow lost. They looked back at my path more than at me, which made me look as well. Could I get lost? I was surrounded, now, by the moonscape on two sides, the beach on the other, and an unending grid of mosses on the other. I started to move again. I wouldn't lose my way. I didn't follow that trail; it simply found me. And it kept taking me, towards Yorke Bay.
Was I nervous to be out beyond a scream's distance of anyone? At first, yes; then, no. I could see people in four or five corners of the horizon – and yet they wouldn't even notice me among the rocks. Was it dangerous for me to be out here alone? Could I be followed by someone? Sure. But who? And why? The sick human desire to prey on others, I've always believed, is something you acquire from the wretched pathos of your surroundings. Not a place like this.
The only evidence of violence I could find, anywhere, was in the signs warning of landmines on the beach, left over from the 1982 war. Yes, a war between the Brits and the Argentines, I knew, but there was no explanation of what it was really about, leading me to wonder: it must have been a different kind of battle. For the right to wake up every morning to see balsam bog and diddle-dee shrubs, crystalline tussac grass and brown trout shaking up the tiny inlets. Dawns oozing orange, and birds flung straight from storybooks. Of course my attention drifted, to the birds… birds of every sound, arc, and flutter. But it was the most common geese and ducks, in the shallow pools, that confounded me. So many that I felt strange to be human among them. Here they were, squat and svelte, giving me the eye, wondering how I'd arrived so many eons after them.
I sat among them for as long as I could. They ate my food as I watched a gleaming yacht slide next to the Celebrity Infinity, anchor for a while, then drift back towards the open Atlantic. I was fascinated momentarily by how that yacht moved, how it created and discovered its path at the same time. I got back on my feet, and closed my eyes. I was saturated; I couldn't see, feel, or enjoy much more in one stunning day.
On the walk back into town, I noticed a sign next to the harbor: The Falkland Islands. Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.
I can't remember what I said to anyone on the ship later that night; I still can't believe everyone on that cruise was on the Islands at the same time I was. Perhaps some of them wished they'd abandoned their groups and carved their own loner's piece of tranquility from Falkland ground and sky. Perhaps organized shore excursions are better when there's a tropical village or historical city to explore. A social place. Not the Falkland Islands. They're something you carry around long after the final port of call. Something that comes back to you and recalls that delicious feeling of freedom you had while walking alone.
Rita Anya Nara suffered from panic disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and social anxiety disorder when she started traveling and wrote her book, The Anxious Traveler, from her own experiences. She hopes to inspire those too afraid to travel to manage their fear while having an incredible life experience. Nara is an ardent photographer, loves to hike, and is studying to be a professional travel companion. She resides in northern California when she's not traveling. For further information on the book and the author, please visit TheBraveTraveler.com. The Anxious Traveler is available for purchase on Amazon.com and on BarnesAndNoble.com.
>> From: Lesley McShane. I enjoyed this article so much. The author is my kind of person.