Alumni engagement and philanthropy

THUMBS UP: A HITCHHIKING IRISHMAN AND 25,000 KILOMETRES FROM PATAGONIA TO THE ARCTIC  Black and white head and shoulders image of Thomas Kearney, with (inset) 6 images of his journey from Argentina and the Artic

22 December 2021

Belfast-born Queen’s graduate Thomas Kearney, (BA International Politics and Conflict Studies, 2014), has released a new book recounting a 25,000 kilometres (15,500 mile) journey from Patagonia in southern Argentina, to the shores of the Arctic Ocean in northern Canada – not by plane, train or bus but on foot.

Hitchhiking may not be everyone’s cup of tea and certainly not through cities and countries riven with civil strife and worse. It is often regarded as dangerous and at best is probably the least reliable way to travel from pole to pole. For Thomas, who spent just over nine arduous months in 2015/16 hitching south to north through the Americas, it was all that and more.

An essential purchase for anyone seized by even the tiniest particle of wanderlust, Thumbs Up: A Hitchhiking Irishman and 25,000 Kilometres from Patagonia to the Arctic, which was published in July, details Thomas’ great trek. It is a journal of self-discovery littered with tales of adventure – and misadventure – great kindness and occasional danger.     

“When I doubted myself and my intentions, I reminded myself that in a few decades, I, like every other human I knew, would be pushing up daisies in a cemetery somewhere and that the hourglass of my life was running.

“To live fiercely became the goal and while I waited to finish my studies and save up enough money to last a year on the road, I went on shorter adventures.”

While his International Politics and Conflict Studies degree course at Queen’s may well have taught Thomas a thing or two about those countries not best suited to hitchhiking, his keenest memories of his time at University are not untypical of most.

“Last minute cramming in the library before exams and Friday nights at the Students’ Union – they are probably my strongest memories from my time at Queen’s. I also remember sitting in lectures about topics like Latin American politics, global inequality and war, and starring out the window imagining myself visiting some of those places the lecturer was talking about.”

Did anything during his student days prepare Thomas for the adventure he would ultimately undertake?

“Yes, idealism. I devoured a small mountain of books during my time at Queen’s - books about racism, the effects of colonialism and, in my spare time, a few on adventure travel. Armed with all of the information I had gathered in those books and all of the ideas and questions that stemmed from them, I was ready to leave the theory to one side and start seeing places all around the world with my own eyes.

“Apart from the inspiration I got from books, something clicked in my brain during my time at Queen’s. I’d been thinking a lot about close family members who had died at a young age and I became obsessed with the idea that we shouldn't squander the thin slice of time that we have on planet earth.”

Not long after he graduated from Queen’s and before setting off on his incredible journey, Thomas undertook a solo 240-mile cycle from Cork to Donegal, and then stepped it up a gear by cycling 1,800 miles from Normandy in France to the Turkish capital Istanbul before hitchhiking around Ireland with some friends – the previously referred to ‘shorter adventures’ that were to prepare him for what lay ahead.

Much of the nine and a half month trip was spent hiking on his own, though Thomas was joined for spells by friends like David Meehan, who was with him for five months, Gareth Woods, who came for one month, and Tiarnan Mackle, for 10 weeks.

Setting out with just a tent and a rucksack laden with books on 1st September 2015, Thomas flew from Dublin to Buenos Aires via Amsterdam and from there on to his starting point in Ushuaia in Argentina. Throughout the next 290 days he would hitchhike through 16 countries – including Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama, Costa Rica, the US and Canada – survive a barrage of stones and bricks in Colombia, encounter members of an armed, balaclava-wearing street gang in Guatemala and catch a ride with an ex-convict in California.

Those countries included every type of landscape imaginable, from scorching deserts such as the Atacama, to the windswept tundra near the Polar Regions and from oxygen-less Andean plateaus, to tropical beaches.

From things he wished he’d never witnessed in El Salvador, to the snowy mountains and crystal lakes of Chile, and from camping in a crater in Guatemala to being invited into the homes of complete strangers for food and shelter, and to sleep on their couches, Thomas experienced it all.   

“One humbling week in Chile involved hitchhiking with a group of Latin American students to a town devastated by an earthquake where we teamed up with others to volunteer in the clean-up job.

“We slept side-by-side on the class room floor of a damaged school, were given free food by a bunch of dinner ladies, and got welcomed into the homes of people who had just lost a lot a few days earlier.”

What advice would Thomas have for anyone thinking of taking on a similar – somewhat crazy – challenge?

“With the benefit of hindsight, I must be honest and say that if you care about your health, you should find another way to travel other than hitchhiking, at least while traveling through the USA and parts of Central America!

“But if you have a screw loose then I'd advise you to at least learn the local language first, find a friend to travel with and carry pepper spray.”

Now living in Berlin, Germany with his partner Karolin whom he met towards the end of his journey, Thomas is teaching English as a foreign language. Hoping for a more settled life, the desire to travel is still there. In the years since his trip, Thomas and Karolin have hitchhiked around Spain, other parts of Latin America and New Zealand. As well as that they have travelled overland/oversea from the bottom of Vietnam to Belfast via China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Sounds like he is already planning his next book.

Currently out in paperback, Thumbs Up: A Hitchhiking Irishman and 25,000 Kilometres from Patagonia to the Arctic and is available from Amazon, WH Smith, Barnes & Noble and Book Depository. A Kindle version is also obtainable from Amazon.

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact the Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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