44. Rio Tomebamba, Cuenca, Ecuador

8 August 2022

The new life Ken and I were building was firmly focused on the now, but with a big nod to the past and filled with so many plans we could only feel positive. After watching our spouses succumb to the cruelty of cancer, and then navigating all the challenges that come with starting over with a new partner at this stage of life, we were convinced we had earned that future. There were rocky patches that tested our optimism – the deaths of his mum and my dad, a couple of scary health scenarios, and watching friends lose their homes and livelihoods when our town was smashed by floods – but they also made us more determined to take nothing and no one for granted. The fun bonus of our turn in front of the TV cameras had us believing we were done with drama and ready for anything.

Then, a little more than a month after the Insight program aired, Ken died. It was no repeat of the long, painful struggle Brian endured – he was just there, then he wasn’t, and there was nothing even vaguely familiar about this sudden grief. I was shattered to lose him like that… but more, I was not prepared for the surreality of life just moving on without much of a pause. It did, of course, but while I’ve enjoyed many good moments since that terrible time, they happen around a sinkhole of sadness that can still drain any confidence I have in thinking too far ahead.

But I don’t want to be all about loss, so I stay connected to the things Kenny and Brian both loved – friends, family, home – and find blessed escape in lots of creative projects. Those are my anchors, and though my passion for seeing the world (and especially completing all the ash drops) is undiminished, there’s new limits to where I can go, and how. The disruption and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic didn’t help, but it’s mainly my recent medical complications that force me to give a second thought to destinations and my enthusiasm for solo travel. I always assumed me at the helm of the Ashes Tour but as I’ve despatched Brian’s remains to remote Outback areas with Ken, and to Morocco with my brother, me not being there too hasn’t been quite the tragedy I imagined. If it’s a choice between someone else taking him and him not going at all, then the disappointment is doable.

Brian and Ken both shared my fascination for South America, especially the Galapagos Islands, and though I still hope to one day high-five a turtle there and get to know the iguanas, it won’t be soon. Quito was intended as the second Q on the list so when our dear friend Yenny went back to her home country to visit her family in San Lorenzo, it was a chance too good to miss. Brian was packed off to Ecuador with this special soul and now reclines on the riverbed of Rio Tomebamba, in Cuenca. We’d been friends with Yenny and her family since our sons played soccer together almost 20 years ago, and Brian would be delighted to be with her on his first trip to that continent.

Like the Morocco drop this one went off script a bit, but Cuenca more than compensated for Quito. It’s 470km to the south of the capital, in the sierra of the Andes, and the clear, calm day Yenny chose was perfect. Cuenco’s full name – Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca – refers to the confluence of four rivers, Tomebamba being the largest, and at an altitude of 2,560 metres (8,400 feet), it easily overtakes Canada’s Sulphur Mountain as Brian’s highest resting point. The country’s third largest city is the economic centre of the southern region and is characterised by vibrant colour – in its food, festivals, art, and the glorious scenery ­– and is reputed to be the safest city in Ecuador. Throw in a rich history of Incas and conquistadors and plenty of colonial heritage buildings to poke through, and Cuenca would have ticked all the boxes for Brian. The only drawback would be its altitude, but I’m sure he would have happily sucked away on his asthma puffer just to have the opportunity to be there.

Yenny included her sister and nieces in the occasion and her serene spirit ensured the drop was respectful and moving. Joyous, too… scrolling through her engaging photos of the day could have seriously kicked my FOMO into overdrive, but I was genuinely happy that this dear friend – equally treasured by Brian and Ken – had generously stepped up to take on the role.

With the Ecuador drop complete, Brian’s posthumous travels have taken in every one of the world’s continents, except for Antarctica. The idea of visiting that unique landmass and its island territories was never considered a possibility… but a little bit of my punctured confidence was to come back when some serendipitous timing and a cooperative adventurer named Graeme proved that even ‘pipe dreams’ can come true.