Hi I’m Alf. Allow me to share with you my Chilean adventure…
The plane dips and wheels over the bare brown landscape to reveal a broad expanse of blue sea, flecked with myriad tumbling white horses: the remote Straits of Magellan. Beyond, a long grey smudge of land breaks the horizon: the eternally cold land of fire, Tierra del Fuego. The familiar trim red roofs of Punta Arenas briefly form a flash of colour in the wilderness before the aircraft bumps to a halt. I stumble out of the tiny airport building heaving my luggage to face the sudden buffeting of the ceaseless Patagonian wind, blasting away in seconds the summer heat of Santiago and the Lake District. We have arrived at the end of the world.
Nevertheless it is a friendly end, and a familiar broad smile and warm handshake greet me as my luggage is piled into the capacious hold of our small, rickety,comfortable bus. As we draw away I peer through the inevitable lightning-shaped cracks of the windscreen – no vehicle in Patagonia escapes the flying stones of the endless dirt roads – at a landscape I have come to love like no other.
The pencil-straight strip of tarmac – the last civilised surface for nearly a week – points ahead across the vast tundra at distant Andean peaks stripped with pale grey-white glaciers – which two hours of trundlng progress later seem none the closer. But in the meantime there has been lots to see. Here and there the stunted groups of trees and shrubs which have survived the fires of man lean drunkenly away from the eternal wind. An absurdly prancing pair of flightless Rheas, followed by a gaggle of scuttling chicks, elicit gasps of satisfaction behind me from newcomers to this marvellous landscape.
Fat white Patagonian geese preen themselves among the placid merino sheep. And on the same small lagoon in the exact same place as last year a cluster of pale pink flamingos browse peacefully. Overhead long white saucer-shaped clouds, formed like all else here by the dominating wind, kaleidoscope the immense empty sky.
I daydream ahead, beyond the warm fug of our remote midday cafe and its ever popular lunch of bacon, egg and chips, to the next days wild and rugged boat trip to the great glaciers of the Patagonian ice cap as they tumble into the remote fiords. And beyond that to the grand landscapes of Torres del Paine where we will walk in all weathers among blue glacial lakes below the gleaming rock towers.
And as we return to Punta Arenas a week later, we will pay a friendly call to the monstrously cuddly giant Milodon ground sloth lurking in his huge stalactite bedecked cave.
And you ask why I go back!