By Captain Alfred G. Buckham
On our flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago we approached the gigantic wall of the Andes in late afternoon after a flight of over six hundred miles across the level pampas. An attempt to cross at once was frustrated by snowstorms raging among the mountain passes. At daybreak, with the moon brightly shining in the sky, we took off again, quickly rising from the warm air of the plain to the biting cold of snow-clad peaks.
The sun peered above the horizon, yet still the moon lingered on. In her face the snow and ice gleamed cold and clear, like burnished steel; the topmost peaks now caught the first sharp arrows of the sun and blazed in golden splendour. The immensity of the scene, the indescribable beauty of colour and form were overwhelming. Sometimes the earth is so very beautiful that one can but look in silent amaze, wondering how even God Himself could create such loveliness.
Clouds came driving along the passes, bringing with them a burden of snow; it was necessary to rise above them. Then for the first time in my flying experience, even at greater heights, I began to feel the effects of altitude. Higher we climbed to 18,000 feet, my pilot taking oxygen. He passed the tube back to me, but owing to certain physical abilities I could not use it. Struggling for breath at 19,500 feet, I realised that unconsciousness was inevitable, as no attempt could be made to descend to a lower altitude for at least another fifteen minutes. I passed a note to my companion requesting him to thrust back my head whenever it fell forward; then I settled down in great discomfort, but with perfect confidence that I should survive the remaining minutes before going down. The trouble was due entirely to the illness from which I had not recovered when leaving Buenos Aires, and to the speed with which our 600 h.p. engine climbed the steep barrier of the Andes. Later on, under almost similar conditions, no such inconvenience was suffered.
When I awoke a great cloudland sea was rolling beneath our machine, and down below, somewhere, lay Santiago, the capital city of Chile. Three-quarters of an hour were spent wheeling round and round and making ineffectual dives into occasional rifts in the clouds, which closed in all too quickly, smothering us in a swirling blanket of vapour. Nothing then to do but go up again, for the cloud ceiling almost rested upon the city buildings. It was some time before we could land.
Before allowing me to cross the Andes the Chilean authorities instructed their Consul in Mendoza to bind and seal up the cameras. He did this with commendable zeal, the cameras being literally smothered with two-inch tape and sealing-wax, and finally confiscated when the aeroplane alighted. Application was made at once for permission to fly back above the Cordillera to photograph, and after several interviews the permission came along, together with the cameras. But the conditions imposed were:
A Chilean aeroplane, a Chilean pilot, and observer officer to watch the proceedings. The aeroplane was a most disconcerting sight. Marked down for overhaul, large patches of bare canvas with dope still peeling off were showing on the wings. One dared not contemplate what might happen were it subjected to a heavy downpour of rain or snow—a very possible contingency among the mountains. It was reckless to endanger a skilful pilot.
The first attempt ended in failure. As we approached the Cordillera at 14,000 feet, under a blue sky, I was amazed to see an almost vertical bank of snow cloud sweeping along with astonishing speed from the north, traveling parallel with the mountains and threatening to outflank us. Veni. Vidi. Fugi. Looking back a few minutes later nothing could be seen of the range, only a great wall of whirling snow.
The second essay proved tolerably successful, and somewhat exciting. Weighted down by an additional passenger and with the engine pulling badly, we neared the summits along the outer ridge, but immediately an attempt was made to cross them the aeroplane was caught in a down-rushing current of cold air sweeping across the ridge and passing down to the warmer plain below. Four times we laboriously drew near, and as often dropped almost vertically 3,000 to 4,000 feet. After the fourth attempt my companions wished to desist and an excited altercation arose; fortunately a contrary opinion prevailed in the end.
The ridge was conquered at a slightly different point and above the heads of many snow-crowned mountains Aconcagua appeared, rising to nearly 24,000 feet. We struggled toward it. As we progressed the intervening ridges and peaks rose higher an higher, until at last we barely missed them Clearly the aeroplane had reached its ceiling although it boasted of a 400 horse-power engine. Alas, some of the horses were dead. In despair, some distant photographs of the Aconcagua were taken, and also of all the lesser giants around it and then the signal was given to return. Too late I learned that Aconcagua was more easily tackled from the Argentine side of the Cordillera.
Of the more than 2,000 miles flown in the desert of Chile—where rain never falls and the only living things are one species each of lizard and scorpion—there is no space to tell. Not all those desert miles were flown willingly, although I was deeply grateful to the Chilean Government for granting me the first permission ever accorded to take aerial photographs of the region where lie Chile’s rich deposits of nitrate.
Accompanied by an officer on each expedition, one was compelled to return to Santiago to develop and print the negatives. There in a chilly dungeon, the plates were developed and fixed in two small dustbins standing in larger dustbins filled with warm water, for the temperature of the room was only a few degrees above freezing point These operations were conducted in absolute darkness, the plates being highly sensitive to any kind of light. Throughout the long dreary procedure (I could develop only twelve plates at a time) an officer remained in the dark-room freezing, poor fellow, and wondering what was going on in that Stygian blackness. The day’s work accomplished, he padlocked the door and returned next morning, taking the dried plates away for examination.
In Nicaragua, when a man wishes to impress his fellows that a promise given will be kept, he swears “Hora Inglesa - On the word of an Englishman.” And I wished them possessed of equal faith in Chile, for then an Englishman’s word would have saved some very charming people a great deal of trouble and discomfort.
Leaving Chile, with its glorious mountains, its lovely valleys, and sinister deserts where earthquakes are a daily occurrence, we came to Peru and the magnificent semi-circle of volcanoes at Arequipa. Then on, over earth’s most fascinating desert, where hills are tumbled in strange confusion by seismic disturbance; where, cutting across those arid spaces, rivers come winding down from the not distant Andes clothing fertile valleys in unimaginable tints of green—on to beautiful Lima. And not a photograph taken all those hundreds of miles from Santiago, the cameras being sealed up again, until Lima was reached and the necessary permits obtained. So back again, revisiting the scenes earlier flown over, and, in addition, seeking out the famous moving sand dunes and the poor remains of former Inca greatness.