Following in his heroic footsteps or perhaps more accurately ‘flightsteps’, Annie has bravely decided to continue the company and the polar expedition programme. It has been a tough struggle but she is managing well and has built up a reputation for fairness and straightforwardness. People trust her and like to do business with her. This trip is a case in point. Originally she had been expecting that at least twelve others would be coming and possibly even up to twenty and had budgeted costs on that basis. Now there were only four of us, the expedition would no longer be economic but Annie wouldn’t cancel out or increase the costs as that wouldn’t be fair to us.
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I have also brought her greetings from my friend Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest. Annie had met her previously when she had helped to organise the climbing team in which Rebecca had summited Mount Vinson. Annie can hardly believe I am here at last. We have been corresponding for several years, as I have tried to come out several times previously. She said she always knew I would make it some day and had understood my dream that I wouldn’t rest until I had come to the Antarctic. Of course a main part of the reason for this expedition is raising monies for the Red Cross and Annie is also a firm supporter of their invaluable work. The Punta office is run by her two assistants, Lesley McGhee and Fay Somerville, who are just as welcoming and they immediately volunteer to assist me in any way they can. We have all corresponded so many times about the arrangements and possibilities that I feel I know them well.
As usual, I decide that I must learn a little about this strange and totally remote city and the area surrounding it. Punta Arenas means Sandy Point and is the capital of the Magallanes Region, named after Ferdinand Magellan the famed Portuguese explorer. Magellan had reached the sea passage, also named after him, the Straits of Magellan, in 1520. The area had previously been the haunt of pirates, explorers, seal and whale hunters for centuries. Only the hardiest individuals came to this place and were able to survive the very harsh climate as well as attacks from the indigenous Mapuche Indians from the north. The Spaniards were the first to settle permanently and founded Punta Arenas in 1848. They commandeered the land which was then inhabited by the more peaceful Tehuelche Indian tribe, who sadly died off soon afterwards from measles brought in by the Spaniards. There’s a salutary lesson to be learned there somewhere; as Fred Astaire might easily have said, ‘You say Tehuelche, I say Mapuche, let’s call the whole thing off. Nowadays there is a very mixed population of Spanish, German, Italian, British and Yugoslav ancestry, but all speaking Spanish.
The extremely ferocious winds can easily average 30 to 40 km/h throughout spring and summer. It is known as the windiest city in the world and after being tossed across its streets and squares I certainly wouldn’t disagree. At least the winds keep the town very clean and tidy, apart from the odd body or two still trying to argue the toss. Here you cannot survive if you refuse to adapt, ‘The tree that does not bend with the wind will in time break. It’s known as a mean city and not surprisingly the annual mean temperature is low at 6 to 7 oC, the average yearly rainfall is only 425 mm.
There is still some time to spare as it is planned we will all eat together in the evening. There are no possible flights out to Patriot Hills until tomorrow morning when we are booked to leave. However, no one seems in a rush to do anything and I presume they have already looked around the city and beyond. However, I certainly don’t want to rest. Although I have been travelling for such a long time I want to see whatever I can in the time available. I have heard about the Torres del Paine National Park where there are all kinds of interesting wildlife as well as the towers of metamorphic granite rising to 3,000m which I had hoped I might have an opportunity to climb. However, Fay suggests that in the time available the best place to visit is the penguin colony based out at Seno Otway, Ruta 5. This seems the best option so I hire a car and although the drive out takes nearly two hours it proves to be well worth it. On the way we pass several flocks of sheep as well as rheas and ibises flying low overhead. A lone condor flying purposely towards the west is a special thrill to observe, perhaps it’s on its way to the Chilean Andes. We park at the outside entrance to Fundacion Otway. I purchase a ticket and start the long, meandering walk through to the nesting grasslands.