Heading South

PROLOGUE

A Scotsman in running shorts knocks on the door. He is the taxi driver and says Alison looks like a walker. He loads our bags and we drive off, the start of our long journey.

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The train is quiet. We buy a coffee do a crossword and soon arrive in London.

At Saint Pancras a young woman with wildly artistic blonde hair is bowed over one of the pianos giving a more than competent and stirring rendition of the Appassionata while a copper berates a man leaning on the piano for some misdemeanour.

We sit down and sort our bags. The girl launches an attempt on the world speed record for the Revolutionary study.

We sit outside Kings Cross and eat our packed lunch with the the multitude of travellers, workers, students, misfits, beggars and pigeons in the hot sunshine.

London bustles big time around us.

We catch the tube out to Heathrow. It is a long, hot trek. Several of us succumb to somnolence.

A smartly dressed Asian professional nods in his horn rimmed specs. A student slumps forward with his headphones dangling wearily. I seem to drift through trees by a stream.

A goth girl with extreme eyelashes and a metal studded phone sits like an empress. Her designer ripped knees jar with her offbeat elegance to my eye, untutored as it is in youthful fashion. Her friend sits on the floor with a small decorative dog. Two little girls excitedly chatter to it while their mother films them on her iPad.

We arrive at Terminal 5, futuristic and with crowds of twenty first century travellers in wilfully casual attire. I join a small group the use the phone charger. A woman in a hijab places a tablet with a smashed screen and a packet of cigarettes next to my phone. She asks me to watch it for her and disappears.

Two black clad and tattooed Spanish women, night pale Andalusian painted vampire ladies, chat through their face piercings. I walk round to view the planes on the sun drenched runways in a blissfully quiet and cool space of huge metal tubes and glass where waiting travellers seem to meditate in an ultra modern temple.

We take the futuristic transit to the departure gate. A caste system operates here. Club flyers, golden flyers, emerald and sapphire flyers will board first. Oiks like us get no mention, the untouchables. There are so few passengers that we all board the plane as one democratically undifferentiated mass anyway.

Inside the wondrously empty plane we run from seat to seat like kids unsupervised and watch a glorious evening light show unfold above the clouds. A shifting perspective at the end of the English August day as we leave her shores.

For months now I have planned our trip using the google calendar. The full moon symbol appears on the first day of the trip along with the name of Santiago. That very full moon now rises in the east and that very day has arrived.

WEST AND SOUTH FROM MADRID

We get off the plane and are bussed to a previously unknown area of Barajas where the Big Beasts of the Latin American long hauls hang out. We make our way to U64, a most exotic gate, the one to Santiago de Chile We get seated in the A380 – 600. Not a lot of space but comfortable seats. There is a delay of three quarters of an hour while the wheels are nailed back on or some work of a similarly technical nature is carried out.

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We are off, banking above the lights of Madrid. By the time we are properly settled we are over Portugal and heading out to sea.

We stretch and do some inflight yoga. A tiny lady taps me on the shoulder to get past in the narrow aisle. I find I can do some discrete gymnastics hanging on to the two rails either side of the aisle under the lockers. I imagine myself emulating Max Whitlock with a parallel bars display to the astonishment of the airborne hispanic populace.

I identify a bright star to the east as likely to be Fomalhaut and am able to estimate our latitude at around 15 degrees North. I am proud of emulating the skills of a sixteenth century navigator using only the onboard digital interactive maps and an iPad. Later I see that Orion is rising on his side and moving vertically up the sky. We are close to the equator.

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Thirty six thousand feet above the Amazon rainforest two small boys in separate seats sit identically entranced, chins cupped in hands, chubby mesmerised faces illuminated by bright cartoons colours on their screens.

Out of the window the three brightest stars in the sky, Sirius, Canopus and Achernar are now visible. We are, without doubt, far to the south. Sparse and tiny patches of light indicate remote communities. A long line of thunderstorms prickles the night with flashlit clouds.

As the pursuing dawn slowly catches us Acrux rises. Our elongated night ends as morning is declared by fiat of the cabin crew turning on the lights. We are one hour and forty eight minutes from our destination. A vast rocky and snow spattered landscape now scrolls slowly and majestically beneath us. In the early sun it is a mix of rust and rose, brilliant white and washed out indigo and emerald. We are crossing the Andes. The view is breathtaking, the camera busy.

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We descend into a big misty valley. It looks distinctly wintry. We drop further and bank. The vast mountains tower impossibly above the valley sides. Shortly afterwards we land at Santiago de Chile.