Mendoza Province, Argentina
It was the stuff of legend, the sort of heroics to make aces like James Bigglesworth and Algernon Lacey positively drool, had they been real pilots, of course. Unlike Biggles and his chum Algie, the fellows I’m referring to were not in the least fictitious. In fact, they were larger than life. They fluttered over the Sahara Desert in contraptions knocked together from balsa wood, patches of canvas and engines borrowed from redundant lawnmowers. In the Sahara they confronted blood-crazed Moors lusting for a scrap; when crossing the Andes, they flew over peaks so high it would cause a mountain goat to wheeze. By night they navigated with the stars, the lights of a distant farmstead, or the zigzag of moonlight across the ocean; by day they followed flocks of sheep, leaping porpoises and billowing tumbleweed. You might be forgiven for imagining these heroes to be half-crazed Englishmen called Ginger, or Berty, or Tug…but no, not a bit of it, because they were all Frenchmen, and so they preferred proper, foreign-sounding names. That said, they were as tough as the hoof on a Patagonian donkey, for when their planes crashed, and they split open their skulls, after a hearty dinner at Maxim’s they were invariably back at the controls hollering, ‘Allez-y, mes amis, let’s not waste another moment.’
So, why am I telling you all this? It’s simply this: when I was standing beside Lago del Diamante, at an altitude of 3,350 metres, there was a sign advising the curious how a certain 25 year-old by the name of Henri Guillaumet crashed his plane on the lake, back in June 1930. After reading the sign I gawped at the peak of Maipo Volcano, towering above me at 5,323 metres, and I wondered, what the devil was he doing up here, this Frenchman?
It was Pierre-Georges Latecoere who dreamed of creating an air route between France and her colonies in West Africa and South America. Not only would Latecoere specialise in airborne postal services, there was to be a second string to his bow: anyone with the imagination of a kipper, or the courage of Eddie the Eagle, could sign on as passengers.
In 1918, as the first flurries of winter snow settled over the Pyrenees, the company began servicing the route between Toulouse and Barcelona. By 1925 pilots such as Jean Mermoz, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Henri Guillaumet had swapped the snow for the sand, and were delivering the mail as far as Dakar, on the coast of Senegal. Only a mere five years later and Mermoz became the first to fly non-stop from Dakar to Natal, Brazil, in a time of 19 hours and 35 minutes. He was carrying 122 kilos of mail. This momentous leap, this linking of three continents, had finally been made. By the late 1920s, Latecoere’s company had become Aeropostale, and even though their planes were incapable of flying higher than the Andean peaks, the likes of Mermoz and Guillaumet were already pioneering flights from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile. The full Aeropostale service from France to Chile was finally established: it had cost the lives of 120 airmen and passengers.
It was summer when I stood beside Lago del Diamante and though the sky was clear, a cutting wind howled across the water. In the early morning the inside of the windows in our vehicle had displayed a veneer of ice. So what must it have been like for Guillaumet, who came down here in the thick of winter?
Leaving Santiago for Argentina he flew into a storm that dumped five metres of snow in forty-eight hours. Caught in fierce down-draughts, blinded by the whirl of snow, Guillaumet could not coax his plane over the walls of encircling rock, and so for two hours he flew round the frozen lake, a mere one hundred feet above it, until the aircraft ran out of fuel. When the storm eventually abated the Frenchman scrambled free…and was immediately blown over by the wind. Despite his fatigue, he could not stay where he was for, as Saint-Exupery wrote in his book, Wind, Sand and Stars, to sleep was to succumb to the cold ‘…filling you like morphine with its bliss.’ So, instead of lying down and saying to hell with it, during the next four days Guillaumet trudged, crawled and dug his way through the snow. With dying muscles and numbed flesh he plodded on, little by little opening his boots with his knife, to appease his swelling feet. He played games with his mind to keep himself upright and onward and when he suddenly remembered how the small-print in his life policy declared that death certification would be postponed for four years were he to disappear down a crevasse, he found an extra spurt of energy. Finally, back in Mendoza, Saint-Exupery nursed his colleague with mugs of herbal tea, describing his fellow pilot, a man who had broken records for the postal crossing of the Andean Cordillera and the South Atlantic, as ‘burnt to a cinder, shrivelled, shrunken like an old woman’ and wrote of Guillaumet’s ‘darkened, swollen face, like an overripe and bruised fruit.’
Aah, those were the days!
(CHRISTINE AND JAMES ARE CURRENTLY IN EUROPE)