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TRAVEL:

From: CountryClubuk Magazine.
On horseback in the High Andes
By Karen Considine

The milky green water of the River Puelo was the same colour as the Pisco sours we had drunk at lunchtime, and it lent a touch of unreality as our three boats struggled upstream against the fierce current. On board we were nine hopeful trekkers advancing into an almost untouched wilderness. Sally Vergette, who runs horse treks in Ecuador and Uruguay with her company Ride Andes, had warned us that this was a ‘guinea-pig’ ride to see if a crossing from Chile into Argentina via the remote Southern Lake District was a viable route for horses.

The first ‘guinea-pig’ hitch occurred when two of our party took a side trip and were held up the wrong side of a landslide. It meant that, right from the start, we were running late and it was dusk as we stepped on shore, directly into dark, vertical cloud forest where three vaqueros, Chilean gauchos, were waiting with the pack ponies to load our luggage. After a breathlessly steep scramble (we would become used to the dramatic climbs and rough terrain over the next week) we found our horses waiting in a high meadow with rawhide bridles, wooden frame saddles padded with sheepskin, and stirrups like half clogs which we soon realised protected the feet against all manner of rocks and trees and things that go bump in the night. And night it was as we set off.

If anything could have taught us gringos about the sure-footedness and common sense of Criollo horses it was that two-hour ride, at first in pitch dark and later by moonlight along high, open ridges and narrow slippery forest tracks. We had no choice but to leave everything to them and they never put a foot wrong as we strained our eyes to follow Tito, the leading vaquero, whose broad hat showed only dimly against the night sky. At last we arrived at a farmhouse and staggered, blinking, into a warm kitchen full of Chilean smiles and the aroma of roasting meat. Our ‘Crossing the Andes’ trek had begun.

We were in Llanada Grande, a small settlement that serves a scattered community within two days’ ride with an airstrip, shop where stores are brought the hard way by boat, horse and oxen, and a boarding school. Our vaqueros were educated here, and now they send their children, collecting them for brief holidays, Miguel’s six-year-old, Lupa, sitting up in front of him for the long ride home. The AM radio is the lifeline here and midday messages are the local grapevine: ‘Happy birthday, Jose’, ‘We need help with the fencing’, ‘Don’t let the bull out: I am coming over this afternoon … ’ Everybody owns livestock, sleek red-and-white cattle, sheep, goats and pigs that are regularly serviced by wild boar and provide lean, gamey meat.

Over breakfast Blanca, our hostess, told us of the government officials who arrived last year with offers of free vaccinations for the animals. ‘Most people didn’t want it; they were suspicious; our animals are healthy. But some accepted the offer; every animal that had the jab died within the year.’ Whether because of lack of immune system due to their isolation, or a dodgy vaccine, nobody knows.

This corner of Patagonia was settled only in the last century. We went to visit one of the first arrivals, Amalia, a perky 103-year-old whose unmarried daughter, a slip of a girl in her 80s, flirted outrageously with the boys in our party. As well as Sally and the vaqueros, our escorts were Maria and Alicia, both Argentine, and Cathy, who runs local hiking and fishing tours and whose liaison with Sally had spawned this trip. We guinea pigs were Claudia and Mike from the US, Puk who works polo in England and appreciates a bit of Criollo blood in a horse, Richard and Rebecca from GB, and me: Irish, nearly 53, and hoping those body conditioning classes worked. Of us all, Mike was definitely the most experienced in wilderness travel, a fact quickly recognised by the vaqueros who greeted him with cries of ‘Companero!’

That second morning we rode for only a few hours to a remote meadow where they race horses (and bet on them, I was assured) and there we sat in the sun, our horses tied in deep shade, and ate a kid and a lamb cooked over the open fire on stakes. We also tried mate, pronounced mattay, the herb tea, cure for all ills, which is brewed up wherever a vaquero lights his fire. Later we went upriver by boat to a dramatic wooden house overhanging the stately Puelo. We stayed the night, watching the river far beneath us turn to silver as the moon rose.

The government pay a river ferryman in this isolated place and next morning he earned his money. He rowed back and forth across the river in spate, setting off diagonally upstream each time to counteract the current. We were taken two by two, saddles in the boat and horses held by the reins, swimming along behind. Altogether he ferried 16 horses and pack ponies, and 13 people.

We branched off to follow the Ventisquero river, jogging along precipitous trails through the woods, eating blackberries and murta berries (they taste like strawberries) and cantering on open sandy stretches, in and out of musk rose bushes covered in a million glowing rosehips. We saw condors, hares and hummingbirds, snowy peaks emerging all around us. At the head of the valley, at Bernardita and Tito Grande’s ranchito, we ate ‘carne al disco’ (meat cooked in the discs of an old harrow) as the glacier above us turned toothpaste blue in the moonlight.

We had brought sleeping bags with us but Bernardita had made up every bed in the loft above her kitchen with sheets and pillowcases fetched and borrowed from neighbours many hours’ ride away. The people we met on this trek were all like Bernardita, enchanting. Every evening the welcome was warm, every morning the goodbyes were emotional.

As the days grew warmer and the harvest moon more full, we waded boulder-strewn rivers on our unhesitating horses, our feet on their withers to avoid filling our boots with foaming water. We crossed a swaying suspension bridge, the horses picking their way one by one, and later we found a small dog in the deepest jungle fiercely defending his herd of goats. ‘They take a pup with its eyes still closed and let a nanny goat raise him,’ said Tito. ‘Then he lives with the goats forever and defends them. Every few days he goes all the way home for some food. But he always returns.’

We never saw an ugly horse or a thin cow. Livestock flourishes in this virgin land and we flourished on the heady air, the delicious water and the silence. No telephone, no electricity, no engines, no jet trails in the empty sky, just an occasional tune from Mike’s harmonica. We camped at Cathy’s farm where the lapwings and owls called all night, and we ate spaghetti to postpone meat overload. Next day the pack ponies were left to graze and our bags were sent on by oxen who wore their yoke on their foreheads with rolled eyes like ladies in tight rollers. We lunched beside navy-blue Lago Azul and tried fishing, vaquero style. Richard, of the fishing lodge in Scotland, never really mastered the line round a coffee tin and spinner method but Rebecca, the greenhorn, caught a beautiful rainbow trout.

The surprise of the trip was a night at Cathy’s French mother Francoise’s cottage on Bandurrias island—Provence by candlelight, haute cuisine in the wilds. Dazed with luxury we set off on the sixth day, riding seven hours on a smugglers’ trail through virgin rain forest. After four hours we reached the Chilean customs post where the gendarme ran out of ink in his biro with such quantities of forms to fill in. ‘So many single women all going to Argentina!’ He was dumbfounded. ‘When I retire I shall go to Argentina!’

Our last night’s camp was in No Man’s Land, under the Southern Cross where the horses grazed free around our tents, crunching loudly all night and neighing by the campfire in anticipation, perhaps, of their free run home the following day. Next morning I walked across a tumbling stream where Olivio was catching a salmon for breakfast (coffee-can method), stepping over the border and into Argentina for a swim in yet another blue lake in the golden sun. When I returned to camp the horses and the vaqueros were leaving and the gold went out of the day. Another boat ride and customs post later, we guinea pigs sat in a restaurant in the little Argentine town of El Bolson, drinking rosehip soup, stunned by the noise and bustle of it all.

Yes, Sally thinks the trek will work. She will run two, perhaps, in February and March and another in November. I shall be there in November, when the musk roses are in flower.

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