It is still dark when I get off the bus in Esquina, one of the largest towns in the province of Corrientes. It is five in the morning. My host during my stay is called Fernando. He also came on the night bus from Buenos Aires. My suitcase is placed on the body of his old pickup and we begin the trip to estancia la Rosita along sandy roads. It takes 30-40 minutes and dawn is slowly breaking so that I can begin to make out the extensive grasslands and scattered groups of huge trees. He changes to low gear every time we cross a river as the local bridges are made by laying heavy planks side-by-side.
The rising sun now becomes visible above the horizon just as Fernando turns into a narrow sandy track heading towards a group of big tree that hide the family's estancia. The road curves around the gardens of estancia la Rosita, offering a glimpse of the vast lawns in front of the main house, and on the other side of the road, lines of rustic wooden fences for horses and cattle.
Lights are on at the entrance to the house, Fernando pauses a while next to his car as we get out. He says that it is the first time he has returned home to see lights on outside without hearing the hum of the generator at the back of the house. Electricity from the national grid was installed during the week he was away in Buenos Aires. We stand there for a moment in the quiet of the early dawn, listening to the birds starting to sing and to the sound of horses and cattle grazing in the haze.
I decide to walk straight from the car towards the fields. It feels unreal to stand here in the middle of the argentine pampa - a dream I nurtured since as a small girl I met Anton. Anton who went to Argentina as a young man, but chose to return to his family when he became old. His living room wall was decorated with relics from his gaucho life; his lasso and the long cattle whip. ever since then I knew that I would go to Argentina. and now I was here!
after a short morning nap and breakfasting at a beautifully laid table on the terrace we go down to choose horses for this morning's ride. The horses are saddled near the house among the big trees. The two gauchos Gomez and Javier ride out together with Fernando and me. From home we drive a big herd of young cattle out to new grass. and continue across the vast pastures belonging to the estancia. To my great surprise much of what at a distance looks like pastures are shallow lakes covered in tall grass so that for a considerable part of the time we are riding through "lagunas", as these wetlands are locally called, that are only 30-35cm deep.
The horse we ride are a mixture of the original argentine criollo and thoroughbred or quarter-horse. The horses are ridden in western style, all have great stamina and are totally steady, so after having become a bit accustomed to the western style there is plenty of time to watch the scenery. The horses plod steadily through thick and thin without hesitation.
Surprise number two is the bird life. The lagunas are home to an incredible bird life. Everything from storks to smaller birds of many species in great flocks. Waders with long legs and long beaks their little young scurrying across the aquatic plants, ostriches and wild turkeys. In the groups of big trees you see flocks of blue-green parrots. Before seeing them, you hear them! In Corrientes death arrives on wings; dead animals are stripped where they fall. The variety of birds takes me completely by surprise and is an extra attraction throughout the ride, The lagunas are also home to small alligators. they do not pose any threat however, as they splash around in the water and disappear as soon as we approach them. The same is true of the capybaras - the world's biggest rodents. After riding for a couple of hours, we head back to the Sunday lunch waiting for us on the terrace of the estancia. Javier tells us that the gauchos from the neighbourhood have arranged to meet for a race that very afternoon. The race will be held at a place a couple of hours ride away. I agree to come along. Javier and hi cousin, who is visiting, appear about an hour later with three saddled horses and we ride off. The pace is fast and I have to borrow Javier's whip to keep up with them. Part of the way we follow the road, but we have to bypass the bridges by wading the rivers. Even though the horses will go through almost anything, they refuse to cross moving planks.
The races take place on a long field next to a cluster of big trees and some shacks. On arrival the gauchos are asked to surrender their knives. Most arrive on horseback, but some dusty cars can also be seen parked nearby.The distances raced as well as who competes against whom is arranged through an ongoing discussion. Noisy bets are made right up to the start of the race. In between, people drink beer, play poker and exchange local news. Fernando arrives later with the truck to take me back to dinner by firelight, at the estancia. Javier will take my horse back with him later - the party under the big trees will surely last until late.
Monday morning - start of the riding trip. I leave my suitcase in the room and meet the team of gauchos for the ride for breakfast on the terrace. I meet Dario, Roque and Juan who will accompany me for the next 4-5 days across the pampa. Dario and Roque are old hands who have ridden all their lives. Juan, however, is on the trip for the first time. He is 16 years old and still in school, but has been allowed the week off to serve as an interpreter. He lived for a while in the United States and speaks perfect English.
Normally there are 5-8 participants on these gaucho trail rides, but this one is special as the group of clients that I was supposed to join cancelled only the week before. Therefore I am the only guest. Here a deal is a deal; calling off a trip is unthinkable. Four horses are saddled. We are ready for departure. We ride out through an enclosure where we collect some more horses to take along. Some to be moved to a new grazing area we are passing along the way, others to serve as spare horses on the trip. We ride straight into the vast grasslands in a Northerly direction. After a few minutes the estancia is out of sight. We adopt a rhythm of walking through the lagunas alternating with long stretches of trotting and cantering when the grass surface is reasonably even, or we cross a cattle path winding through the tall grass. It is easier to keep the spare horses together when the pace is fast. When we descend into a jog or walk they begin to drink and eat grass and we have to keep the group together all the time. From time to time the gauchos give a sign with a raised arm if we have to adjust our direction somewhat. There are gates in the fences we have to target every half- or full hour.
We now have four days of fast paced riding ahead of us. 6-8 hours in the saddle every day with a 1-2 hour siesta during the heat of midday. siesta and lunch are taken under the shade of tall trees. One day lunch is the traditional argentine grilled meat asado. Fernando had passed with the truck and left behind a cool-box with, amongst other things, tender beef steaks and spicy sausages. Dry firewood is found o the spot. Never have I had such a good steak!Water for the coffee is boiled in one of the empty plastic water bottles - I never saw that before either. One day we stop over at a gaucho family's place to have lunch in their little patio. First small empanadas with beef inside, then spaghetti with chicken in tomato sauce. All prepared outside in a brick oven. Wonderfully fragrant and tasty food. On other days we carry drinks, sweets and lunch in our saddlebags. After the meal the gauchos will place the lamb-skin covers of the saddles in a shaded spot so that I can have a midday nap before we continue our ride.
Juan passes along all my questions to Dario and Roque and we have a lively "dialogue" about everything, whether large or small!After the first day we nearly forget that we do not have a common language since we have Juan. Three better riding companions would be hard to find. Even though this is Juan's first ride he never complained - not even when he fell off with a loud thump! Without doubt there could hardly have been anywhere on his body that did not hurt after the first half day of riding! You can not speak too highly of that boy; an excellent sense of humour, disciplined, quick-witted and tough.
People say that one gaucho from Corrientes equals five from the other argentine provinces. There is no doubt that Dario and Roque are among the best. Dario was a cavalry officer, and even now, clad in his colourful gaucho attire he moves with great dignity. Roque is of Guarani indian stock, and when on a horse he looks a part of it; a single unit. Once, while lazing the siesta away after a meal, I ask them if they have ever considered doing another job than their present one. They looked rather embarrassed - on y behalf! Only a foolish woman from Europe can come up with such a stupid question. I was quite ashamed at my idea of them possibly wanting a more comfortable life. Actually, they had both been away for short periods (in the cavalry, and due to family problems, respectively), but it is quite clear that "once a gaucho - always a gaucho". It is not a job, but a free and proud lifestyle from which they derive great honour.
One day, riding along a narrow grassy path we catch sight of an iron cross. To answer my question, I was told that a gaucho was once killed in that very spot in a fight over honour. Later, during a rest, I ask what kind of defamation could have sparked off a fight and am given these reasons, in order of priority; insulting one's mother, one's own prowess as a gaucho and thus personal integrity, and last but not least - one's woman. The gaucho resting under the cross was killed in a fight over a woman - but long ago, they said! So probably there might still be a good reason why they are asked to surrender their long knives when they are at a party - as was the case at the races last Sunday! Every evening we reach a new estancia. On the terrace there is always a nice table with a white cloth and cold drinks, coffee and cakes waiting for us. In actual fact we are so hot that we prefer a drink of ice cold water, soon followed by a shower and clean clothes. There is no Holiday Inn atmosphere about the Corrientes estancias. This is the real deal; big spacious rooms with large beds and tight white bed sheets. Lots of fragrant towels, soap and shampoo in the bathroom. Really all the details of our trip have been thought through in detail; from the route, the places where we stay overnight to disinfectant gel for the hands before lunch to the excellent wines served with dinner in the evenings.
After the evening bath there is time for a drink and a stroll around to explore the surroundings while the sun sets. Most of the estancias in Corrientes are built in bungalow style with big covered terraces. Behind the main building alongside the lawns one finds a number of smaller houses, home to the gauchos. Other gauchos live in houses scattered over the estancias area, which may extend from 2000 to 30,000 hectares. There are no stables, at the most a couple of sheds for tack. The temperature in Corrientes often exceeds 30C, though during winter it falls to just a few degrees. The Gauchos did say that they had experienced frost . a couple of years ago the grass had been "stiff" one winter's morning.
The estancias are mostly inherited from one generation to the next. It is a normal thing that the owners have a house and other business in Buenos Aires and only come to stay at the their estancia over the weekends and holidays. Many of the gauchos have also lived and worked in the same estancia for generations. It is obvious that there is a strong bond between the owners and the gauchos and their families in spite of the differences in their status. dinner is served "in style" at about nine to half-past nine in the evening, either on the terrace or in the dining room. Discreet waiter, white table cloths, flowers and candles - three courses that would be the envy of most restaurants - and fantastic wines. Apart from their own meat, cheese and milk, some of the estancias also have their own garden full of vegetables. Most days Fernando arrives before dinner, and there is a lively conversation for a couple of hours. Then I nip out onto the lawns with the last glass of wine in my hand before bedtime. And can you sleep!!! About 11pm the generator is switched off and a lovely quiet reigns where you can hear the distant sounds of horses and cattle grazing At night, if you need to get up, there are some battery powered lamps in the rooms.
In the morning a soft knock on the door at the agreed time will wake you up, breakfast is ready on the terrace, the horses already saddled up and the great grasslands await you in the bright sunshine. On the ride we keep meeting big herds of cattle, of the Hereford and Angus breeds. Some show signs of having been crossed with Indian Brahma cattle as can be deduced from the neck hump and dewlap, characteristic of Bos Indicus - a type of cattle that do well during winter when the grass is dry and scarce. One day we pass a place where the cattle are gathered for dipping and inspection. An estancia owner and his gaucho hands are busy driving hundreds of cattle through a system of crushes where every individual animal is dipped, inspected and de-horned. We stop, causing a a brief pause in their work. Everybody naturally knows everyone else. News is exchanged, mate is sipped and small black cheroots are smoked.
In a few places we also see herds of water buffalo, and everywhere large groups of horses. Some estancias breed criollo horses whereas others breed thoroughbreds or mixed breed horses to be used by the gauchos or to be sold as polo ponies. Breeding mares walk around in big areas and we see foals of all ages stumble along after their mothers as we ride past. Here, life is really "survival of the fittest". In the middle of the day when the heat is most severe, cattle and horses move into the lagunas or stand around in groups under the shade of the big trees.
One day we pass the local primary school on a small grassy road. The single class includes all the children up to 14-15 years of age. The children start early in the morning, and just before the midday heat we see them in the horse paddock saddling up to ride home before it gets too hot.
later the same day we pass the local hospital on a small sandy road. Here in a few small bungalows medical assistance is rendered on the spot, while more serious cases are referred to the town hospital - about 70km away. we also visit a "supermarket" on the way; the small rural shop sells all the necessities - from sewing needles, flour and sugar, saddles and tools, to shoes and garments. You can also get cold drinks at the counter while the horses get a rest in the shade outside. Every Tuesday and Wednesday a cow is slaughtered in the backyard for any passer-by to get fresh meat.
A couple of times we ride along one of the big sandy roads that lead out of the area and meet big heavy trucks loaded with cattle. The engines roar in order to negotiate the loose, sandy surface, and we concentrate on getting our horses off the road quickly.
Four days on horseback in the glaring sun, across vast grass plains is a unique nature adventure, which stays forever in your memory. It is also a physical challenge as you have to keep up the pace to reach the next estancia. I am used to riding long distances on my Icelandic horses, and my legs and backside are fine on this trip, but western style riding on long bodied un-collected horses takes its toll on my back. It is a good thing that I went on this ride before my 62nd year! So late in the day I look forward to a shower and the fantastic service that is awaiting us when we reach our destination. I think there may have been others who have felt sore here and there, for on the second evening the service had been extended to include a masseur who has come all the way out to the estancia, bringing plank bed, scented candles and everything.
Life on the pampa in corrientes is nearly as it was 100 years ago - that is apart from generators and a few mobile phones and cars - and a masseur. The superior experience and surprise on my trip to Argentina is without a doubt that the life of the gauchos is still absolutely authentic. I had expected to find something like the dude ranches in the USA where attempts are made to preserve the original lifestyle for the benefit of paying guests. In Corrientes gaucho life is still lived - with, or without tourists.
The last day ends back at estancia La Rosita. Fernando's mother is ready with an extremely tasty departure dinner before I have to leave to take the night bus to Buenos Aires in the evening. It is quite sad to leave the place, and I know that the days on horseback with these marvellous people is an experience that I shall never forget.
Before taking the bus to Corrientes I stayed one night in Buenos Aires, and now I have to stay a further two nights before my flight home. Buenos Aires has lots of beautiful old Spanish style buildings. Everything is a bit dilapidated, but since I am here during spring the big flowering jacaranda trees along the pavements hide the disrepair. The centre of town is no bigger than you can reach most places walking. People are very helpful - and then it is inexpensive! especially the food and wine. One should not exchange much money at the airport, the rate is better in town.
If anyone now fancies going on a riding holiday to this fantastic country I would recommend www.safaririding.com as my website of choice. The people organising the rides are of Danish origin and one can communicate with them in Danish. I have only positive experiences. So for the next time I may opt to go on one of their camping rides in Patagonia. MY flight ticket and hotel were booked through C&C Travel in Copenhagen. They have an agent in Buenos Aires and everything worked out perfectly.
Published in Denmark in the Icelandic Horse Magazine, 2008
One thing (having our passports purloined by Peruvians) and another (visiting the embassy to apply for replacements) combined rather irksomely to delay our departure from the Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires for the 600 km trip to Esquina by half a day or so. On the plus side, Pin and I enjoyed a white-knuckle crosstown taxi ride to arrive at the bus station in the nick of time and we saw all the countryside along the way on the journey north, striking and memorable mainly for its flat vastness and shimmering heat haze, as we travelled during the day instead of overnight. So this chapter starts on Monday instead of Sunday.
Monday The bus journey took eight hours, but the bus was comfortable. Fairly. It was dark but still balmy when Fernando's mum Alicia and sister Barbara collected us in the country town of Esquina, which lies in the southwest corner of the province of Corrientes. To the south, the province of Corrientes is bordered by the province of Entre Rios. Together, these two provinces constitute the geographical area known as Entre Rios. Entre Rios means between rivers, which is why this area is also referred to as the Argentinian mesopotamia. The two rivers are the Parana and the Uruguay. Alicia and Barbara drove us out of town along endless bumpy dust roads to La Rosita. La Rosita is one of three estancias owned by Fernando's family. The three estancias were once one huge estancia owned by Fernando's grandfather. He divided it among his children. La Rosita is where the Gaucho Trail, which follows a traditional drovers' route through serious cattle country, starts and finishes. On the trail, we would also stay at the other two estancias, La Amistad and La Teresita. Unusually for this ride, the others in the group, Vicente, Margarita, Teresa and her sister Cristina, all mature and at least our age (and we thought we would be the oldies!), were Argentinian. Argentinians eat late, so Pin and I had plenty of time for a wash and brush-up before dinner with them and Fernando and his family. An appetising onion tortilla was followed by roast beef (absolutely by far the best beef yet in over five weeks in South America!) with roast potatoes. Rounded off with fig and ice cream. We may have felt like we were a long way from civilisation, but this was civilised enough for us. The staff brought plenty of cold Quilmes and some smooth Malbec. Fernando gave us the gist in Spanglish of the Spanish conversation around the table. After what had been a fullish day, we ignored the frog in our bathroom and slept like tops.
Tuesday The morning was cloudy but still balmy enough to breakfast outside. The heart of La Rosita is a cluster of cream-coloured buildings surrounded by trees. The terracotta tiled floor of the portico is shaded by a red roof supported by sturdy wooden posts. Cows roam feely. Pin and I had a look around and watched the gauchos bring the horses in and prepare them for the trail. As is often the case on these occasions, horse assignment and mount-up took a while. Pin and I had decided to dress up like proper gauchos and were proudly sporting the bombachas we had bought in Uruguay. However, Correntino gauchos wear something quite different. Polainas are gaily coloured, striped lightweight fabric overtrousers or leggings, which are worn with alpargatas (espadrilles) and, usually, half-chaps, also made of fabric, which may match or clash with the polainas and are tied with thongs below the knee and around the ankle. Roque's polainas were mostly red but striped with blue, orange, yellow, white and green; his half-chaps were mostly green. In some cases, the gauchos also choose to wear natty little leather aprons over their polainas. Roque had even decorated his fringed apron with cattle ear tags, no doubt something of a fashion statement in Corrientes. Marolla's long two-legged apron, under which he wore bombachas and predominantly blue-striped half-chaps, was more like leather polainas. As for headgear, most Correntino gauchos prefer the wide-brimmed shallow-crowned hat or sombrero norteno, but Marolla opted for a beret, and Roque a straw hat. We didn't have any of these items, of course, but Fernando wore bombachas with alpargatas and no polainas, so we didn't look too much like sore-thumb tourists from the south. On the other hand, we looked nowhere near as much the part of the dude gaucho as Vicente in his super-baggy pleated bombachas and snazzy cowboy boots.
On board at last, the group all made their own unique contributions to separating out the spare horses that were to be taken along loose and set off across the water meadows into the campo at ten thirty, accompanied by Fernando and three gauchos (Roque, Marolla and the one with the blue shirt and mostly red-striped polainas whose name I can't remember). Vicente's stirrup leather broke before we had gone very far. Fernando was embarrassed but soon fixed it. My two horses in the morning were Tostado and La Maravillosa. Pin rode Carau. The riding was a mix of walk and canter. Leaving the water meadows, we rode on sandy tracks through the pampas. Occasionally there was a tree. We stopped under a group of a few for lunch at three thirty, which was a lamb asado (absolutely by far the best asado yet in over five weeks in South America!). Hammocks were hung up in the shade. Pin tried not to fall out of hers. The horses grazed under the trees. I walked down to the shallow lagoon and looked out across the flat grassland dotted with cattle to the horizon far beyond. It was very hot. I walked back to the trees and watched intrigued as the one in the blue shirt etc. coiled his lasso. It isn't simply a matter of winding it up, there's an art to it. Different parts are made of different types of hide, for more or less flexibility. I think. Roque did explain it all to me in gaucho Spanish, and I almost got bits of some of it. I think. After siesta, we set off again at five. I was now on Callejera (which means streetwalker!). The afternoon was hot. We arrived at La Amistad, Fernando's aunt's estancia, at around seven thirty. Pitchers of ice-cold Quilmes were waiting to be drunk. Untypically, all the Argentinians fancied chilled white wine instead of the customary red that evening, but there wasn't any. Someone, probably Fernando's cousin, was sent off in a pick-up to buy some and was gone ages. We guessed he had to go all the way to Esquina. Aches and pains were already taking their toll on Vicente in particular but on the others too. They took turns to have a massage with the masseur specially laid on. Fernando must have known that riders would be feeling it by this stage of the trail. Dinner was delicious: rice and tuna, breaded chicken escalope with pumpkin and mash, chocolate cream. The oldies retired early, but Pin and I chatted to Fernando and his aunt about Kenya and other African riding destinations. Fernando asked us which option we would prefer for tomorrow, the long one or the short one? We chose both. We ignored the host of tiny frogs in the bathroom and slept like logs.
Wednesday The house at La Amistad is an attractive white two-storey hacienda with a wide shady portico with massive square pillars and a terracotta tiled floor, flowerpots here, there and everywhere and a solid red-tiled roof. Most of us left the neat gardens surrounding it at about ten. The route would take us via the marshlands. Roque was taking the spare horses a drier way round. My morning horse was Tostada, rather than Tostado, as my first horse the day before, and indeed in Uruguay, had been called. The majority of Fernando's horses are mares. Pin was on Machala, a grey. Not only were we still wearing our bombachas, we were now also carrying the rebenques we had bought from Daniel from Junín de los Andes in Argentina what seemed like months ago. Gauchos R Us! Fernando had enlisted the assistance of a local gaucho to guide the ride safely through the tall reeds, but we still got stuck once. It was hot. It was humid. It was muddy. Lunch was guizo – a gaucho stew with meat, potatoes, vegetables and herbs – at a corral.
In Corrientes, there will certainly be a joke about how many gauchos it takes to string up a hammock. It may depend on the trees and hammocks in question, I suppose, but for some reason it took six of them at this corral. After lunch, I watched Fernando supping his maté (the popular infusion made from the crushed leaves of a South American species of holly) while Roque used his facón as a chisel and his blade sharpener as a hammer to trim a horse's feet, reasonably tidily, also boring small holes into the hoof wall to prevent grass cracks creeping further up. Then it was time for lasso practice. And, boy, did we need it. It's all in the wrist action, of course, and the lasso has to be coiled, held and released in a certain way. A couple of us eventually succeeded in lassoing the wooden post, but our gaucho credentials were looking slightly dubious. Nevertheless, I was still allowed to have a coiled lasso tied onto my saddle. Real authentic gaucho stuff! We rode again at five. I had swapped onto Zaina. Some dictionaries might suggest that zaino means chestnut for a horse (and black for a cow!) but it actually means brown bay. Well, it does in Corrientes anyway. We had to ride quickish in the evening to cover the distance to Buena Vista, our next estancia, stopping only briefly at a lake en route to look for alligators' snouts above the water. I handed my rebenque to Roque for safekeeping while I ran binoculars over the lake. He didn't keep it safe. In fact, he left it on the grass by the lake. By the time I realised he no longer had it, it was already nearly dark and much too late to go back for it. Fernando asked a passing gaucho heading home the way we had come to have a look for it the next day and leave it with Carlito at Buena Vista. It was dark when we arrived, and I was parched. Fate smiled on me. This estancia is run by Germans, and all the other guests were Germans. That might not necessarily sound like fate smiling, but there was no shortage of cold Schneider lager. Or sausage. Or lamb. Burp!
Thursday Buena Vista is a low white and green building with many doors opening onto a portico, which runs all the way around the house and is supported by slender green pillars. The gardens are lush with many different varieties of tree, shrub, bush and flower. Don't ask me which species, but there were palms and eucalyptus as usual, I think. Vicente was suffering so badly with his back that he had decided to have the whole day off. The three women were having half a day off, so it was just Pin and I who joined Fernando and the gauchos Roque, Marolla and Gomez (who had taken the place of the one with the blue shirt etc. and wore polainas with broad green and white stripes!) and the loose horses when the ride left Buena Vista. I was on Carau, Pin was on La Maravillosa. It was very hot and humid. We followed a long dusty dirt road all morning. The smaller group and the good going of the flat dusty surface allowed us to indulge in some much faster riding. The others met us for lunch at Martina's roadside boliche de campo (country store). We all tucked into empanadas and chicken with pasta. And fate in the form of Schneider lager smiled on me once more. During siesta, I had a close look at the saddles, which are elegantly contoured and handsomely studded and different again from those we had sat on in Patagonia and Uruguay. They appear to be made from various types of hide, but I didn't dare ask Roque to explain this time. A young boy of about seven rode in for some provisions. He sat easily on his full-sized horse with just a sheepskin, no saddle, no stirrups. Remounting after shopping was not so easy. He and his bag had to be thrown back up onto his dun by an obliging adult. For the afternoon, Pin swapped back onto Machala. I swapped onto Picaflor. The women rejoined the ride, and we all continued along dusty dirt tracks.
The gauchos started a game of sneaking up on both sides of an unsuspecting rider and pretending to push him or her off. The gauchos fooled around with their lassos. Roque demonstrated his gaucho yell. It was bloodcurdling. Finally, we came to La Teresita, the dark peachy-red estancia house again surrounded by a shady portico. With white pillars. This building is of more recent construction than the other estancia houses we stayed in, because the original La Teresita burned down. Some of the tiled floors of the old house can still be seen. By the time we got there, I was gasping, but fate was late. The Quilmes lager was agonisingly slow to materialise. But it was good when it did. Light was slow to materialise too, because the generator wasn't working. Fernando asked us to select our preferred mounts for the final day as some of the horses were being sent off home to La Rosita by truck that evening. Before dinner, the stiff Argentinians and Pin and I were taken in a horse and donkey-drawn buggy, just like in the westerns, to visit a tack shop. The bumpy dirt track made it quite a challenge to keep the red wine in our glasses. The candle went out, but the moon was full. Pin was tempted by one of the flat black sombreros norteños, but in the end we agreed that such a purchase would be taking this gaucho thing a little bit too far. The buggy took us back to La Teresita in the moonlight for tomato and tuna salad, pancakes stuffed with alcega (poor Fernando tried so hard to explain this vegetable – it's chard) and cheese with tomato sauce. Later, Pin and I went for a stroll with Fernando in the night air. It was balmy. The red wine was moreish.
Friday Everyone returned to the saddle for our last day. The same horse and donkey-drawn buggy was employed to transport our picnic lunch on a ride to the Corrientes river and back. I had selected Callejera and Pin Machala. It was very hot and humid. We stopped along the way for some fresh grapefruit, peeled for us by Fernando. After long canters along dusty tracks, we arrived at the riverbank. Gomez soon had a lamb, sausage and black pudding asado sizzling, Marolla and the gaucho with the blue scarf and orange and black polainas who drove the buggy and whose name I never knew were assembling camp chairs for those who chose not to use their saddles as seats, Roque was fashioning a tablecloth decoration from some pink flowers he had picked, and, most importantly, Fernando was pouring me a large Isenbeck lager. It was even hotter and humider, and the air was full of flying insects. Don't ask me which species. After another of the best asados in nearly six weeks in South America, Fernando and I went fishing with a line, a hook and a few pieces of leftover meat as bait. Even (most of) the fish in Argentina are full-on carnivores. As had been the case with the lassoing, it took me a good few goes to master the technique of twirling the baited hook around my head and then releasing it at precisely the right moment, so the fishing was entirely unsuccessful to begin with. The look on Fernando's face changed from encouraging to doubtful to pessimistic to plain bored. Then, all of a sudden, I surprised myself and everybody else. I caught a dorado. The dorado is an aggressive game fish and can grow very big. Mine was only mildly assertive and very small. This inspired Roque to have a go. With his good lasso arm, he could cast considerably further than I could. I picked what I thought looked like a good spot for him, and in no time he had trumped my tiddler and landed a surubí, a big catfish type thing. Don't ask me which species, but it's a tiger catfish, I think. Then the gaucho with the blue scarf etc. also joined in and caught another non-aggressive baby dorado. The fish were quickly cleaned and stored in the empty coolbox. Unfortunately, our catch of the day would not become the plato del día as another fish (pacú, a fruit-eating piranha) was already on the menu for dinner that evening, but Fernando assured us that his family would enjoy our fish very mucho thank you. Cristina went to sit in a camp chair with a rigged-up shade at the river's edge and managed to topple in when she stood up, so she had a damp ride home. Some opted to travel back in the buggy, others played a gaucho mounted game on the way. Two posts were erected, with a crossbar between them. A small wire ring was suspended from the crossbar, each contestant was issued with a short stick, and the idea was to gallop between the posts with the hand holding the little stick at the ready raised and to insert the stick into the ring and pull it off the crossbar. Of course it's difficult, much more difficult than lassoing or fishing in my opinion, but Pin and Roque made it look easy. We arrived back at La Teresita late. The remaining horses were sent off home, and trail riders said adiós to the gauchos and were then transferred back through Esquina to La Rosita by vehicle. All Fernando's family was there. Two guitarists and an accordionist played traditional music while we ate at a long table outside on the brick patio. Fernando's wife Rochi had brought our replacement passports. We had barely finished what was one of the best dinners Pin and I had had in six weeks in South America when, at about ten thirty, it was time to go back into Esquina to catch the overnight bus to Buenos Aires. All over all too quickly and all too soon.
Steve Moger, 2009.
Had we suspected even sneakingly that the gloriously unimpeded view down onto Kilimanjaro in the early morning sunlight we had from the aircraft as we hopped from Jomo Kenyatta International to Kilimanjaro International would be by far the best and indeed the only cloudless one we would enjoy during our week and a bit in Tanzania, we might well have been more awestruck and respectful. Had I had even the faintest inkling of just how ghastly a gustatory experience it would be, I might well have forgone the can of not quite cold enough Kilimanjaro lager I guzzled while gawping at the mountain, but, after overnight long haul in hot, insufficiently conditioned air and a couple of hours in equatorial transit, I was considerably more interested in beer for breakfast than I would usually be, and quaffing a Kilimanjaro over Kilimanjaro seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn't, of course, but I should at least have paid a little more attention to the pictorial representation of Kilimanjaro on the can because even that was a clearer and more realistic view than we would have.
Pin and I were in Tanzania not, like everyone else, to attempt to hike up and down Africa's highest peak but, much more sensibly, for the Kilimanjaro Safari, an 8 night trail ride run by the Schovsbo brothers Jan and Tom from their farm base 30 km north of Arusha. It was Jan who met us at Kilimanjaro International and drove us west and then north, through Arusha, where all life is found on the verges between the potholes and the jacarandas, to Uto Farm. Jan told us there was somebody working for him who knew us. This was news to us. This somebody was Anna. We had met Anna the previous year while she was working for PJ and Barney at Okavango Horse Safaris in Botswana. In the meantime, she had moved on to work for David and Robyn in the Nyika in Malawi and had now found her way to Tanzania. According to the bush telegraph, David and Robyn have since left Malawi and joined PJ and Barney in Botswana. Equestrian Africa is a relatively small world. I think it was Einstein who said that.
Sitting 2000 m up on the northwestern slope of Mount Meru, the Cape Dutch style farmhouse with its white gabled walls and climber-clad verandah in between dates from 1937. We sat on the verandah watching the bee-eaters flying sorties from the garden chair backs and were made to feel very welcome and at home by Anna, Jan and Jan's dad. The house is surrounded by eucalyptus, jacaranda and avocado trees, a superb array of shrubs and lush lawns, and the verandah looks out towards the Rift Valley in the distance. It is impossible to resist trying to imagine the colourful conversations that must have taken place on this verandah over 70 years and, to judge from some of Jan's stories of recent contretemps and ongoing issues with various locals, most likely still do.
Other riding guests Mike and Lucy from Ireland arrived from Nairobi by shuttle bus and joined us on the verandah. We were also introduced to Albie Kloppers from South Africa, who would be our guide, and Mark from England, who, like Anna, would be helping with horses and hospitality on the ride. Brother Tom was in Barcelona, so Jan would be overseeing all the organisation and rustling up tiptop bush lunches for us on his tod. After a tiptop farmhouse lunch, we tried out a selection of horses in the paddock and picked our winners. In the late afternoon, Pin and I strolled down and up the farm drive accompanied by an extended family of ridgebacks and then nosed around the characterful farmhouse, carefully circumventing the whoopsies of the eight new additions to the family. In the evening, we were all back on that verandah again for sundowners before dinner. I was already developing a discerning boozer's palate for Safari lager, a distinctly more satisfying brew than the Kilimanjaro and, given how little we would see of the big K, the more fittingly named of the two ride-defining beers; and I am sure that Flaubert, himself a keen lager man, would have leaned towards Safari in preference to Kilimanjaro in his search for the mot juste to encapsulate in a nutshell the essence and flavour of our adventure. In point of fact, on several occasions over the course of the next few days, Safari lager would taste as exquisite as the finest Czech Pilseners. Jan may be half Danish, but I'm sure he wouldn't demur when I say that, after many years of painstaking research, I have come to the conclusion that a certain Danish lager is probably not the best lager in the world. On the other hand, Jan's ice-cold Danish Akvavit is quite possibly the best aquavit in the world.
The next morning, we set off on the ride, which follows a roughly circular route roughly within a rough triangle formed by Mounts Meru to the south, Longido to the north and Kilimanjaro to the east. The 7 day 200 kilometre itinerary would take us west from Uto Farm down onto the plains, past mud and thatch hut settlements of the Wa-Arush people (where we were pursued by a throng of little cherubs, yelling and throwing stones despite the best efforts of the local guide assisting our passage) and through acacia woodland to Lion Camp, at the foot of the Matissiwi escarpment; up the escarpment, some of the climb on foot, and north across open plains and then through thicker bush to Twin Hills Camp, with grand views of Mount Longido (Kilimanjaro too on a clear day - the day wasn't clear); east through sansevieria bush and dusty dry riverbeds to the Ngasurai plains, towards Kilimanjaro (visible directly ahead on a clear day - the day wasn't clear) and northeast to Kilimanjaro Camp; further east across the plains, into thicker bush and woodland again and then on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro to Ndarakwai Camp; west through acacia savanna and euphorbia candelabra forest to the Dustiest Camp in Tanzania, and finally across open plains along the northern fringe of Mount Meru back to Uto Farm. Phew!
The remote bush country explored on the ride is a neck of the woods inhabited by only the Masai and an assortment of game. Both Masai and game are somewhat shy and cautious of parties on horseback but can be curious and inquisitive, and it is sometimes possible to approach to within quite a short distance. At lunch and siesta stops, we were watched from the bush, the distinctively coloured Masai fabrics occasionally showing through the trees, and a group of women humping unwieldy bundles of firewood passed very close by. If we could have understood anything of what might have been going through the heads behind the wary eyes of Masai and animals, it would doubtless have been along the lines of "these wazungu really are bonkers!" One day, we surprised some illegal charcoal burners at their clandestine work. Albie shouted authoritatively in Swahili. For all the burners knew, we could have been a crack troop of mounted rangers, and they didn't hang around to learn the much less frightening truth but fled into the bush so fast they left their machetes behind. Albie duly confiscated these.
Over the week, we had good sightings from the saddle of Thomson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, kudu, gerenuk, eland, giraffe, zebra, and eventually elephant. At Lion Camp, we scoured the savanna and the flat-topped acacias optimistically with binoculars; we spotted no lions but we did see a black-backed jackal and a hyena with a cub. Game drives on the horses' day off took us close to elephant, zebra, wildebeest, vervet monkeys, impala, waterbuck and kudu. Vulture activity guided us to a dead zebra, from which a few prime cuts had been removed. Jan thought it had probably been shot and then hastily butchered and dumped.
The riding on the first two days was slowish because of the terrain, but the pace gradually increased, and by midweek we were cantering after zebra and alongside giraffe. By the end of the week, the canters across the open plains simply went on and on. The mainly thoroughbred horses behaved themselves most of the time, although Mark's horse Star appeared to be dictating pace and direction on some of the canters and jumped a goat one morning as we passed through a herd. July to November is the dry season, and it was late September, so dust was an ever-present fact of life, and Albie gave it a good bite on the second day when his horse misjudged some rough ground, lost its footing and toppled over. It was hard to conceive of anyone in the history of dusty people ever having been dustier than Albie was at that moment. Until we arrived at the Dustiest Camp in Tanzania, that is. We had had a fast afternoon, weaving our way through euphorbia forest, following a stream running through black mud, and then cantering along a bone-dry riverbed and finally through fine volcanic dust. And all in hot heat. When we dismounted in camp, we looked like a shift of miners clocking off. We soon forgot the grime, though, momentarily anyway, as it was here that we at last caught a glimpse of just the very tip of "Killy" above the clouds. It soon disappeared again, and none of us was particularly disappointed because we were all hellbent on being first in the shower without appearing pushy or rude. I shampooed my eyebrows and eyelashes.
The bush tucker involved no trials. There were full Tanzanian fry-ups for breakfast, and Jan's tiptop lunches were savoured in the shade: one day we even had fresh lake perch. The lunch Land Rover also brought chairs and siesta mats and coolboxes brimming with lashings of Tangawizi ginger beer and a healthy stock of Safari lager. Dinner was prepared by the camp cook, whose area of special expertise was soup, a different one every evening, and all delicious. Soups and meat courses were eaten seated around the campfire. When I say around the campfire, I actually mean at some distance from it. Jan's monster campfires are a far cry from the model Baden-Powell would have recommended for his Boy Scouts. Camp conflagrations would be a more accurate description. Elephant ensure there is a constant supply of firewood, and Jan doesn't waste any time or energy cutting the trees into kindling or logs but burns whole trunks instead (tree trunks, not elephant trunks!).
Almost as eye-popping as Jan's monster fires were Mark's monster gins and tonic, which were essentially all G with a dash of T. Nobody was surprised when the gin ran out before the end of the week. All the water for drinking, cooking and washing on the ride is brought from home in a bowser towed by the big back-up truck. As a direct result of the inevitable popularity of Mark's G&T as a thirst-quencher, nobody was surprised that there was no danger of the water running out.
Campfires do have a downside of course: singsongs. Fortunately, we had only one evening of vocal entertainment. On the second of our two nights at Ndarakwai camp, the group had had a day off riding and was clearly significantly less exhausted than usual. After Jan and the more youthful and flexible among us had demonstrated some skilful gymnastic tricks and games, the G&T took hold and Mike and Mark stepped up to the plate to perform. Mike is Irish, so his selection of The Wild Rover was understandable, and his reworking of the standard was passable. We nearly tapped our toes and hummed along. Mark's choice was far less predictable and conventional. First he gave us a reasonable and not too embarrassing rendition of The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel. A little fast, but it is a long song, so this was probably a blessing. His second number was so unexpected it almost sobered us up: Rolf Harris's Two Little Boys. Unabridged. Unadapted. With no rude words or sexual innuendo. Not a wink either. Delivered entirely faithfully. And ever so earnestly. Good grief! Rolf may have been a childhood hero for many of us - everybody liked Sun Arise, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and even that silly song about the ladies of the court of King Caractacus passing by - and he may nowadays enjoy thoroughly justified albeit perhaps gently tongue in cheek cult status and celebrity for, among other classics, the wobble-board version of Stairway to Heaven, but Two Little Boys? Around the campfire? In the bush? We were stunned to silence, but I suppose it could have been worse. Mark could have chosen to give us his interpretation of Jake the Peg. With his extra leg! Diddle iddle iddle um. It was just as well the gin ran out.
Pin and I retreated to our tent with Two Little Boys and their toys going round and round in our heads. As I attempted to drown the tune with some vigorous teeth-brushing and to fade the image of Rolf wobbling his board out into darkness, I wondered whether the sentry posted at this camp would have to be extra vigilant as the singers had provided any hungry wild animals in the vicinity with ample incentive to come and eat us or he could relax, set his rifle down and doze even, safe in the knowledge that the caterwauling would have scared all but the deafest predators far off into the night!
After what seemed like much more than a week of riding and camping in the dust, we found ourselves back on the verandah once more. Normal G&T service resumed, and the Safari lager was still going down a treat. We were all quietly thrilled to have returned to civilisation, and I was literally itching to remove nine days' growth of grey beard. Jan said the stubble lent me an air of gravitas and wisdom, but Jan can be quite wry. All I could see was that it made me look like an old tramp and not necessarily wise. "Bugger the gravitas," I told him, and it was on with the soap and off with the fuzz. I shampooed my eyebrows and eyelashes again too.
The next day after lunch, goodbyes were said. Albie and Anna were heading into Arusha, Mike and Lucy were bound for Zanzibar, and Mark was flying back to Blighty. Jan dropped Pin and me at the gates of Uto Farm to catch the Impala shuttle bus to Nairobi. We were travelling on to join a horse safari in the Masai Mara. The Kilimanjaro challenge had been our starter for ten more nights!
Steve Moger, 2008.
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