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Argentina’s Pampas: just a big walk


I had been staying at a farm in the Chubut area of Argentina for a few weeks and was beginning to get a bit soft; I decided that it was time to continue with my adventure. The main roads in Argentina have posts every kilometre telling you how far to the next big town. By the time I reached the main road from my farm, it would be 147 kilometres to Bariloche and I reckoned I could walk that quite happily, aiming for about forty kilometres per day.

The farmer drew a vague map on a scrap of paper and I packed up my tent and said my goodbyes. It was roasting hot by the time I reached even the farm gate and my rucksack was cutting into me already; I was beginning to regret not sawing my toothbrush handle off when I had the chance…

track over the pampas

I had gone to South America in the quest for adventure and to write the novel that had been burning away inside me and had been there for about a month. The first section of the walk was easy enough, once I had crept past the tiny house that was guarded by the dog that had bitten me the previous week. I ate cherries from a tree and all was good with the world. By late afternoon, I had reached El Bolson, the “hippy capital” of Argentina and stayed in a hostel.

The next morning I set off early and looked at my map – the farmer had drawn in a track that allowed me to avoid the main road, with instructions that I couldn’t miss it. Of course, I did. The track I thought was the route got narrower and more and more rutted. The occasional horse and rider went by and by the time I knew that it really wasn’t right, I was too tired to think of going back. I plugged on until the now unsurfaced track stopped at a gate in dense woodland. I thought that either I could ask at the farm and risk being kept in a cellar for the rest of my days, or I could camp in the woods and then trudge back several miles the next day. My feet told me to risk the cellar.

Luckily the couple I met were great and laughed at the Homer Simpson Doh I let out when they pointed to a beautiful road in the distance, running parallel with my track. The lady led me for another couple of miles across fields, over ditches and under fences skipping along in her high heeled shoes whilst I struggled after her with my rucksack, getting stuck under fences and lying helpless like a woodlouse when I fell onto my back. She left me near the proper track and told me that it was only a few hours to the next village where there was a shop. I decided to camp by the stream and do the last few hours in the morning.

By late afternoon the next day I was beginning to realise that she must have meant it was only a few hours by car…

The Pampas is dry, scrubby bush. There was the occasional stream that I could fill my water bottles from and absolutely no shade whatsoever. I had the most miserable siesta in the world by bobbing under a gorse bush – it was actually more comfortable to carry on walking.

I sneaked into the bushes and put up my tent and ate some more of the squashed banana and bread rolls that were wedged into my rucksack. My feet were beginning to get sore from the heat and my rucksack was so heavy that I was having trouble putting it back on if I took it off. As night fell, I began to think about the bit in my guide book that mentioned that pumas still roam the Pampas and my little pocket knife that had seemed so sturdy when I bought it in Wales, suddenly seemed quite pitiful.

The next morning I reached the main road and although I could walk faster, the glare from the tarmac increased the temperature. Even though it was a main road, the traffic was few and far between. Nearly every car stopped to offer me a lift and their occupants looked very confused when I said that I was walking for fun. The bus drivers would wave and it was the start of a relationship as I saw some of them several times over the next few days!  A couple of times I would attempt to take a short cut through the bush to miss a massive meander in the road, but soon realised that the bush was too prickly to walk over and that there were far too many rustling noises for comfort.

Occasionally cars would pass, stare, then re-pass, then re-pass again, obviously turning round in the road to go past me again. I began to get nervous, realising that I was quite an easy picking and could disappear forever and no-one would ever know. In hindsight it was probably people trying to see exactly who would be so stupid as to walk across the Pampas in that heat.

My map said that the village was coming up, but I now knew that to rely on it would be foolish. I had enough food left for one small meal and had been unable to find any water since lunchtime. Just as I was looking for bushes large enough to hide a tent behind, I saw a house – the village at last!

I was so pleased when I saw that it had a café (albeit shut) a phone box and a little shop. I asked in the shop where the camp site was and the lady looked confused and then kindly offered that I could sleep in her garden. I was so tired that I thought I would put my tent up and come back to buy some food later. By the time the tent was up, the shop was shut.

I gingerly took my shoes off and realised that my feet were in a bit of a state. They were soft, wrinkled and blistered.  I ate the last of my food and lay down to rest. That evening a party was going on in the distance and as I lay there I could hear the diddley-dee music going on and on and everyone else was having a great time, except me.  I then realised that it was New Year’s Eve. A dog lay outside the tent which had been quite nice company at first, but as I tried to sleep, he kept guard and all night did “twilight barking” with every dog around the valley.

The next day the village was even more deserted than usual. Being New Year’s Day, the shop and café were shut. I spent the whole day lying either in or by my tent, ravenously hungry, trying to dry my feet out. Eventually I ventured out to try the phone box: it was broken.

Another night of the dog barking every time a mouse farted, left me ragged and cross. However, the shop was open, but the only complete food there were small fruit loaves, so I reluctantly bought six, apologised to my colon and set off once more.

The kilometre posts were a blessing and a curse. They gave me something to aim for, but also reminded me how far I still had to go. Bus drivers were now waving from recognition. A lady pulled up and gave me a banana – she had heard that I was walking over the Pampas and had hoped that she would see me! My feet were agony and made each step a painful shuffle. I changed into my sandals and thickest socks to see if that helped and hoped that the fashion police wouldn’t drive by.

That next day was the day of the flies – great horse flies that were attracted by my scent and heat. I was obviously the only hot smelly thing for miles around as I was covered in them and their huge bites. Whilst I was walking I could flap a t-shirt around in a Morris Dancing way and that kept them at bay, but as soon as I stopped, I would be crawling in them. It took me four kilometres that night to find a bush big enough to camp behind and my feet were making me sick with pain. I must have been an amusing sight, flapping an old t-shirt and muttering, “ooh, ahh,” with every step. I was unable to flap whilst putting my tent up and became covered in the flies; I felt like something out of a Hitchcook film and thought that I would die there, having been eaten alive. Eventually I dived into my tent and spent ten minutes squashing every fly that had come in with me.

a truly miserable siesta

At last I could lie in peace and start putting tea-tree oil on my bites.

The next day was agony and I was so absorbed in my pain, I walked past the campsite without seeing it. To my despair, I had to retrace my steps – but luckily found a shop en route. A notice to all lone women travellers – never, ever try and mime the action for a lollipop if your Spanish isn’t very good…

Finally in the campsite, I realised again just how kind and friendly the Argentine people are. I got adopted by a couple who saw me shuffle across the grass. The lady lanced my infected blisters and they both half-carried me to the shower block as I threw up over myself with the pain. They then invited me to eat with them and paid for me to have a bed, rather than my tent. They were wonderful. They got me to the bus stop the next morning and put me onto a bus where I was greeted by the driver as an old friend.

only 47km to go..

I was disappointed not to walk the whole way, being only thirty-five kilometres away from Bariloche, so decided to recuperate in a hostel for a few days and then try and do the last bit again.

Three days later, I was dropped at the same bus stop by another familiar driver and set off once more. I felt great and covered the first thirty kilometres fairly easily, the lady with the banana stopping again and giving me another! What I had not considered was the large shanty town that surrounds Bariloche and the fact that the main road runs right through it. A rubbish tip marked the edge of town and I was feeling very pleased with myself as I had apparently only two more kilometres to go. The tip was crawling with dogs, men and children picking over the rubbish. The dogs came to me first and I managed to snarl at them, then the children came asking for sweets – I had a few sultanas in a bag, but I could see that they weren’t impressed and a few older boys started getting a bit more persistant. I suddenly felt vulnerable with all my belongings on my back, being in far too much pain to go any faster and not really speaking enough Spanish to talk my way out of a problem.

I looked back and saw some of the men pulling their bandanas up over their faces and starting to walk towards me. At that time, a car pulled up beside me and two men shouted “policia!” and beckoned me in and in relief I jumped in the back and we sped away. I then realised that neither of the men had police uniforms on and I thought that I had really done it this time…

I started asking questions in my poor Spanish but they couldn’t understand me. They turned off the main road and I began to panic and tried to think of how to escape. As we pulled up to the house where I was convinced I was going to end my days, their daughter came out. She smiled, “Dad wants me to practice my English” she explained.

As I sat on the hostel balcony, my feet bandaged by another Good Samaritan, I felt I’d earned the beer that went straight to my head. I made a few vows about not being so stupid next time, but I knew that they wouldn’t be followed. What I didn’t know then was that I would go on to have mice and foxes in my tent as I tried to sleep. I would be robbed, have a fight with a man with a knife and get jumped on by a fat naked tour guide – but then, adventures are never supposed to be easy…

Lorraine Jenkin is the author of Chocolate Mousse and Two Spoons: buy your own copy at http://honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=1870206959

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