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Riding out with Argentina’s gauchos

Could I ride? Yes. Could I speak Spanish? Enough. Then I would get on just fine at Estancia Colipilli, I was assured. And so I found myself pitched into a gritty working environment, the sole female on a ranch run by a clutch of gauchos who spoke only Castellano. As I was soon to find out, just pulling your weight is simply not enough for getting by in a vast swathe of Patagonian ranch land several hours ride from the nearest dirt-track town, without even a phone line. In all the time I was there, I saw only one person other than the gauchos I was working with, and that was Marco, gap-toothed driver of the truck which visited  once a month with supplies, and acted as a wholesaler for excess goatskins. This was isolation in all its splendour. 

Arriving late one night after a couple of days journeying falteringly north, and having finally negotiated a lift from a kind hearted local, I was unceremoniously introduced to my life for the foreseeable future. Chucked a halter, shown the wood pile and told how to make bread, I hoped I hadn’t taken on more than I could handle. The first few days were thus dominated by getting to grips with everyday life. But it didn’t take long before I began to relish the simple pleasures of having your days structured around basic tasks like keeping the fire going and fetching water.

After decent fires the first couple of days, however, I began to have distinct difficulties. I’ll always remember Sergio knocking on the door armed with a companionable carton of wine to find me red in the face and smudged with charcoal after struggling with a fire so big it had rapidly burned out. Of course, without batting an eyelid he rearranged the logs, and the fire burst back into life as he burst into bemused laughter: ‘Que chica, que chica!’

Episodes such as this would come to form the backbone of a genuine but very amusing camaraderie with Sergio, a highly competent gaucho who adored his lifestyle almost as much as he adored wine, and actually whistled as he worked! Being taken under Sergio’s very patient wing was therefore invaluable in allowing me to understand and appreciate so much more about ranch life than I would ever have done otherwise.

At first I would accompany Sergio as he completed tasks closer to home, like the construction of a cattle feeder or comedora. This involved attaching old half-barrels to the existing wooden structure with wire, for the cattle to eat out of. I found the repetitiveness absorbing, despite ending up with more blisters than fingers, and both of us ended up in fits of giggles at one point as he warned me about the volatility of the wire before being smacked in the head with a recoiling end.

It was also my first insight into just how resourceful rural Argentineans are, with every problem seemingly solved using wood, wire or animal hide. Even water pipes are insulated with skins. In a country with a struggling economy, a lot of daily life is not necessarily affected. People have the skills to use the resources available to meet most everyday needs. In Patagonia, lenga is cut and drilled and fences constructed by those living on the land. Gauchos even shoe their own horses and mend their own tack. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a melting pot of skills.

The most legendary of these skills, of course, has to be the cooking of the traditional asado. If there were an eleventh commandment, it should be to never refuse a gaucho’s offer of food. Two or three times a week, a goat would be killed, and I would always be invited into the little stone cocina to share the feast. Someone would turn the ribs on the fire, fat hissing on hot coals and the air filling with the smell of wood smoke and meat. The familiar crush at the door would ensue between the dogs, and Sergio would sit armed with a mug of water to throw at any animal that dared venture inside.

Once ready, the stake would be planted upright in the earth floor, and we would start. Eaten using just your hands and your knife, it is a skill in itself to eat an asado without ending up covered in fat. But over the weeks I got more and more adept at juggling my meat, knife and freshly made tortas fritas, along with an ambitious glass of wine. Funny how in most countries, meat and wine are luxuries, whereas in Argentina they are staples.

I quickly learned that a gaucho’s knife is like a third limb. The same knife used to tackle an asado will afterwards be used to hack off a splinter of wood and sharpen it into a toothpick, and even clean under his nails. Riding out one day, Sergio came across a dead calf, belly protruding from the grass and neck arched back. He hopped from his horse, had a quick look over the calf and, drawing his knife from his red waist sash proceeded to cleanly hack the ears off for identification. Job done, he wiped the knife blade roughly against his horse, secured the ears to his saddle and remounted.

Of course managing the cattle formed the brunt of work on the ranch. And hard work it was. The sheer size of the place – encompassing valleys and ridges as far as the eye could see – made it a formidable task. I remember the first round-up I was involved in. After herding the cattle from the furthest corners of the territory, the drive proper began. And it was chaos. Cows would break off in all directions, then get hounded back to the herd by dogs in a flurry of kicks and angry wheeling. The odd steer would tire of the hounds and turn its horns on them or deliver a blow. The air was filled with the panicked and irritated groans of cows, the frenzied barks of the dogs, and the piercing whistles and shouts of men.

Soon, however, quite an orderly procession of cattle was meandering along the valley-floor, and I was able to make myself useful, mimicking the ranch hands around me to communicate properly with my dogs. Of course they weren’t really my dogs, they belonged to the guy I was temporarily replacing. But from the minute I set foot in his bunkroom they had accepted I was now their human, and rarely went out of my sight. In fact Llapa and Loba were something of stars on the ranch, so Sergio would often have to ask if I’d ride out with him so that he could have use of my dogs.

I don’t think dogs can be trained to do this so unquestioningly. The relationship between a gaucho and his dogs is very much one of tough love and interdependence. It also seems closely linked to pack behaviour, with dogs sleeping in close quarters with their owners and treating rides out as an opportunity to hunt. In fact, if their dogs set off after a hare, a gaucho will often be in hot pursuit, for if they can retrieve it before it’s torn to pieces it can be sold for cash. Needless to say, I developed a strong bond with my dogs, who were not only hard workers but great companions, both equally important.

Spending most of my daylight hours riding through the rugged landscape, it was impossible not to learn to love it. Often we’d set out before dawn, riding through absolute blackness, every bush or shrub looking like a shadow and making it feel as if you were floating over pitted ground. Then as our horses began to climb the ridge the sun would climb higher in the sky, both reaching the crest simultaneously so that the valley beyond would be suddenly floodlit before us.

The conical hills, pampas-strewn riverbeds and snow-peaked mountains beyond would be tinted the richest shades of crimson and gold, early morning shadows stretching away into the distance. And picking our way along the ridge, I’d feel as though I was peering over the rim of a giant bowl with heaven’s gardens painted on the bottom. It’s genuinely one of the most serene and breathtaking landscapes I’ve ever witnessed, and not for the first time I envied Sergio’s privileged and poncho-clad lifestyle.

But despite living a life that seems to symbolise absolute freedom, the irony is that a gaucho is actually subject to a myriad of restrictions. Sergio longs to visit Canada, but even if he had the money, he still wouldn’t be able to as he is legally prohibited from owning a passport. To obtain one, as far as I can tell, he needs to own a minimum of five cattle, before purchasing a marca to brand them with at a cost of Arg$400, equal to his monthly wages. As he told me this beside the campfire, I felt ashamed about how we hop on and off planes as if we’re getting the bus into town. And whilst I was busy seeking ‘cultural immersion’ on the other side of the world, all the man opposite me wanted was to go on an aeroplane.

It is perhaps a fitting metaphor that the landscape, while beautiful, could also be treacherously dry. Bivvying overnight in the next valley once, we were woken by the fading moans of a cow stuck up to its chest in a muddy quagmire. In its desperate search for water this big, unintelligent creature had floundered into a bog, where the thrashing of her hooves served only to increase its grip on her. The scattered bones and stretched leathery skins of other unfortunate animals lent the whole scene a pretty hellish look. The cow looked at me as if already from another, more distant place, and sank her head gracefully into the mud where her breaths bubbled in the murk for a while, before stopping altogether.

Returning home and listening to tales of towns ticked off, routes done, sights seen, I felt no pressure to throw my experiences into the auction (for that’s what such conversations feel like). I may not have planted as many flags as others, but I prefer  the knowledge that for a short time the places I visited became home, and not just letters on a map. Estancia Colipilli was one of several places I visited last summer, but by far the most special, simply because it wasn’t expected. For me, the essence of travelling is to let your travels happen to you. Travelling is about people, and the opportunities they create, neither of which can be pencilled into a calendar beforehand.

It is because of this that despite staying long enough for any romantic notions about ranch life to gain multiple dimensions, my short stint as a gaucha will be forever synonymous with good times in good company, and learning a whole new way of life as a result. But when I think of freedom, I still recall the vision of Sergio, eyes lighting up as he wheels his horse and spurs him up the sleep slope above the house, until he’s just an erratic speck in the undergrowth. Reaching the crest he reins to a stop, the heavy rise and fall of his horse’s chest almost visible from where I am; and silhouetted against the sky he raises his hat and proclaims to the world ‘Yo puedo tocar el cielo!’ I can touch the sky.

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