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To be continued…

I thought I’d better make a quick update so that anyone following us, knows what’s happened and why things have been a bit quiet of late.

For various reasons-not least of them that the depths of the Patagonian winter is not the best time to be going anywhere on a horse-we’ve decided to postpone the trip for a few months after making it about 200km from San Martin de los Andes to Zapala. We’ve found a place to keep the horses just outside of Zapala with a lovely guy called Juan who we met while we were coming down from the highest point we reached on the trek, a desperately cold and windy pass at about 1600m.

The trip so far has been an amazing and really rewarding experience and I’ll be posting entries about how things went when I get the chance.

In the meantime, Magnus has had to head back to Sweden for a few months, and I’m going to be staying at the beautiful and remote Estancia Ranquilco.

Unfortunately, remote in this case means 3 hours on horseback to the nearest road and another 3 to the nearest place with a computer, so unfortunately I won’t be able to update the blog while I’m there, but I hope to post some updates when I make it back out into the big bad world, which I expect to do every few weeks.

More to come soon…

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The first day of the trip, we got up at 6.30, a couple of hours before dawn to give us plenty of time to finish packing and leave with the light. We caught the horses from the field, an easy enough task when you have oats to bribe them with, and set about saddling them.

This was when we discovered that despite his generally calm and friendly demeanor, Durazno has a tendency to freak out at the most random things. He was tied to a fence with his halter as Magnus was saddling him, when he suddenly jumped in fear-we were never able to work out why-and started pulling back on his halter. As he was tied to the fence, he couldn’t pull away, which scared him yet further and so he pulled even harder.

Durazno is an incredibly strong horse, and when he decides to pull with all his might, there isn’t much that can withstand him; not even a well dug-in fence. The fence lost the battle and suddenly we had Durazno running loose with a 6-foot chunk of fence hanging from his head. Unsurprisingly, the fence tied to his head didn’t do much to calm him and he started bucking and rearing, the piece of fence that I could barely lift off the ground flapping around like a piece of paper in the breeze.

Amazingly, we were able to talk him down enough for Magnus to untie his halter and Durazno came away from the experience unscathed; which is more then could be said for Esteban’s fence or my nerves.

The rest of the preparation passed thankfully uneventfully and as we were nearing the end, Esteban’s friend Nestor Prieto very kindly came down to see us off and also to tell us about his parent’s house, a couple of day’s trek away, where we could stop and get food for the horses. Nestor helped us repair what was left of the fence and we then headed off, with Nestor on hand to record the momentous moment.

The moment that we set out on the first day of our trek.

The moment that we set out on the first day of our trek.

The momentous moment didn’t last too long as we had to stop at the bottom of the road while I jogged off to the supermarket to get a few things we’d realised we’d forgotten as we were packing. We then had to stop a few hundred meters further on to get fuel for the stove as all the petrol stations had run out the night before, and also to adjust the shifting saddles. Progress thus far was unlikely to break any records, but at least we were underway.

It was then that we noticed that we were being followed by India, one of the dogs that lived with Esteban. We started shouting and yelling at her to go home, at which she would sullenly slink away, only to reappear seemingly from nowhere happily trotting along behind us a little while later.

After the first few kilometers we’d shouted at her so much, just my shouting her name would cause her to sink cowering to the ground, but still she didn’t get the message to head home. There wasn’t anything more we could do, so we just carried on shouting, something which scared the horses and made riding somewhat more interesting, and hoped that she’d eventually get bored and leave us.

India, not yet realising that she was setting out on "walkies" of several hundred kilometers.

India, not yet realising that she was setting out on "walkies" of several hundred kilometers.

After a few kilometers we reached our first major bridge; something we’d been dreading after our tortuous experiences on the first trek. However, this time it went almost without a hitch, the horses even remaining calm when a huge double-decker bus thundered past us half-way across, something else that had been one of my biggest fears.

Buoyed by our success, we carried on up the road (with frequent stops to adjust shifting saddles) until we reached the next bridge. This was an entirely different affair to the previous one, a rickety wooden affair with so many hoof-sized holes that we were even more concerned then the horses, who took one look at it and stopped dead, refusing point-blank to take another step forward.

As the six of us (I include India even though she was cowering off in the distance after we’d shouted at her again) stood looking at the bridge, a passing cyclist told us that he thought the river could be forded further upstream. This seemed the safest-as well as the most horse-trek-like thing to do-so we took the horses along the bank till we came to a place where the current didn’t seem too strong and river wide enough that it was only a few feet deep.

It took some doing, but Magnus eventually managed to wade across on Durazno whilst dragging a reluctant Kicki, while I followed on Celeste; wondering how good an idea this was as the water crept high enough for my feet to be dangling in the river.

Magnus intrepidly wading across the first river we crossed on foot.

Magnus intrepidly wading across the first river we crossed on foot.

However, it all went without a hitch and as we clambered up the opposite bank we felt a surge of elation, only tempered slightly by the sight of India paddling across after us…

The rest of the day passed well, if slowly, the GPS unit which was to become our constant companion recording each step and letting us know exactly how far and fast we weren’t going. The scenery became more majestic and expansive as we moved on up into the low hills surrounding Junin and as we sank into the tranquility of the surroundings and the slow pace of the horses, we realised that we were finally doing what we had spent so much effort in preparing for.

We passed scattered houses and farms, where the inevitable dogs rushed out in a flurry of barking to shoe us on, and waved at the occasional passing trucks and cars, each one of which would inevitably beep and wave as they passed. After they’d passed, the dust would settle and the silence descend, leaving us alone with the Patagonian landscape and the gentle crunch of horse hooves on the unpaved road.

Jens with the horses and India at one of our stops.

Jens with the horses and India at one of our stops.

We’d been told that there was a farm called Estancia Vieja about 30km away where we would probably be welcome, but as we passed several kilometers beyond the 30km mark with no sign of anything like what we’d been told to expect and darkness starting to encroach, we succumbed to the temptation to use the trappings of modern technology and unpacked the laptop, plugged in the GPS and used Google Maps to work out where we were.

It said we had more then a kilometer to go to the back gate of the Estancia, and when we got there, with the sun starting to set, we found that it was padlocked, meaning we would have to carry an undefined distance further on to the front gate.

The road from here on descended in a crazy series of loops which took us nearly 2 hours to negotiate, so that we walked the last hour in total darkness, which wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience for any of us, as by this time we’d been walking for nearly 11 hours, covered almost 50 km and were pretty shattered.

We got to the front gate to find that locked too, so that Magnus had to jog the mile or so to the Estancia to speak to whoever he might find there while I stayed with our worried and hungry horses. It turned out that there was no mobile reception here, and so Esteban’s message that we were coming hadn’t been received (which was why the gates were locked). However when Magnus got to the house, he found a friendly Gaucho there called Arturo, who seemed entirely unfazed by two knackered Gringos, a dog and 3 horses turning up unannounced at his home way after dark and welcomed us in, helping us to unpack, settle the horses in a corral with some food and show us a place in the barn where we could sleep.

Arturo welcomed us into the stone building he lived in, let us cook in his kitchen and then spent a couple of hours chatting to us. He was a lovely guy, who had moved to the country from Buenes Aires to be away from the city and was now working as a Gaucho on the farm, which was owned by a German owner who happened to be away at the time. By now we’d accepted that India was part of our team, so we fed her with our left-over food and she then curled up outside the kitchen listening to our conversation.

After we’d bid goodnight to Arturo we went back to the barn, spread out a carpet on the floor and fell asleep on our saddle blankets, feeling almost like proper Gauchos after a long and hard, but rewarding day.

The barn where we spent our first night.

The barn where we spent our first night.

The next day we woke somewhat late and had breakfast with Arturo, supping fantastic coffee from a metal pot he had bubbling away on his wood stove. After he left on his horse to go to work, we had a quick look at the route we had to Nestor’s place and then sat soaking up the peace and tranquility of the Estancia of which we were now the sole human inhabitants.

We walked the horses down the kilometer or so to the main entrance and then set about readjusting the saddles, which had yet again slipped in the walk down.

As Magnus was adjusting his saddle, Durazno decided to move off, the saddle slipping down his sides, causing him to flip out yet again and give us another display of bucking-bronco antics. Luckily as we were out in the open, there was nothing for him to hurt himself on, and we soon managed to calm him down again, the only damage being Magnus’ saddle bag, which Durazno had ripped cleanly in half.

After we’d calmed Durazno it started to rain, something that we’d prepared for, but had been hoping we could somehow magically avoid during the trip. We’d both bought military ponchos (mine a British one, which in retrospect could be considered somewhat of a mistake in Argentina…), which completely covered us and the saddles as well, theoretically keeping both us and them dry.

We’d prepared the horses before we’d left by letting them see and sniff the ponchos, and even sat on them wearing them. However, we hadn’t actually done any riding in them yet, and as soon as I set off on Celeste, I realised that every move I made the poncho rustled, or touched her hind quarters, which caused her to startle and jump, giving me a somewhat crazy ride as she repeatedly shot forward and had to be reigned back in.

Magnus and the horses experiencing rain for the first time on the trek.

Magnus and the horses experiencing rain for the first time on the trek.

On this second day, we were really able to relax and take our time with the ride, as we had a fairly good idea that our next port of call-Nestor’s parents house-was no more then 20 kilometers away, something that shouldn’t take us more then 6 hours, even at the snail’s pace we moved at.

Even though it was bitterly cold and raining, it was a beautiful ride, following the river through a green valley, with beautiful rock formations rising up on each side.

When travelling on horseback, the pace is incredibly slow, which can be intensely frustrating, when you are desperate to get somewhere and realise that you could easily jog there at twice the pace. However, being sat on a horse is somehow even more passive then walking (well, to be fair it’s only passive until you absent-mindedly scratch your nose, your poncho rustles, your horse startles, shoots off and you are suddenly clinging on for dear life, but lets ignore that for the purpose of this aside), as a result of which you get to see the landscape around you unfold a step at a time, soaking up the atmosphere and experiencing every nuance in your surroundings even more so then one does when walking.

This means that when it’s cold and wet as it was on this day, you become very aware of how cold and wet you are, but also how incredibly beautiful the place is. As we moved on I was able to look at each bird that circled overhead and watch the changing rock formations, and the trees and plants spilling down the rocky outcrops.

An example of the kind of Patagonian scenery that makes all the hardships of horse trekking worthwhile.

An example of the kind of Patagonian scenery that makes all the hardships of horse trekking worthwhile.

As we neared the hamlet of Pilolil, we came to a long, thin bridge. This time there was no other place to cross, but lucikly the bridge was sound, so the only issue was getting the horses over, which as ever took us nearly half an hour. Magnus led Durazno over, coming back for Kicki who he dragged over while I pushed her, and I then came back to a worried Celeste who then happly trotted over the bridge she had resolutely refused to set foot on before without even giving it a second glance.

Magnus, Durazno and India on the bridge just outside of Pilolil

Magnus, Durazno and India on the bridge just outside of Pilolil

For once, we neared our destination with several hours of daylight left and approached a fenced, wooden compound, where Nestor’s friend Enemias came out to meet us. We’d been introduced to Enemias briefly by Nestor before we left Junin, so it was great to see a face we recognised.

Enemias helped us remove all our saddles and store it in a room where he was working on the remains of a butchered cow, somewhat gruesome, but something that reminded us that we were staying on a working farm. We then took the horses down to a corral across the road and fed them a bail of alfalfa and settled them for the night.

Magnus, Enemias and Jens with the remains of a cow.

Magnus, Enemias and Jens with the remains of a cow.

Enemias proved to be a great host, welcoming us into his home with the warm glow of the stove, which was a blessed relief after the hours out in the cold and the rain. Enemias cooked us a great stew, and also introduced us to the delights of “hoof cheese” as a starter. This sounds about as disgusting as is imaginable, as from what I understood it is the gelatine that is left over when the hooves and nerves have been boiled down with herbs for several hours, but was actually so nice I went back for thirds.

After we’d eaten we sat around talking to Enemias who very kindly let us sleep in his house next to the stove, as a result of which all our clothes dried out and left us warm, dry and prepared for whatever the next morning might bring.

Jens in Enemias front room with the stove I came to love.

Jens in Enemias front room with the stove I came to love.

Cold Feet

The next few days after the first trek passed in a bit of a blur. Esteban and Sandra were preparing to go to Germany for 3 months for Esteban to work there (something he did most years), and also to move house; their house which we had spent so much time in and in which we were currently staying with them, being due to be knocked down a few weeks later.

Despite all this going on Esteban still managed to find time to help us resolve some of the issues around the pack-saddle and shoe Kicki;  something which had proved too difficult to do when we’d done the others but was easier now that she’d become more comfortable around us.

Kicki looking all sweet and innocent.

Kicki looking all sweet and innocent.

Esteban’s leaving brought the start of the trip into sharp focus and made me think about how much we were taking on. I realised how much we still had to learn and for the first time had the feeling that I might have bitten off more then I could chew.

With our leaving in winter, there wouldn’t be enough pasture for the horses to feed themselves on, so we would be reliant on going from one farm to the next, hoping we would be able to buy food at each one and only carrying on if we could get reasonable information that a place a day’s ride away would have food and a place we could put the horses. We would also be almost entirely reliant on information that we would pick up along the way as there were no detailed maps of the area, and the best we had was google maps, which was only as good as the satellite photos and our horse-compressed laptop continuing to work and not running out of batteries.

I felt under huge pressure, as it seemed like we’d gone too far to turn back, but before us were just a huge number of unknowns, making it almost impossible to plan anything with any degree of certainty.

Magnus was more sanguine and confident, but also feeling the pressure. After we’d talked for a while, I convinced him that we should stay around Junin for a few more days, do more day trips to get more confidence and see if we could get more information on what lay ahead.

Esteban’s family had an asado to say goodbye, which gave us the opportunity to see all the people who had done so much to help us.

The asado with Esteban's friends and family.

The asado with Esteban's friends and family.

It was also an opportunity for me to get thoroughly beaten by Fernando and Marcus and their friends at a game of football we had before the asado; proving yet again that it is impossible for England to beat Argentina at football.

Argentinian's happy to have yet again beaten Europeans at football.

Argentinian's happy to have yet again beaten Europeans at football.

That evening we told Esteban of our plan to stay on and do some shorter treks, and with his usual good intuition he picked up that we had basically got cold feet and were looking for a way out. I’m not sure if he actually believed that we had it in us, or had just invested so much time in helping us that he couldn’t see us fritter it away, but he sat us down and gave us a pep talk, convincing us that although it was impossible to know what was on the road ahead we would find the information we needed and enough food and water for the horses.

Jens trying to talk his way out of doing a horse trek.

Jens trying to talk his way out of doing a horse trek.

After Esteban and Magnus had spoken to me, and Esteban had recommended a couple of places we could stay for the first few days, I resolved that we’d start out on our trek, but it would be a cabalgata of exactly one day, starting afresh each day. If we couldn’t get decent enough information on the road ahead, or I felt that we were putting the horses at any risk, we’d turn around and go back to Junin where we knew we could look after the horses.

Esteban and his parents, Ricardo and Sarah at the asado.

Esteban and his parents, Ricardo and Sarah at the asado.

The last day was spent together with Esteban, Sandra, Fernando, Juan and Esteban’s friend Nestor, moving the last of the stuff from their house and having a final farewell asado at a friend of their’s house. That evening Magnus and I went down to the bus station to see Esteban and Sandra off on the bus-an emotional farewell after all the time that we’d spent together, and then Magnus and I headed back to their empty house for our last night of packing before the trip started.

Magnus with all of our stuff.

Magnus with all of our stuff.

With everything in place for the cabalgata, we decided to start by doing an overnight trek to take the horses from Ricardo’s place (just north of San Martin de los Andes) to Esteban’s house. This would be a trip of 55km over two days, which seemed manageable enough.

So we thought.

We spent the night camped out in Esteban’s sister Amelia’s back garden (which is on Ricardo’s land) in order to test out our camping equipment and with the intention of leaving at the crack of dawn. As the start to an epic horse trek, it seemed somewhat feeble, as we felt like a couple of kids camped out in their parents back garden; a feeling that was heightened when Amelia appeared bearing a tray of fresh bread that had been baked by her mum (Sarah).

We managed to oversleep the next morning and woke with sunrise at about 8, and so set about packing and readying the horses without even a tea of coffee to warm us up.

This was when we discovered that Durazno had escaped from the coral where we’d put them the night before. Nearly an hour of running around and bribing him with apples and we had him on the halter, but it was now gone 10.

Durazno running free; a beautiful sight till you realise you have to try and catch him...

Durazno running free; a beautiful sight till you realise you have to try and catch him...

We then set about saddling Durazno and Celeste (the two we were riding), something that would take a Gaucho a couple of minutes, but took us nearly an hour.

In our favour I offer the excuse that new saddles need a number of miles to mold to the rider and the horse, and move around alot during that process; although the extra faffing about probably wouldn’t add more than a couple of extra minutes to the average Gaucho’s morning routine.

With our horses saddled, we then set about getting our packhorse Kicki ready for her first outing. We’d had a waterproof bag for the packhorse made for us in San Martin, and it was only when we slung it over Kicki that we realised it was too wide and hung too low on her sides. We also discovered that we’d lost the ropes we’d bought to lash down the bag, and the only other option was to use one of the 9 meter tethering lines, something which was far too long and cumbersome for the purpose, but couldn’t be cut as we needed to keep it for a tethering line.

By one o’clock, we’d managed to get the pack lashed, but one look at it told me that there was no chance it was going to stay put for any length of time-particularly when lashed to a new saddle which was bound to move about.

At this point I decided I’d had enough and that we should call it quits for the day, go and buy some more rope and spend the evening practicing getting it right. Magnus was by now however so worked up with all the issues we’d been having that he was determined to leave whatever, convinced we could deal with anything on the way.

After a bit of tooing and froing, I backed down and we shambled out of the gate having bid goodbye to a rather concerned looking Sarah.

Magnus on Durazno with Kicki following with her saddle-bags.

Magnus on Durazno with Kicki following with her saddle-bags.

We made it down to the main road (about 500m) with two stops to adjust the loosening saddles. We’d made it a further 500m down the main road, when the pack-saddle had become sufficiently loose that we had to stop and go through the 20-minute drama that retieing everything with the tethering rope involved.

It was when we decided to head off again that Kicki decided to do her backflip.

Neither Magnus or I are sure how this happened as Magnus (who was leading her on Durazno) was looking forward, and I was in the process of mounting Celeste and so looking the other way. On hearing a commotion, I looked back to see Kicki rear up on her hind legs, and the weight of the pack-saddle pull her backwards so that she ended up flat on her back atop the pack-saddle, with all four legs waggling in the air. She then rolled over onto her side (onto the saddle bags), before clambering to her feet, shaking herself and then getting on with the serious business of eating grass.

Amazingly the rat’s nest of knots with the tethering rope seemed to be doing a grand job, as the pack barely moved during the entire drama.

Magnus and I were a little less unperturbed then Kicki appeared to be, as were Durazno and Celeste, who spooked and took some calming before we could get off them safely.

This was when Magnus turned to me and said “Oh well, I guess that’s goodbye to the computer and camera then.”.

Up until that point it hadn’t dawned on me that all the electrical equipment-as well as a bunch of other fragile stuff-was in the bag that Kicki had landed on when she’d flipped over backwards.

It’s only when you have something like this happen to you that you realise how little thought manufactures put into the serious issue of horses sitting on equipment. Considering that lamentable fact, it was amazing how little had actually been damaged by Kicki’s acrobatics.

Magnus’ SLR camera came through with only a scratch, and the only damage to the laptop was the loss of a quarter of the screen where it had been crushed.

Having said that, we are still occasionally using things and thinking “Hang on, I’m sure this was this shape the last time I used it…” and then remembering that it had probably had a horse sit on it.

After a brief chat and check-over of Kicki we decided that the saddles were well placed and balanced and that her flip had just been a freak accident caused by hear rearing up; something she had never done before. As we’d got this far we decided to carry on, and after a distressingly slow few hours (lots of stops to readjust saddles and pack-horse), got to the lake where we were to camp just as it was getting dark.

Rather then the 30-odd kilometers we’d hoped to cover, we’d only managed 20 or so to the start of the lake when darkness started to descend.

We’d been told there were plenty of places to stop where there would be pasture for the horses and places we could tether them together.

However, the only spot we could find with pasture that wasn’t fenced off, was far from ideal, with three interconnected clearings in a wooded area by the lake; and by the time we found that, it was so dark we barely see what we were doing.

We were worried by our first night out in less than ideal conditions, and the horses were obviously unsettled by being with worried owners in unfamiliar them.

We tied the horses up in sight of each other in the clearings, but it became almost impossible to move more than a few feet from them without them starting to panic. Celeste tried to follow us as we moved the saddles about, as a result of which she managed to tie herself around a bush, panicking and thrashing around as she became more tangled. The more she panicked, the more she tied herself in knots, as a result of which the only way to get her free was to cut her tether.

After the drama with Celeste we moved the horses out of the trees and into an area where the grazing wasn’t as good and the only way to tether them in sight of each other, was to clamber through piles of brambles to tie their tethers to the trees lurking within. However, we figured that there was less danger in them getting tangled in the brambles then there was of them tieing themselves in knots in the trees, so we sat with them until they had settled enough to start eating, and then went to set up camp or ourselves.

The horses tethered in the morning light, with frost on the ground.

The horses tethered in the morning light, with frost on the ground.

After all the trauma of the day we both pretty shattered but also still somewhat nervous about the possibility of the horses freaking out in their new surroundings.

It was just as we were sat ruminating on what had been a long and eventful day that we saw the lights of a car and the beeping of a horn as Esteban, Sandra, Fernando and Marcus pulled up in their pickup, bearing food, wine, our breakfast for the next morning and even firewood to make a fire by the lake. It’s hard to describe how happy we were to see them, and how touched we were by their going to all this effort for us.

As we sat by the fire around the lake, supping wine and eating food, I was finally able to relax enough to appreciate the stunningly beautiful surroundings we were in; an untouched almost unpopulated lake surrounded by the open rolling hills of the Patagonian landscape, with the grassland covered in a silvery sheen from the full moon shining down on us.

Sitting around with campfire with Esteban, Fernando and Marcus.

Sitting around with campfire with Esteban, Fernando and Marcus.

As the wine washed away the troubles of the day and we sat laughing and joking with Esteban and Sandra, the next day look less like something to fear and more something to look forward to and we realised that we had actually accomplished the first day of our trek.

Possibly due to the effects of the wine, we both slept through Magnus’ alarm and woke at 8 just as the glow of dawn was starting to appear over the hills on the far side of the lake.

It was cold enough that I woke in my bivvy bag to find ice on the outside of my (obviously well-insulated) sleeping bag and icicles on my nose. It’s hard to describe how difficult it is to get out of a seriously warm sleeping bag and pull your trousers on in sub-zero temperatures, but I managed it with what I considered a minimal amount of swearing.

The campsite the next morning with its sheen of ice and Durazno on guard duty.

The campsite the next morning with its sheen of ice and Durazno on guard duty.

We’d tried to get the horses to drink from the lake the previous evening, but they had obviously been upset enough by their new surroundings for it to put them off their water. We led them down to the lake first thing, but again they weren’t interested. Suddenly it became very apparent to me where the old adage of “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” came from.

By the time we’d saddled up the horses and set off, it was gone 10, and we’d gone less than a kilometer when everything had come loose again and we needed to stop to readjust everything. By 11 we had barely made a couple of kilometers and had more than 35 more to do.

It was then that the word’s from Hugh’s email came to me “The speed will drive you nuts at first”. At the time I’d read the email I’d discounted it, as for me the slow speed was half the reason for doing the trip. However, our horses walking pace was never more than 6 km an hour, and with all the stops to fiddle the saddles, we were barely making more than 4.

That meant it would take us nearly 9 hours to get to Junin, which was well after dark; and we had no idea how the horses would react to travelling at night, particularly along the busy road we had to navigate to get into Junin.

As we crawled on through the day, I became more and more concerned about the horses dehydrating. I’d watched them all urinate, and in all cases it had come out almost orange and smelling far stronger then usual-a sure sign they were getting dehydrated.

Magnus was more sanguine (and in retrospect far more realistic) about things, but I was constantly expecting the horses to keel over from dehydration.

By mid-afternoon, it felt like we’d got almost nowhere, when we arrived at bridge and discovered that all of the horses had a deep-seated fear of bridges and refused to cross them.

After more then an hour of battling, we’d worked out that Durazno was least worried and could be dragged across with his halter, Kicki could be pushed/dragged over by both of us if Durazno was already on the other side, and Celeste’s fear of being left on her own was greater then her fear of bridges, so that she would cross once the other two were over.

Our first bridge from Magnus' headcam; its amazing how quickly you can grow to dislike bridges.

Our first bridge from Magnus' headcam; its amazing how quickly you can grow to dislike bridges.

One of the bridges had access to the water, so we led the horses down to drink, but again they weren’t interested, which I attributed to their still being sufficiently out of sorts not to be able to drink; this despite my thinking they were nearly dead from dehydration.

The last 15 km or so, although being a beautiful trek in fine weather were fairly difficult time for both of us, my being paranoid about the horses lack of water and Magnus being worried about the encroaching darkness, which had completely enveloped us by the time we got to Junin.

Luckily, although the horses did become more jumpy after it had got dark, we could at least lead them, and it was in this rather feeble fashion that we finally limped into Esteban’s at gone 8 at night after having got lost in the streets of Junin-a tiny town we should have known like the back of our hands.

I can’t say that it had been an entirely enjoyable day for either of us. There had been incredible moments when the realisation that we were actually trekking on our own horses through Argentina had sunk in, but in general, most of the time had been consumed by worry.

However, we had learnt more about ourselves and our horses in the last 48 hours then I would ever have believed possible.

So far, this blog has featured rather a lot about horses, but they have been other people’s horses as we didn’t have any to write about. However, I am now proud to annonuce that Magnus and myself are now the proud owners of three horses!

There weren’t too many horses available for sale in the area, so we ended up seeing 6 or so that seemed suitable for the kind of trip we hope to do. For long-distance trekking, it’s quite a good idea to have older horses, as they are more likely to be better behaved and less jumpy, as they will hopefully have seen it all before. Several of the horses we looked at were either too small or too young, so in the end, we opted for the two mares we saw when I first got here, as well as a horse owned by Esteban’s Dad; a gelding called Durazno (peach in Spanish).

After we had made the decision to buy the mares, Magnus and I were wondering how we were going to transfer the money we needed to buy them, where on earth we were going to put them and how we were going to get them to wherever that might be.

This was another of those cases when we realised how lost we would be without Esteban, who called us a couple of days later to tell us that he’d bought the horses for us in exchange for some work that he’d done for the owners, and had ridden them both to his Dad’s place, where they were already getting to know Durazno. This instantly got rid of what could have been a real headache for us, as the horses are now in a place we can easily get to and where we know they are being well looked after.

The picture of Durazno from his passport.

The picture of Durazno from his passport.

Durazno is an absolutely stunning horse and probably a bit of a waste for what we want to use him for. At six years old (roughly-noone ever seems to know exactly how old horses are here; it’s the good old-fashioned look at the teeth, prod it a bit and stick-your-finger-in-the-air and add two approach), he is also a touch on the young side, but the positive is that he is fairly large, which is what we need if Magnus is to sit on him for any length of time.

Temprement-wise, he is absolutely lovely and hopelessly soppy; if you go up and stroke Durazno, he will inevitably push his nose into you, and then gently rest his head against you, looking somewhat like a lovesick puppy.

The two mares are an entirely different kettle of fish. At fifteen (ish; see above) they have, so far at least, as befits their age, proved to be exceptionally grouchy old nags and entirely misanthropic. To be fair to them though, we have just been moved from their home and dumped into an entirely new environment (and herd), where the only highlight of the day is to be occasionally man-handled and ridden by two largely clueless foreigners.

To be honest, if I were them, I wouldn’t particularly like us either.

Durazno seems to have taken it upon himself to make them feel welcome, and follows them around the field like a love-sick puppy, trying to nuzzle them or just stand next to them. So far, his efforts seem to have earned him several sharp kicks, but he seems pretty tough as well as good-natured, and this doesn’t seem to have put him off.

Magnus with all three of our horses.

Magnus with all three of our horses.

We were told that the mares were working horses that had been part of a pool used by Gauchos, as a result of which no-one seemed sure if they had names or not. There were some musings that one of them might have been called Celeste, so we flipped a coin, called the most grouchy one Celeste and the other Kicki after Magnus’ Mum.

Kicki posing for her passport photo.

Kicki posing for her passport photo.

Now that we had our own horses, it only seemed proper that we should use our new-found farriering skills to shoe them in preparation for the trip. This was a decidedly bad move, as it turns out that our horses are by far the worst to shoe of any of the dozens we’ve worked on with Esteban.

Again, a large part of this can probably be explained by their not yet being settled with us or their new temporary home, but it took us the best part of an afternoon to get the shoes on them, and at the end of it both Magnus’ (who had done the lion’s share of the work) and my hands and legs were covered with cuts and bruises where we’d been kicked, scraped and stood on by our horses.

This had left us somewhat worried about what would happen if we had to get them shod again without Esteban there to help, but in the days since we shod them, they are already getting easier to handle and we are less likely to get a hoof in the shin when we try to pick up one of their legs.

Magnus saddling Durazno, the first day we took them for a ride. Obviously it had to rain...

Magnus saddling Durazno, the first day we took them for a ride. Obviously it had to rain...

Saddle unsure

With the horses in place, we were now faced with the problem of what saddles and equipment to buy. Magnus and my only requirement with regard to saddles was that we go with the best for the horses, regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable they were for us. We thought this might make things easy, but it turns out saddles are one of those things where everyone has an opinion.

At least; more often then not several, any one of which is more then likely to be completely contradictory with any of the others.

As ever, Esteban was both helpful and knowledgeable, but he advised us to talk to people who had actually done long distance treks, as they would be best placed to share their experiences as opposed to speculating as many people seemed to be.

Another of our saviours on this trip has been Yvonne Corbett; the lady who first put Magnus in contact with Esteban and has been keeping an eye on our progress since then. She very kindly took us around some tack shops and went through each saddle in turn, letting us know what she thought the pros and cons, and her experiences with them from running her own horse treks in the area.

With her advice in mind, together with Esteban, we went to a store owned by a friend of Esteban, where we coincidently bumped into the gaucho we’d met a few days earlier and who worked doing horse treks for Jane. With the symphony of advice ringing in our ears we eventually opted for a type of saddle called a cangacha, together with the best padding and felts (which go under the saddle to protect the horse) we could afford. Esteban and Sandra helped us to pick bridles,  stirrups, and the various other odds and sods that are need to kit three horses out, ending up pretty much filing the entire free space in the store with our stuff.

Sandra and Esteban with us and our newly bought kit.

Sandra and Esteban with us and our newly bought kit.

We took it all back to Esteban’s the evening before Magnus and I left for Chile.

In true Esteban style, by the time we got back from Chile the day after, not only had all the saddles been made up, and the leather-work done, Esteban and Sandra had tested the saddles on their horses to make sure that all was in order.

Yet again we were left completely indebted to these two lovely people.

Esteban and his son Juan with us and our horses.

Esteban and his son Juan with us and our horses.

Over the past few weeks, Magnus and I have spent most of our time together with Esteban and his family. Not only have they been incredibly welcoming and made us feel part of the family, they have also spent countless time and energy helping us with their extensive knowledge of all things horse.

Esteban at home wondering when Jens will give him his guitar back.

Esteban at home wondering when Jens will give him his guitar back.

Their house has become like a second home and I already find myself missing the Mera Menagerie of 3 dogs (Nacho, Luna and India) and cat (Biscocho), if I spend more than a day or two away from them.

Sandra feeding the Mera Menagerie.

Sandra feeding the Mera Menagerie.

We’ve been  invited us to share innumerable meals of Sandra’s-and indeed Esteban’s- delicious cooking, and usually find ourselves swaying a little when we leave in the evening after a glass of wine or three.

Dinner with Esteban, Sandra and Fernando.

Dinner with Esteban, Sandra and Fernando.

Easter Races

On Easter Sunday, Esteban, Sandra and Esteban’s youngest son Fernando took us to the races, which actually took place on the land a stone’s throw from Esteban’s house, where he keeps his horses (land you may remember I am distressingly familiar with after all the time I’ve spent running over it trying to catch his horses…).

The event was a very local affair, and gave us the opportunity to see predominantly rural Argentinians enjoying themselves. There was a real mix of the modern, with the older and more traditional;  leather riding boots, baggy gaucho trousers, cummerbunds and berets mingled with leather jackets, trainers and mobile phones.

A couple of old-timers at the races.

A couple of old-timers at the races.

The occasional person wandered about with a jug of beer, but as ever, the real tipple of choice was mate, with people handing round the omnipresent pot with the metal straw embedded in a bed of mate leaves.

The race itself was a straight sprint over a quarter of a mile or so of a muddy track cut into the field. Before each race, the horses were led into a fenced off area in the centre of the crowd so people could inspect them. Betting was rife and completely unorganised, with animated groups of people swapping handfuls of pesos between each other, before the jockeys leapt on-often nearly being thrown off the over-excited horses-before riding them down to the start.

A rider on his way to the start.

A rider on his way to the start.

As the gates opened and the horses tore out of the stalls, a resounding cheer went up and chorus of shouts followed the thundering hooves up the track. As the winner crossed the line, excited whoops accompanied hats being thrown into the air and excited punters-obviously a few pesos richer-spilled onto the track, dancing around in the dirt, while the jockeys in the distance were still desperately trying to slow their steeds down.

And they're off!

And they're off!

It was a great day out and one that made me realise that I either know very little about horses or am very unlucky; quite possibly both.

I bet on two horses, both of which came last and left me owing Fernando-who has obviously inherited his father’s eye for horses-several pesos the richer.

A smug-looking Fernando; you can't see it but his pockets are bulging with pesos he has just won from me.

A smug-looking Fernando; you can't see it but his pockets are bulging with pesos he has just won from me.

How to kill a cow

We have also been spending a fair bit of time at Esteban’s father’s house, as this is where our horses are kept (more about that in the next post).

Looking at Esteban’s father Ricardo, it’s easy to see where Esteban gets his friendly, avuncular manner and laid-back approach to life. Looking every inch the traditional farmer-cum-gaucho, he seems to have taken it upon himself to educate us urban Europeans into the realities of farm life.

On our last visit, he had a glint in his eye as he asked us if we’d like to come with him as he killed one of their cows.

After having seen what his son did to the nether region of horses, I felt I’d seen quite enough of the realities of farm life, but I also felt I couldn’t say no.

NB: vegetarians are advised to skip this next bit; meat-eaters should probably make themselves read it.

For ethical/health/cost reasons, I rarely eat meat when back home; possibly a couple of times a month if that. However, I do eat meat and have always felt that if you do, you should be prepared to accept what happens in order for the meat to end up on your plate.

Ricardo opening the door to the shed no cow wants to enter.

Ricardo opening the door to the shed no cow wants to enter.

I therefore trudged somewhat grudgingly after him as we walked towards the corral where a dozen or so cows mulled about. Ricardo and a helper selected one and then together with Magnus, we herded two of them into the slaughter shed; one bullock and a female.

I could never quite get a satisfactory explanation as to whether the female had just got into the shed by mistake and it was too much hassle to get her out again, or if she was in there to calm the male, but she was there none the less.

The gates were closed and Ricardo went in with them holding his rifle. My heart was thumping and went out to the male whose last moments were rapidly ticking away. The cows were continuously moving around, possibly with a presentiment that something bad was about to happen, and obviously unhappy about being in the shed with Ricardo, who patiently moved in amongst them trying to find the perfect position to take the shot.

Ricardo taking his time.

Ricardo taking his time.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that after nearly 10 minutes of this last tango, I’d grown bored and was looking the other way when a shot rang out and there was a thud as the male fell to the floor,  instantly dead from where Ricardo had shot it clean between the eyes.

The female was let out and I went over to see the male, it’s throat now slit by Ricardo as it lay on the floor.

A very dead cow.

A very dead cow.

Ricardo and his assistant then skinned and butchered the carcass in just over an hour, an impressive feat, particularly as the entire hide was removed as a piece. Watching the careful deliberate way that Ricardo worked as he removed the hide, it was again easy to see where Esteban’s calculated movements as farrier came from.

Ricardo skinning the cow.

Ricardo skinning the cow.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t as traumatised by the experience as I thought I would be. The cow had been handled humanely and had died instantly, with no unnecessary suffering that I could see. Not much more then 10 minutes had passed between it eating grass with the rest of the herd in the field and lying dead at my feet.

Sadly, very few cows are fortunate to end their days in this ways and at the risk of preaching, if more of us ate meat less often and took more care of where it came from, more of it could come from animals that ended their life like this, rather than in the environmentally destructive, inhumane horrors of factory farming and production-line abattoirs.

Chilling in Chile

As you get 90 days stay in Argentina each time you enter the country, and Magnus’ first 90 days was nearly at an end, we decided to hop across the border into Chile for a day to synchronise the amount of time we could stay in Argentina.  The trip was only intended to be a purely functional overnight jaunt, but in the event turned out to be pretty memorable.

The sober Patigonian landscape.

The sober Patagonian landscape.

The bus to Chile from Junin drove up towards the iconic Lanin volcano that dominates much of the skyline in this area. As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped and the landscape changed to become rockier and with more exotic, catcus-like plants. At the border, we were actually on the shoulder of a pass that led up to the smooth, snow-capped summit of Lanin.

As we dropped down from the pass, the landscape changed to be far more green and verdant, with the slopes covered in trees in a dizzying variety of autumn hues, with jagged peaks rising up from amongst them. The temperature rose as the altitude dropped and we were suddenly in a climate that felt more like the middle of summer then the beginning of winter.

Hills rising up out of the trees across the border in Chile.

Hills rising up out of the trees across the border in Chile.

It’s rare that I’ve seen the scenery of a place change as much and as rapidly as it did crossing into Chile, but in the space of less than an hour we had gone from the sober, frigid hills of Patagonia, to the verdant greens of Chile; this was one place where you didn’t need a border post to tell you that you had entered a new country.

Autumnal trees in Chile.

Autumnal trees in Chile.

As we descended, the towering presence of the Lanin volcano was replaced by the equally impressive snowy cone of Villa Rica; startlingly similar to Lanin, but easy to distinguish from it by the wisps of smoke rising up from the active crater at its summit.

A smoking Villarrica volcano.

A smoking Villarrica volcano.

As our return bus left early the next morning, we only had the late afternoon and evening to explore the town of Villarrica where we were staying. Using the opportunity to check out the equipment on offer in the shops selling horse tack, we were told that there was a rodeo on a few minutes walk away, and so hurried down to the wooden arena on the outskirts of the town.

A Chilean cowboy on a blue-eyed horse.

A Chilean cowboy on a blue-eyed horse.

Within the circular ring of the arena,  pairs of Chilean cowboys were demonstrating their impressive horsemanship by herding hapless cows around the ring.  Instantly distinguishable from Argentinean Gauchos by their circular, flat-rimmed hats, colourful ponchos and huge, round spurs, the Chileans charged the cow first one way around the ring, and then back again, often charging their horse into the cow and sending it careering several feet up against the wall in order to turn it around.

Chilean cowboys tormenting a cow.

Chilean cowboys tormenting a cow.

For someone who still struggles to get a horse to go left and right, the fact that you could make a horse charge at full-tilt into a cow nearly as big as it was a startling, if not entirely pleasant, revelation. I’m guessing the evil-looking spurs they wore had something to do with it, but it still changed my opinion about what it was possible to do with a horse.

How Chilean cowboys make their horses move.

How Chilean cowboys make their horses move.

We spent an hour or so watching some seriously impressive displays of horsemanship and feeling increasingly sorry for the poor cows who took it in turns to take a battering by each pair of cowboys.

When we left the next morning, we had spent less than 24 hours in Chile, but it was definitely one of the more memorable ones I’ve spent in a while.

More of the Chilean landscape.

More of the Chilean landscape.

After my first attempts at farriering had nearly left both me and the horses as cripples,  for both our sakes, I decided to take a day off and work on the blog.

Magnus rose at the crack of dawn to drive nearly 200 kilometers to a distant Estancia to remove the shoes and clip the hooves of 10 horses.

Low cloud caressing a Patagonian hillside in the early morning light.

Low cloud caressing a Patagonian hillside in the early morning light.

The ranch was owned by a wealthy foreigner, who had several different estates in Argentina, and this one seemed to be the pick of bunch.  Set in some of the most beautiful countryside that this part of Patagonia has to offer,  and with some of the finest horses, it was a mark of Esteban’s skill that he had been chosen as the farrier here. It was also a mark of my bad luck that I missed out on seeing it all and will just have to admire the photos with the rest of you.

The next day I decided to brave farriering again and joined Magnus and Esteban as they went to work at the ranch of an Englishwoman called Jane, who has lived in the region for more than 30 years. As Esteban’s pickup is currently out of action, we drove there in his friend Nestor’s Mercedes. A great car, but after all the time in the pickup, one that made me notice how bumpy many of Argentina’s unpaved roads are.

We arrived and met Jane, a formidable woman in her fifties, who owned and ran the more than 15,000 hectare estate, which as well as being a working cattle and sheep ranch,  also serves as the base for horse trekking holidays.

The farm itself lies in a shallow wooded valley with a river running through it and a varied collection of buildings and corrals scattered about. A light wind sent the yellow leaves of the trees that already had their autumn coat, drifting down past the greens of the evergreens interspersed between them.

Landscape around Jane's estancia.

Landscape around Jane's estancia.

This peaceful idyl was, for me at least, completely shattered by Esteban announcing that as well as being a horse trainer and farrier, he castrated horses, and that before we started farriering he had four yearling stallions-very shortly to be geldings-to deal with.

I wasn’t sure quite how to deal with this, but I already suspected that I wasn’t going to like what I was going to see.

We walked across the road and into a large square corral, with half a dozen or so year yearlings, in a small pen at the far end. Although not quite foals, they still looked kind of cute and fluffy and shockingly innocent. I instinctively wanted to rush over and protect them from the fate that awaited them; one that became more horrific when Esteban told us that they didn’t use anaesthetic. I swallowed as I tried to get my head round the fact that with little or no ceremony, he was just going to cut their testicles off.

Just like that.

I couldn’t contain a shudder. I looked across at Magnus and noticed that he too was standing with his legs crossed.

A yearling struggling as it possibly realises what is about to happen to it.

A yearling struggling as it possibly realises what is about to happen to it.

With my largely urban, European upbringing, I suspected it was possible I was being overly sensitive and sentimental, and as my Spanish is still largely non-existent, I asked Jane why on earth she doing this rather than using anesthetics and vets.

She firstly explained that this was the tradition here, and what happened to countless horses and cattle every year.  She too had initially found it difficult to stomach and so had used vets. However, her experience over several years was that the horses did not deal at all well with the anaesthetics and she had had more problems and lost more horses through complications when using vets  then with traditional the traditional methods. Esteban also told us that he had yet to lose an animal that he had castrated.

I could follow her reasoning but I still couldn’t uncross my legs as Magnus and I watched as one of the colts was led over and its halter tied to a post. Esteban then used a leather strap to pull the horses back legs from under it. A bit of a struggle then ensued, but the horse eventually lost, and as it fell over, Nestor grabbed its neck and then sat on its head.

Yearling being tied down in preparation to being castrated.

Yearling being tied down in preparation to being castrated.

As it lay on its side, its forelegs and one back leg were tied together by Esteban and one of the gauchos, and it was then rolled on its back.  The remaining leg was then tied back exposing the yearlings inner thighs, which Esteban washed with antiseptic while Jane held the tail out of the way. The horse, obviously not very happy at this point, was breathing heavily and grunting occasionally.

If you’ll forgive me being somewhat graphic, at this age, although the testicles have “dropped”,  the  scrotum isn’t actually exposed, so Esteban need to reach in and fish around to grab the parts no (straight) male ever wants another male to have hold of.

A yearling tied up just before things got unpleasant...

A yearling tied up just before things got unpleasant...

I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say there was blood, cutting, and tears in my eyes.

I was expecting there to be screaming and writhing, but surprisingly, although the yearling was very obviously not happy, it didn’t seem to become noticeably more distressed when Esteban made the cuts. It’s breathing didn’t change particularly and it didn’t appear to grunt much more or less than it had done when it was just tied up on the floor.

A few minutes  later and Esteban tossed aside two bloody lumps, the area was liberally dosed with antiseptic  and the horse was released.

Astonishingly to me, it clambered to its feet, shook itself as if nothing much had happened and then wandered back over to its friends. Apart from the blood trickling down its legs, it appeared to be behaving pretty much as an ordinary yearling, and none of the others seemed to be at all distressed by what they had just seen happen only a few meters from them.

Esteban had told us that the tradition is for the yearlings to be castrated during a new moon, as they bleed less and have better survival rates. I rather liked the  somewhat mystical nature of this, till Jane explained that with less moon, the horses could see less at night, fed less and hence moved about less; which meant the wound would heal quicker.

We watched the same procedure carried out with three other yearlings, one of which escaped – this time round  – because its testicles hadn’t dropped sufficiently.

As we left the corral an hour or so later, I looked back at the yearlings watching us and wondered what, if any, of what had happened they had understood. One was stood with its back legs slightly apart, but apart from that, you’d have been hard pressed to notice anything particularly different between the ones that had been castrated and those that hadn’t.

The effect on Magnus and myself was somewhat more noticeable, as we were both shuffling somewhat with our legs pressed together, and I am still sat with my legs crossed as I write this.

We spent the rest of the morning removing the shoes and clipping the hooves of about 10 or so of Jane’s horses, and I am proud to announce that Esteban’s teaching is obviously having some effect, as I managed to remove the shoes from three of the horses, with little or no damage to either party.

Esteban and Jens working as farriers.

Esteban and Jens working as farriers.

As we were working, we used the opportunity to ask Jane, and one of the gauchos that worked as a trekking guide for her, about the kind of issues they encountered doing long-distance treks and any advice they could give us. They were both really helpful and generous with the advice that they gave us.

Jane’s primary concern for us was that the beginning of winter wasn’t the best time to start a trek,  as we could encounter issues getting food and water for the horses.

This is something we are acutely aware of, and if circumstances were different, we wouldn’t be starting the trek now.  However after speaking to several people who know the area and a several etancia owners that we have met, they seem confident that we will be able to find enough food and water at the places we will be passing through, and will be able to carry enough for the occasional day where the distances between places might require us to camp out.

We spent the rest of the time discussing different saddles and the ways to avoid them rubbing on the horses; something which can cause sores which are the quickest way to put an end to this sort of trip.

When we left the Estancia, I felt somewhat shell-shocked after all that I had seen, but much better for having the opportunity to get more advice from people who had actually done this sort of trek themselves.

Discarded horseshoes;a farrier's legacy.

Discarded horseshoes; a farrier's legacy.