Rawhide

Síle, riding Petizo, waits impatiently to move out

Síle, riding Petizo, waits impatiently to move out

Twelve hours of pure terror, interspersed with moments for which language just completely fails.  Two days that really challenged my comfort zone, my coccyx and my adrenaline glands as well as other parts of my anatomy.

If I wait to start this blog from the beginning – our arrival in Buenos Aires three months ago – it will never happen, so I may as well begin with Síle and myself riding through the forests on the banks of the Rio Manso.

The Rio Manso’s clear, fresh blue waters flow from the glaciers that feed it through the forests of the Parque Nahuel Huapi and on across the border into Chile and towards its final destination in the Pacific. Its relatively easy access from Bariloche and its lively rapids offer something of a mecca for rafters, but its deep wooded valley our interest was more terrestrial in nature: two days horse-riding in the woods.

I am one of the world’s natural horsemen in much the same way that a shark is a natural skier, and it would not be true to say that I viewed the prospect entirely with equanimity, but Sile loves horses and even I can see that trekking on horseback could offer by far the best way of exploring the remoter parts of the Andes. And after a two hour trek in Calafate in which I sat on – rather than rode, which suggests some level of control – a horse that plodded along a mountainside behind its fellows, some complete madness told me I was ready for a two-day trek. At least I negotiated Síle down from a full week!

The scenery was fabulous: a long winding path took us through small chacras (smallholdings) and through larch forests at the very edge of the national park. On a small clearing, near a dried up river bed, we stopped for lunch at a little refuge where the only sign of human habitation, apart from the building itself, was the bridge over the gorge. Steep, thickly forested, mountainsides surrounded us: the place can’t have looked very different a thousand years ago.

Except that, until the severe droughts that have affected the region recently the river was full and flowing all year round: it used to be the nighttime stop for the tour, but without water they had to move.

After years of drought, some streams are dry for most of the year

After years of drought, some streams are dry for most of the year

El Chino, the local guide, and Kata, the Flemish tourist guide from the tour company, cooked up a mountain of empanadas which we duly demolished, with a  great appetite (and a couple of glasses of wine) – despite the fact that the horse had done all the work and we’d expended no energy at all. Our French companion, Yves, lived up to his stereotype by kicking off his shoes and snoozing for half an hour while Síle kept running back to rub her horse and I pottered around taking photos, before we were back in the saddle.

The afternoon brought us to the Rio Manso itself, wide and comparatively shallow at the point where we were to cross: though neither Síle’s nor my horse were impressed with this idea. Still, with El Chino’s encouragement and legs raised to stay out of the water, we duly made it across. Síle, growing in confidence, accepted a stick to encourage Petizo to trot: my horse would then try to follow so at least I learned how to rein her in. Getting into the rhythm of the trot and moving up and down with the horse seems to be vital but it only takes a second or two for me to lose synchronisation and the horse and I meet, painfully, in the middle.

The afternoon section took as deeper into the forest, along tracks and through farms only accessible on horseback, with occasional glimpses of the fast flowing, pure turquoise waters of the Manso, until we reached our campsite – tents all already set up. By now it was raining heavily, and the local farmer who was preparing our evening asado – barbeque – invited us to eat inside in their small bungalow. A cousin of El Chino, who lives there year round with his family and a bewildering variety of small animals – dogs, pigs, chickens, sheep you name it – that mostly seemed to be looked after by their very competent nine year old son. His wife told me that to get to a shop they need to walk or ride two kilometres to a footbridge that brings them to the end of the road, where they keep their car, and then drive 40 km. You wouldn’t want to forget anything and have to go back.

Despite the excellent food, wine and company the rain did out a bit of a damper on things – I don’t think any of us who were camping slept much – and the morning brought a great deal less enthusiasm: especially when poor Síle’s horse decided that he’d had enough and no matter who was on his back, he was heading home. Once El Chino had got them back we headed for the rafting centre where there was a café, to wait out the drizzle and let Síle recover from the fright. By lunchtime she was fine and as we headed off was trotting again.

The end of the expedition: El Chino, Síle, Kata and Yves

The end of the expedition: El Chino, Síle, Kata and Yves

It was an experience: worth doing even if I could have easily out-walked the horses. If nothing else, it taught me how far I am from being able to blithely saddle up a horse and gallop off into uncharted mountains: I can’t even trot for more than a minute (what am I saying, a minute would be an eternity) and a canter seems an impossible dream. Still and all, the girls love it and so, so long as they promise to wait for me as I plod along behind them, I suppose I’d better learn.

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