Wild horse riding in Patagonia

Thirsty for thrills, Alison Westwood threw caution to the cowboys and joined an impromptu horse trail through the wilds of Patagonia.

There were devil’s thorns in my sleeping bag and it smelt like sweaty horse. But that was okay; I smelt like sweaty horse too. Every inch of me was caked in dust. The red flames of a bush fire on the hillside nearby were the only light besides the stars, and the smell of smoke blended with sweat.

I plucked a thorn out of my bottom and lay on the lumpy ground, calmly watching the blaze advance. After nine hours on horseback, being burnt to a crisp while I slept would be a merciful escape from another day in the saddle.

I’d come to Argentina in search of adventure. So, shortly after I arrived in Buenos Aires, I bought a bus ticket to San Carlos de Bariloche, a small town in Patagonia at the foothills of the Andes, famous for skiing in winter and rock-climbing in summer.

However, I’d failed to do my research thoroughly. When I arrived in Bariloche (which looked disconcertingly like Switzerland, complete with wooden chalets, chocolate shops and St Bernards posing for photographs in the town square), I discovered that while the skiing season was long over, the climbing season only started in a month – right after I planned to leave.

Apart from one overnight hike to a refugio in the mountains, on which I’d mingled enviously with local climbers, fallen into a glacier lake through a hole in the snow, and gotten gloriously drunk on Fernet Branca and Coca-Cola (a lethal combination very popular in Argentina), my adventures had been limited to a few Spanish lessons and a pleasant afternoon cycling around the lakes and visiting craft breweries.

It was starting to look as if my great expedition was a bust. Then one morning, my host Walter Rodigari, handed me a cup of coffee and said in his Italo-Spanish-English: ‘My friends, Dominik and Tammy, invite me to go with caballos. Two days in the wild Patagonia, we sleep … how do you say … a cielo abierto, cook with fires, encounter gauchos – una vera avventura!’

He paused.

‘If you want, you join us…?’

Dominik Marty and Tammy Robaina run Cabalgato Andes Luna, an ecotourism outfit specialising in horseback tours in the Patagonian mountains. In winter, their horses stay in temperate valleys, but now the snow was melting and it was time to get them up to the summer pastures ready for the tourist season. Our mission was to move 11 horses 100 kilometres in the shortest possible time, exploring new routes as we went.

It didn’t matter to me that Walter and his friends barely spoke a word of English and I was still learning to shop in Spanish. It didn’t matter that my previous riding experience had taught me I was better at staying off a horse than on one. It also didn’t matter that this would be no holiday, but a working operation.

Most of all, it didn’t matter that we’d be heading off into almost complete wilderness, with no roads, no real idea of our route besides a few GPS waypoints, and no way to communicate with the outside world. Indeed, these all seemed like magnificent arguments in favour of the journey, and I was slightly disappointed that we’d only be gone a couple of days.

Next day we were zooming along the scenic Ruto 40, beneath darkly forested cliffs and skirting sapphire lakes. After enough hairpin bends and vertiginous scenery to make me dizzy, we turned down a jouncing dirt track and drove into uncultivated scrubland until we reached a bridge over a rushing rocky river.

Here we waited the long, hot day away under the shade of gnarled southern beeches. The horses were being brought by truck to meet us where the road ran out, and, as things often do in Argentina, they were running spectacularly late.

It was mid-afternoon before the horses were assembled. Lopez, the giant chestnut packhorse, was loaded and we were saddled up. It was bliss to be moving at last.

The pace was easy as we made our way up a hillside shaded with pines, scented with eucalypts, and screeching with cicadas, then splashed across a shallow riverbed flowing with glassy green glacier water.

Tammy’s three border collies ran beside and ahead of us, bright black-and-white shapes bounding through scrub in search of scurrying armadillos, hog-nosed skunks and Patagonian foxes.

I was immediately in love with my horse, a sturdy grey named Paloma, and with her sheepskin-lined saddle, plaited leather bridle, and gaily-embroidered saddlebags.

But I had a severe case of outfit envy. Dominik sported massive fur-lined chaparajos (chaps) to protect his legs. Tammy wore flamboyantly fringed leather ones. Walter, with his wild beard, borrowed gorro (hat), checked shirt and silk scarf, had transformed himself into a gaucho, an Argentinian cowboy.

As for me, in my bright blue and orange Capestorm kit, I looked every inch the gringa tourist. Fortunately, there were no mirrors, so my cowgirl fantasy could flourish.

We were following an old dirt track that clearly no vehicle had attempted in years. What would have been impossible on wheels was no problem for hooves, however, and after a couple of hours we came across a shady glade with short, soft grass, dappled by dusty golden sunlight filtered through pine needles. Although we’d only covered a few kilometres, Dominik decided to make camp here.

We unsaddled the horses and festooned the trees with saddles and bridles. I went for a dip in a deliciously freezing brook flowing through a deep green spinney, and collected plentiful dead wood lying on the lawn for the campfire.

Walter, once the chef in a top German restaurant, was in charge of catering, so we gorged on roast chicken and smoky marrows. When Tammy produced a carefully wrapped bottle of dark, smooth Malbec, my satisfaction was complete.

We prepared beds under the trees: horse blankets for mattresses, clothes for pillows and woollen ponchos spread over our sleeping bags. As a multitude of stars pricked through the dark, I thought cheerfully that as we’d started so late, we’d be bound to need an extra day out here.

Next morning, we ambled along, brushing through tall reeds, splashing across streams and meandering down long, dusty valleys. I started to get a sense of the size of the landscape – and its emptiness.

My idea of Patagonia was of vast, grassy steppes. But here we were surrounded by basalt fingers poking out of scrub-covered hills, behind which towered the Andes themselves, blue-tinged by distance, their white caps slowly shrinking in the spring sunshine.

It’s a lovely but lonely land. The population density of Patagonia is less than two people per square kilometre, sparser than Namibia’s. That day, we rode for nine hours – not counting breaks – and came across just four tiny homesteads.

One, in the tight bowl of a deep-grooved dell, had a troop of tinkling goats and a solitary man who doffed his gorro and shouted something matey to Dominik. At another, on a dense green lawn cropped by cows, we met a couple of gauchos, a wizened, toothless old man and his wife, sitting on horses as ancient as they were as though they lived on them – which quite possibly they did.

At the last, a collection of weathered wooden huts and crooked brushwood corrals beside a swiftly-flowing river scattered with rounded rocks, Carlos Cayunao and his wife Ana Miranda invited us in for maté, the caffeine-rich herbal beverage that’s as Argentinian as a cup of tea is English.

Kettles boiled on the Aga cooker and strangely accented Spanish flew over my head. Each time the maté was passed to one of us, we sipped it through the bombilla (straw), then passed it back to our hostess, who refilled it and passed it to the next guest.

Maté is a ritual that can’t be rushed, and the shadows were lengthening by time we left. I was dismayed to hear we were still two hours’ hard riding from our proposed camp. Plus, the next river we had to cross was deep and made icily ferocious by melting snow. Dominik searched for a ford, but when he led four of the horses across, two were almost swept away.

Tammy, Walter and I made our way downriver and hesitantly prodded our horses forward. The water covered stirrups, then ankles, then thighs. I clutched my cameras to my chest and offered a quick prayer that Paloma wouldn’t stumble.

Then, dripping and shivering, we rode on, and on, and on. Darkness fell and I was falling behind. Dominik urged me to keep up, but when I managed to goad Paloma into a trot along the narrow pathway, my chest ached from holding my breath and my thighs burned from bouncing in the saddle.

I clung on precariously, expecting to fall off any second. A starlit ride in the wilds sounds much more fun that it actually is, and I wondered how the horsemen of legend ever galloped through the night.

It was plain from the discussion at our campfire that evening, its small blaze mirrored by the bushfire, that we had not yet covered half the distance to our destination. The next day would be longer and more arduous.

A large, wimpy part of me wanted to ask if there was an escape route – perhaps a car with Walter’s wife in it just up the road. But this was clearly impossible. ‘Man up,’ I told myself. ‘Didn’t you want an adventure?’

We set off late the following morning and I found myself unable to relax and enjoy the scenery. I was becoming anxious to complete the journey and concerned about the vagueness of the route. Two days had become three and would quite possibly turn into four, perhaps even five.

This distressed me. Not only had I run out of clean underwear, but my boyfriend from Buenos Aires was arriving in Bariloche the next evening.

Smoke from last night’s fire greyed the sky and we kept stopping so that Walter and Dominik could reload Lopez, whose pack was keeling over. Nonetheless, Dominik wouldn’t be rushed. His horses were more important to him than all the boyfriends in Buenos Aires, and they needed to be fed and rested. So, every couple of hours, when we found a good patch of pasture, we unsaddled and sat munching chocolates while they munched grass.

Of course, when we arrived at the homestead of Don Miranda, the foremost gaucho of the district, it was obligatory to stop for maté. His home was at the foot of an abandoned gold and lead mine and we tied the horses up to archaic equipment.

After an eternity sipping maté (sugared for the ladies, unsweetened for the men), Don Miranda showed us massive stag heads and cougar skins while one of his sons slaughtered a lamb on a wooden stump close by.

From here, all resemblance to roads ran out. Dominik led us down barely visible paths, following his nose and GPS. My mood brightened when we reached camp before dark, a lush green meadow high on a hilltop, with a tiny spring tracing a rivulet across it.

Thanks to the bushfire, the sunset was spectacular – oranges and purples glowing against the stark black and white of distant peaks. Rain threatened after dinner (we were down to soup and pasta) and Dominik fashioned a makeshift shelter from groundsheets, bits of rope and dead wood.

The last day’s ride is perhaps better not remembered. After more than two days on horseback, my legs and behind were bruised and painful. I shifted endlessly in the saddle trying to find a comfortable spot, but there was no respite.

We climbed over a high mountain pass, where a bitter wind whipped through our ponchos and grey snow lingered in the shadows. We galloped across an endless plain, chased by wild stallions hungry to add our mares to their harem. Each time I asked how much further it was, the answer was always the same: ‘Another three, maybe four hours’.

In the late afternoon, on a desolate hillside under a glunching sky, we noticed four Andean condors circling above us. Instead of being uplifted by the sight of the giant raptors, I gloomily noted that there was one to feast on each of our remains.

At last we really were close to our destination, the Andes Luna Estancia (ranch), with the promise of roads, running water and relief for my battered bottom. Dominik cantered up the hillside to find cellphone reception so he could let Walter’s wife – who’d expected us yesterday – know we were in one piece.

Tammy, Walter and I continued on stoically. But fate dealt one final hurdle. The road led to a cattle-grid, fenced with barbed wire. Walter and Tammy had a discussion in Spanish. I realised that they were proposing to lead the horses across the grid by laying two rickety planks over it. I watched with trepidation as Lopez, still carrying his pack, and tied to another horse, gingerly picked his way to the other side.

He made it! Now the horse tied to him was pushed on. But she was of different mettle. She panicked and reversed, dragging Lopez back across the grid. He fell. One of his legs was trapped between the poles. Poor Lopez started screaming. I was horrified. I knew that a broken leg was a death sentence for a horse.

Dominik galloped up, vaulted off his horse and issued terse instructions. I couldn’t bear to watch or listen as they set about extracting the panicked horse. Somehow though, Dominik managed it.

We were a shaken, exhausted and subdued group who finally corralled the horses safely at the Estancia. By the time we were back in Bariloche it was late at night and Walter dashed off to the airport to fetch my boyfriend.

I stood in the bathroom and looked in a mirror at last. A strange woman stared back at me. The sun had baked her face as hard and brown as basalt, dust blanketed deep tracks around her eyes and mouth, twin rivers flowed down her cheeks, and the wind had ravelled her hair into the bleached straw of a condor’s nest. This gringa looked like one hell of a gaucho now.

Originally published in Getaway Magazine, June 2014.

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