Rolling With the Punches (Part II)

You can make out the round corral and paddocks in the grassy area where we camped
among the mice and a raging bull near the Rio Argentino.

Rolling With the Punches (Part 11)

 If you read my last (and first) post of this trip, you’ll know that Canela sustained a nasty wound, caused, for all we know by a randy Billy goat. Beto had sewed up the gapping hole in her leg, but my Pony Club alter ego turned out to be right. It became infected though we caught it before it made its way too deeply into her knee. The vet said that once infection gets into an articulated joint there are problems. Cleaning up the damage wasn’t pretty – lots more blood and needles and leather contraptions and tranquilizers to keep poor Canela still – but it worked. The heat and swelling were down in a day though the vet had to see her twice. When Canela seemed to be on the mend, I asked the vet what would have happened had we not had him treat her. He said the swelling would have kept increasing and she would not have been able to use her leg, which would have meant circulation would basically stop. The short story is that for 800 pesos (about $100), we saved Canela’s life.
Given we were now down two horses (Canela had to rest for a few days) and had no guide, since Beto had to stay with Canela to care for her, we altered our plans. With three riding horses and one packhorse, we set off with Danny on foot, leaving Beto, Canela and his other horse behind at Julio’s. We rode over the low mountain pass behind Julio’s lodge and set up camp in the Pedrigoso River valley below. The previous year, the horses had found a grassy spot near the smaller Argentina River that runs parallel to the Pedrigoso. It had lots of pasture and a number of fenced paddocks and we set up in this place. It was a sublime place to camp. The horses had water and grass and we found a spot tucked in among the niri and mosqueta and retamo trees for our tents and campfire. It was a winter camp for Julio’s neighbour and Julio had told us it would be okay to use the corrals.
The valley is wide and flat, perhaps 2 kilometres across and is reminiscent of Montana in my mind – but with better weather. The summers are longer and the winters are more mild. Puma wander in these hills, wild boar are evident by patches of disturbed soil where they have been digging and we watched enormous Caranchos (large hawks) ride the thermals above high cliffs, veering off from time to time like an escape car leaves the scene of a bank robbery. But as we would learn, it was none of these critters that plagued us.
When I went to clean up, the crystal clear water in the Argentina River gave me a headache when I poured it over my dusty head of hair. But as I stood there in the middle of that sandy-bottomed stream with the morning sunshine warming my back, I was confident that no one might happen along to disturb me. Those parts of my body that seldom feel the heat of a hot sun or are touched by a fresh breeze tingled. I stood in the cold knee-deep water and gazed at the mountaintops – a few sporting a white cap of snow. Some people talk about the freedom they feel sailing on an open ocean, others have a similar sensation when they climb a vertical rock face or soar off a mountain top in a paraglider. But the intimate privacy of standing buck naked and freshly clean in air so fresh you want to drink it trumps all other ways to shed yourself of the shackles of our 21st century hectic lives in my opinion.
Alex and Danny fished; we followed an old road to the glacier-fed, see-to-the-bottom Pedrigoso River where it cascaded from a deep mountain canyon and on to the dry desert. Twenty kilometres on it would empty into Lago Cholilo.
One day as the sun neared the mountain peaks and evening, with its soft buttery light was catching hold, I saddled up Judy. We climbed up a ridge behind our campsite and followed our noses and a complicated network of cattle tracks picking our way around low-lying, thorny bushes toward a distant ridge made visible by the dense green evergreens that populated it. We had no destination in mind; there was no obvious single path. We just wandered in the general direction of the ridge as the sun sunk lower in the clear blue sky. As we did, we moved past the shoulder of a rounded hill. Behind it I could now see yet another series of jagged snow-capped peaks. Behind that was likely another and then another – all part of the Andes that form the border between Argentina and Chile. In all likelihood, I was actually looking at Chile.
At the end of our wander, I turned Judy around, gave her her head and let her find our way back to camp. She picked her way confidently, sometimes following her own hoof prints clearly visible in the sandy dusty soil, but other times she just using her senses honed over centuries to find our way home.
After three nights out camping, we returned reluctantly to Julio’s. We had to get Danny back so he could catch a bus and then a flight home to England. We also had to escape the plague of mice that were becoming an increasing problem to anything plastic including Alex’s camelbak water bladder, his sunscreen and a foam pillow. We hung our food in trees in tightly sealed bags to avoid problems. Having to leave due to mice might sound as if we are awfully urban, but it turned out that we had arrived during an actual plague of mice or ratonesas they are called locally. They actually have a name for these outbreaks, which is a ratada. The dramatic rise in population of these small rodents was due to the flowering two years previously in 2012 of the colihue plant. Colihue is a local bamboo that only blooms about every 70 years. (Some studies suggest it is only one type of bamboo that blooms so seldom. The others bloom in cycles ranging from 12- to 30-years. Either way, it doesn’t bloom very often.) In the years that follow, there is so much seed around that the population of mice explodes in areas where bamboo is common. While mice are generally not much more than an inconvenience, these mice often carry Hanta Virus and while we were there there were several cases of the resulting ailment that can be lethal. In fact, we had to change our plans again because we were advised to not go up the Tigre valley at all due to the mice, and the campground near Lago Chililo had been shut down for the season because of the mice.
During the 3-day festival they consume 10,000 kilos of beef and 300 sheep,
making it the world’s largest barbecue. 

We returned to Julio’s for a night and then headed down into Cholila for an afternoon to attend the enormous asado (Argentinian barbeque) festival and rodeo there. Although it’s quite a spectacle – imagine dual lines of 50 or more cattle and lamb carcasses roasting crucifix style over open wood-burning fires, but we didn’t have a huge stomach for the busy crowds and blaring music. It was a bit too much for us after the peace and quiet in the Pedrigoso valley (broken only by a vocal, dirt-scratching bull that became Laura’s nemisis) especially given the lake trip Julio treated us to that morning. He took us out on his boat to tour the mirror-like Lago Lezana on whose shore his Lodge resides. This spring-fed lake that is 11k long and about 2k wide sits in the shoulder of a low-lying mountain. A steep forested ridge frames the lake on the side of Julio’s lodge. On the other side, a lower rolling hill hems the water in. There are only four houses on the entire lake. The original farmstead is cozied in at the western end of the lake on a gentle sloping piece of land that was cleared decades ago. There are a few simple wooden buildings, cows graze. Our horses, who we allowed to run free (except escape-artist Moro who we tethered), discovered the pasture at this site. They looked up in surprise as we pulled in close to them in Julio’s boat. But curiosity was no competition for the rich green grass on the lake’s edge. We watched them munch away contentedly, their legs hidden from view behind the slender reeds on the lakeshore. They seemed unaware of the backdrop of mountain peaks behind them.