How I Joined the Gaucho Club
Jane Williams's sense of humour surfaces on the first morning of my stay. Having worked out that I'm pretty happy on a horse, she sends me off with two gauchos and Angie, one of the other guests, to muster 16 potros (unbroken colts) from the 'paddock'.
'Cool,' I say. 'How big's the paddock?' I'm thinking English paddocks, usually about half the size of your average football field.
'Oh, about 2,000 acres. It shouldn't take you more than three or four hours. See you back here for lunch, yes?'
Er, yes. At 15,000 acres and with 1000 head of cattle and about 200 horses, Jane's Argentine estancia dwarfs even the largest of English farms. This, after all, is Patagonia, and with the nearest town of San Martin de los Andes 70 kilometres distant and no mains water or electricity, this is farming about as remote and self-sufficient as it gets.
Humping our saddles in the back of a truck we're driven to the edge of the estancia, where Juan and Domingo are already busy catching our steeds for the day from one of the tamer herds. For the next two hours we ride up through a series of giant plateaus. The highest feels as though it's the top of the world, partly because of the view of the perfectly white, perfectly triangular peak of Lanin volcano, one of the highest peaks in the Andes, about 70 miles distant, and partly because the wind is utterly insistent on relieving me of my big leather cowboy hat.
Finally, Domingo asks me if I can see the horses we're looking for. I can't, so he points them out: they're on an opposite hillside, a thin brown line among a bunch of rocks that look to be maybe a mile away. 'We've got to catch them?' I ask. He nods.
Slowly we pick our way down into the valley and up the back of the hill where the horses are grazing. I'm positioned in one hillside pass with instructions to stop them doubling back; Angie is positioned in the next pass along, maybe a half a mile away. I can't see her or either of the gauchos.
While I wait I battle with my horse, which doesn't like the idea of being left alone with this strange and gawky English person on its back, and contemplate the fact that to all intents and purposes I'm alone in the middle of 15,000 acres of arid grasslands, pebble-bedded rivers and basalt outcrops of the kind round which condors swoop and curl. Patagonia. You wanted it. Here it is. With bells on.
After about 20 minutes the horses appear - and then disappear - at speed. Not past me (thank God), but not in quite the direction they were supposed to go, either. Within seconds, it seems, they are several hills away, and I can just make out the tiny figure of Domingo giving chase. No one told me what to do if they went that way. Of Angie and Juan there is no sign, so I pick a direction and head off. An hour passes; the sun reaches its zenith. Then, miraculously, I run into Angie, who had the same idea as me, apparently. Another hour passes as we make our way down and around a steep-sided ravine, then we catch sight of Domingo, down on the plain.
We head towards him, fearing disaster, but all is OK. After veering off in the wrong direction to begin with, the colts turned and headed straight towards the estancia and are exactly where we want them to be. All we need to do is flush them out of a small wood, along a fence and into the holding corral. Pleasingly - and excitingly, as we race about to cut off their escape routes - this mission is soon accomplished and we're only an hour late for lunch. Turns out Jane was right.
Jane is often right. She has to be. When more than a decade ago her Argentine husband died unexpectedly, he left her with two young children to raise and the huge expanse of the Estancia Huechahue to do it with. Half gift, half liability, the property sits in the rolling foothills of the Andes; beautiful, rugged, tough. Though not nearly as tough, it turns out, as Battersea, which is where Jane was brought up. A childhood on the banks of the Thames makes you ready for anything, it seems.
Including lunch. Nearly all the food we're served - the fruit jams and compotes we have for breakfast, the garden vegetables we have for dinner, the extraordinary beef that forms the centrepiece of the majority of our meals - is produced here on the estancia. But there are differences between this and rural English fare. The shepherd's pie is made with shredded beef and fruit, and topped with squash mash instead of mashed potato. The curry is made with venison from the deer that roam the place. And English barbecues don't come close to touching the Argentine asado, meat marathons during which you're served several different cuts of beef plus chorizo sausage and morcillo , a black pudding so rich in iron that you could probably smelt it.
Crockery and cutlery are a hunk of bread and a facón (a gaucho knife placed in the weaponry stakes somewhere between a Bowie knife and a machete) and condiments are limited to salt and c himichuri , a mildly piquant chilli and garlic dressing that sharpens up the already fragrant flavours of the meat. A fat log to sit on and a mug of Argentine red (many of which are truly excellent, particularly the inky malbecs, grown only as a blending grape in Europe but here brought into their own) and you've well and truly set. It's a good thing the days are long enough to allow a morning ride, an evening ride and a two-hour afternoon siesta. You need it.
On day three my life hits an all-time high when Gustavo, one of the younger gauchos, agrees to teach Angie and me how to lasso. First, though, we need some kind of target, which we find in the shape of 35 unsuspecting cattle quietly munching thistles nearby. Whirling our rebenques (short whips made by attaching a 50cm strip of rawhide to a 50cm wooden baton) we ride up and chivvy them into a corral. Next comes instruction on the preferred technique for twirling the 20 metres of braided leather around in the air over your head. This is actually not so hard; unlike my mother's washing line (utilised by my boyhood self for attempted pet-rustling activities on many occasions throughout the mid-Seventies) the braiding gives the whip an inner tension that, used right, holds the loop open in the air.
Getting this loop around any part of a fleeing animal, however, is a different matter altogether. After an hour and a half of chasing an increasingly traumatised collection of cows and calves around and around in a growing cloud of dust I'm feeling like an idiot, Angie is bored and Gustavo is in stitches (the laughing kind). It is, of course, harder than it looks. Finally, on what must be my 50th attempt, I catch a calf around the back legs. As the lasso pulls tight the creature trips and yanks and nearly pulls me over with it. It takes all my strength (and a sizable chunk of my gloves) to haul it to the ground. Ambition achieved.
Pleased with myself I return to the farmhouse and, over carpaccio of venison, I tell my fellow guests of my triumph, a boast that prompts Jane to describe the time she saw Domingo save a cow from drowning by hooking it around the horns in a single try as it was being swept down a mountain river. Needless to say I give up lassoing after that.
It's not all fun and frolics on the farm. For 20 years Jane has taken trekking parties through the nearby Lanin national park, and that's the next activity on our list. Four days of riding through a temperate rainforest filled with thick bamboo groves and dotted with thousand-year-old monkey-puzzle trees; four days of camping in lush water meadows and climbing through freezing volcanic landscapes; four days, you might imagine, of zero comfort and all-round unpleasantness.
But equipped with thick wool ponchos to keep off wind and rain, thick cueros (sheepskin saddlecloths) to sit on (and, at night, to sleep on too), and leading a packhorse swaying beneath the weight of tents, sleeping bags, two carafes of wine and the vast amount of beef needed to sustain us, the experience is anything but raw.
One of the things that helps smooth any sharp edges is a twice-daily dose of yerba maté. That this traditional Argentine tea is drunk through silver straws (bombillas) from sexy little gourds (matés) does not disguise the fact that it looks like dried horse manure and tastes about the same. But it packs an undeniable zing, a kind of caffeine buzz without the jitters that brings on a pleasant feeling of well-being, staves off hunger pangs and apparently contains enzymes which help the stomach to break down large quantities of meat - which is handy, given that back when men were men, gauchos used to live on maté and beef alone.
But things have changed. Juan and Domingo, though still rather shy of vegetables, are happy to supplement their diets with coffee, pasta and the little tins of Chilean mussels that Jane produces from her saddlebags, and one night around the campfire I discover that back home on the estancia their wives will be watching satellite TV which Jane provided. 'My neighbours tell me I'm messing with their traditional way of life,' she says, 'which is an attitude that I find a little patronising. But I can't say it was pure altruism. You'd be amazed how much quicker ice and leaves get cleared out from the turbine if it breaks down in the middle of their favourite soap.'
On the last night of our trip we do meet one person who has made no compromise with the twenty-first century. He is also called Domingo, and he's been farming cattle on the slopes overlooking Lanin since he was born there more than 100 years ago. His hut is so crude it doesn't even have a chimney; the smoke from the small bonfire blazing at one end of the dirt floor has to escape via the door or the cracks in the walls (plentiful) or the lungs of visitors.
Wonderful though the trek is, it's not the highlight of my trip. That prize goes to the day, back down on the estancia, we have to bring 350 head of cattle in from another of the farm's gigantic pastures so they can be sprayed for red fly. For me, nothing could touch the feeling I had when, after a couple of hours encouraging whatever cows I could find through the remote section of landscape I'd been assigned, I crested a rise to see cattle from all over the area pouring into the valley ahead of me in one giant dusty brown confluence, the toy figures of my fellow riders behind them, hollering and waving them on.
For the horses it's bliss - they love working cattle, and most of the time know exactly what to do without you telling them. It's a bit uncanny: like riding around on the back of a giant sheepdog. They're less keen, though, when you need to take them inside a corral already chock-full of cattle slip-sliding past one another like giant sewer-rats to separate out the bulls from the cows. That's hot work - suffocating, skilful, tiring and relentless, especially when you've already been out in the sun, all-powerful as it swivels across an unblemished blue sky, for four or five hours without a break. Needless to say the gauchos do most of the work, while us tourists do most of the getting in the way.
The reward is, as ever, a cold beer, a giant asado, a saddlecloth siesta in the shade of a poplar tree and the reduction of life to a few basic essentials: sun, sky, horses, cows, wine, meat. It's pure, it's existential, it's mythical. And it's something of an illusion. The politics and pressures involved in keeping Huechahue running are as difficult and stressful as you'd find anywhere else on our busy little planet, as a few days hanging out with Jane and her gauchos makes clear.
But sod that. Right here, right now, I've just become a cowboy. And my six-year-old self is mighty pleased.
- The Observer, March 2003