Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Life on 'The Enchanted Isles'

I would have run straight past it had it not been for the loud, breathy hiss that made me stop in my tracks. It sounded threatening, but there was no sign of the fearsome reptile I would have expected to make such a noise. Instead, it came from what I had mistaken for a large boulder - the mottled brown outline of a Giant Tortoise, its head and legs hidden from sight inside its shell.

I could hardly believe my luck stumbling across one of the animal kingdom's great treasures on a morning run. Yet as I continued, I passed several more dome-shaped boulders that hissed as I passed. It did, however, take some time before I saw one with a head and legs outside of its shell. You see, despite the Darth Vader-esque vocals, imposing body armour and leathery scales worthy of a dinosaur, these gentle giants are shy, bashful creatures - they shrink into their shell with a hiss the moment you venture too close. It goes without saying that they are a huge upgrade from the feral dogs that stalked my running route on the mainland!

It turns out that my current home in the highlands on Galapagos's Santa Cruz is just a few roads up from the Giant Tortoise Reserve and, as its residents roam freely in the surrounding fields, I have got used to seeing these endearing beasts going about their business day to day. In fact, they are often pottering around by the stables every morning - frighteningly unaware of the damage that could be inflicted by the back legs of a disgruntled horse.

Avid grazers with a big appetite, they seem to go wherever the pasture is good. Slowly but steadily, they will chomp through their chosen patch of greenery, their long, crinkled necks stretching a surprising distance to select the juiciest morsels. Then, they'll lumber to their feet, take a few laboured but purposeful steps to their next location, and flumpf to the floor once more. It looks like hard work - and, if you're over 90 years old and heaving around a heavy shell, I expect it is!

The giants in the highlands are just the start of the wealth of wildlife living here. Thirteen miles away in Puerto Ayora, the island's main coastal town, you can't walk more than a few paces without seeing something photo-worthy. Marine iguanas (that, to me, seem wildly incongruous with the ocean vista) sit poised and proud on the pier, impervious to the paparazzi of tourists anxiously snapping their photo. Sea lions lounge on the decks by the boats, comfortable and carefree, their whiskers twitching as they snooze. Bright, red-yellow crabs - Sally Lightfoots - scuttle up vertical walls; hoards of Pelicans boldly harass the fishmongers as they gut that day's catch; and elegant, red-breasted Frigates soar across the sky. Put simply, it's hard to know where to look!

Of course, it's not all beaches, ocean vistas and incredible wildlife. Currently, I am helping to care for and train five young horses in return for free accommodation on site. The place I'm staying may be within striking distance of the Tortoise Reserve, but it's also just up the road from a pig farm. The screams of the animals going to slaughter (a daily occurrence) are enough to make the most fervent sausage-lover swear off meat for life. Similarly, the house is home to a veritable hive of insects. Cockroaches are just the start... I can't even name some of the monsters that appear after dark! In addition, there is a strong population of geckos. They make their presence known by poo-ing on every available surface at an incredible rate, but seem to do a very poor job of keeping the house insect-free.

On another note, last year's drought has made fruit, veg and water prized commodities on the island - never has being a vegetarian been so expensive! It also means running water at the house is limited and somewhat temperamental. Lowering buckets into the water tank as if it were a well and stockpiling it in basins for a cold shower has become a laborious chore. But, given that when the shower does work, it's a pathetic dribble from a hose that hangs at knee height, it's a job well worth doing.

Even so, all this seems like a fair exchange for living on 'The Enchanted Isles' - cockroaches and gecko poo included. I've been captivated by this carefully conserved haven from the word go. For the first time, the horses have taken a back seat in favour of everything else there is to see!

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Training trials in Ecuador

My first run in Pesillo, a small farming village in the Northern Highlands of Ecuador, lasted just six minutes before the steady incline and high altitude had left me gasping for breath and my legs burning. It took several weeks of perseverance before I could just about complete a 5-mile loop of the valley without stopping. More on that here. When I moved on to a 4,500 dairy farm, I had high hopes my new lodgings would provide the perfect base for off-road running. Sadly, sludge so deep it slopped over the rim of my welly boots soon put pay to that idea. I was forced to take to the tarmac.

Vía Selva Alegre is a far cry from the cobbled tracks and family smallholdings of Pesillo. A wide, winding thoroughfare, it is lined with monstrous haciendas, each stretching several kilometres in length. The main traffic - a handful of vehicles every half hour - consists of enormous heavy goods trucks that to and fro between the farms, and local buses that follow a timetable consistent only in its unpredictability. The road slaloms through the hills at a steady but punishing gradient, wending its way gradually upwards for 3-4km before it eventually plateaus. Here, at the highest point, the haciendas are dispersed with a collection of very basic houses, each with a small backyard and a handful of animals. These lots are tiny in comparison to the farms here, but they undoubtedly enjoy some of the best views one could ask for.

On almost all of my runs along Vía Selva Alegre, I was accompanied by two of the farm's dogs - a fiercely loyal German Shepherd called Marca and her young protege, a black puppy called Valiente. An endearing pair, both would trot as close to my heels as physically possible. Sandwiched tightly between them, it's a miracle we didn't all trip and tumble when accelerating down the hill.

In fact, I soon learnt it was much safer running with my doggy escort than than venturing out without them - it turns out the canine residents of the local houses take their guarding duties very seriously. One Sunday, as I reached the highest point of my run, a black Pitbull charged into the road and sunk his fangs into my knee, leaving a nasty gash. Needless to say, I haven't gone back since. In fact, I now have the perfect excuse not to reach the top of the hill! Sadly, I'm also now terrified of any dog that happens to bark as I pass, and have even started to carry defensive ammunition with me (storing pebbles in my leggings and carrying a stick) if I know I'll have to pass a canine guard.

Running here in Ecuador certainly has its ups and downs, but I do have an incentive to keep at it. In October, I got a ballot place in the London Marathon. It's not ideal timing - I'll be travelling for the duration of the training period. Yet, having entered several years running and never yet been successful, it seems too good an opportunity to miss. With an uncertain few weeks ahead, I've no idea if I'll make it to the start line in April. But if I do, I just hope the trials and tribulations of my sporadic training in Ecuador will be enough to see me through the 26 miles to the finish!

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Masterclass in Ecuadorean Equitation

I've worked at livery stables, dealers yards, polo clubs and trail ride ranches, but it's fair to say I've never experienced anything quite like Hacienda Pambasinchi. So far, it's been a crash course in dealing with horses en masse. We have 80 here, divided into two herds and rotated around different pastures across an expansive 4,500 hectares. I've quickly learnt just how fast 80 horses can mow a field of long, lush grass to its yellowy roots - it makes for a lot of work shifting fence lines across vast swathes of farmland to ensure they have fresh grazing.

Despite the abundance of pasture, most days all the horses are rounded up to be fed and watered. Heaving 40kg bags of alfalfa through knee-deep sludge, spreading it across the five feeding troughs and topping each with a bucket of thick, sticky molasses decanted from an enormous metal vat, is a trial that has to be repeated at least three times to ensure no one is left hungry - the whole procedurecan take the best part of a day.

Any time left is spent working the 20 resident stallions. And Vinicio, the twenty-four-year-old Quechuan in charge here, has a unique technique to ensure no one is left out. First, he herds them all to the bubble-shaped ménage next to the coral where, in order to get in, all the horses have to jump a line of barrels about three foot high. The arena features a steep, in-built hill to one side, and the work begins by cantering all 20 horses together in circles up and over this hill at least ten times on each rein. However effective it is as a warm up, when they thunder past you at close range - a chaotic jumble of legs, tails and splattered mud - it can be quite unnerving! Subsequently, in groups of two or three, the horses are sent five or six times over a jump, before being allowed back into the main coral where their friends are waiting.

It's certainly not a style of training I'm familiar with, but it seems to yield results - as became evident when I rode the next day.  My horse, Myway, was superficially very scraggly. About 16'1hh, he had a fluffy coat marked with various scratches from the rough and tumble of the herd, and an endearing face covered in brown stickiness from the feed troughs. Following Vinicio's instructions, I didn't groom him or pick out his feet, just chose one of the three creaking English saddles from the store room and tacked him up - one size fits all apparently.

I wasn't expecting much as we squelched down the muddy track to the ménage. But, after just five minutes of riding, I knew that this scruffy four-year-old was a seriously classy horse in disguise. He glided around the arena with floaty, elevated paces, bending easily around the tight turns and sharp changes of rein that the small, bubble-shaped space made necessary. Just as round, collected and powerful in canter as he was in walk and trot, there's no doubt he'd easily cruise through affiliated dressage. In fact, his evident quality made wonder why on earth they had a rookie like me schooling him... but rather than question it, I just enjoyed the ride!

My next horse, a three-year-old stallion, was less successful. A striking charcoal grey called Martillo, he hadn't quite mastered the notion of going forwards. After a few hapless attempts to complete a full circle of the arena in trot, I was exhausted. It was a sharp bump back to reality when compared with the Ferrari I had been sitting on before.

Yet despite this particular stallion's confusion under saddle, it's obvious that the horses here are beautifully bred and produced - which says something about Vinicio's 'en-masse' training method. And I expect that, within a year, Martillo will be just as elegant Myway. Whether or not I have anything to do with that remains to be seen...

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Ecuadorean Dairy Farm

Just this week, I began a new job at a hacienda near Otavalo, a merchant town home to one of Ecuador's oldest markets. Compared with the small farming community I experienced in Pesillo, where each family has just a handful of animals, this is a dairy farm on an industrial scale.

The milking pens are the first thing you see on entering the hacienda. Twice daily the cows dutifully file into the courtyard and spread themselves out along the feed sheds, presenting a long line of bottoms as they feast on fresh alfafa. Then, they are shuffled into the milking parlour, where men in yellow, plastic overalls supervise machines that drain their udders in a matter of moments. It's a slick, professional routine that ticks over with clockwork regularity and never seems to change pace.

My bedroom is right next door to the pens, meaning I am very much up to speed with the milking timetable. Every morning at 3am, as I toss and turn in my wobbly, creaky bunk bed , the cows are harangued into the courtyard with cries of "siga siga vaca", and "vamos carajo" - noisy encouragement that I'm not convinced is entirely necessary given that, every time I've watched, the cows have walked obediently from pasture to pen without batting an eyelid.

The whole affair is repeated at 3pm. If I time it right, I can rush down and give one of the workers a plastic jug that, within seconds, will be full to the brim with warm, frothy milk - enough to last until the next afternoon's milking session. Already, that jug of milk has become a dietary staple for me. You see, the kitchen consists of a bench, a cupboard, and a two-ring electric stove. There's no fridge or running water, and dishes have to be washed in the tiny basin in the bathroom. It makes cooking anything more complicated than porridge quite a chore!

There are over 500 cows here, so there's no shortage of milk. And, as the hacienda boasts over 4,000 hectares of land, there's certainly ample grass for them to eat. In fact, the grounds are so vast they allow for multiple crops of sweetcorn and oats, as well as plentiful grazing for 65 horses.

Sadly, I've yet to work much with the horses here. My arrival was unfortunately timed and has coincided with torrential and persistent rain - the likes of which makes a wet day in Snowdonia look pedestrian. And, given the mud is already dangerously close to the top of my welly boots, I think it'll be a while before it dries out enough to start. However, in a window of fair weather today, I did manage to squeeze in a short ride on one of the stallions, a four year old that proved to be much better behaved than most of the cavalry blacks I am lucky enough to ride back home. With another 20 stallions, 45 mares and numerous foals just waiting to be played with, I'm praying the weather clears up soon!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

El Sargento

Cesar makes an entrance every time he arrives at la finca. Pausing in his stride a moment, he raises both his arms high above his head, looks around and grins broadly as if basking in the applause of an expectant crowd. "Estoy aquí," (I'm here). He's been working at la finca most days this week, and regularity certainly hasn't diminished his style. If anything, his appearance each day has become every day more grandiose.

Cesar is one of the chagras (Ecuadorean horsemen) who regularly joins the team at la finca to help prepare for the six-day trail rides - a monumental task that involves packing enough food, equipment and first aid to see 12 horses and ten riders through six days of adventure and all four seasons. I had been nervous about working with him - warned he would cut corners and slack off - but I needn't have worried. The first thing he said to me was "Yo trabajo, tu descanses," (I work so you can rest), and he has remained true to his word.

Small and round-faced, with a broad smile and a cheeky twinkle in his eye, Cesar is hard-working, efficient and cheerful. No matter how much work there is to get through, he remains implacably calm and relaxed. "Tranquila señorita", has become his catchphrase, repeated every time I try to plan ahead. It turns out he has been working these trail rides for over eight years, and so is well-versed in the extraordinary amount of paraphernalia involved. He certainly looks the part. At home, he wears jeans and a gillet, but when riding, he dons full-length, fur-fronted leather chaps, a thick, red and white woollen poncho and a broad-rimmed hat.

Yet this is just one of his jobs. At home, he has ten horses of his own that he uses to take Ecuadorean tourists on trail rides. He also milks his own cows every day and looks after the bulls at the local hacienda. Unbelievably, this is meant to be his retirement. Prior to all this, he spent 18 years in the Ecuadorean army - perhaps that explains why he can work such long hours and still be smiling. He also credits the army with his domestic skills. He always insists on doing the washing up and, if given half a chance, will light the fire in my bedroom to make sure I'm "calentita" (warm). Is it any wonder that after a day working with him I began to salute him as "El Sargento"?

*   *   *

Cesar is just one of the lovely local Ecuadoreans I have been lucky enough to meet. There's also Clemencia, who lives at the top of la finca and is full of smiles whenever we pass. For a dollar, she'll milk her cow and hand you over a bucket of fresh milk - something I'm yet to acquire a taste for. When she heard my housemate was ill, her whole family appeared on our doorstep armed with a little bottle of decongestant drops. I'm not sure that sort of neighbourly concern survives in London!

And then there's Kevin, the 17-year-old lorry driver. He manoeuvres the truck with the calm confidence of an old hand, and simply chuckled when he told me he's too young to have a driving licence. And there's Viktor, the happy-go-lucky chofer who gave up his lunch break to help me shift weighty water pipes and then drove me to town for groceries.

The charm, wit, concern and kindness of locals like Clemencia, Kevin and Victor - not to mention El Sargento - has been a highlight of my few weeks in Pesillo, Ecuador. Soon to be moving on, I only hope to meet similarly good-natured locals at my next stop.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Living in the Clouds

For the past few weeks, I've been living in the hills above Pesillo. It's a tiny farming community in the Northern Highlands of Ecuador, up at 3,000m and an hour and a half from the nearest town. Charged with looking after the herd of 14 horses and the resident border collie, there's been little time to explore any further than I can ride on horseback. Fortunately, I haven't felt much need to. The valleys are vast. You can ride for hours and still cover new ground. And their expansive beauty is breathtaking, no matter how many times you see it and no matter what the weather does.
Some days it's like living in a cloud - the air wet with tiny droplets of rain that shroud the valley in a misty haze. Waves of this feathery-light wisp will swirl through the hills all day, interspersed with fleeting glimpses of blue sky and bright sunshine - the translucent colours of rainbows arching over the valley are a regular sight. In the wetness of the clouds, it's easy to forget the hills are overlooked by the monstrous Volcán Cayambe. When it does appear, a brilliant ice white crag looming in the distance, it looks starkly out of place against the lush, rolling farmlands.
Though riding is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy the scenery, with most of the herd resting after a six-day tour, I've had no choice but to don my trainers and explore it on foot. Turning right out of la finca you can do a 5.5 mile loop of the valley. It's an undulating circuit that climbs over 700ft on a mixture of ankle-twisting cobbles and slippery, muddy tracks - and includes a constant assault by ferocious-sounding dogs that chase you past their property. It was an ambitious start for my first run at altitude and, needless to say, it took several attempts before I completed it without stopping. The locals undoubtedly think I'm completely bonkers - a red-faced "gringita" needlessly puffing her way up the cobbles in a laboured jog that's slower than walking pace. But, by and large, they seem to accept me. I get the odd smile and wave, or friendly honk from a passing truck.

On my most recent venture, la finca's elderly collie, Guapa, decided to join me. Ignoring my repeated instructions of "Quédate aquí " (Stay here), she snuck out of the gates after me, keeping a discrete distance behind. I didn't realise she was in tow until the battle cries of the first batch of guard dogs crescendoed to unprecedented levels. Terrified she'd be mauled by the neighbours or get lost, I spent most of the run glancing nervously over my shoulder and calling her on. But I needn't have worried. Despite remaining largely out of sight - about 70m behind me on a bendy track - she faithfully followed me the whole way. I stopped to wait for her on the home straight as she bowled towards me, ears flapping and tongue lolling as if smiling broadly. It's fair to say she finished much more strongly than I did.

Clearly, four legs are better than two. I should stick to the horses!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Early days at La Finca

The ranch looks a bit like a gingerbread house; a quaint, yellow stone cottage with timber rafters and a small porch - and 14 horses grazing in the garden. It's nestled deep in valleys of the northern highlands and overlooked by the awesome snow-capped peak of Cayambe volcano.

It's picturesque, but spartan. There's no heating, tap water must be boiled before drinking, milk (which comes from the cow next door) simmered before use, and clothes scrubbed clean(ish) in a bucket outside. The closest bus stop is a 30 minute walk along a muddy road lined with tethered pigs, hobbled cows, flocks of sheep and an assortment of dogs that chase you as you pass.

The sun is unforgiving in its strength, but rain is frequent and often torrential. Swirls of moody clouds spill through the valley each day - timing is key if you don't want to get wet. Up at over 3,000 metres, the nights are bitterly cold, and even a short walk in wellies leaves me out of breath.
Staying warm, fed and watered - and keeping the horses fit, healthy and happy - is quite a task. I've only been here a week and I'm already in a perpetual state of grubbiness. Local Ecuadorians however seem to manage life in the heart of the hills with much more grace.

Lots of the ladies wear traditional dress, and stroll along the muddied grassways looking effortlessly immaculate. They pair a vibrant, high-waisted skirt with a bright white blouse that has elaborately embroidered sleeves and coloured panels to match the skirt. Their neckline is hidden by a ruff of golden beads looped multiple times from collarbone to earlobe, and they top the outfit off with a smart, rimmed hat adorned with a ribbon and feather. Some of them have sleek, long hair and smooth, rosy cheeks; others, crinkled brown skin, a stooped back and few teeth. But all are equally elegant.

Of course, not everyone wears their Sunday best every day, but there is something quite special about seeing ladies go about day-to-day chores on the farm in traditional dress. I can only marvel at their ability to be so pristine! Clearly, there's a lot to learn from the locals about living in remote Ecuadorian countryside.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Early mornings with the Household Cavalry

It was 6am on a cold February morning. Hyde Park was still shrouded in darkness, the roads empty and not a soul in sight – except for a soldier in khakis and high viz, standing beneath an imposing stone archway that looked into an open courtyard. I’d often passed that same entrance during the day and, though it was rare to see a horse there, the smell is unmistakeable. I hesitantly wheeled my bike towards him... It turns out the most obvious entrance is the wrong one. I was redirected to a discrete, metal gate on Knightsbridge Road, where a muffled voice crackled through the security speaker, “ID m’am”, before the gate swung open.

A brutalist concrete block in the heart of Knightsbridge, the barracks look more like a multi-story car park than a stable yard. Over 150 horses are spread over two tiers, with about 6 blocks of 16 on each level – the Lifeguards downstairs, the Blues & Royals upstairs, with a forge and horse walker on the lower levels. I was directed to the riding balcony, a viewing gallery that overlooks an indoor ménage, where a troop of 16 were trotting nose-to-tail in circles. As I watched more than one of the soldiers were unseated, rolling forwards from the saddle and onto the sand.  It should have served as a warning…

I was there following an e-mail from a lance corporal in the Household Cavalry. It had come as something of a surprise. Over two years earlier, I had written (several) letters applying to become a Civilian Support Rider but, on receiving no response, had given up hope. Then, out of the blue, I was instructed to present myself at the barracks at 0625hrs on 10th February, wearing the ‘proper kit’ (they take dress code very seriously), for a riding assessment. The morning went by in a bit of a blur. I was one of six nervous riders led to the stalls, laden with a random assortment of tack and shown a horse to get ready. Ten minutes later, we were cantering circles in the ménage, watched with a stern eye by the Riding Master who, after 20 minutes, brusquely told us we’d passed, but needed to brush up. Already an hour late for work, I left the barracks buzzing.

I got the call up about a month later. I’d been allocated to the 3 Troop Blues & Royals, and could take up my position as soon as I was available. Having been in awe of the majestic cavalry blacks ever since I saw a military display as a horse-mad ten-year-old, it was like a dream come true. Sadly, my excitement was quickly stifled on day one when, on cantering across the west side of Hyde Park, I suddenly found myself sailing over my horse’s ears and landing with a thud at his hooves.  The horse looked as surprised as I was. Thankfully, he didn’t seize his opportunity to gallop back to the barracks, allowing me to jump back on, hopeful that the marks on my jacket wouldn’t give me away to the Riding Master. Needless to say, it was a short, sharp lesson that the Queen’s horses are actually quite a rowdy bunch.

I should have expected it really. You don’t have to look far online to see various misdemeanours on parade. Unpredictable, cheeky, fit and strong, you can never be sure quite what you’re getting on in the morning. Now, I feel a certain sense of trepidation before every ride….

For the first two weeks, it all felt a bit traumatic – I dreaded the 5am start, the intimidating environment, the difficult horses, the shampooing and polishing when you’re in a rush, the cycle across London to get to work in time. But now, a few months in, what I had found terrifying is becoming fun and familiar – touchwood.

I am usually there by 6am, when the barracks are already a hive of activity, pop music blaring while troopers muck out and sweep the length of the stalls. On arrival, you check the whiteboard, where your name is paired with a number that corresponds to a horse – it is, quite literally, a lottery. It’s also very easy to end up tacking up the wrong horse. On more than one occasion, I’ve got half way round the park before panicking that I’m riding the wrong one. I’ve not yet fallen off again, but I have had a few fairly eventful mornings, including unintentionally galloping the length of the park, and alarming early morning joggers by careering onto a footpath when trying to stop.

I’m still yet to ride any horse more than 2 or 3 times, and would struggle to recognise any of them on parade. Even so, I’m starting to become quite fond of the unpredictable beasts – for all their foibles.

I’ve fallen for Hotspur. He’ll nip your side when you tack him up and is strangely fussy about which side of the path he walks, but has a fantastic canter. Ladysmith is another sure favourite. Tall and gangly-legged, he is the only one I can spot on duty due to his endearing walk. Nose to chest, his front legs clumsily over-crossing, he looks like he’s concentrating hard to go in a straight line.

Integrity is the old man of the troop. He’s got a persistent cough and arthritis, but is beloved by everyone. Nervous to handle, he’s unusually jumpy – he once took fright when the horse walking next to us farted! There’s Luxembourg – tall, wide and, so I was told, “safe as houses”. Yet, when I rode him, he decided to rear up and run off, apparently unaware there was someone on his back hauling at him to stop.

Then there’s Nico – he’s scared of everything and hard to stop. Lingen is endearing, young and sometimes unnerving in his exuberant enthusiasm; Kaiser – slow, lumbering and has a big buck. And Katherine? I’ve been warned to avoid her at all costs.

It can all feel a bit surreal at times – riding the cavalry blacks through Hyde Park, greeting soldiers out exercising their horses, or watching them rehearse in ceremonial kit. Sometimes, we’ll pass a horse and carriage from the Royal Mews, or see the heavy-stepping drum horses. For one or two hours every morning, Hyde Park is a horsey haven. The early mornings are worth it for that!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

It's a grizzly business being a sheep...

Herding the sheep started out as a fun job. It seemed easier than rounding up horses. The woolly 'baa-ing' huddle bumbled across the pastures, while we walked calmly behind on horseback, encouraging them along with 'ayyyyy-ups' and calls of 'siga siga siga'. If one panicked or strayed from the group, a quick step in its direction usually sent it bouncing towards the flock, and if not, the dog would dart round behind sending it back the way it came in a rapid scramble.

The bridge over the river caused the first bottleneck. The sheep at the front ground to a halt, seemingly blind to the chorus of shouts behind, and those behind started to shift and swivel; a mutiny was brewing. Then, all of a sudden, instead of looking at a sea of white, woolly bottoms, I was confronted with 250 baa-ing faces. In one movement, the flock flowed through the gaps between our horses and flooded towards the pasture.

The subsequent successful crossing seemed to rely on momentum: keeping them moving but not rushing them into a panic, a technique that was key for the next jam, which formed at the gates of the coral. However stupid sheep are, I couldn't help but feel that the flock leaders were dithering with a sort of knowing reluctance, and what followed confirmed that their reticence had reason...
I knew the herd was being marked and separated for sale, but I wasn't exactly sure what that involved. The reality was brutal. Each sheep was lifted on to the fence, back legs pinned behind their ears and bottoms exposed; a knife cleanly sliced through the flesh of their tail, and a hole punch marked the ear (essential work to prevent disease apparently). The girls were then dropped in a scrambling heap on the floor, running away with a bloody stump dripping down their back legs. The boys however were kept bottom-up, as a gaucho put teeth to testicles and castrated them in one gruesome mouthful. A grizzly spectacle. By the end of the morning, a small pile of bloody balls had been spat out onto the fence post, just above a sad mound of limp tails.
As it turns out, those were the lucky ones. That afternoon, I was unwittingly roped in to help bundle the remaining sheep into a lorry and off to the slaughter house. Under orders, I clambered into the back of the truck, was given a sheep and told to grip its leg tightly while the men tried to press the rest of the flock in after me. More scared of the gruff gaucho than I was of the startled sheep, I did my best to cling on to it, but my heart soon gave way to its struggles; I let it slip free when the team looked away. My morale sank even lower when I was then given another, this time instructed to hang onto it by the neck. Desperate to let go of the poor writhing creature, as soon as another sheep was thrown into the truck, I released it and leapt over the side of the lorry.

The silver lining of the afternoon was that, just before the truck gate was closed, two little lambs somehow managed to bounce their way to freedom. Happily, attempts to round them up failed; I watched with a smile as they high-tailed it to happiness in the pasture - for another year at least!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Pack Trip...

It was planned with military precision, according to a lengthy list that looked older than I was: four columns of typewritten script spread across a fragile sheet of scrumpled, brown A4. It turns out a huge amount of paraphernalia is required for a three-day trip on horseback; preparing 'los pilcheros' (the pack horses) every day was quite a feat. Their saddles alone - multiple pads, two wooden crosses, two girths and a confusion of leather straps - weighed a ton. They were then loaded with cumbersome suitcase-shaped paniers, an assortment of bags and a heavy tarpaulin, all strapped tight with a complex knot system that continues to baffle me. It was a palava repeated at least twice daily.

For our first stop, we unsaddled the pack horses as usual, but relatively little of their load was actually used. The venue, a small copse by a narrow stream, is one we frequent on day trips, and so the 'kitchen' is always left well-stocked: wooden chopping boards piled up in the crook of a tree, bottles of oil and vinegar balanced on the thick branches and mugs hanging from the thin ones. In the evening however, the paniers were emptied and everything was in use. That afternoon, we had ascended to the spectacular scenery and brisk temperatures of higher ground, making camp in the shelter of the forest. Tents, mattresses and sleeping bags were dished out to the riders, tea and cake served, and blackened pots and pans prepared for that night's dinner.
To economise on space, Carol (pack-trip expert) and I fashioned beds out of saddles - the pack tarpaulin as a base, saddle pads for mattresses, numnahs for padding and saddles for pillows. As such, anticipating a cold night out in the open, I savoured the warmth of the fire for as long as possible. I only shuffled away from the flames once - a brief but worthwhile venture to survey the stars from the meadow: the Southern Cross rather than the North Star, an upside-down Orion's Belt and a glittery dusting of unknowns. Otherwise, I huddled close to the coals, first simmering an enormous pot of rice, and then lingering over the embers with 'la bota' (the wineskin). By the time I snuggled into my sleeping bag, I was wearing seven layers, two pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks, a hat, gloves and a scarf. It was cosy!

When I woke up the following morning, the sun was still low in the sky, a light dusting of frost on the ground, and a can of water was bubbling in the fire (tended by Luca, a Mendozan leather artist also working on the trip). We woke up slowly over cups of sugary tea, rounds of mate and crusts of bread, before starting to pack up. However, just before saddling up, one of the riders announced they had discovered a dead fox in the meadow. To my surprise, Luca's eyes lit up: "En serio...? I'll take the skin!" he said excitedly, darting out of the forest.

A bewildered crowd gathered around him while he inspected the animal: a young male curled up in a ball with no sign of illness. Luca dangled it upside down by its tail looking at it critically, before declaring, "I'll slip the fur off like it's a jumper". Lowering the fox to the ground, he dropped to his knees and snipped a cut in the back foot. Then, to the squirms of onlookers, he started to blow the fox up as if it was a balloon. Mouth to fur, he puffed energetically into the fox's foot, pumping the air through the length of its body with his spare hand and lamenting not having a bicycle pump to hand. At this point, I retreated to the forest and busied myself with saddles, paniers and ropes...

I returned periodically to see the fate of the fox. The first time, Luca was elbow-deep, loosening fur from flesh; the second, it was strung up from a tree, fur half-way over shoulders (as Luca promised, much like a jumper). The third time I ventured over, I almost trod on its four paws, which lay in a pile not far off from where Luca was removing the eyes. I squeaked involuntarily and made an about turn back to the horses. Too gruesome for me!

The rest of the ride passed without major incident. Dropping down into lower ground, we traversed the hills in warm sunshine, barbecued joints of meat under the shade of the trees, and collapsed on the grass next to our horses for a siesta. By the end of the trip, I was engrained with an aromatic mix of dust, smoke and horsey grime, my H&M jeans had two sizeable holes in each buttock, and I felt like I could sleep for 24 hours straight... I can't wait for the next one!

Heading out on the 21 December, this time without the expertise of pack-trip maestro Carol, it will certainly be a very different Christmas.