Thursday, 20 November 2014

Emergency food supplies, a treacherous journey and a looming test of survival skills

I sat in the back next to the barrel-bellied puppy we had plucked from the municipal pound that morning. With floppy legs, a droopy tail, downy tufts of black fur and a distinctly doggy pong, she was ungainly but endearing, and within five minutes, had wriggled onto my lap, where she stayed for the duration of the three-hour drive. We were heading to an isolated outpost high in the steppes of Parque Nahuel Huapi known as Las Mellizas (The Twins), so called because of the two lakes just behind it, one leading to the Pacific and the other to the Atlantic. José, the gaucho living there, had phoned to advise he was knee-deep in snow and running low on food over a week ago, but treacherous conditions meant reaching him was impossible. Now on his last ration of potatos, we couldn't delay any longer.

To make the trip, we recruited part-time photographer Paulo Sanchez and his smooth-cruising Land Rover Discovery called Matilda, which we stacked with food crates, bales of hay, rolls of wire (to reinforce the buildings), a chainsaw (for firewood) and the puppy (for company).

The journey began in the foothills of the park on a dirt track with small plots of fenced off land to one side - a few huts, a handful of animals and locals that waved in greeting as we passed, one round-faced with a thick neck and just two front teeth, another gruff and crinkled with scraggly grey hair. As we left them behind, the road soon deteriorated to a vaguely distinguishable trail and the wilderness of the steppes took over. Paulo pulled up to fasten a Go-Pro to the windscreen, put on a CD of Millennium Classics and opened a family-size bag of biscuits. We were soon engulfed in the expansive hillside: earthy multicolours of light lime greens, fading beiges and turquoise tints; curvy, colourful rock formations that swelled out of the hillsides and sharp, jagged edges that protruded from sandy dunes; long grasses peppered with dandelions and half-submerged swamps. Paulo expertly traversed terrain I would have thought impassable: crumbling tracks eroded to steep diagonals, sinking, water-laden marshes and crevasse-like dips. Only once did he pull up to assess the obstacle ahead - a particularly fast-flowing river, bulging at its banks with the snow melt. However, he only hesitated for a moment, before plunging onwards. Water sloshing up at the windows, we cruised through the currents.

Around lunchtime, we arrived at Las Mellizas, a grassy clearing with just four small huts (only one of which is in use) and a wooden coral. Set back from a wide, shallow stream and surrounded by hills, it blended easily into the steppes, except for the two horses that were galloping up and down the wire fence. As we trundled through the gate, José came out to meet us. I don't know if it was because I expected someone gruff, hardened and slightly wild, but José surprised me. Slim with dark skin and a mop of black hair protruding from under his boina, he was wearing boots, baggy jeans and a blue jacket - not much given the biting mountain air. He smiled warmly, revealing a diagonally chipped front tooth, and invited us in to the main hut.

Stark and simple, with splodges of cement squashed into any cracks in the brickwork, the hut had a distinctly makeshift feel. An enormous open fireplace stretched almost the length of one wall, a stack of firewood piled up to one side and the mantelpiece scattered with an assortment of necessities - a bar of soap, a candle, a battery and jump leads, a knife sharpening stone, a fishing line and float wrapped around a 7Up bottle... A sports bag hung from a horseshoe above the firewood, the only visible personal belonging other than the radio, which was balanced in a plastic crate nailed to the wall, and the jackets hanging next to it. The bed, narrow with two threadbare blankets, flanked one wall, opposite a dining table and a large rectangular window looking out across the steppes towards the stream. Three handmade, knee-height stools were arranged in the centre of the room around a black, wood-fire oven with two big metal teapots on top, the chimney passing through a rough-hewn hole in the roof.

We unloaded the car and introduced the puppy to his new stomping ground, before a round of yerba mate was prepared and an enormous slab of meat rolled into a pan, doused with salt and put in the oven. As a vegetarian who feels the cold and works in the arts, I could not have felt more of a city softie next to these hardened Patagonians. While I resembled the Michelin Man, barely able to walk for layers of clothes, they rolled up their sleeves and took off their hats. The food seemed to take an age to cook and, while the Patagonians sucked on mate, I had to keep sneaking to the car to raid the family pack of biscuits. Then, while I nibbled on a slightly soggy spinach empanada, they sliced meat off enormous juicy joints straight into their mouths, the ferociously sharp blade of their knife flicking dangerously close to their tongues. The puppy on the other hand, rapidly adapted to his new surroundings; showing no sign of feeling the cold, he gnawed happily on the discarded bones.

José had arrived at Las Mellizas few weeks ago, charged with taking care of the land and ensuring no-one enters. The snow had at one point reached his horse's girth and, that morning, he had eaten his last ration of boiled potatoes. Even so, he had learnt the lay of the surrounding land, restored the hut in which he was living, and made a start on the others. Now with fresh supplies, he is to stay until December, when he has four days off to visit his daughter on her birthday. Over dessert (fruit), it was proposed that, in his absence, 'la gringita' (myself) could take charge. To me, the suggestion seemed so farcical I assumed it was a joke. When I realised that it was a serious proposal, I had to swallow my shock and nod enthusiastically, hunching over my mandarin to hide my horror. While not one to shy away from an adventure, I seriously doubt my survival skills would stand up to four days in arctic isolation, let alone my ability to 'take care of the land' and 'guard against trespassers'.

I have since discovered that Carol, my host, once spent 10 days living at Las Mellizas with her 20-day-old daughter. As such, should the opportunity arise, I will have a crack (albeit armed with a four-day supply of spinach empanadas and red wine). Needless to say, I have been watching recent asados and how to make a good fire with studied interest!


  1. I'm sure you could handle it! As long as the snow stays away.

  2. That would certainly be an adventure Lottie!
    Jackie x