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.

No comments:

Post a Comment