Saskia emailed The Long Riders' Guild to give us an update on her progress. She is having an extremely interesting and challenging time riding north through Argentina!
First and foremost: the horses.
mares are simply sweet. Momo, which I ride is nearly as high as Dakota which I
used to ride in France. Momo resembles a barrel and you can hardly feel withers.
She sometimes gets on my nerves when she dawdles so that I have to drive her
on. She is good at trot and comfortable in gallop which I can only
enjoy very rarely as Luna carrying the luggage must follow suit. Momo is very
cuddly and totally sweet. The saddle fits as if made to measure. She is bridled
with a hackamore allowing her to react to my slightest bridle movements, left,
right, backwards - no problem. She is not used to being tethered, and a long
rope makes her completely unhappy, as she gets into a panic when one leg gets
tangled up, instead of moving that leg back slowly.
Luna the white mare in charge of carrying my luggage is a clown. She emanates joie de vivre and is not afraid of anything, examines everything edible, and would jump obstacles for a handful of hay. As soon as we stop she looks around for a small blade of grass. At first the luggage intimidated her a lot but now no longer; it is a matter of course. She stands like a rock when I heave the 25 kilo chests onto her saddle. Hobbles are no problem for her. It looks as if she had none. When tied with long rope she runs about as if she were unleashed allowing the rope to play around her four feet. Her character is friendly and cuddly like Momo. These two are inseparable. When I fetch them from the paddock I only need to lead one of them with a rope, the other will follow. At noon I unload Luna and hobble her. She can graze perfectly. Momo runs about grazing with the rope hanging freely. She doesn’t walk far although the rope is not tied to anything."
In February Saskia was joined by a friend, Ernesto. The first horse they buy for him turns out to be lame, so they exchange him for an 8-year-old gelding called Repollito and continue on their way. Sadly, after three weeks, Ernesto has to leave the expedition.
" Now I have been travelling alone for two weeks, but now with three horses. And I've been having a hard time. I don't know if Ernesto took my guardian angel with him?
Due to some bad directions, I followed a trail which took me too far towards Chile and when I realised it, I cut straight towards the north. But the mountain hid more hills and mountains, and the valley I was seeking was far away. We climbed hills, always hoping to see the valley with car tracks, but always more hills, rocks, stones, vicious slopes, and then a forest hidden behind the mountain. It was so dense I was not sure we could get through. But to turn back? It would take hours to go back. We fought our way through the forest. Luna was very plucky with her packs in among all these branches. She knew exactly how wide she was, and knew too when she could push her way through and break the branches. What an incredible mare! And finally we emerged. But I still had no idea where I was. We stopped, I grabbed something to eat without really wanting it, put my ideas in order, thought about phrases regarding stress, and set off again towards the north.
We continued along the valley and the little stream. And then I saw sheep-droppings, and sheep-prints in the sand. This meant that civilisation was not very far away... and then in the distance I saw poplars! Poplars mean a house in this region! I cried with relief and joy, and poor Repollito gave a little jump and walked faster. A coral with horses and some people! I cried and laughed all at once.
A few days later I was told about a beautiful shortcut which would avoid the monotonous trail I was on.
When I arrived at Victorio's puesto, he offered to escort me to the puesto of his neighbour. But after a while he started giving me directions and left me alone in the middle of nowhere. 'Follow the fence as far as the gate, then turn towards the sun (west): you'll find a horse-trail which will lead you to a vehicular track.' When I reached the gate I followed the hoofprints, but they disappeared in the wet grass.
Suddenly Repollito stopped. I got off and pulled him to follow. In the beginning he refused, but then decided to trust me. What a mistake.. He sank in the water up to his stomach and couldn't get out. I took off his saddle, but that was no help. He simply could not get out. Hoping to encourage him to follow me, I left with the mares and he got up. To make him follow I was forced to hit him with a stick. It was horrible, and I was up to my thighs in the water. Finally he took off towards the mares, but then carried on back the way we had come. Totally soaked and dripping with water, I jumped on Momo and we followed the gelding. I tried another gate a little further on, but that valley was just as wet and Repollito didn't want to follow. He left - and I didn't know where he'd gone.
(To see the above photographs blown up, please visit www.thecourtot.com/argentina)
It was already 8 p.m., and at the end of the valley I found a fence and decided to stop for the night. I tethered the mares to the fence and found myself somewhere dry and protected from the wind. Without taking any pleasure in it I ate the last piece of chocolate. I felt very alone and rather lost.
The next morning everything around me was frozen, but thanks to my duvet I had slept well. I had to choose between carrying on and trying to find the wretched road and lose Repollito, or to turn back and find him. I chose to find my little rogue. By the fence where Victorio had left me, I found him - and I was obliged to walk for a while, as Luna (followed by Momo, who was running free) ran off with Repollito, very happy to see him again.
But I didn't know how to find Victorio's puesto again. The trail twisted its way through the forest, but because I had been with Victorio, I hadn't really been watching. I put my trust in the instinct of the Criollo horse, and Repollito led us without a moment's hestiation to the puesto.
The next morning I went on my way, rather disgusted and very tired. It was a very hot day (which at least meant my boots dried) and that evening I was refused hospitality for the first time on the trip. The following village, the next day, the same thing again, not even the police would help, and at 33 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) it was very tiring. Finally I was able to stay with the family of a Protestant vicar who preaches on horseback. It was a charming family and I was able to rest there for a few days. And at last it seems that here at Rio Pico my guardian angel has returned from his holiday.
Here in the south we know nothing about what's going on in the capital, but people are afraid, and the more populated an area is, the more I sense the poverty. When you have a problem feeding your sheep, three big horses are not always so easy to fit in."
2 April 2002
Saskia managed to dash off a quick email from Epuyen. She is well, and very pleased to be travelling with her friend Kaja. They spent two happy days with a German family who welcomed them warmly. Saskia says, "It was really bizarre, but wonderful, to eat plum cake and German cooking here in Patagonia!"
From Epuyen the two friends carried on towards Buenos Aires Chico, near El Maiten - "The town has a population of only 2000 and is well-known for its steam-trains. We stayed with a very poor family, so we went to the village to buy some food, as their 10 goats (their only wealth) had eaten the remaining pasture. These people share so generously what little they have."
On the Benetton Estancia they were "among the angels" - Saskia and Kaja were given two bedrooms with real beds, hot showers, and even the use of a washing machine. They left reluctantly, and followed a track along a stream to its source. "Nature was yellow, orange, red and green - it seems so strange to celebrate Easter in autumn!"
As if to demonstrate the extreme contrasts of life on the road, the two women were soon living rough again. "We just had time to unsaddle the horses and tether them in a lovely bit of pasture before having a bath in the icy waters of the stream. It was so cold that it really hurt to wash one's hair."
Saskia and Kaja are now heading north through the Lanin National Park.
9 April 2002
The Long Riders' Guild has had several emails from Saskia in the last few days. The most recent is dated 9th April.
"We arrived at the bridge over the Limay river, which separates the provinces of Rio Negro and Neuquen. The police let us through, but the lorry-drivers hurtled like lunatics over the bridge, in spite of the police. We waited until the road was clear, then rode across the middle of the bridge so we could be seen from far off. One sensible car driver followed us at a suitable distance to protect our backs.
We were on the point of paying for our accommodation that night when a gang of blokes turned up. They were having a stag party for a local bachelor who was getting married two days later, and invited us along. Don't tell me that travelling alone is difficult for women!
The next day we were staggered to find Momo limping badly - she could hardly put her hind foot on the ground. She had been pierced by a horrible piece of wire in the night. It was a deep and ugly wound. We washed it in the stream and disinfected it."
Saskia tells The Long Riders' Guild that she was bombarded with conflicting advice by the locals, who said it would be one or two months before poor Momo could go on. But she gave the horse an injection of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory serum.
"While waiting and hoping, we decided to look for another horse and this made me realise how good our horses were, and that I had got them for a good price! Some people wanting to sell us one of their horses were ready to do a straight swap for Momo after I had told them all about her. And this was not just salesmanship, I am really crazy about my horses! I do not want to leave them with any old person, I am incredibly attached to that little witch!
"Three nice English people drove me 300 yards across the border into Chile. I turned round and got a lift with a nice family who drove me back into Argentina - so now I have another three months' visa for Argentina.
Tomorrow we set off again - Momo is much better, and if necessary we can walk for a while and load Repollito. It will be good for us after all the rest we've had. Please cross your fingers that winter tarries a while and that we can make the most of a few weeks of beautiful autumn!"
15 April 2002
The Long Riders' Guild has just received another email from Saskia.
"The next day when we wanted to set out Momo was very lame, and travelling with her was out of the question. Our host was so weird, I didn't trust him and I just wanted to get away. While we saddled up he kept badgering me, wanting to exchange Momo for another mare. But it wouldn't have mattered how much money he offered: if I have to leave Momo I want to be sure she's in safe hands. We finally got away, and had the shortest journey of the trip - 1 kilometre back to the kind Jones family.
A local farrier shod Luna and Repollito - it was the first time I had to pay a farrier during the journey, but he was well worth the money. He checked Momo and gave me hope that she would recover. After telephoning Dom (in my view the best vet in France) I decided to carry on without her. I ran around the streets of Bariloche weeping in my grief.
After much searching we found another horse, and will trailer all the animals to Lago Hermoso, which will save several days on the roads and we'll be able to ride in Lanin Park.
Nino is in love with Momo and bought her this morning. I know she is in good hands, he will take care of her. I would have let him have her for nothing. Next spring she'll go to a stallion, and Nino's four children will spoil her rotten. Luna and Repollito whinnied when Momo walked away, limping. Kaja and I hugged each other tightly. It's crazy, how we got so attached to each other. Goodbye, charming little witch.
We went to a Rodeo at Bariloche and they announced over the loudspeaker, 'These are two girls who rode 2300 kilometres to come to Bariloche!!"
24th April 2002
Saskia emailed The Long Riders' Guild to tell us how difficult it is to buy a horse in Argentina. "The employee doesn't know how to do it, because nobody is in charge of the paperwork - only us, the stupid 'gringos'... I had to show him a Bill of Sale so that he could copy the text. Ridiculous....
Unfortunately a tiny sore on Cona's back" (the horse Saskia's friend Kaja is riding) becomes an enormous saddle-sore overnight, so there is no question of saddling her. We tack up the other two and I drag - literally - Cona behind me. She hung back so badly, even with Kaja driving her from behind, that in the end I had to tie her to the ring on my saddle.
But Luna, my little white mare, is amazing - she is never tired, and even at the end of a long day she has the energy to trot excitedly when she sees another horse on the horizon. She is a brilliant pack horse, sometimes even jumping a fallen tree-trunk when she knows that she can't get through with her panniers where a ridden horse can.
Kaja has decided to go home, as it is not worth finding another horse for the short time which she has left. The rain and the cold we have had to endure didn't exactly give her much incentive to stay, either. So I'll carry on alone with Luna, Repollito and Tito, the stray dog we picked up recently."
4th May 2002
Another email has just come into The Long Riders' Guild from Saskia.
"I am travelling alone again, and this time I am enjoying myself - making the most of being able to decide what I want to do without consulting anyone else.
I arrived at a hut where I was supposed to 'negotiate' with two hunters who have 'rented' the forest for ten days. It cost them a fortune, plus a guide, plus a fee to pay for each animal they kill. (Strange sort of pleasure, as they hardly ever eat them.) I don't know how they will react to the arrival of a horsewoman who is liable to drive all the game away with the noise of the panniers! Luckily, they invite me to stay in the hut and even have dinner with them.
The following evening I stayed in another hut. Although it had been cleaned only a month ago, it was full of rats. Rats here transmit a virus which is fatal in 40% of cases, but I couldn't face putting up the tent in the freezing rain. Knowing that Tito would chase the rats away, I slept like a log.
The next day we struggled through the snow until Luna followed the dog's example and rolled in the snow. Luckily the pack didn't slip, but I jumped off Repollito and yelled at Luna to get up. This scared Repollito, and then I couldn't get back on because my poncho was making so much noise in the wind! He even refused to be led. An accident here would have been fatal, because nobody would come looking for me for seven days. In the end, I tie myself up like a parcel with the lead-rope - no more noise! I am able to remount.
That night I arrived at the Park Keeper's house - he is absent as this is out of season. My choice was to put up the tent in the rain, or sleep on the porch. Or to become a house-breaker and sleep in a bed! This last was too tempting, as an unfastened window allowed me to enter the house. I lit the fire to heat some water for a shower. The next morning I cleaned away all traces of my visit and shut the little window carefully. Thank you, Mr. Absent.
I had lunch at Don Aila's house. Seven brothers and sisters had lived there, of which only two remained, aged 86 and 97. They had never left the area, and could neither read nor write, but lived in quasi-autonomy here at the end of the world, far from any road.
Our next obstacle was a lake, narrow enough for the horses to swim across. Only the horses, though! The gear, the dog and I had a little rowing boat. We took Luna first, who swam so fast she overtook the boat and started towing it. Back for Repollito, who did the same thing. Both horses were shivering violently with the code, and I saddled up in record time. An officious policeman chose that moment to ask for my passport!"
10 May 2002
Saskia sent The Long Riders' Guild a very reassuring email.
"When the doctor confirmed that my tiredness and high temperature were not caused by the Hanta Virus caught from the rats, I felt enormously relieved. This virus is no joke, and I did not fancy the idea of dying just yet.
I am staying at the estancia Los Helechos - hot showers, soft linen, napkins on the table....
After travelling in rain, wind, snow and cold with a temperature of 100 degrees, my body had sent me a warning message: ' That's enough! Have a rest!' So I spent a few days relaxing and being spoilt, completely free of any concerns as the horses were in a fabulous pasture.'
21 May 2002
Another email has come in from Saskia.
'To avoid a detour of 100 kilometers, I cut across the mountain between Estancia Los Helechos and Estancia Mamuil Malal. They had been expecting me there for several weeks - and I was back in luxury with a real bed and a hot shower.
After a couple of days' rest I continued towards the north. The river was running so high, however, and the current was so strong that I had to make a detour of 12 kilometers. The snow took over from the rain, and as we climbed we were riding on a thick carpet of snow. The poor horses had problems, as the snow got stuck in their shoes, and they stumbled and slipped. I tethered them close to the mountain refuge where they struggled to find a few blades of grass under the snow. I had dinner by candlelight.
At nightfall, the temperature plummeted even further under a clear sky, and even indoors I woke to find ice on my duvet. Outside everything was white with snow and I could barely see more than 20 yards.
I decided not to take any more risks and to respect the Cordillera. I have decided to stop my journey here, because the snow is barring my route. The Cordillera of the Andes in snow is dangerous, all the more so for someone travelling alone, and I have no desire to join the gauchos who went out to save their livestock and found death instead. I have enough time and money, so I shall put the horses in a trailer for 1000 kilometers (625 miles) and find better weather further north. I still have to organize paperwork and vaccinations before I can enjoy another month on my Repolitto's back, followed by Luna."