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Walks In Caithness 

A Taste Of Argentina
Mary Legg

I was finally on my way. A hug from my daughter Beth to the background sounds of Paul Wellor and with a last minute adjustment of my rucsacs bound to me back and front like a straightjacket, I balanced my way down three flights of stairs on to Meadow walk where I joined the rush of students on their way to George square and headed for the shuttle bus to Edinburgh airport.

My journey had started several months ago when my eye caught an article seeking applicants who were over fifty.  Having spent the last couple of years getting used to the jokes about saga holidays and smart cards it seemed that at last being over the half century could open doors I`d thought closed off long ago.

The article mentioned that there were millennium grants available for volunteers who would be willing to take part in environmental projects across the world. The scheme was run by a charity called Earthwatch whose role it is to support scientific, environmental projects and supply volunteers to these projects.  I filled in the forms, sought references, posted them off and put the whole thing to the back of my mind occasionally consoling myself with the probability of not getting on to the scheme with the thought that I had outgrown backpacking and that I would only have panic attacks at having to navigate myself around the airports of the world.

Two months on the Earthwatch envelope arrived.  It felt heavy (probably just promotional material?) but there was a growing flicker of excitement as I opened it and read “ we are delighted to inform you you have been successful”.  I was going to Argentina as a volunteer on a research project into the carnivores of the country.

The following couple of months were spent reading anything and everything to do with Argentina Bedtime reading became the Lonely planet guide and I spent my time gardening with a pair of earphones on listening in to Spanish language cassettes borrowed from the library.  I`m ashamed to say that despite visiting the island of Mallorca several times my understanding of Spanish only went a little beyond counting to three and asking for “a white coffee please”.


It was to take me a day and a half to get there. A business flight to Frankfurt followed by an overnight haul to Buenos Aires. I kept a look out for another member of the team; Julian from Reading whom I would recognise from the Earthwatch t-shirt, a daypack like my own and a bald head. Its surprising the number of bald headed men there are carrying day packs flying to BA and I was beginning to feel a little uneasy about staring at them all so I only met up with Julian on my way through customs at Buenos Aires.

I was glad of the timing of our meeting though. Buenos Aires had grown into a bit of a monster for me.  The Lonely Planet warned of various methods of thieving employed on the streets, I`d been sent a web publication detailing various other horrors that might take place if I wandered into the wrong quarters of the city and the airport tannoy repeatedly advised that only licensed taxis should be used. The city was huge and to my country bumkin`s mind full of dangers.

Julian from Reading near london was much more street- wise and a long taxi ride saw us safe to our hotel, the Howard Johnstone.

It was a tall narrow hotel slotted into a tall, narrow street. It seemed to work vertically and impersonally everything being done by lifts. However, it was comfortable and clean and had a room phone.  I called George who sounded so close that I was lured into playing a rather mean joke on him saying I`d chickened out of the whole thing and that I was still in Edinburgh and would be heading north the next day.  He was stuck for words.

Julian and I went off for our first Argentine meal of carne and an exploration of the area. Despite there being newspaper kiosks everywhere we had a great deal of trouble finding postcards anywhere amongst the soft porn magazines and nic nacs being sold on the street.

We had a five thirty start the following morning to take the internal flight to Bahia Blanca so went back to our rooms for an early night.

BA has two airports one for International flights the other for domestic and regional flights. For us to get to Bahia Blanca by bus would take about 10 hours, by plane it was 1.5 hours. The airport Aeroparque had been modernised and was efficient.  Security was tight but didn`t appear to be causing any delays.  We boarded in drizzly weather at a temperature of 15/16`C.

We had been on the flight for about an hour when we were informed that due to adverse weather conditions to the south we couldn`t land and would have to return to BA. And go by a later flight.  This meant having to spend another day in the capital city and for this we were joined by Mark from California who was the third member of the team of volunteers..


Buenos Airies is like a stylish European lady who has seen better times.  There was a general air of decay and delapidation to the city, despite its share of plazas and important buildings. It sports the widest street in the world and road crossing can be exciting.  The number of deaths for pedestrians in BA reached 423 people in 1997. Whilst there are subways to use to get under the roads these were not as straight forward as would appear and contained offshoots and shopping areas. It was difficult to know if you had crossed the road or were actually just a hundred or so metres down on the same side.

Driving is also a skilled art and not something to be tackled by the faint hearted.  They don`t do lanes preferring to dodge in and out and hand brakes are left off during parking allowing neighbouring cars to nudge their way in.

I developed limpet dependence towards the two street wise men who were much happier in this urban sprawl and had an understanding of the block layout of the streets. We did see some of the sights such as the Rosa Casada from which Eva Peron spoke to her idolising public. Another of the squares had part of its garden set aside as a dog nursery and was full of all shapes and sizes of circulating animals.  These were the dogs that would later be taken out by the hired dog walkers.  The wealthier portensos (people from BA) hire people to exercise their dogs and the number of dogs being led by a single walker is regarded as an indicator of the cities prosperity at the time. It seems that at the moment there has been something of a slump in demand.

Also noticeable was the amount of begging and street poverty in the city. Over two million people lived in shanty or “misery towns” and thirteen million in housing classed as inadequate. Unlike those sleeping rough in the UK, who are often young people, in BA they were family groups of mothers, grandmothers and babies, many were refugees who could find no work in a city where unemployment reached 20%.At the road junctions in and out of the cars weaved amputees begging and selling flowers who from their ages could have been war veterans from the Falklands. It appears that on their return from fighting for their country there was no support or pensions for those who had fought and been injured in the Malvinos.

Despite all this or perhaps partly because of it the city was vibrant and very much alive.

On our second attempt to get south to Bahia Blanca we were more successfull and were met by two of the biologists Claudia and Estela.  Whilst waiting for the bus I was delighted to see my first burrowing owl a bird I would encounter later in the Sierra de Ventana.

We were now going to the site of the study area which was Tournquist Provincial Park. This 6,700 hectare park had been donated to the province by a banking family. It rose to the height of 1136 metres in the Cerro De Ventana. (Ventana is Spanish for window )and there was a hole in the rocky summit from which the range derived its name.

Our journey from the airport took place in the dark but an upside down moon gave enough light to make out an area of very flat land and it was only when we neared the Sierras that it was possible to distinguish the shape of hillsides and valleys.

We stayed that night in the park H.Q., basic but sufficient, and got to know the team we were to be working with for the next 10 days.  After a good nights sleep I had a wander around the parks grounds.  There were a variety of ornamental shrubs and trees eucalyptus, tamarisc, lilac and alleppo pine and several bright and noisy birds including the hornera the national bird which makes its nest in a mud structure hence the name oven bird.  Before I came out I`d done some research into the species of birds I would be likely to see. The field guide didn`t quite prepare me for the bright colours and calls I encountered.

The morning progressed with a lecture on the aims of the research and the background to the site.  Carnovores are understudied in Argentina and this mountain area had remained as one of the unaltered habitats of the pampas region. Most of the remaining lower ground was under agriculture.  Part of the research area was grazed by herds of feral horses and part not and this also gave an added factor to the study.  We were to be looking at two species in particular the Geoffroy`s cat and the pampas fox, the weasel like grisson and the hog nosed skunk. Two foxes had radio collars on them and we would be tracking them. It had proved to be really difficult to trap a cat so this was also an aim.

After lunch we headed out to the camp site and erected our tents within a grove of pine and eucalyptus trees.  This gave a little shelter in an area that had a reputation for strong winds. There was a seasonal stream running about half a km. from the tents. The afternoon was spent getting to know the site. The hills were very like Scotland in many ways and rose up as a single ridge above the surrounding undulating ground.  They reminded me of the Ochil hills of my childhood because of their steep faces and rocky outcrops.  We were going to be working in the lower ground which was rough and rocky and crossed by ridges of metamorphic rocks. There were small herds of horses dotted around and they kept the vegetation low so it made interesting walking.  There was a profusion of spring flowers dominated by viola, verbena and anemone but also erica like shrubs.  Interspersed with this were cacti that would flower in the heat of the summer.  That evening we checked and prepared traps for the following day. I went to sleep with a sound similar to wind chimes which turned out to be frogs and awoke to the sound of nesting kiskadees in the tree above the tent having twisted and rolled full circle during the night.

We were kept busy with the various tasks but unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worst and the mist and torrential rain rolled in and stayed with us for three full days.  It meant we couldn`t put out traps so instead we did a night walk with the radio tracker.  We managed to pick up the fox known as Zorro negra and took readings to help plot its location.  The strangest thing during the night walk was picking up the reflections of the torchlight in the horses eyes.  The animals looked gaunt and eerie as if belonging to another world.

The weather continued to be wet, windy and cold and I was thankful I`d squeezed my last minute buy - a woolly hat - into my overstuffed rucsack.  It turned out that it was the wettest spring they`d had in a long time.

The morning of yet another rainy day was spent on great engineering works and drainage schemes around the tents to keep the water from reaching above the level of the ground sheets. By now we were camped on a slope of running water and the sound of the nearby stream had become a roar.

I was down to my one set of dry clothes.  I`d decided that my trip to South America was going to be a chance for me to change from being a half empty glass person to the owner of a half full one.  So when I was told that the climate would be a bit like Madrid in spring I optimistically believed it and packed accordingly not thinking it would end up like an October day in Fort William.  I`d also honed everything down to the minimum as I wanted to carry as little as possible when I travelled after the project was over. So I was a bit short on the woollies and had to resort to the ploys I used when working in Outward Bound i.e. keeping one set of dry clothes for the night and putting the damp socks on top and trousers under my hips. By the morning they were dried out and could be used again.

Whilst this all sounds like a bit hard going I was in good spirits exploring the reserve in the rain in free time discovering yet more striking birds.  I`d seen two different types of woodpeckers. Crimson flycatchers, mocking birds and fork tailed fly catchers. Over head caranchas and buzzard Eagle.  The herds of horses were also good to watch.  The mares had just foaled and the females were receptive to the stallions so there was this constant rounding up by the lead stallions and attempts to steal the mares by younger males. The majority of the horses were in good condition but it was thought that they were about to reach the carrying capacity of the land. Their numbers had soared and there was no cull employed.  We came across several carcasses which were soon reduced to bones by foxes and birds. This availability of carrion probably made it harder for us to trap carnivores as there was already a supply of food there. The results of the survey work should help managers of reserves plan the running of their estates.

We were due to have a free day in the middle of the project so while it was still raining we headed back to the park centre to get cleaned up a bit. We had a trip into the local village which was a custom built tourist centre that was deserted at this time of the season, but found a coffee shop and spoiled ourselves with an Argentinian form of black forest gateau.  Looking out of the window I saw my first humming bird surprisingly in pouring rain.

By the following day the rains had cleared and we were able to go back into the field. The biologists team had changed.  Claudia had gone off to see her family and Mauro the project leader was back after a conference in London.

The biologists or gecm team were very friendly and looked after us well.  They were young and enthusiastic about their work and were involved in surveys in various parts of the country.  They were looking at cats including Andean, jaguar and Geoffroy`s.  The survey we were helping with was probably the most suitable for volunteers as it was labour intensive, and the habitat not too extreme.

We still had to prepare and layout small mammal traps and carry out prey counts.  This last one we did on a sunny day.  It involved a lot of walking over rugged ground as we counted hares and birds.  I saw my first armadillo ambling through some rushy ground.  We came across some viscatcherea which are the colonial homes of small burrowing animals.  In association with them live burrowing owls and Swallows both of which use the burrows for their nests.

Our leader for this work was Diego who had a grasp of English and we usually managed to communicate.  He loved the Sierras and was very patriotic.  Much of the time he would sing tangos as we were walking, some very melancholic and dramatic.  Part of their programme in the north was to go to the schools to try to educate the children about their environment and also to speak to the village people but as he said it was difficult to persuade a farmer who had only a few llamas not to shoot jaguars when they killed all he had and there was no compensation for his loss from the government.  Environmental projects were well down the list of priorities particularly when there was no money to pay for pensions, healthcare and education.  The support they received from Earthwatch was vital to keep the project going.

I wished my Spanish had been better as there was a lot we couldn`t really discuss properly. Possibly there were subjects too emotive like the Falklands war or the Dirty Wars of the 80s when thousands were made to “disappear” by the then military government.  These subjects were too raw and recent to be broached particularly in poor Spanish.  There is much despair about the country and its run of corrupt governments.

In all this while I haven`t mentioned the eating arrangements.  We all ate in a communal tent.  We helped with the preparation and washing up but the cooking was carried out by the team.  The food was excellent and plentiful.  Some of the specialities were empanadas which were pastry stuffed with meat or cheese and onions, dulche con leche a sweet caramel spread to which I became addicted (it was a bit like condensed milk) and other Italian style food. Amazing what could be cooked over an outdoor gas cooker.

A ritual to which we were introduced was that of the mate tea ceremony.  Mate is made from a herb related to holly that is grown in Uruguay. It was used in colonial times on the plantations of the Jesuit missionaries and adopted by Europeans.  It has regained popularity this century and Argentinians consume 4 times more mate than coffee.

The ritual aspect of the preparation and communal consumption of the drink is probably as important as the herb itself which can initially taste bitter.  It is caffeine free, good for digestion and has a calming effect.

The mate is drunk from a gourd which could be simply made from wood or ornate silver using a silver straw or bombillas.  The drink is passed around clockwise and each person drinks the gourd dry and passes it back to the cebador (server).   It is bad etiquette to hold on to the gourd for too long or to wipe the bombillas when you return them.

We took mate at break time in between periods of work and it became a pleasant ritual something to be shared that seemed to help team spirit.  I was to become familiar with the tools of the mate ceremony - in buses, offices and hostels -- people carrying flasks of hot water and gourds.

I had a couple of hours slack time to climb the ridge behind the camp.  It was a beautiful morning and the cloud was high above the tops.  I worked my way up beside a stream with tyrants and a group of noisy caracaras.  A small group of horses kept an eye on me but there were far fewer here than on the lower ground.  Straggling between the rocks were groups of yellow and pink oxalis and white lilies.  I scrambled up to the top and gazed far over the pampas disturbed only by a mountain wren.the plains seemed to go on for ever.

Several times over the past few days I`d had to take stock and remind myself that this was South America and again up here in the hills it was like Scotland in many ways.

Our time on the project was drawing to a close and although we hadn`t managed to catch a cat we had seen foxes, skunk and armadillos.  A lot of survey work had been completed and new field skills acquired.  On top of that we had made friends with a great team of people.

On our final night spent back at base we were treated to a genuine Argentinian asado; meat and special sausages cooked over a wood fire followed by a rich chocolate cake and washed down by Quilmes beers and red wine.

The day we left Tornquist and headed for Bahia Blanca was election day.  A full mini bus took us over flat and monotonous ground to the small city and port where Estela lived.

On election day every one must vote and on the night before bars and restaurants are closed and there is no sale of alcohol.   Diego and Estela had little faith in the procedure or hope in the outcome.  Just another chance for someone else corrupt to be given power.



The city had a small town feel to it and it served as an agricultural service centre and port. There is also a strong military presence here and it has the notoriety of being the site to which the Naval Mechanics School (a torture centre during the Proceso), was moved.  We went to the main plaza where there was a small artisan market and crowds of families and there managed to lose Mark.  A very short time before our taxi to the airport he returned but by this time Julian had disappeared on the quest to find him. He did eventually turn up and we made it to the airport in plenty time as the plane was delayed.

One more night in Buenos Aires and as a head cold had set in I slept well despite the sound of fire crackers and loud speakers in the streets on election night.

With the project over I still had two weeks to explore other parts of this vast country.  By now our number was down to two.  Julian had to return to his work in Reading and had only time for a couple of days in the ctiy which he was going to spend in looking around the shops for leather goods to take back as gifts.  I`d gone over my travel plans with Mauro and the others and originally I wanted to go North and then South along the Andes to the Bariloche area and then east across Patagonia to the Valdes Peninsula where there was wonderful wildlife; killer and Rights whales, sealions and penguins and then back to BA.  This was a rather ambitious plan and would result in my spending many hours in buses with little time to walk and explore so I decided I would play it by ear and see how things turned out in the north.  The south was also much more touristy and I was hoping to avoid that particularly as I was carrying clothes suited to the outdoors with very little in the way of smart outfits.  I also have to confess to being a bit of a sun worshipper so the thought of soaking in some heat was appealing.  So the new plan was that Mark and I were going to head north to the sub tropics and meet up with Mauro again to see a private reserve that was being set up in Jujuye province.  It involved another flight, this time landing in a thunder and lightening storm so there was a palpable feeing of relief from the passengers when we landed.

A shuttle bus took us to San Salvador de Jujuye (pronounced hugh-hugh-ee) an hour`s journey in the dusk.  The north of Argentina is poor and unemployment high.  We could just make out the shanties crushed onto the floodplain of the Rio Grande as we crossed the San Martin bridge on the approach to the city.

Bus stations are rarely set in the most palatial parts of town and at night can attract the “unfortunates” of society. This place was reminiscent of Dante`s Inferno. The situation was aggravated by our tiredeness, the darkness, our poor grasp of the language and a general fear of the unknown.  I`m sure .........continue to Final Part