Crossing the border (Day 5)
It was still dark when I went to look for the horses. Through the spiny shrubs I could make out Morro's light coat against the darker vegetation. He was fast asleep and jumped when I stroked his neck. I coaxed and pushed on his rump but he wouldn't move for me. Then I caught sight of Grano, called him and he came over so we set off together with the other three horses following. As we got back to camp, they caught sight of Ciro and carried on down the path. Ciro had to dash after them with the halters to bring them back.
We set off at 7:15. As we gained in altitude, the bamboo groves gave way to deciduous lenga (Nothofagus pumilio) and the air temperature cooled. We reached the border control near Paso Vuriloche two hours later. The Chilean police were charming as always but told us we would have to go to Argentina to be granted the full 90 day visas on re-entry. The walk would take 3h30 there and 4h back and the horses couldn't pass without sanitary permits. We groaned.
The Chilean border post, until a few years ago, it was in the shack on the left
Lenga (Nothofagus pumilio)
While we were putting our walking shoes on, an officer asked Ciro for his ID card. Ciro shouted over "I'm coming with you". He's a fast walker but it seemed a bit pointless, "with the horses" he added. Apparently the boss had taken pity on the 'white-haired old man' (Franco!) and was allowing the horses through.
We unloaded Gringa, she was to have the day off. Glad to be relieved of the cargo, she wasn't so keen on being left behind and followed us as we set off across 'no-man's-land'. When she refused to go back, Ciro tied her to a tree. The first section was a marsh and the horses sunk down below their knees. Morro and Estrella hated it, they must have heard the same stories we have about horses disappearing into Argentinian bogs. Remarkably Grano was the only one to stay calm and Franco rode him across.
Gringa following at a distance
No man’s land heading towards Argentina, ahead is the terrible marsh
Once back in the woods, we trotted all the way down (it took two hours) until we reached a road sign announcing the Argentinian border post 1km ahead at Pampa Linda. Ciro and the horses hid in the bushes. Ciro was gleeful, he loved the idea of being an outlaw evading the police in 'no-man's-land'. Franco and I continued on foot and were surprised to pass a hotel, restaurant, the forestry service office and several tourism ventures before reaching the Argentinian border control. The gendarme was abrupt and officious but agreed to sign us in and out with two strikes of his stamp. In complete contrast, once business was done he was friendly and chatty. He asked us what El Tronador looked like from the other side and we did our best to describe.
The hotel at Pampa Linda
Ciro was so well hidden, we nearly missed him on our way back. Once mounted we trotted all the way back up to Chile, stopping just long enough for a photo.
Franco, Grano, Ciro and Morro in front of El Tronador
Half way across the marsh, Gringa whinnied and our horses replied. They were pleased to be reunited and all came together in a star to rub noses, even Estrella, who doesn't usually do emotions. Back at the Chilean border post, we were signed in for ninety days. "You trotted all the way?" The officer asked Ciro, visibly impressed.
Franco walking a tired Grano across the marsh on the way back
Outside the handsome police horses were cavorting around, excited to have new play mates. We were very grateful Ciro had agreed to come with us with the horses, it had saved us a long strenuous walk.
Back down at the refuge, we drank 'mate' (a stimulating herb drunk through a metal straw) and Ciro reminisced about a journey he made to this valley twenty years ago with his two sons to buy 80 sheep for the Cochamó meat market. The abattoir has since been shut down, after a scandal where someone was selling diseased meat into the food chain.
I had been musing about horse memory for sometime. Does Estrella remember the route or is she just very good at reading the ground? Early that morning, Ciro had taken a course which involved crossing a ditch (and, much to Estrella's disgust, getting your hooves dirty). Instead of following the other horses, she'd headed north, parallel to the ditch until we reached a log bridge. It only came into sight at the last minute but somehow, she had known it was there, and I can only speculate that she remembered it from the last time she came. Ciro confirmed that this was two years ago.
In the middle of the night we were awaken by the earth shaking, one of the horses was grazing nearby. The fog had come down outside the tent and it was pitch black, My last thought as I fell asleep again was whether a horse's night vision was good enough to avoid trampling the tent.
Tronador at dusk