Saturday, April 16, 2016

Five days in Coronel Suarez, Argentina

Planning a big trip is fun. Where will we go? Do we speak the language? How much will it cost? My wife Jo and I decide it's time to visit South America. We have never been together to the continent. I had been to Brazil thirty years earlier to attend a wildlife conference. But that’s another story.

It took us no time at all to decide that Brazil was not an option. The visa requirements are ridiculous. They wanted three months of recent bank accounts. They even wanted Visa records. They almost wanted my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Forget it. Next on the list, Argentina. We had heard about the Iguazu falls as a must-see destination and would visit at the end of our trip. Jo starts to work on her Spanish. CDs’, dictionaries, even a Harry Potter book.

As we chatted about this and that with dear friends Trudy and Leo about the trip she said, “You must go the Coronel Suarez. We have been there twice. It’s great. Maria Luz, mother of our friend who studied here and stayed with us would welcome you.”

Coronel Suarez? Not in any travel book. No reference in Lonely Planet. Check Google. There it is. Contact Maria. She writes: Any friend of Trudy is a friend of mine. Come and stay with me. You will be welcome.

In Puerto Madryn, where I left you, we board a late night bus. After breakfast and a five-hour wait we board another bus in Bahia Blanca, destination Coronel Suarez. Our first daylight trip through the famed pampas is a surprise. We see vast acres (hectares) of crops. Sunflowers in bloom, huge fields of wheat, equally large green fields of soya beans. None ready to harvest. After all it is early February, six weeks or so before that busy time.

A couple of small ponds where flamingos swing their heads back and forth as they sift for food. Two majestic black-necked swans glide across the surface of another pond. Raptors glide and wheel across the sky, too far away for me to identify. Every now and again are tall stands of pampas grass, their bushy heads waving in the breeze.

Jo and Maria in the garden
Five hours later Maria is at the depot hugging Jo. Her home is on a tree-line boulevard in the middle of the little town of thirty-thousand folks. We meet her youngest son, Federico, when he gets home from work.

The next days were so full of new things and wonder that it is still sinking in. Trudy and Leo had mentioned Tito. A larger than life character related to Maria through the marriage of her son Gaston to his daughter Marta. Tito is soon at Maria’s home and takes us on a tour of the town. He knows all the details of its history. He tells that next day he will take us to Sierra de las Ventanas where we will see The Window in the Mountain.

The Window in the Mountain
Next morning we head out, Jo and Maria in the back. My Spanish is worse than his English, but not by much. As we drive along he asks me, through Maria, about Kenya, specifically if I know about Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement. BP, as he is known among scouts world-wide, lived the last years of his life in the Outspan Hotel where my parents honeymooned over Christmas 1939.  I played many a game of cricket within sight of the hotel. Tito had retired from his duties as a scout leader after thirty years, but was still passionate about every aspect. My involvement was more modest. I was a cub and scout at prep school. In Saskatoon I led a small troop for a few years. I tell Tito about our most memorable day. It was the winter of 1980. We went camping when the temperatures plummeted. It was minus 29 when we set up the tents.  By morning it had dropped another four degrees. I tried to light the camp stove – failed. We bundled the boys in the van and headed out for pancakes at Smitty’s.

Burrowing owl during a Candian winter.
It's much warmer in South America.
At lunch-time the four of us stop in the picturesque village of Ventanas. As we leave I spot a bird on the wall of a part-built new home. It is a burrowing owl. Is his northern summer home in Saskatchewan? Maybe.

Next stop, now two hours from home, we spend time admiring the range of jagged hills and the window in the mountain far above us.

Part of he Sierra de las Ventanas range
 In the morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we visit three silversmiths to look at exquisite jewellery. Trudy has told us about these treasures, and shown us some of the pieces she purchased on her trips. She is absolutely right. We dither and gawp. No purchases today, just comparing and planning for a return.

Maria, JCH, Jo, Tito after the picnic
Tito picks us up as we return from the jewellers. Maria has told us that we are going to a popular health spa and camp site known as Camping Levalle. The spa has a saline pool. Some of us take a dip. Tito’s youngest daughter, Ana, known to one and all as Anita, who teaches English, does the fluent translation. After a picnic lunch we head out again. There has been no mention of our next destination.

An hour later we enter a chocolate-box pretty town of Carhué. The streets, laid out in a well–designed grid, are lined with flowering trees. As Tito tops a small rise a desolate scene confronts us.
Dead trees on the shore of Lago Epecuén
Dead trees are the only things we can see above ground level. Rows of wooden corpses, branches sticking up as if in supplication, line what must have been more avenues like those in the town behind us.  We drive between two rows of the ghosts. A cemetery, its headstones much corroded, is the only sign of former human occupation. Someone still cares for a lost loved one. A bunch of flowers sits atop a grave.

The graveyard
We learn that Lago Epecuén, the lake we can see beyond the trees is saline. So much so that the mineral concentration is slightly less than the Dead Sea, ten times the level of any ocean. It is the last in a chain of seven lakes above it. It was inundated in 1985 when heavy rains led to the upstream overflows. The water level rose steadily over a few months. We skirt the shore passing many more tree skeletons. A scene of utter wreckage appears to our left. We have arrived at what remains of the town of Villa Epecuén that used to have a population of three thousand. Like Carhué the desolate streets had been laid out in a tidy grid pattern.

Curled bark stripped from a dead tree beside the lake
 Before this trip I had not realized the destructive power of salt water. Not as a surging force like a tsunami or the terrifying wall of water rushing down a flooded river, but as a corrosive substance. It is not just the rusting of metal, as one would expect. It is the concrete of the roads and buildings. Other than a tall tower marked with a line at the eight-metre level, not a single structure remains intact. The lake reached those eight metres. Because of the slow rise of the water nobody died. All but one older man remained. Everyone lost a home or a business. Imagine!

The tower in background. Marked with its 8 metre line.
I at once think of some post-apocalyptic scene. It turns out that the site has indeed been used in movies. My photos do not do it justice. This link  shows the scene five years before our visit. The water has receded even further since then. This YouTube video gives a more current view as a trick cyclist does his thing over and around the ruins.  

The impact is all the more stunning because none of our hosts have warned us what is coming.

Next day, after lunch, we head to the polo grounds where there are seven pitches. I have known for many years that the best polo players in the world are Argentinians. I had mentioned to Maria in our early correspondence that I used volunteer as vet for games in Kenya. 

Polo ponies and riders at Coronel Suarez
--> Now here is the real thing. Dozens of ponies stand patiently in the shade of a line of trees. They are élite athletes tuned down to exact fitness for the explosive game, one minute quietly standing, the next at full gallop. We meet Horatio,  a few years older than us. He is here to watch his son and grandson playing on the same team. He remembers playing in a tournament with Rowena, one of our oldest Kenya friends. I send her a picture of the three of us standing together. She at once replies that she remembers him well. She adds that we have been lucky to visit Coronel Suarez, telling us that it is the Mecca of polo.

Tito's wine cellar.
We are invited to Tito’s home for the evening meal. Maria warns us, not once but at least three times, to make sure we are hungry when we arrive. She even tells us to go easy on the pre-dinner snacks. Tito takes us into his wine cellar. Not just wines, there are preserves, home-cured hams and other goodies. He offers a choice of wines. A merlot, minus one glass for a ‘tasting’ is soon on the table.

We emerge to join the family for a pre-dinner drink. I am in for a surprise. Silvano, one of Tito and Mabel’s sons joins the group. He has a blue and purple scarf, with a toggle holding it at his neck. Before I know it Anita has translated Tito’s little speech. I am honoured with the gift of the local scout’s neckerchief and toggle. Wow!

One small part of the dinner party

We sit around a long table and are treated to a feast. Maria’s advice on hunger was not given lightly. Mabel has shared in the preparation of the spread.

From the left, clockwise: Julian, Jo, Maria, Marta, Mabel,Tito, Gaston and Ana.

  On our last day we return to the silversmiths and make our choices. After that Tito takes us to the town’s scouting headquarters. Silvano and all the other troop leaders are making plans for an upcoming event. 

Dinner that evening is another feast. This time at the home Maria Luz’s son Gaston and his wife Marta. The family are there and Anita tells us that she and Julian are engaged and will marry in December. Congratulations all round. Pizza extraordinaire. Many flavours. Great gathering.

Late at night, we board for Buenos Aries. Maria is with us, heading off on her first leg to Uruguay for a holiday. Tito’s entire family wave farewell on the sidewalk of the bus depot. What a welcome it has been. What a memorable time. What a send-off.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Wildlife scenes in the Chubut province of Patagonia.

I left you in Esquel boarding an overnight bus for Puerto Madryn on Patagonia’s east coast. We go with a taxi to the Hi Patagonia hostel run by the charming and very helpful Gaston. So helpful that he had no problem putting a  kettle on to boil so that we could have our first proper cup of tea since arriving in South America. Tea lovers know what I mean!

Gaston soon put us on to the first of several wildlife encounters. We boarded a big zodiac, fit for 50+ passengers and headed out in the bay to see some dolphins, seal lions and birds.

Sea lions and cormorants on the rocky shore of Golfo Nuevo
 The dolphins did not oblige but the seal lion colony, dominated by a big bull, on the rocky shore was interesting, especially when we saw Imperial Cormorants and a single gull standing nearby. Later we identified it as a Kelp gull.

Under the boat and a farewell wave
We may have missed out on the dolphin but then an extraordinary bonus presented itself. The boat crew asked us to watch for disturbances in the water surface. Long before any of us amateurs saw anything the skipper called out “There it is.” At once we saw the tell-tale of a tail above the surface. 

It was a juvenile humpback. The guys at once identified  it as a different one from that seen the previous week.

 As if this was not enough of a thrill the magnificent creature swam right under our boat, not once but twice within fifteen minutes.

On our walk back to the hostel we once more admired the variety and number of graffiti on any available wall.   They are in every community we visited

Over the next two days we hired a car, a much newer, more comfortable and more reasonably priced Ford than the crummy Chevy for which we had been gouged in Bariloche. Two hundred dollars American in the Andean town was outrageous. 

We headed for Peninsula Valdés a fascinating area that has been designated as a national park.  

A road sign makes things clear.
Along the way there were several groups of  wild guanacos, a few rheas and an array of succulent flowers that we could not hope to identify.

 The red one is thought, by the authors of this site  to be a member of the Aizoaceae family.

 The yellow is probably Opuntia maihuen. All were fleshy and low to the ground, seeming to be drought and salt resistant.

Jo puts things in perspective

A lunchtime stop at Punta Delgado gave us a chance to see the skeleton of a Southern Right whale. The whales  themselves gather in the Golfo San Matias on the northern side of the peninsula over the months of May to December. 

We were too late to see them congregate there, but they are reported to be so tame that one can get close to them as they calve and breed. Maybe we’ll see them next time we go.

After lunch we were led by a charming guide down a steep incline to see a group of female elephant seals. They look like giant slugs. There were no big bulls around so we did not see the noisy and vicious fighting that is so readily viewed on all sorts of wildlife movies and no doubt on YouTube. This one, shot by Richard Sidey is a good example. 

Next day we headed to Punta Norte, the northern-most tip of the peninsula to see much larger colonies of sea-lions.
A disproportionate weight advantage
We saw one breeding event. A huge male smothered a female that seemed to be trying to escape. How she survived her mate's crushing weight (400 kg) is thought for reflection.

            We hoped to see the famous beach hunting of sea–lion pups by Orcas. No luck. We were about a week early. The pups were still with their mothers and had not yet ventured out to swim. From Gaston we learned more about the unique hunting technique. It stems from an old human activity. At one time the ranchers used to capture the pups for food. They would chop off the heads and flippers and chuck them into the water. The Orcas soon found out about these free lunches. Next step, self-service. This National Geographic clip, shot on the same beach, shows what we missed. The commentary is inane and way over the top. It makes no mention of the human induced behaviour.

The next two days took us bird watching. We had heard that there is a huge lagoon near the town of Trelew, a ninety minute bus ride south of Peurto Madryn.
Chilean flamingos and others on take-off
 We found it, but were in for a surprise. It is indeed huge, many kilometres long, but it is a sewage lagoon. There were thousand of ducks and swans swimming on it. They rose in a cloud as we approached. In the distance I saw some Chilean flamingos, one of three species seen in South America. The others live in the high Andes. A stalk behind scrub and bushes got me within a hundred metres. As they also rose I was able to snap their departure. In silhouette there are many ducks and a couple of ibis, identifiable by their long down-curved beaks. An hour of the smell was enough.

Our last day in Puerto Madryn gave us two spectacular experiences. The morning two-hour taxi ride to Ponto Tombo led to an amazing experience.  Ponto Tombo's name comes from the site where the aboriginal people buried their dead (tombs). We walked among a Magellanic penguin colony of something like one million birds. 

At the entrance to the trail a sign shows that not only folks in wheel chairs can gain prior access, but also pregnant women, a nice touch with a simple graphic message.

 The path for visitors is clearly marked with a two-strand wire fence.

Competing for food. Two chicks mob one parent
Our taxi driver, who had taken tourists there many times, knew the area well, told us that there had been no penguins at the site before 1978. 

 The tiny penguins come to the beach and the walk (waddle) up, in some cases over a kilometre to their respective burrows. Every pair returns to the same burrow each year for the nesting season. By the time the chicks are weaned they are the same size, or a tad bigger that their parents.

The birds have right of way on the fenced paths where tourist are permitted. They know it. One walked within half a metre of Jo, ignoring her completely.
We watched chicks mobbing parent birds as they returned with full stomachs from feeding in the ocean. Outside some burrows there were two chicks competing with vigour to get at the regurgitated food. The adults trade off every ten days and are said to travel up to six hundred kilometres out to sea to find their food.

As we returned to the parking lot I needed to answer a "call of nature".  The choice of cubicles was clear, but shown in a delightful way.

Our visit to the town ended up with a fine sea-food supper and a magic rainbow show.  

The sea front at Puerto Madryn

 Then it was off to the bus station for another overnight ride north. Next stop Coronel Suarez. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Seven Lakes of Argentina

In my the last report about our trip to Argentian I left you in San Martin, the final town on the seven lakes tour in the Andes.  The evening before we departed we stopped in the town square to watch a couple performers and their amazing tricks on a big hoop and a slack tight rope (is that an oxymoron?). Here is a short movie clip of the show.  

Lenin volcano from route 40
Then it was further north to visit the Lanin Volcano Even from the roadside thirty kilometres short the snow-cap was spectacular. Then came a turn on to a rough dirt road. We skirted lake Huechulafquen and then crept slowly through a maze of hairpin bends until we reached the end and stopped on the shore of the north western arm of the lake. Now the mountain was in full view, Spectacular!
The majestic volcano

 We were in for a surprise. Three mounted gauchos rode their horses straight into the lake at its narrow junction with the main body of water. At no time did the horses go deeper than their hocks. The shallow water was no doubt well known to locals. The posse was leading, sometimes dragging, a reluctant Hereford heifer.

The gauchos cross the lake
A reluctant Hereford heifer being brought home
Every now and again the heifer simply sat and refused to move. It had to be ‘persuaded’ The men stopped right by me and so I was able take a few photos of the drama. The animal had escaped from its herd mates and was being returned to base.

Over a picnic lunch of empanadas and ham and cheese sandwiches, purchased at a panaderia (bakery) in San Martin we could see the volcano framed by numerous monkey puzzle trees that are native to the area.   .    

There is a traditional Argentinian folk story about the volcano. It involves a hunt, an angry god that causes the mountain to shoot flames and smoke into the sky, and the sacrifice of a young girl to appease the god. Since the sacrifice the mountain has remained quiet and has never lost its snowy peak. The story is recounted on several websites that vary a tad from one another. 

Our next stop was in Villa Traful. To get to this little resort we had to leave the excellent paved route 40 and go down a gravel road with hairpin bends and plenty of rock. It was here that we learned more about the history and biology of the tree.  There are males and females, each bearing cones that differ in shape and colour. The taxonomic name of the ones that are native to the southern and central parts of Chile and Argentina is Araucaria araucana. It is the national tree of the former and is long-lived (up to a thousand years according to some).

female blossoms
Male pine cones
There is a related tree in the genus, native to Australia, known as the False Monkey Puzzle, or Bunya tree Araucaria bidwillii. It has been suggested that both trees, members of the Araucariaceae family, flourished during the Jurassic and into the Cretaceous from two hundred million to sixty-five million years ago. At the start of those long-ago times the super continent of Pangaea began to drift apart so it is possible that the original ‘living fossil’ has evolved into the two species in Australia and South America.

Human beings have always been interested in trans-locating plants and animals to a never-ending list of foreign countries (think New Zealand, think Australia). There are monkey-puzzle trees in Canada, the UK and many others. In UK the most famous spot is  Kew Gardens. My own memory of the tree comes from the front garden of the house at 79 Salisbury Road in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire, where our family lived when I was nine years old. 
Unclimable bark
There was a huge one there and one thing was for sure, I was not going to try and climb it. The spiky trunk made sure of that. No wonder it is called the monkey puzzle.

            Another piece of useful information is that both species of the tree produce edible nuts

            Then it was back to Bariloche for a night before heading across to the east coast. On the way we stopped for lunch at a beach with a splendid view of mountain peaks with lake Nahuel Huapi in the foreground.
A shore-line view of lake Nahuel Huapi

Harldy big enough to damage a car, Just means TAKE CARE
 On the road back through the seven lakes began we passed a road sign that warned of tiny pudu. Because I worked with deer for most of my university career it was a creature I would love to see for real.

A souhern pudu
As I noted in the last post they are the smallest of all deer species, standing at a maximum 45 centimetres. There are two subspecies, the northern and southern.  Once hunted as a food source they are now threatened by habitat conversion and dog predation. 

Bariloche town square. Just jamming for the fun of it.

In Bariloche we headed out for a bite to eat and watched a bunch of musicians jamming in the town square. They had no interest in any cash rewards. They were just having a good time. So were the crowd.

Next day we boarded a couple of the fine buses that carry folks all over the country.  In the afternoon we went south to Esquel. After supper in a pub there we headed back to the bus station and at eleven at night we left for Puerto Madryn. 

Our overnight bus
This overnight bus had seats that turned into reclining beds and offered both supper and breakfast during our seven-hour trip out of the Andes, across the pampas to the east coast. 

More of that next time. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A trip to the Argentinian Andes - part one

Back to blogging, after a hiatus of eighteen months. My excuse?  I was working hard on a new book. This one about work in Canada. Title: Porcupines to Polar Bears

There are stories from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, the Forestry Farm Zoo in Saskatoon and the wilds of Canada.

As I wait for the release in May I can write about the trip that my wife Jo and I took in January and February to Argentina. There are so many memories that I’m going to start with the time had in Patagonia. To get there Air Canada took us to Santiago in Chile. After that a bus and boat trip across the Andes took us to the town of San Carlos de Bariloche, conveniently known as Bariloche in the Andes. We had booked into the beautiful Llao Llao hotel a twenty-minute bus-ride from the town.

The lawn below the Llao Llao hotel

 We arrived on the 25th of January, known world-wide wherever Scots have ended up at Robbie Burns day.

We do not participate that poet’s traditional haggis-based supper as it happens to be our wedding anniversary. In this case the 47th.

Dinner with roses

It was great to find that the concierge had acted on my emailed request to have roses on our table at dinner-time. Jo knew nothing about this arrangement. It was a special moment to see her reaction.  

Next morning we began to explore. There were interesting Ashy-headed geese , with their russet breast feathers grazing on the lawns and a great view of lake Nahuel Huapi below the hotel.

 The spectacular view of the Andes, and the snow-capped peaks, gave us the opportunity to sit and relax on the lawn below the hotel beside the lake. It is huge. It  covers five hundred and thirty square kilometres and its shore line stretches three hundred and fifty-seven km.

On the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi

In Bariloche, to our dismay, car rental is brutally expensive. $200 (US) a day for a very basic stick shift Chevy! There wasn't much choice if we wanted to explore.  Even at that price we decided to hire one and head north along the seven lakes route. There were stunning views, good restaurants and interesting things to do. 

From Bariloche we headed north to Villa Angostura, here we stayed at the Sol Arrayan  hotel, again on the shores of lake Nahuel Huapi, which is huge. The views of the Andes from the hotel and the shore are spectacular.

The view form the 5th floor

 By this time we had learned that in Argentina the correct pronunciation of a double ‘L’ in any word is not, as we expected, a ‘yao’ sound. The two ‘l’s sound as ‘sha’. So, our next stop in the trip was at ‘Visha’ Angostura.

Jo in front of Coihue a tree stand. Ground up view
  There were two interesting treespecies that we saw in Villa Angosturs.  Right outside the hotel was an Arrayan tree, with its rust and yellow bark. It grows up to 15 metres. It is a member of the myrtle family, is an evergreen with fragrant flowers and is limited to the central Andes between Chile and Argentina. The other tree(s) were a mass of Coihue standing straight as an arrow, up to 45 metres tall. The largest one on record had a girth of 8 metres.  Their most striking feature is the absence of any branch for the first twenty metres above ground.

Black-faced ibis
 Next morning my fascination with birds and their photography was further excited when we saw a pair of black-faced ibis on the lawn. There are at least ten species of ibis in South America, but this is the only kind we met.

I was somewhat astonished to see bronze or rock statues of red deer in the communities. This version is depicted in full rut, neck stretched, roaring his power and ardour to one and all. The real rut is in  autumn, March in Argentina, so the hills may soon resonate with the grunts and gurgles.

A bronze stag bugling into the sky
Have a listen to the sounds that echo across the Scottish Highlands in September.

 I was aware that these creatures had been exported to South America at some time early in the 20th century but I did not realize that they had become iconic and more celebrated in art forms than the native deer. We saw candelabras concocted from interwoven antlers and the standard wall mounts in most hotels.

One of the natives is the pudu, smallest member of the deer family that stands, at most, fifteen inches (45 cm) at the shoulder and weighs 10 kg. The other is the huemul, critically endangered throughout its range, mainly due to human activity and competition for resources with those cervid foreigners. There are some signs of recovery of this situation, but they are not out of the woods yet.

Thence to the town of San Martin de los Andes (abbreviated as San Martin). It lies on the shore of the lake of the same name. This lake is more or less the same size as Nahuel Huapi. San Martin is a favourite destination for skiers and has a good ski lift system just south of town up a winding gravel road.

           The downtown area somewhat resembles a European mountain resort, with many buildings of log construction and window boxes. 
A  pub with half a minibus through its front.

The architect of pub, no doubt tongue in cheek,  has the front end of a VW micro bus embedded in the upper front wall. Happliy this 'crash' did not adversely effect the Warsteiner beer, a local brew.

For the folks who do not speak Spanish here is a useful tip, an essential addition the vocabulary for the beer drinker.  A craft beer, or one made in a micro brewery is un cerveza artesanal.

It was time for dinner. We had decided to double up and have a meal a restaurant advertising food and a tango show. Jut inside the door stood a large rack of wines. As we stood there a waiter told us that there would be no tango that evening.

Just one of three racks in the 'dinner and tango ' restaurant
The atmosphere was ideal with low lighting. The menu looked reasonable so we decided to have a meal anyway. Steak was on the menu and there were pasta dishes.

Next came a surprise. Only one small glass of water, from the tap, which we favour, was available. After that it had to be bottled water.

Ridiculous. We left.

There were hitchhikers outside every town we passed through. One of the most interesting encounters was with an Australian couple in their thirties. They arrived at the same hostel as us and we fell into conversation. They are inveterate cyclists. One of their less adventurous trips had been a ride from Barcelona to Berlin. That does not sound too arduous for the dedicated,  but these two were traveling with small children, a four-year old and a toddler of eighteen months!

Our journey continued. Next stop a volcano with a history and a folk tale.