Encounters In The Wilds Of The World 

By Ange Fonce

The cabin was cold... the night was clear and the floor was hard.

Yet... what bothered my sleep most was the air was too thin... each time I started to fall asleep... I woke up gasping for oxygen. 

In the daytime... I had no problem... yet my night time breathing rhythm... at 9,000 feet... was not quite enough for 10,000 feet. 

I slept little... yet I felt warm and cosy in my sleeping bag and grateful for the comfort. 

There were two rooms in the stone cabin... I slept in the main room... Jorge slept in the what could be called the "kitchen."

Jorge had the metal springs of an ancient bed... on which he had spread saddle blankets... I had the granite floor and a high grade mountain karrimat.

We went to bed about 9.30pm... by 3am I felt the hard stones beneath me.

There were two of us in the tiny room... on the other side was my friend Sophie... a French woman who was eager to make the trip with me.

Sophie is a model... an actress... and a swimming teacher... she had no practice on horseback before arriving at the ranch two weeks ago... yet she is fit and athletic... and seemed to catch on fast.

In the night... the only sound heard was the gentle breathing of her... snug in he sleeping bag... and the occasional protest of old springs when Jorge moved.

At about 6.30am... the light coming through the holes in the roof and the cracks in the door changed colour... no longer was it just the white light of the moon... it began to have a yellowish... then reddish hue... the dawn of another day was announcing itself.

Out of our sleeping bags... it was freezing cold... there was frost on the ground and ice on the shallow lakes in the valley.

Jorge made a fire in the "kitchen" and put water in the hanging can above it in order to make morning tea... me and Sophie packed up our kit... and with Jorge saddled up the horses. 

Then... trembling in the cold morning air... we all stood by the kitchen door and drank our tea.

Sophie wore a poncho... on her head she had wrapped a scarf... giving her a strange and exotic Berber look... her mothers family is Algerian... for the first time I saw the North African blood rising in her face.

“That is a nice style for you."

I told her.

Style... I do not care about style… I am just trying to keep warm.” 

She said... smiling back at me.

We were all eager to mount up… and at least have warm bottoms of the heat rising from the horses... and by that time the sun was breaching the top of the mountains to the east of the valley. 

Within minutes we felt it on our faces and on our backs... the sun... which we duck and dodge in the middle of the day... because of the midday heat... is a very welcome visitor in the morning.

We set out... the two of us mounted on horses... mixtures of Spanish and Criollo... while Jorge rides on a mule... pulling another mule packed with our supplies behind him. 

We headed east across the rivers and lakes of the valley floor to a quebrada... a break in the mountains that surround Compuel. 

Turning to look back... the moon was still out over the grey brown mountains to the west... the cattle watched us go... ducks rose from the marshes and flew away from us. 

The horses bounced their way towards the quebrada... eager to get back to their corrals.

And the going was a lot harder than the coming... the pass between the mountains was scarcely more than 30 feet wide... the river was swift and full of huge boulders... the only way forward was up the mountainsides along a track worn over centuries... we had been on this trail for only a few minutes when we began to realise what a difficult route we had taken.

“I have not been over this trail in ten years.”

Jorge told us.

Even in the best of times the trail was treacherous... high above the river... on the side of the mountain... the horses’ hooves slipped and slid on the granite rocks. 

My horse fell hard while trying to jump down from one rock to another... we all dismounted... leading the horses rather than trying to ride them. 

This left us all scrambling over the rocks... trying to make progress over what appeared to be an increasingly impassable and dangerous path.

Jorge was worried... he said nothing... yet me and Sophie could see it in his face. 

Frequently... he would help encourage a reluctant horse down from the rocks... to cinch up the saddle... or just to check on us. 

He had led us into a tough spot... not only was the trail more difficult than he remembered it... much of it was missing... we would head in one direction... and the trail... such as it was... would disappear. 

The horses would have to turn around on the narrow ledge and backtrack.

More than one time... it looked like there was no going forward or backward... the horses... bruised and scratched... with bleeding feet and cactus needles sticking their legs... had to be coaxed and threatened to make them continue.

And it was not only the horses who suffered... I lost my footing and fell down the hill... hitting a hip on a granite boulder... my elbows bled... my hip was painful when I walked. 

Now... I have hiked.. trekked and climbed in many mountain ranges... the Rockies in Canada... all over Europe... up in the Arctic... Svalbard and the Atlas mountains in Morocco.

And this was without doubt... some of the toughest terrain I have ever encountered.

Eventually... we were able to get back on the horses and let them do the walking.

When the ride began... I felt the sting of the thorn bushes... and after an hour or two... I scarcely noticed them... we rode right through them... only potentially lethal dangers concerned us now... and myself and Jorge kept an eye on Sophie... who was suffering just as much as us... and was managing equally well.

It was the "manly" thing to do... as it was easy to get hurt.

After nearly three hours... we had worked our way down to a slightly lower level... on the right and left on the mountains on both sides of the river... me and Sophie noticed rectangular stone walls... hundreds of them... and Sophie asked Jorge if people use to live here.

“The Incas lived here.” 

Jorge explained. 

“You can see their aqueduct high on the mountain... they used it to water all these fields.”

“Incas”... is the word used by the locals for all the peoples of the area before the Spanish arrived... Archaeologists say the Inca had outposts here... and this was the southern edge of the Inca Empire... the local people... known as Diaguitas... were in these valleys thousands of years before the Inca conquest in the 13th or 14th century.

Whoever was responsible for it... their system of irrigation was much more extensive than it is today... the ranch we set of from... still uses many of the same trails and irrigation ditches that the indigenous people developed long before the Spanish arrived... and they are lower down and less technologically impressive. 

The abandoned aqueducts we were looking at would require far more maintenance... labour and engineering "know how" than we would attempt today... and why did they bother? 

Why not do their farming lower down in the valley... where Jorge has his farm.

No one knows.

We came to an abandoned homestead.

“This is a place that used to be lived in… but a long time ago... when I was a boy.. there was someone here... But it has not been farmed since.”

Jorge shared with me and Sophie.

There were the remains of a stone farmhouse... like the one in which we had just spent the night... several other buildings… including a beehive shaped oven… were still intact... and without their roofs... pottery fragments were everywhere... so too were the terraces built by the Indians long ago.

“What happened... how come this was abandoned?”

I asked Jorge

“Probably because of the dry years... the people here probably moved down to a lower level... this is just too high... too dry... and that’s why this path is not used anymore... it used to be used all the time... people in Pucarilla had cattle in Compuel... they traded their onions and corn for goats and wool... there use to be a lot of traffic here... on foot and on mules.”

Jorge replied with a smile on his face.

“And that was a few years ago... things are changing... people today don’t want to work as hard as they did long ago... life up here is hard... now they can just go to Molinos or Cafayate... they can get money from the government for not working and sit in their houses and watch television."

Me and Sophie listened as Jorge explained...

“Two of the worst things to happen to our area are electricity and those family assistance payments... the government came in and put in solar power in all these rural houses... that is why you see solar panels on these houses in the middle of nowhere... the government did it... we do not get television reception up here... and the gente get televisions and put in CDs so they can watch movies and TV shows... then they see a different way of living... they want different things... they do not want to spend their lives cut off from this life they see on television."

Jorge continued with his explanation...

“The government also gives out money to people who do not work... particularly to unmarried women with children... so now they do not want to do the hard work they used to do."

At this point I started to think... how it is not that different here to UK and welfare.

Jorge continued...

“It is a lot of work to keep goats or llamas or cattle up in the mountains... you have to take care of them every day or the puma will eat them... and then you have to milk the goats and make cheese... and turn the wool into threads so you can knit sweaters and so forth... and people up here in the mountains used to grow all their own food... or trade their animals for it... and  I am afraid all that is going to be a thing of the past soon... you know... if you look at the way I lived as a child... and the way most of the gente still live... it is not much different from the way our ancestors lived thousands of years ago... we raise animals... we grow crops... we live on what we produce ourselves... and we water our fields using the same aqueduct... and we get around on the same paths."

“Now... that life is beginning to disappear... Natalio... Nolberto and Pedro... who work for us... they are all about my age... they are used to working hard... they grew up like I did... they cannot imagine not working hard... and their children are different... they watch television... they do not want to stay here and work hard... that is why I have got Christia... and Pablo working for me and not Alejo and Bartolomo... Christian and Pablo come from families high up in the mountains... they still know how to work... Christians family lives at Atacamara... it is at 4,000 metres... life there is very tough".

"Bartolomo left for Cordova... I do not know where Alejo is... they know they can go to the city and get jobs... or collect money from the government... and maybe get a truck rather than riding on a mule... they know they do not have to work so hard... they can work eight hours a day... and then watch television... or not work at all."

“Electricity and welfare payments are ruining this country... this life... the life in these mountains as it has been for maybe thousands of years... is now disappearing... in a few years... I predict that only a few old people will remember how to make raw wool into a poncho... or how to collect herbs in the mountains to make tea... or how to make their own cheese and mill their own grains... you know what Qualfin really means?" 

"It means the "end of the road" or the "place at the end"... that’s what we are... the end of the road... I am 62... in a few years.. I will retire... so will Nolberto... Natalio and Pedro... then a new generation will take over... it will be very different.”

You know I am very much a "forward thinking" man... yet the "old" is to be "respected" too... and still to be learnt from... for when the old passes away... so does all that knowledge... wisdom and experience.

And when the "new" cannot always provide the answer... the "old" has already learnt and worked out a "solution." 

Thank you and may you enjoy a Prosperous and Dynamic day!

Yours Sincerely

Ange is an  Author... Speaker... and International Peak Performance Personal Development Consultant... and Psycho Dynamic Counsellor who works with men... and women who desire to "personally develop" themselves and their "relationships" to become Dynamic Lifers from around the World!

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