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Heroes of the Pampas - Page 2

by CuChullaine O’Reilly

Reluctant Criollo Horses

The plunge, as he so aptly put it, landed him in the saddle of two Criollo horses, Mancha and Gato, who proceeded to show their appreciation for having been picked to represent their breed by “trying to buck the guts out of me.”

Mancha, (The Spotted One), was a red and white piebald, 16 years old, who delighted in attacking and kicking anyone foolish enough to come near him.  His companion, Gato, (The Cat), a 15-year-old buckskin (dun), was only slightly less murderous.  The two animals had recently been brought down from the wilds of the Argentine pampas to a local estancia after a road march of more than 1,000 miles, in the course of which they had lived on what little they could find.  Neither horse had ever seen a city, houses, automobiles or a stable.  They ignored the luscious alfalfa and oats put before them, instead devouring with relish the straw put down for bedding.

These equine savages were physically unattractive, having none of the finer points of conformation that appealed to the haughty hidalgos of Buenos Aires.

Tschiffely admits as much when he recalls, “Their sturdy legs, short thick necks and Roman noses are as far removed from the points of a first-class English hunter as the North Pole from the South.  Handsome is as handsome does, however, and I am willing to state my opinion boldly that no other breed in the world has the capacity of the Criollo for continuous hard work.”

As any Long Rider can tell you, there is a legendary emotional bond created between an equestrian traveller and his road horse.  Mancha's notorious loyalty to Aimé was an excellent example.  The independent Criollo refused to let anyone except his Swiss Long Rider ride him.  Nor did the 10,000 mile journey wear down or alter the hardy Criollo's views.  Upon reaching New York, the famous cowboy showman, Will Rogers, attempted to befriend the four-footed Argentinean, but he received a kick for his trouble.

Though patriotic to the extreme, few of the proud Argentines could bring themselves to believe that this inexperienced foreigner would live to prove his point, even on horses they held dear to their hearts.

Wise Men Dare

In preparation, Tschiffely chose a traditional gaucho saddle, made up of a “light framework, about two feet long, over which is stretched a covering of hide.  This sits easily on the horse and being covered with loose sheepskins, makes a comfortable bed at night.”  A local pack saddle was found as well.

Equipment for the extensive trip was kept to a minimum.  Tschiffely carried a .45 Smith & Wesson, a 12-gauge shotgun, a Winchester .44, maps, passport, letters of credit, compass, barometer, woolen blanket, light rubber poncho, goggles, a large mosquito netting which fitted over his broad-brimmed sombrero.  Additionally, he carried a supply of silver coins in his saddlebags in order to pay Indian guides who might refuse paper money.

On the night before his departure, the intrepid horseman recalled that suddenly the carping of his critics and his own inexperience caused him “to be assailed by a sickly feeling, as if my stomach were a vacuum.”  Like many before him, his longing for adventure had brought him to the point of no return.  The historic horseback ride which had previously sounded so thrilling, was now looming with all its dangers, real and imagined, only a few hours away.

Word had been leaked to the press the next morning, as he prepared to depart.  He consented to pose for them, alongside Mancha, who was to serve as packhorse, and Gato, whom he proposed to ride.  Rain was falling and the roads leading out of Buenos Aires were already hock-keep in thick, sticky mud.  The reporters regarded the whole thing as a huge joke:  “A lunatic proposing to travel overland to New York,” – ran one story.

Years later he recalled that after the press bowed and retired with ill-concealed chuckles at his idiocy, he wanted to tell them, “Let fools laugh;  wise men dare and win.”  But the rain was coming down harder and his own self-doubts kept his opinions to himself.

Bad Roads and Worse

That first morning, a local stable boy had volunteered to ride beside Tschiffely and show him the best way out of town.  The lad was mounted on a big thoroughbred which made the traveller’s stocky little animals look more diminutive than ever.  After about an hour they came to a newly-made dirt road, and his guide informed him that by following it he would find his way clear to open country.  His deed done, the boy turned his horse and headed home.

“His thoroughbred was steaming with perspiration while my two Criollos showed no sign of having travelled at all,” Tschiffely wrote.

The rain gave him no chance to gloat over this first small victory.  The countryside of Argentina was flat and desolate, stretching as far as the eye could see in mile after mile of uninterrupted monotony.  There were no trees here.  The Indians called this tableland of grass the pampas – the open space.  Tschiffely, Mancha and Gato rode day after day across it, either baking in the sun and sucking up the hated dust of the road, or slogging through merciless mud when the skies poured down their rain.

Occasionally, to his astonishment, an automobile would come plodding its way through the mud, and more than once he was asked to assist in pulling these Tin-Lizzies out of a mud-hole, a request he was obliged to refuse as his horses were not accustomed to such work.  Plus, he had already grown a hatred for automobiles, as the drivers showed very little consideration for him and his horses, seeming to delight in seeing the horses rear and plunge when they passed.

“They were my pet aversion from the beginning of the trip to the end, and if all my wishes had been carried out, Hades would be well supplied with motors and motorists,” he wrote.

The mighty pampas also brought him a peace of mind he had never known existed.  Day after day he rode in silence, alone in his thoughts.  The tranquil movements of the horses through this empty world rocked him into a trance, like that induced by sitting too long beside running water or moving tides.  Here, in the world’s emptiness, he realized he might have been at any place on Earth, at any time in history since horses were tamed and ridden.  His critics lay behind him.  Now he was only a traveller under the open sky, looking for a place to pitch camp and prepare his meal.

The Door to the Andes

Heading north, the trio trekked through mud-holes, over quicksand bogs and across rivers.  Passing Rosario, Argentina, they travelled towards Bolivia.  The landscape changed to arid, desolate wastes.  Thick, white clouds of saltpetre dust blanketed the ground and choked the three of them, but didn’t slow their steady progress.  By the time the caravan reached the town of Santiago del Estero, Tschiffely’s face was burned raw and his lips were cracked and bleeding.

The maps he relied on were of little daily help, showing the topography in frustratingly general details.  Yet asking the locals for directions could be just as fruitless.

“It’s no use asking these people the way, for they have only one answer and will invariably reply, ‘siga derecho no mas’ (just go straight ahead), although the trail may wind and twist around a regular labyrinth of deep canyons and valleys.  If one enquires as to the distance to the next place the monotonous and aggravating reply is always, ‘cerquita’, which means ‘quite close,’ although there may be a whole day’s riding to be done before one reaches the place.”

In spite of these useless answers he made a point of asking every passer-by for directions, even if it was only to break the monotony of lonely hours without hearing a human voice.

Aimé Tschiffely, the most famous Long Rider of the 20th Century, and his two stalwart companions, Mancha and Gato, faced every kind of peril - including sandstorms in the notorious Matacaballa ("Horse-Killer") Peruvian desert.

Click on photo to enlarge

Reluctant Friends

The one bright spot in this progressively more bleak landscape was the comradeship and trust that now developed between Tschiffely and his half-wild horses.  Gato had tamed down quickly.  When he found out that bucking and all his repertoire of nasty tricks to unload his rider failed, Gato became resigned to his fate and took things philosophically.  Of the two horses, he was the more willing, being the type of horse, Tschiffely says, that if ridden by a brutal man would gallop until he dropped dead.  His eyes had a childish, dreamy look.  He also possessed a rare instinct for avoiding bogs, quicksand and deadly mud-holes, something his inexperienced rider soon learned to have complete faith in.

Mancha was always alert, an excellent watchdog, who distrusted strangers and would let no-one except Tschiffely saddle or ride him.  He completely bossed Gato, who never retaliated.  He had fiery eyes, which he used to scan the horizon constantly.  Of the two, he never ate too much.

By this time both of the horses had grown so fond of Tschiffely that he never had to tie them again.  Even if he slept in some lonely hut he simply turned them loose at night, well knowing they would never go more than a few yards away and that in the early morning they would be waiting to greet him with a friendly nicker.

In a rare insight into his horses’ personalities, Tschiffely wrote, “If my two Criollos had the faculty of human speech and understanding, I would go to Gato to tell him my troubles and secrets.  But if I wanted to step out and do the rounds in style, I’d certainly go to Mancha.  His personality was the stronger.”

Wicked Demons and Dangerous Cliffs

Journeying now through the mountains of Bolivia, the trio began to see that they had not even begun to suffer.  They pushed their way through fast boiling waters and passed carefully over boulders larger than houses.  Having already covered more than 1,300 miles, they came to the 11,000 foot high summit of Tres Cruses Pass.  Tschiffely’s nose bled in the rarified air.

Hail the size of small eggs beat down on them as they made their way through the mountains.  The broiling sun and wind-driven sand forced Tschiffely to don a “sandstorm mask” and a pair of goggles in an effort to protect his face and eyes from the harsh elements.  Upon entering an Aymara Indian village he was mistaken for a demon by the superstitious natives, who fled at his approach.

After travelling for more than three weeks at altitudes in excess of 11,000 feet they reached the Bolivian capital of La Paz.  A policeman guided him to the local Argentine Embassy, where an astonished ambassador and his staff received him with joy and hearty congratulations.  The ambassador had the good grace not to mention the fact that no-one had expected him to arrive.  Mancha and Gato, however, “looked as though they had only been out for a morning’s trot.”

A brief rest lay behind them with full bellies and restocked saddlebags, when they hit the trail once again.  This time their destination was Peru.  They soon entered Cuzco, the gateway to the ancient Inca empire.  The trails became so steep and rocky that Tschiffely had difficulty making it over the crest of the treacherous Andes mountains.  In cases where the trail became this dangerous, he first divided the pack between the two horses.  If going downhill, he went ahead. 

Despite the romantic image which some may attach to equestrian travel, Tschiffely soon learned that the rigours and reality were a far cry from the pony picnic ideal which many armchair explorers nourished.  For example, he wrote "Fodder for my horses tonight is non-existent.  I can only tie them to a rock and leave them out in the cold.  I dare not turn them loose because hereabouts are poisonous weeds."

But when climbing, he put Mancha in front and caught hold of his tail, in this way being pulled along without much effort.  He learned always to use Mancha in front because he obeyed Tschiffely’s voice commands and could be guided one way or the other.  Gato was much too eager to go ahead to be of use in this situation, pushing on until he was out of breath and preferring to pick a straight route up the mountain, regardless of the obstacles.

The journey had taken them from the plains of Argentina, over the mountains of Bolivia and now brought them down into steep jungle valleys of Peru.  Hordes of mosquitoes plagued them.  Despite the heat, Tschiffely was forced to wear gloves to protect himself against the blood-sucking vermin.  In one unnamed valley the horses were attacked one night by vampire bats.  The next morning, noting the listless condition of his weakened mounts, Tschiffely took advantage of a local remedy and started coating the animals with ground pepper every night.

Remarkably, Tschiffely, Mancha and Gato were averaging 20 miles a day.  It was too early to congratulate himself.  But already he had journeyed further than his critics had predicted.  Then the trip came to a crashing halt.

Often the track they had to travel was cut out of a perpendicular mountain wall.  On this day Tschiffely was luckily afoot, walking behind Mancha, with Gato bringing up the rear.  The trail wound high over the Apurimac River, which from above looked like a winding streak of silver.  There had been incidents when two riders happened to meet in such narrow, dangerous places and the man who shot first was the man who rode on, for their was neither turning back nor crossing each other in such a trap.

Mancha was leading the way slowly along the giddy trail when Tschiffely heard a stomach-wrenching noise from behind him.  He turned in time to see Gato lose his footing, shoot over the side of the cliff and start sliding down the precipice. 

“For a moment I watched in horror and then the miracle happened.  A solitary sturdy tree stopped his slide towards certain death, and once the horse had bumped against the tree, he had enough sense not to attempt to move.  I took off my spurs and climbed down towards him and as soon as I had reached the trembling animal I began to unsaddle him with the utmost care.  Poor Gato was now neighing pitifully to his companion, who was above in safety.  It was not his usual neigh – it had in it a note of desperation and fear,” he wrote.

Once he had unsaddled Gato, Tschiffely returned to the trail and made preparations to use Mancha to haul him up.  A chance passer-by oversaw the urgent rescue from above, while Aimé returned down the cliff side to assist Gato.

“When all was ready the horse was hauled back to safety but had it not been for the fact that Gato spread his forelegs like a frog, he would have over­balanced backwards, and the chances were that he would have swept me away with him.  My heart was palpitating so violently that I thought it would burst, but once both of us were back on the trail that now looked like a paradise to me, I looked through the saddlebags to see if there was a drop of anything to celebrate the miraculous escape;  however, we were out of luck in that line and had to wait until we came to a spring, where we washed down the fright.”

His troubles were far from over.

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