Uruguay: Riding with the gaucho

By Geoff Cumming

In the Uruguayan countryside, Geoff Cumming embraces the philosophy of South America's original cowboys.

Farmhand Bilinga takes no nonsense from sheep being penned for drenching and vaccinations. Photo / Geoff Cumming
Farmhand Bilinga takes no nonsense from sheep being penned for drenching and vaccinations. Photo / Geoff Cumming

The introductions make us fear we have stumbled on to a Survivor set. Seven strangers from Ireland, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand have converged on a ranch in northern Uruguay.

City-slickers all, we have come by plane, ferry, coach and, most memorably, flat-deck truck over a bone-jarring metal road. We passed through villages where horse and cart are a common form of transport and where the sight of gringos still turns heads. We are as far from home comforts as seems collectively possible. We are out of cellphone and internet reach.

As chill darkness envelopes us, we are guided to a communal outdoor table, where candlelight plays on weary faces. Amid a cacophony of ibises, host Juan Manuel pledges to take us even further from our comfort zones.

"If you don't like the dinner, don't eat it. If you don't like the lunch tomorrow, don't eat it.

"But tomorrow night, I guarantee, you will eat what is put in front of you."

At the Panagea ranch, there is diesel-generated lighting for two hours a night. Showers might be hot if we're quick and the solar unit has captured enough sun.

Cooking is over a log fire or wood-fuelled stove. Juan shows us the well from which we must fetch water to flush the toilet.

The next morning, we rise early - but not as early as the roosters start crowing and the ibises squawking - and go to work. Though we came as tourists, we are the unpaid help on Juan's 1000ha ranch. We will gather wood for the fire, help with meals and plant veges.

But mostly we will ride horses - not nose-to-tail nags but working horses used to rounding up sheep and cattle, keeping them in line and driving them into pens. Then we will lend a hand drenching and vaccinating lambs and bobby calves and wince while Juan and his sidekick perform unspeakable acts with pliers and cord on the calves.

We will keep the cows and calves in line by waving flags at them and shouting a Spanish word that, said quickly, sounds like an English word: "bumholes". (Okay, it may have been "vamos").

Panagea sits on a volcanic plateau, a vast green oval speckled with rock. Diminutive native vegetation marks the narrow streams which criss-cross the plateau. The pasture is familiar, if not quite as green as at home (maybe because Uruguayans are firmly against the use of fertiliser).

Juan raises 800 cattle, 2000 sheep and 90 horses here in vast paddocks. Wild ostriches keep their distance as we ride by. We spot the odd hare high-tailing it; someone sees an armadillo.

But what makes our stay most remarkable is not the setting but our hosts - Juan, his Swiss wife Susanne and his farm manager, Bilinga (so named because he speaks two languages). Bilinga looks and dresses like a gaucho, the original cowboys who roamed southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina after the Spanish introduced cattle to South America, then largely abandoned them.

Gaucho is also a philosophy, Juan explains, and the back-to-basics approach at Panagea is part of the gaucho lifestyle.

The farm makes minimal use of mechanised technology. Signs in the cattle yards, though in Spanish, are instructive. Treat the cattle with compassion and respect, they say.

"It's a philosophy - but don't ask me to explain it," says Juan.

He says little about what we are in for. It is best we experience it for ourselves and react instinctively, he says. We must wear gaucho clothes: cowboy boots, baggy pants and wide-brimmed hats. Though few of us have much riding experience, we must ride the gaucho way - one-handed.

I fail my first test: attempting to insert the bit between the teeth of my horse, Colorado. Saddling up, I succeed in putting blankets and strapping upside down.

"At least you are consistent," Juan says.

He warns that none of his horses are bad, but there are bad riders. And when people fall off, the pain is more emotional than physical.

"People suddenly remember their unhappy childhood or that their mother didn't love them," he says. "They blame the horse."

He delights in having us on. "Riding is like sex, you have to take it slowly," he advises as we set off. "Ride with personality."

Our first ride is for familiarisation and, though it is years since I last rode, I soon feel comfortable on Colorado. He is so responsive, the slightest indication on the reins (one-handed, of course) is enough. As we ride, personalities show themselves. Liz, a bubbly Canadian, feigns lack of confidence. Our Irishman is led astray by his horse. The Australians bide their time.

And Juan reveals his story. He was born in the farmhouse; his family have farmed here for three generations. But he is worldly and widely travelled; his aim is to ride in 100 countries. He says Uruguay is like New Zealand was in the 1950s - and I reckon that's no bad thing.

But he laments his country's inability to shake off its third world status, a predicament he blames on mate, a tea-like drink from the leaf of the yerba plant, which we sample. Much ritual surrounds the preparation and consumption of mate and Uruguayans spend far too much time preparing it, drinking it and talking, he explains. He seems serious, for once.

Back at the ranch for lunch, the horses are let loose in a shady grove behind the homestead. Juan soon has a log fire producing lots of smoke and pork sausages and lamb cuts go on the grill. We eat heartily, quaff a beer then find a hammock for siesta. I drift off to the sound of chirping birds and braying horses, the smell of the barbecue mingling with horse manure. I'm quickly falling for this gaucho life. We don't even have to do the dishes.

That may be because Juan has other plans for us. We begin the afternoon rounding up sheep and herding them through several paddocks to a yard. By now, I am channelling gaucho, cantering off to turn errant sheep back into the fold. It's A Dog's Show with journos as dogs. The horses instinctively know what to do.

Or maybe they take their cue from Bilinga whose black hat, black moustache and poncho are not for show. He talks to horses. He can turn a steer with a look. He is living the gaucho legend while his wife does our dishes.

Our job is to enter the pen and scrag the lambs while one of our number, whose day job is with a women's magazine, shoves a vaccine gun in their mouths. Then we put them through a race for drenching before remounting and driving them through to fresh pastures.

It's true that we would have eaten whatever was put in front of us by the end of that long day (though Susanne's lamb and bean stew was something to be savoured).

The next day we do it all again, only this time with cows and bobby calves that are less easily led than sheep. Our reward at the end is an asado, the eat-till-you-drop South American barbecue with chicken, beef ribs, lamb, kidneys, sausages and intestines cooked slowly over a smoky fire.

As the lights go out and the grappa flows, Juan ups the ante. Just like a reality TV show, he will anoint one of his guests "The Most Gaucho".

I am all nerves with anticipation. I know Colorado and I had a special relationship but I haven't rehearsed my acceptance speech. With suitable fanfare, Juan makes the announcement.

It is Liz, the Canadian who claimed to not know one end of a horse from another.

How un-gaucho to elevate one above all others.


Getting there: Aerolineas Argentinas has five flights a week direct to Buenos Aires. The ferry trip linking Buenos Aires and Montevideo takes about three hours and the coach trip from Montevideo to Tacuarembo is six hours.

Further information: Intrepid Travel offers packages combining a Panagea ranch stay with visits to Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro (and options such as Iguazu Falls).

Geoff Cumming visited Panagea ranch courtesy of Intrepid Travel.

- NZ Herald

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