Tuesday, 12 April 2011

So What Have You Given Up For Lent?

Much more our style.
Where better than the old road?

It’s a long weekend, a holiday weekend, which for us translates as: avoid all campgrounds with access to musical amplification.  The term 'musical' is used in it’s loosest sense, and will range from the cacophonous to the harmonious, the discordant to the damnable.  The scale might be large, but the volume will be constant: constantly loud.  Two new days of holiday have been created by the government; to encourage the populace to travel, thus stimulating the economy.  And, yes, there is a general election this year.  It’s the start of Lent, and so it’s carnival.  Nobody seems to need any excuse for a  party, but any inducement will not be missed.  Frankly, we are only now, this being a Friday, catching up on sleep after last weekend in Cruz del Eje.  Pitching beside the public parillas was not one of my better decisions, but at four in the afternoon it was the most shaded spot.  Neither had I noted the seven foot high juke box; a wonder of modern retro, all metallic chrome and neon lights, that, when fed a few pesos, resurrected some Nana Mouskouri and Demis Rousoss wanna-bes. 

So this weekend we’ve headed west.  Headed left and away from our stated intentions of trying to head towards the conurbation on the Atlantic coast. We’ve headed up a hill of elongated hairpin bends, to Parque Nacional Los Condoritos, to watch the condors teaching their chicks how to fly.  By definition Parques Nacionales are rustic places, so we know that the camping area will be 'walk-in', ergo, car free, power free, amp free.  It’s also toilet and shower free.  So the potential is there for few quiet nights.

Used as we are to early starts, we’re first off the mark, away as the sun is just broaching the horizon, on a walk of a couple of hours to a gorge in the high country.  The cloud and the mist that gave us a wet night is slowly pulling out of the valleys, leaving the tussocks sprinkled with dewdrops.  We’re first on to the spotting site, but white guano spattered rocks are the only evidence of activity.  A want of sun has made the thermals slow to activate, so maybe our  haste was misguided.

We wait and we wait.  Is this another figment of the imagination, another ’you should have been here yesterday’ scenario?  Then I remember the rules for iconic fauna fossicking: Rule One: take a picture of the notice board that explains why you’ve made all that effort to cycle 40kms uphill.  The threat of photographs on this occasion was enough.  Away to our left, a black dot is spiralling in tight turns, the ascent is fast, then another blot joins it. Then another, and another.  Rule Two: initially count in single digits, then convert to herds, flocks and mountain ranges.

Our very best condor picture
 Slowly they float towards us.  Absolutely no doubt, they’re massive.  Flying surfboards, Andean condors.  The Sierras de Cordoba are the appendix to the western cordilleras, the easternmost outpost of the Andes - and the condors.  A range that has drifted off from the main chain, sitting in the middle of the country, surrounded by flat Pampa.  An indolent, lazy bird, the condor leaves wing flapping to others, nesting on cliffs where it can launch forth and sail effortlessly out onto the thermals, climbing high with what seems like consummate ease.  Of all the numerous birds that we watch, we see not one single wing flap.  Now another is climbing away above us, sweeping low, crossing the sun, strafing our position with a shadow.  It’s only now that I understand where we had been going wrong with our earlier identifications.  ID boards at another spotting location a few weeks ago had shown distinctive areas of white on the wings.  I had assumed that this would be on the under-side, an assumption I still feel to be natural, as not everybody can be an Attenborough and go condor-watching from a microlight or an aeroplane.  Now we are looking down on them as they float effortlessly up the gorge into the cliff and onto their roost sites, so it’s now that we see the white banding, the positively identifying feature.  It’s a display of flawless, majestic control over aeronautics, a swirling dance that turns macabre when you see pictures of them on the ground.  Hooked of beak, baldy headit, scrawny neckit, hoppit gaitit, wi’ a gown o’ rumpled black feathers, the avian epitome of a Dickensian ‘school’s heedie’, or the beadle that creeps around the kirk on a Sunday morning.

Loica, outside the tent
We watch for awhile and leave as the first wave of day visitors make their way across the hills.  We, as the ever prepared Scots have our our feet in boots, our rucksack of waterproofs, warm clothes and emergency food.  This influx comes in sandals and strappy tops with soda bottles and canned music.  One party are  hauling a mini wheeled suitcase, trundling through the mud, bouncing on rocks, rolling off boulders, like a cannon on it’s way to the front. Time might tell who is the better prepared.  We reach our tent and lunch on cafe con leche in the sun.  But this is mountain country, sitting at over six thousand feet where weather can change rapidly.  This time it was fast: a blanket of mist rolls in, cold and damp, smothering out in an instant the hot, clear sun. The rain was right behind.  Both came with no warning.  We withdraw to the tent, settling down to watch the ‘retreat from Moscow’. Shadowy phantoms trudge slowly past, some will have had the reward of a condor spotting, others, I suspect, will not.  Their consolation prize would have been the spread of wild flowers, the scuttling cuys - the fat guinea pigs that attempted a raid on our provisions - the small parakeets grazing on the downy seeds of thistle, or the glorious red-breasted Loica feeding it’s young.  But, judging from the questions that we were being asked as we made our way back, condors were the sole reason for coming this way.

Mid Saturday afternoon and it would appear that we’re far from alone in the desire to find a quiet spot in the country. The ‘camping libre’ is fast filling up with cheapskates and guitars.  The rain moves by stages from drizzle to deluge, filling our pan for a third caffeine fix, which saves us a trip through the waist high, saturating tussock grass.  Tents sprout and then disappear, Rucksacks with burgeoning , unprotected sleeping bags drip their way past. I’m ever incredulous at how unprepared people are for weather, as if a mountaintop will offer the same conditions as the back garden does down in Cordoba, BsAs or Haddington.  Or is rain always a surprise?  The same surprise that suggests that flip-flops and espadrilles are suitable footwear for a tramp over rough, crumbling granite.  What an urbanised society we’ve become.

Our holy weekend by early evening resounds to a gurgling burn that’s been engorged by the downpour, the murmur of entombed, entented damp campers and a loud, precocious Californian child, all suffused, filtered by the soft spatter of rain on our tent skin.  Imbued by the potential of a wet night that might encourage the fat mouse and the fatter cuy to sleep underground, rather than in one of our panniers.

Fat chance. One, both or the whole menagerie of rodents dine out on our front porch, all wear hobnailed boots and eat with their mouths open.  Eating out on others, for every conceivable item of ours of potential edibility has been stashed tight in roll top bags.  Others are more generous and not so houseproud.  Pans of part-consumed meals lie scattered around, joining the shoes, jackets and bedding hung out to dry in the rain.  Maybe rain is surprising.