Thursday, 20 November 2014

Floral conquistadors

For those in the know: provincial route 52, Mendoza province. Argentina. The back road from Mendoza to Uspallata. Ruta del Ano.

A very British garden starts to materialise all around us. A creeping greenery of vegetation, surprising in its unexpectedness. Wild Rose, petunias, antirrhinum in two colours, ajuga and wandering sailors. The wild antecedents of a nurserymans breeding stock.

Leaving the desert city, the oasis town of Mendoza, with Its vineyards and its traffic, we climbed away from water influences and into a brittlescape of sand and scrub. We've plotted an alternative route from the road we took to get into town, using an atlas that lacks contours. I know that it must go uphill by the fact that there depictions of some hairpin bends and by the fact that we're surrounded by hills. There's no obviouse escape route through the barrier in front of us. The only question is how high? A question that we omitted to ask at the information kiosk, the same place that failed to volunteer the fact that the hotel at the termas was closed and that the campground was only for mine workers. We were probably her sole visitor that day, so I'll be generous and award two 'clowns'. We, of course came away with the standard clutch of paper, a glossy with a picture of a road twisting up a hillside. Its entitled "Ruta del Ano ". We've found ourselves yet another classic route by accident. Serendipity.

A slow and imperceptible change takes place. We move out of a two season year, wet or dry and into a euro- spring time. The verges erupt with colour and scents. The heavy, sweet smell of Mediterranean broom, a yellow stream of colour that picks out the transient winter water course. The steep hillsides speckled with rose, then step from the road and you crush geraniums, and wild rocket. A raw scar of recent rockfall is being populated by the early colonisers; white and magenta flowering petunias, and red valerian. The latter, a plant that's prevalence in Britain is blamed on the Romans. Only they can't be accused on this occasion. False acacia and Curtain poplars, with even one hawthorn complement the tree species. At first it's the surprise of the familiar, the discovery of vegetative greenery. Then comes the realisation that these are all weeds. Plants in the wrong place. Strangly, Australia's greatest export, the gumtree, is absent. Yet there is a certain admiration for their tenacity, their ability to expand and exclude the native flora. They're using a particular geological feature, an upwelling of ancient mineral rich waters. Only they're not the first conquistadores.

This feature has had its place in history. The route we're following is old, pre-Columbian, used by the indigenous Huarpes to trade over the Andes. Next wer the Jesuits and the designation: Camino Real.Then came the invaders. Capt. Joseph Villavicencio in 1704 hunting for easy wealth, and starts to extract silver. His legacy remembered by a mill stone and a name. "Villavicencio: The Brand" can be found in every shop, gas station and lining the verge of every Argentinian road. Yet It would have been utterly inconceivable for the original conquistadore to realise how his name and his property would discover such an unlikely new wealth. Bottled water. He was Spanish, the new owners: French.

Danone have built a bottling plant and acquired a tract of land, then preserved their investment by creating a natural park, to which is attached the usual ranger service. Were invited to camp the night in their pavilion classroom. All seventy-two square metres of it. Definitely a new sleeping location for us. They also furnish us with the interesting fact that the top of the hill is another 1200 metres above us and between here and there are 365 bends. Now the name "Ruta del Ano" makes sense. It takes over four hours to reach the top, by which time I've long given up the count. There's little point, the views are infinitely more inviting. But it's that sudden moment then we top out at 3100m and there in front, stretched across our horizon is the Cordillera Aconcagua.

Having been gracious enough to give us a sleeping space, I should offer some product placement. But as to why they have used the image of a North African camel on their bottles is a mystery. Presumably to suggest thirst quenching'. A pity as the park is well populated with another camelid, the guanaco.

Two roads into or out of Mendoza. Two utterly different experiences. One a dance with rampaging transfrontera java airs, the other a near deserted Gordian knotted road.