Thursday, 6 November 2014

Lapse Rate

That remnant of a fourth form geography class, delivered by the stereotypical tweed jacketed, leather elbowed teacher. The formula that confirms what you intrinsically know: it's colder on the top of Ben Nevis than it is down in Fort William. The sum a simple deduction of two degrees for every thousand feet.

These last few days have been prime examples. St. Miguel de Tucuman is known for being the hottest place in Argentina, but this is springtime, we'll be ahead of the heat, or so we've convinced ourselves. Getting off the overnight train in the early morning was 'interesting'. A simple euphemism for 'got to find shade'. Still we convince ourselves that 'we've still to acclimatise, tomorrow will be easier'.

Tucuman is sugar country, which translates as heat and high humidity, cane trucks and smouldering, burnt off fields. Strange to note how our travels encounter so many of the bĂȘte noires for the food facists. Salt from the Uyuni salar, coca from the Bolivian forest, Beefies from the hectarages of the Pampa, Tobacco from Virginia and now sugar from these poison fields. Their refineries pass us with regularity, belching steam and smoke that mingles with the clawing, pervasive sweet smell that then mixes with the lumbering truck reek and their multiply coupled trailers. The road sticky with roadkill, the discards of cane stalk.Argentina's roads can be fast and narrow; they were once an adequate width back in the decades before auto obesity, so we plan a route that might avoid the major trunk routes. It might not be direct but it will be quieter. Our choice for avoiding RN9 started out promisingly, leaving the provincial capital through a belt of under construction housing and on a few wrong turns that have yet to make it into a map. The only issue is the heat, it's increasing exponentially through the high teens, accelerating through the twenties and by early afternoon our progress is punctuated by hops from bus shelter to bus shelter. Refuges of deep shade from the predations of a 100 degree sun. It's at this point that our asphalted road gives out and reverts to sand. A surface in itself and on its own, is not a major challenge, but add the other apocalypses of sun and day one and a reappraisal is required. A baptism of fire. At least we're some what mollified by the local comments as to the intensity and its early appearance 'this year'. We head west.

Auto-help from a previous age.

Two days of overcast weather allow for a hastened, chastised retreat, a race for the Andean foothills. Whose hills are pale, ephemeral cutouts on the horizon, that even as we rise out of the fetid fug of the sugar Pampascapes, fail to form a hard focus. Yet the botanical graduations begin immediately. Sugar to tobacco, a narrow belt of stone fruit and blueberries, thence to Yungas jungle and cloud forest. culminating in the golden tussocks of the high country. From the laser precision of cropping agriculture to a natural abandonment. Tangles of aerial rooted figs and flowering trees, the zipping flights of hummingbird. Where every tree is a forest. A festoon of bromeliads and air plants. Through this I can hear an un-Argentine noise, the singing tones of a cascading river. Fast moving crystal water is so unusual, it's the perfect traveling companion.

The road up to Valle del Tafi is marketed as the country's longest continuous cycling downhill, and as is the standard on these occasions, is oft inflated to South American or World claim status. A eighty kilometre run. Comprehensible if you consider it as a downhill freewheel from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Which for us will be a long climb. A beautiful climb. We have those shade throwing jungle trees draped overhead, the resupply from the Rio Sosa and the company of the greater population of Tucuman escaping to the cool of the mountains and their Sunday asado. That lapse rate, it saves the sanity of a city. That blessed relief of physical geography.

Valle del Tafi has a similar history to the Raj hill stations of India, where the ruling Brits escaped for the season, only here the Tucumanos escape for the day. Hiring buses, piling into collectivos, loading up motos to stream in convoys up through the twist of hairpin bends, their ubiquity leaving us pondering if there will be any space for our tent. We need not have worried, for as the sun sets there's a mass exodus. We're told that it freezes at night. How will we survive?

That beautiful invigoration of cool mountain air and hot clear sun. You know from instinct, you don't need the geography lesson to understand what it is like back down below. Lapse rates writ large.