Friday, 3 April 2015

The Galloping Gaucho

Back in the mid 20s, there was a train that ran from Victoria to Sooke, on the west coast of Vancover Island, that was known locally as the 'Galloping Goose'. A whimsical metaphor for a single carriage gas driven railcar. A short lived contrivance. The ties and rails are all lifted, now the track bed is an attractive trail through the rainforest of the Pacific North-west. I'd forgotten the name until the middle of last night.

We're riding out the last few days of this visit, heading for Bahia Blanca and the rumours of a passanger service to the federal capital. 'Rumours', as the on-line site only shows timetables for trains coming south. One has to assume that there is a return service. Anticipating, planning or even pre- booking are only hostages to fortune. Equinoctial winds had already left us floundering on the verge and doubled the days we had anticipated it could take. Couple that with the unpredictability of the rolling stock.

Argentina once had an extensive network of rail services, one that was, in places, British built. It was, after all too far for your average Hereford stirk to be walked to the port. Search the girders in the station, cross a bridge, walk the line, eventually you'll find the foundry's nameplate. Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow. Today, with under-investment much of that network is redundant, rails rusting, culverts collapsing, disappearing under a new generation of vegetation.

Virtually all the passanger traffic now goes by bus. A quicker and more comfortable conveyance. But for us the train has that one major attraction: they're quite happy to take cycles. Not that we need have worried, as we were far from alone; there was even a motorbike on board.

We'd rolled into town mid afternoon, and had taken a turn around by the station. As much to verify its existence and to see if the ticket office would open tomorrow, intending then to go and find a room for the night. Only, ten minutes later the Forager is standing with two tickets for a train that leaves in three hours. More importantly, we're required to present our cycles at the luggage dispatch. Now. What's the rush?

I've ranted too many times about the adrenaline infused angst of negotiating our bikes onto Argentine buses. A frenetic process, as the bus has only a ten minute slot on the stance. Ten minutes to load cargo, passengers, two grumpy gringos with their inconvenience of bicycles, and then depart. We've presented ourselves at the goods depot at the required time, waited half an hour for the official to arrive, another half hour whilst he prepares the paperwork for that motorbike, another ten minutes for a discussion about pre-existing scratches on said bike, then it's our turn.

Leisurely. First hunt for the receipt book. But surely you had it for the last person? It's eventually retrieved from the depths of a stack and to judge by the blue tissue like paper that's fading to buff around it's edges, it hasn't been opened this century. Further evidence of antiquity is offered by the page size and the rail company name. A relic from the age of the imperial sized 'foolscap' and post imperialistic nationalisation. (Argentina officially adopted metric paper sizes in 1948). Are we a rare category of passenger, that we require our own special receipt ledger?

Swapping a handwritten triplicated docket with it's franks of inked stamps for the bikes, we head off to inspect the carriages. The only tickets that were left were for 'Pullman', two grades up from our pervious experience of Argentine rail travel. This superior class comes with arm rests, reclining plastic seats and air conditioning, which would have been desirable just a few days ago, but won't be required tonight. The weather systems are now pulling Antarctic air out of the south. When the falling mercury passes 23°C PorteƱos don jackets, if it broaches 15°C, hats, scarves and gloves are added. Below 9°C and it's time to hibernate. Conditions perfect for spotting the North European migrants, that have flown south, anticipating an austral summer. Identifying marks include; pasteboard skin, bare knees and goosebumps.

Fair to say the Ferrobaires service to Buenos Aries is not the Orient Express. However I was interested to see what the seating configurations would be; could we contrive some flat sleeping space? But the widows are scratch and grime coated Perspex sheets that have been star-pocked by stone hurlers. So no views inward and as it's an overnight service, no need for views out. Which effectively removes one preceptors sense, the absence of which is compensated for by noise and motion.

A laser-level, arrow-straight six hundred kilometres, with just one slight bend. Which is probably as well, for the Navigator relates how her train set used to shed the end carriage if it went around a bend too fast. The 'wobbling goose'. We're in the end carriage. Fortunately the motion isn't a sway, one to induce seasickness; it is a bounce that resonates and magnifies, until we're stotting like a bouncing ball, down the track. The 'galloping goose' or maybe more appropriately, given the vast flat Pampa that were relentlessly trundling over: 'The Galloping Gaucho'.