Panagea Estancia. Old dog, new tricks.

10 Feb

Setting down ‘The Alchemist’ an interesting short story by Paulo Coelho, I find myself slightly concerned at having seen two serious crashes during the bus journey from Punta del Este to Tacaurembo in the Uruguay’s north. What are the omens – should we carry on? Should we get off the bus? Was this horse caper really such a good idea? The latter, for me, seems the most obvious as I have a childhood aversion to riding horses which stems back to my first and only experience in the UK. My sister’s beast managed to cover a distance of just 100m before tripping over its own feet (hooves apparently) thus neatly depositing me in an instant, in a heap.

“Why would I want to ride a horse, they’re just dumb animals” I would state at every given opportunity whilst chucking a leg over whichever motorbike was parked in the garage…. Bikes have owned me completely for the last 10 years, and as I find myself in the alarming position of being without one in Australia I have been casually trawling the net for the last couple of months; quietly comparing, researching until there it was, I’d found it; a 1996 Triumph Speed Triple (just to clarify, the 6 speed and gold brakes version) I casually mentioned the bike and its unique qualities to a bemused Kelly, umming and arring for 3 weeks before deciding that I was unlikely to ever find a better example. Thus, as we left civilization, mobile coverage and internet access behind, I fired off an enquiry as a potentially interested buyer – I wouldn’t find out for 5 days whether I would be getting a new toy, it was like being a child on December the 20th.

We arrive in Tacaurembo bus terminal at half past five after having spent the whole day travelling, we’ve an hour to kill before our host, Juan, is to meet us, it’s hot, humid, and feels like it might rain. Six thirty arrives and no Juan, the minutes tick by with still no sign.

A glimmer of hope begins to appear that he’s not coming, that perhaps I’ll be spared the humiliation of horse-riding and that we can head back to Montevideo, but then from nowhere, sometime after 7 o’clock he pops up – a lithe, wiley character resplendent in Gaucho hat and boots, he looks like the real deal and I begin to feel very out of my depth.

An hour or so later we arrive at the boundary of the Panagea Estancia, a 1000 hectare cattle and sheep ranch. Dry stone walls divide the paddocks, the rolling hills and distant views remind me of the Yorkshire Dales, Northern Uruguay is a beautiful part of the world.

“In our culture it is the passenger that opens the gate – I believe it is the same in yours, no?” Our jovial host says, now, I’ve stayed on farms a couple of times before and know that this inclusive exercise will be conducted absolutely for his own amusement. Experience and the odd lingering scar have taught me that no two farm gates ever open in the same way, especially on the same property.

Some have wooden bars, others wire loops or chains. Some open left, others right. All need to be man handled, pulled, pushed, held, propped or shouldered to open. It feels like an initiative test and after a couple of beers and 10 hours of travelling it is fair to say I’m not exactly on my A game. Right now I know two things; the first is that I have exactly the time it takes me between jumping out of the truck and walking the 5 paces to the gate to solve the puzzle. The second is that if I stuff this up and my ham-fisted efforts need to be rescued, Juan may bring this up once or twice during our stay, the smart money is on the gate.

Thus, I slide very, very, slowly out of the passenger seat and stride towards my opponent, sizing it up; the solution, as expected, is far from obvious – a quick shake offers no clues, the only outcome; that I am now missing a piece of skin from my right knuckle, perfect. The seconds pass like minutes, thus it seems like 5 minutes later that the winning combination is delivered; the old chain lift, wedge with the left, and swing with the right beats the gate into submission. I stand proudly (and surprisingly untangled) by as driver, truck, girlfriend and expectations of ridicule pass. I nod an experienced farm hand’s nod to the occupants, close the gate (text book error averted) and hop back in, breathing a silent sigh of relief.

From here it is a short drive through a Eucalypt plantation (the only useful thing to have come out of Australia according to our driver, said with a wink to Kelly) and here we are at the Panagea homestead.

We are introduced to Juan’s partner Susann from Switzerland, their two daughters; Dharma and Abril and the only other guest Shara, a lawyer from Oakland, California, here on a writing retreat. The sun is setting as we’re shown around the house in half-light (electricity and powered light available for just 2 hours from 8.30pm). We view the kitchen with its wood burning stove, the well outside the back door for drawing water, our shared bathroom (complete with bucket for flushing the loo), bedroom with its simple furnishings, set upon dark wooden floors and the beer fridge (gas powered to ensure that a cold beer is always available). We instantly love the place and that our help is needed to light the fire and to prepare the dinner.

After a wonderful dinner of steaks cooked outside on the open fire, we turn in as candles are lit and the power switched off, distant flashes of lightning silhouette the trees outside our bedroom window. I’m woken a few hours later by a huge thunderstorm and then the strangest of blue-ish glows sweeping through the corridors then past the bedroom window. It turns out not to be the apparition of a former novice horse-riding guest, but the light from Susann’s head-torch as she scurries around the house closing windows as the storm howls and rattles the frames. Just as I’m nodding off back to sleep there is an almighty crash from outside – I drift off, dreaming that perhaps a fence has come down and the horses have escaped….

Day 1 on the ranch dawns and we’re up early, as the falling off horse activities are scheduled to begin at 8.30am. It seems that the nags are going to get a lie in today, as it’s chucking it down and Juan announces that there is no horse-riding in the rain. I try my best to look disappointed.

It also turns out that the noise in the night was not of that of the horse enclosure collapsing, but that of a large limb coming down from a tree adjacent to the house. On its way it has severed the water pipe to the house, thousands of litres of water have been lost, our host shrugs it off ‘when you live on a farm these things happen’. So as he chainsaws the carnage we put our raingear on and lend a hand to clear things up. Soaked, satisfied and hungry, we break for a hearty lunch during which more disaster strikes – the rain stops, shit, we’ll be riding this afternoon and I’ll be forced to face my fears…

…. and how misplaced they turned out to be. Duly shown how to saddle our own horses (as we would be doing it for ourselves from here on) I was given Nube, (‘Cloud’ in English) to ride – as docile and tame a beast as one could imagine. Think well fed, sleepy, Labrador puppy, that’s in a very good mood and you’re getting close. So off we went, walking into the widest of landscapes the feeling of freedom enhanced for me by my clumsy efforts to steer Nube and by and ignorance of where we were supposed to be going – I was off on an adventure and not quite sure where I’d end up.

Our mission for the afternoon was to herd the sheep into a Corral…

….and then treating the flock for worms with a syringe to the mouth – tip throw a firm leg over first as it makes it much easier to get your own way (insert own gag here) we then explored the ranch on horseback.

For one of us this was done with much bouncing up and down in a very, very ungainly trot. Returning, grinning from ear to ear to de-saddle at the homestead, I was happy to be in one piece and confident to be able to ride Nube tomorrow with no danger of falling off. My bubble however was swiftly popped with a quick aside from Juan; “Tomorrow we change horses – Matt you will ride Kaiser”. “Great” I lied – Kaiser was the horse that Kelly had been riding this afternoon and who I couldn’t help but notice didn’t walk through the streams that crisscrossed the property, he jumped over them. Seems that the adventure was set to continue…

Dawn broke on day 2 and it was raining. Despite the expectation of death or maiming from falling from Kaiser (the leaping horse) I was in all honesty disappointed not to be able to ride until the afternoon, as yesterday had been so much fun. The rain eventually stopped and after lunch we set out on horseback to muster cattle to a Corral…

…and from there, on foot, through to an egg shaped smaller enclosure, so they could be injected with a vaccine against foot and mouth. Kelly and I were each given a white flag (were we expected to need to surrender?) and sent into ‘The Egg’.

The Egg does a great job of trapping the cattle; unfortunately it had done an even better job of trapping last night’s rainwater. We thus emerge an hour later laughing covered head to foot in a cowpat soup (about as tasty as it sounds).

Exhilarated we return the cattle to their paddock before cantering back – it’s a revelation; Kaiser’s long, smooth, responsive gait is a joy. I’m enjoying myself more this afternoon than yesterday and am looking forward to riding this horse again tomorrow.

This however turns out to be a misplaced notion, as whilst we are taking the tack off, our host’s now familiar words hang in the air ‘Tomorrow we change horses – Kelly you will ride ‘Gala’, Matt you will ride Rebellion’ ‘Rebellion?’ I answer. ‘Yes, Rebellion’. Hmm wonder why he’s called Rebellion…

That night round the campfire we get to know our fellow guests; we meet the Schipper family from Santa Barbara – Greg, Denise, 11-year old daughter Aubrey and 5-year old son Everest. ‘Everest’ I repeat as I had misheard, ‘Yes like the mountain’ clarifies Greg – ‘oh not like the double glazing company then’ I catch myself not saying. They are a great family unit, travelling for another 18 months. Kelly chats to Aubrey and I try to teach Everest the art of making a campfire – I can neither confirm nor deny reports of a quantity of candles going missing during our stay.

The other guests are Gregorio and Anna from Frankfurt – affable enthusiastic novices relieved at the production of das protocol for horse-riding, in summary ‘to stop the horse, pull the bloody reins’. Lola, a fearless Frenchwoman is staying for a few days, and resident on the adjacent property is Bilinga, who is the fulltime ranch-hand, a proper Gaucho and who has the patience of a saint with novice cattle hands. Juan produces a bottle of homemade honey flavoured Grappa, ghost stories are told, the tales get sillier and then as the lights go out, we stumble off to bed.

Day 3 dawns clear and sunny – the prospect of a full day of riding see’s us eagerly up before everyone else keen to continue with the adventure and also to get to know our new rides. It doesn’t take long for it to become apparent why Rebellion got his name. With the horses already lined up against the wire fence halter’s already in place, all there is to do is lead him over to the tack to saddle up.

‘C’mon Boy’, I said, enthusiastically tugging on the lead rope and making clucking noises.

Rebellion, stood firm.

‘C’mon Boy’ I repeated, sternly.

I get nothing; if horses can look bored, Rebellion looks bored.

‘Get ‘ere’ I growled yanking the halter.

Rebellion, yanked back harder.

Thankfully Bilinga our Gaucho was watching, and keen to leave before lunchtime, strides over and in an instant, with nothing more than a firm word, has Rebellion in position.

By this time most of our fellow riders were ready to go – throwing blankets on, I next grab the saddle to put on the horse…. who has now disappeared . Rebellion it seems had decided to go and hang out with his mates in the next corall, with Bilinga busy I decided it wasn’t even worth trying to manouver him back into position, so we saddled up surrounded with his mates. (2 – nil to Rebellion)

We set off and as I’m now familiar with the layout of the first field decide to move up a gear and into a trot, delivering a swift kick half to assert authority but more because he deserved it – Rebellion responds by launching not into a trot but straight into a canter, his acceleration taking me by surprise and I find myself hanging on for dear life whilst laughing hysterically charging up the paddock.

Arriving first (by some considerable margin) I open the gate we are to leave through and stand to one side as the cowboys and girls pass to the next field. Jumping down to close the gate, I need two hands, so drop the reins for a second – which turns out to be all my (un)trusty steed needs in order to turn on his heels (hooves apparently) and dash off after his mates. So there I am stood at the top of a hill, horseless, feeling like a wally hollering after a disobedient animal, who once caught then thinks it great fun to start to walk off as I try to mount him with one foot in the stirrups, the other frantically hopping as I try to stay upright. It is never this hard getting on my bike.

Eventually I make it back to the saddle and we head off to muster cattle and sheep, Rebellion tries it for the first half of the ride – refusing to cross streams, trot, turn left, right, slow down, pretty much disobeying every command I give him. After an hour I’ve had enough and stop taking no for an answer – employing a short rein, firm hand and many stern words (most of which are not repeatable) we reach an understanding and I gain a great feeling of satisfaction. If Juan hadn’t insisted on changing things up for us daily, there is no way I would have had the confidence to master Rebellion, I’m sure that everyone feels the same way, Kelly in particular who’s been given Juan’s ride, Gala, today (said to be The Ferrari of the fleet); and given the speed at which I’m overtaken, this mare would I’m sure have a fair chance at winning next year’s Grand National, we are both having an awesome time.

Cattle and sheep duly moved, we return to the Homestead for our last night sat round the fire. Our last night turns out to be a late night and we emerge bleary eyed, a bit dusty and a bit sad the next morning to saddle up for the last time. Juan gives us our instructions – we are to complete our biggest ride and bring in 300 head of cattle from the furthest paddock.

Arriving there Kelly and I head off by ourselves to the farthest corner, just to check for brown cows hiding in bushes I’m told. We stop to drink in the view for one last time…

Before returning to the group to drive the cows through a river and back towards the ranch.

Neither of us want to leave, we’re having too much fun, it’s agreed – being on the estancia has been the highlight of the trip so far and we are so very grateful to our hosts for making it so.

In the blink of an eye we’re back at the ranch, taking the tack off the horses for the last time, Kelly says it is sweet that I gave Rebellion a hug. I said she doesn’t know what she is talking about, as I was just checking that his halter wasn’t twisted.

Anyway – I have found a new passion, horse-riding, and also a place I would love to return to.

That’s all folks,

Cheers for now

Matt x

PS the bike was sold. Never mind, it just means I get to keep looking, now, what about a Ducati…

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2 Responses to “Panagea Estancia. Old dog, new tricks.”

  1. Father Bear February 20, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Great story Matt, it sounded like a very memorable experience, but you didn’t explain why it was compulsory for all the riders to sit on dead sheep.
    Your face was a picture Kelly when you were playing in the cow pat soup.
    Your fire raising skills were inherited Matt. Remember at Cub camp when I was in charge of the fire. It took just one match and didn’t go out for a week.It was very clever of you to make sure the petrol can was out of the camera’s view.
    Keep on having fun and keep your hand on your wallet in Brazil.

  2. Holty March 10, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    G,Day Matt and Kelly,

    I,m so glad you are having a ball doing what you are doing. I must admit i am a little jealous.

    Does this mean that when you get back you are going to implement some changes to the Doubleview property .i.e. cancell the lawn mower man and buy a sheep ( so you can keep the grass down and perfect the “throw a firm leg over first as it makes it much easier to get your own way” manouver) , put barn doors on the carport to house your horse and wooden wagon, and dig up the water main to give you a running stream and a source for filling your buckets . The oportunities are endless. You could even convert the pool into a sheep dip corral.

    Looking forward to giving you a call when your phone is on again and hearing what other adventures you have been getting up to. Till then , as Mister C above says,keep on having fun and take care .

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