27th December 2012
This is what we did on Boxing Day, 2012 – a typical day on our inaugural Gaucho Christmas trip.
At around eight we get up, pull on our shorts and T-shirts and potter outside for breakfast. This meal, like almost all others, is taken al fresco on the terrace, and at this hour will include eggs, toast, cereal, homemade jams and local honey, strong coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice.
At about nine we’ll watch Chico and Marola – the two senior gauchos – along with Alejandro and Francesco, bring the horses into the garden and start saddling them up. By nine thirty – or thereabouts – we’ve changed into our riding gear, have climbed aboard and are heading out onto the ranch.
As an 8,000-hectare estancia, with more than 1,300 cattle and 100 horses, there is plenty of work to be done. Every 21 days, the cattle have to be rounded up and put through a dip to prevent dangerous ticks from infecting them; calves need to be checked for worms; horses’ hooves have to be cut; bulls tested for brucellosis… the list goes on. Of course it’s up to us how much we do, but certainly this group was up for almost anything and a typical first job of the day would see us ride to the other side of the estancia where we’d round up around 200 cattle – cows with their young – and herd them back to the corral.
Herding cattle is actually pretty easy, and even the less experienced riders – riders that in all honestly were little more than beginners – managed to enjoy taking part. Once you’ve spotted all the animals you need to catch you form a loop around them and drive the ones at the back forwards, until you have them all in one group. Then, with the better riders flanking the sides, the ones at the back push forward and the whole herd moves as one. Of course it doesn’t always go to plan. Occasionally some ‘break-out’ necessitating the better riders to spin round and gather them up before the trickle becomes the flood and the whole herd scatters; once we pushed some so tight to a fence that they jumped through it; another time we sent the herd the wrong way. But none of this really matters; firstly its great fun putting the situation right – the gaucho horses are superbly trained and great to ride – and secondly if it does all go pear shaped, the real gauchos are there to mop up.
With the cattle safely in the corral, we head back to the estancia and with the temperature now well into the 30s we grab a beer and have a swim. At around 13.30 we have lunch, which naturally includes beef or lamb washed down with some tasty local Malbec, and follow that with a siesta. At around 16.30 we’re ready for round two.
To dip the cattle we have to first split the cows from their calves – a noisy business but one that is relatively simple to achieve, with some on horseback and some on foot – before driving them through a wooden crush and into the dip. If any have any injuries these can be seen to at the same time. Once done – the whole process takes around two and a half hours – we drive them back to their part of the estancia, and this, for me, is the most special part of the day.
With the work almost done and the heat receding, this is the most magical time to ride. The cattle seem to know where they’re going, sauntering slowly through the rain pans and marshes, across the vast, flat grasslands and on towards the distant woods. The cormorants and waterfowl fly in formation silhouetted against the burning sky. Glowing dragonflies flit above the lilies; swifts swoop to catch the insects disturbed by our passing. A full moon, enormous and red, begins to rise; stars start to appear. It’s magical, simply magical. And with the cattle safely delivered back to their field we canter slowly home.
By about 20.30 we’re back at the estancia, where we shower – or take another swim – have a drink and sit down to dinner at 21.30. Again it will be meat, beef or lamb or delicious chorizo sausage (or special food cooked for the vegetarians) washed down with some delicious local wine (all included by the way) before hitting the sack around midnight.
I love riding, wherever and whenever, but when doing it with a mission, it is so much more rewarding. Everyone, expert riders and beginners alike, all took part and all absolutely loved it.