The journey to the ranch was a very favourable 5 hours by coach. As we left Montevideo, the rain was pouring down and it didn't look hopeful for the day ahead, but as we drove things started to brighten up and even the sun came out. The drive took us through some beautiful landscape as we headed deeper into the Uruguayan countryside. There were rolling green hills on either side, interspersed with lush green forests and buildings, and scattered with animals. As the journey continued, the sun shone high in the bright blue sky reflecting off the surface of lakes as we passed. We passed a farm on one side where they had lit a huge bonfire causing a silky mist across the fields surrounding it.
We were picked up in Tacuarembó by Juan, the owner of the ranch where we were staying. All hopes of meeting a strapping, young Gaucho were dashed as a 40 something man came strolling towards us. We all piled into the minivan with our rucksacks and cases that appear to be getting heavier and heavier by the day. As we made the journey to the ranch, the sun began to set. It created a deep orange-pink hue in the sky. We turned down a bumpy dirt road track which we continued on for what felt like hours. Due to the uneven surface, we were all bobbing up and down in the back of the van like we were on pogo sticks. Finally we arrived at the ranch which was called Panagea. This is named after......
We found our rooms and claimed our beds. Juan ran through the house rules and introduced us to his wife Susannah and children, and we quickly discovered what a dry sense of humour he had, we were all going to get along just fine. Juan is himself from Uruguay and Susannah is from Switzerland. They met some years ago whilst they were both travelling, and despite Susannah not liking Juan upon first sight, he managed to persuade her to give up her life in Switzerland and move to Uruguay and the remote ranch. The rest as they say is history. They welcomed us all into their home and ranch for the next couple of days. It is a working sheep and cattle ranch where everyday you can help as much or as little as you like with tasks such as herding the animals, vaccinations, preparing the meals, and riding the horses. Any stresses quickly disappeared and all that awaited us were 2 days of rest and relaxation, with no electricity, no internet, no phone, just the simple things in life.
The following day we awoke to yet more rain and the possibility of taking the horses out quickly vanished. Instead Juan took us out for a walk around the ranch. We must have walked for a good couple of hours in the drizzling rain. He took us up to the top of an old volcano crater. This one was much easier to navigate!
At the top we saw a nest that contained the most enormous Rhea eggs. They are birds closely related to the emu, so you can imagine the size of these things. We also visited a cemetery which was located at the top of a very steep hill. It was a bit treacherous getting up and down the hill in our slippery wellies we had borrowed from Juan, but we did our best as we zig-zagged the hill and eventually made it back safely. What awaited us was a very damp and soggy BBQ being cooked in the rain on an old plough wheel. We each chose our steaks and then cooked them exactly how we wanted them and piled our plates high with delicious salad.
The rain continued to pour for the rest of the day and until the following morning, getting heavier as it went. On many occasions it looked like it might be clearing up, and just as Melissa and Simon uttered those fateful words, the rain started up again and we went back to chatting, playing cards and reading. Electricity was very scarce and they had to run a generator every evening between 7.00-9.30pm as the power lines don’t reach out as far as the ranch. We therefore had to rely on candles and headtorches after this time. Thankfully Juan and Susannah had a very well stocked cellar of wine, so the frustration of the day was alleviated by the many bottles of wine we consumed as we huddled round the candlelight under our blankets, and Sarah J, Melissa, Jenny and I stayed up until 2am, chatting and laughing so much it hurt.
Our second day at the ranch brought renewed faith in the weather as it had stopped raining and we were able to get out and about on the horses. First Juan showed us how to saddle up the horses Gaucho style. We were then each given our own horse for the day and we set about trying to remember what we had just been taught. My horse was called Basho, which apparently related to his colour. He had a beautiful grey/white coat and was so soft you couldn't help but want to stroke him. Our task for the day was to take the horses out to muster the sheep and bring them back in for drenching (deworming). It was great fun being out on the horses and having to control them to be in the right position for the mustering was challenging but by the end of the morning it was us controlling them rather than the other way round.
After some more of Susannah's delicious home cooked food we began the afternoon by working in teams to deworm all the little lambs. Some of us had to grab the lambs and keep them still between our legs, but they were very wriggly and difficult to get hold of. Emma and Paul then squirted the medicine into their mouths whilst Jenny and Nimisha marked the top of their heads with chalk so we knew which ones had been done. Then it was time to take the flock back out into the paddocks. So off we rode once again after we had saddled up our horses. We carefully mustered the sheep out into the fields surrounding the ranch. This time round I felt much more confident on the horse and was able to control Basho more and tell him where to go to make sure none of the sheep made a run for it. Due to all the rain the previous day there were patches of very soft marshy land and some very free-flowing rivers which we had to cross.
We were all very sad to be leaving the ranch the next day. And it was sod’s law that it was a really nice day again with bright blue skies, the perfect weather to be on the ranch. I would have liked a bit more time on the horses as I was just beginning to get into it. It had been nice to be away from it all and get back to basics for a few days. So, we headed back out into civilization as Juan drove us towards the Argentinian border and a little town called Salto. As we passed through villages on the way, the smell of what I can only liken to honeysuckle filled the minivan. Salto was a funny little town with not much to show for itself other than the lure of some thermal baths. The temperatures in these baths reached 38-40⁰C and in the strong sunlight it was difficult to stay in them for too long without feeling a little light-headed.
Another border crossing, another stamp in the passport. We crossed into Argentina in a taxi and as we dutifully waited in line to get our next stamp symbolising our rite to pass into yet another country, I know Dad would have been very jealous of my ever growing collection of passport stamps.