I almost died in Llancanelo

Around the time that Bill Fisher was incinerating the penguin, my friend Horacio and I went to visit Mendoza province in Argentina. Horacio was overweight,  at least 60 years old, and I was 28, which meant he was the boss and I carried his bags.  We flew from Buenos Aires to the city of Mendoza. There we rented a Ford Falcon, and drove to a small town near the Neuquen border, San Rafael, where we got two rooms in the best hotel in town.

The purpose of our trip was to snoop around YPF´s  Mendoza oil fields, because they had announced plans to  allow private companies to obtain service contracts. San Rafael is in the Andes foothills, so even though the scenery was a bit dry we had beautiful views of snow capped mountains due West of town.  

Andes foothills, due West from 
the plain where Llancanelo Lake is located 

Driving from our hotel base in San Rafael we started visiting the Andes foothills, collecting rocks and taking pictures.  We went to  remote places. For example, one day Horacio, who had the map and gave directions, remarked we were pretty close to the hillside where a plane full of Uruguayan rugby players had crashed (this was the crash whose  survivors had eaten the bodies of the dead). 

The last day of our visit, before returning to Mendoza, Horacio wanted us  to visit the Llancanelo lagoon . Today the lake is a bird sanctuary, a tourist spot, but at that time it was isolated and had no visitors. That lagoon is salty, because it gathers water flowing from the Andes, but there´s no outlet, and the terrain around it is desert-like. 

The day before going to the lake we  had been roaming the hills. The climate was cool but very dry, so we had drunk almost all our water bottle supply, and where down to one liter.  So, as we were heading out the hotel I suggested we stop and buy water jugs  and oranges for the trip. Unfortunately, Horacio  refused and added: "We are only going 50 km, we´ll look over the place, take photographs, and be  back for a late lunch."

And thus it came to pass that we departed San Rafael without water or oranges, on our "short" trip to  Llancanelo lake. I was driving while Horacio looked at his map and took pictures,  the trip was enjoyable and time went by very fast.  The landscape was barren, dusty, and dry,  partly covered by volcanic rocks. To be honest, on the way I felt it was ugly,  the best scenery was provided by the Andes, located behind our backs as we drove East towards the lake.

Llancanelo Lagoon

Eventually we saw the lake in the distance, and as we got closer I realized the ground was getting pretty soft. The Ford Falcon was a city car, and didn´t  have good traction in the sandy soil, which led to my suggestion that we stop and walk to the lake.

But Horacio was pretty tired,  said his feet hurt, and we should keep going.  I shrugged my shoulders, drove another  100 to 200 meters, where the ground got even softer,  which made the car  begin to shimmy and shake.

I warned Horacio  there was no way we could keep driving over that stuff, and started making a full turn to escape from that quagmire,  but it was too late: when I made the turn  the car lost speed, ran out of traction, and got stuck in the sand. We came to a full stop.

Imagine our horror when we realized  we had been driving on a layer of soft sand which lied on a layer of hard sand about  10 cm thick. The hard layer in turn floated on top of  a mixture of quicksand which  looked like a vanilla milkshake. And the car had sunk into that crap up to the damn axles.

Horacio, seeing the our condition, shouted, "Mother of God, this is hopeless, we're screwed!"

We were screwed alright...

I tried to calm him down, but after checking the map I realized we were  dozens of  kilometers from the paved road. We had a liter of water, no food, and the sun was starting to burn us.  In those days we didn´t have cell phones and we didn´t even  have a flare pistol or a way  to make smoke signals….. Horacio was right....we were screwed.

Horacio decided immediately  it would be impossible to remove the Falcon from the  vanilla shake into which  it had fallen, and said we should walk out to see if we could somehow reach the paved road, because no one was going to find us by the lake.  I reminded him that in the desert it´s  better to walk at night and hide from the sun during the day.  By then we had drunk our lonely water bottle, and  it was about 11 o'clock in the morning.  That was  by far the worst time of the day  for a fat 60 year old  to try to walk several dozen kilometers.  I was in good shape, but I wasn´t  willing to walk in the midday desert sun.

Horacio got really  angry with me and told me he wasn´t  going to wait, because he didn´t think he could survive the day in the sun, and the Falcon was an oven. For my part I said I would rather see if I could get the car unstuck. After fifteen minutes of arguing and fighting, Horacio decided he would go alone, and so he left, walking slowly.

I was young, so  I  was convinced I was going to survive. I knew the mud under the car was very soft and I had to find solid material to put under the wheels until the wheels had traction. So I got to work.

 I emptied a burlap sack that we had in the car where Horace had his rock collection, tied it with a rope around my  waist, and  started walking around the car in spirals, looking for suitable material to put under the wheels.

I found many useful things walking those spirals.  I must add that  I´m  very grateful to the pigs who had visited the place for so  many years, and had left behind cans, grills, broken chairs, pieces of wood, and all kinds of trash around the lake (I am sure that today the place is cleaner because Argentines are more respectful of the environment, but at that time they were a bit sloppy). 

 I was picking up trash, bushes, everything that could get in the sack and then drag back to the Falcon. Imagine my delight when I found a mummified rhea (guanaco)! As you know, the rhea is a pretty big bird, and in the desert the dead are either eaten by vultures or they mummify. I grabbed that big bird´s mummy,  dragged him back to the Falcon,  and concluded  I had enough junk to get to work.

Ñandu or Rhea (alive) 

First I had to lift the car, to put the wheels alightly above ground level rather than have them buried in the mud. 

That´s easy to say, but it took a lot of work to do it, because the jack would sink in the mud and failed to raise the car an inch. Then I thought of Archimedes, and placed the jack on a half barrel someone had used as a grill. 

I put the jack in the middle of the half drum, and when I jacked the Falcon rose! I repeated this wheel by wheel. Once each wheel was above ground level, I put the  garbage I had gathered in the pit where the wheel had been buried. And I put the rhea and a bunch of cans under the Falcon´s single traction wheel.

I  had worked on this project  for four to  five hours, and I was nearly dead. I took a little air out of  the tires (I had learned this trick while getting stuck  and out of trouble on the beach in Florida), I gathered  all my things, and I sat behind the wheel.

At that moment I felt like an astronaut riding on top of a Saturn V, ready  to fly into space. If the trick didn´t  work, I was going to be royally screwed.  By then I was convinced that Horacio was dead, and if I didn´t  didn´t get that car to move they would find me mummified like the  rhea.  

But luckily when I stepped on the accelerator the  Falcon started throwing garbage and pieces of rhea, lurched forward,  and reached harder ground in seconds. I was so scared I kept driving away from the lake at least one kilometer before I stopped to see what  the hell I had left behind.

Then I noticed vultures circling a few kilometers away  and started to worry about Horacio. I was nearly dead, and  convinced that Horacio, given his  age and fatness, couldn´t possibly be alive.

I continued driving towards  the place where I saw the vultures, imagining horrors. It bothered me intensely to be  aware that I  was too weak to lift Horacio´s corpse and put it in the trunk. It  didn´t  seem such a good idea to tie Horacio  by the feet and drag him behind the car all the way  to the paved road. And if I  left Horacio there, the vultures were going to eat him.  I was pained by thoughts of  Horacio´s wife cursing me because I  had left him behind.  

Vulture grabbing a bone

I was thoroughly  convinced that I would eventually  find a dead man, so I was really surprised when I saw four men on horseback in the distance. As they got closer I found out the group was three Mapuche Indians carrying Horacio. The Mapuches  had found him half dead, dehydrated, sunburned, and they were bringing him back to find my corpse. You see, Horacio was convinced I had already died of thirst, or lied crushed under the Falcon.

That evening was had a really good time. The Mapuches were were part of a group that had crossed the Andes after one of those earthquakes which devastate Chile occasionally, had hidden in the desert, and  scratched a living  selling goats in San Rafael.

They were really friendly, took us to their settlement, and gave us  food and water. I took their photos, which later  I sent to the San Rafael post office (but don´t  know if those Mapuches ever got them). 

These Indians were good people, and in the past they have been  treated badly. But they helped us and didn´t seem to give it  much thought. So I want to dedicate this to that group, because  I'm sure they saved Horacio´s life  and saved me from having to carry his body back to his wife.

Below I´m placing the  photo of Chief Lautaro, a Mapuche who became famous fighting for his people. And I want to add that if I ever have the opportunity to help some of them in return I will do it, because they deserve much better than what they got. 

Chief Lautaro of the Mapuches

2 comentarios:

  1. Horacio had a hard time after I told it when we returned to Buenos Aires. Most of us knew it was fairly dumb to go out without enough water.