LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 55
Page. 130 - 137
Text and Pictures: Federico Quintana
I immediately recognised the french accent on the telephone. It was Henri Barret, who was calling from La Lejanía, the marvellous hotel on the banks of the Nono River (LUGARES 37). It was a call to adventure:
-"I'm organising one of my Andean expeditions and one of the team is missing a partner. Are you interested?"
-"This is a bit of a surprise Henri. When is it?"
-"This weekend. We leave from Villa Unión in La Rioja for the Andes and will spend four days on foot to get to the top of Mount Bonete (6872m), before ending up in Fiambalá in Catamarca. Are you game?"
How could I refuse? I had met Henri and his wife, Nicole, the previous year whilst writing an article about his hotel for the special edition on Córdoba. Henri had mentioned his occasional trips into the mountains then and had said that he would call me when a suitable occasion arose. It is difficult to find a pair of adventurers like the Barrets. The love and passion they feel for the Andes and the North has turned them into real experts on the region. Their adventurous curriculum is almost endless: 5th place in the National Rally Championship in 1980, a long expedition across the Sahara in 1983; in the last 10 years they have organised over forty 4x4 expeditions in the NOA - Henri has also written a book on the subject. They were the first to climb some of the highest mountains in the Andes, including the Condor at 6,500m and the Vallecito at 6,150m. Presently they are almost fully dedicated to their hotel, but also spend months making advance preparations for their annual, offseason expedition. Guided by satellite images and GPS they are sometimes accompanied by Catalino Soriano, a guide from Antofagasto de la Sierra. "It's give and take. He learns something from us and we learn things from him. The rest we learn together", said Henri. Together with my travelling companion Carlos Larreteguy, I left for San Juan in the first weekend of November.
We woke early the next morning in order to be able to reach Villa Unión in time for our rendezvous with Henri and our other companions on the adventure. The place we were to meet was a service station and, punctually, all nine vehicles and their 20 passengers that were to make up our group, arrived from a variety of different Provinces. Henri and Nicole were already there, equipped to the hilt, with their white Land Rover Defender. The rest of the vehicles were quite a mixture: besides our KIA there was a Toyota Hilux, a Land Rover Discovery, a Suzuki Vitara and a Chevy V6, all with roof-racks, 80 litres of spare fuel, 20 litres of water, spades, pumps, compressors, spare wheels-nothing was missing. Henri had tents and enough food prepared by Nicole for the four days of the journey and another 6 days more. "On these journeys you never know", said Nicole - I preferred not to ask any more! I knew we were in good hands and that the organisers had thought of every last detail.
As planned, we left Villa Unión at 4pm sharp. We passed through Villa Castelli and after Jagüe we took the road leading to Laguna Brava up to the Quebrada de Vaca Seca at 3,400m. We camped at the Refugio del Peñon, built by Domingo Sarmiento. The first stage passed without incident, although we had to use four wheel drive on several occasions. It was a taste of the sort of terrain we could expect and an opportunity gradually to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude. That night some members of the group suffered the first effects of altitude sickness, but this disappeared the next morning after the excellent breakfast that Nicole had prepared. At daybreak, when the sunlight turns the mountains and valleys into a chiaroscuro miracle, we started the second, 300km stage. The first stop of the day was to the north of the spectacular Laguna Brava. The emerald green water, set in the middle of the snow-white salt flats, has a hypnotic beauty. The scenery was so other-worldly that I felt as if I was in a Jules Veme story. We were close to another of the circular refuges built by Sarmiento, called the Refugio del Destapado (The Refuge of the Uncovered). It is so named after a close-by grave, where amongst the rocks you can see a pair of boots protruding from the ground. Legend has it that their anonymous owner uncovers them during the hot summer months. As you would expect, nobody really knows the story of the "Destapado", but he must have been bold to have died, as they say, with his boots on. To complete the mysterious and fascinating atmosphere of the lake, on the far bank one can see the remains of a crashed aircraft whose story, again, nobody knows.
We had already climbed easily to 4000m when we reached the Ladera del Inca Pillo, a difficult pass, blocked with snow, into the crater of the impressive Cerro Bonete at 5,600m. Despite our best efforts, the snow was too deep and soft even for our vehicles. Nevertheless we all thoroughly enjoyed the morning. We re-traced our steps back to the "Destapado" and from there back to the Veladero and thence to the Barrancas Blancas, where we spent the second night. The cold at 4,200m was a test of resistance for the group as we arrived tired and hungry. We were revived by an asado and Nicole's homemade cakes, and soon after were ready for our sleeping bags.
We awoke with the sunrise and the delicious aroma of coffee. In only a few minutes the tents and sleeping bags were packed and we were ready for the third stage of our journey: more than 420kms across precarious open slopes on a path once used by the old gold prospectors.
I will always remember that morning, the most dangerous of the whole journey. Carlos and I got stuck in the middle of the Salado River when the engine cut out in the middle of the river. The current was very strong and we were in the deepest part of the river. I was sweating despite the cold. The 4x4 was fantastic, but it was far from being a submarine! The water was pounding against my door and was passing above the level of the bonnet. It quickly started to enter the cab of the KIA...and I had no way of getting out on my side, if I opened either the door or the window the car would be full of water in seconds. With admirable courage and no little effort Carlos got out on his side and waded to the far bank to bring back a cable with which our friends could winch us to safety. The water was freezing and I suffered just watching my companion wading through the water with the cable in his hand, looking more like Indiana Jones than Carlos Larreteguy. I looked askance at the water in the cab, it was already up to the level of the seats. I saw that the gear lever was completely submerged. At that stage I was getting seriously worried, sitting there and holding my cameras tightly on my lap. Carlos finally managed to attach the cable and our friends on dry land fished us out of the river. What a relief! The only thing that suffered any damage was our poor KIA: we had lost the four-wheel drive and the turbocharger was history. But with his tool-kit and an hour's work, Henri managed to repair the four-wheel drive. The only problem was that it was now permanently on!
After a short rest and a lunch that fully revived us, we continued on our journey. In a couple of hours we arrived at the abandoned mine at Macho Muerto. While we were exploring the surrounding area we discovered a very friendly fox that watched us curiously. But a fox is always a fox and he kept a sensible distance.
We continued on to Cajón de la Brea, a deep canyon of red and yellow rock that looked like a miniature version of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. For several hours we followed the Rio Blanco until it left the canyon. We were then back in an interminable, bleak desert landscape that took a couple of hours to cross before we reached a good place to camp, close to the river that had reappeared.
It was our last night in the desert and we celebrated with a wonderful dinner. In the three days that we had been together a real team spirit and sense of camaraderie had been generated within the group. It was as if we had known one another all our lives. We forgot our weariness and laughed around the table, telling jokes and funny stories until late into the night. That night, despite Henri's advice, I pitched my tent beyond the area chosen by him, which was protected from the wind. It would be worth the risk because the view was unobstructed and spectacular. The price I had to pay was putting up with everyone's jokes throughout dinner. They said the wind would blow me off the mountain all the way to Villa Unión. Although I didn't take them too seriously, I spent a long time finding stones big enough to take into the tent to anchor it to the ground, just in case. When I went to sleep I felt more like I was in a cave than in a tent. But it was worth the effort: I was tightly sheathed in the sleeping bag and, after a great deal of struggling, I managed to lie down with just my head, sporting a thick hat, poking out of the tent. The prize for all this effort was an unforgettable view. Never had I seen so many stars. Luckily, the following morning, l awoke in exactly the same place.
On the last day we calmly made our preparations for the return journey. We already thought that we could relax. But "life is full of surprises" as Willy Columbus said - most probably so did Christopher. We left in the direction of Jagüe and everything was peaceful until after lunch, when we started the descent down the magnificent Quebrada del Leoncito. This part of the journey seemed more like I imagine the Camel Trophy to be. We had to use the winches, the spades, the ropes and all our strength. The red clay and the rocks of the gorge seemed to be an impassable obstruction. But didn't we have fun! After all, wasn't this what we had come for? We arrived at Jague in the evening and took the same road as on the first day to return to Villa Unión, where we stopped for the final night at the Noryane Pat Hotel. The owners welcomed us warmly, despite the tons of dirt and dust we brought with us.
The dinner, which was prolonged by toasts, chatter and the exchange of telephone numbers and addresses, was a mixture of satisfaction and melancholy: the adventure had ended. But I have made great new friends and we have wonderful, shared memories.