Somehow I had imagined that riding on the pampa would be a wild, savage sort of business and was quite unprepared for Blanco, an exceptionally sweet-natured creature. The locals laughed like drains when I put on my velvet- covered hard hat. I could retain my dignity
only by insisting that I wouldn't get accident insurance if I didn't wear the hat. The revenque - silver-topped, bound in leather with a muscular twang, bought in a Buenos Aires bric-a- brac shop before the journey west - met with more respect.
We had driven for two hours from Buenos Aires to visit friends in Chivilcoy, a typical pampa town founded in 1854. This is one of the richest spots of the most fertile land in the world, a six-feet-thick layer of humus, or decayed vegetable matter, stretching like a billiard table for hundreds of miles in every direction. Argentines tell you that the pampa (always singular) is beautiful but boring. They could not understand why I wanted to visit it. They go there only to get to scenic playgrounds such as mountainous Bariloche or the beach paradise Mar del Plata, and thrash through it as if it were some kind of purposeless desert, instead of a plain of captivating beauty and the economic heartland of the country.
At first it looked as though we might not be able to ride. Stables are virtually unknown in the countryside and the horses, once broken in, roam free all the year round. Hence they know none of the neuroses of their urban counterparts in Europe, but they are shy and difficult to catch.
One evening Blanco wandered into the paddock. Mingo, who helped on the land, approached him gently, and effortlessly, it seemed, slipped a halter on him. The next morning he put on him an ancient gaucho saddle, a blanket and sheepskin with a pale raw leather girth that wrapped round and round. The dangling stirrups were wide leather rings - an evolved version of the original Indian rope stirrups. The ensemble felt as comfortable as an armchair.
I took the two long reins in my left hand, as instructed, and we trotted out on the spongy pasture. There were no paths, no tracks, no fences. Just the flat horizon, the huge sky and a few trees, planted perhaps a hundred years ago. As we sploshed into a salty swamp, birds were startled, piping and screaming, into wheeling flight. Some were fleet and elegant, others fat and lumbering. None had I seen or heard before. One had a particularly insistent call - 'bicho feo' ('ugly mug'). It was like being in an aviary.
Hour after hypnotic hour went by. The intense afternoon heat softened into golden evening. We ambled along a dirt road, kicking up the rich umber dust. We came upon a shuttered colonial estancia (estate) house with a pillared balustrade along the roof. Shadowed by majestic palm trees, it was built around a cool, tiled courtyard.
The caretaker seemed pleased at the rare visitors. 'The house belongs to a bachelor in his sixties who lives in Buenos Aires and sometimes visits at weekends,' he said as he opened the wrought-iron gate to show us the patio. 'Come tomorrow and take a drink with me,' he called, afflicted by the loneliness of the countryside, as we turned for home.
We passed another old estancia house, its windows protected by metal bars, curlicued and riveted. In the barn at the back was a car covered in a tarpaulin, a 1920s Plymouth, duck- egg blue, the keys still in the ignition. The house had been neglected for years, victim of a struggle over inheritance - a story which is often heard in Argentina.
At night the sky fills with southern stars, a light-show augmented by a blizzard of fireflies, blinking on your hand, dropping into your beer. Toads flup-flupped on the courtyard as we waited for the beef to cook on a grill the size of a bedstead - for big parties my hosts actually used bedsteads.
Chivilcoy, like every Argentine provincial town, is organised on a grid system, centring on the Plaza Central around which are grouped the cathedral, the bank, the police station, the auction rooms for cattle and horses, and the bars, whose terraces spill out on to the pavement.
The best view of the town is from the air. Paco, a young pilot at the local aerodrome, will take you up in a four-seat Cessna for one US dollar a minute. We bumped along the lushest, greenest runway in the world and the rectilinear town peeled away like a tilting chessboard, with the leafy plaza in the middle.
Viewed from 400 feet, the pampa extends like a shimmering lawn, as flat and endless as the sea. The uniformity was broken only by a winding river that floods to form a salty lagoon during the summer's electric storms. Paco said the uniformity could be hazardous. 'Once with a friend I was flying and it was getting dark and we got lost. There were no landmarks at all. Finally we spotted a little railway station, so we flew low to read the name. Only then did we know where we were.'
On the pampa there are hundreds of stations which all look the same, transplanted from the Victorian English countryside. On our ride, we came across what looked like an abandoned station at Palomon Huerco. We waded up to our knees in silken, swishing pasture to the platform's edge. The rails were submerged, distinguishable only by touch.
The wrought-iron bench could have come from Brief Encounter, the points and levers were made, so the embossed letters said, by the Railway Signal Company Ltd, Liverpool England, and there was a carefully tended riot of crimson dahlias. An old man approached who introduced himself as 'station master, telegraph operator, peon, everything'.
There were two trains a week, he said, on Friday and Sunday, up to Buenos Aires and down to the pampa, part of a huge rail network that fans out from the capital like the fingers of a hand. Beaming with the benevolent condescension that Argentines reserve for the British - whom they regard as eccentric, but respect none the less - he took me into the ticket office, which gleamed with military neatness, and showed me the safe. 'Milners Patent Fire- Resistant' was emblazoned in brass, polished to dazzling brightness. 'All this was built by the Ingleses in 1904,' he said. 'You can't take photos,' he added, as I snapped away. 'The railway doesn't permit it.'
Nearby is the historic town of San Antonio de Areco. There I stayed on the estancia La Portena, one of a number of grand establishments which take in guests who fancy living like an estanciero. La Portena is home of the Guiraldes family, landowners who were among San Antonio's founders. When I visited, Manuel Guiraldes was away playing polo in Spain. His wife, Keka, was panicking at the prospect of a wedding party of 85 due the next morning.
Keka's aunt, Nora Guiraldes, explained - as we sat in a simple dining room, eating steak off Coalport china with Georgian silver from Mappin & Webb, that little had changed there since she was a girl during the 1940s, except that then they had gas lighting. 'My mother used to ride side-saddle,' she said. 'But I drove a sports car]'
Under the veranda, by the wrought-iron fountain, Nora's grandfather Ricardo Guiraldes wrote the classic of gaucho literature, Don Segundo Sombra, in 1927. The book idealised and immortalised the legendary horsemen of the Argentine pampa, the solitary wandering descendants of Spanish settlers and long-extinguished pampa Indians.
Hugo, who looks after Manuel Guiraldes's 75 horses, took me out on Paloma, a 10-year- old polo horse. You can learn to play polo at La Portena, practising how to swing the stick on a handsome wooden horse by the tack room and on the family's polo field, instructed by the best players in the world.
It was Britain which brought polo to the Argentines, and they ended up beating the British at their own game.
Hugo explained what in his opinion made a good polo horse: 'He must be brave, fast, with good acceleration, manoeuvrable and able to stop on demand.' We ambled through a wood to fields and open pampa and suddenly came upon a group of 15 horses wandering freely. 'There are Don Miguel's best polo ponies,' Hugo announced, pointing, as the elegant creatures loped delicately away.
For holidays on private estates in Argentina, contact 'Estancias y Hoteles', PO Box No 0526, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.
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