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A Natural History of the Desert

A Natural History of the Desert

A Natural History of the Desert

Anybody who lingers in Mendoza has their attention naturally drawn south to the vineyards and west to the mountains.  Nobody looks east, except when considering Buenos Aires on the very distant horizon, or contemplating the long trip to Cordoba. The vast badlands of the Cuyo region are mostly observed from behind a bus curtain or high above from an airplane window and the general feeling is: “Jeez, there is absolutely nothing out there!”

It would seem the Mars Space Rover has a better chance of finding life on the Red Planet than a wayward traveler stumbling through the desert bush of Mendoza´s huge, unholy hinterland.

This inquisitive blind spot is manifest in all the foreign articles and guide books ever written about Argentina. There is little discussed about the desert plains of Mendoza, San Luis, San Juan and La Rioja. When the organisers of the Paris Dakar were looking for an alternative route to send 300 French millionaire motorheads ripping through the countryside (and sod the environmental consequences), they chose here, as frankly nobody cares.

I myself associated deserts with death or at least a very unpleasant afternoon of hotness under the collar. I was much happier swilling wine in Lujan de Cuyo than divining for water in Lavalle. That was until I got married. My wife is from La Rioja – a parched, red stone furnace of blistering heat and hostile cactus, where the only thing that moves at midday is the temperature gauge and the long afternoon siestas are a survival technique, not a habit of leisure. There, the mad dogs have long perished and the Englishman never turned up (he´s swilling wine in Lujan de Cuyo).

Marital duties force me to make regular land trips across this arid vastness. It is a six-hour journey through a desert dust bowl where the distant tarmac shimmers in the heat and the occasional farm animal carcass salutes you from the verge with a grotesque, disconcerting hoof in the air. Despite the desolation, it is anything but boring. There´s the constant battle to keep your fuel tank full, stopping at every isolated gas station to ask can you top up (the answer is most often no) or else risk staying at a not-so-salubrious truckers motel in a one-horse town waiting days for the next oil tanker delivery (now where´s that horse?) On the road, very serious policemen stop and ask you for your driving licence, insurance papers and some money to buy a sandwich and coke please.

The huge emptiness can be almost pleasurable, not least because your cellphone is now silent and obsolete but also it is just you and an open road (in surprisingly good shape) with nothing to avoid but the occasional stray goat and a battered, antique Renault held together with baling twine and populated by a family of fifteen. The sky is huge, unhindered by mountains or buildings, displaying a glorious starscape. The occasional thunder and lightning storm gives you the greatest show on Earth with jaw dropping fork lightening a precursor to sudden streams and floods that disappear as quickly as they appeared.

The desert draws you in and is full of surprises. It might be that swirling column of purple dust running across the plain, a dust devil with aspirations of being a tornado intent on overturning your car. A giant, green lizard dashes across the road. The long tail of a red fox slips behind a thorn bush. A flock of flightless birds flee comically. Suddenly your nostrils sting and a not so pleasant odour envelopes the car.

“Skunk.” My wife answers before I ask.

The silence is both eery and exotic (for a city dweller at least) and the atmosphere mildly threatening with the wing flap of ugly buzzards overhead and the fear of a wild boar hurtling through that sage bush while your pants are down. Plant life is prodigious and far from dreary. That dull cactus bursts into white flower, that anchor plant smells of vanilla. The red flowers of the black hierba bush are a delicacy in the goat kingdom, its seeds fought over by armadillos, hares and field mice. Hardy tufts of grasses known as poa and stipa carpet a parched field, bordered by shrubs such as creosote bushes and cushion plants and one particular stunted tree that gave up millennia ago trying to produce the shriveling leaf and instead sucks life from the sun rays directly onto its bright green bark. The beloved algorroba and quebracha tree (it literally means axe breaker) have roots some 10 meters deep and produce valuable fruit and shade.

So is this article a tourist call to arms (or camera) that we should all take an interest in Mendoza’s desert? No it is not. The desert’s allure is precisely because it is deserted. It is no coincidence that Mendoza´s only remaining indigenous people – the Huarpes, eke out an existence in the eastern desert of Mendoza. During the murderous round-up of native Indians in the 19th century, a small group fled there, gambling their lives on a hunch that their pursuers would have no interest in the dry eastern bush. They were right and now in Lavalle you´ll find the last remaining community of Huarpes, surviving precariously like the puma and condor on the outer fringes, in their charcoal colored hovels made from homemade mud brick, hoping that the local disinterest in the desert continues.

Ten Hidden Treasures of the Cuyo Region

Cuesta de Miranda – spiraling mountain pass in La Rioja with giant cactus and red stone sculptures.
Ischigualisto – An incredible dinosaur park adored by National Geographic but spurned by tourists because of its six-hour distance from civilization.

Talampaya – think Grand Canyon without the ridiculous all-glass sky view bridge, and tourists of course.

San Antonio – a quaint little village that was the birth place of Facundo Quiroja, a murderous gambler and adored independence hero.

Veladero Gold Mine – a hidden treasure in the literal sense, this vast San Juan gold mine may be not on any tourists list but it is transforming the once impoverished province and kicking up a lot of dust for environmentalists.

San Pedro de Jachal – a rebellious hamlet of hardy gauchos, this San Juan town has a casserole dish on a plinth in the town plaza with a plaque that reads “Beware politicians!”

Telteca – a 220,000 hectare desert reservation in Lavalle that will not be winning any “Safari of the Year” awards by Condé Nast as it lacks big game but has lots of lizards.

Valle Fertil – a sinuous mountan road through a lush valley of greenery in an otherwise desolate desert.

Diffunta Correa – the most famous woman to ever die of thirst is celebrated through kitsch shrines in this San Juan town that is the Lourdes of Cuyo.

Lavalle – Sand dunes, religious festivals and authentic indigenous desert life are found here.

Animal profiles

The Chimango – Never to be featured on the glossy covers of Birdwatcher International (the local saying goes “don´t waste your gunpowder on a chimango”), this ubiquitous bird nevertheless deserves some credit for its sheer survival instincts and adaptability. It can nest in trees or on the ground and thrives in the harsh Cuyo desert on beetles and road kill.  Unlike its glamorous cousins the falcon and eagle, it does not hunt and is therefore not coveted by hunters – a clever survivalist ploy.

Chimango

The Nandu – One of the most marvelous birds on the planet (and thus one of the most endangered), the nandu (also known as the American Rhea) is persecuted by an unlikely alliance of shoemakers, leather designers and Brazilian samba dancers. It’s a shame its coveted skin and feathers mean this noble bird is being pushed to the margins. Its fascinating habits include a violent male face off for supremacy over a brooding harem that consequently lays their eggs in a large communal nest where some 15 chicks emerge to follow the dominant male carer.

Nandu

The Hog-Nosed Skunk – This creature has possibly the most dangerous anal glands in the animal kingdom. Cross this guy and you’ll get a blast of a vile liquid equal in small and potency to riot gas that can shock the nostrils from over a mile away. Darwin picked up its scent whilst still on the boat. Once thought to be part of the weasel and badger family, DNA testing prove it is actually related to the red panda. Happiest when digging and rooting for insects, this animal has been on the planet some 34 million years.

Skunk

The Elegant Crested Tinamou – Its Greek scientific name literally translates as “nice running escape” which is rather apt when you observe this small ground bird running and nodding maniacally along the road. Part of the flightless bird family, the tinamou can actually get off the ground but not very far. They prefer ground nests under low bushes and the males are model fathers who incubate and raise the chicks who promptly leave the roost upon hatching. It dines on seeds, leaves, fruit and insects.

Bird

The Blind Armadillo – There are at least eight types of armadillo to be found in Argentina and they are persecuted for both their meat and shells which are used to make a traditional style banjo known as the charango. This little guy, also known as the pichiciego, is the smallest of the armadillos and is remarkable for the speed in which he can bury himself in the ground if he feels threatened and the difficulty in digging him out. This nocturnal creature feeds on ants and worms, has a pink shell and white furry underbelly.

Pichiciego

The Grey Fox – In the old Indian stories about the fox and the jaguar, the former always comes out worse. History says otherwise as this clever and adaptable animal now virtually rules the desert and is feared by all, not least farmers who fret about their chickens, goats and lambs and thus show a mighty enthusiasm for fox fur. Despite wholesale hunting, the wily fox continues to thrive, content to hide out in ground caves or tree hollows and survive on a diet as varied as birds, reptiles and insects and the occasional fruit.

Grey Fox

By Charlie O’Malley

Published in the October/November 2012 edition of Wine Republic

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