ORAN BURKE

Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

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Who owns all the oranges?

Photograph © cggraphics2020 2008

Park entrance

Parque Nacional Lanín is situated in Argentina’s Lake District in the central west of the country, close to the border with Chile. It is heavily forested and home to a wide array of flora and fauna. The park can be reached via public transport from the nearby town of Junín de los Andes.

January 7, 2013

The wildlife of Parque Nacional Lanín

The bus trip from Junín de los Andes ends at a chapel on a bleak plain by Lago Paimún. Beyond this, the view improves, with the impressively conical 3,776 metre tall Volcan Lanín, centrepiece of the park, dominating the surroundings. After several days of rain a tentative sun shone through the blustery clouds, occasionally warming my face but very little else. That same rain had affected my original plans to walk the circumference of the lake as the park rangers confirmed a bridge had washed away and fording the stream would be dangerous due to high water levels.

I decided instead to walk from there to some hot springs to the south, deciding that after a few days of walking with all my food and camping gear on my back, a soak would be welcome. It was too late in the afternoon to begin that trek so I accepted an invite from Juan, an Argentinean student I’d struck up a conversation with at the bus station, to spend a night camping with him by the lake, sharing a couple of beers and some food over the course of a pleasant evening’s conversation.

Next morning after a late and slow breakfast Juan walked with me to the Balsa La Unión, a “ferry” which takes you across a narrow channel that joins Lago Paimún to neighbouring Lago Huechulafquen. The boat is quaintly called by ringing a bell on the eastern shore, then someone arrives and rows across to collect you.

After registering at the farmhouse on the other side I was free to walk off up the steep hillside, its ground still spongy from the rain. The trail was well marked with blue ribbons or paint on the trees and an hour passed easily walking through forests of lenga, a species of beech tree native to Patagonia.

Stopping for a quick snack on a log by the side of the trail after a couple of hours walk, I sat happily eating a cereal bar and appreciating the silence until a sharp breaking of the nearby brush startled me. I hadn’t seen anything bigger than a bird since some cows nearer the farm, so the sight of a wild boar thundering out of a bush and tearing with a snort across the grassy clearing behind me made me jump. Thankfully he was running away from where I sat but with a zigzagging trajectory which allowed him to keep an occasional eye on me as he got further away.

Walking on the trail began to muddy up and at one point I had to balance on narrow logs laid across what looked like some standard ankle deep mud. Deciding muddy shoes were an unavoidable consequence of the walk I stepped off the makeshift bridge and sank knee-deep into what can only be described as quickmud. My other leg quickly followed in an instinctive attempt at stabilisation and the 15 kilogram weight on my back just pushed me further into the treacle. I treaded mud at thigh level for a few moments before managing to grab at the logs and ease myself out, covered in crap.

After a good four to five hours of increasingly crusty walking I arrived at a dip in the forest where a hand-painted sign said Camping Aila, my stop for the first night. Across a sturdy bridge a gate opened into a field with a small wooden farmhouse at the top of a hill. A friendly old man sauntered over when I arrived, asked me to sign my name in a book, took ten pesos and directed me towards another gate. I was to follow the trail through the next field and down the hillside where I’d find the camping area.

At the bottom of a steep trail was a clearing about 30 metres across containing a huge tree, under which a long bench stretched in front of a fire pit. Circling this on three sides were a stream and the hill I had just walked down which gave a comfortable feeling of isolation. Ten metres from the end of the bench, beyond some scrubby bushes, was the lake, about a kilometre across and several wide.

I felt a sudden calmness as I dropped my bag and sat for a few moments absorbing the gentle lapping of the lake, the sibilance of the stream and the rustling of the trees. However, I was hot, muddy and sweaty so I pitched my tent quickly and went to wash my trousers and myself in the lake.

The beach at the edge was pebbly and the first minute was spent trying not to freeze as I crept into the glacially cooled water. Once deep enough to immerse myself, I floated further into the lake, turning myself gradually around to look away from the shore. The other side of the lake was green, hilly and heavily forested, rolling across my vision to where it met the base of the volcano, which appeared to spill into the undisturbed lake.

I lay mesmerised, staring, with no other sound intruding on the peacefulness, until the cold finally pushed me to shore. I pottered around the camp for the rest of the afternoon, completely alone, reading and relaxing with only the occasional bird call for company. Just before dark I made a fire, cooked some food and sat in the darkness, admiring the solitude, before having an early night.

Next morning I was woken by an aggressive sound fast approaching my tent. During the night a small rabbit-sized animal had been snuffling around the edges of my tent but this was different, the snort and stomp of something large that befuddled me into a half-awake state. There was a small plastic window at the front of the tent through which I saw four stout brown legs and the undercarriage of an enormous animal that, judging by the noise, could only be a bull. It passed by quickly and headed for the lake, presumably to perform his morning ablutions.

Having encountered bulls of varying size and temperament I normally wouldn’t be too flustered but having just woken up, I froze, wondering whether the brightly coloured luminous orange tent I was cocooned in would attract his attention. Ten minutes later I couldn’t hear his snorting anymore so decided to be brave, tenderly unzipping the front door and stepping gingerly outside. The bull had gone but I didn’t know where, hopefully along the stream at the edge and up the back of the clearing. Was this the farmer’s way of telling me it was time to check out?

Deciding not to think too hard about it, I ate breakfast then floated in the lake, taking in the still splendid view. I hung around the camp for the morning, toying with the idea of staying a second night as I’d fallen for this secluded spot, but also keeping the bull in mind.

Later while cooking lunch, three Argentinean guys walked down the hill and through the camp in single file and with great purpose. Their sudden surreal appearance surprised me given they were the first humans I’d seen in 24 hours and we exchanged a cursory hello as they strode on, only breaking their stride to cross the stream. I never saw them again.

I decided to stay another night, walking up the hill to hand another ten pesos over, willing to forget the hot springs for a field with a view. Later the bull returned to drink from the stream, choosing to go to the left at the bottom of the hill rather than towards the lake (and me). It was now that I appreciated his size, having only seen his legs and belly that morning, and the crushing damage he could have done to me and my tent.

He was about one and a half metres tall and probably the same width, stocky with a gnarled face and, from the sounds he made, a temperament to match it. We eyed each other suspiciously and he took off after a drink, still snorting. At this point I think we’d reached an unhappy compromise of keeping out of the other’s space, I could have the area around the bench and my tent, the rest was his.

This unspoken agreement worked well for the next 24 hours, including a repeat of my morning call on the second day though this time I just turned over and went back to sleep. Later in the morning as I strode up the hill to leave, hoping I wouldn’t meet him stomping the other way when I was fully laden, he stood far away across the field to the left. I’m sure I saw him lift his head in my direction, giving the kind of nodded goodbye that only close friends can share.

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