Into The Wilderness, Alone

If you haven’t done it, the idea of travelling solo can be frightening: You can’t delegate the planning to someone else; you are solely responsible for everything that happens while you’re on the road; there is no one else to blame if you hate your hotel, the restaurant you booked, the tour you signed up for, or the route you chose to walk on the way to that boring museum. When you’re travelling solo, it’s all you, baby, which forces you to confront the fear of your Self, you safety, your utter alone-ness.

Newly single and orphaned at the tender age of 40, I found myself face-to-face with that very fear. So I did what any irrational woman crossing into middle age would do: I signed up as a volunteer cook on a ranch in Patagonia.

This was the perfect way to go somewhere “alone”. As a volunteer, I would be around people that I had to talk to and who had to talk to me. It sounded do-able. It sounded exotic. It sounded like an adventure to a land far, far away.

 

Riding off into the…
I picked Estancia Ranquilco because a friend from work had volunteered there a year before and came back looking absolutely bright-eyed and enviously toned from all that working with horses. Finding myself was secondary. I wanted to look like that. Fit, refreshed, sun-kissed. Never mind that said friend is at least 15 years younger than me.

Estancia Ranquilco is owned by American Ashley Carrithers who acquired the 100,000 acres of land in the foothills of the Andes in 1979. The seemingly infinite swathe of land in the Argentinean cordillera stretches across rivers and valleys, endless grazing meadows, and dramatically jagged cliffs.

 

In other words, once you get to Ranquilco, there is nothing but mountains, valleys, and horses for miles. The closest town is five hours away on horseback, so once you’re there, leaving requires a fair amount of logistics.

Most people head to Ranquilco to get far away from city living and reconnect with nature. Besides lodge stays, horse riding experiences and fly fishing (between November and April), Ranquilco offers pack trips that take intrepid guests into the Patagonian wilderness on horseback where they camp for between seven to 10 days. (Check out their Instagram page here.)

 

Giving meaning to ‘the middle of nowhere’. That little white speck in the picture is the estancia. The closest town is five hours away on horseback.

 

Getting to the estancia (the Spanish-American word for ‘ranch’) is its own adventure. From Buenos Aires in Argentina, I got on a 16-hour bus ride to the town of Zapala, where a driver collected me in his pick-up truck and drove me three hours deep into the mountains. There, at a horse station called Buta Mallin, a staff met me with a lunch of boiled goat, bread and a half-filled mason jar of egg salad, before loading the mules with my luggage and the other large bags the driver had brought with us. Before we set off, I got a quick lesson on how to ride a horse.

Did I mention that until that moment, I’d never ridden a horse?

Shakira (the horse) taking me out for a slow walk…

 

Mercifully, Ranquilco’s horses are a tame, accommodating bunch. The ride took us three hours, across many mountains and through dry, sandy winds to get to the Trocoman River, which borders the ranch. Before I could ask how we were going to get across this raging body of water, the horses and mules were already wading through it and I was calf-deep in the river, clinging to my horse for dear life.

 

Back to basics
When you’ve lived your whole life in a modern city like Singapore, you take much of everything for granted. When you run out of food, not only can you walk to the nearby supermarket, you could also get it delivered faster than you can finish an episode of Game Of Thrones. When you need hot water, you hit a switch and the heater does the rest.

At Ranquilco, when you need hot water, you build a fire in the little heating compartment that in turn warms the house’s pipes. To build a fire, one must have firewood. To make firewood, someone has to actually chop wood (good thing it wasn’t me).

 

The fireplace in the living room doubles as a heat source for people and cooking. There’s a chicken roasting in that “oven” and gravy bubbling on top

 

In lieu of a supermarket is a cave-like storeroom where produce is kept (turns out those large bags my driver brought were filled with ingredients like potatoes, onions, polenta, milk powder, butter and their ilk). These things must be rationed until the next delivery — usually when the driver picks up another group of guests.

For fresh meat, it’s a 40-minute trek up the hill where the resident gaucho will pick a goat from the pen, slaughter and butcher it in front of you, before sending you on your way. “When you see first-hand how an animal has given its life for you, you don’t waste a single part of it,” says the Ethan, the volunteer who takes me on this jaunt as he hauls the animal’s carcass back to the ranch. I still baulk at the idea of goat livers, but I am thankful for the vats of goat fat that we slather on our parched skin, no thanks to the arid mountain air.

 

The resident gaucho catching a goat for our Thanksgiving dinner

 

Alone again, naturally
As a volunteer cook, my duties involved preparing three meals each day for staff and guests. Since I visited during the off season when guests were few, I found myself with plenty of time to gaze out of windows, stare at resting horses and wander the vast, rocky landscape.

 

 

When accorded all this time, your mind has questions: Who am I now that I’m no longer someone’s daughter and partner? Have I been a good enough friend/cousin/sister/godmother that the people I cherish value me as much as I do them? How can I make this second act of my life more meaningful? How many other ways can I cook goat? (Bourguignon! Funny how despite what a pain it is to get produce to the ranch, there is always plenty of red wine.)

 

Traditional asado — baby goat cooked on a spit over the fire — made by the gauchos for Thanksgiving dinner

 

Self-reflection on this scale is impossible when you’re distracted by all the trappings of modern-day city living. But here, in this middle of nowhere, with dismal satellite wifi and not another building for miles, there was no turning away from all the questions that my urban mind was so deft at burying under a rubble of everyday minutiae.

I didn’t find all the answers, but the solitude taught me to think clearly, without pressure or influence of the people and comforts I am usually surrounded by. It gave me insight into how I was really feeling and to realise how comfortable I was with who I am and what I want to become. Part of that realisation was the fact that I am, at heart, a city girl.

And with that, the cabin fever set in.