Trek to the End Trek to the End of the World of the World; Richard Johnson Saddles Up for an Epic Adventure in the Breathtaking Wilderness of the Andes Mountains

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Johnson

WHEN I was a boy, I thought of South America as being the home of the flamboyant Hollywood superstar Carmen Miranda - the Lady with the Tutti-Frutti Hat, who in the early Forties was the highestpaid star in the movies. She wore her amazing headgear - a pyramid of bananas, strawberries, lemons and whatever else was available at the fruiterers - in a musical called The Gang's All Here in 1943.

But she first excited my adolescent interest in the earlier Down Argentine Way, in which her over-the-top sexiness outshone even the gloss of legs-up-to-here Betty Grable.

Perhaps something stuck in my erotic memory cells: certainly Argentina has always resonated as a country that had to be visited one day. Well, it took nearly 70 years - but at last I find myself touring this fascinating and beautiful nation, with my wife Lynne.

After flying to Buenos Aires, we stay first at a pampas estancia, or ranch - the lovely La Oriental, about three hours out of the city. Then we travel west for a few days to another estancia, Peuma Hue, near the resort town of Bariloche.

This beautiful estancia has more than 500 acres of mountains, pristine forests, creeks, waterfalls and lush valleys, and is run by a dedicated conservationist, Kathryn Hoter, who provides wonderful, organic, full-board food, and 12 warm and luxurious rooms in houses and log cabins.

There are horses to ride along the estancia's two miles of lakeshore, some really tough climbs for the enthusiast, miles of trails for hikers and, 15 minutes away, Bariloche's ski slopes - the best in Argentina in winter.

From Peuma Hue it's an awesome two-hour drive through magnificent lake and mountain scenery to the little port of El Bolson at the eastern end of Lago Puelo.

On the quayside the Argentinian customs officials check our bags and stamp our passports and we board a turbo-driven rubber boat for what proves to be an extremely bumpy voyage.

El Bolson sits close to a river that connects Lago Puelo, in Argentina, to Lago Inferior, which is in Chile. Appropriately enough, Lago Inferior is lower and the difference in altitude produces the rapids, which we'll go slip-sliding down.

As we reach the approaches to the river our boatman pauses briefly and, alarmingly for Lynne, hands out life jackets. I'm used to rapids so I'm looking forward to a thrilling few minutes.

As it turns out, these rapids are easy stuff - though Lynne thinks they're great.

'You see that wire above our heads?' says our tiller man, pointing to a slightly sagging cable that crosses the swirling waters. 'That's the border between Argentina and Chile.' Once in Lago Inferior, it's an easy 20-minute ride until we reach a small jetty. 'This your pick-up point,' the boatman informs us as he unloads our luggage.

I look around for a welcoming party. Nobody. The boatman is on his portable radio. 'They delayed for a few minutes,' he says, then gets back in his boat and putters away.

It's a lovely, calm summer's day now, so we sit on the jetty and dangle our feet in the water.

An hour later we hear voices and the jingle of harness, and a substantial pack horse and two young men appear out of the trees. The men load up the horse with our two disgracefully heavy bags, strapping one to each side of the saddle for balance, and the beast sets off with its handler up the hillside's steep trail.

THEsmaller, wirier of the young men smilingly volunteers to carry Lynne's backpack. 'The age of chivalry still exists among the young of this country,' I muse old-fartishly. The trail is steep and winding, and after ten minutes I'm finding myself extremely short of puff. 'Cuanto distancia mas?' I enquire of our guide. 'Un kilometro.' 'OK,' I think, and let him carry my backpack as well. So? He's used to the hillside...and he's probably 60 years younger than me. When we reach the sunlit meadow at the top of the trail, we see a middle-aged gentleman waving to us from the gate of a small house. …