TALES FROM OUTSIDE THE UNDERBRUSH
“Tales From Outside The Underbrush” is meant to succeed the monthly series of predecessor essays that were in effect, largely if not exclusively set inside “The Underbrush” of geological exploration and forestry, to a universe outside that specialized environment. This “outside world” is one where life is also lived and experienced, and though most often reflecting a different level of circumstance, is not necessarily suggestive of a higher level of civilized behaviour and experience nor a more intelligent reaction to such by the author; just different and outside the conventional underbrush. Hyperbole will continue to be employed for emphasis or effect, or just to avoid the boredom of straight fact or opinion. Reader reaction and comment is invited and welcomed if delivered in a civilized fashion.
This month’s entry continues the tale.
HORSING AROUND – Part 1
"Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are."
Old English Saying
"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
variously attributed to Sir Winston Churchilll and Will Rodgers
More than fifty million years ago there lived a small four-footed creature that was barely as tall at the shoulder as your large house cat but not nearly as agile and may have even been “doggish” in appearance. It went by the perhaps somewhat confusing name, at least to the layman, of eohippus; confusing in the sense of perhaps inferring it to be some sort of midget hippopotamus rather than what it actually represented, namely the beginning of the lineage which has since progressed and evolved to a present day creature represented by the equus species, more familiarly known as the horse. Until a million years ago, the horse was prevalent in enormous migrating herds all over Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. Subsequently, during the Pleistocene period a devastating extinction saw the loss of all horses in the Americas, along with mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. While climate change was probably a major factor in this development, early man, then recently inhabiting the New World, may have in his infinite wisdom played a role through over-hunting, although given the scale and nature of the affected animals and the scale and type of weaponry of the human population, such sole man-made eradication is difficult to imagine. Nonetheless, it was not until the early years of the 16th century, when the Spaniards brought horses back to the Americas from Europe during the Conquistador period, that the species once more found a home where it used to roam in vast numbers. It was, given some very brief reflection, perhaps the only useful thing the Spaniards of that generation achieved during their pillaging of a number of indigenous civilizations in Central and South America.
This preamble however inglorious and monumental in brevity it be, is meant not to serve as an abstract to a scientific treatise on the horse, but rather as an introduction to some personal ramblings that reflect on my own personal and diverse experiences with the species. Thanks to the internet, the subject of horse evolution can be pursued to the reader’s content. That said, I am, to put it bluntly, a horse and dog lover. Gerbils are cute, budgies bright and kittens cuddly. Cats are nice to many people I know and they indeed may be more intelligent than the horse, dog, or even male species of the human race, but they do nothing for me. Maybe it is because they seem to be so damned independent as to not need you in their life. With dogs and horses, I believe, or want to believe, they may actually be attracted to me as an alpha male friend, if only on an occasional basis. While this is a completely contradictory concept, I nonetheless dwell in the illusion. Although I have earlier recounted my experiences with one particularly special dog in my life (see “Paean To A Prince” in my book “Tales From The Underbrush”), this essay will confine itself to a number of adventures I have had in which a horse, or horses, have played a predominant role.
Chronologically, it all started, as many things do, with a juvenile experience, in this case carefully administered rides on the back of a horse as a pre-teen kid, and as orchestrated by doting parents during holiday trips to rural settings. While not in any way to diminish those youthful experiences, my first real and very practical involvement with horses starts in South America.
RIDING THE ANDEAN RANGES
"Good horses make short miles."
It is the mid-sixties and just out of university graduate studies I find myself in Ecuador, South America, as the Chief Geologist on a 5,000 square kilometre mineral exploration property deep in the heart of the western Cordillera of the Andes Mountains. More than one hundred kilometres long in a north-south direction, the property was transected near each of its north-south boundaries by narrow two lane highways that lead from the high central plateau to the Pacific coast of the country. Aside from a tortuous and at times barely navigable vehicle track hacked out of the volcanic terrain and that connected the tiny village of Sigchos, our base of operations, to several towns well outside our property, that was the sum total of vehicle access on the property. If we were going to explore our exploration concession in any detail, access by road throughout its area was not going to play a significant role. Add to the fact that this is the 1960’s in an impoverished foreign country where cost, technological considerations and the nearly constant hazardous weather that was extant were major governing factors, the sort of helicopter access enjoyed by many similar projects today was not available to us at that time. With a local relief, that is to say, the difference between the highest and lowest terrain on the property, approaching 16,000 feet (4,850 metres) and having a topography of deeply incised, fog-shrouded valleys separating lofty ridges, and bisected by a high, barren, and windswept altiplano (high Andean plateau), travel throughout the concession would present unique challenges for a young geologist whose experience up to that time had been of a largely flat land variety, traversing the swampy, low ridged glaciated terrain of the Canadian Precambrian Shield.
What remained as the sole means of gaining the type of detailed access required to adequately explore the property was the time-tested application of feet to ground, said feet belonging to people such as your humble scribe, as well as to the feet of beasts of burden, be they horses, mules, llamas or the like, although llamas were not to play a role in our expedition. With the wild and precipitous terrain that defined our concession, often obscured by cloud and mist, much of its features remained swathed in the mystery of concealment, be they the region’s indigenous inhabitants as well as a myriad of trails and paths that connected them and the places of food and water necessary for their survival. As is explored in other parts of Tales From The Underbrush, the most propitious routes of millennia past remain so today for modern traffic. Hidden from casual view however are the myriad of trails that permeate the Andean highlands and whose existence no doubt stretches back through those same centuries.
Not many mines having been discovered in the middle of cities, towns, or even villages, most of my time as an exploration geologist would be spent in the field, searching for rock outcrops throughout the concession that could be observed, analysed and mapped and sampled for their chemistry and potential mineral content. Normally, in relatively flat lying terrain such as that which comprises central, northern and eastern Canada, a grid-like pattern of traverses might be undertaken on foot that would allow the systematic mapping of any rock outcrops encountered along the way. These imaginary traverse lines, when along with the locations and chemistry of rocks encountered could then be plotted on a map to produce a statistically accurate picture of the geology of an area. Given the topographic extremes that made up our Ecuadorian concession, this was not possible. What remained was to visit and explore every possible location on the property that a human could reasonably access. Being that I might be away in the field for weeks or even months at a time, and although daily forays might be undertaken on foot, my travel, and including that of my assistants as well as our food and supplies was conducted using pack trains of horses and mules.
The project manager, whose strictly administrative duties allowed him a relatively civilized existence in Sigchos, had accordingly assembled our own very herd of saddle and pack animals to act as the agency of travel for the exploration venture. Rented or purchased from the local population, the herd was largely made up of mules to act as pack animals for our supplies and a lesser number of saddle horses for riding. Being that the terrain was so treacherous, the traverses throughout the property very extensive, and the logistics of adequate food and water for the animals difficult to manage at times, unlike the geologists who could be ultimately worked to the bone, the length of duty of the horses and mules was limited and required that they undergo periods of rest between assignments. As a result, for a team of what ultimately was not more than three or four geologists, together with double that number of local assistants acting as wranglers, a herd of some fifty horses and mules had to be assembled as I recall, even though half that number might be on rest and recreation at any one time………..the animals that is!
To be continued
Copyright © 2015 Ian de W. Semple. All rights reserved.