Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Peninsula Valdes

Peninsula Valdes is a bit like an arrowhead, its shaft an isthmus five kilometres wide at its narrowest point. There is a bay to the north and a bay to the south, which experience high tide five hours apart, due to the current from the south which takes this long to make its way round the coast. Migrating birds such as the red knot, flying between Canada and Antarctica, find it a useful feeding ground, flitting between bays depending on where the tide is low. Puerto Madryn sits on the mainland by the larger bay, the Golfo Nuevo, and tours leave from here to the peninsula. The minibus leaves just after seven, and passes the town dump, the bauxite plant, some ceramics factories and the fishing fleet on its way to the whale breeding grounds. The tour takes eleven hours and covers 400 kilometres, embracing one of the greatest wildlife reserves in the world.

The Israeli who sat behind me was the son of Cochin Jews, of whom there are apparently only seven still living in India, the rest having migrated to Israel. I asked him if any are considering returning to India, as NRIs from the US, Britain and elsewhere are now doing, to enjoy the fruits of the boom. He said he thought not. He was intent on getting a photo of an armadillo, but by the end of the day had not succeeded.

This part of of Patagonia is flat scrubby desert, with white soil and and a frequent mauve-tinged cloud cover. Flashes of sea revealed themselves as we drove, increasingly so as we crossed the isthmus, passing a tidal island shaped like a squashed gaucho hat that is rich in bird life (it’s called Island of Birds), and heading for Puerto Piramides, the only settlement on the peninsula. It got its name from a pyramid shaped headland nearby, and its sandstone cliffs are full of fossils of giant shells, shark teeth and whalebones. It is the place for whale watching cruises, a bright little village of restaurants and tour agencies. A partner in the restaurant where we had lunch was Jimmy from Perth, who’s been more or less marooned for ten years tending to his mother, who is Argentinian and disabled and lives in Puerto Madryn. He was cheerfully resigned to his exile, and seemed happy at least to have escaped to the peninsula.

Soon enough our boat was ready to take us out to the whales, which we could easily see from the beach, splashing about in the waves. We climbed into an aluminium speedboat with twin outboards, with benches along the centre and sides. We were allowed to stand on these as soon as we were in the water, but the handrails were unnervingly low, and I’m sure they must lose the odd passenger overboard in choppy water. Hopefully not in the midst of mating whales.

There were whales everywhere – each year about a thousand come to the shelter of the peninsula to mate or give birth. They are Southern Rights, so named apparently because they swim slowly and float when dead, which made them the right whale to catch and the right whale to transport. The world population is about 20,000. They feed in the summer in Antarctica, and for the winter divide into three groups, heading for Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. We visited several pods thrashing around as well as some individuals standing on their heads with their tails out of the water. There are several theories as to why they do this, one being that they are pregnant females repositioning their foetus, another being that that it is a way of regulating their temperature. They do it for fifteen minutes or more at a time, and we approached several so close that we could almost touch the tail. The tails are smooth and black but the heads are encrusted with white formations made by crustaceans, allowing individual whales to be identified. Then we visited a group where three or four males were working together to turn over a female. The females turn on their back if they do not wish to mate, so the males turn them over so one of them can have a go. Apparently up to about fifteen males might mate with the one female. Makes me think they should rename Cronulla football team ‘The Whales’.

The female gestates for eleven months, during which time she will travel to Antarctica to feed (they don’t eat at all while they’re at the peninsula) and return. After giving birth she stays with the calf for a year if it’s male or eighteen months if it’s female, taking it to Antarctica and back to teach it to feed. While there the calf can grow two to three centimetres a day, feeding on krill and its mother’s milk, eventually reaching a size of about 16 metres. The population of Southern Rights is increasing by about seven per cent per year, but there are also threats. In 2007 a record 70 calves died (about 200 are born each year), many due to attack by seagulls, a phenomenon which I witnessed at Puerto Madryn on the first day. Madryn’s economy is thriving on an unlikely combination of ecotourism and Argentina’s only aluminium smelter, and the town is growing fast – it was by far the most prosperous I’ve seen here. This means that the open air rubbish tip is also growing fast, which in turn means that the seagull population has gone up. Seagulls have always eaten the cast off skin of whales, but now they’ve taken to pecking at the calves themselves and eating the blubber. Some calves die of the trauma, or from infections, in which presumably the rubbish tip plays a role. Scientists have been studying the problem for three years, and there is talk of culling some the gulls as only a proportion of them attack the whales. Doing something about the rubbish tip might be an idea, too. I’ve noticed that the Patagonian desert that lies near towns is strewn with plastic bags, which the shopkeepers here hand out with gay abandon.

We spent about an hour and a half among the whales, cruising from pod to pod, and once or twice could see them quite clearly underwater beside the boat. We also passed a colony of sea lions, and saw a group of Magellanic penguins – which have black stripes around their collar - far out in the bay. As we made our way back to port we passed a whale which breached three or four times as it headed out into the bay.

From Piramides we headed across the peninsula, past a couple of salt pans with flamingoes off in the distance, sighting a couple of grey foxes, two burrowing owls and a Patagonian hare the size of a small dog. We also saw a large flock of choique, large flightless birds. There are a couple of varieties of these, but I can’t remember the name of the bigger ones and I’m on the bus and can’t be bothered fishing out my notebook. One male of the flock is chosen to incubate the eggs, and when they start to hatch he breaks one egg to attract flies so that the other chicks can feed.

Our destination was the opening of a narrow bay formed by a long spit of land. The beach is the destination for elephant seals in mating season, which is just about to begin. The beach was grey and pebbly beneath blond cliffs which stretched in a vast arc, and we spotted three or four of the elephant seals – a couple of males and a couple of females. We weren’t allowed onto the beach, or to smoke or eat on the path. The males grow to four tonnes, while the females get to about 900 kilos, which sounds a bit uncomfortable to me. They spend ninety per cent of their lives in water, only coming on land to breed. Apparently this is the only place in the world where they do so. It’s also the only place in the world where orcas beach themselves to catch pups, swimming up in narrow channels that scar the beach, then wait for the tide to take them back out to share the meal with their family. The guide told us that in a month or two the beach would be thick with elephants, fighting, mating, giving birth and being eaten by orcas. Sounds bloody. On a tiny reef out in the surf we saw a group of sealions, but they looked puny by comparison. About 47,000 elephant seals visit the peninsula in season.

We then drove back across the peninsula, seeing some guanaco – like llama, but smaller and undomesticated – on the way, and plenty of merino, which form the local industry. There are 47 estancias on the peninsula. Back in Puerto Madryn, I communed once more with the flock of 100 or so flamingoes that live by the pier. With those heads and those hooked beaks I think they might give the old capybara a nudge for ridiculousness.

Yesterday I took a ride out to a couple of Welsh towns. The whole area was settled by Welsh, beginning in 1865, but there’s not much evidence of them in Madryn, nor was there in Trelew, the first town I went to, the name notwithstanding. Finally I made it to Gaiman, a couple of hours from Madryn, to discover a lovely town nestled on a river, with street names like Evans and Jones alongside the usual Espana and Yirogoyen, and little stone cottages, and flat-faced row houses with lacy curtains in sash windows. The town is overlooked by a tussocky ridge studded with knuckles of amber rock, and a place less like Wales would be hard to imagine. I didn’t hear any Welsh spoken – or English in a taffy accent for that matter – but I did see a hell of a lot of signs for places serving Welsh tea ‘con calido y autentico ambiente Gales’, or something like that. I thought I might like to sample this, as the Princess of Wales, peace be upon her, reportedly did so here in 1995, and as I don’t have a clue what Welsh tea might actually be. So I followed the signs, and followed them, over a suspension bridge across the Rio Chubut, past a couple of garages and up a dirt road, and graceful willow trees bursting with green shoots, and leafless poplars and pink blossoms, and sweet gardens decorated with rusting ploughs, but could not actually locate a functioning teahouse. Either that or I wasn’t willing enough to push on closed doors. Perhaps it was just that it was between 12 and four, when all kinds of things cease to function. Instead I took coffee and facturas in an ice cream parlour, pure Argentinian style. The girl who served me was pale, her hair starless and Bible black. She said her mother was Welsh, but she herself didn’t speak it. The family name was Jones, pronounced ‘Shoness’. That, and a couple of shops selling ceramic beer mugs and acrylic tea cosies in green and white, was what I tasted of the autentico ambiente Gales.

And that was the last adventure. I sit yet again on the bus, having watched a long and mournful Patagonian sunset, a sallow smear that lingered between the clouds and the featureless desert for a couple of hours before bursting briefly into translucent gold and purple, then transforming itself into sheets of scarlet draped across the sky. I hit Buenos Aires at seven-something in the morning, and fly out at ten to five. I’m tired and it’s time to go home.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Caiman y capybara

I’m writing this from the bus. Another epic, this time 20 hours from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn, Patagonia. The green pampas slips pleasantly by. I was on another bus last night, from Mercedes to BA, and got not much sleep, but dozed off a bit this afternoon. So I am recovering from that bus journey by taking another bus journey. I had about four hours in the capital, running errands, and found the crowds, the traffic and the pollution pretty disagreeable considering 24 hours earlier I was in something approximating the Garden of Eden.

The destination for tomorrow (8am) is supposed to be one of the best whale watching spots in the world, but it’d be hard to beat what I’ve just seen up north. That was the Estero del Ibera, a system of wetlands between the two main rivers, about halfway between Iguazu and BA. It literally crawled with wildlife – snakes, monkeys, birds, reptiles, and what must be one of the sillier animals on the planet, the capybara. It takes a bit of getting there – the direct route from San Ignacio Mini is not served by public transport and the road is terrible, so you do a long arc round to Mercedes, a pleasant and sleepy little town where last night, at dinnertime, not a single restaurant was open in the city centre. From there it was theoretically a three-hour bus trip, with one minibus a day leaving at 12pm. When the thing showed up at one, its windscreen was webbed with cracks and its back doors were held closed by twined wire, and the inside was coated with decades of grime. The driver had a length of rope constantly in his hand, as if he expected trouble.

The drive could have been through country Australia – vistas of sun-yellowed grass, hereford and merino grazing, flightless birds the size of emu, tin windmills, and lonely farmhouses with rusting roofs sheltering in stands of eucalyptus. By about halfway we were all coated with dust, which entered through countless crevices in the ancient panels, when there was a sound like we had hit a log. As we coasted to a halt, something banged repeatedly on the floor beneath our feet, and that something turned out to be the drive shaft, which had completely detached itself from the gearbox and had been dragging along the ground. We all stared at it dumbly for about two minutes and were contemplating the possibilities of hitchhiking, when up drove a Ford pickup with three farmers in it, and within seconds one of them, a gaucho called Bolson, was under the bus, tools, baggy pants, happy shoes, white shirt, black beret and all. In about ten minutes he had it fixed, helped by his mate, who kept feeding him lengths of wire, apparently kept on hand for just such situations. The van behaved itself the rest of the way into Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, in spite of a few worrying sounds from beneath, and we arrived only about an hour behind schedule. Enough time to have a look around the ‘town’, which was as unambitious as any beachside holiday hamlet, and have a bit of a stroll along the causeway and watch the sun sink gradually, a crimson ball, behind the smoky waters of the lake.

I’d arrived with a couple of Frenchies, Sarah and Fannie, and our host at the hostel was Giorgio, a young lothario with a head of curls, a face of designer stubble, and a pair of reflective aviatior shades. All conversation was addressed to las chicas (understandably enough, seeing as they both spoke Spanish, in contrast to me). The house was whitewashed and surrounded by lush lawn and there was an open sided kitchen and dining area at the back, a half-empty swimming pool, and in proper Argentine fashion a TV that remained on all day with no one watching it. Giorgio and a couple of his mates ran the place more or less as a bachelor pad, running out for milk and sugar in the morning, and bringing bags of empanadas and boxes of pizza at lunchtime. They were all friendly and generous fellows, in the Argentinian way.

In the evening a few others dropped by, including Jessica, who had a green parrot named Kiwi crawling about on her at all times. She was half American (Jessica that is, not Kiwi) and had done a couple of years at Aspen as a park ranger, serving the likes of Hilary Clinton and Owen Wilson, before inheriting her banker father’s hobby farm three years ago. The hobby farm was 4,000 hectares, with 3,000 head of cattle, 60 buffalo, about 100 horses, and three gaucho families to run it. Her aim is to combine ecotourism with sustainable farming, and with her was Miguel, a graduating naturalist whose specialisation is birds, and who is volunteering at the farm doing a survey of birdlife. In his first week he’d counted 111 species. They told us that there were piranhas in the lake, but not to worry because they only lived near the shoreline. If you fell overboard in the middle of the lake you would be safe. In any case they only attack during egg laying season, which is later in the year, and besides which, they were unlikely to kill you unless you really stayed out in the water a long time.

I woke up in the morning with that I’m-a-bit-over-living-out-of-a-backpack feeling, compounded by the realisation that breakfast consisted of cream crackers with butter (a change from the usual baguettes and jam I suppose, but I could murder a plate of bacon and eggs or a bowl of bircher muesli more or less anytime now). That feeling lasted until exactly the minute about eight of us got into a little aluminium motorboat for an exploration of the lake, the standard activity when visiting the laguna. Before we’d even cast off we’d seen a group of caiman – small purplish crocodiles which grow up to 2m and aren’t dangerous to humans. There would be hundreds more. Next was an otter slithering up an embankment, as well as cormorants, gulls and ducks passing constantly overhead. We passed a series of floating islands with spectacular birds such as pairs of southern screamers, and any number of capybara, bumbling about in groups of two or three. These, in case you don’t know, are the largest rodents in the world, and weigh up to 75kg. They look like oversized wombats, with longish brown hair and boxy heads and snub noses and stumpy limbs with three claws. They charge across the grasslands, or swim in the laguna with the tops of their heads poking out of the water, or lounge blissfully in the sun as birds pick insects out of their fur. They have no predators, so they are literally everywhere. They are truly ridiculous.

We also saw several marsh deer, and many more birds including ibis, herons, egrets, a hefty kingfisher taking a dive for a fish, and a large turkey vulture, which is a relative of the condor. There was also a single jabiru, with a head and beak like charcoal and a neck like raw meat, stalking along the shore as if he owned the place. They eat caiman eggs, and young caiman, and snakes, among other things. We stopped on an island, whose ground was soft and spongy, and saw a couple of capybara making woohoo, which provoked laughter and shouts of ‘Giorgio!’ from the lads. It was a completely magical two hours of greenery, still waters and extraordinary creatures.

In the afternoon an Irish couple and I headed with Jessica and Miguel out to the ranch for a couple of hours, with Kiwi munching at Jessica’s straw hat for the entire drive. The Irish, who as far as I could work out were called Elis and Kieron, went horse riding, but I wasn’t game for this, in spite of Elis pointing out my feet would almost have touched the ground. I headed off with Miguel in the four wheel drive and we saw more birds, including more of the emu things, and abundant woodpeckers, and a couple of bizarre looking grey things with crazed eyes and hooked beaks and swept back fringes, looking like characters from Dickens. There were armadillo burrows, but no armadillo to be seen. Back at the estancia, we were hanging around the cattle yards hoping for some gaucho action when sure enough we started hearing urgent ‘yip yip yip’ sounds coming from behind some trees. We couldn’t work out whether they were being made by a woman or a man, until a boy who looked like about seven emerged, barefoot and riding bareback on a horse about twice his height, driving a herd of about twenty cattle. He brought them into the yard, jumped off the horse, then proceeded to drive them into the next yard using a stockwhip and well-aimed clods of dirt. He then separated them into two groups, drove one group into yet another yard, divided this group again and drove the remainder back into the second yard, leaving three calves penned in. Miguel said they were to be milked but he is, after all, an ornithologist. The lad, whose name was Christian, then remounted the horse and proceeded to drove the cattle back to where they came from. The whole operation probably took about twenty minutes.

Jessica and the Irish couple came back soon after, accompanied by Paulo, the senior gaucho, resplendent in blue gaiters, bombachos, suede apron, a broad belt full of pouches, a blue necktie which apparently signified his political allegiance (there are red neckties also) and a very battered felt hat. We all retired to a large room enclosed with fly screens, with an enormous grill at one end, and sipped Earl Grey tea and munched fresh tortilla fritas – which reminded me very much of kapse made for Tibetan New Year – prepared by one of the gaucho women. Paulo came in to show off pictures of himself in his full gaucho gear at various riding events, and to explain the features of his costume, and then we called it a day.

The other main activity at Estero del Ibera is to take the causeway across the lake and visit the interpretation centre, then walk through a patch of preserved forest where a family of howler monkeys lives – the only primates on the reserve. I’d been told about a certain snake that lived nearby as well, so in the interpretation centre I asked the ranger if I might see this as well. ‘You mean the yellow anaconda?’ she asked. I said I supposed so.

‘Come with me.’ And she walked briskly out of the centre and over to the low brick wall which edged the causeway, about 20 metres away, and pointed out a spot. ‘He usually comes here,’ she said ‘but I think it’s a little early. He’ll come out when it warms up a bit. If you do see him, don’t bother him or go too near. Some visitors do that, and if they keep doing that, he’ll go away.’

How big is the snake, I asked. ‘Oh, about two metres. They grow to seven.’ I assured her that I had no intention of bothering him, then crossed the road to look at the monkeys.

The forest was a gorgeous little bower of trailing vines and leafy understory, with tall palms and other species with twisting trunks. There were ground orchids and begonias and succulents with leaves like saws. Many of the trees were bearded with various kinds of epiphytes, which are not true parasites because they don’t feed off the tree, just use its height to gain access to the sun. One of these was a form of cactus whose fronds trailed whispily earthwards. There were whistles and tweets and hoots all round from various kinds of birds, and one that sounded alarmingly like a blowpipe, but no howls from the monkeys. They howl to establish territory and apparently can be heard kilometres away, but only do so if they feel another primate is attempting to trespass. White ropes delineating the paths and signs instructing us not to cross them put paid to any thoughts of tree climbing, but I did spot several monkeys when tipped off by that telltale naturalist’s sign, a couple of photographers pointing ginormous lenses at the canopy. The males are large and black, and the one I spotted was draped frontwise along a branch, limbs drooping. The females are blonde and moved about a bit more. When I emerged from the forest there were some juvenile deer hanging about, and a full-grown marsh deer, which are distinctive by their sandstone coloured coat and muddy forelegs. Popping up on the parapet as I began to cross the causeway to head back, I finally saw the anaconda, curled up amid the rocks, doubtless warming himself for a bit of fishing later in the day.

Latest update. Have arrived Patagonia. Saw a flock of flamingoes and several whales from the beach. Feeling trashed.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Sunday – a day of rest, appropriately enough as my balcony overlooks a Jesuit mission founded in 1609. The roofs are gone but the solidly built sandstone and laterite walls remain and it’s a handsome site – all orderly rows and neat organisation, with sundrenched terraces where once the fathers of the Jesus Company would’ve looked out over fields of corn and yerba maté. You can walk amid the lines of workshops that once turned out iron and glassware and carvings of saints, their floors now carpeted with lush grass and little yellow and scarlet and mauve flowers. Scattered amongst them are orange and pomelo trees, heavy with fruit that drops to rot on the ground, and long tailed lizards dart in and out of cracks in the walls.

It’s been a lazy day so I’ve tooled around the streets of the town – all two of them - sat on the net, dozed a bit, had a steak and mash and a coffee and flan (that’s crème caramel to you, served as a slice from a great big round), read the papers and a bit more of Pico Iyer’s ‘The Lady and the Monk’. I realised this morning that I’d been on the go for six days, more or less, including one bus journey of 23 hours, and it was time for a break.

The same road that got me here had also taken me to Iguazu a couple of days earlier, in the opposite direction, an undulating highway which traces the Paraguayan border where a thumb of Argentina inserts itself between Paraguay and Brazil. The guidebook – and possibly everyone else, for all I know – refers to it somewhat clumsily as Argentinian Mesopotamia, because of its rivers, the Parana and the Uruguay. (Is there a hanging garden I’ve missed? Is someone thinking of invading?) The province is called Misiones and there are orange orchards and pine plantations, and thin farms. This is clearly not a rich part of the country, and many of the houses are simple timber cabins with wooden shutters for windows, painted in reds and yellows and blues, while others are cubes of brick, looking as if they’ve been plucked from the simplest kind of suburbia, floral curtains and all. In between is forest festooned with creeper, and olive rivers flowing between banks of red volcanic rock, and a rusty dust coats the road.

On the bus we had the inevitable video show, and this time it was ‘Australia’. The sun was bright outside and the locals like to close the curtains when travelling, so I took a look at it for the second time in nine months, hardly able to believe someone once convinced me to part with $15 to watch this tosh. Reading the subtitles, NT became Territorio Nordeste, and Hugh Jackman’s frequent ‘crikey’s became ‘Oh caramba!’, and 1,500 head of cattle had been translated into 15,000, possibly the fantasy of some overenthusiastic Gaucho subtitler. Happily, Drover and ‘walkabout’ remained unchanged. For once I would happily have identified myself as a Yankee, or a Royal Marine, or even, God forbid, a Chilean, than associate myself with such a king size pile of crap.

I’m starting to understand Spanish, a bit. I still can’t speak it to save my life, but when people tell me things I more or less get it. Simple things, that is. Like what time the bus leaves. No need to overdo it. The Argentinians, for their part, don’t seem to have much trouble with my name – not the surname, which needs no introduction (I remember it even induced snickers of recognition in Tajiks and Turkmens), but the first. Either they know the Angus cow, or more commonly, they know Angus Young of AC/DC. The Argies are great devotees of classic rock, and plenty of big acts come to play here – apparently the accas are on their way out later this year. One fan who saw them about ten years ago said he thought they were better live than the Rolling Stones. The radio and restaurants churn out a constant soundtrack of yesterday’s hits, and it’s been a pleasant voyage of rediscovery of the likes of Kate Bush, Meatloaf, Midnight Oil, Credence and, er, Rick Astley. On other points, though, they’re not quite so cosmopolitan. One subtitle slip I noticed was when a reference to Mickey Rourke was translated as Ricky Martin. Um, no.

Iguazu was stupendous. Everyone you meet tells you it’s great, and the guidebooks say it’s not to be missed, and it’s supposed to be a wonder of the world, but then you think, well how good can a waterfall be? Well, good enough to invest in a 23 hour bus trip from Salta to Puerto Iguazu, enduring three egregious Hollywood b-graders, Burt Reynolds and Jim Carrey, a double decker that stank like a backpacker dorm on a day of particularly sweaty sneakers, and nothing but sugary flour to eat and sugary nescafe to drink. Only to arrive in a town that featured little more exciting than a travel agency named Turismo Dick and a burger joint called El Willy. (Made me wonder if the Clintons had ever been guests here.) The day I arrived it was overcast and cold, but on asking Diego at the hotel what the weather would be like the following day, his response was, in effect, well it’s a bad day today, so it’ll probably be good tomorrow. And that’s how it turned out. That’s the way it’s been in Argentina, I’ve noticed – sunny except for the occasional chilly one-off. The weather is as easygoing and companionable as the people.

Now I guess it’s my turn to wax lyrical in terms that are meaningless to anyone who hasn’t been to Iguazu. Wonder of the world? Definitely. It takes a day to see the falls properly, and that’s only from the Argentinian side, and that’s if you don’t mess around. There’s an upper path and a lower path (known offputtingly as the Circuito Inferior), and a boat across a raging torrent to reach an island in the middle of it all (not running, unfortunately, due to high water levels), and a little railway to transport visitors between the various points along the cascades which run for a total of about five kilometres. You do the upper path first, crossing what looks like a placid brown stream beneath overhanging branches, aware of a persistent roar all around. You come to the first fall, 50m or so deep, which is impressive enough until you realise you’re in the midst of a massive arcade and that you’re crossing tumult after tumult of thrashing white water, each one of which would be a river and a waterfall worthy of its own name and national park anywhere else in the world. Dozens, scores, probably hundreds of the things. When a panorama emerges it is sheer rock, jungle and water, vast and unapproachable. Then the lower circuit takes you via the bottom of the falls, where you feel utterly overpowered, and occasionally soaked. Along the way there are toucans (well there was one) and little creatures called coatis, furry tree climbers with long snouts and striped tails who stand cutely on hind legs to pester tourists for food. Hundreds of butterflies flutter about, tiger striped or lemon yellow.

Finally, after a ride to the head of the falls on the propane powered toy train, a catwalk takes you across 1.1km of mud coloured river and fragile, parrot infested islands to view a bowl of boiling spume known as the Devil’s Throat where the spray is so dense you can barely see the top, let alone anywhere further down than a few metres. Torrent isn’t an adequate word. Nothing is. It’s raw power and sheer volume, an unstoppable, obliterating force, punching its way downwards in a 180 degree arc. The spray rises to a height of about ten metres, and when the wind decides to blow in the direction of the platform, a sudden shower drenches all the onlookers. Sensible tourists bring raincoats, or buy them from stalls for 20 pesos. Some just shove their camera in a plastic bag and get wet.

There are all kinds of creatures in the park, including 430 bird species, and one of the best places to see some of them is on the Macucu Trail, which I did last. It wends its way through about 3km of forest until it comes to – surprise – a waterfall, but this time a twin drop that is almost delicate, at least compared to the behemoths up the road. On the way there for a while I tailgated a couple of Valley Girls, buxom backsides busting from their leggings, who kept shrieking at their own hilarities and once asked me to take their photo (‘It parps from the tarp’), and a young French couple who chased each other swinging lengths of bamboo, giggling loudly. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of wildlife to be seen (or heard) on this stretch, so I stuck the legs in fast mode and left them behind, and on the return journey let them pass. Soon enough I spotted a massive chestnut coloured rodent lingering casually on the path; it trotted back and forth a couple of times, at its leisure, then disappeared to forage in the jungle. I waited for more, but only managed to catch the cries of about half a dozen birds before a young Argentinian biologist wandered along whom I’d noticed earlier clutching a guide to the park’s wildlife. She said she’d seen plenty of kingfishers, but was surprised I’d seen a toucan (me and twenty other tourists, that is, beside the kiosk). Apparently they’re endangered, and rare around the park.

She was in the process of completing her undergrad degree, where she’d been doing research into bee and fly distribution. She told me vast swathes of Argentina are given over to the cultivation of soybean for export to Asia, and that the industry is controlled by Monsanto, who supply the seeds, the fertiliser and the pesticides. Because of this monoculture the bees and other pollinating insects are disappearing – as elsewhere in the world – with serious consequences for the propagation of plants and forest. We ambled back towards the road discussing the life cycles of butterflies, bees and flies, and before too long what looked like a chocolate coloured antelope crossed the path right in front of us. She spotted some birds, which I barely saw, and I took some photos of butterflies in the last of the golden light, but she being a bee person was a bit dismissive of butterflies. We passed a sign which I had noticed as I came in that said to be wary of dangerous animals. Unnervingly, the dangerous animals weren’t specified so I asked her (I never did get her name) what they might be, and she said that the coutis sometimes bite people to get food. Apparently, though, there is still the occasional jaguar, and the wildlife guide had plenty of pictures of cats. A baby was taken from a ranger’s house about three years ago.

The next day I had hoped to cross into Brazil but discovered that, along with the Yankees, Aussies aren’t welcome in Brazil unless we’ve got a visa. It’s a shame because it’s only from there that you can get the full panorama of the falls. You’d think they’d have some $10 for a day pass kind of scheme going on, but apparently not (I didn’t bother schlepping all the way to the border to find out). I mean, it’s not like we’re about to disappear into the cities and take jobs from the locals or anything. And while I’m in whinge mode, I’ll say that if you’re going to charge foreigners more than locals to see sites, then you really should provide comprehensive information in English. Iguazu was fine – as it should have been, considering we pay three times what an Argentinian pays – but the Jesuit mission leaves a bit to be desired. There were various little machines with recorded information around the site, where you could press a button to hear a spiel in your own language, but I have to say it was a bit of a relief that none of these actually worked. The diagrams on top weren’t bad, showing the mission as it would’ve looked in its prime.

Oh, and before leaving Puerto Iguazu I wandered up the road to see the spot where two rivers and Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet. There probably aren’t that many places in the world where you can actually see three countries, at least from ground level. I have to say they all looked pretty much the same. Beneath a large spreading tree was a map of the Malvinas, enamelled in the white and sky blue of the Argentinian flag.