We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Other than the vague concept that we would be dealing with sheep and knowing that we were spending the day across the ocean inlet, we literally had no idea of how the day would unfold.
As we stood under an awning at the ferry pier, I wondered how we managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 6:00 am. It was raining out and I was dressed in my warmest and most rain-proof gear. I dreaded the idea that we might be working in pouring rain for the entirety of one of our first days off and a small part of me hoped that Dr. Juan Francisco Alvarez, one of two veterinarians working with SAG, would just not show up so I could go back to my warm hostel bed. We had arranged this ‘outing’ with SAG after our group’s press release with Puerto Natales’ mayor and some members of the council. The media was there to film and photograph the four of us Canadians and our Chilean counterparts being publicly welcomed into Puerto Natales, our home for the next three months. SAG is Chile’s equivalent to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), although I’ll admit that I cannot translate what SAG stands for. Their responsibilities are similar to those of the CFIA, which of course include having veterinarians on the payroll for monitoring livestock welfare and quality. We had expressed interest in observing and helping out with any large animal veterinary-related activities in Chile to gain an appreciation and perspective on animal agriculture in a new country and culture. SAG has been a great supporter of our activities in Chile (including offering us a lab to run tests in) and they were very keen to have us tag along for a day.
When we arrived at the pier, it was still dark. The sun rises and sets so rapidly here that by the time Francisco arrived and we set out on the ferry, the sun had already risen somewhere behind the cloudy veil of a sky. Thankfully the rain let up with the arrival of day. On the ferry I wondered how ridiculous the day might become, as neither Andi or I speak Spanish. Francisco, whom we had only met once before, gave the impression that he didn’t speak any English. Fortunately Andi’s previous French experience and week-long exposure to this language, was sufficient to communicate with Francisco’s rather decent understanding of her Spanglish.
A truck was waiting for us upon our arrival at the other end of the sound. The owner of the farm was an older Chilean gent who wore a traditional Chilean beret-like hat. Instead of taking us along the clearly defined road, we immediately took off along an almost fresh-looking trail. The hour and a half long trip to the farm was a unique one. Off-roading would be one way of putting it, but rather it was almost like a poorly built carnival ride. Some of the trail was so poor that we crawled over large rocks, through shallow streams, and along a coast of small pools where any discernable path was washed away regularly. In the back seats, we were tossed back and forth, barely being able to hold on to the handles. At times our vehicle was going up a 45 degree incline or tilted 45 degrees to the side.
We arrived at the farm, situated in a small bay off of Last Hope Sound, tucked away from the rest of Patagonia. The landscape was absolutely amazing and the family there was extremely welcoming. Decked out in disposable white coveralls and white rubber boots, I entered the tattered tin barn to find the hundreds of sheep in separate pens. Turns out we were there to tag, age, and assess the body condition of as many sheep as we could during our visit. Andi and I both learned quickly how to age and judge their body condition score and I also wrestled down and tagged a number of them myself. Part of my job was also to shout out the numbers as I tagged, forcing me to learn to count in Spanish. I suppose that’s a good place to start on my path to learning this loco language.
We were fed a feast of slow roasted beef and potatoes for lunch and traditional arroz con leche (rice pudding) for desert in their old, quaint house. I excused myself after drinking down my instant coffee (which they tend to love here in Chile) to take some photos of their farm and the amazing Patagonian backdrop. We returned to the barn for a couple hours, before packing up to head back to Puerto Natales.
For some unknown reason (or at least to us) the owner decided to switch things up a bit and make our return trip a little more exciting by driving a 1970 white-topped, red Land Cruiser. Andi and I were packed with our supplies in the back, sitting in side facing seats with, of course, no chance of seatbelts. It felt like we were on a safari, which made me imagine how our VWB comrades in Africa may very well be enduring this every day. To go along with that safari mentality, we managed to view a few flocks of flamingos and the massive caracara birds of Patagonia. No guanacos yet, but I’ll find one soon enough.
In the end it was an unforgettable experience. I’m sure it won’t be the only during our time in the deep south of Patagonia.