We woke at 3am to be picked up by a polite guy whom we´d been warned didn´t speak English. It´s a one hour drive to the Parque Nacional - a drive that was doomed to become quickly uncomfortable and bereft of conversation as my stilted and badly pronounced minimal Spanish ran out. But since I had nothing to lose I persevered, passably translating for Maho. Dario hosted tourist drives for a hobby. He was a fisherman and also hunted. He was 41. That sort of thing.
Gradually he started to loosen up and become more expansive. What tipped the balance was me turning up the radio "Permiso? Permiso?" and singing along, in English, to "Send soon a Donna." It turned out Dario did have some English after all.
No, it wasn´t "Shut up" or "My ears!"
"Quisiera ver cabybara (I would like see capybara)" I said, expecting him to laugh and say it was unlikely. Even though we were taking the pre-dawn animal spotting trip, I wasn´t expecting much. And certainly not Capybara.
We turned onto the 12km dirt road that lead to the park proper. After a while Dario points to two Capybara by the side of the road. We stopped, they ambled off. A bit later there was another two - the male of which was scentmarking unconcernedly. And then a coauple more.
"Sorro!" says Dario as something dashed out of the headlight glare. I assumed it was a medium sized terrified rodent. I think in response to our obvious excitement Dario started providing more and more information. By now he was speaking English at about 80 to 20 words in it´s favour. In the park were capybara (called capincho here), sorro, bambis, antelope, wild pigs, frogs etc
Drive for a bit more.
"Bambis! Tres bambis," says Dario pointing.
Then we got to the actual park, which starts with a camp ground. the campground is full of vizcacha. Cross a rabbit with a brushtail possum. They live in small family groups in burrows.
Dario started imparting his hunter knowledge. He explained what noises we could hear: the rattling purr of the male vizcacha (vizcacho), the faint ´booh booh´call of a female "brother of bambi" (small deer) that was very hard to see, the frogs, the swish of owl wings overhead, bat calls, he imitated the alarm call that male capybara give when they see a hunter. All knowledge you´d expect a hunter to aquire. We discussed the stars, lightning and sunrise - stopping every so often for another tidbit of hunter lore or to have an owl pointed out to us.
Dario fixed up a mate for himself. I asked to smell it "Permiso aroma?" He insisted we taste it, and then explained how it was prepared, and what varieties you could have - ones with orange peel, flavour teas, milk etc
For someone who "didn´t speak English" he was an outstanding guide.
We got back in the car and scanned likely capybara spots, to no avail.
"Now, we are like hunters" he said.
Every two hundred metres we spotted nightjars on the road, which grudgingly took off.
We watched the sunrise over Uruguay at the bank of the river that is the border. Gorgeous.
Dario took advantage of the sand to draw animal tracks, explain pig culls, and provide a geography lesson which included dialect differences around Argentina.
We walked into the forest with a slim chance of seeing the bambi brother. We got to a headland where I discovered "Sorro (actually Zorro)" means fox. Dario explained how all the vegetation on the river comes from upstream. Lorros (lorikeeks) were stirring over head. He pointed out their nests. A small number of African vultures had escped from a nearby animal park and set up residence in this national park (That took a fair amount of translation genius on my part to work out). they and the wild pigs were the only non-native animals here.
As we got within sight of the car Dario tapped my shoulder and hissed "Ai! Ai! Ai! Bambi brother!"
We got within about eight metres of it and watched it as long as we wanted. Dario explained that he´d never seen one apart from fleeing from him in horror at long range. He delightedly took photos.
It was time to drive back to Colon, our two hours in the park were almost up.
The park is the last bastion of the Yatay palm - one million left. They were harvested for their superior hardwood. Their growth form is really interesting: for the first forty years they grow on the ground with no trunk building up a large root, then they shoot up 30 metres or so without adding to their girth at all (like most palms) for the rest of their 300+ year life. Dario explained that we humans were the opposite. At forty the only measurment that changes is grith.
I suggested the palms looked Jurassic. This lead to a mutually confusing conversation concerning dinosaurs. I knew Dario had cottoned on when he exclaimed "Archaelogica!" Who would have guessed my velociraptor impression would prove useful in a car in a forest in Argentina?
Dario tried unsuccessfully to explain a concept and apologised with "My English es primitivo."
It was infinitely better than my Spanish so I replied "Me Español es archeaological!"
Dario slowed down beside each of the many species of bird we came across just beside the road. The first was a pair of Teko - a type of plouver. Half in mime, Dario explained that their cry for which they are named "teko teko" is them mourning the loss of their money.
"See how the man is very well dressed?"
"Yes, he looks like he´s wearing a suit. Tuxedo."
"Si! He has mucho dinero, but he lose it all. his wife, she cries Teko teko to scold him. Their eyes are red from boo hoo."
"Si. In Argentina, todo aves (all birds) have historia."
I asked what the Lorro´s story was.
Oh, this involved smiling and lots of "how do you say it in English" in Spanish. It was evidently a bit rude.
Ok, loros are like banditos who marry for sex, but they are somehow dodgy. Ah! They are (in the story at least) unfaithful partners. So, when you want to tell someone to piss off you tell them "Go fcuk the wife of the loro!"
We saw ground birds, loros, woodpeckers, song birds and even one of the african vultures about a third of the way back.
While Maho slept Dario and I discussed how the land was used. This included soya bean harvested for oil, beans and cattle fodder, and eucalytpus plantations that were harvested every eight years for paper.
He finished up with an impromptue tour of Colon.
And yes, my archaeological Spanish was fully demonstarted when I tipped Dario with "You have two beverages on my. (Tengo dos bebidas en me)"
I recall Gerald Durrell writing about the Teko in his book about collecting in Patagonia in the mid fifties. Durrell´s books were the first books I ever got into. From the age of about eight I´d pester dad to take me to the library to get the next Durrell book. There are a dozen or more of them, and are still a delight to read. Durrell is responsible for getting me interested in this part of the world, with his descriptions of the animals focusing on their personalities and his anecdotes involving encounteres with various locals who helped him in frantic and excentric ways.
It strikes me that Dario is exactly the sort of person Durrell would have met.