On the Trail of the Taruka by Robin Moore
Entering Condor Valley through gates of towering rock feels like being granted the key to a secret world. The rubble road that snakes through the valley, which lies in Salta Province in the northwest corner of Argentina, offers a ringside seat to an incredible array of geological and biological wonders. Let’s start with the immense layered rust-red rock formations that thrust skyward on either side — visible testaments to the immense geological forces that have shaped this land long before our species was even a thought. The jutting rocks channel thermals upon which condors soar overhead, spreading serrated wings that cut an unmistakable silhouette against a deep blue sky, amplifying the sheer vertical scale of the place. It is hard not to feel small here.
The corrugated topography of Condor Valley creates a staggering diversity of microclimates, and a unique blend of animals and plants adapted to these. On the valley floor, time has worn rock into undulations of strikingly red alluvial soil, which sprouts tubular cacti and twisted trees decorated with a patchwork of lime green lichens and dripping with epiphytes - plants that are adapted to growing on other plants by absorbing water and nutrients through the leaves.
Many of the visible adaptations reflect the need to conserve limited resources — primarily water. Condor Valley receives less than a foot of rain in an average year, and most of that falls in large storms between December and March. Trees and plants brandish thorns and spikes of alarming proportions that scream “don’t even think about it!”. A more elusive resident of the area, the waxy monkey frog, limits water loss by smearing lipids over its skin, giving it a waxy sheen.
But it is not all dry in Condor Valley. A strip of lush vegetation is fed by a river originating in the high Andes to the west. And where there is water, there is hope of finding frogs (full disclosure: I am a verified frog-o-phile). On our second night in Condor Valley a soft blanket of mist ignited a soundscape of quacks and chuckles audible from our lodge. Donning headlamps, we followed the cacophony to its source nearby— a small pond spiked with reeds.
At first glance the sound appeared to be coming from invisible frogs, but as I skirted the shore the bulbous form of a frog appeared in the white light of my headlamp, legs splayed in the shallow waters and beige body inflating and deflating like a miniature bagpipe and generating an incredibly loud call for a creature the size of a ping pong ball. I plunged my hand into the cold water and cupped the frog, lifting it for closer inspection and to later take photographs. I identified it as the tree frog species Hypsiboas andinus. I continued around the pond and captured another tree frog, apple green in color, of the same species. The following morning I returned to the pond to lift logs and found another species of ground frog. Although I did not find the beautiful Waxy Monkey Frog, our haul wasn’t bad for the dry season.
The weather during our first few days in Condor Valley was atypically cloudy and humid for the middle of May; good for drawing out frogs, but not so conducive for photographing beautiful landscapes or launching an expedition up Mount Creston in search of elusive mammals. Camera trap expert Chris Jordan, an Associate Scientist with Global Wildlife Conservation, had flown in from Nicaragua to assist with the setting of the camera traps.
The ranch borders the range of rare or endangered species including the Andean cat, Pampas cat and the Andean hairy armadillo. But perhaps of most interest was the elusive and little-known taruka — a deer native to high-elevation grasslands in the Andes of Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwestern Argentina. The taruka are designated as one of four “national natural monument species” by the Argentine government, and only a few hundred individulas are thought to remain in Argentina. A richer understanding of its status in the higher reaches of Condor Valley would enable a more informed conservation strategy for the species. Our placement of camera traps up the mountain would be designed to maximize the chances of documenting this elusive species with a view to instigating longer-term study.
Spirits lifted with the clouds on our second morning in Condor Valley as we prepared our horses for a two-night trip up the mountain. We packed enough meat to feed a small army and enough Condor Valley wine to knock us out at night, and set off through the valley towards Mount Creston. The first couple of hours were fairly easy going across a flat and arid landscape, but a pensive silence set in as we approached the climb out of the canyon, a stretch ominously named “mal paso”. Noting our trepidation, our young guide Bruno attempted to ease the nerves by assuring us “it’s not that dangerous”. Despite the build up, our horses took mal paso in their stride. As we climbed the steep winding trail the views became increasingly spectacular as the valley and mountain formations stretched out like a furrowed carpet behind us.
After several hours on horseback, my legs starting to feel tender, we reached an old stone building called the puesto that would be our base for the next two nights. We stiffly climbed off horses, tied them to a nearby tree, unloaded bags and in the last embers of light scaled “the knife”, a sharp ridge behind the puesto, to watch the final rays of sun burst through scattered clouds and illuminate vast rock formations across the valley. Drawing deep, slow breaths, I gorged on the views like a lizard basking in the morning sun, feeling the air percolate my veins, recharging and rejuvenating sore muscles.
Back at the puesto we marveled at the number of stars visible in the black sky as we lit a fire. Using an old wheel as a grill, we sat in a circle listening to the meat sizzling over red-hot embers, our clothes hanging on the backs of two old wooden chairs to smoke out ticks (I am not convinced it worked — for days I had ticks crawling out of clothes that smelled like they were on fire). As we we talked, I was surprised to learn that this was the first time that Hank Bannister, the owner of the 70,000-acre property, had made it up the mountain in the 10-years since he had acquired and named the property “Condor Valley” after the custom bottle wine that he and his local partner Martin Pekarek had been bottling for three years. Each incredible view of the property seemed to provide a new opportunity to wrap his head around the extent of his land — an area so vast and so rugged that he had only explored a small fraction of it. I was also surprised to learn that Don Antonio, one of our local guides, was 80 years of age, and had lived up the mountain for six years with only cows for company.
After a hearty meal and a couple of glasses of red wine we climbed into our sleeping bags like cocooning caterpillars and went out like lights. We rose with the sun the following morning and lowered tender hides onto familiar saddles to continue our ascent of the 10,300 foot Mount Creston. The general belief that today’s ride would be easier than the previous day’s was quickly quashed as we found ourselves hugging a thin rocky path that zig-zagged up a very steep incline — a route that made mal paso feel like a paved highway. And just when we thought things were going to get easier, vegetation closed in on either side, forcing our horses to scrape us through thorny bushes as they lurched up the rocky path. Just as I was starting to wonder what we were even thinking coming up here, I was strangely reassured to hear Hank bellow in front of “this is NOT fun!” From that moment on, things seemed easier, and I began to enjoy the shared adventure.
As the incline eased and the path opened we traversed rolling peaks cloaked in golden tufted grass and shrouded in cloud. It was ethereal and peaceful. I watched as Don Antonio rode silently in front of me among short, twisted trees, disappearing and reappearing in a fine mist like a magician. When the cloud occasionally dissipated, we were treated to incredible views of jagged mountains spiking from the valley far below. I kept an eye on the changing light and clutched the camera that hung around my neck in anticipation of these spectacular moments.
After a few hours we reached a clearing close to the crest of Mount Creston that would be our last stop. The vegetation was a mix of grassland, stunted trees, and rocks cloaked in apple-green moss and bulbous cacti. We dismounted our horses and ate lunch while Don Antonio hurried off on a mission, appearing 30 minutes later clutching large bunches of a small-leaved plant. His broad grin prompted us to ask what he had found — a natural viagra, he told us, as he strapped it proudly to his saddle.
After lunch we went in search of a suitable spot to place our fifth camera trap. Chris decided that a small watering hole with animal paths radiating from it would be a good bet, and proceeded to strap the camera to a suitable perch. On our way back to our horses we happened upon a large rock with “Por Peron, 1951” scratched into it in large letters. Further down the trail we came upon a perfectly preserves mortar and pestle — it felt as though time had stood still up here in the clouds.
The journey down the mountain took a fraction of the time it took to ascend as we leaned back in our saddles and let our horses do the work. We arrived back at the puesto by night fall, lit a fire, played “who attracted the most ticks” (a game Hank won every time), and rested tender rumps. We completed the descend into Condor Valley the following morning, giving us the afternoon to walk up a beautiful slot canyon to Condor Falls — a plume of white water cascading over rounded boulders. Half a dozen condors soared overhead, and I watched a dark shadow creep up rocks illuminated by the warm glow of evening sun for the last time.
Our departure from Condor Valley, via red canyons that line the road to the wine-cellars of Cafayate, provided some of the most stunning scenery that my eyes have feasted upon, as rock formations grew increasingly colorful and increasingly dramatic with every bend in the road and with each glass of local wine. I could have spent a lot longer than a week in Condor Valley exploring the incredible diversity of landscapes and life forms — not to mention, of course, wine. Although our sightings of larger mammals were limited to tracks of collared peccary and grey brocket, I am hopeful that Chris’s camera taps will bring back a record of the elusive animals living in the shadow of Mount Creston. In six weeks Bruno will return to check each of seven camera traps and, until then, we will wait with baited breath to find out if we were successful in capturing a puma, an Andean cat, or even -fingers crossed — the elusive taruka.
This entry was originally posted on Robin Moore’s Medium blog.