The Expat: Hugh MacDermott

Born in: Oxford, UK
Age: 25
Education: A levels
Likes: Long supper parties, horses (obviously), a good movie and regaling the unsuspecting with my stories
Dislikes: Art that requires an explanation, empty bottles of whisky, hard-boiled eggs
Last movie seen: Almost Famous
Last book read: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Hugh MacDermott is in the process of starting up MacDermott’s Argentina, a travel company.

Pancho, left, and Hugh MacDermott travelled around 4,000 km together.
Pancho, left, and Hugh MacDermott travelled around 4,000 km together.

By Sorrel Moseley-Williams
Herald staff

After trying — and failing — to be a stunt double in the UK, Hugh MacDermott worked on two estancias then ended up riding around Argentina with his horse Pancho — for two years.

Hugh, what were you doing before you came to Argentina? I was trying to be a stunt double specialising in horses, so the idea was to be the man on a horse in a film. And I failed.
I’d made a demo and sent it to all the important stunt double companies in the world, but none of them ever got back to me. I had got to a dead end and had a bit of money in the bank and Argentina was the first place where I got a contact. So that’s why I came here.

Tell me about that contact. I had a little piece of paper with a name and a number on it, a well-known polo player, and he was a friend of my cousin’s husband. I was told he had an amazing 30,000-hectare estancia and that I’d be riding up round the lakes and forest, that there’d be enough gauchos to shake a stick at, cattle and thousand of horses. It sounded perfect.
I arrived at Ezeiza airport, rang him as instructed and he told me to take a bus to Intendente Alvear.
I didn’t speak any Spanish then and they didn’t speak any English at the bus station so I went to the first ticket booth I found and handed over the piece of paper. And the guys asked: “¿Cuál?” So I got the dictionary out, and worked out that there was more than one Intendente Alvear. I took a bus to a Intendente Alvear, and by chance it was the right one.

What did you know about this place? All I knew was that I’d be riding up in the mountains. But I ended up in La Pampa and there definitely aren’t any mountains there. Or forests or lakes. The estancia was 100 acres if that, and was more of a polo pony-breeding ground.

Where were you living? The gauchos tried to put me in a hotel but I told the hotel owner who spoke English that the deal was to work for my board and lodge. The owner wasn’t there and I’ve still never met actually him to this day.
The gauchos started to mutter among themselves and finally one, Miguel, said I could stay with him.
I got there and Miguel’s wife then told me the rent would be $1,000 a month. It was 11pm, I hadn’t slept for three days as I’d been travelling. They moved some rubbish aside in their garage, put a mattress down — and that’s what I was paying for. I didn’t even get to ride on the farm for those three months. The gauchos have this view that no foreigner knows how to ride so they only let me on a 30-year-old donkey with a bad back. All I did was creosote the railings, so I left.

What was your first impression? As I was expecting mountains and lakes I was pretty surprised. I remember thinking it was strange there weren’t any mountains then remembered it was a very big estancia so they must be somewhere else. I’ve never been back. It’s not the most thrilling of places.

What did you do after those three months? I felt like I wanted to go home and but couldn’t as I hadn’t been here very long and it would be a cop-out. So I called my brother and asked for his help. He put me in touch with another polo player, Luke, who said I could stay at his estancia in 25 de Mayo in the Buenos Aires province.
I stayed there for four months then got the idea of buying a horse, and so I rode off.

Hang on, you don’t just buy a horse and ride off…

Well, it took about four months to organise but I made the decision, bought a couple of horses and got the tack. My main horse is called Pancho.
I read Tschiffely’s Ride when I was a kid. He was a Swiss chap (the 20th century’s most famous equestrian traveller) who was here and he had the idea of riding from Buenos Aires to New York, so my original idea was to retrace his footsteps in some kind of modern-day odyssey. It was all very dramatic.
I found out only two people had attempted this since. One had a heart attack and died in Córdoba, and the other one disappeared in Central America, never to be seen again.

So you set off… A guy who started the Long Riders’ Guild got in touch in contact me. You can only get in by riding at least 1,000 miles. He’d heard about my trip and it turned out that five people were riding from Buenos Aires to New York at that very moment. The guy who disappeared is actually riding to North Africa, and is currently in Israel.
That put a dampener on my plans so I changed them and rode across to Mendoza, aiming to cross over into Chile. We did about 4,000 km in total.

Tell me about Mendoza. I ended up staying there for about three months. I arrived in October and the snow was too deep to cross into Chile so I stayed there until January.
I then returned from Chile as we weren’t allowed in, so only went in a little bit then rode the Cordillera up to Jujuy.

When you stopped off, how did people respond to you? Oh, they loved it. There’s a very big horse culture in Argentina and all the Argentine mothers I stayed with saw their son in me, and thought of their son being in strange country out on their own. I had a list of mothers I had to ring at the end of the trip to say I was fine and that the trip had ended!
I was really looked after wherever I went as Argentines are very good-natured and open people. It’s an ideal country to do a long ride.
But most of the time I was sleeping rough.

Really? Well, yes. I had a sleeping bag. If it rained I had to find a place to stay and if I didn’t I just got wet.

What did your kit comprise of? In the beginning it included a water purifier, a barbecue, books. I always carried a plastic box with “just-in-case” provisions, a bag of rice, tinned tuna and crackers. I always picked up some bread and meat from a little ranchito on the way.
I also started with a shoeing kit but finally borrowed other people’s as it was heavy. I always had certain medical things for me and the horses, but by the end I had got rid of quite a lot of stuff.

You travelled with two horses. Yes, but in Córdoba I realised my second horse didn’t like travelling, he was losing weight and condition and I was worried about him. I swapped him for a mule and another little horse and continued with that little team.

It sounds like an incredible journey. The thing is, it wasn’t continual travelling; for example, I stopped with a family in Pergamino for a month, Córdoba for two months… I averaged about four kilometres a day, so it wasn’t as amazing as it sounds! My trip then ended in Tucúmán with my brother, who was then 16.

What was your journey highlight? It was actually the physically highest point of the trip, which was crossing the Andes. We crossed very fast, we did it after the harshest winter anyone in Mendoza can remember, the snow was terrible, over my horses’ knees. We rode 15 to 17 hours a day, and it was lethal. The moment of arriving at the Chilean border was the best bit of the trip because all the gauchos had said my horses wouldn’t make it, that this isn’t La Pampa and that Pancho wasn’t used to hills. They slagged us off, saying Pancho couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t it and no one could because of the weather. The only person who said it was possible was my guide.

Did you see those gauchos after the trip? I used to drink in a gaucho bar down in the lowlands and on the way back, my guide drove back in his truck and returned the day before me. He’d already developed some lovely big photos of my trip.
The gauchos could see me unloading my stuff from the bar, and after a shower I headed down there.  I ordered a drink, didn’t say anything, and they were looking, and then asked: “¿Y? Cómo fue?” to snorts of derision. I replied that it had gone ok, “Más o menos.” There were some more winks and nudges.
Then I asked them if they wanted to see my photos, so I took them out and one is of me and Pancho, hugging him and waving from the sign that says Chile! They were amazed and really couldn’t believe it so I felt even prouder, showing off to the gauchos than actually getting there.

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