Take a trip back in time and into the mountains of Baja California Sur by the only means to get there. On four hooves our author sees the back country of Baja California Sur as the original explores did, on horseback. Across the mountains of Baja California Sur, carved out of the land, are the remains of long, narrow mule trails. Navigating these trails on horseback is nail-biting stuff. You cannot get a phone signal for miles and as Sarah Markworth discovered, one slip of a horse’s hoof could have us all cascading over the mountain’s edge.
Our guide Chayo leads us on his mule. There are only five of us to lead: two women and three men and we are on horseback. I am the only inexperienced rider from the group. I just have to stay on the horse and trust Chayo with my safety. “Watch that tree,” the other woman yells. I narrowly miss it with my head. I realize that this is no easy task.
Chayo has a contemplative expression on his face. He is a man of few words. This is his land and he knows it intimately. He respects it. Our horses trust him and they follow him obediently. He wears the clothes of a ranchero. He could be straight from an old Mexican black and white photograph - a revolutionary perhaps, fighting for Mexico’s independence from the Spanish. A shotgun is strapped to the side of his mule and it is a reminder that these deserts are not as barren as they look. This is the last frontier. Mountain lions roam the terrain and occasionally unwelcome drug traffickers. We hope to avoid both and look into a distance silhouetted by cactuses.
The southern part of Mexico’s Baja California was once the domain of the Pericue Indians. They were known to have inhabited the area as early as 10,000 B.C. The Pericue Indians were shamanistic people and cave dwellers, using local plants like chamise, mazanita, laurel and sage for rituals and medicine. Buckeye, bladderpod, buckwheat, cliff splurge and agave also grow here and would have been used in plenty and without any waste. They were avid fishermen too, using the Gulf of California to harvest their catch. We are following trails that were once known to them.
Occasionally we see a lizard scurry up a large, sun-bleached rock. It wiggles into a crack. They are one of the many reptile species here. Well adapted to a climate where temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius will suck dry the exposed life in this dusty terrain. There are many varieties of rattlesnake, whiptails, numerous iguanids, geckos and lizards all hiding somewhere, avoiding the sun and also us. Surprisingly salamanders, tree frogs and a number of toads live here too. They are all supported by Baja’s mix of deserts, bays, mangroves and lagoons.
It is not long before some low and spiky branches ‘twack’ my legs. It hurts. A lot - a reminder that appropriate attire is necessary for a desert. The image of a cowboy may have been glamorized by Hollywood but their clothes were made for survival: chaps to protect vulnerable legs against thorns, rocks and, of course, part-wild cattle. The heel of a boot will keep feet in stirrups while the pointed toe will allow feet to escape them should you fall. Riding Western style allows you more stability on a horse. Your horse needs to change pace at a flick of the reigns held in one hand. The other will be needed to hold on to the horn of the saddle as your horse ascends a mountain or gallops at full speed.
Chayo is an avid conservationist, keen to keep his vast land from the hands of property developers. He does not need or desire the money from its sale. At the end of an arroyo, near his oasis he keeps the remains of his grandmother’s wooden shack. She once lived and raised a family in this desolate wilderness. Strange objects hang from its ceiling: an eagle’s foot holding a stone, black feathers tied in a bundle. Perhaps they were a gift from a medicine man. There are tools hanging too, their use to us lost in the passing of time.
A trickle of water flows from a crack in the mountainside. It will eventually spill into an emerald green pond surrounded by trees and bushes. The horses that we ride are familiar to this site. They arrive from the wild seeking the water. Chayo will corral them, feed and calm them, ready them for us to ride. When we are done they will return again to the wild.
An evening by the campfire ignites his sense of humour. Before we sleep under the stars for the night Chayo tells us ghost stories and reminds us of the animals that roam through the desert. A face-eating bat perhaps is a story too far. A rope is looped on the ground around our beds. “It keeps the rattlers away,” we are informed. “Rancheros usually sleep behind their animal. It is so a predator will attack the animal and not the ranch hand,” a pearl of wisdom although it seems extreme advice for us. Chayo becomes serious and tells us of the people he has found perished on his land. They have become lost and were unable to find the sources of water. Water was essential for their survival.
The next day we ride out, ready to return to our homes. Chayo halts our horses and jumps down from his mule. We all stare in amazement at the sight by his feet. It is a fresh mountain lion track. A large paw shaped indent in the sand. “This was a big cat,” Chayo informs our group. “Close to our camp too. It came last night.”
We all look down at the track. We are in awe of the sight and perhaps a little unnerved that a large predator came so close to us while we slept. Were we to be its dinner? “The animals were restless last night. They knew the cat was around. I went out to see what was there. I think I scared it off,” Chayo informs us in a very matter of fact way.
All five of us look at each other. None of us had heard a thing. We are unfamiliar with the sounds of danger in the desert, skills only learned through large amounts of time spent in the wilderness. Thankfully there are skills and rituals precious to Chayo and land that is sacred to him. There has been important knowledge passed from his grandfather to his father and his father to him, giving people like me an opportunity to see and experience a environment unchanged by the passing of thousands of years. Chayo has ferociously protected this ecology and it is one that would otherwise not be here or at the very least be inaccessible to most of us.
by Sarah Markworth