Swiss born Aimé Felix Tschiffely (1895-1954) rode from Buenos Aires to Washington D.C. in 1925, a trip that took three years. Most people thought he was mad to attempt such a trip that included searing deserts, raging rivers, crocodiles, impossibly steep mountains, wild tribes, mud holes and quicksand with just two aged Crillio horses, Mancha and Gato as travel companions. In Part I of his trip, we traveled with Tschiffely from Buenos Aires through the pampas to mountainous Bolivia and we are now about to enter Peru with our stalwart two- and four-legged travelers, and the challenges, as before, are never ending.
The waves of mosquitoes as the trio walked towards the steep jungle valleys of Peru were bad enough, forcing Tschiffely to wear gloves against these thirsty pests, but the vampire bats that attacked Mancha and Gato at night left the horses listless and weakened. Covering them with ground pepper at nights helped ward off these nasty creatures and by day the group managed an incredible 20 miles from day break to sunset. But, just ahead on the trail that led high above the Apurimac River they were about to encounter one of the most frightening trials of their trip. The trail was so narrow that if two riders happened to meet, more often than not, one would draw his gun and shoot the other so that retracing his steps could be avoided. Tschiffely was walking behind Mancha when he heard a noise that stopped his heart cold. He looked behind and saw his poor Gato slip over the side of the trail sliding over the precipice. He wrote, “For a moment I watched in horror and then the miracle happened. A solitary sturdy tree stopped his slide towards certain death, and once the horse had bumped against the tree, he had enough sense not to attempt to move. I took off my spurs and climbed down towards him and as soon as I had reached the trembling animal I began to unsaddle him with the utmost care. Poor Gato was now neighing pitifully to his companion, who was above in safety. It was not his usual neigh – it had in it a note of desperation and fear.”
Tschiffely was able to unsaddle Gato and hoped to get Mancha to help haul him up the cliff. A man passing by helped as poor Gato was hauled back to safety luckily spreading his forelegs like a frog so that he did not tumble backwards taking Tschiffely with him. His relief was indescribable and the escape nothing short of miraculous. But, once again, the challenges were never ending and he wrote that they came to “the roughest and most broken countryside imaginable.”
The trails that lay before them were twisty and narrow winding through valleys and over high passes with little bridges crossing deep canyons. Along the trail they saw the bleached bones of the poor horses and donkeys who had failed in their attempts to negotiate this nightmarish terrain. Finally the landslides and raging rivers forced him to turn west towards the Andes and to find an Indian guide to help him get through this countryside that had rarely seen a man. Then, they encountered a bridge, if you could call it that, stretched across a chasm, and Tschiffely said that, “We had crossed some giddy and wobbly hanging bridges before, but here we came to the worst I had ever seen or ever wish to see again. Even without horses, the crossing of such bridges is apt to make anybody feel cold ripples running down the back, and, in fact, many people have to be blindfolded and strapped on stretchers to be carried across.”
The bridge was four feet wide and stretched out for 150 yards with a deep sag in the centre. It was made from rope, wire and fiber with bits of wood and sticks to create the floor that was then covered with a coarse fiber mat to give some sort of grip. People traffic was scary enough on this rickety structure but to get two large horses across must have been terrifying. Was this the end of Tschiffely’s ride? He says that he thought about turning back but didn’t want to spend months holed up in an Indian settlement waiting for the dry season. He had to go on. The Indian guide took Mancha’s lead and started across with Tchiffely close behind. Mancha, like all horses, knew that this was not a normal situation and had a good look and a sniff at the bridge structure and floor matting. Eventually satisfied, he began to walk timorously along the bridge floor until the middle section began to sway. However, the horse’s intelligence held him in good stead and he waited until the swinging had stopped and then he moved forward quickly realizing as they began the upward portion of the trip that the worst was over. Gato, seeing that his two friends were across safely, walked on the bridge by himself as calmly as if he had been walking along a pleasant trail.
The trial of the swinging, rickety bridge was behind them and the Peruvian capital of Lima was their next destination. They endured torrential rain, slippery mucky trails, landslides and chilling cold as they travelled south towards their destination, now guideless and hopeful that the nasty “verruga” illness would pass them by because once caught, the boils, swellings and fever were always followed by death.
From one extreme to another, the cold mountain temperatures now gave way to the “horse-killer” desert or Maracaballo and the bones of dead animals and soldiers from the Chilean/Peruvian battles outside Ancon could be seen scattered about in the sand. The searing heat had our trio riding early in the morning until exhausted and they then rested during the hottest part of the day.
If Peru was bad, then chilly mountainous Ecuador was no better and landslides often washed out portions of the road creating challenges that required quick thinking. At one point, Mancha took it upon himself to jump across a portion of the trail that had been washed away and Tschiffely didn’t know whether to bring him back to Gato or to get Gato to jump across to Mancha. Some clever maneuvering of saddle packs and a brave jump by Gato finally saw the three of them on one side of the trail saving them from backtracking but admittedly giving Tschiffely a good fright.
The trio had now been on the “road” for two years and the suffocating heat, steaming jungles, hungry bugs, diseases and poisonous plants challenged them at every turn. However, Tschiffely never thought of giving up, and unknown to him, the letters he had sent back to Buenos Aires had made him famous as newspapers printed his exploits to an enthusiastic public who watched and waited for the updates in both South and North America.
The jungles of Central America held their own types of challenges as revolutionaries, bandits and poisonous reptiles were waiting around each and every corner. Gato went lame after the trio crossed into Mexico and Tschiffely had him shipped to Mexico City and would join him later. The stalwarts were now reduced to just two and onward they walked towards the north where they were given a military escort because of the lawlessness and the bandits who were more interested in personal gain than historical merit.
From Mexico they reached Texas and some of the greater challenges fell away while the hospitality and welcome mat was rolled out with great frequency. Their travels took them past Oklahoma, the Ozarks and on to St. Louis, then Mississippi, Indianapolis, Columbus and across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Without his guns, which had been taken at the Mexican/USA border, Tschiffely admitted later that he knew without a doubt what he would have done to the man in the car who drove towards and hit Mancha on purpose as they got closer to their final destination.
Finally, the now world famous trio made it to Washington, D.C, the reports and tales of their travels now peaking the interest of the venerable National Geographic Magazine who asked Tschiffely about writing an article for their publication. The two “old horses” and the teacher were welcomed with open arms by the Argentinian Ambassador and American President Calvin Coolidge who invited him to the White House.
His next stop was New York but he shipped the two horses there instead of riding them on the car clogged roads. In New York he was presented with the New York City medal by the Mayor James Walker. Lady Luck was with the horses when they missed their planned ship departure aboard the “Vestris” on her way to Argentina. The boat sank a few days into her voyage and once again the horses had missed death by good fortune, timing and chance. The three of them finally arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina after a twenty-one day sea voyage on the “Pan-American.” In Argentina, the man who had been mocked and derided was lauded and feted. The Argentinians saw themselves in Gato and Mancha: tough, resilient and true survivors.
Our four footed friends were sent to a ranch in the south of Argentina for a well deserved rest and Tschiffely wrote his first book titled, “Southern Cross to Pole Star”, considered to be the most important equestrian travel book of the 20th century. His travels inspired countless others to try a “long ride” and to write about their travel, trials and tribulations. These people are now known as the “Long Riders”.
Tschiffely did not rest of his laurels. He rode across England in the 1930s and wrote a book called “Bridle Paths: Europe’s Most Famous Equestrian Explorer Rides Through England” detailing his experiences through a now gone countryside which must have been tame compared to his travels in the wilds of South America.
In 1933 Aimé Tschiffely married Violeta Hume on 21st December as reported in The New York Times the following day. Born in Buenos Aires, of Scottish-French parents, she was a talented musician and linguist who also took part in many broadcasts, both in English and Spanish.
In the 1940s he returned to Argentina and in his book “This Way Southward” tells of his trip by car to Tierra del Fuego and the emotional reunion with his two horses Mancha and Gato who remembered him and came when he called to them. Tschiffely recalled this poignant reunion: “I spoke to the animals, and they slowly came towards me. When I touched Mancha’s broad forehead, both sniffed me all over. To find out if they still remembered one or two simple tricks I had taught them, I stood in front of one and snapped a finger. Immediately a fore-leg was lifted, and I was allowed to inspect the hoof, and when I repeated the noise, this time snapping my finger under the horse, he at once lifted a hind leg. These tricks the animals had learnt in the wilds, ten years before, when I tried to make quite sure that no stone or other hard object was lodged in a hoof to lame them.
There could be no doubt they remembered me, but to make quite sure, I returned to the corral later. On this occasion I did not show myself until one of the men had called the animals several times. They made no response, but when I shouted their names, both at once looked up and came towards me. I made several other simple tests, which left me in no doubt that both remembered me clearly.”
Gato died first at the age of 38 in 1944 and Mancha went to join him at the age of 40 three years later. They are buried on Emilio Solanet’s ranch, El Cardal.
Tschiffely himself died on January 5th 1954 in England after a very minor and routine operation. His ashes were taken to Argentina and buried near the memorial for his old friends Gato and Mancha.
These three brave travelers, friends and adventurers were at last, together forever.
To read other books by Tschiffely please go to:
In “A Tale of Two Horses” Tschiffely writes the trip from Mancho and Gato’s viewpoint.
“Tshiffely’s Ride” is written by Tschiffely himself and chronicles the whole 10,000 mile trip.