I mentioned earlier that I worked as a veterinary practitioner in Uruguay for four years after my graduation in 1975. It was after a couple of years of this work that the events narrated here took place.
It was a luminous autumn day that, as usual, started very early with a mate breakfast before going to work at the clinic. The latter, as most clinics in Uruguay, was a mix of agro-business (belonging to a third party) with our clinic attached to it. At the time we were three partners, myself being the newest.
The shop was a popular meeting place, close to the main bank and it was normally busy. Apart from customers seeking to purchase agriculture-related products as well as getting advice on veterinary issues from us, there were friends and hangers-on all the time. That morning was not an exception and, when I got there, Gerardo, one of my partners was talking animatedly with one of the visitors, Pozzo, a well known farmer from a neighbouring farming area.
The topic of conversation was the then-current situation of the River Plate which was undergoing an extreme low tide that, according to a veteran like Pozzo, had not been seen since he had “use of a memory” as he put it. Pozzo was known as a colorful character reputed to eat eighteen fried eggs for breakfast among other colourful stories attached to his name!
Clearly the situation was interesting and I suggested that, once the business of the day was dealt with, we should go and investigate. Pozzo said he would join us, as he wanted to see what the Carmelo coastline looked like at low tide. So, before lunch the three of us climbed in my car and left for the beach, located a few kilometres away. At the time I had bought a 1959 Series II SWB Land Rover, after trading in my first car, a beautiful red and black voiturette Chrysler 1931 that was too expensive to run on paraffin leave alone petrol!
On arrival at the beach it was clear that the situation was extreme and I had never seen a sight like that before. There was no water for at least a couple of kilometres into the river where only wet sand could be seen except for the navigation channel where the river was still “wet”! Spectacular situations require equally remarkable responses… and I rose to the challenge! For some reason I hatched the idea of going down to the beach and then to drive all they way to Conchillas to surprise my wife -then my girlfriend- with a glorious and an unexpected virgin voyage after 30 kilometres of beach drive!
With the agreement of my eager companions we set off driving over wet sand for a few kilometres without stopping, looking for possible Spanish galleons carrying gold that sunk during the conquest… Of course we found no trace of them but found a large and shallow lagoon where several rather large fish had become temporarily trapped. They were bogas (Leporinus obtusidens) a good fish both to catch and to eat. We watched their futile swims towards the normally deeper areas that ended in them almost coming out of the water! It was a unique sight as these were large fish, apparently doomed. After watching their comings and goings for a while we left to continue our journey.
The way ahead looked clear, apparently all the way and we felt encouraged to go on. So we climbed back to the car and I engaged first gear. The car did not move forward but rather down, or at least its rear end did. I revved the engine but -of course- made matters worse by sinking further into the wet sand. We got out to inspect the situation and realized that we were in a tight spot, particularly bearing in mind that the front wheel transmission in my ancient Land Rover had become somehow disconnected some time back and I had not repaired it!
So, it was a matter of digging and pushing, which we did for a while. After each attempt the car would move a bit and then sink again. We were in trouble! As if being stuck was not enough of a problem, we heard Pozzo say: “I think the tide is coming in”. As I revealed before, he had a reputation for being witty so we did not pay attention to his words and kept on digging frantically.
After a few minutes I could see that not only was he correct, but also that the water was coming in remarkably fast! After a few more attempts the water reached the wheels and the sand became liquid rendering all our efforts totally futile. As the loss of the car became a certain probability I reacted and decided to look for help ashore. “I will go and find a tractor to pull us out” I said not before agreeing with my companions that they would take out all movables from the car, preparing for the worst. I ran to the shore and, very luckily, found someone driving a tractor cutting bulrushes, taking advantage of the lack of water. My hopes increased when I realized that I knew him. A mixture of the absurdity of the situation and my heavy breathing due to the running did not help my explanation. Eventually he understood and agreed to have a look.
My heart sank when he announced that it was too risky to enter the water to pull the car because he could also get stuck in the river as the bottom would be very soft. I insisted but he steadfastly refused so I gave up. I believe that my dismay helped in his decision to take me in the tractor to seek further help. We drove up the steep bank to see if the owner of another tractor would dare to go in as they had a larger tractor.
Luckily the owner was there. This time I did not need to explain much as, before our eyes and into the river we could see my Land Rover being progressively denuded of its movable parts by my trip companions. “There is no way we can pull it with a tractor” he said and added, “If we get stuck, we lose everything!” Somehow my mind moved to what story I was going to tell the insurance company about how I lost the car and then the idea of bringing a wreath every year to the spot also came to mind but it was quickly discarded as superfluous!
“I will try to pull it with horses” the voice of the farmer brought me back from my total loss-related thoughts. “What?” I just managed. “Yes” he said, “I have horses and a pulling harness. I think the horses will pull it out”. He called a couple of workers to bring three horses, the harness and ropes and, before ten minutes had passed we were going down the bank towards the “sinking” Land Rover.
The situation was now desperate! The water has come in fast and it had already covered the wheels. My companions had been waiting, wondering whether I was coming back. We entered the water and walked towards the car with the horses. The car was a pathetic sight as all movable items were no longer there and the water was now covering the engine and flowing inside it! Realizing that time was not on our side we got to work fast and harnessed two of the horses to the submerged bumper. A guy sat on the bonnet with the reins and I sat under water behind the wheel as, although the engine was flooded, there was still a need to steer! A horse was kept in reserve and all other hands got ready to push.
Despite my strong reservations about success, we agreed to push and pull at the count of three. What happened next was unexpected. Under the strength of the horses the Land Rover rolled forward with ease and moved to the triumphant shouts of my rescuers! “Do not stop now!” I shouted, my adrenaline flowing while seated in water to up to my breast steering and watching the back of the farmer on the bonnet that was controlling the horses, our real saviours. Stop we did not and, eventually, we managed to get the car on dry ground and away from the highest tide line mark to a safe zone. I was a happy man and, at the same time amazed that two horses could move a stuck car so easily. Later I realized that the increase in water depth helped greatly in making the car lighter.
News moved fast and, by the time our rescue was over and we were wondering what to do next, my father had come and witnessed the action. Being a photographer, he took the only picture I have of the event that I present you with here. It is a bad scan of the print he took but I hope it shows the absurd situation I got into and, luckily, out of.
The aftermath was an anticlimax! My father towed us back to Carmelo where we arrived after dark and straight to the mechanic. After dropping the car and when we were alone, as expected he lectured me on my lack of prudence!
In addition to the failure to achieve the feat -and impress my girlfriend- I also suffered financial humiliation when the time came to pay the bill for the car repair!
 Mate is a traditional drink where hot water is drank after sucking it through ground dried leaves of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) with the aid of a bombilla (metal straw) from a calabash gourd (mate).
See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mate_%28beverage%29 for more details.