I don't know why I thought this was a good idea. I'm standing on a ton of timber, piled unsecured into the back of a Volkswagen Amarok with the tailgate down, and I'm clinging to its fat chrome rollbar because beneath me the truck is bellowing and bucking over soft sand and thick clumps of brush as it climbs a 45-degree mountainside, sending me, the two blokes standing next to me, and the timber bouncing wildly. We're either going straight up, making the timber start to slide out the back, or straight across, our direction decided mostly by which way the front wheels land each time they rear up. Straight across is scarier. This is what made me climb out of the cabin and stand in the back -- if we barrel-roll down the mountainside, as seems more than likely, I thought I'd rather try to step lightly off the side than get stuck inside. But now I'm not so sure I'd be able to leap clear of a fast-rolling truck and 40-plus thick eucalyptus fence posts. This is easily the most dangerous thing I have ever done in a vehicle, and very possibly the last.

Patagonia is pickup country. The gaucho cowboys and ranchero farm owners who work the vast arid steppe of southern Argentina have (mostly) swapped their horse for a HiLux. The ranches down here are called estancias, and pickups are called estancieras, "the ladies of the ranch," but they don't get treated like ladies. As part of its plan to be the world's biggest carmaker, Volkswagen is making its first proper, one-ton pickup; the Amarok takes direct aim at the famously indestructible Toyota HiLux and is built in Argentina. So we thought we'd give one to the gauchos to see if they could break it. And if they didn't, we'd use it to explore this empty, epic landscape.

Our ranchero is, somewhat disappointingly, called Alastair Whewell. His parents are both British, but Alastair is the real deal. His old man, Roger, shipped a Land Rover to Colombia in the late 1960s and over a decade and 250,000 miles of driving made his way south to Patagonia, climbing South America's mountains -- some of them never before conquered -- as he went. When he got here, he rebuilt the Land Rover's engine with a stock of old parts he found in a crate in a general store, and decided to stay. He bought the 25,000-acre Fortin Chacabuco ranch, and Alastair and his brothers were born here.

In fact, they're the typical Patagonian family: immigrants attempting to earn a living from this unforgiving land. Alastair is fully Patagonian; he speaks English with a Spanish accent and he shares the Patagonian look and attitude with everyone else who lives here. Whether European, indigenous Mapuche, or mestizo mix, they all have a certain leatheriness of skin from the fierce, fast winds, eyes narrowed by the intensely ultraviolet sunlight (even the sheep get sunburned down here), a steely self-sufficiency, and complete contempt for Argentina's politicians.

Alastair also typifies the Patagonians' dependence on pickups, and drives a battered 1966 Ford. "The stuff I've done in that truck," he shakes his head. "When times were tough here and we had to hunt deer just to eat in winter, I had 15 females piled in the back. We had to cut our way through the snow and ice to get out and back. It looks like crap but it's never let me down." His four-year-old son, Valentino, is learning to drive in it, but there's no sentimentality. You get the impression that, like a horse, if it went lame, he'd shoot it.