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From Tekapo to the Ahuriri valley
One day on gravel roads gets us to the west shore of Pukaki lake. We've called ahead Braemer station, and were nicely surprised when they told us we could have a good paddock for the night - they have grass! There we meet Julia, Hamish and their young daughter Kate. They have a hospitality business, but they treat us as guests, giving us a room and inviting us to their table! We all have a great time with them, except Fern when their fearless pet goat eats from her feed bucket.
Pukaki lake, like most of the lakes in the area, is fed by a braided river (the Tasman river) which is as wide as the lake himself. Its headwaters come from glaciers (Mueller glacier, Hooker glacier and Tasman glacier) which sit at the foot of the nearby Mt Cook, the highest summit in New Zealand (3755m). Horses are known to have crossed the Tasman river before, but made it infamous for its quicksands! Either we cross it or we have to ride several days on the road to get near Mt Cook. We decide to attempt the crossing with great care. We stay away from what we think might be quicksand (wet sand mixed with little stones, we were told). But due to the rock flour we can't see the bottom of the water. To stay on the safe side, I lead the horses on foot in the glacier cold water, assuming that Wiki could pull me out whereas Steph and I couldn't pull him! We eventually reach the other shore. Glentanner station let us use one or their paddocks for the horses, while we stay at the nearby camping. Mt Cook is a touristic spot and we get to meet lots of nice people, including a group of Chinese who invite us to celebrate the Chinese new year with them. We're amazed by the variety of dishes they've prepared and enjoy them all while ends the year of the horse and starts the year of the sheep!
Like everybody here we came to have a close look on the glaciers and to see some icebergs, which are accessible thanks to some nice short hikes. Once satisfied we carry on the main road. We stop at Ferintosh station where Marianne and Gilbert point us in the right direction, accross Pukaki Downs station then on the "Dusky trail", a 26km long bridle way. We spend the night in a very nice hut with has a good horse paddock. When we exit from the Dusky trail, we knock at the door of the first station : Ben Ohau. The runholders are lovely people, Priscilla and Simon Cameron. The drought is severe here but they let us put the horses in their greenest paddock (which also becomes our campsite). They give us plenty of fruits and veggies, locally produced salmon, home made ANZAC cookies, 10 kg of barley and they help us to get landowners permission to ride toward Queenstown. We end up staying three days at their place. We attend the national rowing championship on the nearby Ruataniwha lake, do some much needed shopping in Twizel and gather information about the upcoming trails.
In Twizel we pick up Mai An, who was one of my flatmates in Paris. She has followed the "oNZetrail" project from before its beginning, and now she's here on holidays, traveling with us for a couple of days. Taking turns walking and riding along Ruataniwha lake, the Ohau river and through Ohau Downs station, she gets a good glimpse of New Zealand countryside (we happen to be in the area of the battle of Pelennor in the Lord of the Rings). She also gets to test for herself our logistic and self-sufficiency, as we camp for one night by the river, on a spot where there is no sign of civilization. Jevon from Ohau Downs station gives her a ride back to town, from where getting to Queenstown by bus is a matter of hours... Whereas it will take us weeks!
Our next destination is the Ahuriri valley. Once divided amongst many stations, it is now mainly a natural reserve where hunters and trout-fishermen can be spotted. We ride up and down this pretty valley and visit several huts, but with a growing concern regarding the horses' shoes. They've been on for six weeks now and are worn out (except Wiki's thanks to the tungsten hard-facing). It's unlikely to find a farrier in this remote, horseless area, especially with no phone coverage. But we meet a guy (Carl) who knows a guy (Jim Morris) who knows a guy (Charlie) who shoes horses. Charlie comes in no time and reshoes Fern's hinds, which is enough for us to get his station (Dunstan Downs) where his own farrier, Sam, completes the job. Sam is old enough to be retired, but while he shoe one horse after the other he keeps chatting and joking, making his job look effortless.
It was a blessing in disguise that the horses used their shoes so fast, because we had a great time at Charlie's. He used to do rodeos, flies helicopters, makes western saddles and many other interesting things like tying a pony tail using a vacuum cleaner... On top of looking after us and helping us by all means, he amazed us!
Charlie has sorted out our itinerary till Lake Hawea. We go up to 1826 meters high to Old Man Peak, surrounded by beautiful, empty landscapes. Then we're back into civilization and back to kiwi hospitality! At Nine Miles station we're welcome to use the woolshed. The next day when we ask for a paddock at Long Gully Farm we end up with a bed and a meal in good company: Ayla and Marc, a young couple who likes horses, travels and even motorbikes - a perfect match for us
At Lake Hawea we stay with Denise and Gerry, who're just back from the Cavalcades. When they ask who gave them as contact, we can't come up with a name (we only know that it's a lady from the DOC office), but anyways they welcome us awesomely. They tell us about their crazy rides and show us pictures. Our favorite one is from a party, where a horse stands in the living room, surrounded by smiling guests. The only reason why he looks slightly out of place is that he's the only one without a glass!
Denise and Gerry look after us incredibly well, taking us shopping (for us and for the horses), to the lakes (driving to Wanaka lake, riding to Lake Hawea) and even giving me some hiking boots to replace mine that have absolutely had it. They've been to many Cavalcades, that's how they met 13 years ago. They share with us their contacts and local knowledge of Otago, which are a big help, especially because we can't use the main trail to Queenstown, the Mototapu trail: one land owner refuses to let horses through. Denise and Gerry tell us about another way, through Mount Pisa Conservation Area, which turns out to be a gem: the trail follows a 1900 meter high ridge in a spectacular landscape, with many lonely, strangely shaped rocks. It's a desert with no grass, even the tussock is seldom (a hard yellow native grass that merinos can live on). Luckily, there is real grass around the huts, they are like oasis. I get to enjoy the landscape hips because I forget my knife at lunch. I ride Waka, our fastest horse, for 20km to find it! In the meantime Steph has had a look at a trail for "the adventurous and well equipped" (according to the DOC). It looks all right for us, which is a good news as the only other option is to ride on the main road for 20km! We do encounter some adventure at the end of the trail when we come accross a locked gate. The style is of no use to us. It takes us a couple of hours (and some welcome help) to find a way around the locked gate. Camping where we were was not an option: there was no water. After that we still have to face 3km of main road before to get to the next station, Eastburn station. We wear a yellow high-vis jacket, Steph's jacket inside out (the inside is bright orange - it's the first time we use this trick) and my red scarf on Waka's box on the traffic side. We see Queenstown in the distance and are quite happy to have got that far. On the other hand, it's also the end of our journey that we've got in sight! Thanks to Denise and Gerry's contacts and advise, we should finish nicely, crossing the Wakatipu Lake to ride opposite to Queenstown, aiming for the place which is just called "paradise" on our map (near Glenorchy).
But we're not there yet, we're at Eastburn station, where we're unexpected! The landowners Diana and Jez are not home when we arrive but we're told that the next door house is abandoned and that we might even find a bed in it. For a couple of nights we're got a big house near Queenstown just for us! We happened to find two golf balls when exploring the locked gate's surroundings (3km away from any building), and in the abandoned house there are golf clubs. When Jez comes to meet us, Steph is practicing his swing! We also find half a dozen giant mushrooms, they're big like a head and edible. We love it here, plus Diana and Jez turn out to be very friendly. They even invite us to have pizzas with them. Diana is from Germany, she came to New Zealand for three months, 8 years ago. She's now a dog physiotherapist and also sells dog treats, that she bakes herself. They look yum!
We're only 30km from the lake's shore but getting there is a brain twister. The area is changing real fast from farmland to residential areas. For instance when I try to call a farm I had spotted on the map, I reach the Hilton Hotel! We're relieved when we manage to get all the required permissions (and keys), as the only other route was through Queenstown city center. We ride through farmland, on a cycle/bridle way, on the bridge where bungee jumping was commercialized for the first time ever (there are still people queuing to jump from 43 meters high), through vineyards and along the Kawerau river, where we've got jet boats to keep us company. For that we're thankful to "John" (contacted by Jez), Kathrin from "Judge and Jury", Craig, Alastair and Steven from Cone Peak station (who we've spent St Patrick's eve with, drinking... Wine!) and the Jardines from Woolshed Bay.
At last, we reach the lake, where Philip from Cecil Peak station agreed to pick us up with the horses, without knowing us for a bar of soap! The wind that day is too strong for the crossing, but seems to be ideal for kite-surfers. We chat a bit with them: they come from my hometown, Grenoble!
A paradise called Cecil Peak
Our camping spot along the Wakatipu lake is beautiful. Here the drought is unknown of. Summer is over: the days are still very fine but nights bring frost. The horses and us are still frozen while we break camp and saddle up (so that they load the gear themselves in the boat). We're quite excited when we spot the barge moving slowly and silently on the water. The horses are a bit surprised when we ask them to get on, but they don't show any resistance. At first they're a bit shaky (we're not sure if it's because of the fear or the cold), but soon they completely chill out. For Philip it's routine: this day he will do several trips with a barge filled with sheep. But for us it's a unique experience!
We spend two days at Cecil Peak station, meeting the rest of the family (Kate and the children Emma, Fred and Phoebe) and a group of guys who stay here to shoot goats (a pest here) using a helicopter. It's a little paradise, just a few minutes away from Queenstown by jet boat, but very quiet as there is no road access. Kate takes the kids to school everyday with their jet boat. It can be a bit daunting when the weather is bad (5 meters high waves have been measured on the lake!) but Kate is adventurous - proof is she's ran (several times!) the famous Coast to Coast multisport race (243 km and it's not easy going!). Philip is also quite amazing, on top of farming he flies helicopters to show tourists around. They're both very nice and funny and... Horsey! Kate had been looking for horses for a while, for the children to ride and for the farm too. It seems like the very best of homes. Their pet calf is the friendliest I've ever seen, apparently he's been caught watching TV with the kids (only once I guess)! Phoebe gets along well with Fern, who she canters with, whereas we've learnt afterwards that her horse riding experience was only two rides of ten minutes... We carry on our journey as Kate and Philip haven't made their mind about the horses yet. We stay at one of their huts and then at the beautiful Mount Nicholas Station, on the lake shore. There we've got phone network again, and receive the good news: they're buying the three horses! We backtrack for two days, so they don't have to be floated or "barged" at all. They just walk home. Kate and the children are very excited. For sure the horses are going to be looked after and ridden at this place!
We stay one more day at Cecil Peak, getting our gear sorted out and organizing the five days we have left before to fly out of the country (we'll end up going to Milford Sound and to Akaroa, the french colony). The horses have of course no idea that they have found a forever home. When we go to see them for the last time, they give us a strange look: "If you're not feeding nor riding us, why are you all over us?". We're going to miss them heaps, but I don't think it goes the other way around. When we last heard of them thanks to Kate, Wiki was a hoot, helping himself for some puppy food, in their dog bowl. It's business as usual!