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Wiki, Waka and Steph
Dolphins come and swim along the ferry taking me to the south island, which must be auspicious. Spike is there waiting for me. He's a friend of Nigel and Carla, who I stayed with months ago with the horses. Without knowing me, he offered to host me, Wiki and maybe two more horses! Wiki is soon delivered to me by A2B transport and we both happily settle down at Spike's. His house is a wonder cabinet. Music is on 24h/7 and the door is always open, Spike doesn't even have a key for it anyways! His grown up kids live there, friends often pop in, there are only good vibes.
He introduces me to Rob, who's founded with his wife the most famous horse trek agency in New Zealand. I had heard of him but didn't know how to get hold of him. He just happens to now work with Spike. Another good surprise is when I meet the local farrier, Earl: he's Hepa Paewai's nephew! (Hepa helped me with saddle packing gear in Hastings)
I enjoy having Wiki again and spend hours with him. But besides that I'm dedicated full time to the horse hunt. There are not so many on sale around here and within a week I've looked at them all, in a range of 100km. Usually people keep their good horses and sell the bad ones: I see crooked horses, lethargic ones, psychotic horses, limping ones... The last one I try, Jacka, stands out. He's 9 year old, an ex-race horse like Wiki (he's even won once!). He's been for two years at "High Country Horse Trek", but the owners Rod and Sarah find that he's got two much of an attitude for the job. Lucky us! Rod and Sarah offer me to move to their place and start from there. So Wiki has joined Waka (it didn't take long to rename him!) in a dream paddock: a huge hill where they keep fit while grazing!
I leave them to go and get Steph from Christchurch airport. On the way back, we meet with Tony and his wife Fiona, who've helped us a lot, especially with the itinerary. After meeting them we're very excited about riding through the places we've seen on google earth. We're short of one horse, but we've decided to go anyways!
Three weeks to pack
We've been busy getting the pack and the gear ready: brainstorming, shopping, customizing and testing. The result is detailed here.
We've tested the horses too. Wiki went straight back into the job. We've packed him with 80kg and trekked for four hours, and he kept the same steady pace all the way. His only fault is to canter whenever Steph rides him, for a reason which is unknown to date. It's not instant, but sooner or later, I see them disapearing away at high speed, and sometimes coming back still at a canter!
For Waka it's not that easy. He's both dominant and green, so he struggles to find his pace and his place. He was tense during our "test-trek", a two days and 30 km return trip to town to get them vaccinated against strangles and tetanus. But he didn't put a foot wrong, not even in trafic, and we bet that after adjusting he'll be (almost) as good as Wiki.
For us, living in the campervan is a good way to adjust to the South Island weather: cold, wet, hot and sunny all in one day. We're happy to give up modern confort for freedom, but we also happily say "Yes!" to Robyn when she asks us if we can look after her beautiful house, her cat, her dog, her Tui bird, her two horses... And her wifi!
Departure is planned tomorrow and we should soon be in the largest station in New Zealand: Molesworth. It's about 50km long. Paris and its inner suburbs could fit in!
Finding Fern on the way to Molesworth
We start from Blenheim on feet, rather than taking turns in the saddle - with two weeks of food the horses are already quite heavily loaded anyways. After two days packing, walking, setting camp and attending the horses, we're quite tired when we reach Aotea, only 30km from our starting point. We meet Jacky, Hirsh and their managing son Marc. They offer us a paddock for the night and cheer us up with a good news: three horses are on sale furher in the valley. After one day we reach Awapiri, where the first one is to be seen. We are welcomed by Eric and Sally Smith, and their daughter Eve. The horse is not what we're looking for, but we're very interested by Eric's horsemanship. Plus they're shearing and it's worth watching. For Steph it's the first time and for me it has some novelty as we're now in merino country - their wrinkled skin is a challenge for the shearers. We're invited to stay in the quarters, with some very cute neighbours: pet lambs! We set off again, following a beautiful shingle road along the Awatere river. There are not many people on this road, but we meet Earl, our farrier! We also meet a DOC ranger who is there to inspect our horses and gear. We're proud to show him our fit, healthy and nicely shod horses, our top quality pack saddle and the safety equipment we always have handy. Fortunately we are not asked to unload the pack: it's an everyday challenge to fill it up, balance it, lift it and tie it to the pack saddle. We like to unload only at lunch time, for the horse's sake, and when we stop for the night, that's enough handling for one day.
Last but not least, we meet two women speeding on their horses: Nicky Stevenson and her daughter Jacky, from Upcott station where we're heading for. We later meet the husband Bill and two more daughters, Louise and Melanie. One shouldn't judge a book by its cover: these young, pretty, feminine, smiling girls are keen hunters! Once they were having wild pig for tea, one that they had caught with the help of their pet dog. As its skin was too thick for them to stab him, they drawn him!
They've got many horses and are waiting for more as five of their mares are in foal. After hearing about us they decided they could sell us a horse, to be choosen amongst two mares (dry ones!). We choosed Fern, who used to be Louise's horse (not to say "Louise's pony"). A week has past already and we're very pleased with her, she's a lovely and strong little thing. We spent that week gearing her up, getting her fit and shod, and enjoying ourselves riding bareback in the river. Nicky and Bill are super nice, they let us stay in the "cookhouse", which used to be where the farm workers take their meals. It has been turned into an awesome seft cattering house. They also gave us some sheepskins, that we're shorn to fit the horses' back. It's an interesting experience: we've learnt about the gap between "skin" and "leather" for instance, and also that we wouldn't make a living as shearers!
Before to leave, Nicky and Bill advised us to stay the night in their hut, which we did. We rode 32km (return) to get there, and haven't even reached the station's boundary! Now we're ready for the Molesworth!
Spring, autumn, winter and spring again
We came to Upcott on feet and leave on horseback! It makes a huge difference to each have a horse to ride. We're forever grateful to the Stevenson and to our Petite Fern.
We overnight at Middlehurst, then at Cob Cottage camping ground at the entrance of Moleworth. Here we meet the manager Jim Ward who explains us that we have three days to ride 60km to the other end of the station (Acheron camping ground), after what the annual muster will start (a three weeks operation on horseback) and we would be in the way. So here we are for a three days ride through the biggest farm in New Zealand. It's quite an experience to ride on isolated flats, surrounded by mountains, the lonely gravel road we're following stretching for miles. Saddles and turns open on completely new landscapes. And never any building is to be seen - except two rest areas for tourists driving or biking through, as there is a few. Not enough though to take away a feeling of remoteness. At night, we set camp in beautiful spots that are just for us and our horses - that we have to carefully tether or highline as the last fence can be as far as 30km away. As if to add to the challenge, the weather has a bit of everything in stock for us: sun, rain, hail and snow, sometimes all in one day! The ride in the north island was a journey, this is an adventure. Steph pretends that he's been fooled by our travel plan, as "south" is supposed to be nice and warm (but that's only in the northern hemisphere).
We're equally pleased by the journey and tired from it when we reach Acheron, on the other side of Molesworth. We're allowed to use the airstrip as a paddock and the horses find that it's quite a decent racetrack too! Here we take a rest, get a chance to check that each of them can swim thanks to the nearby Clarence river and... catch rabbits! Spike had advised us to take a trap with us and it works! We skin them thanks to the help of Tim, the DOC ranger on duty, who looks after the place, and also after us!
St James, horse trekking Mecca
Unpurposingly we pick up the campervan just on time for a yummy morning tea at the Stevenson. Then we drive to Spike's where we have "lapin à la forestière": rabbit stew, french style! (the last time we had picked up the van, we had been treated with a meal at Robyn's)
A parcel, for long overdue, is at last waiting for us at Spike's: a solar charger that we badly need to secure our access to digital topographic maps in remote areas.
We store the pack saddle in the campervan for the last day of ride to Hanmer Springs, the big urban center of the area: almost 1000 inhabitants. This way we can ride Waka for a change, and canter! (Waka has become our pack horse as he walks very fast. It's easier for him to follow the others than the other way around. Plus, he's pretty good when it comes no take sharp turns without banging the boxes on trees.)
In Hamner the horses get free accomodation at Zelda's, and we at Mary's, who's a horse woman and a chef. We really enjoy her unique skills at cooking and at telling stories (horse related or not). We hear from her that Sean, a possum hunter, always spends the winter at Stanleyvale hut, about 40 km from here, alone with his horse. Mary suggests we should go there and meet him, so we do! We end up being away from Hamner for a whole week: a week in St James, horse wonderland. St James was a station till the government turned it into a 780000 hectare conservation area some years ago. There is no more sheep nor cattle grazing there, only a herd of wild (although well-breed) horses. Pack tracks run from one valley to the next, and there is water everywhere (lake, river, creek). It's impossible for trampers to keep their feet dry. Horse riders are more lucky (sometimes!). There is quite a few huts, some of them are free and the best ones have a fire place and a horse paddock attached to them.
We couldn't help but love St James, and discovering it with Sean was an experience beyond words. We meet him on the first day, at Fowler's hut, shortly after meeting No Name, his piebald horse. He doesn't need to be tethered, not even at night, because he always hangs out with his "paddockmate" Sean. The both of them usher us to their headquarters, at Stanleyvale hut, using a breathtaking pack track. We meet there with two hunters, who've been dropped here by an helicopter. Waka is honoured with the task of carrying a freshly shot deer to the hut, and Steph gets to bone it with the hunters. Sean cooks beautifully the heart and the liver and we're happy to pig on it while saving our lentils and tofu.
We ride bareback to Lake Guyon, hoping to catch an eel. (Almost everyday we set up our line aswell as a possum-rabbit-hare trap. To date we've only caught a small rabbit. And traped a mouse in our boxes, when we weren't even trying!). We saw no eel that day, but found a bunch of teenagers out for a tramping-rafting-cycling holliday camp. Thanks to Wiki and Fern they got to add "horseback riding" to their activity list.
Another awesome trek with Sean leads us to Pools hut then Anne's hut. Sean knows the area like the back of his hand. He guides us through shortcuts which we would never have tried alone : steep, stony, hairy. But our horses are keen and capable (even more than we thought), they don't seem to struggle at all.
This experience turns out to be very useful as the morrow we have to cross on our own a major river: the Waiau river. Sean had wisely advised us : "you can still give up and go back even if you have already crossed 3/4 of the river". After two aborted attempts, we finaly find a good spot to cross safely, with the help of a local guy showing us the exit point. Once on the other side, it does not seem so hard. We only have wet feet! And the horses have really enjoyed it, playing all along the way (they slap water with their front feet and laugh).
The rest of the trip is easy. We even have time for a bath in well laid out natural hot pools.