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The Adventure of a Lifetime

By Pat Martin,
Reprinted with permission by The Fence Post
July, 2007

As a horseperson with a lifelong desire to visit New Zealand, I couldn’t pass up a chance to participate in an 8-day horseback trek through that spectacular country with none other than Franklin Levinson, the Horse Whisperer, who organized the ride. This past March I was fortunate enough to join him “down under” for the adventure of a lifetime.

New Zealand, called “the land of the long white cloud” by the indigenous Maori people, consists of a North Island and a South Island lying off the southeast coast of Australia. It has the most diverse scenery and natural features of any place of equal size on earth. I like to think God took all his leftovers from creating the world and tossed them together to make New Zealand. There are snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and glacial rivers and lakes, lush plains, pine trees and palm trees, geo-thermal features resembling Yellowstone Park, white sand beaches with dolphins playing in the waves, deer and elk, penguins and whales, wallabies, and, of course, kiwis. This unique national bird resembles a fuzzy, brown grapefruit with two legs and a long, skinny bill, and, curiously enough, the citizenry have adopted its name as their own.

We were going to traverse the South Island, going from ranch to ranch (called “stations”). Six of us adventurers met up in rainy, blustery Christchurch – three from Colorado: Franklin Levinson, Janet Lightfoot and myself; and four gals from other parts of the world: England, Greece, Saudia Arabia, and Dubai. We would later be joined by two guys, one who was born in India, and one born in Cuba (but both now living in the U.S.). Quite an international group! But we all shared two things in common: The love of horses and a sense of adventure.

After arriving at our “farmstay,” a beautiful little place called Lazy Acres (with only ONE toilet – a feature we were to become accustomed to), we were served a lovely dinner by our host and hostess and then introduced to our guide and horse handler, Tomas. The young man and his girlfriend, Ana, came to New Zealand from Hungary to work for Hurunui Horse Treks. He outlined what to expect on the trek and how the horses were to be taken care of. “First priority is the horses,” he explained. “Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.” Tomas was very conscientious about the well being of the horses in his care, an attribute we all appreciated. He also took equally good care of us!

The following day, at Hurunui Horse Treks on the famous Canterbury Plain, we were introduced to our partners for the next ten days – our horses, which had been chosen for us according to the information we had provided on our applications regarding our level of horsemanship and experience. I was delighted to find that “Breeze,” a beautiful white Connemara mare had been assigned to me. She reminded me of the last horse I had owned, and the Western saddle fit me even better than my own. Some of the other folks rode Aussie saddles or one that was a combination of both. It was amazing how well- matched horses and riders were, considering the fact it was accomplished before we ever got there, attesting to the skill and knowledge of the owners of the outfit. I was quite impressed with the neatness and cleanliness of the place, and with the great care they take of their tack and their horses (they have over 40!). The gear was all oiled and polished and the horses were sleek, fat and well-shod.

That day and the following one, we did groundwork with our horses in the arena and the round pen, under the skilled tutelage of  Franklin Levinson. We learned to pivot our horse’s hindquarters and front end using the proper cues, back them up, sidepass, jump obstacles, and various other maneuvers one might find necessary on the trail, the overall goal being to bond with our horse and to be able to control them in all situations.

The next day was our “shake-down cruise.” We rode out behind Tomas and followed a small, shallow river for a long ways, splashing over the gray river rock and under the overhanging willow trees. The group stopped for lunch on the shady, still green, riverbank and then made our way back to the Hurunui headquarters and returned to our farmstay for another night.

New Zealand Horse Trek

Now began the “real deal,” the trek itself, and excitement ran high. For the next eight days, we either traveled from ranch to ranch or rode out in a big loop and returned to the same station. Some days in the saddle were longer than others, but each ranged from 5 – 10 hours. Fortunately, all but one of us was an experienced rider, for that’s a lot of hours in the saddle. Some of these stations are huge, (one where we stayed was “only” 18,000 acres according to the owners), encompassing topographical features from flat meadows and river valleys to rugged mountains, but the riding trails were not treacherous, making for an enjoyable ride.

With no air pollution or light pollution to spoil the view, the stars in the Southern Hemisphere appear so close you can touch them. It was interesting seeing for the first time the Southern Cross and the Clouds of Magellan – and I discovered there is no Big Dipper down there! Each night, we all slept in cozy bunkhouses usually occupied by the seasonal sheepshearers, who travel around each year from station to station, shearing sheep.

Ah, yes, sheep! Sheep were everywhere in New Zealand, a country world-famous for its woolens. We were told they raise at least 16 different breeds, some being bred for their wool and some for the quality of their meat. I was not overly fond of mutton before this trip, but I left there loving it! Those “kiwis” really know how to fix it, and a savory entrée was served every night by the friendly, hospitable ranch owners, along with an abundance of fresh vegetables of every description. Those same folks would usually pack us lunches to eat on the trail the following day, or we would pack them ourselves from an assortment of food laid out for us. Hunger was never even a remote possibility!

The saying is, “The best view on earth is from on top of a horse,” and we were fortunate to experience the enchantment of New Zealand in just that way. On our trusty mounts, we forded rivers, climbed mountains, galloped across the meadows, and picked our way through a magical beech forest dripping with moss and ferns. It seemed a new adventure awaited us around every bend. A few hardy souls in our group even braved the frigid waters of the lakes and rivers for a quick swim.

The only thing we would rather have done without is the wind – stampede strings on your hat are a necessity! March in New Zealand marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall in the Southern Hemisphere, so the weather can be very unpredictable, but we lucked out and, for the most part, the weather was great; at least we never got rained on during the entire eight-day trek. But I think wind is a pretty constant feature in the life of a “kiwi,” since they live on islands in the South Pacific, not far from Antarctica. Maybe that explains the ruddy complexions of the men and the rosy-cheeked women and kids. What lovely people they are, both inside and out!

The final day of our ride brought us back to the Canterbury Plain and Hurunui Horse Treks headquarters. I don’t know who was happier to see it, the riders or the horses! We were greeted by welcoming whinnies from all the horses who had been left behind, with ours responding to their comrades in kind. After feeding and washing down the horses, doctoring nicks and cuts, and unpacking our gear, we said our goodbyes and thank-yous to our tired horses and turned them out to pasture, watching as they promptly rolled in the dirt before trotting off to graze and socialize with their equine buddies.

By the end of our time on the trail together, the camaraderie that developed left us with friends from all over the world, and the trek itself with treasured memories that will last a lifetime. If you are an accomplished rider, this is one ride you don’t want to miss.

“Where shall we trek next?” someone asked. “Did I hear you say Mongolia?!”