At 8:00am this morning the shuttle bus from High Country Horses came and picked me (and ten others) up from various hostels around Queenstown, and drove us the 68km from town to the tiny settlement of Glenorchy, population 220, to their stables on the banks of the Rees River. One look at the majestic mountains, ice blue-grey river waters, and the achingly-beautiful Rees Valley, and it immediately becomes apparent why Peter Jackson chose to use Glenorchy and nearby Paradise in the Lord of the Rings. Experiencing it all on horseback just makes it even easier to pretend one is Arwen or Aragorn, riding a sure-footed steed across the landscape of Middle Earth.
Well, I felt a little less like Arwen and a little more like Liv Tyler, as I have precious little recent experience with horses, which I was honest about on my booking form, putting "C" for experience level ("D" being "first time rider"). However, the moment I swung up into the saddle for my morning ride, I felt like I was ten years old again and back at Murphy's Stable in Shawnigan Lake, mounting Whitey and heading out for a trail ride.
High Country Horses was a real treat to visit; easily the largest stable I have ever been to, when we arrived on the bus there were seventeen or so horses saddled up and in the paddock waiting patiently for their mounts. Inside the office/gear room, when we weren't tripping over one of the five friendly dogs (everything from a border collie to an English settler), we signed a waiver form and were issued gum boots (I opted to keep my hiking boots on), riding coats, and helmets. The more experienced riders set out first on their all-day riding adventure, and those of us doing the two-day morning ride hung back while the attendants quizzed us on our riding experience and assigned us horses to match. We also had our pictures taken with Harry, High Country Horses Lord of the Rings star who because of his calm demeanour and intelligence was featured as both a horse of Rohan and a Nasgûl mount (dark chestnut in colour, he was dyed black for his stint as one of the black riders' steeds).
For the morning ride, called "River and Willows", I was assigned to Zack, a light chestnut horse of about 17 hands who was (in the words of one of the attendants) "a little bit slow". I experienced this by thinking of him as one who likes to get his way, otherwise he sulks; he was upset that he didn't get to be the first horse after the guide (that spot was given to a very nervous Asian woman, whose horse was on lead the entire time, attached to the guide), and as a result refused to cross the Rees River until receiving a pretty hard kick from me, and spent the first half of the ride plodding along, lagging behind the rest of the group. We were also instructed not to let the horses snag bites of willow trees and grasses along the way, as they can become like kids in a candy store; once they have one thing, they want everything. As such I was firm with him on the reins each time he tried to snatch a bite, and he sulked even more, putting his ears back and plodding along. However, when we stopped for a minute so one of the women in the group could switch up her too-small helmet, we were allowed to let the horses eat, and after that Zack was much happier... I figured he just needed to get his way on something, and subsequently all his earlier sulking was forgotten.
The scenery was incredible; even though it was misty and the tops of the mountains were shrouded from view, this just added to the mystery and tranquility of the setting. The Rees River is a braided river, consisting of many channels and sand/gravel bars, with conditions that change daily depending on rainfall; every day the guides make the decision of where the best places to cross the river will be for that tour. Suzi, the morning guide, gave us the helpful hint that if we ever have to cross a river on a horse by ourselves, to do it at the widest part, where the river is likely to be the shallowest.
|Heading out into the beautiful Rees Valley|
We wandered across the river and through fields of lupen in full flower, creating a palette of pinks, whites, purples, and yellows at level with our stirrups. Along the banks of the river willow trees created low overhanging branches we had to duck for, and keep our horses from snacking on at every turn. There was also the occasional mud patch, wandering cow, and ever-present sandflies to watch out for. My biggest issue with the morning outing was not remembering how to ride, but quickly realising my stirrups were too high; my knees were aching by the time we returned to the stable paddock at 11:30am.
Upon dismounting, all the horses were untacked, given a quick rub-down, then let into the grazing paddock for a break, while those out for the morning returned their gear and left, and those of us participating in an afternoon ride as well (myself, and a couple honeymooning from Seattle named Arthur and Rachel) ate our provided lunch: hearty sandwiches, a big Afghan biscuit, and an apple. (When we were done with the apples we fed the cores to one of the horses, a little Welsh named Toby.) After lunch, we were able to get a little more intimate with the horses, helping the stable hands groom and tack them up for the afternoon's riders. It was funny to watch Julez go and round up the horses from the grazing paddock... many were lying down on the grass resting, and gave her a "Do I *have* to?" look before clambering to their feet and heading off into the saddling paddock.
Grooming the horses again reminded me a lot of riding at Murphy's Stables in Shawnigan, but it was a new experience to put on a saddle and bridle; after two horses, I had the hang of it and tacked up the last one all by myself. My mount for the three-hour afternoon ride, called "Paradise View", was Hyatia, a Japanese word that means "race like the wind" (thankfully, he didn't live up to his name). The afternoon ride was also my first time on an English saddle; I like it better than the Western style, as it feels more elegant and less bulky. I also made sure my stirrups were lower!
|One of the many animals at High Country Horses. Oink!|
I was certainly glad I decided to spend the whole day riding; over lunch, the skies cleared, and we were treated to absolutely stunning weather for the afternoon, with a bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and dazzling views up and down the valley. I felt a twinge of sadness for Jenny, one of the women in the afternoon group with me; she lost most of her sight recently, and couldn't see any of the wondrous scenery. She was out riding with her friend Karen and Karen's daughter Gracie (Gracie's first time on a horse! She rode on lead behind our guide), and Karen made sure to describe everything we passed, as well as calling out low-hanging branches and other obstacles for Jenny to duck. We were still able to try our hands at trotting (and even a little cantering), as Jenny was an experienced rider, and Gracie felt comfortable enough on her horse. Suffice it to say I am going to be sore tomorrow, but I was able to get the rhythm of trotting, and even posted a little! I wish I could ride more often; like many other things, practise would make perfect.
At the end of the day, Suzi once again drove us the 68 km back along very scenic Lake Wakatipu into Queenstown, and I noticed to my chagrin that even though I had applied sunscreen to my face twice, it was still burned, and my hands (which had been exposed holding the reins) were burned as well... I burn ridiculously easily down here in New Zealand, with its intense, hole-in-the-ozone-layer sunlight. I managed to arrive back at Nomads in time to snag a bowl of free spaghetti for dinner, then dragged my sore body back to my room to start packing and preparing to leave tomorrow at 8am (ugh, early). Destination: Milford Sound!