Ginny Fisher and a gang of horse-loving girlfriends trek through high country on an adventure in the backblocks of Glenorchy
We meet at the Clevedon pub with wide grins and overstuffed suitcases — impractically bulbous for our three-night escape to Queenstown. Seven friends glad to be departing the green fields of Clevedon for Glenorchy's ochre plains. What brings our group together is a love of horses, and of rosé and raucous conversation. We have signed up for a day trek, deep into Glenorchy's backcountry, where the silver threads of the Rees River snake through endless rockscapes.
I remember my first pony like yesterday, ingrained in my mind like a fading polaroid picture. A pint-sized gelding named Tonka. He was a cheeky Arabian with a personality much larger than his 12 hands. I rode him with bare feet and corduroy stubbies cut to the ankle, and a jagged blonde fringe to match my pony's mane, which I regularly butchered with Mum's kitchen scissors.
I was no pony-club girl, just a ragga muffin from the Manawatū obsessed with ponies. I'd follow my father on his mustering beat on my little steed, trailing his big bay horse, and later when I was a teen, I'd escape my household full of boisterous brothers to ride for hours over our hill country farm where all I could hear was the sound of rustling grasses and the chatter of birds.
Now 30 years later, here I am surveying the herd at High Country Horses with six other horse-mad mothers. This locally owned trekking operation is run out of the Glenorchy basin, just under an hour by car from Queenstown.
The horses wait lazily in the sun, ignoring the throngs of riders who arrive by minivan. They are suitable breeds for country trekking, sturdier types like Quarterhorses, Clydesdale and Arab crosses and New Zealand station breds.
They have names like Kumera, Kale, Spud, Rusty, Dusty, Beau and Spike. There are greys and bays, chestnuts and duns. They have been bred for navigating giant rocks and stony mountain trails with their sure footing and sensible demeanours.
We meet our guide Bijmin, a spritely young man from South Africa, who has made a life from trail riding the world over, and is just about to embark on a year-long trip with his girlfriend to explore New Zealand.
"I'd like you to introduce yourselves and share with the group your riding experience — in all honesty," he adds with a wry smile under his Akubra hat.
We are all at different levels, but have placed ourselves in the experienced category to avoid a dull day plodding.
We depart homebase in a long line, rump to rump and head into the caramel-coloured grasses that line the Rees River for our first trot. The horses feel fresh, I let my horse Kumera stride it out - he's a sweet, small Clydesdale cross who doesn't mind me dropping the reins mid trek to snap pictures.
We reach our first river crossing and Bijmin heads out to test the waters. "I'm looking for quick sand, that's the stuff you don't want to get caught in," he warns. We all exchange a grimace. Fortunately for us, there's been little rain lately and the rivers are running low and shallow making the crossings less treacherous. We wade through and Kumera stops now and then to paw the water with his hoof and take a few sips of the icy snow-fed water.
We weave back and forth over river beds and make our way back to the lowlands of Rees Valley Station — a magnificent 18,000-hectare sheep-and-cattle station encompassing rivers beds, grassy plains, Beech forests and plateaus, and home to around 5000 merino sheep — all still hand shorn. The station has been owned by the Scott family since 1905, and is currently run by mother and daughter team, Iris and Kate.
We ride past the snowy gateway to the Milford Track far to the east and see Lover's Leap ahead — a scar-like slip that drops violently down one side of the mountain.
Interestingly Lover's Leap is a toponym given to similar topographic places around the world — there's also one in Sandymount, Otago, and one in Virginia, plus many more in the States and nearly all are linked to legends of romantic tragedy. In this case, Bijmin says two young lovers from the local iwi couldn't be together so they leapt off the precipice and the slip is the mountain is weeping for their lost love.
By lunch we reach an elevation point on a grassy plain that borders the Beech forest. The horses are tethered in the shade while we stretch out and gobble up our homemade sandwiches and shortbread biscuits. Laura polishes off her port and takes a quick nap. The sun is beating down and the mountain ranges shimmer in the distance. Life is good.
The afternoon beech forest section of the ride is shady, cool, and mossy. Small waterfalls trickle alongside the undulating track. Some of the horses ram into one another, finding it hard to stay in line down the steep descents. We finally reach the river bed and exit the forest and the horses feel less edgy in the bright sun and open space.
Bijmin tells us Mission Impossible 4 (wasn't 3 enough?) was filmed at this spot. I can just imagine black helicopters swooping low over this pristine greenish blue river, Tom Cruise hanging upside down from a rope performing a suitably ridiculous stunt.
By around 3pm, we reach a grassy paddock at the base of a steep track that ascends a hill face. It's time to notch it up a gear. We are paired off in small groups and told to hoof it up the hill track. Canter, gallop do whatever it takes to get our steeds to speed. I have a suspicion Kumera might run out of steam and I'm right, halfway up he starts to huff and puff, it takes more than a squeeze to get him to the top at a canter.
The view is worth the effort — maybe not for Kumera, but I enjoy taking a few snaps of the scene beyond — the river stretched out below, at eye level, rows of sugar-coated peaks and the hazy mountain plains in between.
Down the steep track and back across river beds, the horses wade through a long narrow stream under a canopy of trees. The sun is dropping and shafts of light illuminate the yellow willow branches. Finally my camera runs out of battery so Kumera gets to amble along with the others while I take this grand-scale beauty in.
What is it that we love about these animals? I ask my friends later over a rosé. For Laura, it's horses' differing personalities and quirks. "Getting to know each and every one is fun — the good and cheeky." For Jamel, along with their physical beauty, she loves the fact that horses can take you places cars and planes can't. Bex enjoys the feeling when the horse loves the canter up the hill as much you do. Jacquie says during her first two decades riding, she'd fall off almost every time she rode. "I'm only slightly better today, but I grab any chance I can to escape the office and take in the sunshine." Lizzy likes the adrenaline of riding cross country, grooming horses, and the crazy people you meet in equestrian circles.
For me, weirdly enough, it's that soft part under the nostril that feels like velvet and the scent of a horse that takes me back to the fields of my childhood. As Winston Churchill once said: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."
High Country Horses offer treks throughout the year for novices to advanced riders. highcountryhorses.nz