Elisabeth Easther talks to Laura Douglas, CEO of Real Country
When people ask about my childhood, I always say how lucky I was to have a rural upbringing. To be able to do things like go out for the day by myself on my pony when I was 7. I'd take a packed lunch and Mum would say I had to be home in time for dinner.
When I was in my 20s, my boyfriend was a professional rugby player and when he got a contract in Dublin, I followed him over. In Ireland I worked for a steeplechase jockey, exercising and training horses to keep them fit for wealthy owners. I'd grown up hunting with hounds and hares, but over there they chase stags, and their horses are bred to jump things you wouldn't believe. It was terrifying, these big powerful horses galloping over huge hedges. I was brought up on horses but this was next level, but I just had to grit my teeth and do it.
When we moved to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, the rugby club was quite dodgy. Neither of us had a work visa and every three months we had to leave South Africa to get another stamp on our passports. I remember one trip, going to Zimbabwe for a week, I was at the airport, and they noticed my visa had expired three days earlier. They wanted to deport me, but I had a job that was paying me cash. So I was in this little room with all these intimidating officers — but I'd been there a year at this point — so I said: "Be real. How much?" And they said: "4000 rand". I said: "Take me to the ATM." I gave them the money, they let me go and I went to Zimbabwe and got another three-month stamp.
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In Zimbabwe, we decided to go canoeing down the Zambezi River. The river is full of hippopotamuses but you don't see them because they're swimming under your canoe. Then you spot these two round ears and this big round head pops up beside you and the guide says: "Just keep paddling, don't stop". But I wanted to take a photo and he says: "No, these are the most dangerous animals on earth".
We did quite a few trips to the wine region in Stellenbosch. One weekend we were going home and passed what used to be the world's highest bungy jump, 216m above the Bloukrans River on the Garden Route. We'd had a great weekend, so we decided to do it. To get to the place where you jump you have to walk over metal netting, like chicken wire, and suddenly I was not sure it was a good idea. I was petrified. It took about 20 minutes to get geared up, feet bound, shuffling to the edge, and then there are two men, one either side holding an arm each. They said: "We're going to countdown, but if you don't jump, we'll push you." At the bottom, instead of going boing boing, you just hang upside down until someone comes down and flips you right side up and pulleys you back to the top. I remember hanging there and feeling I had to keep my feet at a 90-degree angle, because I was sure if I pointed my feet, they would slip through the restraints. I'm pretty gung ho, but I was almost crying after that.
Last year I went to Texas and visited a water park in Waco. The slides were massive and one had a huge lick at the end, so you fly off the top before landing in the water. Kids were doing it, my partner did it, and it didn't look too bad, you even have a life jacket on. But I flew off the end like a projectile. Going miles further than anyone else, I hit the water with a slap and you could hear the whole crowd wince. It was a full body slapdown, and I couldn't feel my face for ages.
When I started Real Country, it was all about doing cool stuff on a farm with a local girl. Shooting guns, cracking whips, archery. When Contiki heard about me,they asked for a meeting and said they wanted my place as an inclusion on their tours, because they wanted a farm show for their guests. I didn't even know what an "inclusion" was, and all the contract said was that it needed sheep mustering with a horse and dog, and beyond that I could do whatever I wanted for an hour. So I've developed a rural animal experience on the main highway between Queenstown and Milford Sound. I have puppies, sheep dogs, baby deer, a mini pony, Sammy the pig, alpacas, an old thoroughbred racehorse. All my animals are orphans or unwanted, they each have their own story and I love them.
My grandad taught me to crack a stock whip. Sometimes I'd sneak off with it into the bush, even though Grandad didn't like me using it alone because I could hurt myself. But I didn't like practising in front of people. Whenever he caught me, I thought he'd be mad but instead he was proud. I know he was happy when I left my corporate life to start becoming who I am today and I am so glad he saw it before he passed away.
Laura Douglas, CEO of Real Country, realcountry.co.nz