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Christmas' possum

In Hamner we go to Zelda's paddock and Mary's house. But for two days Mary is not to be seen, she's on a horse trek with a 7 year old girl!

To get back on our itinerary, we need to reach the Poplar station. A public road exists on the paper only, it's one of many unformed roads called "paper roads". The other access is private and pricey, so we ride on the Highway 7 for two days! Two days is the time it takes for Fern to get used to be passed by huge trucks. She ends up several times in strange places, taking her puzzled rider along with her: up a 4 meter high steep bank (we would have bet that no horse could ever climb that half a second before it happened), in the middle of a small traffic jam (blocking the cars both ways),...

Eventually we reach the Poplar Station, where Kevin Henderson gives us a good paddock for the night. It starts raining. We pospone getting out of the tent in the morning but the rain is still there when we do. We've got to cross the nearby Hope River, which would be easy to cross if it wasn't for the weather.  We cross each small channel one by one, and with the rising water it seems that we might get stuck somewhere in the middle. The water gets on top of our gumboots, filling them up - it we had gone any deeper the horses might have lost footing. We're relieved when we reach the other side, till a while later it occurs to us that we're only on the river's delta. Half the river is still to cross! When we've finished crossing, it has been two hours since we've started riding but as the craw flies we've done only one kilometer. Some hours later (after some swamps and steep hills), we end up exactly where we're supposed to, but on the wrong side of a locked gate... We've got no choice but backtracking. At about 5PM we're again one kilometer away from our starting point. One team member is happy about it: Waka. We've unloaded him at the locked gate and he actually kicks up his heels along the way.

It's too late to go to the "Kiwi Hope Hut" so we stop at "Kiwi Shelter" which is (as its name doesn't suggest) a very nice hut. We spend a great day here: Steph traps his first possum, three hunters carrying three deer give us a huge piece of venison, and the norvegian trout fishermen we share it with cook side dishes with fresh products (potatoes, peas and mushrooms). So we save our food while having a feast! They explain to us that this year is very good for trout fishing, due to the beech trees "masting" (seeding). The mice eat the seeds and the trouts eat the mice, so there are record trouts out there. Simple! We're surprised when they ask us "Have you seen any mice? We've know they're around but haven't seen any yet". On our side we've seen so many, almost stepped on them on the trails, fought with them over food in each and every hut... They again fail to see them this night: they're sound asleep and snoring while they noisily visit their bag. It's less work for us to hang their bag on a hook than to wake them up. They might have flown back to Norway without having seen any mice in spite of them being a pleague!

It's a long and quite difficult ride to Lake Station Hut, which Ted Phipps generously let us use. We use the Kiwi Pack Track. It's designed for horses but trees have fallen on the track in many places: we have to find our way around, remove branches and sometimes jump! Carrying the pack through this maze is a big challenge for Waka, he has to mind his steps while chosing a trajectory where his wide boxes don't meet any tree. He does wonders! One part seems too tricky with the pack and we reluctantly decide to unload Waka. But before we have time to do so, he confidently jumps and twists his body, to pass a fallen tree and avoid a nearby trunk at the same time!

We enjoy a rest day by lake Sumner, that we have just for us (we don't meet anybody for five days!). Once more we try to fish an eel but we come back with... Mushrooms! Steph traps another possum, well timed for christmas!on the 24th of december we ride along lake Masson to Deep Creek Hut (courtesy of Eskhead station). It's one of the cosiest hut we've seen so far (it has solar power even), the sun is shining and the possum is nicely roasted!

We've got something special for Christmas day: the Dampier Range! More than a year ago, Pete Langford, who's riden the length of the country, had told me about this place, which beauty made him cry (or maybe if was the relief after overcoming the difficulties...). So we have to find our way accross this mountain range. On the map there is no track, only level lines (many of them!). The GPS waypoints given by Tony are a big help.

From 8AM to 3PM we walk up ridges, then accross stones and tussock and finaly make it to Anderson hut, where chilling out by the river feels like being in paradise, after such a day. It seems that the effort has increased the team spirit in our little herd of two two-legged and three four-legged individuals. We walked all day long and didn't stop for picnic when there was no grass.  The horses seem grateful for that, they seem willing to stick to us. At the beggining of the journey we used to all tie them up at night, then only two out of three. We assess that we can tether only one of them now. Horse people usually tether the alpha mare: the other horses always stay nearby. Fern would be perfect for that, if only she could be tethered on a long rope without getting all tangled and panic! As he's the gun with ropes, we use Wiki as our "alpha mare". At least we know that if the others run away he'll let us know: once Waka had set himself free and wandered off with Fern. Thanks to Wiki's neighing we soon knew, we found them real close. That was fortunate, because in our rush we got out in our gumboots and undies!

Although we found the horses by the hut the next day, we do't know if they stayed because of Wiki, because of us or because they like the spot.

More days of ride through spectacular landscapes bring us to Mount White station then Flock Hill station. Between those stations lays the mighty Waimakariri River, that we find magnificent and not fearful at all after so many fine days.

At Mount White we meet Sunny and some friends of him who're here to hunt. They treat us with beers and a nice meal - it feels good to be amongst people again! We're also very nicely welcomed at Flock Hill, where Richard and Anna let us graze the horses so we can take some vacations on the west coast "without the kids"!

Touring and mustering

We've got two weeks to tour in the South Island with our campervan. But we're back at Flock Hill after less than a week, because we miss the horses and maybe also because we find that nothing can beat the high country, not even the famous west coast. We catch up with Tony and Fiona, giving them a hand with the hay, and with Mary, giving her a hand to empty her fridge and even her champagne (it's new year's eve). We finish 2014 eating "lamburgers" and start 2015 in some hot pools right next to the Hope River, which we had had such a hard time to cross a couple of weeks before. Then we aim for the west coast. We see seals feeding their pups at Cape foulwind, then the spectacular Pancakes Rocks. We get there at high tide, when the sea bursts through vertical blowholes, in front of an amazed crowd. There we meet Briar, my ex-colleague Noel's daughter, who lives with her partner Kane and their three dogs in Greymouth. We end up staying a couple of days with them and do a tramp together. They taught us some wildlife tricks, like how to dig holes in the ground to attract robins, or that huhu grubs are edible and taste like peanut butter! Steph, who was the guinee pig, confirmed that fact while his facial expression was deniying it.

We find the horses camoed amongst a mob of brown cows. The farrier is due and can't come before another week. But all the shoes are still on, which is worth recording: Earl Paewai has shod the horses at different time, between 2 and 3 months ago. We've been riding hard and for about 600 km since then! We've just had to replace some nails (and put back a pulled shoe) to make it last the whole way. The thungstene on Wiki's shoes has done the job too, without it he used to wear out his shoes in two or three... Weeks!

So we're geared up to help out mustering! We get a chance to do it three mornings. It's exciting enough to get us out of bed before dawn (around 5AM!). First, we bring back two cows and their calves from 10 km away. They had been missed during the last muster. Then, we help bringing back to the yards the whole mob of cows and calves (and bulls) for the marking. The calves have to be separated from the cows (easier said than done), then marked and castrated. When it's over the calves are picked up by their mums, like kids after school. Fergus, 18 years old, is in charge of the operation! At last we move the mob to another block, along with Fergus and Charlotte (one of the Hills' daughter), all on horseback and helped by many dogs. We're here to help but feel more like we're being treated by the Hills with such an experience. The horses seem to enjoy it as much as we do, they've got a spring in their legs. I'm quite relieved to see that they remain responsive, in spite of having just a halter as usual.

During the week we go to Chritchurch to sell the campervan, and post some food ahead for us and for the horses.When we come back, "hitch-hiking a bus", we move into the wholeshed, quite a nice one with a great living space. We're a bit surprised when the first guided tour comes in (they're surprised too) but we get to learn some stuff about sheep! To pass the time during our last days waiting for the farrier, we play "geocaching", a kind of treasure hunt using a GPS, which is a good way to explore the surroundings.

Now that the horses have been reshod by Nick the farrier (and also wormed), we're ready for the next leg in the High Country, through iconic stations: Castle Hill, Mount Algidus, Erewhon, ...

In the middle of Middle Earth

After riding for about fifteen kilometers, we overlook Castle Hill station already. But there is a river gorge between us and the station. We ride on its edge for a while before we see a track, on the opposite side, which enables to exit the gorge. Searching a bit more, we also find a track leading in the gorge, but those two tracks don't face each other! To connect them we have to ride up the river, in the river gorge. The water is swift but fortunately not high. As the bottom is dodgy, I get off to lead the horses, getting wet feet as it is customary when enjoying New Zealand outdoors! This wicked itinerary eventually leads to the station, where we're nicely welcomed by the manager and the couple of dutch origin who've recently bought the station. The area is stunning, with huge, random limestone boulders. It has been chosen to shoot many movies (Lord of the Ring, Narnia,...) and is also a top spot for bouldering.

Castle Hill station is cut in halves by the State Highway 73, a great opportunity for us to hitch-hike to the rodeo held near Christchurch, about 100 km away. We see cowboys riding "broncos" (horses with very good bucking skills) and bulls, roping and even bulldoging, where a cowboy jumps off his galoping horse onto a steer, and throws the steer on the ground by twisting its neck!

The next day we ride toward lake Coleridge through a mountain pass (no doubt we are in the mountain, we pass a ski resort!). When we reach Coleridge Pass, the way down is so steep that it feels like standing at the top of a cliff rather than on a pass, and an incredibly strong wind is blowing upwards. But we can see the lake in the distance, a bright blue puddle surrounded by mountains. Once we've managed to "climb down" we're stuck behind a fence, which seems to have no gate, unless it's hidden from us by matagouri bushes. The only way for the horses is to go... Above the fence! We manage to lower it and pass it with no harm to the horses nor to the fence but the whole thing requires a great deal of patience and energy.

We camp at Lake Coleridge Station then the next day at the other side of the lake, as far as possible from the sign "new grass, keep off".

It had been hot and dry for weeks but this one day is cold and rainy. Fortunately for us, the water level in the Wilberforce and the Rakaia, the two major rivers we have to cross next, doesn't raise much. Between those two rivers lays Mount Algidus station. In the 1930s, Mona Anderson, recently married to the station's owner, comes here for the first time. She'll stay almost 30 years and her autobiographical book, "A river rules my life", will become a best-seller. It tells the difficulties and challenges of such an isolated life (and some dramas due to the river, often involving horses!), but most important, how the country, its people and manner of life is delighting. This life style featuring hard work and team spirit, where men, animals and nature are one, is core to New Zealand. For that reason, Mona Anderson has a special place in kiwi's hearts. But she's now gone and Mount Algidus is a station like many others, except for the fact that there is no access by road, one has to cross the river! The old corrugated iron stables, cookhouse and woolshed described by Mona are still there. We would mistakenly believe that nothing has changed, if we had not been told by the runholder Jamie Smiley that helicopters have replaced horses for mustering! This doesn't worry Wiki, Waka and Fern, they are given a paddock with amazingly lush grass, nothing else matters.

After riding accross the Rakaia, we reach Manuka Lodge, where we book the shearers' quarters for two nights. Don, Julie, their son Will and daughter in law Mary Ann run together a hunting lodge, where international customers come to shoot thars, chamois and deer. They produce merino wool too. We're invited at their barbecue lunch, a big treat for us who've been eating dried food for a while.

Then we ride accross Glenfelloch, Lake Heron and Mount Arrowsmith stations, maybe a bit too fast because our meth bottle explodes in one box and the honey in the other one.

We spend a whole day at Boundary Creek Hut, a DOC hut. We love the hut's basic confort (shelter, fire place, holding paddock), which makes us feel at home in the wilderness. We set the horses free as much as we can and they too have a good time. Plus we meet some nice people: some hunters, a family on a tramp, a push-biker. 

Next we ride to Mistery Lake then to Lake Clearwater. With steep and uneven ground, it's not easy-going, but the views are rewarding. The lake shore is inhabited by windsurfers, trout fishermen and other kiwis enjoying weekends at their bach. We make the acquaintance of two of them, Eleanor and Barry, who sweetly look after us. We learn from them that Mt Sundays, that we pass the next day on our way to Erewhon, is no less than Edoras in "The Two Towers", the second Lord of the Ring movie!

Out of Nowhere

In the 1860s (the pioneer age in New Zealand!), the british polymath Samuel Butler gathered several blocs to create a huge station that he named "Mesopotamia". Back in England he wrote "Erewhon" (anagram of "nowhere"), a fiction set in New Zealand. In this book he goes beyond a mountain range, looking for some good, unclaimed land. He happens to discover the erewhonians people, whose society has evolved apart from the rest of the world. As a result they have strange beliefs and customs. For instance, being sick is a crime and is punished by the law, whereas people feel sorry for robbers and thieves, they are particularly kind to them and try to help them improving. This satirical novel had a great success, such that it was re-published a century later.

Erewhon station was once part of Mesopotamia station, in spite of being separated from it by the Rangitata river, which is more than 4 km wide. Erewhon is now a station of its own and has been renamed in the 20th century after Samuel Butler's novel. It is nowadays run by Erin and Colin, who raise sheep, cattle and... Clydesdales! We "woof" there for a week. Woofers do most of the farm work, there are already four or five of them, all girls, when we arrive. Fortunately there is enough work to keep us all busy. We drench some sheep, which is an enjoyable experience (and a first for Steph), except for our clothe which turn out not to be horn proof. Then their feet and teeth have to be checked (they are sent to the work if they are no good). We're in charge of catching the sheep one by one, flip them on their back an drag them to the check point. At first we wrestle and struggle with each sheep (they're not trustful and they're stronger than they look) but we soon learn to twist their neck and to throw them on their back before they even think of resisting! We help making oat chaff, feeding fagots to an antiquated machine. We clean a paddock from its thistle before the hay is harvested. The chaff and the hay are for the horses (there are about 60 of them). Once we're lucky enough to see the horses at work: six of them pull a huge wagon and eight of them plow the ground, for a demo held for a big group of tourists.

During our free time we ride our horses, trotting and cantering to keep them fit. And we watch local movies like the Lord of the Ring trilogy, with its distinct and familiar scenery.

We get some rain and the weather forecast announce much more: we decide to leave before the Rangitata is too high. Erin and Colin are not very encouraging "it's the most dangerous river I know" "it might not rain here but it might rain in the headwaters". We pack two weeks of supplies but half-expect to be back at Erewhon the same day, defeated by the river. An incredibly strong wind blows, we can barely open our eyes but the horses bravely go forward. The wind is such that we're wet from the river even before entering it! In spite of those strong weather conditions the horses cross the Clyde river, the worse tributary to the Rangitata river, with water up to their chest. After crossing I say "we've got the best horses in the world" and Steph surprises me by just saying "yes we do". He usually makes fun of them, especially of Wiki, in reaction to me prising him!

We have no trouble crossing the other tributary, the Havelock river, except that we have to face heavy rains and a washed out track to reach it.

At 1PM, only five hours after we started, we're soaked to the bones and have a break that will last till the next day at Black Mountain Hut, which belongs to Mesopotamia station. We're only separated from the homestead by what seems to be an easy ride, following the true right of the river, and leave with high spirits in spite of the rain. We're soon stuck behind a braid of the river which flows right next to a small bluff on the shore. We have to cross it twice to carry on, then the same with another braid, and there is more in front of us! When starts the storm we found ourselves in a very incomfortable spot, surrounded by the raising water of the river we had thoroughly crossed the day before!

We study all the options we have, including goind back on the true left of the river and take refuge at Edoras (if only the film set hadn't been removed...). The most sensible thing to do seems to back track to the hut. The horses are not very keen to go in the water anymore, neither are we: it's too thick to tell if it's deep or not. The last meters of the last braid we have to cross (again!) are terrifying: Fern has to lean against the stream and Waka even drifts for a couple of meters. For the second time we're more than happy to reach the hut, where we stop to recover and to dry. We then look for another way to reach the homestead and find out that there is a good track in the hills just above the river!

Malcolm and Sue, Mesopotamia station's runholders, welcome us and let us stay "at the school". This school was for the kids of those working on the station (a total of fifteen kids maybe) and was closed in the years 2000 as the roll had dropped to two. The place is full of history, is a curiosity for the many people who "drive to the end of the road to have a look" and an exciting backpacker accomodation for us! We spend two days at "Messie" in order to have a chance to touch base with Maxence, a french girl who's riding the south island in the opposite direction to us.

The next leg is the most daunting, with a saddle which sits 2000m high and is the highest point in New Zealand where horses travel. The first day ride leads to Felt Hut (Mesopotamia, 1100m high). We've got at least two reasons to love this hut: it's surrounded by beautiful grass and there is a bathtub next to the river! Our route then joins Te Araroa, the 3000 km tramp covering the length of the country. At Royal Hut (where Prince Charles came as a kid), we meet Thore and Katrin, a german couple, then Nina from Guatemala! The three of them are "TA SOBO" (Te Araroa SOuth BOund), on their way to Bluff.

The next night, after a very long day on shingle and boulders to get to the other side of the Stag saddle (the horses coped like the hairy heros they are), we meet them again at Camp Stream Hut. After dark we're joined by Ron, a canadian "TA NOBO" (Te Araroa NOrth BOund), who carries a guitar! He sings us off with cowboy tunes ("Don't fence me in", "Trail dreaming", "Riding down the Canyon",...). As there is no paddock nor tree we have to tie a horse to the toilet! Luckily our hut-mates are horse friendly and don't mind such kind of toilet lady.

At last, we reach the beautiful Tekapo lake, but the view is somewhat spoiled by the fact that no grass is to be seen. Paddocks sadly display flats of dirt, or in the best cases sparse yellow grass. We do find a nice patch of grass in a river's delta, where we sleep under te stars, and that the horses aren't too keen to leave the next day. At Tekapo village we're back into the civilization and read in the newspapers that the current drought is the worse in 50 years... We weren't so sure yet where to go next: to the Cavalcades? To Queenstown? Going to the Cavalcades would require to ride for two weeks straight into the drought, so we decide to aim for Queenstown through the lakes Pukaki, Ohau, Hawea and Wanaka. Sarah from Mackenzie Alpine Horse Trekking is nice enough to let us use one of her paddock and some hay while we shop at Tekapo "Four Square" and study the map.