Trekking New Zealand

'We ride through a beautiful land that knows no cars, no machines, no people. A land where cell phones don't work...' Bette Flagler writes of her Western Ranges Horse Trek for EquiSearch.
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'We ride through a beautiful land that knows no cars, no machines, no people. A land where cell phones don't work...' Bette Flagler writes of her Western Ranges Horse Trek for EquiSearch.

Inside Gully Creek Hut, Cheryl Dean cooks my gourmet dinner on an old cast iron stove. Outside, I sip a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and soak in a bush bath that's heated over an open fire.

After spending all day on the back of a horse, I am delighted at our assigned duties.

We are four 40-year-old friends and one 16-year-old daughter, gathered together because of our love of horses and the outdoors. We are on a multi-day trek and Cheryl is our guide and owner of Western Ranges Horse Treks. Located ten miles down a dirt road and across a swinging Bridge, it lies at the edge of Kahurangi National Park on the top end of New Zealand's South Island.

Cheryl doesn't run typical kay-yay-yippee-kay-yay kind of rides and I don't think of any of us as "dudes." In 1990, Cheryl and neighbor Dion MacLean pioneered the horse trekking company on land that has been in Dion's family for four generations. Their motto is "Free Your Spirit" and their goal is to provide genuine quality experiences while caring for the environment.

From the verandah of our cottage, we look to the distant tops of the Mt. Arthur ranges. The hills that look as though they're always covered in a dusting of snow are, in fact, the marble faces of the Neddlebed Caves -- the world's largest cave system. And the rivers that we're meant to cross are flowing like torrents after early summer rain. Because most of Cheryl's rides involve several river crossings, the recent storms mean that we must adjust our route. But with five valleys and hundreds of thousands of hectares of wilderness to explore, there is no doubt that the brochure promises of wild and challenging places will be realized.

Cheryl is gifted in suiting the right horse to the rider -- and although 90 percent of her riders are experienced, she has gentler mounts for those who aren't. Fiona is our one green rider. She has exchanged hair fluffed by a drier for a face plastered with a smile as she gallops for the first time. She will, by the end of our trek, have fallen in lovewith little grey, Freddie, who shares, interestingly enough, her adversity to being grubby. At each sighting of water or mud, Freddie (who would rather not have his little hooves -- read manicured nails -- dirty) leaps, jumps, skips or hops over the offending obstacle, giving Fi a bit of a jolt and teaching her a little more about balance.

My horse's name is Ata, short for Ataahua, which means beautiful in Maori. He's a large, station-bred Clydesdale/Thoroughbred/Arabian cross and while bold and strong, is frightened to be alone. Because of his size and strength, the larger riders are often assigned to him, a part of his job description that he might want to rewrite. His displeasure, Cheryl says, is vocal, "he braces his feet and groans while they mount. It's very embarrassing." (So far, he hasn't groaned for me.)

New Zealand is perfect for back country riding. It is, with its mountains and rivers and fiords, exceptionally beautiful. And it's free of all those pesky creatures. There are no native mammals other than a bat -- no mountain lions or bears or rabid skunks. There aren't even any snakes. We ride through land that knows no cars, no machines, no people. Where cell phones don't work.

Amidst the trees and scrub we learn more about each other and remember things about ourselves. We learn that in 1974 21-year-old Cheryl armed herself with little more than a topographical map and a compass, mounted her horse and began what became a two-year trek around the backcountry of New Zealand.

"It's what I had to do to find my truth," she says. There were weeks at a time when she wouldn't see another soul and I simply lose myself in the thought of getting on a horse and riding for two years.

We cross Gully Creek, wind along the Baton River and through a beech forest to the whoop, whoop, whoop of native wood pigeons, the harmonious song of the bellbirds and the calls of mimicking tuis. When we stop for lunch at a stream, Cheryl's bottomless saddlebags offer sandwiches and rolls, fruits, desserts and drinks. Sylvia and I talk about the horses, Judy and Fiona share stories from childhood and Cheryl and Leeann confide tales of broken homes and the effects of divorce ? Cheryl, a parent; Leeann, a bruised daughter.

Passing through a valley, a green floor framed by high mountains, it's easy to get lost in quiet thoughts, to forget the reality of "regular" life. Leeann's mother, Judy, works as a nurse and spends her days with fertility patients -- women whose bodies are ruled by hormones and injections and high-tech baby-making calendars. The backcountry is a world away from ultrasounds and mood swings. I turn around and see that Leeann has gotten off her horse, Mystic, and is leading him, letting him stop to graze, stealing a hug around his neck. I watch her bury her face in his mane, and think of a horse called Blue who carried me through my teen-aged years.

Sylvia, like Judy, is trained as a nurse, but has exchanged her stethoscope for pruning shears. She works in the vineyard that grew the grapes that made the wine that I drink in the bath. Sylvia and I are the most experienced riders, and our horses start to move out a little faster, a little freer. Cheryl holds the rest of the group back and tells us to go ahead and run. We take off through a grass field, trees blur past, the wind whips against my face and my eyes water. I give Ata his head, he stretches his neck and our speed increases. Ata's haunches power us up the steep side of a mountain.

We stop and stare across the vast emptiness and wait for the others. It hasn't always been so quiet here. The Upper Baton Valley was the site of gold mining in the mid 1800's, when up to 1500 miners (and very few women) lived in the valley. One of the women was Dion's great-great-grandmother, who was called the "Queen of the Baton." She married a miner and opened a pub which was, of course, the focal point of the community. Today, only seven people live in the Upper Baton and it's Cheryl who is endearingly referred to as "Queen."

The miners took away gold and left behind remnants of their lives-- flattened patches of grass that were once building sites of homes and hotels, post offices and shops. Blackberries grow wild, interspersed with pink and white foxgloves and trees remain that drip in peaches and apples and cherries. Riding back to our cottage, I spot some ripe cherries. At the moment my hand goes up in preparation to grab, so goes Ata's head, his gob filled with my cherries and while my lips jealously salivate, his drip red froth.

I drag myself out of the bath and, after filling my stomach with Cheryl's cooking, fall into bed. We have more riding ahead of us tomorrow and sleep comes easy. Of course, with five women in one cabin that can't last. It's Fi who wakes us first, when she locks herself out on a middle-of-the-night loo run. Sylvia is next when we learn that her Scottish accent carries through even when snoring. At dawn, the sheep that we mustered the day before wake and are woolly alarm clocks. But no one minds -- the earlier we get up, the more riding we get to do.

To book a trek at Western Ranges, visit www.thehorsetrek.co.nz. Telephone O11 64 3 522 4198, fax 011 64 3 543 3860. Western Ranges is located approximately two hours from Nelson.

Cheryl Dean's season runs from October 1 into May. All rides are limited to a maximum of six riders. Prices for multi-day treks are $300 NZ (about $150 US) for the two-day ride, $450NZ ($225 US) for the three-day, and $1800 NZ ($900 US) for the ten-day. Accommodation, meals, horses, guide and riding equipment are included. The ten-day trek, which traverses mountain ranges and travels through New Zealand's largest cattle stations, is normally offered just once per year in November. However, for 2002, Cheryl has added a second, departing in December. Bookings for the ten-day trek must be made by the end of August.

Bette Flagler is a freelance writer who grew up riding and showing Quarter Horses. She spent two years sailing from San Francisco to New Zealand, where she now makes her home. In addition to writing about horses, she writes about outdoor activities, destinations and profiles of interesting people met along the way. She has worked as a kayak, mountain bike and hiking guide and can be reached at bettewrites@yahoo.co.nz.

I drag myself out of the bath and, after filling my stomach with Cheryl's cooking, fall into bed. We have more riding ahead of us tomorrow and sleep comes easy. Of course, with five women in one cabin that can't last. It's Fi who wakes us first, when she locks herself out on a middle-of-the-night loo run. Sylvia is next when we learn that her Scottish accent carries through even when snoring. At dawn, the sheep that we mustered the day before wake and are woolly alarm clocks. But no one minds -- the earlier we get up, the more riding we get to do.

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To book a trek at Western Ranges, visit www.thehorsetrek.co.nz. Telephone O11 64 3 522 4198, fax 011 64 3 543 3860. Western Ranges is located approximately two hours from Nelson.

Cheryl Dean's season runs from October 1 into May. All rides are limited to a maximum of six riders. Accommodation, meals, horses, guide and riding equipment are included. The ten-day trek, which traverses mountain ranges and travels through New Zealand's largest cattle stations, is normally offered just once per year in November.

Bette Flagler is a freelance writer who grew up riding and showing Quarter Horses. She spent two years sailing from San Francisco to New Zealand, where she now makes her home. In addition to writing about horses, she writes about outdoor activities, destinations and profiles of interesting people met along the way. She has worked as a kayak, mountain bike and hiking guide and can be reached at bettewrites@yahoo.co.nz.