Gaucho Derby - Day 1
This story of the Gaucho Derby is intended to be a humorous account of one of the most epic adventures I have ever taken part in. It is tongue-in-cheek and should not take away from the integrity of an incredibly tough and well-organised race.
While I hope my ability on a horse is better than I make out here, I remain an anomaly from the other far more skilled horsemen and women who also competed in it. I hope this serves as an appreciation of these riders (particularly my teammates, Simon and Charlotte) but mostly as a tribute to the magnificent animals that selflessly ferried me across every extremity of Patagonia despite my many shortcomings as a horseman (and indeed man).
Despite the ridiculous nature of the narrative, I hope it also shows that everything is impossible until it's done - and that is an ideal held by the rangers who face the seemingly impossible task of saving our wilderness - and is one of the cornerstones of ForRangers' values.
Words: Sam Taylor
'In a land this remote and rugged, the horse is the primary way of travel.
The relationship between the Gaucho and his caballo is one forged through long, hardworking days managing livestock.'
We drew horses out of the hat - a number corresponding to a tiny tag on the horse's halter. Identifying this number among a sea of horses was hard enough, but catching them whilst ten or so other riders tried to do the same was another matter altogether. Soon I was surrounded by a whirlpool of legs and manes charging about as rider after rider tried to grab their horse and secure him to a lead rope.
I identified mine - #97 - who was clearly agitated, snorting and charging around like a maniac. Had he known he was about to be mounted by the least experienced rider south of Buenos Aires and take part in one of the world's toughest endurance races, he would have started breathing fire. Instead, he cannoned through the railings, bowled over a gaucho and encouraged his mates to join the stampede.
Andy, an estancia owner from further north and one of the advisors to the race, was the unlucky victim, and I watched in horror as he was smashed over by a series of horses led by the delinquent #97. With the help of one of the Gauchos, we managed to corner then grab him. As Andy removed the last horse shoe protruding from his spine, he grinned at me. "That's a good horse!" he said.
Whispering prayers to the heavens and mumbling several calming quotes that I remembered from reading "Black Beauty" to my daughters, I led him out to tack him up.
It turns out he was a brilliant horse. Calm, patient with a good turn of speed, as a still slightly stunned Andy could attest to. Given my initial feeling was that he was a bastard, and given that he was now suddenly mine, I paternally called him "Son" or "Sonny".
I tacked him up and trotted him about to test him with the saddle bags. He was fine. I mounted him and joined Anna, Charlotte and Simon at the start line, which had been sadistically adorned with giant fluttering flags, perfectly designed to freak out even the calmest horse. Amazingly, I had made it this far - and Sonny was a legend. Calmly, we all gathered for the start, and suddenly, we were off! It was really happening!
We trotted and cantered down to the river together, and it all felt possible. We were middle of the pack, some way behind the leaders who had haired off (Anna among them). Simon was keeping a close eye on me, but he needn't have. Sonny had this covered, and we were soon into our rhythm.
Too quickly, my sense of calm was shattered. As we approached the first horse check where the vets were stationed to check the horse's heart rates (no one seemed too interested in mine), a lady behind us was bucked off. Broken ribs. Out of the race. Almost within view of the start line. This was getting real. With the horses' vet check and my reality check complete, I clambered back on and joined Charlotte and Simon, who were sticking to me like concerned parents. We hurried on, alternating between a joggy-trot over tussock bushes and controlled canters over the flatter parts. There was something extraordinarily liberating about being part of a race, with the dust of the leaders visible in the distance and gangs of horses alongside and behind us. I was getting carried away - most literally!
We came into the second vet check just before the six o'clock deadline, very much in the middle of the pack. We watched riders come in who had met unanticipated fence lines or whose GPSs had failed, while making our camp, having tied our horses to some clumps of tussock by a stream.
Simon and I set up our tent and helped several of the latecomers with theirs, and Charlotte, having made sure the horses were watered, began rummaging through our gear for snacks and whisky. (Given we were sharing a tent, we had more space for the essentials for coping in the Patagonian wilderness.)
My knee was sore and slightly swollen, but otherwise, I was elated. I'd cracked the first day without cracking my ribs. We had a cup of tea and were warm and cosy in our yet-to-be smelly tent.
It had been a good day.
The team raised over $60,000 to support life and health insurance, emergency rations, and welfare support to over 2000 rangers across Africa. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt. Rangers have seen jobs lost, resources slashed, and livelihoods destroyed. All the while, they remain steadfast in protecting what is left of our wilderness. They need our help. Please support them.
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