Prior to the race, we discussed how being a team of three would make us more efficient. Our "admin", as my ForRangers colleague Pete Newland might say, would set us apart. Unfortunately, as with most best-laid plans, it was a load of bollocks. Our careful routine designed to be efficient with "getting up and going" turned out to be a chaotic maelstrom of madness.
The 5:30 am morning routine went something like this:
"You go and take the horses to the river to drink Charlotte, I'll take down the tent while Simon makes the breakfast..."
"Charlotte! Wake up!... Charlotte!"
"Huh?" Do you want me to make breakfast?" replied Charlotte sleepily.
"No, you go take the horses to drink, Simon's making breakfast, I'm taking down the tent."
At this point, Simon arrived with the horses. "I've given horses a drink. Sam, have you made breakfast?"
"No, that was your job, I'm taking down the tent."
"So, why's the tent still up?"
"Because Charlotte's still in it. She was meant to take the horses."
"But I've done that. Who's making breakfast?" said Simon. (Since passing his pre-race weight limit, he had little else on his mind.)
"But I just did the horses."
"Fuck it", I said. "Charlotte, you do breakfast, I'll take down the tent."
"Wake up! You're doing breakfast!"
"But I'm off to take the horses for a drink."
"No, Simon's done that."
"OK, so shall I take down the tent?" came the bleary response from somewhere deep within a sleeping bag.
"No, I'm doing that!."
"So, who'll do breakfast?"
"You! Get up!... Actually, fuck it, let's tack up the horses and eat biltong while we walk".
"OK… and the tent?"
The dialogue was broken by the eerie silence around us as we realised all the other riders had left and were on their way to the first checkpoint.
As the race progressed, this daily scenario became more chaotic, if anything. Our communistic camping arrangement meant that we all assumed everyone else had each other's stuff. Most often, in my case, the things I was searching for were in my pockets, hidden beneath the various layers that had come off or gone on throughout the day.
Anyway, when we had finally got going, we made good time to the next checkpoint. A beautiful Puesto beneath a grove of Beech trees. Here we caught our horses in good time and, celebrating the improvement on our progress, decided to boil some water to make porridge.
Enjoying the sunshine by the river, our peace was disturbed by one of the vets, a Canadian called Chris. "You guys better get going, aye? It's a race, you know!"
We realised that we were again on our own, with no other riders in sight. We quickly mounted and trotted on about a kilometre, where we were greeted by events that would shape the rest of the race.
"Poncho", Alejandro and Antoine, two Mexicans and a Frenchman we had befriended in Calafate, were making their way towards the river with Jako, a South African gent. As we approached, Jako's horse suddenly reared up and threw him. We circled the horse, which was now demonstrating a close likeness to our earlier packing operation, charging in circles. This drew the attention of the nearby horses that we had recently exchanged. They had clearly decided it was an opportune moment to perform a cavalry charge towards us.
While Simon, yelling like a banshee, tried to catch Jako's horse, I spun in tight circles, enquiring from Charlotte where I might be of use at that particular moment. Charlotte replied that "possibly stopping doing that" might be a start - and just as I did, another riderless but saddled horse joined the riot charging straight back to the corral we had just departed. This gang of feral horses, with their other tacked-up but riderless comrades, now came to the unanimous conclusion that this represented a sensible route, and followed suit at high speed, leaving a dazed South African on the ground, and two mounted Mexicans, three mounted Kenyans and a Frenchman in a bemused huddle looking quizzically at each other.
These 30 seconds of madness bound the seven of us together for the rest of the race. And whilst we temporarily lost Jako, who trudged off dejectedly to find his horse, we were not to part ways for another eight days. The friendships made, however, will last far longer than that.
We navigated to a place that can be best described as "fuck all - with a small lake". Simon, ever the guide, gushed about a solitary flamingo sitting in the bleak and sleeting landscape. It was undoubtedly an incongruous sight.
The next checkpoint was directly south, although irritatingly, we had received explicit directions that we must go via a route marker that lay due north.
Alejandro had a somewhat fiery horse and coincidentally, was wearing a jacket of a fluorescent colour that is most often seen when staring at the sun. His horse, presumably a little concerned about burning to death from the apparent phosphorus flare sitting on his back, immediately reared up and took off, likely considering a lonely existence with a flamingo as preferable to carrying the human torch on his back.
We spent some time retrieving the horse. (I say "we" - I remained where I was, pretending to be engrossed in the flamingo, whilst Poncho and Simon took off to retrieve the errant animal.) Once Alejandro was back on, we immediately got off again to give the horses a drink. Predictably, the jacket-phobic pony made another dash for freedom. Once again, I pretended to be doing something else. Simon and Antoine this time returned the horse, and we made our way up to the all-important route-marker.
"Keep drinking!" called out our skipper, Simon. Now, given the thickness of the mist and the fact that I was probably receiving more moisture by osmosis than orally, I felt this was unnecessary. But, given I had quoted Pete's famous "hydrate or die" ad nauseum, I complied, and we continued our way at a trot to the essential route-marker.
When we arrived, we were thrilled to find it was a cliff that presented no option to go but where we had come from. Perhaps it was a tremendous view that the kindly race organisers had wanted us to see. But in the mist and sleet, all we saw was mist and sleet.
Dejected, we about turned and headed on-course to the next vet check, which we'd just spent an hour moving away from. I was sore now. My swollen knee jarred with each trot, and my arthritic back ached. Not one to bravely suffer in silence, I whined. In fact, I whined all the way to the next vet check, which we arrived at some five hours later after a slow walk down a stony riverbed.
As we approached, we readied ourselves for the heart rate check by getting off and loosening girths to drop the heart rates. (Why we worried about heart rate, I'm unsure, as we had been moving at a pace a little slower than your average rocking horse. Perhaps we anticipated that the excitement of the lone flamingo sighting was still fresh in the horses' minds, I don't know? Anyway, as we did, Alejandro's magic fire-jacket made another ill-fated appearance, sending Simon's horse berserk, dragging, saddle, saddlebags (and Simon for a considerable distance) 300m into a river.
"Are you OK?" I called out pointlessly as a bedraggled Simon carried the torn remnants of his saddle bag and saddle to the puesto. Only his middle finger acknowledged my concern, and he wandered off to immediately began a repair job with paracord. "We'll sleep here tonight", he declared.
The Mexicans and Antoine agreed, and we had just finished setting up camp when an apparition appeared. Jako, bedraggled and in tatters, staggered in, leading his horse. I don't speak much Afrikaans, but the mutterings under his breath did not sound like he had enjoyed his quiet hack across Patagonia. As it turned out, he had picked the Hannibal Lecter of horses and could neither get on him nor off him without violent repercussions, endless chasing and catching. The end result was that the old boy had walked 25km or so leading this dragon - his unheeded InReach safety device beeping furiously with messages from HQ asking whether he still had his steed.
We gathered around the fellow and gave him some tea and whisky.
"That is NOT a horse!" Jako kept muttering as Charlotte sympathised and helped him with his stuff.
"We saw a flamingo today!" I piped up.
I got no response.
It had been a prick of a day.
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