After a good night's sleep, we were ready to get up and stagger about catching our new horses. We'd received news that we would not be able to depart until the weirdly specific time of 9:23 am. The next leg was expected to be fast, following the lake's edge around and mainly along tracks. The middle section of this 80km leg was out of bounds for camping, so we would have to push through to the end. The little Arab I'd had on the Plateau of Death would have been ideal.
Instead, having drawn my number, I found myself looking up at what was surely a cross between a Friesian and an elephant. Extremely handsome but enormous, this horse would have been ideal had there been an impromptu riot to quell at the Estancia. There wasn't, but had there been it would probably have been started by Antoine's horse, who was busy using Antoine as a hula hoop. Conscious of Daniel's accident, Charlotte displayed an authoritarian side I'd never seen, "You're getting another horse, Antoine!" Charlotte's sense when it came to the horses was invaluable, and "hot" horses seemed to calm immediately in her hands.
Simon did his usual mounting block routine for me, and we trotted for 10-15km to the first vet check. We were joined by Brenda, who had remerged at the last Estancia in bright neon waterproofs, looking like a Panda at a rave. Kirsteen was with us, too, having been given a new horse.
The signs for the day were ominous. Simon's horse was pretty exhausted by the time we reached the vet check, Antoine's new horse was sweating profusely, and Charlotte's horse was showing the same competitive instinct as her mount.
The going was fast and flat along the shores of the lake. While taking my turn at the front and pushing the pace in our exhausted troop, my horse, deceived by an unusually flat piece of ground, tripped and collapsed on its knees, propelling me over its head.
The team dynamics came to the fore here. Simon immediately dismounted and picked me up. "Great fall, man", came the response from Antoine, like a judge at a diving competition. "Sambo fucked up" was Poncho's predictable smiling observation, whilst Alejandro offered me a thermos of wine. Charlotte's contribution was to remind me to keep the horse's head up. Given that most industrial cranes would have struggled to lift my giant horse's head, I was a little irritated by this advice. Sulking, I let Simon manhandle me back into the saddle, feeling a little humiliated to have come off on the only level piece of ground in Patagonia.
By the second vet check, all the horses, with the exception of Jaco's, were spent. Getting one to take the lead was an exhausting process, and soon even Jaco's was feeling the strain. We had had extraordinarily bad luck to have all picked unfit or tired horses for this particular leg. That said, it was extraordinary that of the 500 or so horses mustered for this event, there had rarely been a dud.
Morale was pretty low; everyone was exhausted, urging on their mounts. Several of our group had dismounted and were now walking, with 20km still to go. Andrei, the vet moving up the field in a pickup, witnessed a particularly laborious attempt by Simon at getting me into my saddle. Groaning like I was in labour, he stopped. "Come and see me when you get in," he ordered. "I've got some drugs for you". Even to the Diclofenac junkie I had become, this did little to improve my spirits.
We were tired. And fed up. Simon even stopped pointing out interesting natural phenomena of the region (although even exhaustion didn't stop his commitment to everyone else's welfare).
I experimented with some of Poncho's Mexican drugs - it seemed as good a place as any to do this. They worked because suddenly, as we crossed a small creek, there was an apparition. From around the corner came a pickup truck, blaring music and beeping its horn. It was Jakob. And Daisy. And Negro. And Marito. And most of Argentina's Malbec stock. It was the lift we needed. "Ten kilometres to go, team. Slow down!" shouted Jakob ironically.
We'd been dubbed "The Party Group" by the other competitors - they'd mistaken our lack of speed as a result of endless drunken orgies. In reality, a group dynamic is inherently slower - waiting for all the horses to drink, helping with saddlebags, lifting me into the saddle, etc. Only my dependence on pharmaceuticals was in line with our moniker. However, a bemused Brenda and Kirsteen now saw us live up to our name. The wine was passed around while still on our horses, with Daisy and Jakob dancing to Creedence Clearwater around us. There was singing. And cheering. It was the happiest culvert in all of South America.
Buoyed by this momentary lift in morale, we dragged our now thoroughly finished horses into the Estancia, a beautiful cottage nestled beneath a grove of Pear trees. We had done it; eighty kilometres on horses that had about 20kms in the tank at best. Shattered, we pitched our tents and made the most of our comfortable surroundings.
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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