Penalised again, we waited until 3 pm before departing. It had given me the time to have an enormous needle stabbed into my bottom by Andrei - and almost immediately, I felt better. Andrei was surprisingly gentle for someone who looked like he ought to have a pixelated face.
We left the Estancia refreshed, albeit with an aching arse, and followed Simon through a thick forest. It was here that Simon and Poncho came into their own, navigating the crap out of the terrain. We recruited five more riders who had been wandering around aimlessly for hours. Despite our four-hour wait since the previous riders had departed, we were again up with the field.
We cleared the forest and ended up on top of the mountain at the world's most beautiful campsite. Set by a bubbling spring overlooking the lake, we were buoyant. This turned to genuine exaltation when the news filtered in from the vets who joined our camp that our very own Anna, and Holly, one of our dome mates, had performed a brilliant feat of navigation and pulled through to win! This was well deserved from two very skilled and tough-as-guts horsewomen.
We exchanged each other's possessions, possibly for the last time, ate our powdered rations and went to bed. Even the smell of the tent had become comfortingly familiar. The finish was within touching distance.
Gaucho Derby - Day 9
This was it. If we could make some good ground and be quick at the horse change, we stood a fighting chance of finishing on this day. I was delighted to have made it this far; the possibility of finishing the race a day early than expected was unthinkable.
We were up early and managed to nail our jobs. For the first time in nine days, we all did what we were meant to. We had our horses tacked up and ready to go at 7:45 am, 15 minutes earlier than the start time. We were on our horses at 7:58 am, and as the clock struck 8 am, we stormed off.
We skidded down the scree to a river. I had a belter of a horse, who it appeared had been bred with crampons rather than hooves. We essentially followed a river to the next vet check, traversing back and forth when it became a gorge. We emerged like spawning salmon, eager to catch our final horse and press on towards the finish line.
We did so relatively efficiently. Again Antoine drew a maniac, who was wisely withdrawn. Alejandro drew a horse that looked as though it had leapt from the canvas of a Stubbs painting, glossy and bristling with muscle - a magnificent specimen. Charlotte's seemed pretty fiery, but again under her serene control, became docile as a lamb chop. My final pony was surely going to be a nightmare, and I braced myself as I tried to catch a solid looking Palomino. However, my luck was in as this gentle beast sat patiently while I bound him up in rawhide.
We set off, an ominous mountain ahead of us, knowing that we needed to scale that and then get down onto the flats below to the finish. We had plenty of time and should get in by 6 pm, all going to plan.
Initially, it did go to plan. And then it didn't. The horses made light work of climbing the scree slope, although it was a hell of a climb. Three solid hours of steep, slippery scree. But they smashed it. We got to the top and were greeted by one of the world's incredible panoramas - Mt Fitzroy, its vast glacier overlooking a beautiful river stretching towards El Chalten. We took pictures, grinning and whooping as if we'd already finished. The finish line was three kilometres away, although we had to deviate some five kilometres in a different direction to a vet check down from the high ground. It was stunning, and momentarily we forgot ourselves and our ambition to get in before 6 pm that evening.
Once we'd got our shit together, we carried on down the hill. Simon, at the bottom, got off his horse to give it a breather. It had been a hell of a climb after all. Behind me, Alejandro followed suit. That was when, as they say, it all went to custard.
As Alejandro got down, his horse started to roll. He skipped back on and tried to pull him up. He succeeded. Such was his success that his horse went full gallop down the steep scree with Alejandro being thrown in every direction. I'm not sure what the horse was trying to achieve - break the sound barrier possibly - but he kept going. Alejandro wisely came off just before the furry torpedo t-boned Poncho. I'm not sure how I would react to being hit squarely in the ribs by 700kgs, but Poncho's horse reacted thusly; it jumped ten feet in the air throwing Poncho and heading off to pursue Ale's horse which appeared to be making a break for the moon.
Poncho ran off after his horse. His Spanish swearwords disappeared into the distance.
Ale was sitting dazed and confused, looking between his legs at the place his horse had once been. I jumped off my horse to see if he was OK. My generous act was greeted with, "SAM! GET ON YOUR F*&KING HORSE!" from Simon, who, surveying the carnage around him, quite reasonably didn't want to add carrying me to the finish into the mix.
Having shone a torch in Ale's eyes, I discerned he was concussed, mainly on the basis that I didn't understand what he was saying. Given that my limited Spanish was learned while watching "Narcos" episodes and is therefore restricted to ordering cocaine and assassinations on family members, it is quite possible that my diagnosis was misplaced.
Regardless, there was little to do now but walk. Simon and Antoine rode off to see if they could locate the horses - one of which they did - and reinstated Poncho back on his flustered pony.
We didn't see Alejandro's horse again, so he dejectedly trudged the five kilometres to the next vet check. It was six o'clock now, and according to race rules, we had to stop and camp, but that was a debate we weren't having with the vets.
"Your call," they said, shrugging. "By the way, you need to head up here then down an EXTREMELY steep descent. You'll have to get off your horses."
This was the most disheartening thing I'd heard all week. Five kilometres from the finish, I'd have to drag my body, which by now had the structural integrity of a chocolate mousse, down a steep hill.
Regardless we carried on, got to the start of the descent and got off. I have never been angrier than when I reached the bottom. The descent, not sheer in the slightest, was about as sheer as a supermarket car park. My sulky face came back on.
I sulked for the remaining trot down the valley to the finish. We saw the end, and then I completely forgot about being sulky.
The flags were flying, and Marito had found a big drum. Jakob was playing the guitar and singing. There was cheering and smiling, and an enormous sense of satisfaction came over me. We had done it! We had bloody done it!
We were helped off our horses and clumsily hugged everyone. Then Marito pulled down a saddle for me to use as a pillow, passed me a bottle of wine and gave me a big hug.
I lay there savouring the moment and suddenly realised my satisfied feeling was completely misplaced. This race had been about everyone else. It had been about all the other riders. The amazing medics and vets. The organisers and horse owners. It had been about Poncho's quiet leadership and Alejandro bringing me wine on the ground. It had been about Jaco shouting "Vamos" in an Afrikaans accent and grinning like a lunatic. And Antoine offering encouragement to everyone around him, before dashing off to rescue horses.
And of course, primarily, Simon and Charlotte - without whom I wouldn't have been there in the first place. Every step of the way, they made sure I didn't do anything too stupid - and got me through.
Above all, however, it had been about the horses. These magnificent, incredible, selfless animals had pushed us over mountains, across lakes and rivers and through bogs and scree slopes. THEY had done ALL of this.
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