Gaucho Derby - Pre Race
Words: Sam Taylor
Charlotte and I arrived in Buenos Aires, and due to our poor Spanish, we managed to considerably increase the negotiated price of our taxi fare to Krystal's flat. One of the Sosian shareholders, Krystal, spends most of her time in Argentina, where her son Jakob, one of the great characters of Kenyan safari riding, now runs Jako Tango - incredible horse riding expeditions in Patagonia. He was one of the pioneers of the Gaucho Derby and had helped the Adventurists source horses and plan the route. He had made a daring mission to rescue riders caught in a blizzard for two days - a scenario perfectly encapsulating Charlotte's worst nightmare and the starving Simon's longing to engage in cannibalism.
Having dumped our bags, we strolled around the corner to the horsey Santa's grotto, the Arandu tack shop. How this information filtered itself to Laikipia, I cannot tell you, but soon my Whatsapp was flooded with hundreds of Laikipia women who had momentarily put down their bridles to send me some incongruously flirty texts encouraging me to pick up one or two bits and pieces. I succumbed to the false flattery. The next hour was a flurry of activity, culminating in me needing a packhorse to ferry back all the gear ordered by these Laikipian leather fetishists. It was a relief to fly down to St Martin to see Jakob, spend a few days with him out of phone signal (and cash), and get on a horse.
We arrived to meet Simon, who had flown out a little earlier, and Anna Boden, an English girl we'd all spent time with in Kenya in previous years, who was also taking part in the race. Anna is an extraordinary character with the face of an angel and the mouth of a sailor. Daisy Soames, who divides her time between Argentina and Kenya, and Jakob were busy hosting a group of Mexican riders who had clearly been hell-bent on emptying the region of Malbec. We mustered a few who could still walk and went for a ride on Jakob's horses. And, my goodness, what horses they were! These things appeared to be the love children of parcourt athletes and sofas - strong and sturdy but as agile and sure-footed as mountain goats as they navigated the magnificent "Pass of Tears".
Climbing sheer and impossibly steep mountains, my vertigo was tested. "Don't Panic!" were the reassuring words behind me from Simon. In the long history of panicking, nothing escalates panic more than being told not to panic. And panic I did. Fortunately, my ruptured knee meant I couldn't throw myself off, and I managed to do my panicking in a stationary and silent way, which seemed to suit the horse who scampered frog-like over some of the most dramatic scenery I have ever seen. I have never been in such awe of an animal (and I've witnessed a honey-badger try and single-handedly fight a Bedford lorry). I was on a 3-year-old, which was extraordinary given the terrain.
I spent the rest of the time trying to catch horses in the corral. This, it turns out, is easier said than done and, much like dancing, a combination of assertive yet calm, coordinated movement. My dancing has been likened to an unpredictable blend of impromptu spasm and narcolepsy, and whilst in my head I felt I was courting my horse with a sensuous Tango, I was in reality, performing a combination of the YMCA and a Butlin's hokey-pokey. Needless to say, the Gaucho's appreciation of my interpretive dance was just as uncontrolled; I have never received such laughter and applause! The horse's response was - like my dance partners - to stay a little beyond arms reach. I finished a little despondent. I was going to have to catch seven individual (and infinitely wilder) horses at various stages of the derby. Given my catching tally was one over the previous 72 hours, I calculated that in the hugely unlikely event of the actual riding going smoothly, the race would take me roughly three months.
We spent an incredible few days with Jakob, getting familiar with the horses' terrain and, most importantly, the weather. In anticipation of this, we had been kitted out by long-term ForRangers supporter and makers of some of the world's most durable and practical outdoor clothing, Swazi. I must really talk about this clothing as it played a key role for us, and I believe had we not been so lucky with the weather on the actual race, it might have seen us carry on where other, less kitted-out riders may have suffered and withdrawn.
For the rain and snow, we had the Torrent jackets that were amazingly lightweight given their durability. These ensured that the only moisture that touched our skin was our own tears, and could this jacket have spoken, no doubt it would have told us to "grow a pair and dry our eyes", such as its toughness. For the wind, we had the Molesworth. For Charlotte, the Dacha - amazingly warm - and, disappointingly for female wearers of these garments would probably mean that a Jakob rescue mission wouldn't be necessary. We had Swazi's new Hoodoo (Simon and myself) and Talisman (Charlotte) merino base layers, which were cool when warm and warm when cool - and amazingly, given their forced relationship with my armpits, didn't even smell. To finish off, we had the aptly named "Ranger" socks made from merino. These were outstanding; they dried quickly and tolerated being crammed into boots that were slipping around bogs. We were by far the best-dressed riders in the race. Not only did we look the part, but as a matching team and in the likelihood of being dismembered by our horses, we would also be identifiable by our parts.
After an amazing time laughing, riding, drinking and eating delicious meat (apart from dieting Simon who nibbled miserably at gorse bushes with the horses), Charlotte, Anna, Simon and I departed for Barriloche, where we would catch the plane to Calafate to start the pre-race briefings and the infamous weigh in.
You could tell Simon was nervous. As we weighed in our luggage, he would pounce, panther-like, onto the check-in scales, bound off to do a series of squats and then jump back on again. He needn't have worried - his alarmingly orange beard was now larger than he was, and he looked like a lit matchstick.
Needless to say, he declined Charlotte's enormous selection of snacks. (I have learned from previous riding trips that this svelte horsewoman has unhealthy eating habits that would break Jamie Oliver's spirit and send him into alcoholism). Anna spent the journey describing some of the more gruesome incidents of the Dorset hunting scene, which were less James Heriot and more Stephen King. I believe I heard of three appendages lost in these tales of English country life, including someone's ear.
We arrived in Calafate and met some of our eclectic group of fellow racers at the hotel. They were from all over the world and all extremely friendly - a human trait that makes me hugely uncomfortable. Given I was under strict instructions from Simon, Anna and Charlotte not to talk in case someone asked me something to do with horses - I remained silent. I liked to think I came across as brooding and mysterious, but more likely just looked like a simpleton who was lost (which, given my circumstances, would have been a fair assessment).
We sat through lectures on navigation and GPS, map reading and first aid, which were all relatively straightforward and happily familiar. Sadly, the lesson on "how to ride" was not forthcoming, so I flicked through my daughter's pony club manual at the back of the classroom and kept a low profile.
Calafate is a touristy town with plentiful restaurants and bars, so I ate more steak while Simon grazed on the hotel lawn and Charlotte devoured crisps and chocolate. For a small girl, Anna has an ability to put away food seen only in large ungulates, happily putting people off their meals with further tales of the Dorset hunt. Enjoyable though this was, we were all anxious to get off to the start of the race.
The following day we were weighed. Simon had made the grade! He immediately celebrated with a steak that looked to have been filleted from a woolly mammoth, which even Anna's latest tale couldn't dissuade him from.
Full of indigestion and early symptoms of scurvy, we did some final fruitless map reading, went to bed and woke to board the bus to the start camp. After an eight-hour journey spotting "Wanakos" (Llama type things) and Rea's (Ostrich type things), we arrived. We were housed in domes, which protected us from the maddening wind, and we spied our first glimpse of the horses. We had a few more briefings, a few rides on some of the horses corralled nearby, and then race day suddenly arrived!
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