Marahua, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island, New Zealand
Ride the horses from Lord of the Rings said the flyer on the wall at the Abel Tasman tourist information center in tiny South Island Marahau, New Zealand. It showed pictures of thickly muscled steeds romantically galloping on a moonlit beach. Two hour rides cost $85 NZ dollars (about $63 US dollars-pretty much the going rate). I wrote down the number and tucked it into my backpack, then sauntered down the summery quiet road for a late day January swim in an azure sea.
It wasn't until we were back at our chalet perched high above the coastal beaches that I dug out the stable phone number. My call got an answering machine so I left a message and enjoyed a nice chardonnay on the chalet's deck in the warm early evening as cicadas began to simmer down a little, letting through the bucolic sounds of people cutting and baling hay in the fields far below.
I called again a day later and talked to Matt who told me he wasn't sure if they were doing any rides out as the sun was shining and they were making hay. I peered over the deck railing and just made out a small figure in a red jumpsuit sitting on top of a baler with a cell phone in his hand. Half the meadow was cut and baled. The crew were using a small wagon hauled by a ridiculous mini (when they might have been using a Lord of the Rings giant war horse) and seemed to be alternating the actual loading of bales with swigs of beer and moments of general hilarity. They would not be available to offer rides until it rained. The forecast looked bright.
We ate our dinners at one of the two cafes down the hill and when we went for our fish and veg at the hippy Park Cafe eaten under a large open window with a view of the sea, I saw another flyer announcing camping and horseback riding so I wrote that phone number down too. When Icalled I got Old MacDonald's Farm and Holiday Camp and the person I spoke with, possibly Old Mac himself, made me a booking for the following evening as Brian, the hostler, liked to go out when the weather was cooler. I quite agreed. It seemed sadly unlikely that Old MacDonald's Farm would offer any equine Lord of the Rings.
The next day spent largely and perfectly hiking and swimming and in water craft, I drove down the hill from our chalet, took a left past the café and a sharp right to the camping farm where they told me to go back out, drive a bit farther and turn left into a field with horses. So I did all that and bumped across the meadow towards the horses Brian and Luke were tethering to a rope barrier. Luke said a brief hello, unhooked one of the horses, athletically swung up and cantered off bareback, a daredevil in shorts, his dreads flying heroically behind him, leaving me, Brian, the two remaining tethered horses at one end of the field and several others who roamed free casually cropping luscious green New Zealand grass.
Brian and I sized each other up in a laconic sort of six gun- free western style. He wore old jeans and an ancient button down shirt and I had on all weather combo riding/hiking boots and an unfortunate pair of what had become pink half chaps. I borrowed a "helmet" from his trailer and helped brush the mare Brian was generously allowing me to ride. Neva a savvy bay, was station (ranch) bred with curiously large round hooves and had that look that you sometimes see in wise mares which is sort of a warning: measure up or you're off. Brian gently combed and saddled her and kindly asked her to accept the bit he had warmed in his hands. She graciously allowed me to ascent to the saddle, adjust my stirrups and take up the reins. I politely thanked her but not as much as Brian did. Brian adored Neva, and with good reason.
It was just the two of us, Brian and me, and we walked the horses towards the beach via the arts colony where Neva took a dump and Brian got off to ceremoniously clean it up. We walked through the parking lot near the beach where two young men sitting on a car bumper well into an evening's inebriation commented derisorily on our namby pamby girly sport and then by the Park Café until finally we were on the huge flat beach. Brian had not stopped talking but Neva seemed to have taken a shine to me so I was happy. I could not tell Brian why America had voted for George Bush (twice) nor could I reassure him that the economic and environmental future of the world wasn't hanging by a thread due to the outrageousness of American corporate greed but once we were really ON the beach he took a tiny talk- break and we both just enjoyed the gorgeous evening and the fine horses and the incoming tide.
Brian enjoyed talking, but like Neva, he seemed to take a shine to me as well and told me his own story which was not atypical for these parts; a wander down the coast, a trailer, stay for 8 or 10 years maybe get restless and leave sometime soon but maybe not. He lived for his sheep and his horses. Brian said the summers were fine in Marahau but the winters were kind of slow. I sort of half listened until I startled at the word "murderer" and then relaxed just a little when Brian clarified that it was sheep (his own) that he murdered and ate and when we got back he would give me a couple of chops which I assumed were those of the lost lambs and not violence directed towards me personally. A gentle but driven soul, Brian relished the shock value of the word "murderer" so much that a small spray of spittle accompanied his pleasure in speaking it aloud.
By this time we were dancing in the sea and had several sweet gallops up wedge shaped sand banks and through the waves and it wasn't until Brian mentioned that he wasn't sure where we were that I came down from my riding- a horse- on- the beach- holiday- high. What did he mean? I could see the Park Café, the trees sheltering the parking lot, the coastal path and the little mountain with our tiny dot chalet a few hundred yards across the flat beach.
Brian looked increasingly anxious as he scoped the beach and told me that he rarely came out this far and was not really, really familiar with this part of the sands especially as they constantly shifted. Somehow in between his rambling dream of someday taking trail ride groups up the old mountain pack roads he said existed beneath the dense foliage of the coastal volcanic mountains (which he could only do he graciously said, if all the riders were as accomplished as I) and his continuing and vocal annoyance at the avoidable but potential disasters awaiting the outside world, I gleaned an undercurrent of what lost could mean on a darkening beach with an incoming tide.
Although it may have seemed sensible to just aim, say, for the Park Café and gallop on in, Neva said otherwise. Her eager gait slowed to a crawl as she very, very carefully placed each pudding bowl hoof on spongy ground, never leaving her weight on any hoof for more than a teeny tiny moment. Brian was somewhere off to my right, concentrating on the same intricate ballet. It did occur to me that I might get off and walk as the mystery of what Neva was doing slowly unraveled and became the one word Brian had not spoken-quicksand.
Having had many an encounter with the demon bog during "walks" in the UK, quicksand is still the stuff of myth for New England me. A quicksand is just that-a water saturated sand that does not create enough tension to support weight. It is exacerbated by any nearby running or subterranean water -for example, gulp, an incoming tide. Vibration makes it unstable. The vibration of a hoof or a foot can destabilize the viscous sand and create the sucking effect that essentially closes around the unfortunate limb like wet concrete. Remember that tubular woven straw trick toy where you tell your friend to stick both fingers in and pull back, trapping their forefingers until they relax and let go and then they wonder why they stay friends with you? Quicksand has the same reaction. Once you pull back (one would say a natural reaction) the tension of the sand causes it to lock and tighten. Struggling makes it worse-and hurries the descent into whatever depth the sand remains unstable. Although not usually very deep, people die in quicksand because they panic or succumb to exposure-or drown.
Neva of course didn't need any of this advice and Brian had, amazingly, gone mute after cautioning me NOT to get off. We did a four legged tiptoe over quivering sand as the tide began its evening rush towards shore. The sun had gone down behind us leaving heavenly red clouds over the mountains, all of which we were able to examine in great detail as we minced along. Brian was, I must say, very cool. His faith in Neva and his own horse was paramount and infectious and he knew to leave them quietly alone to do their work. Neva's great hooves continued their dressage over the dicey sands which took enormous physical effort as she had to remain completely balanced step after step after step. I tried to sit as relaxed and light in the saddle as I could, taking my cue from Brian who sat back dreamily with reins dangling from one hand.
I could feel Neva make contact with her first bit of solid sand one hoof at a time. Her pace instantly altered and she strode out purposefully headed for shore, leaving Brian to navigate the last soft patch until he could trot up to us. There was no altering Neva's plan as she worked out a route to a distant path that eventually led us over a leaping ditch, through a river and on to dry land.
We circled back through the car park, ignoring the now truly drunken louts who I mentally imagined up to their necks in quicksand trying uselessly to raise their cans of lager to their mouths, down the road over the bridge past the café, back through the art colony and into the long field. Brian's spirits had perked up enough to allow him to argue the future of global nuclear threat which took us right through the unsaddling and brushing down and offers of well deserved Polo mints to the champion horses and at last it was time for me to say goodbye to the magnificent Neva.
Brian asked me if I would like to go out again before we left Abel Tasman and I thought yes I would but as it turned out I accepted a counter offer the next day to kayak to Bark Bay and hike back and then we were gone; headed north to Picton and the Marlborough Sound.