Joe and I found ourselves alone when we arrived at the Bloukrans Forestry Station on Sunday evening: the Wonder Girls were still away at their wedding in Knysna, and Robynne, Joe’s girlfriend, had hit the road. After we had set up camp, fed and sprayed the horses for ticks, which were out in force, we scanned the food box to find very slim pickings. A plan was hatched to drive to Plettenberg Bay to check out the crossing of the Keurbooms River which was due the following afternoon, knowing that we would find a restaurant nearby. Dinner was sorted.
Our fabulous back up team arrived back on time on Monday morning ready to roll, well at least Leanne was! She had had the same stomach bug that Joe and I had suffered from, and had missed most of the wedding revelry. Nats however had missed the bug somehow and had partaken boldly in the festivities. She was not to be herself for a few days!
The first day of week seven did not promise to be very inspiring riding, but turned out to be one of the best of the trip. We were riding the keen team of Jack and Paddy, and easily slipped through the toll gate onto the side of the N2. We were concerned that we would have trouble from the authorities on this well maintained, well policed stretch of highway, and also about the suitability and width of the grass strip between the tar and the dense bush alongside the road. We had at least 17.5km to do on the roadside. In our nervousness we set about it with real purpose wanting to get it out of the way as efficiently as possible. The horses settled into a steady extended trot and the distance was dusted without incident in a little over an hour, at an average of 13.5km/hour.
We had reached the turn off to Hog Hollow, our lodgings for the night. Debbie Reineke Fermor from Hog Hollow had offered to lead us on an old logging trail through indigenous forest to the settlement of Keurbooms, and then onto the beach that would take us to the mouth of the Keurbooms River. We decided to take her up on the offer and not push our good luck on the N2 any further. A quick lunch was wolfed down and we set off down one of the most beautiful forest tracks that we have experienced, a great mix of quiet slow dark dank path, faster wider logging trails and open grass hill tops were we could open up the throttle a bit. Debbie and her groom Bheki were only planning to come as far as the road down to Keurbooms but were quickly convinced that a blast along the beach and their first deep water swim with a horse was just what they needed. The ride along the beach was all that it had promised to be with big smiles all around for our little group. With our hearts still racing from our high speed approach, the crooked finger of the Keurbooms River lagoon wheeled into view. It was going to be a bit of a swim but the water was clear, the current not too strong, and entry and exit points looked sandy and sound.
Bheki had decided that his swimming was not up to the challenge and the help of a ski boat fisherman was enlisted to ferry him and our gear across. I led Bheki’s horse into the water and we were soon swimming, with about 40 meters to the far bank. Half way across Bheki’s horse decided that he was heading back and I had to bail off Jack, leaving him to take himself across, and concentrate on getting Bheki’s horse turned around and heading for the correct bank. We all scrambled up the surprisingly steep far bank exhilarated by this great end to a fantastic day on horseback.
Our work was not done for the day though. Debbie had arranged for us to talk to a small group of horse enthusiasts and guests at Hog Hollow. True to the concept of this journey “Into the Unknown” we had planned nothing for this presentation, but thankfully we spoke for almost an hour and answered many knowledgeable questions; as a result this small group probably have the best understanding of what we do and how we achieve it.
Joe and I lined ourselves up for disappointment on Tuesday. We made the mistake of riding Danny and Flyer on a day that could only be worse by contrast to the brilliant riding we had had the day before. And worse it was! Danny and Flyer are the least bold of our five boys, and pairing them is less than ideal as neither is a leader. Added to that the day was hot and took us through Plettenberg Bay main street and down Robberg Beach. Both were very busy, making progress slow. By the time we got off the beach and hit the road out of town past the airport, the afternoon heat was building. The roadside was narrow and stony making the going difficult for the horses. It soon became a stony dirt road and our progress slowed to a frustrating walk. Something had to change or we would not make it to Knysna by the end of the day.
We decided to cut through the Groot Brak Forest Reserve and the commercial forests beyond, taking our chances navigating through the maze of forestry roads and service tracks. We headed off in the wrong direction immediately having been given incorrect information by the rangers at the gate. They were forgiven though, as they kindly waived he permit fee necessary for us to pass through the reserve. We changed to navigating by map and compass, a challenge I really enjoy, and we were soon on a track that I had been able to identify on a map, but taking a slightly longer route. A few hours later having wiggled through this vast forest on tracks and paths, navigating on the hoof, we popped out on the N2 at exactly the spot we had intended. The day was looking up.
The horses sensed our mood change and their energy level lifted for the final few kilometers into town. Knysna is one of the very few towns that we have ridden through that makes a concession for pedestrians. A broad paved path leads from the informal settlement on the edge of town into the center and it is great for horses, too particularly as it is mostly fringed with grass. As we passed through Knysna on the main street we were recognized, and called into a local bar for a cold beer. Our riding day was over and it felt like we had achieved a lot considering how the day had begun. We had stuck to our task in the heat and stones, looked after the horses, puzzled our way through the easier going in the forest, and made it to Knysna when, earlier in the day, it had seemed an impossible goal. An added bonus at the end of a long day was the warm hospitality offered to us by the lovely Penny Foyn at her beautiful Knysna home.
Leaving Knysna on Wednesday we once again had company. This time it was two men: Thys Du Toit, who has been a ride ally and contributor since I trundled up his driveway with my producer Mark Samuels almost a year ago, and Eteinne Terblanche, lifelong friend of Thys’ and hops farmer from Herold, with whom I have had the pleasure of riding before during training for our abortive attempt at emulating Sir Harry Smith’s ride from Cape Town to Grahamstown earlier this year (we restart this ride in May 2012). These are young men with the spirit of adventure securely nestled in their hearts and it was fabulous to have them along for the ride.
Our route took us from the busy morning center of Knysna, around the lagoon and up the N2 for a short clip, before we headed through commercial forests on service roads to the Buffelsbaai road, before crossing the N2 and heading around the back of Wilderness once more through commercial plantations. The going was very good, soft sand on a hard base, perfect for our group of four horses to travel fast. Four is about the perfect number of horses to travel together in my opinion: enough to really get the horses competitive but not so many as to be unwieldy. We had some great long canters, and water was readily available in little streams to keep the horses hydrated. We had a little issue with the fence of a major forestry conglomerate, but as they tend not to employ too many people on the ground nobody saw us slip through, nor do a rather good job of re-tensioning the five strand barbed wire fence; in fact we left it in somewhat better shape than we found it. It’s always good to travel with a couple of farm boys handy with a Leatherman.
We made short work of the last stretch on the road to equine stuntman Elbrus Ourtaev’s home, and base for his trail business, Wilderness Adventures. Elbrus came to South Africa with the Moscow Circus 20 years ago, married a local girl and stayed. Their three children all ride with a confidence that I had previously only seen in Mongolian children, plus they can do all sorts of vaults that would see me instantly confined to a hospital bed, if not a coffin! Elbrus was hurting on the night we stayed with him as he had just returned home from a film set where he had repeatedly been required to fall from his horse. He has been a stunt double in many big productions involving horses, and due to his slight frame spends much of his time dressed up as a damsel in distress.
As good as the previous day had been, so our ride into George was tedious. The Western Cape is big on stones, they are everywhere, big and small, and they are not good for horse’s hooves. The going was slow and hot as we wound slowly through the seven passes into George: a day I could have done without, on a non compliant Flyer. As we got to the outskirts of George however the green verges of suburbia allowed us to open up a bit and the last few kilometers to Halfway Toyota, where we were making an appearance, were great fun.
I had been looking forward to our arrival in George as it felt like a milestone of sorts. I had told our sponsors Halfway Toyota at the outset that we planned to be there on the 20th of December. I had pushed that date out to the 22nd after our horse troubles around Port Elizabeth, and we had made it before Christmas. We could now relax a little on our run in to Cape Town, take it slow, look after the horses and spend more time on the road raising funds for our charities.
There was another reason for me looking forward to George. My family was there! I hadn’t seen my wife and son for seven weeks and we had a few days together over Christmas. It was so wonderful to see them after so long.
Christmas was around the corner and the horses, the crew and our families, were settled into Karen van de Merwe’s house at her livery yard, Canterburg Stables. It felt like a holiday, but Joe and I wanted to knock out a few kilometers before we took a day off on the 25th. Late on Friday afternoon we hopped on Paddy and Cherokee and rode fast along the wide, recently cut green verge of the R102 toward Groot Brak where we would end the day at McNasty’s, a bar housed in the old railway station buildings. While we waited for the Mothership to arrive we chatted to the patrons of the bar some of whom had seen the show. They piled out of the bar to meet the horses and we had a great time being entertained by a very funny bloke from up country telling us a story about his horse riding experiences, which morphed into hysterically funny hunting stories. It is so much fun meeting characters like this across the country from all walks of life.
On Saturday morning we were back at that wonderful institution McNasty’s for the start of our last day of riding before Christmas. Mariska Visagie a Facebook friend was joining us for the day, along with Annemie Erasmus, Eteinne’s wife, and my darling wife, Sarah. We hit the beach and after a great run had to cross the Kleinbrakrivier. The road bridge was nearby, but I suspected that Annemie was up for a swim and it just took a moment for her to say yes. The river was wide but mostly shallow. As the horses waded in I briefed Annemie on what to do if we hit deep water in the channel and the horses started swimming, but crossing the channel the water just lapped over the horses backs before we hauled out on the far bank. The disappointment on Annemie’s face was clear and I almost suggested heading back across to find deeper water for the promised swim.
Our crew was waiting for us at Dias Strand, and our route there took us through Hartenbos. I don’t have the words to explain how busy it was. Cheek by jowl is the closest I can get but there were more tents and caravans and people packed in between the normal understanding of this term. The place was alive with pre-Christmas activity including a chap driving around in a car equipped with a loud speaker announcing a music concert. He hailed us by loud speaker to find out what we were up to and subsequently hauled us off to the local radio station for an interview. Neither English nor my shabby Afrikaans, it seemed, would do for the interview, so Annemie stood in for me famously till, with apologies to his audience for having an English speaker on the airwaves, the DJ introduced me for some pithy detail about our ride.
With that out the way we headed for Dias Strand and the sanctuary of our crew, reeling from the culture shock that is Hartenbos at Christmas time.
Christmas with the family was great. We were just like so many other South African families, eating and drinking a little too much. Our feast was a leg of lamb, courtesy of Thys Du Toit, deboned and marinated by my gifted chef wife, cooked on a perfect fire made by me and tended to by the Joe who is keen on becoming a braai master. Another wonderful day on The Ride, and a day just like so many others across South Africa on Christmas Day.
Follow Barry and Joe at http://www.barryarmitage.com/ where you can donate to the charities they support.