Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Epic Journey to the South Island

Monday-Tuesday 3/19-20/2007


Change of plans... instead of travelling around New Zealand for a week with Steph before she took off, suddenly she would head back to Auckland then jet off to Paris, while I'd stay on in New Zealand for a month. I found out from Paul Jeffrey (who's working with Steph and endurance.net, and is a New Zealand endurance rider/breeder) Saturday evening that he'd arranged for me to leave early in the morning to catch a ride with some endurance people to and around the South Island until the Nationals on the North Island in 3 weeks.

This involved some slight panic in packing, sorting computers and programs and procedures out, keeping the Spaniards awake (again!) long into the night, before waking off little sleep again to catch a taxi to the Horse of the Year show. I'd be hitching a ride south with David Marshall and Sandy and their son Trent, getting handed off to endurance rider Linda Pullar, who'd take me down to Timaru to her farm for a few days before handing me off to other riders. Okay - sure!

After spending Sunday wandering around absorbing the horse show again, I helped David and Sandy load up their float (trailer) and 2 horses, and we hit the road at 4:30 PM. When the North and South Islanders compete on the other's islands, it involves lots of slow driving on 2-lane winding roads on both islands and a 3 1/2 hour ferry ride between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island. I rode for a while in the truck cab with Sandy and huge grey-blue-eyed Trent who stared and stared at me ("who are you and why are you in my truck?") and grinned his cherubic grin ("I don't know why you're here but you're alright"). For the first couple of hours the wind was blowing a gale and with that and a few hills to climb, Sandy could drive no faster than 40 mph much of the way. After a stop for petrol I switched to riding in the float with the horses - I snoozed on the bed facing the two beasts.

When the float stopped I woke up completely disoriented; when I stepped out in the dark we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, unloading the horses and talking to someone. Turns out it was a sheep farm near Levin, (was a lovely place when I saw it in the morning) where Linda Pullar was staying the night with her cousins and resting her horse overnight. David and Sandy would snooze briefly then continue driving to Wellington where they'd board the ferry they were booked on at 2 AM. Linda was booked on the ferry the next day at 1 PM. I crawled into a bed in the house and passed out, and woke up the next morning, surprising the cousins Marie and Peter and their visiting family Max and Judy, who graciously welcomed me there. Linda and I loaded up her horse Razzy (they finished 7th in the HOY Endurance ride) and left at 9:00 AM, driving down to and near the Kapiti Coast and the green Tasman Sea, and arrived in Wellington at 10:30. We drove into downtown Wellington, where the ferry was right there on the water - oh my, the Raven and I were in Wellington New Zealand!

Linda's was the first float to line up for the ferry, and we had time to go grab a cappuchino at the train station and people-watch. By the time we returned to the ferry, many other horse floats had pulled up, all from the Horse of the Year show, headed back home to the South Island. One hunter-seat lady had her big gray warmblood out stretching his legs on the ferry dock. He dropped a load right by our float, and one of the ferrymen asked us if we'd pick it up. Sure mate!

We started loading onto the ferry at 1 PM, and it was a bit of chaos. We led the way in, driving in forward, making a half-loop on the parking deck and having to back up against the back wall to face out. Linda would have backed up, but she was a bit worried about backing too far into the wall, so she asked one of the ferrymen to back it up for her, assuming he'd be able to just back it right up. Well, backing a horse trailer was not his specialty. He went back and forward (first time he put the SUV in neutral, which I brought to his attention), back and forward, hitting the brakes hard, getting yelled at by his foreman (3 of them were yelling at each other), and meanwhile 2 other trailers are backing up into the slots on either side of us, and one lady was also getting yelled at. Our poor driver just didn't have a knack for backing at all, and he mumbled "Not really having a good day today, coming to the end of our 48 hour shift..." as he hit the brakes and got yelled at to move forward and try it again. Linda was looking a bit terrified for her horse, and I was a bit petrified also in the passenger seat, but was afraid to tell the guy I'd back it up for him, but then, maybe he was pleading for someone to offer just that! After 5 minutes of pandemonium, the foreman finally yelled "STOP!" and the driver practically leaped out of the car. Poor Razzy! She took it well, but then, what could she do, stuck in a horse trailer.

We offered Razzy a drink, then left the parking garage (where other horse floats, and travel trailers, and a double-bed 18-wheeler were rolling in and backing up) for the upper decks, where we went to the back of the ferry, facing Wellington. It was a beautiful pleasant sunny day - hopefully it would not be too windy, because I just found out it was a 3 1/2 hour ferry ride, and the crossing could be so rough at times the ferry was cancelled. And here I am, prone to getting seasick at the slightest rocking of the boat (very annoying!), with my seasick pills buried in my suitcase which was buried in the bottom of Linda's boot, on the car deck where people weren't allowed during sailing. I snuck a seasick bag into my pocket, and made sure I knew where the toilets were just in case I was going to embarrass myself later.

I didn't! We had a wonderfully calm passage, about an hour getting leaving the North Island - getting out of the bay at Wellington and around Cape Terawhiti, about an hour crossing Cook Strait (one fellow passenger said "This can be one of the worst crossings anywhere, when the wind travels up the Strait just right"), and about an hour along the South Island, cruising some channels into Queen Charlotte Sound (Totaranui), where the passage narrowed at places to where you could almost touch the islands on both sides. I went to the front of the boat through some of these and got wind-blasted (it wasn't freezing like ferries usually are, but I was glad I had a good jacket on). It was beautiful, the islands rising out of the water looming over us. We chatted with some passengers, one couple laughing at my pictures of the Raven. They had their own Ragdoll (in the car downstairs for this passage) who travels around getting its picture taken. I saw a good bit of logging - plenty of clear cuts on the steep hills, some forest replantings, many 2nd growth forests. Some of the islands had little cabins on the shore, accessible only by boat. I guess if you were marooned here for a while, it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

We pulled into the little ferry town of Picton on at 4:30, and were on the South Island (!!) and the road by 5. Razzy was very relaxed, (Linda offered her water again before we drove off the ferry) so Linda decided to drive down the road a ways before stopping to let her off to stretch her legs. The road wound around the forested (many logged) hills, and eventually we came to a flat agricultural valley - corn and fruit orchards - before moving into grassland hills - lots of sheep and cattle. The road after reaching the grassy hills became winding again, and it swirled back and forth, around this way and back around that way, on and on. We had stopped in Ward and let Razzy out for a few minutes in a big grassy park, walked her around for a while and gave her water, then loaded back up. The road then took us to the coast, and the road got more winding, like highway 101, the US west coast highway. Beautiful with the waves breaking on the rocks and reefs and shore right below us in the evening sky, but so winding - it must have been so tiring for Razzy (and David and Sandy, who also lived down this way). And narrow - always a 2-lane road, only a few places now and then where a passing lane was available. We were headed for Christchurch, where one of Linda's daughter lives, where Razzy could be turned out overnight for a rest again and we could have a good sleep. It got dark, and eventually the road left the coast - and here was where it got REALLY winding! 15 mph curves, around one way then the other. On and on the road went, and then on and on some more. Linda was well awake (and used to the drive), but I had to close my eyes now and then. Linda said we'd stop for coffee... but now it was 9 PM and all these sleepy little towns were asleep. There wasn't a great amount of traffic on the road, but a fair amount of 18-wheelers. We finally did come to a place where we filled up on petrol, and she got coffee and I got sandwich and the mango-mix pure juice that I've quickly become addicted to. (No ice available anywhere!)

And the road went on and on... and at last the lights of Christchurch appeared in the sky. We drove around the outskirts and near 11 PM pulled into her daughter's farm, where we unloaded Razzy, threw a second heavy canvas blanket on her (we wouldn't blanket our horses at all), and turned her out into a paddock where, I'm sure, after 13 hours on the float with a short break, she passed out, like we did, sneaking into the quiet house, and going right to sleep. I think I took my shoes off before I passed out on top of my bed.

Tuesday morning Linda woke me at 7 (I might've slept till 7 the next morning if she hadn't), and I wandered to the living room where Esther and Arthur and baby Thomas were having coffee and breakfast. We loaded up Razzy (took her blankets off, because even though it was cool right now, it would get warmer, and put on her 4 shipping boots), and left at 8:30 AM. From here, Christchurch down to Timaru, highway 1, was straight, and often 4 lanes, and no wind, (though this area was known for wind), so we were able to cruise right along. On the North Island, the area around Hastings is known as "The Fruit Bowl of New Zealand" - rich in agriculture: apples (bursting off the trees right now, reading for picking), oranges, peaches, grapes (many wineries), veggies. This area of the South Island is flat plains well watered by the big river drainages - the Rakaia River, the Rangitata River - coming from mountain ranges fingering off the Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri O Te Moana). It's rich in dairy cattle, hay, corn, and horse farms. We passed farms of Standardbreds, draft horses, Thoroughbreds, also some alpacas. We passed numerous fairgrounds and racetracks on our journey - flat Thoroughbred racing and Standardbred harness racing appears to be quite popular in New Zealand.

We stopped for petrol again, cappuchinos and yummy pastries, and arrived in Timaru on the sea (South Pacific Ocean) about 2 1/2 hours later around 11 AM. So, in total, that was approximately 19 hours of travel for Razzy in the horse box. (David and Sandy live near Christchurch, so maybe 2 hours less travel time). I guess that's not so different from hauling from southern California to Idaho for a ride, stopping once or twice along the way, but I'd call it quite the grueling trip. The Kiwis' North and South Island Championships alternate between islands every year, as do the Nationals. Horse of the Year is always in Hastings on the North Island, so this long trip is made 1 to 3 times a year. Not so bad, I guess. The South Islanders will be turning right around in 2 weeks and heading back to the North Island for the Nationals, which will be not quite as far as Hastings.

As we drove up the drive to Linda's house, her 3 endurance horses (who'd stayed here on the South Island and done a local ride the same weekend) kicked up their heels and ran alongside, waiting for Razzy to unload and join them. We turned her loose, and they galloped up and down the lane a while. Then we threw a bale of hay out in the upper pasture and let the horses out there, and they all took to tearing around, tails over their backs, sprinting back and forth, skidding to stops, leaping in the air, and taking off together again. I'd say they were happy to be reunited to tell their ride stories!

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