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There’s a wealth of dramatic scenery in New Zealand’s backcountry and there’s no better way to see it than from the best seat in the world — the back of a horse, writes Kristin Edge.
I’m nervous about meeting my equine match.
Together, over five days, we will traverse glacier-fed, heavily braided river channels of the Dart and Rees rivers, ride through beech forests and swim in crystal-blue lake waters.
And, this mystery horse will also take me to Paradise.
It’s like a blind date. You have your fingers crossed and hope the match is at least semi-decent. Luckily, first impressions are great.
Strong, muscular, handsome, with kind, dark eyes, he looks fit, like he could go the distance — the estimated 150km on this five day/four night back country adventure.
Plus his name is Beer. How could I not have a good time?
Beer is an 11-year-old grey gelding and is a Percheron cross, a breed of draft horse that originated in the Huisne River valley in western France. It seems the breed has found a niche here in the deep south of New Zealand, traversing the mountainous valleys of the Glenorchy region.
I mount up and sink into the leather saddle which will become very familiar over the course of our High Country Horses trek. My fellow trekkers are from Australia, Ireland and Germany, of varying equestrian experience, and we’re accompanied by three likeable guides, Bijmin Swart from South Africa, Shaun Hatton from Australia and Katie Knarston, a Lincoln University student.
Owner of High Country Horses Deana Insley waves us off as we ride out of the yard and begin our epic Kiwi experience.
It doesn’t take long before Beer is striding out as the group makes its way towards the head of Lake Wakatipu. After a brief ride through the streets of the small town Glenorchy we ride north through swathes of flowering pink and purple lupin flowers on the riverbank towards the 8000ha Rees Valley Station owned by Iris Scott, a local farming identity.
Merino sheep graze the holding pens outside the grey corrugated iron shearing shed. We wend our way up the gravel farm track to a line of poplar trees which we use as a hitching rail and untack before releasing our steeds. Accommodation is the shearers’ bunkhouse and a feast is created by our guides in a small cookhouse nearby.
Rain clears overnight and, with a cooked breakfast in our bellies, we ride north through a valley dwarfed by Mt Earnslaw. Our destination is Arthur’s Creek Hut and when we reach camp, the vista is breath-taking.
Peeking out over the top of the rusty corrugated iron roof of the musterers’ hut, with paint peeling on the aged weatherboards, is a multimillion-dollar view. The jagged peaks of the mountain range stretch upwards and appear to touch the cloudless powder-blue skies. The afternoon sun reflects off the gleaming glaciers named Grant, Jura and Birley, and a herd of black Angus cattle graze the riverbank paddocks.
Here at Arthur’s Creek Hut, in the heart of snow-capped mountains, the place feels primeval and unspoiled. It’s quintessential back-country New Zealand.
And it’s here, inside the musterers’ hut, that sits a framed photo of Duayne “Dweeb” Insley.
Together Duayne and Deana made their five-day high country dream ride a reality, working with local station owners to gain exclusive rights to ride tracks on the stations, covering 73,000ha.
Deana, with a lifetime’s experience of horses, bought High Country Horses in 2004 and initially started with a Skyline garage and nine animals.
But in 2006 Duayne became a part of the equation and together they built not only a great friendship but also a trekking business with up to 100 horses.
Duayne, an accomplished stockman and can-do guy, worked tirelessly to clear tracks used by the pioneer stockmen back in the 1800s and in 2016 they started the five-day treks with travel agency Globetrotting.
Tragedy struck on October 15 last year when Duayne, a world-champion jet boater, was hit by a log while navigating a boat during a World Championship Jetboat Marathon race on the Waimakariri River, north of Christchurch. He died instantly.
“He loved those treks, getting out there with people from different backgrounds but who had a link through horses,” Deana recalls lovingly. “His legacy is this five day ride . . . it was his dream.
“We have something here that is nowhere else in the world. It can touch so many people in so many different ways.”
I feel privileged to find out that my mount, Beer, was his hunt horse.
Arthur’s Creek Hut is a magical spot.
We are “glamping”. The tents are pitched on raised platforms and the floors are carpeted.
There is some culinary magic happening in the small tin shed onsite, with restaurant-quality meals created by our guides.
The third day we experience a wet ride but the low hanging clouds cloaking the mountains only make this landscape more beautiful. It’s easy to see the silver ribbon of Lennox Falls, thundering through a slot in the glistening rock face. As the clouds lift and the sun warms the land, smaller waterfalls cascade down the mountain.
This is a spectacular wilderness environment and transports us back to the pioneering days when horses were all the stockmen used to muster herds of sheep or cattle.
On day four, our sure-footed mounts transport us to Paradise, also famous as Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It’s not hard to see why Hollywood has already discovered Paradise and the remote area has become one of the leading film locations in New Zealand. Lord of the Rings, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Chronicles of Narnia were all filmed here, as was Walking with Dinosaurs.
Before we reach our luxury accommodation at the Paradise Homestead, we ride the shores of Diamond Lake. With saddles removed and riders stripped down to our swimming gear, it’s time for all of us to take the plunge into the blue water.
Just like people, some horses are better swimmers than others. I give Beer his head and as the sandy lake bottom slips away he powers through the water. For some of our group, swimming horses is a first and by the smiles on their faces it will be a moment they will recall with pride as they recount their New Zealand holiday.
A 10-minute ride along a farm track and we have arrived at Paradise, a remote farming valley, 20km inland from Glenorchy and on the edge of Mt Aspiring National Park — this has been a popular destination for visitors since New Zealand’s early days. It’s a million miles away from the city and it’s easy to see why it’s been described by many as heaven on Earth.
A rambling vege garden is home to very productive and tasty raspberry bushes, two pigs lie on their sides enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and a very friendly lamb bleats, looking for its next feed.
I take a quick stroll past a fading red barn, which houses old machinery and a glimpse into the past, along a track to paddocks where a gentle wind swirls through the long grass. Stands of manuka dot the landscape. Beech forests cover halfway up Mt Earnslaw, which then becomes barren and stretches up to the peaks, which in winter are covered by snow.
Paradise, some say, is named after the multi-coloured paradise ducks that pair up and seek refuge in the golden tussock, but also simply because of its beauty.
Moody skies greet us for our last day as we scale Mt Alfred, for the highest elevation ride in the Queenstown Basin on our way home. Short canters up the mountain make the horses blow heavily. Our lunch spot near the summit offers amazing views of the landscape we have traversed over our five-day journey.
Mt Alfred is part of the Ice Age’s glacial remains, and it’s steep. On our descent we dismount and lead our horses before riding through the river beds and back to the High Country Horses yard.
We met as strangers but as it turns out I couldn’t have been matched with a better horse than Beer. During the adventure I commented to a fellow rider: “If Beer was a bloke I’d marry him. He’s a bit rough round the edges, but brave, trustworthy and has a big heart.”
I’m a bit teary saying goodbye to my mate who has carried me 150km in the back country and was a major part of creating amazing memories I will have for a lifetime.
The trip exceeded my expectations and riding through breath-taking scenery at every turn made me proud to be a Kiwi.
Some experiences touch and leave a mark on one’s soul — this was definitely one of those.