04 February 2015

Alpine Horse Safaris - Part One - Mesopotamia to the Harper/Avoca Retreat

Up the Rangitata from Mesopotamia



We arrived at Christchurch Airport to be greeted and transported to the Waitohi Base in North Canterbury where we met Lawrie and Jenny O'Carroll and Laurie's side kick, the impressive Corinna from Germany. There we were briefed and the next day travelled by van to Mesopotamia on the Rangitata River.

The Horse Trekking Route. South to North

The twelve day trek  had been shortened by two days to ten because Lawrie, the owner and tour guide, had been thrown from a horse on the way south and the horses had only managed to get as far as Mesopotamia, after the helicopter and other drama. Lawrie had broken his collar bone for the fifth time and dislocated his shoulder as well. Nevertheless I was looking forward to the ten days of horse trekking through the foothills of my youth. Would I, after more than fifty-five years, still able to get into the saddle - especially on top of a half Clydesdale "NZ trekking horse"?  The apprehension was very real. Catherine had similar thoughts.

At Mesopotamia on the afternoon of our arrival we became familiar with our horses and had a short ride to get the feel of the saddles - luckily C and I had had a couple of two hour sessions out on the hills of Whatawhata, near Hamilton. Next day we got away early and an hour later were gathered on the banks of the Rangitata for our first crossing.

First Lesson from Laurie

First lesson - follow Lawrie - don't follow the packhorses - this was illustrated by one of the packhorses getting out of depth and swimming frantically upstream against the flow. The rest of this long nine hour arduous day in hot sun was making our way through downs country, up one steep ridge, across the Ashburton River and to Mt Arrowsmith Station on Lake Heron. I collapsed and slept off the day.
Catherine Having Lunch Above Lake Stream

Catherine in Wet Weather Gear
The next morning we travelled down Lake Stream to the Rakaia River, eventually crossing it and traveling on to Manuka Point Station. Fifty-nine years previously I'd done a similar trip - down Lake Stream, but in a rubber dingy which we punctured and then carried across the Rakaia flats to Manuka Point where high country legends, Lawrie Walker and Joff Thomson, treated us to royal hospitality that night. The next morning they repaired our dingy and we continued our trip down to the main road bridge at Rakaia township.

So when I arrived, this time on horseback, it was with great interest and nostalgia - not just because of the foregoing but because I'd had many trips up the Rakaia climbing in the Arrowsmiths and the Rakaia headwaters. Further, we stayed in the old homestead that we'd been in when Laurie and Joff had looked after us. I drank a drachm in their honour.

Day three was another longish day. There had been rain and we approached the Mathias River with some trepidation. The water was up to the stirrups but the large half draft horses showed what they were made of. We continued on to Mount Algidus Station where we had lunch before passing by the homestead made famous by Mona Anderson in "A River Rules My Life" and "The Good Logs of Algidus".

Approaching the next station we were confronted by a new fence and gate with a combination lock that had been just installed. Despite Lawrie's best efforts on the satellite phone we couldn't get the combination. Not to be defeated Lawrie got out the the horse shoeing gear and we led the horses through the dropped fence. We stapled the fence back up and you'd never known we'd been there. As I helped Lawrie with this very efficient operation I wondered if we might have some stock-rustling genes in our blood.
"The Fence" -  Algidus and Wilberforce River Ahead

Our next challenge was the Wilberforce River which was deeper than usual and was not being diverted into Lake Coleridge. The NWester was coming down the valley. Once again Lawrie and the big horses won the day. We continued on past Glenthorne Station.  Finally, in good weather we made our way along the flats of the Harper and Avoca Rivers to the "Retreat" near their confluence. Once again it was nostalgia time. I'd spent a summer (1955) working from this base and my brother John and his mates, Graeme, Martin and Jim were there to meet us. The next day, our (the horse's, really) rest day, was to see us heading up the Avoca to the remains of Triangle hut - demolished in the local 1994 earthquake and where I'd been based while two friends and I had constructed a sheep retention fence. That evening John and his mates came over and entertained us - in various ways!