Idiosyncrasies of the Equine

Leo was supposed to be the docile one.  He was supposed to be the one for beginners, the one that doesn’t step out of turn or cause any commotion.  Leo was supposed to be the horse that takes the novice rider on a gentle ride and returns him unscathed, but Leo was having one of his days.

When I arrived at South Westland Horse Tracks, our guide Amber informed me that this would be a two hour intermediate ride and asked if I had ever ridden a horse before.  Not wanting to be left behind, I answered, “Yea… Not a lot… But… Definitely.”

What I failed to mention was that my lone ride on a horse took place at the Kensington Stables, a deceptively lofty name for this derelict operation on the fringe of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY.  The burnt-out-urban-horse never quite made it to a trot as we crossed the rushing traffic of Park Circle into the meticulously landscaped park, flooded with people on a sunny Saturday afternoon in August.  It was one of those necessary experiences one undertakes when they haven’t left the confines of the city in months and find themselves a few blocks away from the normal route pretending as if they are running wild in the green countryside.

notice me in the background acting like a true cowboy

Finding myself in an area where it is often easier to run into another cow than another human, I thought I’d let my inner cowboy loose for another try.  Two other twenty-somethings, a moderately experienced rider from Lithuania and a horse fanatic from Sweden who shared my surname and was sure we were related, joined me for the ride.  Ms. Johanson’s sudden outburst of Swedish was met with my blank stare which disappointed her a little, but her biggest disappointment would come when she realized how inexperienced I was and how eager my trusty horse Leo was to obstruct her path.

Leo, the eldest of the team, was reserved for the least experienced member of each outing.  His personal guest comments book at the Stables was chocked full of children’s doodles and disjointed eight-year-old handwriting.  He was the easy horse, the one little kids could be trusted on.  Amber, our guide, rode Burris who was the trickiest of horses, while the girls rode the younger, faster steeds Mirth and Patchy.

We set out together into the dry riverbed in a light rain away from the foothills and into the vast planes leading out towards the Tasman Sea.  Already, Leo’s feisty temperament was beginning to show.  Leo didn’t want to lead, but he didn’t want to be in the back either.  He had a particular place in the middle that suited him just fine and God forbid Mirth or Patchy try to disrupt the order.  Walking through the flat fields and winding riverbeds was fine, but soon we kicked it into second-gear.

Trotting, for the inexperienced rider, is a pain in the ass.  Unsure of the procedure, I popped up and down erratically until my stomach curled and my man-parts ached.  I knew that there was some sort of rhythm I was meant to achieve, but Leo and I were on different pages.  Sheepishly, I asked the girls for advice.  The subsequent trotting took a gradual turn for the “semi-painful” and an eventual turn for the “too numb to care.”

Galloping was out of the question for me, but that was just about the only thing on Leo’s mind other than chewing grass and pooping.  When Mirth and Patchy got a chance to gallop through an open field, Leo went ballistic, sending me fumbling to catch my camera while maintaining a firm grip on the reins.  Later, we passed through a field of cows uneventfully, but the pigs in the distance were another story altogether.  Leo stood rigid upon hearing the squealing swines, and no amount of coaxing could put him back in motion.  We walked the horses past the pigs and began the painful process of trotting again on our way back to the stable.

Dismounting my dear Leo, I just about buckled to the ground.  A few karate kicks later, my legs regained their strength and I felt as though I had conquered mighty Leo and all the trickery he had put me through.  When I woke up the next morning, I realized just how wrong I was.  My back ached and my thighs burned.  I couldn’t wear my wallet in the back pocket of my pants because it hurt too much.

I moped around the office wining when my boss Hielke asked, “How long did you ride?  No one rides for two hours, you’re just asking to be hurt.”  As I came to realize, Hielke is an accomplished dressage competitor in New Zealand with her name featured prominently in many equestrian magazines.  I was curious what it meant to be in the sport of dressage…

“Do you jump fences?”

“No”

“Do you race, like a jockey?”

“No”

“Is it like chasing foxes or playing polo?”

“No”

“So what do you do with the horses?”

Dressage is something like competitive horse training and it is a legitimate Olympic sport.  I browsed through the horse magazines with her for a good while and we chatted about the idiosyncrasies of the equine.  I learned a wealth of knowledge that I wish I had known twenty-four hours earlier.  Before Hielke left for the night, she turned back with a smirk, “so, you want to go for a ride tomorrow?”

Leo

The Glimmer of the Glowworm

Five minutes earlier, I had gracelessly hitched myself over a fence post reading, “no safe access.  Beyond this point the track has been damaged by flooding.”  Unbothered by the recent downpours myself, I thought nothing of it and there I was, in the rainforest with my pocket-sized flashlight peering over the edge of a muddy cliff at eleven o’clock at night.

I was still a little flustered from my close encounter with the possum.  I had walked with my flashlight pointed down glancing up at the impeccably starry night.  When I raised my flashlight and lowered my head, I found myself two feet away from his beady eyes.  He was much larger than I’d imagined and my mind wandered back to a conversation I had with a local earlier that day about the booming market for possum fur.  The thought passed, our stare down ended, and I backed up as he scurried up the mossy tree.

In the daylight, these woods are a stunning, sloppy mess of fern and vine.

The lower hills lay draped in a shag carpet of moss and lichen divided by a series of rocky streams.  Threads of red vine are the only thing to interrupt the innumerable shades of green.  Yet, there I was in the darkness of the night at the edge of the rainforest staring down at the rushing glacial water of the Waiho River three hundred feet below.  The suspension bridge leading out of town lay dimly lit in the distance and the dense, humid air curled in the glow of the flashlight

It was a boring evening and I was not having the best of days, so an hour earlier I had grabbed my flashlight and started walking.   I made my way through town towards the entrance to the Terrace Walk, just past Our Lady of the Alps Catholic Church.  My goal for the evening’s hike was to the see the glowworms, but walking through the rainforest alone at night felt like being tossed onto the set of The Dark Crystal.

Many who have walked this trail have come back disappointed.  I can only assume they were searching for something resembling the 1980’s bestselling glow-in-the-dark Playskool toy.  Or, maybe they never made it to the ravine at the end, settling for the less brilliant displays dotting the sides of the trail under upturned trunks and partially obscured hollows.  To make it to the end, one must walk along the muddy ledge that looks as if it may once have been twice as large, loosing half of its width to the riverbed below.

Arriving in the ravine, the few green dots glowing in the woods felt a bit underwhelming.  However, with a little patience, the woods began to sparkle like a thousand Lite Brites, the 1980’s toy that more aptly conveys the look of this phenomenon.  The more my eyes adjusted to the dark, the more glowing specks appeared, rising up the ravine and blending into the twinkling stars above.

The ravine sparkled as I put the flashlight in my pocket and stood alone in the glowing darkness of the rainforest for over an hour.  After fifteen minutes of silence, I put my ear buds in, set my iPod to some electro tracks and danced in the darkness of my own private dance floor.  I felt like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia conducting the hyper real creatures as the sorcerer of this magical wonderland.  I have a vivid imagination, but this dichotomy of dancing in the rainforest at midnight to the beat of electronic music just about sums me up.

The glowworms brought me back to those special nights in the Caribbean when the moon was new and the sky dark.  Those nights when the conditions were just right and the glowing phytoplankton came out to dance with my every splash, twist and turn through the translucent water.

In the sea, my movements, and those of the marine life all around me controlled the luminosity.  On land, the gleam of the glowworm radiates throughout the night.  Both the glowworms and the plankton are bioluminescent organisms, but while most of the glowworms throughout the world are members of the beetle family, in New Zealand, they are actually gnats that spend most of their life in their larval stage.

What is it about the ability to glow in the dark that so fascinates us?  I’ve come to understand the power of thousands of small bits of creation joining together to dazzle us with the humdrum of their daily existence.  I’m struck by their ability to bring light into the darkness.  When I was five years old, I raced to catch a midsummer firefly between my tiny fingers as it meandered through the cul-de-sac at twilight.  I’ve been captivated by the glimmering glow of the bioluminescent ever since.

Mueller

I live in an abandoned motel about a kilometer out of town called Mueller.  Sounds pretty bad right?  It’s not, and here’s why:

That’s the view from my balcony.

I have always had a special spot in my heart for places in transition, old structures finding a new purpose: warehouses turned into artist lofts, jailhouses into hostels, motels into apartments for international backpackers. The sitting area of Mueller is now a make shift game room with Air Hockey, a Pool Table, and Darts.  The foyer has become a sort of Internet zone where all the Malaysians meet every night to sit on their laptops together, and the resting spot on the main staircase was chosen as the perfect spot for an exercise bike and an elliptical, our own little gym.  The laundry room and kitchen serve their former purposes and the little bar and bottle shop attached to Mueller runs from 3:00 pm until about midnight.  Mueller is my all-purpose home.

There is some sort of hierarchy here at Mueller that I don’t quite understand.  I’m pretty sure that I am closer to the top than the bottom because some of my coworkers live across the street at a place lovingly called, “The Lodge” in little closets with shared bathrooms and no view.  As far as I can tell, of the ninety-odd employees, I am the only American working for the hotel.  There are lots of Asians, Southeast Asians, Kiwis, Europeans, South Americans, a few South Africans, and a hockey-loving Canadian, but no other Americans which is just fine with me… I’ve seen enough of them in my day.

The hotel where I work caters mostly to Tour Groups since very few people stay in Franz Josef for more than one night.  Each day, a new group arrives, the cattle are herded out of their holding space, and then rounded up the next morning in a neat line to continue on their way.  Every now and then, an American group comes through.  I don’t know where they think I am from, or if they think I am softening my accent for them, but I love it when they tell me how things are in America.  The other day, one good-old-boy who I sent on a short hike to see the glowworms came back and asked me if I had sent him on a “snipe hunt,” to which I replied, “I’m sorry sir I’m not quite sure what that is.”  He brought his friend over, saying, “Go on Fred. Tell him what a snipe hunt is.”  Fred continued, “Well, in America… Oh Hell, it’s just a phrase we have back in America.”

I smile and shrug and wonder what else I will learn about America.

Franz Josef Glacier was named in honor of the Emperor of Austria by German explorer Julius von Haast in the early 1860’s.  However, the Māori had explored the area many years earlier in search of greenstone.  In Māori legend, a girl named Hinehukatere loved climbing the mountains of the South Island and often encouraged her lover Tawe to join her.  Sadly, he was a less experienced mountaineer and, one fateful day, got caught up in an avalanche that swept him to his death.  Hinehukatere was inconsolable and the tears of her grief became a stream, the stream a river, and as the tears flowed down the mountainside, they froze in time.  Thus, the glacier is known as Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere (the Tears of Hinehukatere).

1864 marked the beginning of the gold rush in the region, bringing more prospectors to the area.  Yet, it was not until the 1920’s that the Graham family provided the first tourist and mountaineering services.  Now, a vast area spanning from the peaks of the Southern Alps to the Tasman Sea is part of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, a World Heritage Site.  Today, the town itself is mostly a service village for the glacier and the adventure tourism associated with it.

Franz Josef Township is the sort of town where doctors come through once a week and the nearest hospital is two and a half hours away.  If you want to stop by the Community Library, it better be between 3:00 and 4:00 pm Monday through Friday and only if there happens to be a teacher around.  Need to go to the Post Office?  Those services are run through a place called Glacier Motors.  Let’s say you are looking for a public toilet.  For just twenty cents, you can use the johns across the street from Full of Beans Café… and the toilets “sing to you.”  Franz Josef Township is also the sort of place that faces various environmental risks such as earthquakes and flooding and where residents are encouraged to view a site called getthru.govt.nz in case the township should need to be self-sufficient for some time.  There has already been a major fire since my arrival and snowflakes of ash graced the town.

Next time, MarkontheMap will delve into the Natural Beauty of Franz Josef and the various bumps and rashes that he may or may not have received from straying off the path… but for now, here is a preview:

Also, check out some of my articles elsewhere on the web at BootsnAll Travel and Travelmag.co.uk