Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 10: Mountaintop Horse Trek at Blue Duck Lodge

Many of my childhood vacation memories are set in one of two places: at the homes of family members and on the rides of theme parks in Southern California, or somewhere around the 3,000-acre grounds of Sun Mountain Lodge above Washington's Methow Valley.

I think of Sun Mountain Lodge like I reflect on a dream. My last visit was more than 10 years ago, so rather than crystal-clear memories, my brain has held onto wisps of details: the anticipation of stopping for a two-scoop ice-cream cone in Winthrop; the delight of spying on a stunning outdoor wedding from the window of our guest room; and, most of all, the joy of riding horses along rocky mountaintop trails with my mom. (My dad and brother were tough guys, so they rode mountain bikes instead.)

When the Stray bus wound its way along a single-lane gravel road to Blue Duck Lodge on the North Island of New Zealand, the property's remote beauty reminded me of Sun Mountain. I knew I had to explore it on horseback.

The lodge is situated on Retaruke Station, which boasts more than 5,000 acres of tracked land. My group only had time for a three-hour trek, but apparently one can ride for at least a week without using the same trail twice!

Four other girls and I met up with Chad, the lodge’s resident horse whisperer, and saddled up after a brief overview of how to mount and ride a horse. I needed the review after 10+ years!

With two incredibly well-trained dogs at our sides, we slowly headed out of the corral and onto a winding path.

It took me a few minutes to relax on the horse and remember that it knew what it was doing. I just needed to sit there and not fall off!

Chad asked us what we’d like to see, and we simply requested scenic views of the area. Luckily, there is no shortage of beautiful scenery at Blue Duck.

I absolutely loved the serenity of touring the grounds on horseback. Chad did a fantastic job of telling us about interesting plants and bugs (he found a stick insect at one point!), and the dogs occasionally cleared herds of cattle from the trail for us.

Our trail became really steep for a while as we headed to the top of a ridge, and Chad instructed us to lean forward and hold onto the horse’s mane for dear life. Occasionally my horse would stumble over a rock and do a little jump to recover, and, holy crap, you can bet I gripped that mane like no other. Chad said this doesn’t hurt the horse at all, but it still felt weird!

As the steep trail leveled out, incredible views unfolded before us.

We tied our horses to a fence and scrambled up an even steeper incline to get a better look. Blue Duck apparently plans to build another lodge near here that will take full advantage of this view, which is just about the best idea I’ve ever heard — it’s insanely beautiful.

(I’m writing this poolside in an Australian resort town called Surfers Paradise, and still, I’m wistful for those New Zealand vistas.)

Chad pointed out the dark, hazy clouds in the not-so-far distance and informed us that we’d soon be the lucky victims of a massive downpour. Sweet! After a few minutes of taking in the view, we hopped back on our horses and headed a different way down the ridge.

Now begins the surreal portion of this adventure. Imagine riding a horse down a steep, narrow path as you watch torrents of fat raindrops creep closer and closer. When the storm finally hits you, the sun peeks out and lights up the lush valley below. You’re soaked to the bone in less than a minute, but you don’t care — you just laugh and look around and wonder how exactly it was that you ended up riding a horse down a mountain during a sunshower in New Zealand.

The rain let up after about 10 minutes, and we enjoyed the rest of the ride in sunny peace. We even saw a rainbow! Simply magical.

Near the end of our three-hour trek, we passed the main building of the lodge…

…and the dorms where my fellow backpackers and I stayed, and the horses easily put a smile on every onlooker’s face as we clip-clopped along.

Of all the awesome things I’ve done in New Zealand and Australia so far, this horse trek has been my favorite — no question. In fact, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!

I nearly balked at the $150 cost, but I’m so glad I chose to go for it. You just can’t put a price on the kind of unforgettable moments I experienced.

My only regret? I wish I had more than one afternoon and evening to experience Blue Duck Lodge. The owner is always looking for backpackers to stay and work for a minimum of one month in exchange for free lodging, and I would’ve done it in a heartbeat if I had a working holiday visa and the time to spare. Two people from my bus actually did stay!

I would just love to unplug for a month (no Internet or cell reception) and learn my way around the ranch, work with the horses, hunt wild goats and make goat curry for dinner, zoom around on a four-wheeler, discover new running paths every day and more.

Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll do just that.


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  1. How come you decided not to stay and work and hang out? Is it that you're excited for all the next parts of your trip?

    1. Part of it was that I have LOTS more to see, and I also didn't have the type of visa that legally allows me to work in NZ (even if I was just working in exchange for accommodation).

  2. Great post... I love riding - what a great way to seem some amazing sights!

    1. It was such a treat, and so much more fun than just walking!

  3. Thank you! Those dogs were AWESOME. I wanted to steal one. : )

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