As Newsworthy presenter Samantha Hayes prepares to run 21km through Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve (a potentially life-threatening exercise given there are carnivores hunting migrating wildebeest), she shares what happened last time she ventured overseas.
Riding through the yellowed tussock of the Patagonian Steppe was a high point of my trip through South America last summer. I was so happy to be there, nothing could wipe the grin off my face.
Well, nothing but a brush with death about an hour later.
It was my last day in Bariloche - an Argentinian town that’s kind of like a worse version of Queenstown - and I wanted to go horse riding. Not one of those treks where the horses look depressed and you’re stuck walking single file. I wanted to do something that involved galloping.
I talked to Melanie, the receptionist at our hostel. She claimed she knew a professional rider. After a long phone conversation in rapid Spanish, she told me I was all set. Paisa would pick me up at 2.30pm.
Carlos – not Paisa - picked me up at 3pm. He seemed nice, but as we drove away I became extremely aware I was a lone woman in a car with a strange man, heading to an unknown location. I had no data or Wi-Fi for my phone and even if I could make a call, I didn’t know the emergency number.
We pulled over unexpectedly.
Carlos looked at me and paused, as if deciding what to do next. A thought flashed through my mind: ‘This is it’. I was going to be murdered on the side of a road in Argentina. What a stupid way to go. My mind sprang into action. How much money did I have on me? Could I bribe him? If I ran, would I take my bag or would it slow me down too much? My phone was in my bag. Useless phone… Camera?
He said camera! We’d stopped for me to take a picture. Oh god! Of what? Of the miserable view back towards Bariloche, partially blocked by a highway, pine trees and power lines? I took pictures and they were terrible. But when I look at them now, I remember the flood of relief I felt back then, as I realised I wasn’t going to be robbed, abandoned or shot.
We arrived at an estancia (farm), where I met a man with heavily styled black hair and skin that was definitely moisturised. He was another Carlos. Old Carlos left. New Carlos told me Geraldo would be here soon to take me for a ride. He also told me I had beautiful eyes and showed me his motorbike, encouraging me to sit on it so he could take a picture. I obliged, but also made him sit on it so I could take his picture. The day was mad! But it was about to get even madder.
Finally, Geraldo walked bowlegged into frame with two horses in tow. Now this was an authentic Argentinian cowboy, a genuine gaucho. He sat on a horse with the ease of someone who’d been riding since before he could walk. He wore a traditional beret and bombachas (pants) and long black riding boots. I was wearing tramping shoes. No respectable rider wears tramping shoes!
We set off, Geraldo on a caramel-coloured horse, me on a feisty chestnut pony. (Mum, I’m sorry, there were no helmets. I looked). Communicating in charades, I found out Geraldo rode in endurance competitions. We skirted Lion Mountain and rode out into the Patagonian desert. It was dry, vast and windy. Bariloche’s mountains - ski fields in winter - stood out on the horizon to the west.
Knowing the word ‘possible’ is similar in English and Spanish, I asked whether pumas were possible.
Si, he said.
Pumas. Imagine that.
What about snakes? ‘Snakes possible?’ I asked.
Okay, snakes were possible. In my head, little warning bells were sounding. We were riding down the middle of some train tracks.
Um, trains possible?
Geraldo shrugged. Every now and then he would look back at me and shout, then take off at a gallop. Startled hares sprinted away; birds circled overhead. Walls of stone guarded either side of the train tracks. If this were a film, a highway robbery would be imminent.
The train tracks whizzed by underneath me as I bounced along on a sheepskin saddle, reins in one hand, grin a mile wide. This was exactly the ride I had been hoping for.
The rumbling came suddenly. There was no build-up. It was nowhere, then it was everywhere. Had the hill concealed a train? A train! I looked at Geraldo, frantic. “Vamos!” he said. “Vamos!”
A passenger train appeared around a corner behind us. The driver didn’t hesitate with the horn. He used it angrily, then frantically.
We were stuck. There was no way to get off the line. The rock walls had given way. Both sides of the track dropped away in almost vertical cliffs.
We galloped. Not the fun kind of gallop you might do along a beach or up a hill on a farm: a panicked, terrified, exhilarating gallop. One where hissing sounds come out of your mouth. An everything-you’ve-got-and-then-some gallop.
I kept looking back. The train was looming closer, and it was getting louder.
Then, on a dime, Geraldo and his horse turned, disappearing down a sheep track.
To this day I don’t know how I did it, but I followed. My horse skidded down through the sand and silt in a series of leaps as the train careered past and the driver hit the horn again.
Shit. That was close.
Close enough for me to see the expressions on the faces of the people inside the carriages as the train went past. Their mouths and eyes were wide open.
The train rumbled around another corner and was gone. My horse stood still now, but the poor thing was trembling. I tried to nudge her forward but she wouldn’t move. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears.
Geraldo reappeared from wherever he’d ended up.
“Muy bien!” (very good!) He beamed. “Muy bien!”
My heart was racing. We were okay! I started giggling.
Geraldo looked very pleased with himself. I was pale.
To get home, we had to ride back along the train tracks.
Sam is travelling to Kenya to run a 21km half-marathon on Aug 15 in the Masai Mara National Park. The race is during the Great Migration and features elephant, rhino, giraffe, wildebeest and lions, leopards and cheetahs. It’s one of the few times people are allowed on foot in the game reserve. Masai Warriors and officials will be on hand to keep the park’s carnivores at bay.
Sponsor Sam’s run here.