In 1997, while my father was stationed in Woomera, South Australia, we were always attending the base activities events, if for no other reason than to escape the desert and experience more of the wonderful foreign country we were living in.  The latest adventure: trail riding in the Pichi Richi hills of South Australia!  Being a horse lover, this was completely up my alley.  I was 16, and adored my dad, so this was another great way to spend time with him.  We signed up, along with about 20 other base residents, to go on the ride.  It was presented as a gentle ride, for any skill level.

The morning of the ride came in dark and dreary.  Some folks dropped out, on account of the threatening skies, but the rest of us boarded the bus and made the 3 hour trip into the hills.  Mother Nature did not make an empty promise.  We pulled into the dirt parking lot in a deluge of rain.  Expecting the ride to be canceled, we were all surprised to hear it was still scheduled.  We could see a couple of young men hustling around, saddling and bridling the horses in the rain, their feet stamping impatiently, their heads tossing against the reins.  A few nervous questions were tossed at them from the anxious tourists waiting outside the corral.  The men said the “Trail Boss” would be out in a minute to go over safety procedures and get us mounted and on the trail.

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This “Trail Boss” stepped out from behind a stall, looking like he stepped right out of City Slickers.  Curly.  I don’t honestly even remember his real name today, because he completely embodied the “Curly” character in every respect.  He wore a tattered, full-length leather duster, the quintessential Australian leather hat, one side turned up.  His skin was bronzed and cracked like old cowhide, making his age impossible to determine.  He may have been 45, or 95, who knew?  His voice ground out of his throat like a pack-a-day smoker, and a permanent stubble dusted his jawline.  I think we were all stunned into silence when he stepped into the corral, because no one spoke when he asked for the first rider to step forward.

When he asked again, one brave soul stepped out of the crowd.  Not me, despite my curiosity, but a red-headed woman, who was quick to mention this was her first time sharing space with a horse.  While one of the young men held the stirrup for her, “Curly” instructed her to face the rear of the horse, put her foot in the (twisted) stirrup, and swing her entire body up and around 180 degrees to mount the horse.  I had never heard of or seen a mount in this manner.  After a few failed attempts and awkward moments, the poor woman managed to sit in the saddle, facing the correct direction.  The rest of us followed suit until all horses had been paired with a rider.  The two young men attached saddle bags to everyone, indicating they contained our lunch.

The ride started much like any other I had participated in, horses marched single-file, nose to tail, dejectedly hanging their heads and occasionally slipping in the mud that was quickly accumulating on the trail.  It became interesting when we reached the first incline.  “Curly” led his horse up a steep embankment, hardly wide enough to allow the passage of an emaciated horse, let alone the wide-girthed ones we sat upon.  Nonetheless, “Curly” pushed us onward.  Perhaps 2 horses had completed the climb before we had a problem.  The same red-head woman, sitting on a large bay mare, was now facing the wrong way, halfway up the hill.  Somehow, along that narrow ledge, her horse had tiptoed itself around, and was attempting to return to the stables, refusing to go any further along the trail.  The more she pulled on the reins, the more the horse stubbornly tried to move back down, right into the face of the next horse in line.  Eventually, one of the young men dismounted, trudged through the mud, and soundly punched the horse in the jaw.  The horse now momentarily stunned, the man then wrenched the reins and yanked on the saddle to maneuver the horse back into position.  Both rider and horse crested the hill, much put out.

The horses sludged through the muck, several of them spooking at the suction that gripped at their hooves, while the rain poured and poured in sheets.  At one point, another rider asked to return to the stables.  He didn’t like the rain and was not enjoying the ride. True to character “Curly” replied, “Ain’t nobody goin’ back til this ride’s over. You blokes paid your fee, and you gonna get what you paid for.”  Needless to say, most conversation ceased at this point.  We were all looking forward to reaching our “picnic” site, where we would enjoy a hot lunch before returning to the stables.

Just before reaching this site, a roan gelding, ridden by Mr. Red-Head, had decided he had had enough!  With his rear hooves mired in the thick mud, he spooked, reared, and promptly threw his rider face-first into the mud.  If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, you would have thought this was totally staged.  But the man was absolutely furious, as his expensive, touristy camera swam in the mud beside him.  Once again, the young man dismounted, calmed the roan, and attempted to get his rider back in the saddle.  No deal.  Mr. Red-Head, (also his first time on a horse), decided to walk the rest of the way to the picnic site, blissfully just around the corner, in a grove of trees.

Gratefully, the rest of us dismounted and secured our horses to a hitch in the clearing.  Many of us huddled against the trees, soaked to the bone and chilled through.  We watched doubtfully as “Curly” worked on lighting a saturated pile of firewood.  Don’t know if the old fella had a bit of aboriginal magic in his bones, but miraculously, he coaxed a flame from water.  Soon he had a roaring fire, which we all crowded greedily around.  We were instructed to gather our saddle bags and return to the fire to start cooking, steam billowing from our clothing.  Meanwhile, from behind a tree, “Curly” dragged a rusted slab of steel plating over and slung it over the flames.  Tetanus anyone?  From our saddle bags, we each withdrew a raw hunk of beef, loosely wrapped in tinfoil.  Looked like it had been cut from the cow just that morning.  We also found two wafer-thin slices of white bread, smashed into the bottom, and an apple.  This was our “gourmet picnic lunch” advertised in the flyer.

Many of us were too wet and cold to really complain and were looking forward to warm food.  Since there were absolutely NO rust-free spots on our “grill”, we alternately cooked our beef, slapped it between the bread, and slathered on some ketchup.  At this point, Red-Head was crying, her hubby still fuming, and the rest of us grumbling about the weather, sore backsides, and cantankerous horses.  Our rest stop lasted about an hour, with the rain unrelenting for even a moment.

We mounted again and started our journey back to the stables, and the dry and now welcoming interior of our tour bus.  We almost made it back, without further incident.  However, Mr. Red-Head once again found himself face-down in the mud when his horse threw him again and immediately took off rider-less at full gallop home.  He said “That’s it, I HATE *&#@(* horses! I’ll WALK back!!”  And he did, the 3 miles back to the stables, in the rain and mud, one of the young men alongside.

Back at the parking lot, we all were quick to dismount, wanting nothing more than to go home.  Wearily, we loaded onto the bus.  Our driver, dry as tinder and merrily working his way through the daily crossword, welcomed us aboard.  The engine rumbled to life, followed immediately by the wet squelching sound of tires spinning in the mud.  As if this trip wasn’t bad enough, now we were stuck here, in this 1970’s relic, rear-wheel drive tour bus.  Fortunately for us, one of our party had left town late, and so had arrived in his own vehicle, a 4×4 Dodge Ram 3500…..with towing winch!  Would have made a beautiful advertisement as the disgruntled tourists huddled in the rain, up to their ankles in mud, the bus fishtailing in the mud, flinging it this way and that, and the solid pickup truck effortlessly hauling it out.

We made it home safely, demanded a trip refund for all the misery, and it lives on in my memory as one of the worst trail rides that my Dad and I laugh ourselves silly about today!

By Carolyn Wiens