Riders on the Storm


The morning we checked out of Jeffrey’s Bay, we had horse trekking planned. Papesfontein horse trekking is the only place in the country where you can let loose with horses and gallop for kilometers down the beach in the surf. This sounded incredible, so we signed ourselves up.
As we drove away from the hostel, the clouds began to roll in. It sprinkled a bit, then cleared up again as we neared the ranch. This didn’t look good.
When we arrived at the farmhouse, there were only four of us signed up to ride: Kelsi and I, and a couple who had never been on horses before, ever.
The lady who owned the place was lovely. She said, because we were more experiences riders, that we could pretty much do our own thing.
“When you hit the sand dunes just split off from the group and do what you’d like. The horses know their way home, it won’t be a problem, and the weather should hold out, you may get sprinkled on a little on the route home, but that’s half the fun!” she gave us some faster horses and said that if we wanted a real thrill we could switch our horses with the guide’s. That was her horse; a real racehorse. “If it’s adrenaline you’re looking for, that horse will give it to you” then she sent us on our way.
We walked through the first part of the trip: Kelsi was on Bubbles and I had Patches. It was a lovely, rolling hills area that we trekked through. The South African couple that joined us were very nice, and were quickly getting comfortable with the feel of their horses. The four of us and our one guide strolled for about an hour along the dirt paths before we hit the sand dunes.
The sand dunes separated the grassy, forested hill area from the beach. From the top, you could see forever, (or at least all the way to J-Bay) it was beautiful. This was obviously the turning point towards home, because the horses started to prick up and get ready to run.
“Can we run a little?” We asked the guide.
“Sure” he said.
But our horses were nervous about stepping out of line from the guides horse at first. They wouldn’t run without the lead horse in front. So instead, we all picked up our pace to a canter together until we hit the beach.
The new couple was hanging in there and didn’t mind the fast pace. But Kelsi and I were ready to go faster, and with an endless expanse of white beach and surf line ahead of us, we pulled away from the group and started at a gallop.
We’d only been running for about a minute when our guide came bolting past us on his horse. Oh my god was that horse fast. I thought we were going fast, and he passed us as if we were standing still, sand spraying up behind the horses feet. The guide looked back at us with a concerned face, but we couldn’t tell why.
“Catch it!!! Catch it!!” He yelled at us.
Catch what? We thought.
Then I turned my head to the right and saw a riderless horse run up along side me. I pulled my horse to the right and reached out to the horse next to me, still at a full run. It took a minute, but I finally caught ahold of the reins.
Now I had two horses, who didn’t particularly like being next to each other, running at a full gallop, with me hanging in between the two of them. Okay, so it wasn’t a full gallop. In reality we were probably close to standing still, but it was so exciting I thought I was still galloping. I managed to get the escapee horse under control, before my horse swung around and I lost hold of the second horse.
By this time the guide was back and was able to grab him. Kelsi swung her horse around and we all started back to the other couple.
The lady had apparently fallen off when her horse took off after ours, but she was fine, having landed in the sand, and was brave enough to “get back on that horse,” literally.
When everyone seemed okay, Kelsi and I took off again at our own pace. The horses seemed to know the way, and we were ready to go! I’ve ridden horses a lot in my life, but something about riding along the beach in the surf was really amazing. Just open space to run and see and move. It was beautiful… Except for the ominous black clouds looming ahead of us. We both put our rain jackets on in anticipation, and it started to rain soon after.
It just sprinkled at first, which was nice and refreshing during a running part. Then the wind picked up and it started teeming down. Gale force winds is what we were apparently in (as we found out later) and they were not fun. The rain stung our faces and burned our eyes. Wearing sunglasses helped for a minute, then they fogged up so much that you couldn’t see a thing. We looked back to see our guide half way between us and the older couple way off in the distance. He must have had a hell of a time keeping track of the four of us in the weather.
As we turned away from the water and into the dunes again, another guide came up to us. He had been sent to find us in the storm. He directed our horses at a trot back through the trees.
We came over one sand dune and down over a short rocky area. The wind was still howling and we were both soaked to the bone. Kelsi’s horse was ahead of mine and trotted swiftly over the rocky ground. Then, to the right of the horse, a long black log lay on the ground. The horse obviously saw it too late, then got spooked and jumped to the right and then back to the left in quick succession. Kels counteracted the horse’s first skitter, then lost her balance on the second turn and, in slow motion, spun off the horse and hit the ground. Her knee smashed into a large rock, and she went down on her elbow as well. My horse jumped to the right out of her way, then I pulled it up to a stop to see how Kelsi was.
“Kelsi! Are you okay?”
She was silent. Sitting up in a crooked position with one knee twisted under her against a rock.
Still silent. I know Kelsi is in pain when she’s silent. I don’t know anyone in the world with such a high pain tolerance. She doesn’t complain ever about being in pain, and even if she is aching all over, she’s usually still laughing. So silence was NOT a good thing.
She was wincing in silence and biting her bottom lip. The guide pulled his horse around to come see if she was ok. I tried to think of anything in the world that would help.
“Do you want me to come down and help you?” I asked “I could give you a hug, I can help you get up! Oh my god, I feel your pain right now. I’m coming down to help you” I just blabbered on and on trying to think of something to do or say to make it better. Then I tried to get off my horse. Unfortunately, after a month of gaining weight traveling, and being soaking wet from the rain, my skinny jeans weren’t moving, ANYWHERE. I was totally stuck in my saddle.
“Sorry baby! I can’t get down! I’m too fat for my pants and now I can’t move! You’re on your own.”
Kels cracked a teary-eyed smile and then struggled to her foot. Her one leg was not in any shape to touch the ground, and to be honest, I have no idea how she crawled back on that horse. We were only ten minutes to home, so close! We half trotted and half walked the way home. Every bumpy movement meant agonizing pain for Kelsi’s knee. However, by the time we reached camp we were both in good spirits and laughing again. Despite the storm.
The owner gave us some towels and we changed into fresh clothes. Then we thanked her for an unforgettable ride and hit the road. Our busy road trip couldn’t be put on hold any longer. We were off to the Garden Route!





The Pantanal – Tropical Wetlands of Brazil

So Adam’s upbeat attitude paid off and we made it to the Pantanal as planned. We arrived 3 hours late and a man was there to greet us as planned: he only had to stand there for a few hours!
  Our tour group had apparently already left for the jungle, but the guy who greeted us said “no problem” he would just drive us the 5 hours into the middle of nowhere himself, then drive back to Campo Grande alone (yes, he is that nice). He said it would be no problem, because if we left right away he would be back in time to have a nap, and then head out to the clubs with one of his 7 girlfriends. Excuse me?


So pretty much immediately after getting off 18 hours of busses, we hop into his beat-up Fiat van and drive through the wetlands towards nowhere. We make excellent time because there is no traffic on the road, stop for lunch and make it to our checkpoint a good hour before schedule. From there we were herded into the back of a pickup truck (exactly like the death cab in Kao Sok for those of you in Thailand with us) and continue for another hour, off-roading through the jungle, towards camp.

The camp is very well put together, and much more luxurious than I would have imagined. There are tons of hammock circles covered by thatched grass roofs, a little swimming pool, beach volley ball court, a small bar, a big dining area, bungalows with dorm style beds and even a soccer field (which is totally unusable because it is filled with cows and bulls). There are a tonne of noisy parrots and unique looking birds (we even saw a great horned owl a few minutes ago). Weird looking little pigs keep roaming around our hammocks and the bugs, of course, are endless.

On our first night, after a wonderful buffet dinner, we went on a “night safari”.   We all jumped into the back of a large truck, our guide Paulo held a huge spotlight, and we drove through the jungle in search of animals!  Before we even left the camp a giant bug hit one of the girls in the chest and fell onto her lap. She started screaming and jumping around, so everyone’s flashlights quickly moved to see what was happening. There on the ground was the absolute LARGEST beetle I have ever seen in my LIFE.  The thing was a little larger than the palm of my hand, with giant pincers and thick, pointed legs! It scuttled around on the ground, freaking even the boys out, until the guide picked it up and tossed it off the side. I’m pretty sure that made everyone a little itchy and squeamish for the next hour of our excursion. Adam and I faired the best, but even the Israeli boys were a little jumpy as every few seconds another beetle hit one of us in the face or leg.
  The jungle was full of life we couldn’t see at night. Frogs, bugs, birds and what sounded like a loud dying cat filled the air with a deafening noise that almost drowned out the sound of the truck we were in! We managed to see quite a bit of wildlife in the short hour we were out. Apart from the bugs, obviously, we saw a whole load of caimans in the ponds. Their glowing eyes were actually really freaky, a good dozen of them staring back at us into the light. Next we came across a family of capybaras, the largest rodents on earth.  They are just like gophers, but are larger than most big dogs. Very weird. Then we saw a Toco toucan in one of the trees, which was really exciting. We saw a bunch of them in the bird sanctuary in Foz Do Iguassu but it was really fun to see one in the wild. We also ran across a deer (yes they are even in the Amazon!) and a fox!


The next morning we had breakfast bright and early at 7am. We then went horseback riding all morning! The horses were younger and had a lot more energy than the ones in Uruguay, so we had plenty of chances to gallop along the open meadows, and canter into lakes deep enough to get our feet soaked. The horses seemed particularly thrilled to run into the lakes and splash around for a while. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but the ride was amazing and we were out for a couple hours, messing around through the jungle.

After a short siesta and a wonderful lunch, we set out, in the back of the pickup once again, and towards the Parana River for a boat ride through the wetlands. We didn’t see as much unique wildlife as I had expected. Families of capybaras were fun to photograph, and the occasional caiman, but we did see ENDLESS species of birds. So many I can’t remember even a quarter of their names.  However, even though we didn’t spot the elusive jaguar, or catch an anteater, the scenery was beautiful, and the sunset on the way home was spectacular!

The next morning we were up bright and early for a 3-hour jungle trek. Honesty, I should have stayed in bed. I got very little sleep because Adam and I stayed up late drinking beers with the most interesting man in the world, and so, I was already not looking forward to a three-hour excursion. I also was NOT prepared for the number of mosquitoes that would be out at that time of day!  In the end, we didn’t see any wildlife because three of the guys we were with were so noisy. So instead of a wilderness trek, we hiked it through the dense jungle (at parts literally fighting through with a machete) and I was DESTROYED by mosquito bites. For all of you present for the bug bites Caitlin and I had in Thailand… This was worse. Fortunately, we made it home, and I cheered up a bit after a nice shower and a hearty lunch!

For our afternoon activity, we went piranha fishing! This was by far my favourite part of the Pantanal. We trucked out to one of the near by rivers with some bamboo rods and set up camp with a bucket full of raw steak! 
The piranhas at this time of year (end of the dry season) are starving, so it’s very easy to get a nibble. It is more difficult to pull one out, since they are very smart, and very quick! We were told to stand right up close to the river’s edge, which was slightly unnerving for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the guides apparently went into the river a couple years earlier and had a cut on her leg. The piranhas instantly started attacking her leg and she was lucky to get out before losing it. We were apparently fine, because they only attack open wounds, but I didn’t particularly want to push my luck.  Secondly, there were several caimans just a few feet in front of us that smelled the meat and wanted some food. Apparently, the caimans wont attack us, but this was told to us by our guide Paulo, who was making the caimans snap away at dead piranhas he held above their heads… and Paulo was missing a finger. So I’m not sure if he is the most trustworthy source.

Nonetheless, I stepped up to the water, Marcello baited my hook, threw it in and said “when u feel a nibble, pull straight up very quickly”. Before he even finished his sentence I said, “like this?” and jerked the rod straight into the air. The hook, with the meat still attached flew about 12 feet into the air, and a piranha, NOT attached to the hook flew right along side it. I’m pretty sure I must have shrieked a little as both of them flew towards me at a considerable speed. I let the hook swing past me, and the piranha landed at my feet. Everyone looked a little stunned. My memories of fishing in the past have been a lot of waiting around, and not a lot of nibbles, but this was VERY different. Turns out the piranha I caught was a baby, so Marcello kicked it back in (with flip flops on) and we tried again. All of us caught several fish in the short time we were there. I only caught the baby ones (and a tree at one point), and Marcello joked I was the worst fisherman he’d ever seen! Adam turned out to be the hero of the day and snagged two big ones to take home and grill up!

Ultimately, fishing was my favourite part of the Pantanal. If you ever get the opportunity to fish for piranhas DEFINITELY do it. It’s a little difficult to try to fish, while watching for flying hooks, trying to avoid the wasps that want the meat, and keeping an eye out for the caimans that will sneak up within a meter before grunting and giving away their position (and scaring the hell out of the fisherman) but it’s totally worthwhile. As Antoine, one of the French guys, put it “there are too many dangerous things all around!”  
At the end of the afternoon, Marcello and Paulo cleaned the fish, and we headed back to the pousada. For dinner that night, on top of the buffet, we were presented with a huge platter of BBQ piranhas! We each took one and they were pretty delicious! It’s a tasty white meat, but very bony. Kind of reminded me of crab, because it was difficult to get into, but worth the fight! Most of the meat was in the head, which freaked out Antoine and Francois when we ate the eyes and brains.  When in Rome, right?

Our final morning we went trekking through the forest again. I was unenthused to be eaten alive by mosquitoes again, but our guides ensured us we’d see more animals because the noisy Israeli boys had left.  So we dragged ourselves into the truck and drove out to a new trekking area. I came prepared with my bottle of mosquito repellant in hand, the longest pants I own, a long sleeved shirt, AND Adam’s long sleeved shirt on top of that (because he is impermeable to mosquitoes. Jerk.). It was so unbearably hot in the sunshine I could hardly handle it, but I then remembered how itchy I was and powered through. We did see more animals this time, including monkeys, coatis and hyacinth macaws (which are endangered, and only 4000 exist in the Pantanal) among many others. Day 2’s trek was much more worth it.

That afternoon, we packed up our things and headed back to Campo Grande. We waited a few hours at the hostel and caught the 23:25 bus to Curitiba. I took a Gravol about a half hour before the scheduled bus time, because the meds take so much longer to hit me than Adam; however, when our bus left 45 min late I was a total zombie. I could hardly stand; I dragged my feet towards the bus and climbed the steps. The whole bus wreaked of urine, but I didn’t care, I snuck in beside a random man, managed to put together my elaborate sleeping arrangement (the only way I can sleep on the bus) of a sleeping mask, sweater, coat, blow up neck pillow, sarong as a blanket, footrest down, purse tied around left leg, and water by my side. Finally, I don’t have to move for hours!  
We got no more than 10 minutes into the trip before the bus stopped for gas. Everyone had to get off the bus and wait at a checkpoint. I unhappily dragged my ass off the bus and found a bench to sit on to wait. My vision was almost blurry at this point I was so exhausted. I folded in half sitting on the bench, let my head hang between my legs and was half in and out of sleep while Adam watched for the bus. The blood rushing to my brain from being upside-down didn’t help with dizziness, so thankfully the bus came back only 15 minutes later. After setting up camp again, I passed out so fast. I woke up 8 hours later at a breakfast checkpoint and was the only person on the bus. My eyes were stinging from dehydration, and I guarantee I looked like a train wreck. So I washed up in the bathrooms and felt a little more human. It was 8:40am local time (the time zones in this area of Brazil are very confusing) and according to our tickets we got off at 9:00am. This was a pleasant surprise, because we thought it would be longer. Then a man came on the bus and announced in Portuguese that we were making excellent time, and we would arrive in Curitiba at 6:00 PM tonight. Excuse me?  Looks like our ticket was wrong: only 10 hours to go.

El Galope: Uruguayan Ranch Life


Adam, trying to escape the heat of the countryside

After a couple busy days in Montevideo, checking out the city and enjoying the beach, we decided it was time to escape civilization. We found an ADORABLE hostel inland called El Galope. El Galope is a little farm-home turned guesthouse that holds about 10 people in several rooms; this place was UNREAL!


 After my slightly challenged directions to the place, we picked up some wine, cheese and grapes for an evening snack and set out on the bus to km 114.5… Not a bus stop, but literally just the side of the road. 
 The woman who ran the place picked us up from the side of the highway and drove us along dusty dirt roads until we pulled up at the ranch. The temperature must have been close to 38 degrees and we were all very thankful to run into the shade of the building.  The place had a cute little shaded patio, fully equipped with hammocks and comfortable beanbag chairs! 
After checking in, we grabbed an icy beer and hopped in their little pool! The water only came up to my waist while standing, but it was the perfect size and temperature for sitting down and cooling off from the heat of central Uruguay. Even the owners joined us for a dip and caught us up on the happenings of the ranch and the history of the area.


El Galope hostel

Once we were cooled off we decided to go for an evening horseback ride with a friend of Miguel’s (one of the owners). So a half hour or so later, this truly traditional Uruguayan “gaucho” named Hugo picked us up and drove us towards his ranch. It was a 25km drive further inland to Hugo’s ranch.  We crawled along in his beater of a van that clunked and jolted over the dirt roads. We passed through gorgeous expanses of countryside and through traditional little towns along the way. The towns were incredibly simplistic: definitely no extravagant European influences that are so prolific in the major cities down here. All the shop owners sat out front of their stores with their mate tea and their thermoses of hot water (just like every single other Uruguayan in the country) and each person gave a wave to Hugo on the way by.


Getting all saddled up!

Hugo’s ranch was much larger than Miguel’s; they had several dogs and cats that roamed freely on the property and a bunch of horses in the fields. Three horses were already saddled up and ready to go for us when we arrived. So we set out into the countryside just the four of us! It was clear Hugo spoke almost zero English, but after a week in South America our Spanish was good enough to have conversations about the animals, our homes, jobs, and of course, the wonderful mate tea we were quickly getting hooked on!
  We rode for about 45 minutes before we came to a quiet river and a pool of water that looked so refreshing! Unfortunately Miguel had forgot to mention to bring our bathing suits, or we would have gone swimming.  Nonetheless, we had a lovely time dipping our feet in and watching Hugo swim around with the dogs to cool off.
  The whole trek took a little over two hours and was endless amounts of awesome! When we got back to Hugo’s, we were greeted with a pitcher of icy lemonade and Hugo mixed us up his special mate frio – a cold version of the traditional hot liquid with lime and lemon juice added. Needless to say, it was beyond delicious! We all shared the drink, then began the trek back to El Galope.


Hugo, our guide, taking a refreshing dip in the lagoon with his dog.

By the time we arrived it was dinnertime! Miguel’s wife cooks dinner every night for the guests of the hostel, and that night it was a Uruguayan meat pie with mashed potatoes and coleslaw – with chocolate ice cream to top it off for dessert. The unique aspect of this hostel is that all the guests eat together at the same time. The long wooden table in the kitchen was set for the 9 of us; wine or beer was available, and everyone got to catch up on their day and meet. It was a bit unusual, but such a wonderful way of meeting the other guests!

When dinner was over and dishes were washed, we had showers and set up for our evening of stargazing. This was my first experience seeing stars in the Southern Hemisphere and I could not have asked for a better place to do so! Adam, Nikki and I dragged bean bag chairs out into the field, brought a couple bottles of wine, some cheese, grapes, and a baguette and studied the constellations that Miguel had briefly tutored Adam about. It was a PERFECTLY clear night with a bunch of shooting stars and an unbelievable view of the Milky May (having no cities around for kilometers). 
Hands down, this was my favourite day of the trip thus far. We could have stayed at the hostel for weeks, but there’s more world to explore, so we had to head out the next morning. According to the owners, a young girl from Vancouver came for just a couple nights last year.  Turns out, she ended up living and working on the farm with them for over 2 months! This does not surprise me in the slightest.

Anyways, after a small extravaganza trying to catch a boat back from Colonia to Buenos Aires, we did make it! And we are now en route to Rosario, a small city, 4 hours north of Buenos Aires and the birthplace of Che Guevara! Pretty exciting!  More on that later I’m sure 🙂