Long hours in the saddle have always been invitations for fine storytelling. A three-day adventure in Glenorchy's high country - a fundraiser for the 126-year-old Birchwood Hunt Club - left Gwyneth Hyndman spoilt for choice.
A woman who keeps the testicles of a favourite stallion in her kitchen freezer out of sentiment is a tough story to beat. But the tale actually got wonderfully stranger as the night went on.
Whispers about the frozen testes circulated on the evening of the day's first trek, where a group of us sat - in different stages of exhaustion - at a table in a tent, in the middle of a paddock, under stars and mountains, surrounded by trailers and tents and horses, our bowls and cutlery in front of us, trying to find the energy to get up and dance as the two-person band began to play an Eagles song.
The day had been spectacular. A nine-hour ride began with a climb above Wyuna Station, snaking up the side of a mountain, hollowed out by scheelite mining in the last century. Our horses picked their way down the trail that cut into the side of Buckler Burn, past a flying fox that once carried miners across the river that we gingerly cross below, before the gruelling ascent back up towards Mt Judah. In the distance a terrace of trails above the tree line seem to go straight into the sky.
Surely not up there, someone said, head craned back.
But the weather was clear, the wind not too biting and swift and as one rider pointed out, unless we turned around, up there appeared to be the only way back.
So up we went, scrambling to the top; pulling our horses off to rest for a moment, then coaxing them on until we reached a plateau with blindingly filmic vistas around us. The horses grazed as we took it all in, then set off down into the valley again. We cooled the horses' legs in creek and river crossings on the way back to Glenorchy. Cars stopped to let the riders take over the main street as we headed back to our Mid Rivers paddock, where food and creek-chilled beer waited for us.
Hours later, saddle sore and glassy-eyed, we sat, too tired to get up. The light in the sky had dimmed behind the peaks. The horses were fed, watered and blanketed in the paddocks around us. The only thing to do, apart from dancing, was talk to each other.
Through the grapevine of riders during the day, stories are passed as frequently as "close the gate" instructions are called out down the line. You hear tales of marriage breakups and accidents in remote places that led to a death, close calls, or serious injury.
Until that evening, the best tale of the day had been from a Catlins area farmer who broke his back when his horse rolled on him, managed to mount and then ride his horse home. Then, after being hospitalised and stuck in a brace, was breaking in horses again four months later.
But from the back of the line came a quirkier horse tale that, by dinner, had become a surprise favourite.
The stories of a Canterbury woman on the trail who rode a recently gelded palomino, and kept his testicles in her freezer, already had an entire day to gain momentum. It was a rumour that couldn't go unconfirmed.
At the table I was nudged and told she was the blonde in the fur-lined coat, two people over. Yes, she said, when asked, commandeering the table's attention. She did keep his testicles in her freezer, out of sentiment, because it was a part of his manhood, which she could see him mourn every morning in the paddock for weeks after he was gelded. There wasn't a trace of defensiveness in her voice. Horses have identity crisis too, she said.
Her freezer was her treasure chest. Any favourite animal that died on her watch, had an ear clipped off, which was added to the collection. Her husband had defrosted the freezer many times; she always made sure every ear, tail, and testicle made it back in.
She wasn't living in Glenorchy now, but she did at one time, years ago, she added.
I tuned in a little more carefully when she said that.
Coming back isn't unusual for Glenorchy - it's a town that, despite being touched by tourism and a housing boom, still has a trace of the wild west. I remember it from 10 years ago when I spent a summer straight out of university in the area, re-learning how to ride, when the population was barely 230 and a spray-painted "slow children" hazard sign greeted tourists. Many people talk about the pull the area has - the icy peaks and cliffs like charcoal towering above the riverbeds. Stars everywhere. Explosions of lupine in spring.
There was a vinyl collection at the cafe and a hitching post out front where you'd tie up your horse and sit on the old couches on the deck and have a beer, then ride home through moonlit riverbeds, trusting in your horse's good sense to get you home.
Something made me ask the woman what years she had lived in Glenorchy. She gave me the dates and I did the maths in my head. I asked why she had left.
She gave me her full attention.
"My husband had left me for my best friend," she said.
I got chills.
"This is a bit weird," I said. "But did you hitchhike around Ireland after that?"
She looked freaked out. I told her my suspicion: "I think we've met."
It was 1996 in Ireland and I was 18.
New Zealand was my father's homeland, not a country I ever thought I'd make my own home in.
My memory of this woman, who would leave such an impression on me in the 48 hours we hitched together, is of her sitting on a rock by the side of the road in the Dingle Peninsula, one thumb out, and the other hand holding a piece of paper with a poem that she read out to me while I ate my breakfast.
Within weeks I had lost her contact details and had forgotten her name. And months later her face went into that blurry collection of people that you meet in strange ways, in odd places when you are travelling.
But I never forgot that image of her by the road, the poem she had written for her ex-husband - and then read out to him before she signed the divorce papers, a moment I always vividly imagined in a courtroom - coming out in her trembling voice while I sat on my pack by the road, eating a piece of her Irish soda bread that she shared with me, thinking how terrifying adulthood was.
I remember it was about china on a table and the tablecloth underneath being yanked out. Each line was a description of how one piece after another was broken.
But I always remembered this as well: Along with the grief of her marriage ending, was the heartache at having to leave the place of extraordinary beauty they had been farming in. She had three pictures of the area that meant nothing to me then - I recalled peaks and lots of sky, but not the location.
But when I was 24, and first drove the Queenstown-Glenorchy road towards the Paradise and Rees Valleys, the woman with the poem by the side of the road came to mind, and I thought "could this be the place in her photographs?".
And of course, it was.
Eighteen years after crying into soda bread with the hitchhiker - whose name it turns out, is Andrea - I got to ride with her through the landscapes in those pictures.
At Diamond Lake, in Paradise Valley, after plunging her horse into the water, she talked about going down to the shore to sit and sort herself out in the months when her marriage was ending. Over at Kinloch, she pointed out, was the walnut tree where her dog was buried.
There were painful memories here, but it wouldn't ever stop her from coming back.
There was the pleasure of hearing about a happy ending - a return to New Zealand after working in Africa; a "meet-cute" with a Dunedin man at the town hall in Herbert and their marriage in 2000, and their decision to buy a small farm near Methven a few years ago, where she could keep her horses, have a composting toilet in a henhouse out back, and keep a freezer with pet parts as mementoes, without scaring the neighbours.
It was a place, Andrea said, that was nearly as wild and beautiful as Glenorchy.
We hugged, exchanged contact details, kept saying over and over what a small place the world was, and promised not to lose touch this time. There is a horse for me any time I want to ride with her, she said - "Isn't the world a small place?"
It is, I thought, still pinching myself as I drove back out of Glenorchy, smelling of horse and sweat and bacon grease; hair practically in dreads, lips so chapped they could barely move, watching the peaks that have drawn so many people to this place fade and then disappear in the rearview mirror.
But not for long - it does, after all, still have a certain pull.
- The Southland Times