One rider. Three horses. And 350 kilometers of untamed terrain on the remote east coast of South Africa. Australian Brent Albuino was among the first to brave the inaugural Race the Wild Coast last year. He won’t be the last.
Start line—Port Edward
The rider’s pour off a rusty old trailer trying to pretend everything’s going to be ok and we’ve all got our shit together and this epic race sorted! I’m nervous but I’m hung over just enough to not care so much if I drown at the first river crossing…
The crew is tramping through the sand dunes to bring us our first horses.
As we await I remind Maudes that being the inaugural riders for this crazy race I feel like a bit of a Guinea Pig.
“You know what happens to Guinea Pigs, Brentski?”
“They fucking die!”
The crew arrives. Pip has my horse and she looks fucked from trudging through the sand dunes. This gives me zero confidence of what’s to come as Pip is an Aussie, hard as nails, born and bred in the Pilbara. She has red dirt running through her veins and a fuck you attitude only an Aussie with a can of Bundy would understand.
Anthony Ward-Thomas was going to ride with Maudes and me until his horse did its best impression of a submarine on a training ride at start camp. He bailed on the race and I’m starting to think he may be the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. He was last seen drinking with the locals at Port St Johns. Nice bloke, I hope he’s ok.
I get on my horse, Amir. He seems relaxed, like he has no idea he’s about to carry me through 100 kilometers of torturous terrain.
The race is about to begin!
Race organizer Barry has his spiel. I can’t remember all of it but it went something like this: “Thank you, thank you, thank you! No matter what happens you guys are the very first to race the wild coast and you will always be the first!”
This becomes mine and Maudes’s catch cry for the days to come.
The gun goes off and we’re on our way to what will become some of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had on the back of a horse.
Stage 1—Port Edward to Msikaba
It’s not long before I realize Maudes has changed a bit since I saw him two years ago whinging his way through 1000 kilometers of Mongolian Steppe. He seems to be “Mr. Nice Guy” of the 12 riders competing in the race.
Malcolm loses his cantle bag. Then Stevie, who we’d earlier dubbed “Adventure Barbie”, does likewise. Malcolm falls off, Rose’s horse loses a hind shoe. Maudes stops to help each of them as if he stupidly expects the same in return when he’s floating upside down and out to sea at a river mouth.
This frustrates me a little.
The first stage is generally easy going except for some steps as Barry had described them at start camp.
“Get off and lead your horse down the steps, give them some rein and they will follow you down.”
Sounds easy enough, I think to myself.
It is not.
These are not fucking steps!
They are a series of small rocky cliffs you have to jump down and hope to Christ your horse thinks it’s a great idea to follow you! If you’re lucky enough that they go through with the whole ridiculous idea, then you need to be careful that as they jump down the cliff face they don’t land on you. Get in their way and you’re as good as fucked!
We’re not far from the finish of Stage 1 when Maudes declares his horse is spent.
Amir has been struggling since negotiating the steps. It’s suddenly extremely hot and the sun is beating down on us. He is dripping with sweat and heaving, nostrils flared like he’s just out run a cheetah.
Katja, who has somehow been unlucky enough to have ended up at the back of the field, has decided that listening to Maudes’s and I’s bullshit is somehow more comforting than riding alone. It seems we’ve adopted a German…I hope she knows how to operate her GPS as we have no fucking idea!
We get off our horses and trudge on in to the first vet check. We are the last ones in, our horses are struggling and I get the feeling we are already in a world of pain.
Stage 2 & Night 1—Msikaba to Mbotyi
Amir is not a leader.
Maudes’s horse is not a leader.
Katja’s horse is just a goat.
We are getting further and further behind…
I chew on some biltong. It’s bloody good and restocking it soon becomes the highlight of the vet checks.
“I need to pee!” proclaims Katja.
“Again?” Maudes mumbles.
“I NEED TO PEE!”
“We heard you Katja! Go for it!”
These poor bastards could do with a breather anyway.
There are some deep river wades during this stage and I’m 100% sure every bit of my five kilos of gear is now soaked. Can’t wait to crawl into that sleeping bag tonight.
The views are something else; untouched wild coastline; waves that roar in and crash smack bang into cliffs; white foam erupting over the rocks; the wind whips your face and you realize in that moment exactly why they call this place the Wild Coast.
Malcom has dropped behind the front pack and is now riding with us.
We approach what was described at start camp as “The Steep Rocky Descent.”
“My GPS says we go down there…”
“That cant be right, Brenstki?”
“That’s where it’s pointing.”
“Yeah, guys, we’re right on track. It’s down there!”
It’s right about now I decide that this race may have been the silliest idea I’ve ever had.
What sort of crazy bastard decided he’d try and get a horse down there?
“This is fucking madness!” declares Maudes.
“Your horse was the best down the steps, Maudes. I think you need to go first.”
To my bewilderment, he doesn’t even object. He just jumps off and heads on down.
Katja follows him and I follow her.
It’s steep, it’s rocky, it’s slippery, it’s about 70 meters straight down trying to stay on your feet and convince your horse to follow.
Then you’re on a beach.
Thank Christ for that!
“Hey Brentski, where did Malcom go?”
Malcom is still stuck at the top of the descent.
“Shit! I think we left him behind mate.”
Maudes doesn’t need to say anything. I know he feels bad.
We straggle in to the overnight stop just before dark.
By the time I pass the vet, Maudes has found us a tent and hands me a beer. I hang my soaking gear out near a campfire and join the other riders with a plate of meat and rice.
We seem to be camped in the middle of a swamp and as I’m trying to eat there are some form of mosquitoes landing in my food. They are the size of small eagles and I think fuck this, today’s been hard enough!
I grab my beer and climb into the tent. Maudes is already wrapped up in his sleeping bag.
“I’m going to the Greek islands for my next holiday, Brentski. Lie on a fucking beach and drink cocktails!”
“We’ll be right, mate. Just one more stage and our next horses are rockets!”
It starts to drizzle outside. I accept the fact that all my gear will be soaked in the morning, I’m too tired to care…
“We were the first…”
“And we’ll always be the first!”
Stage 3—Mybotyi to Port Agate Terrace
I took the wrong kind of boots.
It said hiking shoes, something that’ll drain well and dry quickly, I think. I never really read the kit list. I’ve got leather boots on they are holding every drop of water. My feet have not been dry since the first river we waded across.
It’s drizzling with rain and I sink my feet back into the sodden leather and mutter under my breath what a dumbass I am.
As we saddle up, a crew member by the name of Burroughs appears with his baby oil bottle. This is great news! The baby oil bottle is full of Cointreau and Burroughs seems to turn up with it at all the right times. I take a swig to warm up and we’re on our way.
Katja is clearly the better of the three of us with her GPS and seems to be keeping us on track. We are on and off the horses up and down hill after hill. The night’s rest hasn’t helped them and all three are struggling again. The mood is a somber one. We’ve had enough of pushing these poor bastards up hills, down cliffs, through rivers…
Katja cracks. Her face is bright red, there’s fire in her eyes, and she explodes!
“Mistvieh!! Sturkopf!!! BLODER ESEL!!!!!”
“You all right there, Katcha?”
“Eisberge bewegen sich schneller…”
“Let her go, Maudes. Let her go…”
Stage 4—Agate Terrace to The Kraal
The kind of horse you’d go to war on.
He’s a South African bred Boerperd. A ball of muscle with a heart as big as himself, he could have done the whole race on his own then turned around and done it backwards. He is a machine!
I had scraped through the vet check with Amir.
As we change horses so does the mood.
I give Rodeo a bit of rein and a squeeze in the guts. He goes into BEAST mode.
Maudes is now aboard Tommy. He’s competitive and wants to be neck and neck as we gallop towards Port St. Johns. Katja is doing her best to keep up, yelling something about crazy Australians.
We surely have broken some kind of record on our way up to the bridge over the Umzimvubu River. We are dead set flying!
Barry had told us at start camp to take the bridge, as the Umzimvubu is dirty and full of bull sharks.
I wondered how fussy the bull sharks are about what river mouth they swim into given we’d be swimming across one a few more kilometers down the coast.
We reach the bridge. It’s not overly wide and there is plenty of traffic.
“What do think, Maudes?”
“Fucked if I know, Brentski.”
I give Rodeo another squeeze and he’s off! We gallop over the bridge before any oncoming traffic can run us down. It’s Sunday, about lunchtime and Port St. Johns is buzzing.
There’s music playing in the streets, people laughing and drinking outside the old rundown crumbling buildings we ride past. Some sort of bars no doubt. The children play on the side of the roads and yell at us for sweets! The locals wave and cheer us on. They don’t seem overly concerned about the three of us riding horses through their town. Maybe this is because we are following the other riders or maybe this happens often here in Port St. Johns.
It’s a town of hippies, backpackers and those that have lost their way and given up on society.
My kind of town.
We wave to the locals and keep a solid pace as we make our way to the Mngazana River.
Maudes struggled with the swimming at start camp. He’s as good a horseman as I’ve ever known but throw him in a river and he loses all confidence…
“I’ll go first mate, just let Tommy follow and we’ll be fine.”
“See you on the other side, Brentski!”
Rodeo attacks the water.
As they lose their feet you feel them take a hop or two. This is when you need to slide off, hold the saddle with one hand and try steer them with the other whilst swimming alongside them. It’s absolute madness and it’s at this point you realize just how fucking amazing these horses really are.
The three of us scramble out at the other side and Maudes excitedly shakes my hand like he’s just conquered Everest. Poor bastard really was shitting himself.
We ride on and into the Kraal.
Caroline is vetting this station. She was also a vet on the Mongol Derby and she is strangely amused by the banter between Maudes and I.
“How are you boys?”
“Fucking brilliant, Caroline! Me and Brentski have started talking with a German accent!”
Pip hands us a warm beer.
It’s the best beer I’ve had in days…
We celebrate the fact we’re still alive at this point of the race and although we’ve given up on winning, it’s bloody great to be aboard good horses!
Stage 5 & Night 2—The Kraal to Hluleka Nature Reserve
Maudes and Tommy are like a married couple.
Tommy spooks at nothing.
“Tommy, you are some twat!”
Tommy spooks again as if he’s baiting Maudes.
“For fuck’s sake Tommy! You’re being a right dickhead!”
They have formed a solid bond.
It’s a short 14 kilometer stage and Rodeo powers through the hills with his head on his chest, pulling hard on the bit.
“That’s some horse, Brentski!”
“I’m taking him home Maudes! I’ll win a Melbourne Cup with this bastard!”
Katja continues to keep us on track and we make it to the overnight stop in good time. We’re camped on a beach and it’s nice to be in with the other riders before dark. As we eat, Monde is telling stories about breaking horses in the South African way whilst drying his jeans by the campfire.
After a couple of beers, Maudes decides we should give Peel a call.
When I signed up for this race I sent the info to Maudes and Jamie Peel, who I’d met in Mongolia. Maudes thought it was a brilliant idea and signed up that night! Peel got married…
“Brentski, I hope you’re looking after that old bastard over there!”
“I’m doing my best, mate. He hasn’t drowned yet.”
“The pictures look fucking amazing, mate. I bet you’re loving it!”
“I guess you can’t see the chafe or the wet sleeping bag in the pictures…”
I do my best to ignore the damp sleeping bag. The sound of the waves breaking just meters away helps and this is by far the best overnight of the race.
Stage 6—Hluleka to Mdumbi
My backpack is killing me.
It’s pretty much rubbed a hole into my back despite me constantly adjusting the straps, the way I pack it and even throwing things out of it to make it lighter. I figure it won’t be long until it severs my spinal cord.
Putting it back on now is torture.
I grimace as I sling it over my shoulder. I knew I should have given it a test run before this race but like everything, I am very unprepared and now I am paying the price.
We saddle up and set off through the Hluleka Nature Reserve. It’s like a jungle with tangled vegetation and monkey’s silently swinging through the trees above us.
“I fucking hate baboons, Brentski!” mumbles Maudes.
We get off and lead the horses, the vines hang low and are full of spikes and thorns, the rocks covered in slippery moss and the thick vegetation squawks and slithers of things I’m hoping not to meet…this is no place for humans.
“I bet there’s a Black Mamba or two in here, Maudes!”
“Shut up, Brentski!”
We make our way to the Mtakatyi River. I aim Rodeo at the beach part of the bank on the other side and he gets on with the job.
As we get out at the other side a local farmer runs down from the old cottage up the hill yelling that something orange is floating down the river!
I check my gear.
Maudes and Katja check theirs…
All good. We figure it must be from another rider before us.
After a steep climb up the hill Katja decides her horse is feeling the pinch.
“Guys, can I give my horse a breather?”
“Yeah, I think they all could do with one.” I jump off Rodeo.
Maudes pats himself down looking for his smokes.
“What’s wrong mate?”
“That orange thing floating down the river…”
“It was the dry bag I had my fucking smokes in Brentski!”
I ignore him and get back aboard Rodeo. There’s no way I’m going back down that hill for a pack of cigarettes!
We press on.
Stage 7—Mdumbi to Hole In The Wall)
Stunning, breathtaking views of a wild coastline you can only truly appreciate after three days of chafe-induced hell getting there! The salty air smacks you between the eyes to let you know you’re still alive. Dolphins catch waves in the surf down below. The whole place seems surreal.
We conquer the Mthatha River and head up a mountain following a trail that soon puts us on the side of a cliff face. The trail becomes extremely narrow as you scale the cliff. Straight down on the left is a massive drop to where the waves smash into a shelf of rocks and just one side step from your horse and you’re both dead.
Maudes and Tommy are in front and it soon becomes apparent we should have gotten off the horses and walked them through this. Tommy spooks at a different shade of grass.
“Tommy, you fucking twat your going to get us both killed!”
I look down at the gorge to see if any fellow competitors have plummeted to their death. One way of gaining a place or two, I figure. No such luck.
We reach the next vet check.
I get off Rodeo for the very last time and hand him to crew member Isabel who swaps horses with me. I saddle up my next horse, put the bridle on, fill up my water, restock the biltong and watch as they take our last horses away.
“Katja, can you hold my horse a minute?”
I drop the reins at her feet, assuming she’d said yes, and run up to Rodeo and give him one last pat on the forehead.
“Thank you, old mate! I hope one day we’ll meet again…”
Stage 8—Hole In The Wall to Bulungula)
Kwatcha. Strange animal…
Maudes gets aboard Fleck, a nice mare with a good engine.
Katja finally has a rocket, Bonita.
She makes the pace out of Hole In The Wall, up and down hills, a swim and some fast-paced beach gallops, we soon leave behind the most scenic part of the race.
As we head into small country towns with rundown huts and small dogs barking as they chase us, Kwatcha decides the families washing that hangs over the fences is the scariest thing he has ever seen! The children laugh, point us in the right direction and yell for sweets! Katja throws them a pack of trail mix and tells them something about sugar and blood pressure…
I’m too busy dealing with Kwatcha’s personality disorders to take much notice of anything else that’s going on.
As we make our way into Bulungula I realize Katja is finally aboard the horse she’s needed this whole godforsaken race. She’s found a rocket and all her endurance training and experience starts to shine through.
Something Maudes and I don’t have…
Stage 9 & Night 3—Buulungula to The Haven
The Xora River is running out to sea by the time we reach it.
There is only a small window of beach on the other side or you and your horse will end up climbing out over jagged rocks that are sure to slice you both into thin cut prime beef.
Katja is an avid surfer.
She knows tides, rips and the way the water works…
“We need to go further down guys and the tide will carry us to the beach.”
“Sounds good to me, Brentski.”
“Yeah, let’s do it. You’re in charge, Katja!”
We head upstream a bit further and then steer them in.
Kwatcha may be a bit different but he sure can swim! He stretches his neck out and powers through the water nostrils ablaze, ears pinned back. I grab the saddle and aim for the sand.
Katja was spot on and the tide carries us down just enough that we land straight on the beach.
Adopting the German is starting to pay off.
We make our way through the Cwebe Nature Reserve and into the overnight stop at The Haven.
As we unsaddle at The Haven, Louise and Adventure Barbie are still passing their vet checks. Fuck, we’ve made some seriously good time today, I think to myself…
Are we back in the race?
I crawl into the tent as the rain sets in and once again I’ve wasted my time hanging all my gear out…
I can’t sleep.
I wonder how Malcom is getting on…Is he still alive?
Soon enough it’s 3am. The chafe is burning, everything is damp, and I’ve been soaked for three days. Drops of water drip down the tent and I think about the nightmare of slipping into my wet socks once again in just a few hours time.
Maudes pokes me with a stick he’d earlier been drying his wet undies and socks with by the fire…
I ignore him but he persists.
“What the fuck, man? It’s 3am!”
“Brentski, if we don’t finish today I’m going to fucking cry!”
“We’ll finish today, mate! Shut up and get some sleep!”
Unless we get swept out to fucking sea at the Mbashe River, I think to myself…
Stage 10—The Haven to Kob Inn
There’s nervousness amongst the camp as the first riders start to file out. The winner of Race The Wild Coast 2016 will be decided today and there’s a hint of excitement in the air.
Sarah, Sam and Monde are first out with little time between them. Jamey and Rose are not too far behind them. A short break to Adventure Barbie, who was due to ride out with Louise. However, my fellow Aussie is unable to go on as her horse trotted up lame this morning failing the vet check. A cruel blow this late in the race.
Louise takes it on the chin…Aussie pride!
I saddle Kwatcha, pretend to understand him while he does his best to refuse his bridle and we’re on our way to the Mbashe!
We reach it at low tide.
The wind howls as massive waves crash in at the mouth and it appears a daunting task. The horses seem to need a bit more reassurance than any of the other crossings but Katja finds her way across using a sand bank and although the waves crash over their hind quarters and threaten to wash us away, we seem to get through with a reasonably easy cross of one of the most dangerous parts of the race.
Relief sets in.
We didn’t get swept to sea. Sharks didn’t eat us. It’s good to be alive.
Kwatcha is a horse version of a bulldozer. Or maybe a goat that likes bunting things…
We stop at a stream to give the horses a drink. Bonita and Fleck are straight in, it’s a hot day and the horses are feeling it. Kwatcha bunts Fleck up the ass. She pins the ears back and threatens to give it to him with both barrels but he ignores her and cannons into Bonita, slurping water as he goes about the destruction.
“Your horse is crazy!” cries Katja.
“Brentski, that twat is stranger than you!”
“He’s growing on me, Maudes…”
As we come to a dense forest with a road running through it we see another rider perplexed with the challenge in front of her.
It’s Adventure Barbie.
Stevie is American, platinum blonde hair with a perfect smile and Barbie doll looks. Not the kind of person you’d imagine stranded in a forest on the wild coast of South Africa.
“Well, I sure am glad to see you guys! I can’t seem to find a way through this scrub!”
“Don’t we just follow the road?”
“No, my GPS says we bushwhack through the forest!”
“Yeah, the road is off course, it’s straight through the forest…”
I jump off Kwatcha and lead him in.
We push through spider webs, under branches of spikey vines and I try not to think of the shit load of snakes that are no doubt right in there with us. Maudes starts singing. I figure it’s to scare the snakes but I don’t ask, as I like the idea enough to let him go.
We end up deep into the forest before we’re stopped in our tracks by a wall of branches, we decide this is ridiculous and there is clearly no way through here! We turn around and head back out and Kwatcha gets tangled in vines. I have to get my Leatherman out and cut him free.
“Fair Dinkum, I feel like Bear fucking Grylls!”
“Bear Grylls is a right dick head, Brentski! Who was that Aussie fellow that got done over by a Stingray?”
“Steve Irwin, mate.”
“Yeah, that’s him! I liked him.”
Time is slipping away…
It seems our mighty comeback is well and truly over. We agree to stick to the road despite the GPS. It’s a good decision and one we should have made an hour ago.
I’m a little frustrated. I ride alone for a bit, talking only to Kwatcha.
Bonding with our issues…
Stage 11—Kob Inn to Wavecrest
Everything hurts. Ankles, knees, back, brain…
It was around about day four in Mongolia when everything started to hurt and the race started to get the better of me mentally. It’s happening again…
Maudes has a look of pain on his face.
He’s gone quiet.
He’s not broken yet but I can tell he’s not far off.
Galloping down the pristine white sands of the un-spoilt beaches with the wind in my face has kept me sane all throughout the race, but today is warming up and the sun is starting to cook them. The gallops become a conservative canter as the sun beats a hole straight through our spirit.
I argue with Katja over the GPS directions. No doubt she is right and I really am about to take them straight over a cliff, but it’s hot, I’ve had enough, I’m in a shit mood so I ignore her.
“Crazy fucking Australian!” she yells in an angry German accent.
I veer to the right just in time, give Kwatcha a dig in the guts and gallop ahead of them straight through a herd of cows and down the hill through a small village of huts as if I knew exactly what I was doing all along.
Katja is still yelling.
Maudes and Stevie are left checking their GPS not knowing who to follow.
We make our way through narrow paths made by cows. A cow is a lot smaller in height than a horse and rider and in one part we have to unsaddle them to get them under the low branches and hope to Christ they duck a little and don’t slice the top of their wither off.
It’s brutal landscape that hasn’t let up in four days.
“Are we there yet, Brentski?”
Maudes is back…
Stage 12 & The Finish Line—Wavecrest to Kei Mouth
The end is near…
News filters through that Monde has won. A local victory in the inaugural race, he has beaten Australia’s Mongol Derby winner Sam Jones with Canadian endurance rider Sarah Cuthbertson in third place.
There’s also news of Malcom. He’s well and truly alive just a station or two behind, determined to finish! Some effort getting through all this alone. I figure he is clearly on some sort of spiritual journey and I can’t wait to share a beer with him at the finish line. An amazing effort indeed.
Kwatcha is a spent force but he’s a gutsy bastard and he refuses to let the far more superior Bonita and Fleck get away from him. He continues to cause havoc at watering holes and I really have grown to like the strange little character.
The last stage is by far the worst. It drags on forever through dusty roads and back over beaches in the blistering heat.
Stevie and Katja seem enthusiastic that it’s all about to end and they’re up ahead making the play.
Maudes and I are done. All I want is a cold beer and a shower. One more stage and this race could have killed us. I am simply a passenger now as Kwatcha does his best to keep up. I turn off the GPS and chew on the last of my biltong as we make our way through the most uninspiring landscape of the race towards Kei-Mouth.
“Brentski, if we ever decide to do something this daft again can you promise me no more horses?”
“Yeah, sure. No more horses, mate. I’m done.”
“NO MORE FUCKING HORSES!” Maudes yells.
The finish line approaches.
“Shall we tell the girls to go on so we can finish this together?”
“Sounds like a plan, mate.”
“Katja, you should race Stevie to the finish, give us something to cheer about on this horrendous leg!”
We reach the last stretch of beach before the finish line and hang back letting the girls fight out the finish.
“Go, Katja, GO!”
Katja isn’t quite as competitive as Adventure Barbie and Stevie puts her to the sword in the last 200 meters.
We break into a canter.
There’s a crowd cheering us on at the finish line, crew, riders, vets, and camera crew.
Chris Maude is a tall, lanky, pasty white, whinging Pommy bastard that was silly enough to ride in eight Grand Nationals. He’s also silly enough to endure living in a tent with me for four days, riding horses through landscape no one in their right mind should attempt riding horses through. We certainly didn’t win or break any records but it’s been a hell of a laugh.
We cross the finish line head and head. Dead heat!
Exhausted, relived, physically drained and mentally fried.
We shake hands.
“Good ride, old chap.”
“It’s been a pleasure, old mate.”
“We were the first, Brentski!”
“We’ll always be the first, Maudes!”
Race the Wild Coast 2017 is currently accepting applicants. Find out more at rockethorseracing.co.za.
About the Author
Brent Albuino rides horses, drinks too much, and travels the world occasionally to do silly things like Race The Wild Coast and The Mongol Derby. He’s 33 years old from Western Australia and trains Thoroughbred Racehorses in a shithole called Muchea to pay for his beer. He lives with his only friend, a dog named Bart.