Three horses, 2020km, 156 days and one national lockdown. The Rewild Project is an epic expedition of backcountry horse trekking and reconnection with the wilderness, straight up the guts of New Zealand.
Jessica Mullins, Bijmin Swart and their horses Tokala, Madiba and Tussock, had barely seen another soul in two and a half months when they emerged from the wilds of New Zealand’s South Island in mid March. They were in the midst of an eight month expedition, trekking the length of New Zealand on horseback, when they returned to civilisation after weeks in the backcountry. They entered a world that’d been completely turned upside down, and they hadn’t even seen it happen.
Walking Into A Pandemic
A few days after learning about COVID-19, Jess and Bijmin posted on Human & Horse: Rewild Project, the Facebook page dedicated to their journey.
‘Two days ago we emerged from the wilderness to find ourselves in a very different world to the one we left a month ago. With the chaos and pandemonium COVID-19 has caused all over the world, our news feeds are full of dire posts brimming with fear and uncertainty as humanity races to try and stay ahead of this new foe.’ – Human & Horse: Rewild Project, March 18 2020.
At this stage, New Zealand only had a few cases of COVID-19 and the situation was still developing. But it wasn’t long until the entire nation was changing its plans.
New Zealand Goes Into Lockdown
‘We were riding along one day and stopped into this little town. As we were having lunch, our Prime Minister announced that the country was going into lockdown in 48 hours. Fortunately, prior to this, we’d kind of figured out our general direction and had an option to stay.’
‘But the problem was we had to travel about 115+ km in 48 hours on horseback to actually make it. It was an insane rush,’ Bijmin tells me.
The distance they’d planned to ride over the course of a week now had a 48 hour deadline. There wasn’t even time to finish their lunch. They rode another 30km that day – after already trekking 25km that morning – and tucked up by a random river at 10pm for a kip.
For the last six months, Jess and Bijmin had relished in the fact they had no fixed address, no plan much beyond tomorrow, and no time pressure to be anywhere. Lockdown saw their sense of security crumble in seconds.
‘Being on public land, you don’t know where you’re going that night, but you know that it’s okay wherever you are going. That’s a really liberating feeling.’
‘But when that lockdown came into play, suddenly those restrictions of needing a physical address, one spot that we could have ourselves and the horses, that emotional change of knowing that the trip’s coming to an end and we don’t actually have a place to go to. That was pretty tough,’ Bijmin says.
The place they’d organised to stay next was in Golden Bay, on the north coast of the South Island. Their hosts called the local police to inform them Jess and Bijmin would be riding through town after lockdown had begun. They managed to arrive safely in three days and are still sitting tight in Golden Bay now, reminiscing on the last six months on the trail and planning for the next leg.
Horses From The Kaimanawa Ranges
The expedition was over two years in the making. With both of them having plenty of horse guiding experience under their saddle, Jess and Bijmin had dreamed of trekking New Zealand on horseback for years.
In 2018, their dreams started to kick into gear when they acquired three wild horses from the Kaimanawa Ranges. These horses had never been in contact with humans before. In order to maintain ecological stability in the area, there’s a biennial muster to ensure the horse population doesn’t exceed 300. The mustered horses are often sold for domestication, or in this case, the adventure of a lifetime.
The pair spent a whole winter breaking in their trusted steeds. They used fear-free methods, which ensure an immense amount of trust between human and horse.
Time To Trot The Trail
At the start of November 2019 it was time to giddy up. From their home in Glenorchy, they rode south to Bluff, along the coast to Invercargill and then back up the middle of the South Island.
But finding a safe and horse-friendly trail was more difficult than they first anticipated. Although horses are allowed on a lot of conservation land in New Zealand, as Bijmin tells me, ‘if you get to a locked gate, you’re screwed’.
‘We use a combination of accessible conservation trails, and then on private land we’ll call ahead and speak to farmers and get tracks… part of this trip is documenting which tracks and trails are horse accessible throughout New Zealand and what the terrain actually looks like as well,’ Bijmin says.
After the first few weeks, it became apparent that the uncertainty of the tracks and weather meant they couldn’t plan much further than a week in advance, and often had to rely on others for a helping hand or home.
‘You get so used to saying the whole, ‘I can do it thing’ and yeah, we can do it. But sometimes you have to make those phone calls.’
‘And I think for me, a big learning curve was letting go of that fear. Learning how to blindly call people and ask for help or advice. Understanding if there’s something that you really don’t want to do and you need to do it, how do you get it done?’ says Jess.
Rewilding, Resetting, Reconnecting
Once they were out of the towns and villages and in the true backcountry, their mindsets began to change. Their circumstances forced them to live in the moment.
‘On the trail you’re required to deal with the stresses that are right in front of you. I wasn’t thinking about what was happening a year or six months from then.’
‘It wasn’t really necessary to carve out time to have mental stillness or clarity, because that’s your existence. Coming back into civilisation, I found out just how quickly you need to make space for that, because it’s not your norm anymore,’ Jess tells me.
Rewilding is a major focus and reason for their adventure. Both Jess and Bijmin wanted to spend time connecting with nature and discovering how different life is in the wild, away from screens and social pressure. But it’s learning how to bring this way of life back home with you that’s the tricky part.
‘How do you keep that good stuff that you have on the trail? And how do you bring it forward into other places?’
‘Because the reality is that we don’t all live in the middle of nowhere. How do you translate that into our modern daily lifestyles?’ Jess questions.
For now, Jess, Bijmin and their stallions are staying put in Golden Bay. But they have every intention of floating up the horses and ferrying them to the North Island to continue their adventure, once the pandemic, and winter, come to an end.