Marianne Du Toit
In May 2002 South African born Marianne Du Toit left Ireland, where she had been living for 11 years, for South America embarking on a two year journey which her family labelled as “madness”. With two horses, named Mise and Tusa, for company, she set off to discover America, riding from Argentina to New York.
Du Toit based her trip on the journey of Aimé Tschiffely-hailed as the most famous long distance rider of the twentieth century- who rode the 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to New York in 1925. She skimmed through his book about the journey as research but says she was “terrified to know too much”; afraid that if she knew how difficult the trip would be she may have decided she wasn’t up to it.
With limited equestrian experience and even a slight fear of horses, her love of animals, eternal optimism and lust for adventure helped her persevere.
“I remember since I was about 17 I would always read these articles about independent, daring women who had done these amazing journeys. There was always something deep down driving me to these adventurous things. I just loved the adrenaline and the excitement,” she says.
Du Toit spoke no Spanish, could barely ride a horse, knew nothing about horse care or saddling up, and didn’t know a soul in the Americas.
She had to ride across the high Bolivian Altiplano for over 40 days surviving the thinnest high altitude air and living on very little food. The only thing keeping her going was the thought of making it to the Bolivian capital, La Paz.
“When things got really bad I knew that they always had to get better and couldn’t stay bad forever. That optimism drove me a lot during the journey through all the challenges and difficulties, especially the weeks spent in the remote Bolivian Altiplano”, she recalls.
Her high spirits were crushed on arrival, however, when she realised nobody was waiting to meet her and no one was going to recognize her achievement.
Du Toit spent many nights in the most primitive places, having to knock on doors in search of a place to sleep every night for 21 months. She often shared the night with cockroaches, sleeping in outhouses, phone boxes, dental clinics, and even under a dusty stairs.
In one motel in Central America, her sleep was interrupted when the crazy owner chased her with her own machete. Earlier, she had a lucky escape earlier when she was held up by highway bandits in Argentina.
“Sometimes it turned out to be nightmare stuff; there were so many potential worries about the journey that, if you started to break it down and think about all the potential threats where you could injure yourself or even die, I never would have done it,” she says.
Travelling alone on horseback was not easy for Du Toit. She had to ride for hours in blazing heat and torrential rain, fighting away mosquitoes and horseflies and constantly battling with the horses’ saddlebags.
“I wasn’t horse fit so I didn’t know the toll it takes on your body to ride for eight or nine hours a day. There was no part of my body that wasn’t aching. Our endurance is a lot more than what we often think. Even though every step is still sore, you are still aching and every movement you make is excruciating you just get beyond it,” she laughs.
Throughout the trip the horses were her main concern. She says she didn’t mind feeling tired, cold or hungry as long as the horses had a place to sleep and some food to eat.
At one stage in the expedition, Marianne and her horses spent five days aboard a cargo boat on the Amazon. Despite sleeping in a tent on the boat and having to expose herself overboard to the creatures of the Amazon to go to the toilet, her main worry was that her horses might fall overboard.
Du Toit’s lowest point came six months into her journey when one of her beloved horses tested positive for anaemia and had to be put down. As she talks passionately about the tragedy, hurt appears in her eyes.
“Whatever happened on the journey from the hardships and difficulties, the hunger, the cold, dealing with rude people and managing the horses or being held up, nothing compared to how I felt when Tusa died. It was the only time that made me think if I really wanted to continue the journey.”
So how did she settle back into life in Ireland?
Marianne is now happily married and busy promoting her book about the journey, ‘Crying with Cockroaches’. She feels that having written one book does not make her an author, and is moving on to other things.
She helps a crippled Romanian gypsy, who she discovered begging on the wet streets of Dublin, over two years ago. He has progressed from not having a word of English to learning to read and write and has been given an operation on his leg to help him walk.
“It was a bit like the journey. When I started I didn’t know how big it was going to be and how much responsibility and commitment it is. It has been a very rewarding experience not without its challenges. He came across my path and I knew it was just something I had to do,” she says.
She also volunteers with the DSPCA and other animal welfare organizations and has spent a lot of time writing to restaurants campaigning against the production of Foie Gras.
Du Toit, the eternal optimist, believes that during these hard economic times, things can only get better and hopes people will continue to live their dreams. Even during the loneliest, darkest nights of her trip, she says she was “surviving and living in the moment,” and urges everyone else to do the same.
Jasper Winn and Marianne Du Toit appear to be worlds apart. While Du Toit was still in school, Jasper was cycling across the Sahara, canoeing the length of the Danube and roller skating across The Netherlands. However, both Winn and Du Toit share one similar passion; horses.
After spending many years on the adventure travel bandwagon, Jasper rediscovered his love of horses while on a trip to Morocco in 1989.
“I was walking from the Atlantic coast over the Ait Bamranne Mountains to the Sahara when I was stopped by a fierce Berber woman on a mule who told me how stupid I was walking when I could be riding. I thought about it for a few days, and realised that she was right. This pretty much set up my course for life after that,” Jasper tells me.
He bought a Barb stallion on the coast (for two hundred Irish punts) and rode through the Atlas Mountains from Marrakesh to Fez. It was here that he realised he had both the skill and the ability to travel long distance by horse.
Jasper went on to apply for and win a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, funding a year and a half long trip to live with the Berber tribes of Morocco. He bought himself a mule, which he called Mrs Bottom, and set off to make contact with the Ait Atta tribe.
“Eventually I met and was accepted into one family and over the year and a half I spent eight months living and travelling and working with them; we lived in goat hair tents in the summer up in the mountains and in rather a nice cave down in the pre-Sahara for the winter.”
Over the years Jasper has worked in every sort of horse environment there is. From cattle droving in Queensland to working with Turkmen tribesmen in Iran, he has ridden long distance in 26 countries in five continents.
Winn tells me that apart from Mrs Bottom, he has bought his horses in the strangest of places.
“I bought a horse in Kyrgyzstan a few years ago and rode from the Chinese border westwards along the Tien Shan Mountains for a few weeks; selling the horse for a profit at the end,” he tells me, adding that he also once bought “a horse from a mounted policeman in Central Mexico!”
Over the last eight years, he has been to South America regularly to ride on horse round ups, cattle drives and generally work with local gauchos and other cowboys, which he confides is one of his favourite things to do.
“The guys I was riding with were so much fun; the harder the conditions, the worse the weather, the longer the hours in the saddle the more it seemed they enjoyed it; and they all still had plenty of energy for music, dancing and drinking when we hit town,” he laughs.
Similar to Du Toit’s trip across the America’s, Winn says his horses are always the first priority.
“Travelling with a horse one just has to think ‘horse’ 24 hours a day. One has to find fodder for the horse and it’s good to find a meal oneself – though more than once I’ve had to crush up my animal’s oats to make myself porridge – as well as water and a safe place to sleep.”
“I remember camping out in Mexico up in the hills listening to the sound of coyotes coming round. In Kyrgyzstan I tried to get to nomad camps in the evening so I could sleep in their yurts, but a few times I got caught out and had to sleep in the mountains.”
So what is next for the man who has done everything? Jasper is wants to follow in the footsteps of Marianne Du Toit, and is planning to do a long distance endurance ride across Argentina.
“I’m interested to put all I’ve learnt from different peoples around the world about long rides together and see if I can do a fairly speedy long trip. The ride will be a mix of adventure challenge and a chance to research traditional horsemanship and its techniques.” From my personal experience with Jasper, I have no doubt this will be another crazy adventure.