The noon bugle in the clear Patagonian air released the cavalry charge. To the west, the snow covered Andean peak of San Lorenzo beckoned two dozen riders chosen for their intrepid personalities and equestrian skills.
They surged out over the scrub, each with two horses, one to ride and one to carry bright orange bags stuffed with fodder to see them through the first 80km stretch. Within a minute, one of the Americans was on the ground, trying to control two frantic animals as she re-balanced her kit. Half an hour later, as we sat down to local ostrich grilled on an open fire at La Perserverancia, the aptly named Argentinian ranch where we were based, a horse galloped into the corral. Followed a little later by the rider. The world’s toughest horse race was on its way.
The inaugural Gaucho Derby narrowly beat Covid-19 to the starting blocks in late February 2020. By the time it was over, it was hard to get home but those who were there had a dramatic lockdown story to sustain them The race was the brainchild of Tom Morgan, owner and founder of The Adventurists, a travel company that takes its clients to the edge. It was a spin off of his Mongolian Derby, first run across the steppe in 2009, now a must do for any ambitious endurance rider over 18.
Morgan seems unperturbed at exposing clients to extreme risks, but at least he can say, ‘been there, done that’ . His portfolio includes the Monkey Run, children’s motorbikes on Peruvian hairpins, the Rickshaw Run, tuk tuks on Indian byways, and the Icarus Trophy, aerial challenges on a cross between a cycle and a paraglider. Tom, self-styled creator of odysseys and chaos, has survived them all. Starting with the iconic Mongol Rally, an old banger race from London to Ulaanbaatar, his projects have always required a minimum charitable contribution of £1,000 per competitor in addition to the entry fees. Ideally 50 per cent goes to Morgan's favoured charity, Cool Earth, and 50 per cent to the donor's choice. So far, he’s raised £8 million and counting.
For his Gaucho Derby recce, he recruited Rama Gregorio Arcal, scion of settler royalty, and Jakob Von Plessen, Che Guevara reborn as Argentina’s endurance riding poster boy. As they bushwhacked through the savage Andean terrain, Arcal provided merriment, red wine and connections with estancia owners while Jako slashed away at the undergrowth with his machete to map out a rideable route. In theory anyway.,
At La Perserverancia, stir crazy riders had tested feisty criollo horses drawn by lot, new tack, GPS and Garmin inReach Minis (satellite communicators), their essential lifelines synched to HQ in the town of El Calafate so Morgan could monitor individual progress at all times. Zimbabwean head vet, Jeremy Hubert, had outlined procedures. ‘The horses haven't signed up for this, so their welfare is the priority’. Using proven Mongol Derby protocol, six mounted vets measured pulse rates for over exertion at designated checkpoints: if a horse was stressed, riders would sit out time penalties before selecting their next steed.
In the evenings, everyone partied gaucho style. By nightfall, five whole lambs – alive and frolicking on property that morning – were stretched out on iron crosses above flaming logs. A local trio played and Patagonians danced while big meat grilled. Others drank Malbec. And more Malbec. When you are sleeping on camp beds in a shearing shed newly-cleared of fresh skins and dried testicles, any bromide is a plus.
After lunch, the back up team drove south to establish camp at the end of phase one. The sun still shone as the indefatigable Daniela set up her pots outside semi derelict buildings. Intel from HQ suggested riders were making good progress, notably Jako, hors concours on his own horses, and Roberta from Melbourne, who was following him. He arrived in camp shortly after daybreak, having used a machete (not on the kit list) to free a horse trapped in a bog by a branch. No so Roberta: losing Jako, she was heading blindly for Chile.
Would anyone else arrive that night? Shortly after it became clear they wouldn't, the storm hit. Savage westerly winds brought 160kph gusts, horizontal rain and snow. These are default conditions in southern Patagonia, but that was no comfort as the weather raged through the night.
News filtered slowly off the mountain in the morning downpour. Savvy North Americans from icy climates – Marie (Montana), Chris (Calgary) and Courtney (Moab in Utah) – had bunkered down to ride out the storm in their tents, but there were alarming tidings of concussion, hypothermia and getting lost. It took until nightfall to round stragglers up and escort them to the stone hut where the support team kept the lifeline fire burning. Four were evacuated by helicopter to the hospital in El Calafate, but pronounced fit to rejoin the race the next day.
By then we’d cheered Marie as she trotted briskly into camp with tales of circling a stretch of marsh for five hours until she found a way forward. First up, a hot lunch, dry clothes and the pick of Arab horses trucked in from the pampas near Buenos Aires for two flatter, faster legs. Shortly after, Clare, a financier and mother from Wiltshire, and Courtney arrived with the same wish list.
So who were these riders prepared to spend upwards of £11,000 to take on the unknown? From 2,000 hits on The Adventurist website, 45 serious contenders were selected for FaceTime interviews and reference checks. The chosen ones ranged in age from Zsofia, 23, who plans to ride alone from the Chinese border to her native Hungary with two horses and her dog, to ex Marine Rob Skinner, closing on 60 and owner of Timepiece, the go-to club for Exeter high life.
UK equestrianism was represented by former steeplechase jockey, Chris 'Maudie’ Maude', and the Ledbury Ladies, Master of Foxhounds, Louise and Laura, riding together with the cheerful confidence of blind ignorance. Camping? ‘Well, a little glamping’, Louise shuddered.The Ladies had road tested their kit on the Brecon Beacons: when their trainer saw tents in Amazon packaging, he was not impressed. Shirley Haywood, an experienced endurance guide, represented Yorkshire grit. In 2018, at the age of 42, she suffered a brain haemorrhage. ‘A year ago I couldn't go to the supermarket. This is my way of saying ‘I'm back'.
Morgan’s original five leg race plan comprised three endurance sections with pack horses and two faster single-horse Arab sections. Reduced to four sections by the blizzard, the race proceeded without further misadventure to the dramatic descent towards Mount Fitz Roy, king peak among the spectacular glaciers at El Chalten. On the penultimate day, Rob and the Ledbury Ladies led their horses up a shale mountain, summiting just before the 20.30 riding curfew. Far below, the glorious sight of a river flowing through grassland. Emerging triumphantly from turbulent currents to cross the finishing line the next morning, they were met by a National Park jobsworth insisting their permit had expired. A dampener on the after party? Hardly. The trio arrived first but with outside assistance factored in, Marie was declared the winner, with Clare second and Chris third.
Back in El Calafate, pub crawl thoughts turned to the future. Another gaucho? Been there, done that. Another Derby? Oh yes! One for you, Tom? He’s thinking Turkmenistan.
Minty Clinch travelled as a guest of The Adventurists (+44 (0) 117 9635513, theadventuriests.com). The next Gaucho Derby will take place between February 27 and March 13, 2022.