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The Ride: Modern-day cowboys turn back time

Barry Armitage and Jo Dawson at Delvera

© Christopher List Photography

An ex-sailor and an ex-farmer, it is Barry Armitage and Joe Dawson's job to relive the historical journeys of some of South Africa's greatest horsemen and adventurers.

From 'The Ride of the Peacemaker' - the legendary Dick King's epic 10 day, 950 km dash from Durban to Grahamstown, to their most recent expedition - a six-day race from Cape Town to Grahamstown dubbed The Ride of Harry Wackalong Smite, the two equine adventurers are weaving a heroic tale of suffering, determination and the will to succeed.

Barry Armitage and Joe Dawson grooming their horses

© Christopher List Photography

It's testament to this determination that The Ride was picked up by South Africa's local TV channel, SABC 3. Putting his life savings into the venture, Barry not only roped in his brother-in-law Joe, the TV production team Cooked in Africa, and a support team, but also major-league sponsors such as LandCruiser, EquiFeeds and Franco C Saddlery.

In fact, the 'Race across the Steppe', a 1000km horserace across Mongolia that's considered the toughest in the world, is at present showing on SABC3, while Barry and Joe recently filmed The Ride of Harry Wackalong Smite.

I caught up with them at Delvera Stables just before they left to discuss how they felt competing in what would be their toughest challenge to date - recreating the journey taken by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Harry Smith (called "Harry Whackalong Smite" by his troops), veteran of the Peninsular War and of Waterloo, to take command of the garrison at Grahamstown during 1835.

Even though, much like Harry, who used the established postal system of the time, Barry and Joe will have fresh horses waiting for them every 40 km, they will have to ride at an average speed of 22km per hour, and cover a remarkable 224.5 km in a single day to keep up with the brutal pace set by Smith.

Barry Armitage gets close with his horses

© Christopher List Photography

"It's probably the furthest and the fastest that anyone has been on a horse", says Barry, telling me a little bit of the background at the time.

I learnt that Grahamstown was under threat of being over-run. During the Sixth Frontier War, thousands of Xhosa Warriors were pouring over the border, laying waste to the farms of the Cape Colony. The Governor of the Cape, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, urgently sent Harry Smith to the rescue.

Harry Smith chose to ride, rather than make the journey by sea as was the norm, ostensibly concerned that weather conditions might delay his departure. "He was a bit of an egotist. I think his real reason for riding was to show off", says Barry. "But he could do it!"

"He must have been amazingly physically capable and a great horseman", Joe interjects. "Even with fresh horses waiting for him at post stations every 40 km, it was a remarkable achievement".

In fact, this won't be the first time that Barry and Joe attempt to recreate this historical journey. On the second day of their first attempt, Barry's horse shied at some reeds and bolted. Barry managed to hang on for about 30 metres before his horse bucked, sending him flying into the air, landing on his back and breaking two vertebrae.

"It's a wonderful thing to have happened", says Barry, "because it made us realise how tough that ride is. We can't afford for anything to go wrong".

The Ride - Harry Wackalong Smite

© Louis Hiemstra - The Ride of Harry Wackalong Smite 2011

"Now we're a little wiser, we're better horseman, definitely fitter and we've got better horses", Joe continues. "However, it's certainly going to be harder for us than it was for Harry. In those days there was a highway, probably little more than a dirt track, that is now the N2. Obviously, we're going to be avoiding it as much as possible, using service roads and doing a lot more cross country. We actually end up travelling further than Harry Smith."

Barry and Joe are particularly worried about the fifth day of their journey. "It's a big milestone. It's very scary to do so many kilometres in one day - even endurance riders think we're crazy. Our bodies will already be under stress from doing 120-170 km a day, and the next morning we're up at 3 am, with 224.5 km ahead of us. The following day we'll still have another 120 km to finish, but once we're on that, it's the home stretch".

In light of the fact that Barry and Joe have only been riding horses seriously for the past eight years, it's astounding what they've managed to achieve so far. "I wouldn't dare to call myself a horseman", says Joe modestly, "I've only been riding since my 20's".

Joe Dawson cleans his horses shoes

Barry describes them as "happy hackers" before he became obsessed with South African history and conceived The Ride. "We managed a wildlife reserve; riding a lot on the veld to manage workers, animals and fences. It's been a massive learning curve as a horseman".

In fact, Barry and Joe believe that starting out with less knowledge has been a blessing in many ways. "We approached any situation with an open mind because we wanted to learn", Joe tells me. "So we'd carefully listen to what people tell us and then decide to take it on or discard it as we see fit".

"Ultimately, we know about horses in the context of what we do - whether it's competing for endurance or doing our expeditions - we know how to keep them going for 30-40 km every day, how to care for them and cover distance across any given landscape.

We've established our own niche in horsemanship; no-one gets from A to B much better than us, through this modern world that is no longer friendly to horses", Joe continues.

horse closeup

Going in accordance with historical routes often means the two cut through cities, so it's a good thing that they both have a thing for urban riding. "Probably the biggest obstacle to travelling on horseback these days is a fence, says Barry.

Barry Armitage and Jo dawson on horseback at Delvera

© Christopher List Photography

"You don't appreciate or understand a world without fences until you go to Mongolia and ride for 1000km without seeing a single fence. You get a little peek at it in the Transkei, because even though plots are fenced, the land is a commonage so you can travel through the landscape fairly unimpeded".

The two also have to watch out for tar, avoiding it where possible. "For any horse it's a strain on their shoes to do long distances, but when they're barefoot, as ours are, it wears their feet away like sandpaper", Joe tells me. "The advantage of barefoot riding is that the horses grip is better and there's less concussion".

For instance, at the start of the Harry Smith expedition, Joe and Barry ride out of town all the way from Rondebsosch straight out through the Cape Flats, most of which is tarred.

"Though we travel on the verge, inevitably we're going to have to travel on the hard shoulder, crossing bridges and the like.You also can't get a completely wired thoroughbred racehorse or even an Arab endurance horse in that environment and expect to come out in one piece. That's where the Boerperd and our adventuring horses really come into their own, they are street wise, savvy horses. You can have a truck come past at 120 km an hour and they just keep on trotting. Now that's special", Joe continues.

Joe feeds an apple to his horse Pat

© Christopher List Photography

And while Dick King had to be careful of warring Zulu and Xhosa tribes, life-threatening wild animals and the like, for Barry and Joe some of the biggest threats are manholes, wire and litter. "The amount of broken glass from alcohol bottles on the side of the road in South Africa is astonishing", exclaims Joe. "Because you're in the environment, you're part of it, and everything affects you, it teaches you to be more respectful".

Barry and Joe always ensure they leave no trace wherever they camp. "We used to carry quite a bit more food with us, but it wasn't necessary. We've started foraging, and people often just stop and give us stuff. It's modern day living off the land, from picking oranges off the tree, to finding wild asparagus, or just buying a pie at the service station", he continues.

Travelling slow allows you to take everything in and feel the spirit of a place. "You interact with people you pass by, whereas in a car you're in a bubble, completely removed from the environment", says Barry. "Even other animals will want to have something to do with you, especially other equines. You feel nature much more closely; in fact it's in your interest to be keyed in to the environment".

Joe Dawson and Barry Armitage ride on horses past vineyards at Delvera

© Christopher List Photography

A self-titled city boy, Barry's love for nature is quite evident when he tells me about the Wild Coast. "We got a bit lost and ended up in a spot that was so remote, so difficult to get to that there's probably only a handful of people that have ever been there - and those that did were probably shipwrecked.

We came through the bush, following game paths, over this big headland down to the beach, and there was not one footprint, no cattle paths, nothing. Just a beautiful pristine beach, except for a single line of bushbuck prints going across the hard sand just along the water line. It was amazing. The Wild coast is a national treasure. It's God's country for riding horses".

Cowboys on horseback, Transkei

© The Ride - Into the Unknown

It's clear that the historical and cultural element of what they do really resonates. "If you think about it, the age of a horse is thousands of years, while the car has been around for less than a 100 years!

The routes we travel on daily were made for oxwagons and horses", says Barry. "Driving home on a double lane highway, most people don't realise that the road is not wide to have two or four lanes of traffic, it's wide so that an ox wagon could turn around! Motorists don't appreciate that they're actually on our turf.

There are a few grumpy people out there, but they're the exception. Most people see two guys on horseback and are literally taken aback, maybe even imagining that bygone era. After all, we are where we are today largely because of horses. Through the TV show and what we do, we hope to peel away the onion layers to reveal something a little pithier, to prompt people to think about where we came from and what it took to make this country", says Barry.

A key learning for the two adventurers has been to trust in the world and in the landscape. "In an open, rural environment like a wildlife reserve or the Wild Coast, there is this flow within a landscape, where animals and people forge paths through their environment to find the most efficient route.

In a built-up environment, it's the same thing, you start to find the routes that people use every day to get through the city, and it's incredibly rewarding to follow them on horseback. Sure we get it wrong occasionally and have to backtrack but it's wonderful to have developed this skill", explains Barry.

Looking at a map

Interacting with people is an important part of their journey. "We get a lot of positive responses from rural people, many of whom are horsemen themselves", says Joe. "But they usually think we're lying when we tell them what we're doing".

Two horseman on a beach, surrounded by African children playing football

© Damien Schumann - The Ride of the Peacemaker

Riding in urban areas also garners them a lot of attention: "There's nothing better than riding horses smack through the middle of built-up areas; people are not used to seeing horses in an urban environment in this day and age", says Barry.

This passion for connecting with people inspired a slightly different expedition - Into the Unknown, a 10-week 2000 km ride from the midlands of Kwazulu-Natal to Cape Town that began in October 2011. Barry and Joe conceived this journey to raise funds for equine charities, relying on the charity of South Africans to feed and home them for the 69 days of their journey.

Barry and Joe riding at Delvera Stables

© Christopher List Photography

"The idea came from our time in Mongolia, when we rode in the Mongol Derby. You'd be out on steppe not knowing where you're going to sleep that night; your riding time is about to be cut off, so you'd approach the nearest nomad tent and ask to be put up. These people live on less than one dollar a day, but they'd take you in, give you food and look after your horses. Their hospitality made us wonder if you could do that in South Africa", says Joe.

Using facebook, twitter and word of mouth to 'knock on doors', Joe and Barry were put up every night, barring one where they paid for accommodation at a discounted rate. "From church groups in the Transkei that let us sleep in the mission, to five-star lodges where people put us up and paid for our food, it was amazing to see South Africans live up to our expectations, and beyond", Joe continues.

Despite all their other amazing adventures, Barry and Joe speak wistfully of their experiences during Into the Unknown. "It was really something special. I am a different person now than before that trip", said Barry.

"In the beginning I used to worry about where we'd be staying and who we'd be meeting. But after a while I became so open to everything. It's incredible to just walk into someone's home that you don't know from a bar of soap, and to just be comfortable to be there in yourself. You get to know them and enjoy their company, sleep in their bed and have breakfast with them. And then you say goodbye, probably never to see them again".

Barry Armitage and Joe Dawson

© Christopher List Photography

The two made some lifelong friends along the way. "It was wonderful to be touched by people in that sweet, generous way, and hopefully to touch them back. It was a journey of liberation", says Joe.

Barry and Joe hope that the last and final phase of their trip, a fundraising event to be held on the 17th of June at Canterbrook Stables in Midrand, will receive an equally positive response from the people of South Africa - raising funds to support worthy equine charities the Cart Horse Protection Association in Cape Town and the Highveld and Coastal Horse Care Units.

Of course, the two adventurers also have to take care of themselves. Keeping fit by cycling, Barry also boxes, rides horses and does core strength exercises, while Joe keeps in shape with regular runs, riding and yoga. "It's not quite life and death", says Joe, "but it can be close".

Aside from the danger of falling off their horses, some of their most scary experiences have been river crossings. "You get to the edge of a river, and you have this awful feeling. Deep down we all know what that feeling is. It's dread.

Crossing the Breede River with horses

© Louis Hiemstra - The Ride of Harry Wackalong Smite 2011

And you're thinking I can't do this, but you know you have to. And the river is pumping and it's brown, and your brain is working fast and you just decide to go for it. And there's no feeling in the world like the feeling you get after that. It's a mixture of relief and elation, as well as self-empowerment", says Barry.

In Into the Unknown, they were swimming across rivers between 5-10 times a day. "A lot of them weren't that challenging, but there'd be no way to tell in advance", says Joe. "For instance, Chilumna in the Eastern Cape was just a thin blue line on the map", Barry continues. "We hit it about two hours before low tide. It was 120 m wide, chocolate brown and pumping, sucking because the tide was going out, and flooding from the rains. You can't just say ok, let's go upstream, because there's nowhere else to cross!

We decided we could wait 45 minutes to work out some kind of plan. With rocks further down and reeds on the other side, we couldn't go straight across, we had to aim for this tiny little beach. So we ride the horses into the water, thinking we could wade in for about 20 m, but we literally hit the channel at 5 m.

So we're hanging on to the backs of our horses, immersed in this dark brown water, the jaws music is playing and we're thinking, if we miscalculated - that's it. It's over".

The two also have to worry about sharks, especially in the Transkei where Zambezi sharks are notorious. "Crossing the Mbashe river, nearly everyone told us to watch out for the sharks, and at the Haven Hotel where we stayed there was a picture of shark fins in the estuary exactly where we wanted to cross".

With Barry and Joe heading back to Mongolia this year to compete in the Mongol Derby, it's a good thing the two have such an adventurous spirit.

The wild side of Mongolian horses at the Mongol Derby

© Louis Hiemstra - The Mongol Derby

A multi-horse, multiple stage long-distance adventure race based on Genghis Khan's ancient postal system - where riders crossed Mongolia to Eastern Europe in about 14 days changing horses at horse stations along the way, the Mongol Derby is considered the world's most gruelling horse race.

Racing across the Steppe at the Mongol Derby

© Louis Hiemstra - The Mongol Derby

In fact, at last year's event, only nine of the 23 competitors managed to finish. "We're going back this time to win it", says Joe, "and this year we're bringing South African horse hero, Kendre Allies, with us as part of team South Africa".

"We met Kendre on the last day of Into the Unknown, and were compelled by his story. He came from the Cape Flats gangs, and literally pulled himself up by the bootstraps. Now he runs the Oude Molen stables in Pinelands. It's fitting that he comes with us to the spiritual home of horsemanship", Barry continues. "Of the three Mongol Derbys held, two were won by South Africans. We plan on bringing the trophy back this year, and as endurance riders qualified to enter the SA Champs, we're much better prepared".

Of course, for these intrepid adventurers the Mongol Derby is certainly not the end of the road.

Their next equestrian adventure is another historical journey - the Ride of the Dandy Fifth, 17-year old Boer Commando Deneys Reitz's gruelling 4,500 km horseback odyssey during the 1899 - 1902 Anglo Boer War, spanning South Africa from the Mozambique border in the east to the Atlantic seaboard in the west.

Barry Armitage and Jo Dawson

"If I inspire people to do something extraordinary then it's worth it", says Barry. "If it's going to hurt a bit physically, then so what. These people did this stuff, they shaped the world. We have to keep asking ourselves, can we do it? Are we man enough?"

Barry Armitage and Joe Dawson racing off on horseback to the next adventure

© Christopher List Photography

Return from The Ride to Eco-friendly Africa Travel

Visit to follow Barry and Joe's adventures or watch them on SABC3.


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