Four beats to freedom - a horseback journey through New Zealand



In 1925 Aime Felix Tschiffely set out from Buenos Aires in Argentina, with two South American 'criollo' horses named Gato and Mancha. He travelled northwest, through the dry pampas and into the Andes Mountains in Bolivia and Peru. Most of the time he was following tracks and footpaths - there were no main roads across the range at that time, and he was a very long way from civilisation. Sometimes he camped at night, sometimes he stayed with the local people, and sometimes he stayed in police stations or small inns. He ate whatever he could buy locally, and bought feed for his horses whenever he could. The journey presented him with many challenges...

'...We had crossed some giddy and wobbly hanging bridges before but here we came to the worst I had ever seen or ever wish to see again. Even without horses the crossing of such bridges is apt to make anybody feel cold ripples running down the back, and in fact, many people have to be blindfolded and strapped on stretchers to be carried across. Spanning a wild river, the bridge looked like a long, thin hammock swung up from one rock to another. Bits of rope, wire and fibre held the rickety structure together, and the floor was make of sticks laid crosswise and covered with some coarse fibre matting to give a foothold and to prevent slipping that would eventually prove fatal. The width of this extraordinary piece of engineering was no more than four feet and its length must have been roughly one hundred and fifty yards. In the middle the thing sagged down like a slack rope

I went to examine it closely and the very sight of it made me feel giddy, and the thought of what might easily happen produced a feeling in my stomach as if I had swallowed a block of ice. For a while I hesitated and then I decided to chance it, for there was no other alternative. 

I unsaddled the horses, and giving my Indian guide the leadline I made signs to him to go ahead with Mancha first. Knowing the horse well, I caught him by the tail and walked behind talking to him to keep him quiet. When we stepped onto the bridge, he hesitated for a moment, then he sniffed the matting with suspicion, and after examining the strange surroundings he listened to me and cautiously advanced. 

As we approached the deep sag in the middle, the bridge began to sway horribly, and for a moment I was afraid the horse would try to turn back, which would have been the end of him; but no he had merely stopped to wait until the swinging motion was less, and then he moved on again. I was nearly choking with excitement, but kept on talking to him and patting his haunches, an attention of which he was very fond. Once we started upwards after having crossed the middle, even the horse seemed to realise that we had passed the worst part, for now he began to hurry towards safety. His weight shook the bridge so much that I had to catch hold of the wires on the sides to keep my balance. Gato, when his turn came, seeing his companion on the other side, gave less trouble and crossed over steadily as it he were walking along a trail.

Once the horses were safely on the other side, we carried over the packs and saddles and when we came to an Indian hut where native beverages were sold, we had an extra long drink to celebrate our successful crossing, whilst the horse quietly grazed as if they had accomplished nothing out of the way....'

Activities / discussion points...

a) Draw a picture of what you think the bridge looked like when Mancha was crossing it

b) Why was Tschiffley so worried about crossing the bridge? What might have gone wrong?

c) What words describe how Tschiffley felt as he looked at the bridge before he crossed it?

d) He had to try to cross the bridge 'because there was no alternative'. What do you think he might have done if one or both of the horses had refused to step on it?

e) Have you ever had to walk across something that seemed very wobbly or unsafe, or frightening in some different way? How did you pluck up the courage to do it?

f) If you were to meet a challenge something like this - a high and wobbly brige, or a narrow steep path perhaps, how do you think you would feel? How would you pluck up the courage to go forward? How would you feel afterwards?

g) Mary and Jacko won't have to cross any wobbly bridges, but they will have to cross some big and possibly quite frightening rivers, which the horses will have to walk through. How do you think they should behave if they are faced with such a challenge? 

h) Tschiffley rode his horses all the way to Washington DC in North America. After Bolivia he entered Peru, then Ecuador and Colombia. The journey took him nearly 3 years! Can you find these places in the atlas and work out what other countries he had to go through before entering the USA?

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  Four Beats to Freedom - 2001.