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Sport 33: Spring 2005

Three days and two nights in Woodhill Forest

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Three days and two nights in Woodhill Forest

The forestry hut has been freshly painted—one shade darker than a clear summer sky. There's a family of swallows nesting above the light bulb in the toilet. In the kitchen are cups and utensils, pots and pans, everything you need if you're staying in Woodhill Forest with six horses grazing the perimeter of the camp. At night you can hear the sound of grass being torn and chewed inches away from your head as you lie in your tent.

Karen wonders how many bodies are buried in the forest. Julie laughs, rocking back in her blue camp chair—the one with the mesh tinny-holder that you can buy for eight dollars ninety-five at Countdown. It's hot and the sky is violet; it almost matches the hut.

Tracey does all the cooking—three meals a day—lost in concentration at the barbecue. She's waiting for a call from her mother, the mobile beside her among the steak and burger patties, the tomatoes and eggs. She flips steak on the hot plate and the phone shrills. There's no news of her brother who was holidaying near Colombo when the Boxing Day tsunami hit Sri Lanka.

'I have a gut feeling he's okay,' says Julie.

'It may be days before you hear anything,' says Ginny, often a little short on tact.

'My mother's ticker won't hold out that long,' says Tracey. 'She's already beside herself with worry.'

Karen talks about Barbecue a lot, how he got his registered name Hindsight because of the distinctive liver spots on his white rump. 'He was a good metre fifteen horse,' she says. 'There weren't many Appaloosas showjumping at the time.'

Tracey remembers saying goodbye to her brother in the departure lounge. He walked through the door and turned to wave at the family one last time. Her mother cried all the way home.


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Walking through the sand tracks, I see deer running through the trees—fleeting, fugitive like someone's name you're trying to remember but can't quite grasp. About six kilometres distant is a blue wedge of sea. The others have ridden off on their horses, wearing fluoro vests that say, Please pass wide and slow. I walk gingerly through the trees, leaning forward into the angle of my sling. I pick my way carefully down the gravel road, my scuffed Blundstones navigating the ruts and hollows left by four-wheel-drive vehicles, Carter Holt Harvey forestry trucks, mountain bikes and horses. I'm counting down the six weeks it takes for a broken clavicle to heal. I'm counting down to the day I can ride again.

Julie takes Marmite over some cross-country jumps, crunches her fst into his neck midair and hears a loud crack. The pain is excruciating as they walk back to camp. She unsaddles Marmite and buddy-straps her little finger to the one next to it with a roll of tape from the Holden's glovebox—the same one she used when she injured the other little finger over a fence.

This is the second time she's taken Marmite in her new float. She sleeps inside on a single mattress with a white gauze mosquito net draped over it. When I ask her how she slept, she says, 'Oh, it's five-star mate.' But Marmite has scuffed the inside wall with his hooves—she'll have to buy some white paint to patch it up. In the morning she sponges away invisible streaks of dust on the shiny green paint.

Though the ground is hard and my blue mat is thin, I love sleeping in my small tent with its zips and compartments. The first time I used it was at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Leaving Las Vegas on Memorial Day Weekend, it was 100 degrees in the desert. That night at the North Rim, it snowed but the tent held firm.

At breakfast Julie wears a tight pink tee, short black shorts and gumboots.

'You could get a job at Showgirls dressed like that,' I say.

Every morning she greets me, 'Hello, Celeste, how did you sleep?'

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'That blanket you lent me is covered in horse hair,' I say, 'but at least it was warm.'

Reiko is nineteen but thinks he is a four-year-old. When he was young, before Kelly owned him, he was a good stayer and won some races at the track. After crossing the finish, the jockey couldn't pull him up and they made another lap on their own. Kelly goes cautiously in the forest, afraid Reiko will bolt.

At dusk, Josh thinks some members of Highway 61 are hiding in the trees, waiting for darkness to fall. He barks and growls. 'It's probably just a possum,' says Kelly, sweeping the paddock with her torch and picking out the dark shapes of the horses. In the morning Josh licks my foot, laps up the bowl of milk Kelly has left him.

On Saturday night, Jean leaves Smokey behind at the camp and drives into town to meet her twin sister at Sky City Casino. Saturday is Rock 'n' Roll Night and they've never missed one yet, these blonde twins in their flouncey dresses and spike heels. She drives back to Woodhill early Sunday morning, unlocking the gate and arriving at the hut before we're up. She'll ride in the forest with her daughter Sue and her big Irish draught horse Ralph. 'It's the perfect way to take the edge off a hangover,' she says.

On the way back to the riding club, Kelly's Nissan's brakes fail on Awanohi Road. She pulls the handbrake on in the gravel, just managing to control the fishtailing truck and float. Josh whines in the front seat and Reiko bangs and scrambles in the back, struggling to manage the sudden deceleration.

Kelly bought her Nissan Safari from a man who had recently won Lotto. 'I'm not giving it to you,' he said, 'but I'll let you have it for a good price.'

On the last night Tracey dreams of the Mongrel Mob, how they burst into the campsite and demanded beer. She handed over Julie's six pack of Mac's Light Gold and they left.

After breakfast she loads her big chestnut Lucas for the drive home. As she's bolting the ramp, the mobile shrills and it's her mother page 163calling to say they've heard from her brother. He'll be on a fight home from Sri Lanka in a couple of days. Does she want to come to the airport and meet him? Her mother's voice is light with laughter and tears and Tracey runs back to the camp to tell us the good news. In hindsight she always knew she'd see him again. On the way home she's so happy she almost forgets to be nervous when she feels the big horse shifting his weight in the back.