I totally buy into the Hollywood version of loveable bank robbing, train robbing, gun-toting outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With those blue eyes, the bicycle fun (with that song) and a romance which any girl who’s ever watched the film has imagined herself being part of, what’s not to love?
When I was at high school there a TV series fronted by Robert Redford in which he went on horseback through the US regions that The Hole in the Wall Gang presided over; I was completely smitten. So much so that I went on to commit a crime myself. With scant regard for my own life or of those around me, I walked unchallenged into the library and helped myself to the book that accompanied the series. A beautiful hardback packed full of photos of the divine Mr Redford, the illicit swag was stashed in my bedroom for years and my catholic guilt almost drove me to an early grave.
But I got over it.
I’d not had much in the way of experience with horses when growing up, neither in my day-to-day life in London nor in my summers spent in the homeland back in Ireland. There was one incident where as naïve city mice we tried mounting a horse we came across in a field not realising she was heavily pregnant and none too pleased to be clambered on.
She angrily chased us out of the field and held a real grudge from then on in. I remember my dad trying to tame her a few days after and being amazed at how tiny his 6ft stature looked when she reared up on her hind legs, clearly wishing we would all just bugger off.
I hadn’t been near a horse since those early days and yet on reaching Tupiza in Bolivia, my travelling buddy Rachel and I thought it would be a great idea to embark on a two-day horseback trek out to a village called Salo.
Salo forms part of the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid Trail so was of particular interest to me. For anyone familiar with the film, Salo was where the pair holed up the night before attacking the mule convoy transporting the payroll for nearby mine workers.
We saddled up early on day one and rode out of town along with two Dutch girls and two guides (ie a couple of teenagers). The landscape was as wild, rugged and breathtaking as it is in the film. As uncomfortable and unconfident as I was on the horse, I was glad I wasn’t instead sitting on the handlebars of rickety bicycle being controlled in a comedy fashion – even it were with Paul Newman at the helm.
Shortly after leaving town we left the road and set off on a gravel mountain path. We were surrounded by red and orange craggy rocks which made that crumbling dry sound that is so wonderfully atmospheric whenever bits broke off. Just the kind of noise that would have made Butch and Sundance stop in their tracks, look into the distance and spot the plumes of sand kicked up by the mysterious gang tracking them.
Who ARE those guys?
The terrain became a raw and unforgiving expanse of scrubland dotted with cacti.
It was totally awe-inspiring and overwhelming. I was completely in the zone. I was Katharine Ross.
Our teenage guides suggested we up the pace and demonstrating expertly with one deft kick, they were off.
I was Katharine Ross and Kid had my back. I could do this.
I executed the kick badly and managed to simply to anger my steed, who took off at lightning speed. With no idea where the brakes were and only my own vocal chords for a horn, I held on for dear life and screamed a warning siren as I approached the front of the galloping group.
The guides were still out ahead but I was catching up, far faster than I wanted. When I came within spitting distance of them I became aware of a change in my posture. I appeared to be inexplicably listing to one side.
Inexplicably, that is, until I realised my saddle had loosened and was starting to slide down under the belly of my horse. The stirrup on that side had already disappeared and was out of reach, leaving me no stabilising purchase to keep me upright.
As I sped past my guides they seemed impressed that my riding skills had suddenly improved to the extent that I was performing circus skills. At a rate of knots, I out rode them at a 90 degree angle, hanging off the side of the beast in a less than elegant fashion.
It took them a while but they did eventually realise it wasn’t intentional and finally came my rescue.
Our route became even more wild when we left the path and descended to a dry river bed which we followed for the remainder of the trip.
We stopped for a packed lunch and relaxed in the wilderness, miles from any road and not a soul around.
Butch and Sundance would have lived this so many times.
Once fed and watered we got ready for the final leg of the journey; we were to be in Salo by nightfall.
The guides had decided to give me one of their horses instead as mine was behaving a bit feistly. First off the mark, I mounted my new vehicle and waited for the rest of the group to do the same. My previous horse was untied and immediately shot off in its now customary manner at the speed of sound.
It galloped away across the arid river bed with the guides shouting madly.
I remained on my new horse watching the spectacle, grateful I was no longer with the crazy one.
In the distance, the mad mare skidded to a halt and turned to look back at us all. She then did that thing bulls do with their hooves, signalling it was about to do something rash.
She launched into a furious sprint, her sights set clearly on me and my horse. There was no denying it, she was intent on doing something to us, we just didn’t know what. The rest of the group was still standing around, I was the only one saddled up.
I was also undoubtedly the only one with no idea how to get off a horse without help (they’re much bigger than you imagine actually). I shouted for help as the beast got closer and closer, my new horse flinching under the clear and present danger she was facing.
There was a risk she would go up on her hind legs to try scaring off the nutter, which would inevitably lead me to falling off and landing precariously heavily on my back. Cries of, ‘Grip on tightly with your thighs, grasp her mane and keep low and close to her neck!’ came from the group.
I did all this and waited for the onslaught. We were in the middle of nowhere – if I ended up needing serious medical attention it would be a very grave matter.
I wished Butch and Kid were there to help me.
The horse didn’t let up her speed until she was just feet away from us, charging wildly and sending rocks and clouds of rubble flying in our faces.
My horse held her ground.
Before the guides could grab her reins she made off in the same direction and repeated the exercise for a second time. As determined as she was to spook us, the guides did on this occasion manage to get her.
Extremely happy not to have to ride her for the rest of the journey, we set off once more and made it to Salo with no further incidents.
It wasn’t difficult to picture the scene of Butch and Kid riding in looking for a posada offering a bed and a hot meal; Salo seemed stuck in time and we did pretty much the same thing.
A homestay was negotiated and we all bedded down on the floor of a family’s kitchen having had our bellies filled.
It was a wonderful, authentic experience; so remote and far removed from the trappings of modernity – reachable only by horseback in the toughest of terrains.
Throughout the night there were rumblings and echoes emanating from the chasms that surrounded us. The sounds that Butch and Kid would have heard.
The next day we did the same trip in reverse and come the end of the day I felt like a proper horsewoman.
The day after this, Rachel and I headed out of Tupiza on a local bus, the romance of the Wild West having captured our hearts and minds.
About two and a half hours later we pulled off the main road and down a short path that led to a village where we were told to fill up on lunch.
It looked strangely familiar.
It was Salo.
We wandered straight in to our homestay, which had now thrown open its doors to serve lunch to travellers – as did every building in the busy street. While sitting there we realised that the magical rumblings we had fallen asleep to only two nights before was the sound of trucks thundering past on the main road that was about 100m away.
Fairly certain that’s not the soporific noise that Butch and Kid nodded off to before their final heist, but hey, we had fun and lived to tell the tale – which is more than they can lay claim to.