At 32 years of age, Alienor le Gouvello has already chalked up more remarkable travel exploits than most of us would dream of accomplishing in a lifetime.
“I treat life as one big adventure,” she said. “We live in a fast-paced, crazy society but I am more interested in going to remote places and connecting with people. That’s where I feel the best.”
In July 2017, she completed the Bicentennial National Trail, a 5330 km trek from Victoria’s high country to Cooktown in Far North Queensland, travelling solo apart from three brumbies taken wild from Guy Fawkes National Park.
The trek and its preparations were her main focus for almost three years.
For nine months she lived in Dorrigo with Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association founders Erica Jessup and Graeme Baldwin, being mentored by them and schooling the equine team she had chosen for her journey.
Purchased from the passive trapping program, the horses were two young, untamed geldings, GF River and GF Cooper, and an older mare, GF Roxanne.
The trio spent thirteen months on the trail, travelling through some of Australia’s wildest, most inaccessible country, facing climatic extremes from snowing to tropical heat.
“Really, the horses are the heroes of this adventure, because they handled the trip so well,” Alienor said. “Thirteen months on the road and not one injury. These guys have that self-preservation that comes from being wild animals.”
Born in France, Alienor came to Australia for a three-week holiday when she was 20 and never took her flight back. Since then she has interspersed social work in isolated Indigenous communities with adventurous experiences in far-flung places.
“Working in remote communities, you dedicate yourself to that, you don’t have much of a life,” she said. “You work, work, work and save up money. Some people save to buy a house, I did it to go travelling.”
Asked if the National Trail was the first big expedition she had attempted, she said, “No, no, I love doing this sort of thing. I did a 900 km horse trek in Mongolia when I was 22, in crazy conditions of minus 20, camping for three months. I rode a side-car motorbike with my ex 10,000 km from Lake Baikal in Siberia to Paris. And a similar trip in India, we rode a motorbike from the east coast to the west coast. Also, I lived in Brazil for a couple of years in the jungle.”
And she has always had a passion for horses. As a teenager she learned from the best, doing dressage, showjumping and cross country with the military school in Paris.
“My great grandfather was a general in the First and Second World War, and when you have military family you can ride with the military school, and they have the best facilities, the best horses, and you ride for them, you get allocated a horse to compete,” Alienor said.
In Australia, she did track work for a racehorse trainer in the Adelaide Hills and mustering on a station in the Outback.
When she heard about the National Trail through a friend, she was captivated by the idea.
“It planted a seed in my head that never left me,” she said. “I wanted to do the whole thing.”
Alienor decided Australia’s wild horses, with their resilience strengthened by natural selection, would be the perfect companions for attempting the trail.
However, for the first few weeks, she had trouble with the geldings, who baulked at traversing the the steep terrain of the early section in Victoria.
“When you have green horses, they’re going to question you. The two young fellows were just broken in – they were trained but they didn’t have the work ethic, I guess. It was challenging till they understood, with my mare’s help, that they weren’t going to get out of it.”
They started in November 2015 and ten months later they’d done 4000 km. But they weren’t travelling fast enough to get to Cooktown before the hot rainy season.
“It’s not feasible to travel through summer in North Queensland with horses that are from the cold country,” Alienor said.
So they pulled up in Nebo, Alienor went back to work in Central Australia to replenish her funds, and the horses were trucked to Dorrigo for a rest.
Resuming in autumn, they finished the remaining 1300 km in three months, despite the fact that Ailenor became very ill with Ross River Fever and an MRSA infection.
“I wasn’t going to give up, having come so far, but the second leg of the trip was really difficult,” she said.
There was no contingency plan – “it was me, unassisted, in the bush” – but people following the trek via her Facebook page came to her aid in Townsville, Mossman and Cairns, looking after the horses and taking Alienor to hospital.
After five days of intravenous antibiotics in Cairns, she was told to rest and recover. Instead she got back on a horse with her wounded foot in a plastic bag and forged on to the end, arriving in Cooktown on July 20.
You might think the BNT would be enough adventure for one year, but within two months of finishing it, Alienor was in Mongolia competing in the Gobi Desert Cup.
It’s a six-day, 480 km endurance race on Mongolian horses, a different one each day, with twice-daily vet checks to ensure riders don’t overtax their mounts in their rush to the finish.
She came first, a feat she attributes to having honed her ability to read the needs and capacity of a horse.
“It’s about speed, but it’s also about how well you look after your horses,” Alienor said. “Because if they don’t vet in twice a day, you are eliminated or you lose points.
“I looked after the horses, and that I knew how to do because I’d just spent a year on the road with my horses.”
The Gobi Desert Cup is conducted at a lively pace for the six days, with an accompanying support crew conveying food, tents, bedding and fresh horses for the participants.
Alienor found the speed a refreshing change after the more plodding nature of the Bicentennial National Trail.
“You trot and canter pretty much the whole time. You gauge your horse’s level of tiredness and hydration – you’re in the desert, so it’s pretty dry and hot. It’s about reading your horses well and not pushing them too much in the first half, because it’s 80 km every day, eight to ten hours trotting and cantering a day.”
On the BNT, she had to be self-sufficient and carry everything she needed.
“With a pack horse, you can’t go faster than a walk,” she said. “It was really fun getting a bit of pace in the Gobi Desert.”
Alienor used a rotation system to ensure Roxanne, Cooper and River didn’t develop sores or strains, swapping their roles daily and also taking a load off their backs by doing some of the walking herself.
“Every day I walked about a third of the way. So if we did a 30 km day, I’d walk at least 10 km. Just to stretch my legs and get off my riding horse, to give them a break as well.”
Asked where she thought her penchant for endurance-testing adventurous exploits came from – whether it ran in the family or whether there was a particular adventurer who had inspired her – Alienor expressed admiration for Robyn Davidson but then began talking about her aunt Raphaëla’s sailing expeditions.
Raphaëla le Gouvello has done a series of lengthy solo ocean-crossings on a windsurfer fitted with only the most rudimentary modifications to make it habitable.
“I went to the start of her first expedition across the Atlantic when I was 15,” Alienor said. “My father was her expedition manager. She left from Dakar in Senegal in Africa and sailed to the Caribbean.”
So perhaps Alienor’s adventurous spirit is in her blood as well as in her upbringing.
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