Wild at HeartInspiration
Wild At Heart follows Alienor and her horses on a three-year journey stretching an extraordinary 5,330km across the Australian wilderness.
Featuring photography by Cat Vinton.
In September 2017, Alienor le Gouvello completed her solo horse trek of the Bicentennial National Trail, a 5,330km journey along the length of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. She, along with her three wild horses that she trained prior to the expedition, took three years to complete the trail, which to date only 35 people have ever finished. More people have walked on the Moon. She is only the second woman to complete it, and the first with wild horses – and also the first to complete it with horses in such good condition from start to finish.
Alienor was Sidetracked’s 2015 Adventure Fund winner, and her story featured in Sidetracked Volume 11. Featuring stunning photography from world-renowned adventure photographer Cat Vinton, Wild at Heart is a quintessentially Australian story of breathtaking beauty and indomitable spirit. We recently caught up with Alienor to find out more about the book and her life post-expedition.
Sidetracked: How was returning to life after the expedition?
Alienor: Hard, really hard. So hard that I avoided the reality of it initially by accepting to be sponsored to compete in an endurance race in Mongolia. Three years of my life were coming to an end and had consumed me so much that I had no idea what I was going to do next. It took a long while to return to ‘normality’ – a job, a routine, etc. The comfort of civilisation wasn’t so hard to get used to, though. When you don’t have running water for over a year, you really appreciate even the little things that are part of our privileged life in this country.
How about for Roxanne, Cooper, and River? [Alienor’s brumbies]
They are my family and will always remain with me. Now they are on my husband’s family property, where we have based ourselves for the last four years, and for the last couple of years they have enjoyed being in huge paddocks, running free. They’re not being worked much because of me having a baby. They are near the house and come to say hello. Roxanne is pretty much retired, because she has worked so hard on the trail for me; Cooper and River occasionally help with cattle work on the property, and are about to be trained to be ridden in the Riding for Disabled School in Bundaberg with me. I volunteer there once a week. If they pass the training, I will be bringing Cooper and River to be utilised as session horses with disabled children.
Writing a book about an expedition can be cathartic, emotional, powerful, draining… how was it for you reliving your experience in this way?
Initially, it was an absolute nightmare. The last three months on the trail were so physically and mentally draining with my sickness – the last thing I wanted to revisit. But my publisher in France had commissioned me and I had to deliver. Once I started, I gained an appreciation for what I had just achieved and not yet processed. The emotions were vivid still, and varied. Unpacking it was raw and difficult to relate to at times. It was challenging to separate myself or put into words the experience. Thankfully I had heavily documented my journey with video and photos – they helped me to relive the memories.
It was a challenge and a very rewarding experience. Writing doesn’t come naturally to me. I had to really apply myself. My mother, who’s a journalist, was my ghostwriter and motivator. I really enjoyed translating it to English with Catherine de Saint Phalle, a very talented author and translator. It gave me the opportunity to see it with a different perspective a few years later and expand on the gained meaning and understanding of the experiences I had lived. I feel a lot closer to the English version because it’s an Australian adventure and story. So, to be given the opportunity to revisit it and improve it was valuable.
What do you hope readers will get out of the book?
A desire to get out there and appreciate the great outdoors or the outback, to take on exciting adventures.
I want people to recognise the need to reconnect with nature and animals by travelling, engine free, in harmony with nature, close to nature and animals.
To slow down, appreciate simple things. A slow pace allows anyone to take in the environment more.
And I would like readers to learn about and support the brumby plight with awareness and support methods such as the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association programme.
You’ve talked a lot about how meeting men, especially as a solo woman, is one of the scariest things we encounter. That’s suddenly topical again around the world, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are when people ask you ‘how do you stay safe, as a woman?’. How do you approach this dialogue?
Australia is one of the safest countries in the world but sadly there could be untrustworthy characters wherever you go. During my 13 months of expedition, I only felt vulnerable a couple of times, when meeting groups of men either under the influence or not inspiring trust. In those situations it was purely the isolation that put me at risk, but common sense and instinct are the things I rely on.
I’ve travelled extensively and you become a pretty good judge of character just by looking at someone. In those situations, I never revealed that I was travelling on my own, and led the men to believe I had a support crew behind me or on their way. ‘As a woman’ I think it’s about common sense and instinct, basically. Not putting yourself in situations where you could be too vulnerable, and as far as possible never revealing that you are travelling on your own. It’s also important to have emergency plans and ways of communication – which you should do on any expedition whatever the circumstances.
How did your expedition lead you towards equine therapy?
I have been studying equine therapy since finishing the trail and having a baby. It took a while to find my direction again. I still suffered symptoms from my tropical fever, and it affected my mental health. My horses were my happy place. After spending 13 months on the road together the bond I created with them is something I’ve never experienced in a lifetime with horses. Typically doing something with horses involves getting them from a paddock or a stable, working them, and putting them away again. During my trek, I lived with my horses 24/7, travelling and camping together. I learnt all the intricate details of each of their characters. I became so close to them that they became my family and I became theirs.
Cooper and River were totally wild when I acquired them, and training them from this level added to our connection. Winning the trust of a brumby is a beautiful experience. And once you do, their heart is huge and has no limits. They never let me down during those 13 months and they are the true heroes of this expedition. I firmly believe that without them, their resilience, sensibility, and nature, I wouldn’t have made it.
Whilst wanting to be a very present mother for my son, I also felt the need to pursue my passion for horses and something to nurture my soul and purpose. I acquired two new brumbies last winter with the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association. To tame them, I learnt Liberty Training skills with a very talented trainer based in Brisbane. Liberty is the next level of natural horsemanship. It’s the art of learning to communicate the horse language and working with them free of any attachment or equipment. The horse is free, and yet follows all your cues. It required hours and hours of gentle, patient work – known as the contemplation phase. It became like meditation for me. This experience furthered my bond with horses and gave me a deep appreciation for the power they have over us. Equine therapy can be a very strong and effective way to overcome traumas, depression and anxiety. It combines both my passion for horses and helping people. It also allows me to live a fulfilling life surrounded by my horses.
Wild at Heart, by Alienor le Gouvello, is translated by Catherine de Saint Phalle and available to buy via affirmpress.com.au/publishing/wild-at-heart/
Stories from this expedition feature in Sidetracked Volume 11 and on our Field Journal.
For more information, follow Alienor on Instagram @wild_at_heart_australia
Written by Jenny Tough // @jennytough. Photography by Cat Vinton // @catvinton