By Brit Collins, iol Travel
Wells, Nevada - In the heat-shimmering emptiness of the Nevada desert, a swirling cloud of dust heralds the loud, sudden arrival of wild mustangs.
“Look at ’em go,” says cowboy Monty Heath, pointing at the horses thundering into view, as we tear through the scrubland in a high-powered all-terrain vehicle in their wake. It’s like chasing ghosts. Somehow, I can’t quite believe they’re real.
Beneath endless, burning blue skies, we stop to gaze in wonder at the heart-stirring sight of these wild herds, once slaughterhouse-bound, charging across the rugged landscape.
Opened last summer, Mustang Monument is a luxury retreat in the sleepy backwater of Wells, Nevada, whose primary aim is to provide refuge to about 1 000 wild horses.
For guests, it’s a glorious mix of high-end relaxation and old-fashioned adventure. But the primary goal of Madeleine Pickens, glamorous British entrepreneur, philanthropist, and animal rights advocate, was to create a sanctuary for America’s vanishing wild horses rather than a pampering resort.
Pickens recounts her battle with the region’s cattle ranchers, who regard the wild horses as pests that steal food from their cattle.Inside a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, I meet Pickens and ranch director Clay Nannini, resplendent in Stetson and spurs.
“I bought the land to save the mustangs. But then I thought it would be lovely to create a sustainable ranch to share with others.”
Nannini, from Wells and a former rodeo star-turned-estate agent-turned-cowboy, helped Pickens to buy the 242 810-hectare reserve.
Pickens filled it with hundreds of horses she rescued from an Indian reservation and from kill buyers at auction.
“When they first arrived the property wasn’t even properly fenced, so we had to build temporary corrals of hay bales,” she says. “They were a sad bunch and some had babies by their side. Now they’re healthy and happy and back on the range where they belong. Horses helped blaze our trails, fought our battles. They’re a national treasure. How can we abandon them?”
Most American mustangs, brutally rounded up by the thousands, are shoved into long-term bare-bone holding pens, paid for by the public purse; many are sold illegally to European meat markets.
Pickens says her ranch alone could save taxpayers $3-million (R38m) a year.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, she and her then-husband, T Boone Pickens, airlifted more than 900 cats and dogs to west coast shelters.
The next day, I awaken to sun filtering through one of the ranch’s tepees at 5am, take a look outside and see the mustangs across the stream – sheer magic.
Surrounded by rugged canyons, the teepee, painted with mustang motifs, is kitted out with a four-poster bed, patchwork quilts, hand-woven rugs, leather armchairs, cushions and lanterns.
Just as the sun rises over the Ruby Mountains, Nannini comes to invite me to “feed the wilds”. Rattling along dirt roads in an old wagon pulled by two big beautiful black-and-white draft horses, we jump off and start distributing hay to the hungry masses shyly gathering round us. Soon, hundreds appear from every direction – pintos, paints, greys and palominos – gently whinnying and calling out to each other.
Amazingly, they let us wander around them as they graze. “Like everyone else, they’re easily corrupted,” says Nannini, smiling. “When they first came they were terrified and wild-eyed, kicking and stomping. Mustangs are adaptable and tough because they’ve had to be, surviving famines, droughts, wildfires and a harsh climate for generations.”
Later, Nannini has me saddling up horses to take a group riding, with his two sheep dogs in tow.
“There’s everything out here – bobcats, wild elk, ghost towns,” he says, leading us up dusty mountain trails through long buffalo grasses and silvery-green spruces.
Trying to be a cowgirl when you’re used to chasing buses in the city isn’t easy. The moment I am distracted by Nannini’s dogs jumping into a cattle trough to cool off, my horse sprints towards a steep ravine at whiplash speed – I am waving like a reed in the breeze.
Calmed by Nannini, we rejoin the group and continue up the mountain trails to explore the ruins of an old gold mining outpost – a few rotting wooden buildings in the sagebrush. Nannini points out the fabled California Trail crossing the plains. “Imagine what a tough life it was for those early settlers.”
At the top of Spruce Mountain, Pickens, trailed by her three dachshunds, and sun-scorched action-man Heath arrive with a picnic basket overflowing with breads and cheeses, mountains of wild berries and watermelon.
Sitting on a cliff’s edge and sipping sundowners, I take in the dizzying views of the Ruby Mountains. Nannini talks about his days as a rodeo star and his wife’s mud wrestling. Heath, a tobacco-chewing former US Navy SEAL, recalls his former life in the war zones of Bosnia and Afghanistan. Pickens, a former Pan Am stewardess, was once the wife of a Texan oil billionaire and before that Allen Paulson, developer of the Gulfstream jets.
Back at the ranch, we sit down to a communal, candlelit supper in a teepee – a hearty, homespun affair of bean soup, mushroom skillet, butter-braised greens and peach cobbler. Later everyone retires to the saloon for whisky sours. The moodily lit parlour is pure Wild West fantasy, with sawdust floors and saddle stools; we settle on the verandah, listening to Johnny Cash and counting stars. As the night draws on, a group of Native American Seminole-Cherokees join us for some storytelling and pow-wow dancing among the pines.
It could easily feel contrived, but stays on the right side of authentic. Mustang Monument peddles a curated nostalgia that gives guests a chance to escape the modern world – a place where as far as the eye can see, wild horses run free.
The Great Basin National Park, a 31 160-hectare wilderness of glacial moraines, sagebrush meadows and spruce forests, is three hours south of the Mustang Monument ranch. You can hike, picnic beside pristine alpine lakes and tour the Lehman Caves, a mesmerising complex of stalactites and stalagmites. See www.travelnevada.com