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932 Miles, 4 Months, 3 Horses, 2 Women, One Adventure of a Lifetime

In a narrative that could rival a Hollywood blockbuster, two women have shared their unforgettable horseback journey that saw them travel over 932 miles across New Zealand.
Nicole Kumpfmueller, 27, and Karolin van Onna, 31, were accompanied by horses Moose, Rasta and packhorse Alex for their three-and-a-half month journey the length of the South Island of New Zealand.
It is a far cry from the picture-perfect first-class getaways we’re used to seeing on social media feeds, but many popular destinations are reeling under the weight of over-tourism prompting concerns about personal safety and environmental degradation.
A picture of Nicole Kumpfmueller, left, and Karolin van Onna, right, with the three horses Moose, Rasta and trusty packhorse Alex. A picture of Nicole Kumpfmueller, left, and Karolin van Onna, right, with the three horses Moose, Rasta and trusty packhorse Alex. @nzonhorseback/TikTok
For example, Kyoto in Japan recently banned tourists from certain neighborhoods, while access to the Machu Picchu Inca trail is now capped at 500 permits a day, and Venice has banned large tour groups because of concerns about the sinking city.
The contrast is stark to Kumpfmueller and Van Onna’s off-the-beaten-path travel style as they sought out an experience away from the conventional.
New Zealand’s travel and tourism industry has been integral to the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. In financial year 2023, the number of international visitor arrivals to New Zealand rebounded, increasing by over 2.2 million from the previous year. But this tourist influx brings its own set of challenges.
In 2021, the country’s tourism agency launched a campaign to attempt to discourage influencer-style photoshoots at tourism hotspots.
An ad featuring comedian Tom Sainsbury humorously warned against “traveling under the social influence.”
Kumpfmueller, left, on her horse, and Van Onna, right. Kumpfmueller, left, on her horse, and Van Onna, right. @nzonhorseback/TikTok
This was an attempt first to keep tourists safe as more people put themselves in danger in the quest of the perfect vacation snap—dangling from heights or walking down deserted highways.
The tourism board also hoped to encourage people to seek new experiences beyond the viral trends.
And the friends’ trip certainly fits that category. It was born out of a long-standing discussion between the friends, who are both originally from Germany but met in Cromwell, New Zealand.
“I’ve been living in New Zealand for eight years now and I’ve got a horse tracking business. I’ve been into horse riding pretty much my whole life,” Van Onna told Newsweek.
A silhouette picture of the friends on horseback during their trip. A silhouette picture of the friends on horseback during their trip. @nzonhorseback/TikTok
When they met six years ago, they instantly hit it off and talked about the dream of seeing the country on horseback.
“We had the idea how cool it would be to see New Zealand on horseback,” Van Onna said. “And since then we were talking about it, and how one day we’re gonna do it.”
“It was a joke at first,” laughed Kumpfmueller. “But then it became a more serious matter.”
Putting their jobs on hold, the duo, along with Kumpfmueller’s boyfriend Sam who documented their adventure, embarked on the journey that proved as incredible as it was challenging.
The journey evoked the spirit of the legendary cowboys of the American West, traversing vast distances on horseback with provisions in tow.
Cowboy core is having a moment in fashion and popular culture, too, driven hugely by Beyoncé’s foray into country music.
Google searches for items like “cowboy hat” increased by 215.5 percent and “cowboy boots” by 163 percent after her stand-out Super Bowl single release.
Yet, the reality is a little less glamorous, with muddy trails and nights under canvas, far removed from the aesthetic allure.
Riding between 10 and 18 miles a day with their experienced trekking horses, the trip of a lifetime wasn’t always a leisurely ride as it tested their resilience.
“We didn’t expect it to be super easy, but we didn’t really know what challenges to expect,” said Van Onna. “We kind of went in pretty blindly—we had the route planned out and we talked to a lot of people that do a lot of Backcountry riding, but neither of us had done a lot of country riding before.”
A picture of the three horses on the backcountry trail. The three horses helped the friends travel 932 miles across New Zealand’s south island. A picture of the three horses on the backcountry trail. The three horses helped the friends travel 932 miles across New Zealand’s south island. @nzonhorseback/TikTok
The pair picked up skills as they went along, from asking reluctant horses to make river crossings to learning how to read a map and pitch a tent.
Among navigating dense forests, scaling steep mountain passes and battling with unpredictable weather, one particularly memorable obstacle was part of the route near the South Island’s Mt Hutt and Lake Heron.
What was supposed to take two days turned into five as they were greeted with swampy terrain.
“It was a massive swamp. So the horses are sinking up to their butts and it was like a nightmare,” recalled Kumpfmueller. “We had to find ways up mountains and down again.”
Along the journey of more than 932 miles, the friends stayed in a range of places, from pitching their tent on hillsides to stopping at some of New Zealand’s high country stations.
Typically, in farming and rural areas, these stations are steeped in colonial history and used to rear animals including sheep, deer and cattle. Many of these have sharing accommodation on site for seasonal workers that the friends were able to utilize during their journey.
“People in New Zealand are really amazing,” said Van Onna. “Their hospitality was incredible. Like I definitely didn’t expect that. When people ask what was the best part of it, that comes to mind straight away.”
A picture of Karolin and Nicole holding hands on horseback. The pair traveled over 3.5 months across the entire south island of New Zealand. A picture of Karolin and Nicole holding hands on horseback. The pair traveled over 3.5 months across the entire south island of New Zealand. @nzonhorseback/TikTok
The trip bears similarities to Tracks, a book and film of the same name, which was originally a National Geographic article by Robyn Davidson.
In 1977, Davidson crossed 1,700 miles of Australia’s outback with only the company of four camels and her dog, Diggity, for companionship.
In contrast, Van Onna said: “We spent three and a half months together. Really 24/7. Like never have I ever spent 24 hours a day with somebody, not even with a partner.”
Throughout their time traveling the length of the South Island their friendship grew too, although Van Onna and Kumpfmueller are in no rush to embark on another island-length expedition anytime soon.
“I wouldn’t do the same thing again, but I would want to come back and explore more,” remarked Van Onna. With a smile, she added, “We have talked about how it would be really cool to do the North Island so we can say we did all of New Zealand on horseback. But it’s not really in the plans right now, but maybe at some point, you never know.”
Currently, the duo is relishing the comforts of home, including a real bed and shower. “You definitely appreciate everything a lot more. Towards the end, it did get really hard,” Van Onna reflected.
“But on the other side, it did make us feel, I think, stronger and like knowing what we can do if we really put our minds to it. Like you can do anything you put your mind to,” she continued.
Reflecting on their journey, Kumpfmueller mused, “We think back and talk about it a lot now, and in hindsight, we’re like how did we do this? Like how did we survive this?”
Correction, 3/18/24, 6 a.m. ET: This story was updated to correct the number of miles traveled to 932.

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