When Filipe Masetti Leite was a child, his father, Luis, read Tschiffely’s Ride – the true story of an epic journey in the saddle – as a bedtime story to the impressionable little boy.
Originally from Brazil, the family had resettled in Canada, where Filipe grew up and attended university. After obtaining a degree in journalism, Filipe faced a difficult choice.
Should he get a job, marry his girlfriend and settle down to the type of predictable life which his friends were doing? Or should he consider undertaking the equestrian journey which his father had longed to make but had been unable to attempt due to family obligations?
Filipe decided that his father’s lifelong dream, inspired by Aime Tschiffely’s 1925 ride from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York, in the United States, was more important than rushing to join the traditional work force.
Seeking guidance and information, Filipe contacted the Long Riders Guild in August, 2011.
“My father sent me the link to a website that held the story of our beloved hero, Aime Tschiffely, the most famous Long Rider of all time,” Filipe explains.
“He googled ‘Man rides from Buenos Aires to America’ one night and the Long Riders Guild link was the first one to come up. After reading through the story he loved so much, my father explored the website and found that there were other Long Riders just like Tschiffely all over the globe.
“I was as amazed as my father that there were still men and women making Long Rides out there. After a few weeks studying the site, I mustered the courage to email the Guild’s founder, CuChullaine O’Reilly.
“I was very scared because this Long Rider and journalist is the most knowledgeable human being when it comes to the subject of equestrian travel. I was hesitant to tell CuChullaine about my plans because I had never done this before.
“Yet I was about to attempt one of the hardest rides to dates. What if CuChullaine laughed at me or thought I was just plain stupid? Luckily, he didn’t!” Filipe wrote.
In fact, the Guild began immediately began organizing an international effort to assist Filipe.
German Long Rider Günter Wamser, who rode from Patagonia to Alaska, Canadian Long Rider Bonnie Folkins, who rode in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, Brazilian Long Rider Pedroca de Aguiar, who had journeyed extensively in South America and American Long Rider Bernice Ende, who had made many equestrian journeys in the American west, all agreed to act as Filipe’s mentors and provide him with valuable information.
Additionally, the Long Riders’ Guild loaned Filipe a Canadian adjustable pack saddle, made by Custom Pack Rigging. This type of pack saddle has been successfully used by Long Riders on every continent except Antarctica.
Finally, the Guild asked Canadian Long Rider Stan Walchuk to teach Filipe the skills needed to use a pack saddle. Stan made a long solo journey across the Canadian Rocky Mountains and now runs a special wilderness school, Blue Creek Outfitting, where he teaches packing and equestrian travel skills. Stan provided Filipe with an extensive course for free.
In conjunction with the Long Riders’ Guild, Basha O’Reilly, the executor of the Tschiffely Literary Estate, endorsed Filipe’s dream of emulating Aimé Tschiffely.
Tschiffely’s odyssey in the saddle took him north on the adventure of a lifetime; Filipe’s was to take him south from Calgary in Canada to his family ranch in Brazil – a journey of some 16,000 kilometres.
The young traveller began his journey on July 8, 2012, when he departed from the Calgary Rodeo arena. It didn’t take him long to cross Canada and mark the first country off the list of those which lay between him and home.
In Yellowstone National Park he narrowly avoided an encounter with a grizzly bear. But it wasn’t bears that endangered his horses.
The further south Filipe rode into the United States, the more trouble he had due to the severe drought which was scorching the country, drying up rivers and making grazing harder to find.
The journey across America had been hot, tough and lonely. But in Presidio, Texas a family dream came true when Filipe’s father joined him. The Leite family had returned to Brazil, where Luis now owned a small ranch.
Knowing that his son was going to have to ride through dangerous territory in Mexico, the father whose dream had inspired the journey arrived to accompany his son.
After his father’s departure, after more than a thousand miles in the saddle, Filipe’s route took him through parts of Mexico which were renowned for their violence. Drug cartels routinely murdered the citizenry and posed a real threat to the young Long Rider.
As every Long Rider knows, it’s not the bears and bandits that pose the greatest threat to modern equestrian travellers; it is traffic and dangerous drivers.
For example, after arriving in the United States in 1927 Aime Tschiffely’s horse Mancha was deliberately hit by an angry motorist. And during the course of Filipe’s journey, the British Long Rider Christy Henchie, who was riding across the African continent at the same time, was struck by a speeding bus and killed.
Central America provided a host of new challenges to Filipe. He witnessed hordes of desperate people fleeing north towards the United States in the hope of having a better life.
He saw ample evidence of how the illegal trade in drugs was wrecking lives and nations. He saw violence and heard a woman being shot to death outside his window one night.
While the countries he rode through were beautiful, and the people extremely hospitable, Filipe also had to contend with terrible heat and scanty provisions.
Before his departure, CuChullaine O’Reilly had warned Filipe that one of the greatest dangers he would face would be the hostile political environment of Panama.
Other Long Riders, O’Reilly explained, riding from both north and south had been denied entry by the over-zealous bureaucracy in Panama City.
As predicted, after having ridden across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Filipe’s journey was brought to a halt at the hostile border of Panama.
He spent a month trying to convince the authorities to grant him the freedom to ride across their country.
“Every day has been filled with chaos, confusion and long hours standing,” the frustrated traveller wrote. “With the Panamanian door literally slammed in my face, I was left winded and searching for a new plan of action. I felt so hopeless and scared. And I feared the worst; having to leave Frenchie, Bruiser and Dude behind.”
With things looking desperate, Filipe was advised to ignore the Panamanian authorities and to ride south regardless of the risk. But a meeting with a government veterinarian immediately exposed the dangers of listening to such foolish advice.
“It seemed like it was going to be the end of my ride. My last meeting with the vet I told him many Costa Ricans and Panamanians had told me no-one takes their horses legally into Panama because of how senseless the regulations are. I said these people had said that I should do the same.
“He responded, ‘If we catch one of your horses in Panama, Mr Leite, it will be terminated on the spot’.”
There was no option. Filipe had to fly the horses to South America.
Being forced to fly was not only expensive, it was time consuming. It took weeks to arrange for the horses to be air-lifted to Peru. But here again Filipe was ambushed by governmental interference.
Though the Peruvians would let the horses land, Filipe was forbidden to ride them in that country. The animals were sealed in a truck and immediately driven across country to neighbouring Bolivia.
Finally, after going through 240 horse shoes, and spending two years in the saddle, Filipe found himself riding up to the border of his homeland.
“Since learning of Aime Tschiffely’s epic Long Ride from Argentina to New York I had been imagining my own journey through foreign lands on horseback; with the arrival at Brazil being the most important part.”
Even though he had suffered tremendous abuse at the hands of other government officials, things were about to change for the weary Long Rider.
“Welcome to Brazil. Welcome home,” the Ministry of Agriculture official said to Filipe as he shook the traveller’s hand.
Filipe may have reached “home”, but he still had a long way to go. His journey took him across the hot and humid Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands. But after weeks of travel a fitting conclusion was being planned by the warm-hearted Brazilians.
The city of Barretos is the host of the country’s largest annual rodeo. The organizers of the rodeo invited Filipe to be the guest of honour during the ten-day event.
After thousands of hard miles, and having overcome tremendous difficulties, Filipe was asked if he would ride his horses into the arena on opening night.
There were an estimated 60,000 people in the arena when, just before the clock struck 10, the announcer yelled into the microphone, “Ladies and gentleman, tonight we welcome a hero into this arena. Put your hands together for Filipe Leite.”
Filipe later wrote: “Just like that the arena caught fire as I rode in with my three horses. Tears ran down my face as everyone stood on their feet holding their hats up saluting me and these three heroes.
“As I looked up at the heavens I thanked the universe for helping me reach this impossible goal. And I thanked Aime Tschiffely for having inspired a child to dream and ride into the wild.”
The announcer then called Filipe over and after saying some very nice words passed the microphone to the Long Rider.
“I was so emotional I could barely speak,” Filipe recalled. “I am here today as living proof that when you want something with your heart, your mind and your soul, anything is possible. Dreams do come true,” Filipe said as the tears stopped his speech short and the arena exploded with cheers.
Panama may have treated the young Long Rider with contempt and cruelty, but Brazil demonstrated how generous a nation can be.
One of the country’s most renowned sculptors had been commissioned to build a statue of Filipe and his horses.
Finally, with the rodeo over, and with 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) behind him, Filipe was ready to travel the final miles to his family’s small home town.
If he had thought he was going to ride in quietly, Filipe had underestimated his countrymen.
He was greeted outside of Espírito Santo do Pinhal by more than 500 riders. The mayor and various government officials greeted him on behalf of the city and the country. The local Catholic priest blessed Filipe and his horses.
When asked to describe his journey, Filipe said: “For the past 803 days I have lived as a vagabond; riding from ranch to ranch; pitching my tent on top of mountains; carrying everything I own in my packsaddle; bathing in cold rivers; sharing meals with those who have nothing and those who have it all.
“I have felt the gut-wrenching fear of facing off against grizzly bears and drug cartels.
“I have woken up drenched from heavy rains; ridden through snow, sandstorms, and earthquakes. I have slept on top of my saddle blankets hundreds of times.
“Many nights I went to bed thirsty and hungry.
“The boy who left Calgary 16,000 kilometers ago is not the Long Rider arriving in Espírito Santo do Pinhal today. After crossing ten countries with the help of my horses, I have finally come home, to my birthplace, a much stronger person.”
Then, it was time to ride “home”.
A few short kilometres separated Filipe from his family ranch, which sits on a mountainside.
He rode that last distance alone. And then, there was the Leite ranch.
“After more than two years going from ranch to ranch, sleeping tied to trees and in old corrals, my horses now have the most beautiful home they could ever ask for.
“I untacked the boys and put them in their stalls to eat some feed. After they finished I walked them to their brand new green pasture and said thank you to each horse.
“Just like that, my life’s dream came to an end. After more than two years sleeping on saddle blankets I will finally sleep in my own bed tonight. We did it. We are home.”
To learn more about Filipe’s journey, you can visit his blog.