Saying goodbye to the red carpet, German actress Sarah Mühlhause left the glitter behind to pursue ‘the simpler life’; the raw beauty of the islands and her love for horses. In Vanuatu, she finds that working as a horse tour guide is not all that relaxing, even if her manic production assistant Phil, is not always screaming in her ear.
Story and photos by Sarah Mühlhause.
I’m whizzing down dusty Devil’s Point Road towards Port Vila. Neatly, I swerve my quadbike around the millions of potholes. What an immeasurable feeling of freedom fulfils me at this moment. It is 6.30am and above me, the sky pours out all the imaginable colours that a sunrise in the South Pacific offers. I taste the salt on my lips being blown across from the ocean by a soft, gentle breeze. The ocean lies quietly next to me like an enormous lake and I can spot a giant cruise ship on the horizon, slowly heading towards Port Vila’s harbour. Around 45 of the estimated 3000 passengers on board will ride on horseback with me today, through 500 acres of rainforests and coconut plantations.
As I turn onto the ring road, I see Yvette waving merrily in my direction. Dressed in her floral island dress, she sells hot Tuluk and fresh fruit here every morning, and every morning she greets me like an old friend even though not once have I stopped to buy anything. I toot twice to greet her back and my eyebrows bounce up in the local greeting gesture that I know she can’t see through the bike helmet and sunglasses.
Every morning, I drive 20 km on my quadbike to get to work but it does not bother me. Quite the contrary, I relish the magic atmosphere in the early morning hours when the island slowly awakes. How great it is to watch the family of eight pigs, popping out of the humid undergrowth to cross the road, covered in the morning mist. Every morning I am reminded of the reasons why I left my acting career behind to launch into this adventure.
Two years ago I starred in the German daily soap ‘Anna und die Liebe’ as the deceitful villain Carla. Every day in the late afternoon, 2.5 million viewers gathered in front of their TVs to watch my colleagues and myself recreating heart-breaking daily drama about love, jealousy, friendship and treason. My lifestyle back then was the exact opposite from how I am living now. I couldn’t say which I like best, walking over red carpets in glamorous evening gowns or galloping bareback in shorts and t-shirt along the beach. Receiving the Soap Award 2012 was indeed one of the most touching moments of my career but right now I can’t wait to get my hands dirty and spend my day out in the sunshine, amongst animals and beautiful people. But the transition has not all been easy, as I have had to deal with a very different set of demands and expectations. In Berlin, I lived by the clock. Our shooting schedule was timed to the minute and looking after your professional life was considered the number one priority. Here, schedules are flexible, to say the least, and work comes after family. In Berlin, I was also a bit of a celebrity and as much as we would like to think that ‘fame does not matter’ one does get used to the privileges and status it affords. Here, I am unknown, I am nobody. It is refreshing and disorientating at the same time.
Soon, I arrive at the roundabout close to the airport and turn right towards Manples. The roads empty, I make my way effortlessly through to the Second Lagoon. In my head, I have already run through the horses I might need this morning. It will be a busy day and I hope that all of my team will turn up.
In Vanuatu, the job is far from being priority number one. On this enchanted archipelago, 9,675 km away from my hometown of Berlin, family, including aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives, come before anything else. Family feasts and celebrations can easily last a couple of days and there are countless such occasions.
When I first arrived, as a serious, responsible German and fanatical about punctuality, I was quite upset about these things. Frequently I held meetings, hoping to change the dynamics within my workplace. I remember one of those first meetings, talking to Roy about his regular absences, when I asked him the reason why he has not turned up for work in three days. “Mi kat wan kastom celebration blong tati blong mi” (I had a custom celebration for my dad), he said. I thought, that was where he has been the prior week, when he had also been absent from work, so I asked again, to which he replied “No, last week hemi wan kastom blong brother blo tati blo mi”– no, last week it was a celebration for my father’s brother. Coming from such a different culture and work mentality, I couldn’t find the words to express my desperation.
Duncan, a sympathetic looking Aussi in his mid forties, asks me what I used to do for a living back at home. He himself is catching up on the long overdue honeymoon he had promised his wife of 18 years. “I’m an actress,” I answer and I have to admit that I enjoy the devout silence which follows.”
Instead I decided to laugh. I laughed, Roy laughed, everyone else started laughing and the problem seemed to be solved. I slowly started to understand that in Vanuatu, priorities are different and in return you learn quite a number of things about the truly important aspects of island life. Such as how to build a waterproof shelter out of leafs when it suddenly starts to pour down or where the sweetest mangoes grow and how you can knock down a coconut from a tree without having it fall on your head.
I ride down the last bit of dirt road to the ranch and try to find a shady spot to park my bike. It’s seven o’clock in the morning and it is already hot. I make a mental note to put some sunscreen on our pink snouted horses.
Luckily, four of our six tour guides are here. Roy is sitting underneath a mango tree chewing on a piece of coconut as if we had all the time in the world.
“Good morning” he greets me. “All horse hemi out. Wan fence i broke.” He is telling me that a fence broke and all the horses have escaped.
I think about Phil, the production assistant on the TV show that I use to act in, back in Berlin, screaming into my ear “82 minutes to go! It is now seven o’clock and 8 minutes. We already have a delay of 26 minutes. So get moving, pronto!!”… I doubt Phil would fare well in this environment.
It will be difficult to do some riding without horses and while everybody else seems very relaxed about the situation, I am in disaster-mode, becoming more stressed with every passing minute. I ask Roy and Paul to try to find the horses while Cliff and Felix and I get the saddles ready.
As I am rehearsing in my mind the full ramifications of not being able to find the horses on time, I feel the ground gently start to tremble and hear the familiar sound of hundreds of hoofs dashing down the hillside. Around one hundred horses, brown and black ones, a few in shimmering white and some pintos, are galloping powerfully through the gate and into the little paddock right next to the stables. A big load is off my mind; the horses all here, ready to carry our visitors safely through Vanuatu’s breath-taking landscape.
And all of a sudden, everything just runs smoothly as it should. The guys are brushing and saddling their four-legged colleagues – not without a lot of laughter and a few coconut breaks – but when at 08.30 sharp, a busload of excited Cruise-shippers arrive, all the horses are ready to go.
For the next 30 minutes, we are all busy getting our guests up on their horses. Fourteen of them have never been on a horse before and twelve of them appear not to have done any sporting activity since primary school, but who cares. Frankly, I admire the courage of so many of my riders who graciously overcome their body barriers. Everyone seems happy, and isn’t this the most important thing anyway!?
Just a last check to make sure that the saddle girths are tight enough and we are ready to go when I hear a horrifying scream behind me. My pulse is racing.
I turn around and scan desperately through the crowd. Is one of those precious human beings entrusted to my care, half dead on the ground full of broken bones? Did Tornado suddenly take off in a flying gallop over rocks and fences? Or did Bambi try to kick Pablo and accidently smashed someone’s knee? In a panic, I keep on looking, trying to find the catastrophe but all I can see is the horses standing quietly, half asleep around me and patiently waiting. And there it is again, the awful scream and now I can see where is coming from. A roundish girl with ten centimetre freshly manicured glitter fingernails is sitting on top of Miami who is quietly grazing on some grass. I rush towards her. “What happened?” I ask with a worried look.
“The horse, it just moved!” Miami curiously lifts his head. “There it goes again!” she shouts. “I don’t know, it is just that I envisioned horse riding differently. Not with so much….moving involved!”
Finally everyone is ready to leave. Glitter Fingernail lady is safely being led by Paul and slowly starts to relax. The rest of the troupe is in a fine mood and so we go on our journey.
Duncan, a sympathetic looking Aussi in his mid forties, asks me what I used to do for a living back at home. He himself is catching up on the long overdue honeymoon he had promised his wife of 18 years. “I’m an actress,” I answer and I have to admit that I enjoy the devout silence which follows. “Acting like in TV and movies and so on?” “Yes,” I smile‚ “for the past ten years I was shooting movies and TV shows – until the thirst of adventure caught me.” “Margie!!!!’” Duncan excitedly calls out to his wife, who is sitting eleven horses ahead of us on Eclipse. “Margie, our tour guide is a German movie star. We have to take a picture all together for dad. My family comes from Hannover originally,” he explains to me. “A picture would be ok for you, wouldn’t it?” I nod and moronically grin towards the dozen faces which have suddenly turned around. Well, this is awkward and I can feel how my head starts to get really hot and red. But maybe it is just the heat, I tell myself. “Isn’t it very boring living on such a remote island?” a guy in his early twenties asks me. He is covered in tattoos and by the way he hangs on top of the horse, I can tell that he has little motivation for this nature trip. I have to think for a moment. Exhausting, yes, and maybe stressful sometimes. But no, definitely not boring.
Behind me, I hear 4inch glitter nail girl delightful squeaking‚ “Johhhhnyy your horse just pooped, hahahaha, soooo gross!!!” she yells at the tattooed dude next to me. She laughs so hard that she almost slides off her horse. John’s expression remains unfazed but his eyes say more than a thousand words. “You see,” I laugh, “always something happening here.”
But as we ride our horses bareback in the beautiful blue lagoon at the end of the trip, even John is reconciled with the world and I hear him laugh wholeheartly when his horse joyfully lies down in the water. The power of Mother Nature, the reason I am here. The horses.
Our ride comes to an end with everyone feeling even happier than when they arrived, no doubt an adventure they will remember for a long, long time. And just as everyone is tootling off, the next crowd of excited riders arrive. I wipe the sweat off my forehead and just before I welcome my next group Phil’s image appears in front of me. He winks at me and then raises his voice. “Sarah Horse Riding Adventure, take two. Please be silent everyone, aaaaaannnnd Action!”