more big rides
travelling is not travelling at all;
it is merely being sent to a place, and very
little different from becoming a parcel.
is not that there are problems.
The problem is expecting otherwise and
thinking that having problems is a problem."
Lots of people have done lots of big rides but before the glorious arrival of the whole wide world interweb, it wasn't easy to find much out about the who and the what and the where and the how. There was some stuff hidden away in dusty books on dusty shelves in peoples' houses. If you were very lucky, they might have had a relevant volume or two in your local public library - but then you had to remember where you'd put your card. Now we're all cruising down the fast lane of the information super-motorway it's a breeze. This page is a kind of badly-designed junction on that motorway, with slip-roads leading off to other 'big ride' destinations. It is a purely personal list, unashamedly influenced by our own experiences and approach.
Numero uno on the inspiration front, the head honcho in a poncho, is Aimée Tschiffelly, the Swiss rider who rode 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to New York in the 1920s. The story of the epic adventure, with his two Criollo horses, Mancho and Gato, is told in his classic book: 'Tschifelly's Ride'. He was a determined kind of guy, not the sort to just give up, go home and put the kettle on when things get a bit tricky. Things did get very tough for him at one point and he very nearly gave up. Luckily he had second thoughts:
"However, I had not come all this distance only to return home again and be laughed at by fools who get pleasure out of making others look ridiculous, even if they themselves are not capable of doing anything better, and so I sadly packed up, willing to risk it and see if fate would be kind to me."
Powerful stuff. Nobody likes being laughed at by fools.
If Tschifelly was the grandfather of modern (post - internal combustion engine) big rides, then Émile Brager is the friendly, if slightly eccentric, uncle. It is said that 'when the student is ready, the master appears.' Émile appeared to us - firstly through the pages of 'Cheval Loisirs' magazine - as the wildly moustached but infinitely experienced guru of big, adventurous rides. Despite his 'grand fromage' status, Émile was making the effort to share with us mortals his vast practical knowledge of equine voyaging, knowledge gained in part from his mammoth four year trip (with partner Marie Roesle) from the Magellan Straits in Patagonia to Fairbanks in Alaska.
We bought Émile's bible: 'Techniques du voyage a cheval' and tried to absorb the pearls of wisdom. What to do if you lose a glove in the winter? Kill a rabbit, cut a hole big enough to get your hand in, scrape out the insides et voila: a furry mitt! How to prepare yourself for having to eat the strange foods offered by your hosts? Practice before you leave home by eating snake, rat, mouse and gerbil from your local pet shop. Despite these occasional eccentricities, for us his advice was like gold nuggets and his passion and enthusiasm was fuel to the fire of ours. A long journey with horses, he wrote, is “to blow a kiss at life.”
In 1981 Émile (together with other legendary French rider Stéphane Bigo and others) set up Les Cavaliers au long cours. The aim was to share experiences and help others turn their dreams into reality. These men and women have been deeply affected by their big adventures and their passion is plain to see. Their message seems to be this: go out and do a long tough trip, put the effort in and you will be rewarded by experiencing a particularly delicious slice of the gateau of life.
Technically, the 'cavaliers au
long cours' are those who have accomplished a journey by horse:
If Émile is the kindly uncle, then the Long Riders' Guild is the confident American cousin, based somewhere just south of Superlative City. The label on the tin promises 'The largest repository of equestrian travel knowledge in history!' and it does exactly what it says: it's a veritable treasure trove, a labyrinth with gems around every corner. To enter the cavernous Long Rider's Guild is an expedition in itself - allow plenty of time, take extra sandwiches plus emergency bar of chocolate, and don't forget a ball of string so you can find your way out. Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly have done a magnificent job compiling all this and they work enthusiastically to promote awareness of all things long and ridery.
It was through the Long Rider's Guild that we met Antonietta Spizzo and Dario Masarotti. To continue - long past its sell by date - the increasingly tenuous family metaphor, Antonietta and Dario are the elder brother and sister: they've been there and done it first but now it's your turn and they're going to help you as much as they possibly can. On our fairly big ride, we had the great good fortune that Antonietta and Dario happened to live slap bang on our route, just on the Italian side of the border with Slovenia. We stayed for a few days and couldn't have had a better boost, a springboard for our launch into the eastern european winter - see final paragraph of Italy diary page.
Antonietta and Dario don't lie around on a beach for their summer holidays. Instead, year after year, they've ridden from home, on their own horses, going as far as they can in all directions. On their 2007 trip, for example, they reached Moscow after riding 3,000km through 8 countries.
We first heard about Magali Pavin through the Cavaliers au long cours. She'd set off a year before us and was travelling through many of the same countries (France, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey) on her way towards China. The thought of Magali, with a riding horse and a pack mule, doing everything herself was inspiring - we're talking tough cookie here. (Her expedition was called 'Terres et cultures' (lands and cultures); after a period of sustained over-indulgence in Brittany's patisseries we wondered about calling our trip 'Terres et gateaux'.)
There were at least two points where our routes crossed. The first was a Romanian village in the Carpathian foothills. When we arrived somebody sent for the village policeman to try and find us somewhere for the night. He was busy milking his cow at the time but later, over a particularly powerful glass of ţuică, he told us about a French girl, Magali, who'd camped near the village the year before. Some thieves had stolen what they thought was a radio but turned out to be her emergency distress beacon. Switching it on - probably hoping to get the football results - they inadvertently triggered a major international rescue operation, led by the Russians. Fortunately, through our village policeman friend, Magali managed to get the effort stopped just in time. The policeman asked to see our own distress beacon. "Sorry, we don't have one." "What about satellite? GPS?" I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out my little Silva compass. "Is that it?", he asked, and then fell about laughing. Maybe it was the ţuica.
Our paths intersected again at the Bulgaria/Turkey border near the charm-free town of Kapitan Andreevo. Several hours into our doomed negotiations with Turkish officials to obtain entry, the Chief Jobsworth decided to tell Lisa a little story. "There was a French girl here with horses last year", he said. "She came back every day for 10 days. In the end we let her in." Now there's determination for you! One day of rejection was too much for us; we scuttled back the way we'd come and slipped into Greece instead.