August 20 2011
In a world that offers trips packaged as “mancations”, it can be hard to find an experience that is authentically real man, not poor man’s imitation. Sitting astride an Arab horse as it gallops across the desert will not leave you worrying about this. To cover 100km in blistering heat you’ll need to man up and saddle up for seven hours a day. But you’ll feel as real – and raw – as Rooster Cogburn.
The setting is the epic landscape of ancient Egypt. To modern travellers, the pyramids, with the coach parties, the hawkers and the tawdry tat for sale, can be a crushing disappointment. But Giza is home to just six pyramids. There are over 130 in all, many scattered across the desert in a 40km stretch south from Giza all the way to the royal necropolis of Dahshur and beyond. Here there are dozens of lesser-known pyramids that few dare to explore; fewer still on horseback.
Politically, Egypt may be on a bumpy ride following the January 25 revolution. But political strife in the country is as old as the Pharaohs. Today, however, the only ones who’ve taken flight are the tourists. Go now and you’ll escape the crowds, and in the desert – on a horse – you’ll enjoy the same wonder that Howard Carter enjoyed when he stumbled across the tomb of Tutankhamun.
While things in Cairo have essentially returned to normal, a night-time curfew is still in place so my agent recommends avoiding the evening flight that gets into Cairo late; instead, I catch the 9.15am from Heathrow. This has its advantages; arriving in time to catch the sun setting behind the pyramids of Giza on the highway west is definitely one of them.
We arrive at the Sakkara Country Club, once the preserve of Cairo’s horse-riding expats. In recent years it had gone downhill but now, under new ownership, it’s undergoing a huge facelift that will see it open its doors as a club and hotel later this year. Its location couldn’t be better – my room looks out across a palm-fronted lawn that abuts the desert wilderness – and it’s also on the doorstep of Al Sorat farm, where the doughty 62-year-old Maryanne Stroud keeps the best horses in town.
Over a beer and a feast of grilled chicken, lamb koftas and baba ghanoush at a local eatery, Maryanne tells me about Wadi, a seven-year-old Arab cross.
“His mother was a racehorse,” she says. “He’s one fiery Arab. And stupid too. He likes to be out in front. You’ll like him.”
“You want the English or American saddle?” asks Maryanne.
Somehow the English saddle just doesn’t seem the right tool for the job, reminiscent of bossy pony club women telling me to tighten the reins and ride with my heels down – all of which was long ago. I’m wearing jeans and a pair of Argentinian polo boots; I want the badass saddle. It also has a pommel you can hold onto, which will come in handy later on.
The morning is a get-to-know-you session for riders and steeds. We ride on the local farmland, along canals that feed lush green fields of clover and sugarcane while farmers hand-plough their crops as they have done since the time of the Pharoahs. At the turn-around point, we can make out the pyramids of Giza poking out of the haze.
“No one sees this. It’s the real Egypt,” Maryanne enthuses.
Canadian, but born in California to an English mother, Maryanne has been riding in Egypt for 20 years but only began taking clients out in 2003, a couple of years after her husband, one of Egypt’s leading grain importers and entrepreneurs, died in plane crash. Her farm is home to 23 horses, 15 dogs, 25 goats and a number of other animals she confesses to having lost count of. Over lunch I ask her about the revolution.
“It’s a subtle difference. The mood is lighter.” In homage to the role played by social media, she has named two newborn goats Twitter and Google.
After a siesta, it’s back on board Wadi for my first ride in the desert. The idea is to put a few more miles in the saddle as, in the sand, Wadi apparently behaves differently. Through a gap in a perimeter wall that separates the lush farmland of the delta from the arid desert, we leave behind the noise of backstreets and bazaars and enter the silence of the Sahara. Just ahead lie the pyramids of Abusir, once a cemetery to the élite of the ancient capital of Memphis; a grand vision of long-lost culture.
Wadi, however, sees things rather differently; what he sees is a giant, glorious racetrack. His walk becomes a jittery sideways bounce, he throws his head and snorts, the pace picks up. Twenty minutes in, we come to a wide open stretch of sand 300m across with a hill up the other side.
Maryanne has just given warning that this is a spot where they like to run when, suddenly, Wadi bolts, launching like a racehorse out of a starting gate into a full gallop. Caught off-guard, I have just enough time to grab the pommel handle. In a flash, I’m at full speed. Almost as quickly, the fear recedes. I relax, stand up in the saddle, and am taken on the ride of my life. The sand scatters behind and I leave the others for dead.
Out in front, at full gallop across a pyramid-dotted desert, hooves pattering across the sand like the sound of engine pistons, my easily excited imagination goes into overdrive. This is so Indiana Jones. Wadi eventually slows down, out of breath and drenched in sweat. I’m practically shaking from adrenaline. We ride back as the sun sets behind the pyramids. By the time we reach the farm, in darkness, we have covered a total distance of about 40km.
Walking now hurts. Tender points have appeared between my thighs. But today is the big day – an epic seven-hour ride exploring the southern pyramids from Abusir to Saqqara to the royal necropolis of Dahshur, before swinging back through villages along the canals that run parallel to the Nile. It’s a 45km loop. If I thought Wadi might be a bit more chilled today, I’m very much mistaken. “Oh, given half the chance, he’d gallop the whole way,” Maryanne tells me. But this time I’m ready, willing him on.
Extraordinarily, the desert is still throwing up new finds; a pyramid was discovered only three years ago. Pharaonic detritus is scattered everywhere: old human bones, pottery, sarcophagi that haven’t moved in millennia. In the mix is the odd coral fragment – a reminder of an even earlier history. Equally extraordinary: there is no one in sight. We alternate between walking and giving the horses free rein; I gee Wadi on, revelling in the gallops.
The pyramids of Dahshur are more impressive than the crumbling ruins of Saqqara; the symmetrical Red Pyramid is every bit as striking as the great pyramids of Giza – perhaps more so, for the hard ride to reach it. In Dahshur there’s also a lake that’s home to migrating waterfowl. Here, we turn out of the desert into the welcome shade of date palms that dot the delta. At the lake edge a sight transfixes me: a girl shepherding a herd of goats past the water, with the pyramids behind her. It’s a window back in time.
Maryanne’s farm hands meet us at her friend’s gorgeous terracotta house in the middle of a palm forest. The grooms get to work hosing down the horses while we tuck into a packed lunch on the balcony. The return journey is more relaxed, passing villages where troops of barefoot children rush out to greet us with cries of “Halloo, halloo!” By now my backside is in need of some serious respite, my knees hurt and I’m struggling to stay good-humoured. Wadi also has his homing device on, trotting at every opportunity, a gait that adds to my bodily woes.
After almost 100km in the saddle, we arrive back at the farm for a well-earned round of fresh strawberries and tea. I bid my farewells to Wadi and Maryanne, and am whisked off to recover at the Kempinski Nile Hotel; a full-service and, after the Dahshur dust, almost preposterously luxurious redoubt with panoramic Nile views from its rooftop pool and bar, a spa and butler service.
Maryanne has recommended a restaurant famed for its Egyptian cuisine and sweet pastries – the kind of place only known to residents. From my bed I contemplate the effort of moving, then reach over and hit zero for Hassan, my butler.
It’s an early start for the battle that lies ahead – crossing Cairo. Traffic dodging should be Egypt’s national sport. Cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, minibuses and the occasional donkey all weave and dart with suicidal abandon. London by contrast, when I get there for the afternoon stint in the office, feels like a haven of peace. But the memory of the Sahara stillness stays with me for days.