This article was published in the American magazine, The Horse's Hoof , in April 2012.
In November 2005, my fiance Billy and I arrived in Tunisia to begin a barefoot horseback expedition from the most northern point to the most southern point of Africa. Obviously, to do this, we required some very special horses. After a lot of thought and research, we had decided to use some Tunisian Barbes. The Barbe evolved in North Africa at around the same time as the Arab and is the ancestor of many of the most popular breeds in use today. They are a hardy animal, more solid in build than the Arab and much more sensible! We had envisioned buying 2 little horses out of carts but on hearing about our journey, the Tunisian government were extremely supportive and offered us the cream of the crop, a choice out of 6 of their breeding stallions from their stud.
In a normal situation, when buying a horse, one would probably have a vet check, try out the horse and maybe even take it home for a trial period. We did it very differently! At El Battan stud, each of the 6 stallions was lead out one at a time. The third horse, a chestnut with flaxen mane and tail so long it dragged on the floor, towed 2 grooms around on a bridle and I fell in love! His name is Chami (The man from Syria) and he was an unbacked, 7 year old. Choosing the second horse was a little more difficult, but we decided on a scrawny dappled grey with a roach back called Ennahali (The beekeeper), a 5 year old who had done a little work in a cart. We knew little of their history and had chosen purely on looks and a cursory check of their hooves and legs. We hadn’t even seen them trot up!
|Chami and Nali on the day we took ownership of them..|
|The trip begins - On the road in Tunisia.|
Once again, whilst waiting for visas and horses to recover from injuries, we immersed ourselves in the local culture, learnt a little Arabic and went wherever we could find horses. Apart from the traditional Egit, we went to the races and a show jumping competition. We were taken to visit the Equestrian Centre in Tripoli where I was amazed to find a fabulous indoor arena and barns full of expensive horses, most of which were given to Colonel Gaddafi by other world leaders. I joined in a jumping lesson on a 5 year old warmblood recently imported from Germany and felt as if I was at an international event riding a top quality horse in a top quality venue.
|Egit - the local equestrian sport in Libya.|
After 5 and half months in lovely Libya, the next country to cross was Egypt, but we had to get in first! We arrived at the border post with all the documents we required but were told that only dogs and cats were allowed into Egypt. To prove their point, the border officials showed us a warmblood that had been there for 5 months, its owner having abandoned it there after she was told she couldn’t take him in. After 16 days of patience, persistence and politeness, we were finally allowed in! Having had to fight our way in, we were then received with mixed feelings. At times we experienced the same generosity and hospitality as the rest of North Africa but often we were viewed as tourists with plenty of money and had to bargain hard to pay a normal price for anything!
|Chami full of beans on the beach in Marsa Matruh!|
|Christy and Nali flying in the wind!|
|A wedding celebration in Egypt.|
In Khartoum, there is a large equestrian centre where there is racing, show jumping, tent pegging and polo. Whilst working in Khartoum, we started doing endurance with our ponies and children and created an interest in the equestrian community. Billy encouraged them to hold the first official endurance race and now it is very popular with locals who are making an effort to become FEI affiliated.
|The boys at play - Khartoum Sudan.|
Crossing into Uganda was like crossing into a completely different continent - different people, new languages, torrential rainfall instead of deserts, lots of trees and vegetation, steep hills and a bit of wildlife! All horses in Uganda were wiped out during Idi Amin’s reign in the 60’s. In the last 15 years or so, a few horses have been imported and bred with. There are now about 150 horses all in the south near Kampala and most of them are owned by expats. The locals in the north have never seen a horse before. We were constantly asked if they were camels or donkeys, where their horns were, whether they ate people, why they didn’t have cloven hooves and on one occasion if they were kangaroos! On spotting us, entire schools would empty out in seconds and hundreds of children would come running towards us, screaming and shouting. The horses took it all in their stride, putting up with having their tails pulled, headcollars grabbed and completely over excited crowds!
In Southern Sudan, Billy had been very ill with malaria and typhoid and since then had never really regained his strength. On arrival in Kampala in March 2011 we decided to have blood tests. Billy’s blood count was so low he was flown back home to South Africa immediately where he was diagnosed with Leukemia. I followed a few days later after meeting a fabulous lady who offered to look after our horses. Katia has lived in East Africa for most of her life and is a real animal lover. With 16 of her own horses, 2 more were not a problem. Our horses are currently living on the banks of Lake Victoria as part of Katia’s herd where they share their paddock with Vervet monkeys and the prolific bird life. I have been to visit with the horses twice and they are perfectly happy there. Meanwhile, Billy has been undergoing treatment and it is working well! We hope to be back on the road at the end of 2012!
It has been over 6 years and 7600km since we started this journey. At the beginning we had three main goals. To ride to Cape Agulhas in South Africa, to take the same horses the whole way and for them to do it barefoot. Apparently this is not as simple as it sounds! We have battled with bureaucracy, laminitis, colic, rope burns, bilary, dehydration, malaria, typhoid and most recently leukemia and we have lost an important member of our team. On the other hand we have had the most amazing experiences and have gained lifelong friends. Every time we have been forced to stop, another door has opened and other opportunities have presented themselves.
We are more than halfway to Cape Agulhas. We still have Chami and Ennahali, now 14 and 12. They are well behaved, experienced travellers now. Chami’s tail is a little shorter and Ennahali is very solidly built and no longer has a roach back! They are both barefoot.