Monday, November 28, 2005

Finding The Palace

This ride started on Friday with one group of friends and ended on Saturday with another friend and different horses. Odd? A little, but I've been wanting to find a way from my farm to the antiquities of Memphis for some time. It's slightly southeast of me, but figuring out a way to get there safely through the countryside is the trick. I have to cross a main road that runs on both sides of a major canal and my goal is always to stay off the asphalt as much as possible. Research on Google Earth had shown me that there is an area in the farmland that is sand just to the north of the area where I was sure that Memphis would be found. Since Memphis is in the more urban area of Badrasheen, I figured that this sandy space might prove to be a good entrance to Memphis. On Friday, my housemate, a confirmed distance runner, and a friend and I went out on the first attempt to find a way to the sandy space. Tracy wanted to get in a 20 km run, while Cristina and I were happy to keep ourselves in the saddle for the distance. We did bring along a horse for Tracy, the dependable Bunduq, who became quite adept at jogging along next to or behind her on the narrow trails.
On Friday we didn't make it to the sandy area. Unfortunately, I made a navigational error that landed us in the middle of a village where a crowd of bored children were on the lookout for something exciting to do. The something exciting turned out to be running along in pursuit of three women with horses shouting for money, chanting and generally being amazingly annoying. Usually, if I run across one or two annoying children I stop at the next adult and ask for a bit of help, pointing out that I'm simply riding my horse and I don't carry money, pens, or lighters, and the adults are more than happy to pull the over-eager kids up short. This time, however, we were engulfed in a mob of about 20 children and the adults were pretty much powerless. As Tracy wanted to get her running in, Cristina and I covered the area between her and the kids so that they couldn't hassle her and Bunduq. The time spent training the horses to be hassle-proof really paid off as the odd stone or stick seemed not to bother them at all, and they trucked on down the road ignoring the chanting and shouting. After about 20 minutes we came to a bridge taking us back over the main canal to my usual riding area where some farmers ran the crowd off, leaving us in peace.

Most of my interactions with the village children are much less stressful. For example, a friend asked me for some photos to illustrate an article on the countryside for a French magazine and I got a number of lovely shots of a group of children with their mothers outside of a house with a new Haj painting depicting the plane and the Kaaba in Mecca. I'm printing some of the photos for the women and children since they have never seen themselves in photographs before. On the whole, I really like the village people. This particular crowd was not at all representative of the farming area people. From now on we avoid this village, which isn't so difficult. At any rate, we were glad to be on familiar ground and we travelled back to the farm through the fields.

On Saturday I tried again with my friend Nathalie and two other horses, Stella and Dooby. The estimate I had of the distance was about 20 km round trip. We had done approximately 18 km on Friday, so those horses deserved a day off. This time we stayed to the west of the main Mariouteya Canal all the way south to the asphalt entrance road to the Sakkara complex. We made our way along the drainage canal just to the west of the Mariouteya, enjoying the sight of birds who feed along the canal and nest in the cane along the banks. There were herons of various species, white, brown and grey, and even a Senagalese Coucal, a lovely brown bird that stays in the lower bushes and trees. Eventually we reached the old Antiquities service bridge that extended across the drainage canal from the Mariouteya, a lovely old stone bridge with pyramids decorating the rails at each end. This has been bypassed by a more modern asphalt road under which the canal flows in a pipes. I like the old bridge better.

We crossed the busy road carefully on the horses with little problem. Dooby wasn't happy about one very rattly old dump truck that was negotiating a speed bump as we crossed but he didn't do much more than snort and jig a bit. Stella acted as if she'd done all of it a million times before. On the east side of the Mariouteya, we picked up a dirt track that led north east and then circled around to the south. Across the fields we could make out a dirt mound with what looked like walls on top. Locals told us that it was called "el Gabry", a name that I'm going to have to ask about. Nathalie recognised it as a 26th dynasty palace that a Belgian/Russian team had been excavating and that she had visited a few years ago. With the help of some of the farmers we worked out which track led to the site and we made our way there. This was definitely the sandy space so visible on the Google Earth site and the trails visible on Google had led us to where we wanted to go.

As antiquities sites go in Egypt, this isn't one of the more awe-inspiring. The lush green fields abruptly end at rough grassland and there is a small hill about 50 metres in with mud brick walls on it. One side of the hill is bordered by houses from a village where children and village dogs noticed our arrival although no one came out to meet us. Nathalie remembered some lovely lotus capitals from columns that had decorated the site and we found them still lying on the dirt of the mound, traces of blue pigment still adhering to the marble. Most ancient Egyptian homes and even palaces were constructed of mud brick and just decorated with stone columns and statues. Mud brick was inexpensive, easy and provided excellent climate control, while wood was very, very expensive and not suited at all to construction. The same holds true today.

After admiring the ancient stone work and the view, we headed back to the farm through the countryside. Neither of us were in any particular hurry and the trip there and back took us about three hours to make the 20 kilometres. The weather was (as usual) wonderful and the scenery lovely. I really feel sorry for people who just ride in the desert.

copyright 2005 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, October 14, 2005

An Art Ride

They say that summer colds are the worst and I'm inclined to believe them. A nasty virus hit Cairo mid-September that really laid a lot of people low, myself included. Not being able to breathe really cuts down on one's riding enjoyment, not to mention the fact that every time I did something over that month, the bug's hammerlock on my chest got tighter. So the horses got a bit of a holiday. But holidays are over, we are all breathing again and it's back to work.

A couple of weeks ago, I set out with some friends to investigate the route from the paddocks to a tapestry weaving centre, the Wissa Wassef Centre near the Moneeb expressway and the Maryouteya Road. The centre was established many years ago by a talented Egyptian architect who felt that the local children needed an artistic outlet, so he took the children on outings, taught them how to dye yarn and how to weave kilims, and turned them loose artistically. The results were astonishing. Wissa Wassef then built a home and a museum to house the weavings in the traditional style of architecture of domes and courtyards. The Centre itself won an Aga Khan award for design. I've taken many friends there over the years to see the tapestries, the pottery, the batiks, and the lovely garden, but this was the first time to try it on horseback.

We set out along the trails with a pretty good idea of where we were going, thanks to Google Earth. The route took us through a couple of small villages at the outskirts of Shubramant, one of which had the house in the photo, sporting a group of enormous plaster roast chickens. The logic of placing a grouping of roast chickens over one's front door still escapes me, but the image was delightful, so we stopped to get a few shots of them, to the amusement of the girls sitting by the front door. They very graciously offered us a chicken if we liked them so much, but we pointed out that they were hardly easily carried on horseback. Oh well.

After about an hour of meandering along canals, we entered the village of Harania, where the Wissa Wassef museum is located. As we were riding along the main street, a front garden full of brilliant yellow ears of corn caught our eyes. Apparently someone had decided that this would be a great place to store his corn crop, to our delight. People walking by asked why we were taking photos of some corn and most of them nodded in agreement when we mentioned the rich yellow colour. Shortly thereafter the village houses thinned out and we arrived at the shady dirt road where the museum is set. The gates were open for a busload of tourists, but the doorman was rather taken aback when three women on horseback entered. Fortunately, I have a good friend who rents a house in the back of the compound, so I just told him that we were visiting Pat. We did, in fact, ride back to say hello.

On the way out we stopped to take a look at the museum where we found workmen hanging new tapestries to take the temporary places of those that have traveled to London for an exhibition there. One of my favourites, one depicting the wheat harvest, was still hanging in its place, but a famous battle scene was gone. Still, it was marvelous to once again see the world through the eyes of the villagers who had woven the tapestries.
As we were leaving, I had to stop to take a photo of a bronze donkey that has stood in the garden of the centre for many years. Every time I've come to the centre, I've stopped to pet it and admire this simple sculpture that so beautifully captures the essence of the animal that is the mainstay of Egypt. My companion mentioned that the sculptor had his studio not far from the tapestry centre so we went to find it just down the road a short distance.

There we found a garden of delight. Adam Henein, the sculptor of the Wissa Wassef donkey and a set of others, among many other pieces, is in his seventies now but still active and working in his countryside studio. He was intrigued that three women would drop by on horseback and invited us in. We wandered around his garden admiring his work for some time, chatting with him about this and that. He was delighted at having visitors on horseback. We were delighted to meet such a charming man. One of the outstanding aspects of his little garden is a granite ship upon which are placed various pieces of sculpture. Dreams of owning a piece will likely remain as dreams, however, since he is a very well-known sculptor having shown in many major museums and galleries in Europe and North America over the years.

Eventually we had to make our farewells and head back to the paddocks. It isn't every day that you go to a museum and a sculptor's atelier on horseback. Only in Egypt.

copyright 2005 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Taking the Horses to the Club

Tracy and I decided to ride to the Sakkara Palm Club to check it out as a destination for lunch on some of our rides with clients. There is a trail that loops out south from my land to the road that leads into the Sakkara Pyramid complex. When we checked out the trail on the gps at the end of the day, we found that the loop measured 23 km from start to finish, a good morning's ride. Tracy rode her buddy Nazeer who is feeling incredibly good after a slow summer of rest while many of my usual clients were traveling. I rode his mother, Dory, who has also been feeling rather energetic after the usual summer rest.

Summer isn't the most comfortable time to be riding in Egypt. The temperature that particular day was about 37 degrees C or 99 degrees F, but there was a good breeze rolling down the Nile Valley and the trees in the countryside give shade along the way. We moved out on a couple of energizer bunnies trotting along the trails as long as there were no children, donkeys, or water buffalo in the path. The horses would slow down automatically as we approached traffic of this sort as they'd been trained to do. Sometimes this can be a bit disconcerting as horses have better vision than we do and see the reason to stop before we do.

Tracy got her first gallop on the way south to the Palm Club as we passed the village of Abu Sir. For some odd reason (I suspect the relative crowding and lack of parental supervision) the children of Abu Sir tend to be more annoying than those of the villages near me. In this case a young boy was asking us for money, pens for school and so on as we were riding by and no matter how I explained that we weren't planning on buying something or writing any letters while on horseback, he wasn't willing to give it up. We broke into a canter to break off the conversation and Dorika was very pleased for a chance to stretch her legs with the result being a brisk hand gallop down the trail until we reached the next donkey. Tracy found the experience both exciting and a bit frightening, but most importantly she stayed in the saddle.

The Palm Club loop runs along a canal in the middle of a wide spead of farmland that extends between the Mansoureya and the Mariouteya Roads. There are no roads in this area, just dirt tracks and some mud brick houses and day shelters for animals and the farmers, who live for the most part in the villages. Every morning and evening they walk from their homes to their fields with their donkeys, cows and water buffalo. The animals spend their day tethered in the shelters in the shade with freshly cut fodder while their owners work the land and then in the evening make their way back home. The bird life is quite extraordinary in this area with little human incursion. It's a bit early for the migratory birds but bee-eaters, squacco herons, egrets and kingfishers are all common along the canal.

When we reached the end of the loop we came out on the asphalt road that runs along the Mansoureya Canal and found a concrete bridge across to the desert side of the road so that we could ride a bit further south without riding along the road. The traffic out here is light but riding alongside an asphalt road is never the best option. The palm groves south of our area are thicker with fewer open fields of corn and okra. It's almost the time of the date harvest, so the groves of date palms remind me of cathedrals with columns to the heavens and hanging candles.

The Sakkara Palm Club is just west of the intersection of the road into the pyramid complex and the Mansoureya Road. We rode up to the main door to the club and decided that this entrance was definitely not meant for equestrian traffic. The standard metal detector gate stood in a fairly narrow doorway...really not a reasonable width for a horse. We rode a bit further on and found a service entrance where we explained that we were checking out the club as a possible ride destination and wanted to check out their facilities for caring for the horses and providing lunch.

Dory and Nazeer found themselves in the unmowed football field, which they proceeded to mow while tethered together. The sports manager of the club brought them some water and then showed us to the pool where we could get a sandwich. We finished a leisurely but simple lunch while watching a number of Egyptian families playing in the pool and enjoying cold drinks. Suddenly we looked up at an odd sound.

Looking down a cement path, we saw two chestnut horses in saddles standing looking about curiously. Somehow they had followed our scent through the football field and down a couple of paths to the pool area. We paid our bill quickly and collected the wanderers, leading them back to the football field on our way out. The way home led through open fields and along shady canals lined with mulberry, eucalyptus, and willow trees. Again the horses slowed for the inevitable donkeys, cows and water buffalo tethered along the path. Oddly enough the loop back seemed to be shorter although the gps measured it as longer in actuality. Maybe it was the wind in our faces and the longing for a good shower.

copyright 2004 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, July 01, 2005

Summer Sizzle

My friends in more northern climates tend to have a resting period for their horses and themselves in the winter when it is too cold and rainy to ride much. Our winter is wonderful for the most part, crystal clear days filled with sunshine and cool breezes. Summer is another story when our days register between 35 C and 40 C for weeks on end and sitting around in the sun can honestly be lethal. That is when the countryside hits its peak for me. With the breezes from the fields being cooled by evaporation from the irrigation and shade given by the overhanging trees, the roads and trails of the countryside offer a blessed relief from the searing heat of the desert.

Today was supposed to hit a high of 93 F (just to give a break to any non-metric readers) so we decided to go out for a quiet ride about 9:30 before the sun could really hit its stride. We headed out to the north because I wanted to show off some new trail. One lovely bit cuts through small farming plots away from any roads, giving the sense that one has traveled back in time by about 50 to 100 years. No motor vehicles intrude in this secluded site filled with small gardens of grapes, bananas, vegetables and, of course, date palms. We entered from a mango orchard where the mangos are starting to ripen this month. Riding through a mango orchard isn't as easy as it sounds because first (and hardest) picking the mangos is strictly forbidden. I would lose my right to go through if I began filching fruit. Secondly, a semi-ripe mango is quite capable of delivering a blow worthy of a concussion if one is foolish enough to skip wearing a helmet and doesn't watch the low-hanging branches. But then, what a way to go, after all....knocked out by a mango.

From our tiny bit of paradise, we headed west along a dirt road towards the desert and the army base that takes up much of the desert north of the country club. Some strange individual at some point built an enormous home at the edge of a canal with a factory abutting the rear. The house itself is in a Chinese style and is known around here as "The Chinese House". Most of the time riders will take the small road next to the Chinese House and the factory and turn south along the edge of the cemetery, but we turned north and rode to the barely discernible Zawiat el Rayan pyramid that lies between the army base and the village of Masaken William. From the south it just looks like a hill and you have to come around the hill to the village side to see that the "hill" was actually constructed of large limestone blocks. My company was a runner turned rider and we chatted in front of the pyramid about how much fun it would be to organise a long run or ride that would take people from the pyramids of Giza that we could see through the haze to our left south through the farmlands to the pyramids of Sakkara or Dahshur.

Turning back south, we continued to brainstorm about the logistics of such an event as we walked, trotted and cantered along the shady eucalyptus-lined canal. The road across the canal was quieter than usual since it was Friday morning, and with the summer being wedding season even the farmers are up somewhat late on Thursday nights with weddings to celebrate making early mornings a bit tough.

This lucky water buffalo seemed to have taken advantage of someone's sleepiness to wade into a canal for a nice breakfast of grass and water hyacinth. Normally they are picketed in shady spots along the canal with a pile of green stuff in front of them and they have to wait for someone to take them to the water for a good soak. This old girl obviously decided that she knew where she wanted to be. The gamoosa's, as they are called here, are docile animals and easy to handle. The only problem I've ever had with them has not actually been mine but their owners' in that they are rather timid and find a horse and rider rather frightening the first time they encounter them.

By the time we finished two hours riding, the heat was getting rather severe and everyone was glad to stop activity for the day. We left the horses to have their lunch, snack on hay in the shade and snooze, while we went to do some human errands and (if there is any energy left) go to the Canadian ambassador's residence in Zamalek for a Canada Day celebration with beer, hot dogs and hamburgers. Or maybe we'll just take a nap.

copyright 2005 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Weekend Riders

From Magdy's Hill.JPG
Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I live in an equestrian neighbourhood. A businessman just down the road has a passion for polo...and the polo field with Argentinian polo ponies to go with it. Many of my neighbours breed Egyptian Arabian horses for racing or for show, while even more of them have some baladi Arabs (the country-bred or grade horses) for riding in the desert. Every Friday and Saturday morning a group of riders from the neighbourhood meets at the foot of the Sun Temple just north of the pyramids of Abu Sir to ride together in the desert. During the winter, the ride time is a fairly reasonable 9 am, but during the heat of summer the group convenes at about 8 am.

I don't always join them on their weekend rides. Sometimes I've been running all over all week and I really want a Friday morning to sleep in a bit without the rush of feeding parrots and dogs so that I can be somewhere else. Most Saturdays I have clients that come to ride in the morning precluding participation as well. At least once a month, however, I make a point of riding out with the Friday Morning Gang.

Weekend visitors are often part of the crowd and provide fascinating continuity for us. One weekend the German ambassador in Tehran was visiting Cairo. As he'd also been the German ambassador to Egypt a few years before, he was a good friend of some of our riders with whom he'd ridden on weekends before being transferred to Tehran. I remember riding with Paul when he would come to ride with the group before Magdy died.

On this particular ride we were all enjoying the cool weather that has been our blessing this spring. The horses were quite full of themselves and many of the young ones skittered like wind-blown leaves across the sand. We all headed up the wadi that extends westward from the Sakkara complex. At the head of this wadi is a butte, a flat-topped hill rising from the desert floor, from which Magdy loved to survey our domain. Reaching the top of the hill before some of the other riders, I turned to catch this shot of them as they approached the butte.

We were in for a big surprise when one of the riders on arriving at the top of the hill let out a shout of surprise when he almost galloped into an enormous hole that had not been there only a couple of weeks ago. Stepping gingerly around the excavation and peering cautiously into the hole, we noticed that there were what appeared to be large stone blocks lining the hole in the sand. None of us had ever noticed anything special about the sand on top of the butte on previous rides, but it was apparent that someone had been paying much more attention to the geography of the area than we were.

We have no idea if anything was found in the hole that the anonymous diggers excavated. We certainly saw no signs of plunder on the ground around the hole. This isn't the first of these unsanctioned excavations that we've found. There are more sites to be excavated and catalogued in Egypt than can be imagined and it is a rare desert ride that doesn't turn up signs of a disturbed site.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Tea Ride

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Every so often a wonderful horse comes into your life, but there are usually rough spots that need to be taken care of. Stella, the bay mare standing patiently behind me, is one of those horses. Her race track background taught her that every time a saddle was put on her she was supposed to run as fast as possible, not the best training for a saddle horse but it is one that most people who try horses off the race tracks have to deal with. We gave her a month in the paddock to get to know her herd mates, eat and relax a bit and then began working with her.

Last weekend was my first ride with her after a training period with my neighbour, the rider sitting across from me and being overseen by the big grey gelding, Doobie. She worked well on our ride to Giza and shows incredible promise as an all-round traveling horse, so the next day we decided that she and Doobie could use a quiet ride doing errands and visiting neighbours.

The ride, called by my visitor Merri a tea ride, was the result. Stella found it a bit confusing that the only thing she was being asked to do was to walk peacefully along a series of dirt roads, stop for a few moments to chat with someone, and then at one stable to stand for half an hour or so while we drank a cup of tea. Not exactly the race track. She did this very well, however. Seems to have standing still without a rider down pat.

Now I think that she has about a year of walking in the desert to learn that this can be done as well, in combination with relaxed canters in the countryside. Some classic ground work with another dressage trainer neighbour shouting abuse at me from the ground will do wonders for her balance and my fitness as well.

Abu Sir is a fascinating place to be working horses because of all of the resources available to us. We have a group that set limited distance (25 miles/40 km) rides in the desert. There is one this weekend that Merri will ride in, while I work the vet check. We have a neighbour that hosts polo games on his own ridiculously green field next to the desert just under the pyramids of Abu Sir. Other stables specialise more in jumping or dressage, while my specialty is countryside trips. Something for everyone.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

From Abu Sir to Giza

145.GizaPyramids 3.26.JPG
Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
For us the pyramids of Egypt are landmarks rather than monuments. They are so huge, so old, so 'there', that they are almost like local mountains. We identify where we live by them. For example, I live just north of Abu Sir and across the canal from the Sun Temple of Abu Ghorab. On Saturday a group of us decided to make the journey from Abu Sir to the pyramids of Giza, a trip of approximately 35 km or about 20 miles round trip. We left at 10:30 am and arrived back at the paddocks at 2:30 pm, a four hour ride.

There was a time when you could ride easily from Abu Sir to Giza in the desert, but it has gotten more difficult in later years. The city of Giza decided to place it's rubbish dump in the desert west of the pyramids of Abu Sir and the authorities have either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to the mining of sand for building and roadbeds in the area. Now there is a noisy, dusty road surrounded by a no man's land moonscape of piles of dirt and rubble that block the track just north of the Sakkara Country Club. You can still ride to Giza through the desert, but once you make your way through the first obstacle, you still have to be sure to go around the army camp that is slightly farther north.

A much more pleasant route lies through the countryside. We left the village by the paddocks and made our way north through two or three small villages and along farmland tracks until we reached the village of Zawya. Here we had to cross a relatively busy road and ride down the main street of the village for about 200 meters. The traffic along the main street isn't that much of a problem since the road is dirt and filled with potholes. No one goes very fast through Zawya. The cars and minibuses that might be in the road usually are going no faster than walking horses anyway.

Zawya is a large village, probably 10 to 20 thousand people, but they are not used to seeing four women riding down the main road. Nevertheless, aside from some of the more energetic and single minded children who felt that running alongside us asking why we didn't have a pen to give them, our welcome was cordial. Somehow it never seems to occure to these kids that taking a pen on a riding trip from Abu Sir to Giza really doesn't make much sense. I always ask them "What am I going to do, write a letter on horseback?" and their faces go blank. I've ridden through Zawya before and know what alleys to take through the buildings to reach a broad dirt road that continues north. The alleys are so narrow that there is room for a horse, or a couple of people, or maybe a donkey cart, but not much else. Balconies shade the street from above and for many families Saturday was washing day, so there were brilliantly coloured blankets, sheets, galabeyas, pants and shirts flapping in the wind. The horses, thank heaven, took no notice.

Once out of Zawya, we cantered down a broad dirt road that meandered along a canal with old country houses and farmland on either side. Huge eucalyptus and casuarina trees shaded the road on either side. I'm sure that the road has been used in Egyptian movies because it is so totally typical of the country roads. When traveling in the countryside it is important to greet the people that you encounter, since your are more or less trespassing on their turf. I would call out "Salaam aleikum" to the farmers, the girls cutting berseem, or the boys watching the water buffalo in the canal. The usual response is to welcome us and invite us for tea. My answer is always"God keep you. Next time." This is plenty of conversation to be having while cantering by.

The horses have been working in the countryside for years now and they know to automatically slow down for the other livestock that we may encounter. It's been many animal generations since horsemen have been seen in the farmlands, and the donkeys, cows and water buffalo are often frightened of horses with people on top of them. The horses pulling carts are familiar but not ridden horses. The looks of horror on the faces of the water buffalo, or gamoosa, are comical. When you consider that an adult water buffalo is about the size of a midsize SUV and that they are lead about on a thin rope halter, my insistence on this slowing of pace near livestock makes sense. The person holding the rope of a terrified water buffalo might be a child or woman who has no hope of holding an animal of this size still if it decides to run away. As long as the horses slow to a walk, most of the time the worst reaction we've gotten has been hard looks and slight spooks.

A few kilometers north of Zawya lies the Moneeb, a section of highway that connects the pyramids area with the Cairo Ring Road and the areas of Maadi and Giza along the Nile. Turning east along the base of the raised area of the highway we entered the desert at the point where the Antiquities Department stopped the construction of the highway. A high metal fence was constructed along the line of the proposed highway to keep people out of the antiquities areas, but in true Egyptian fashion an impromptu gate has been fashioned in the fence so that riders from the stables just south of the Moneeb can get into the desert. We entered behind a couple of groups of tourists and foreigners who were ambling along on horses behind a guide. But then we were also foreigners since there was myself (Canadian), Merri (American) and Nathalie and her daughter Pauline (Belgian). Once they had a wide open wadi in front of them, however, our horses weren't much interested in ambling. They tore off at a gallop across the sand with us whooping and laughing in the wind.

We crossed a few kilometers of desert in this fashion before we had to slow down to pick through the rubble of what had once been VIP villas and a notorious nightclub, Sahara City, that had stood on the plateau behind the Pyramids until the government ordered them pulled down. They were pulled down, but typically the job was left just not quite finished and there are still bits of wall and road lying about in the sand. There was also another metal fence in the desert with, of course, another gate in it through which we entered the main area of the pyramids of Giza. The fence is at least two or three kilometers from the actual pyramids and this time we didn't try to ride right up to the base of them due to time constraints. Have to do that next time. We took a few more photos, ran a few more wadis and then cruised back through another gate in the fence towards the Moneeb again. The area is large enough that there are a number of routes in and out so that the same path need not be taken twice.

Once we left the desert we turned south through the farms along the Mansureya Road, the road that leads to my home and paddocks. Unfortunately the northern part of this road is very busy with the garbage trucks hauling trash to the dump in the desert and the trucks hauling sand out of the desert, making it an undesirable riding area. We were able to make most of our way south to the army camp on some of the dirt roads that paralleled the Mansureya Road, but eventually we had to ride along the main road for a few hundred meters. The sandy shoulder of the road was wide enough for the horses to have room to be away from traffic, but dump trucks, garbage trucks and truck/trailer combinations make a lot of noise passing along the road. The years of acclimatising the horses to traffic paid off with wonderful behaviour on the part of our mounts, though all of us muttered the odd prayer under our breath at times. We had three bridges to cross with the horses before we could be off the main road and riding through the village of Masaken William on our way south once more. From then on it was back to the countryside dirt roads once more and whatever traffic we encountered there seemed negligible after the main road.

Everyone was glad to get back, have an orange and some cold water and a good stretch. Horses were sound on return and the riders were only slightly stiff. I was riding a recently purchased mare for the first time and was totally delighted in finding that she passed all obstacles without fuss and is a total bomb in the desert. Only problem is that she's part thoroughbred and as such a bit taller than I'm used to. Well, it isn't that much of a problem as long as I don't have to get off and on.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Eighth Generation

The Eighth Generation
Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Every country has its living treasures and yesterday I was fortunate to celebrate two of ours. Egypt is the home of the Egyptian Arabian horse, a breed of horses that can trace its lineage back to the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. The modern horse traces its heritage back to the desert horse, the Arab, the forest horse that was the ancestor of the heavier European horses, and the steppe horse exemplified by the Przewalski's horse that is being reintroduced to Mongolia now. During the 1800's hundreds of the finest Arabian horses were brought to Egypt during the conquest of the Arabian peninsula by the armies of Mohamed Ali, and these horses formed the basis of much of the breeding of Arabian horses in the world today.

During the monarchy in Egypt most of the Arab horses belonged to members of the royal family with Abbas Pasha being a major breeder. When he died his stud was broken up among other breeders, most notably the Wentworths of England who lived for a while in Egypt and later moved their horses back home to the UK. The Royal Egypian stud became the rather oddly named Egyptian Agricultural Organisation, otherwise known as the EAO, under the revolutionary government of Nasser and during the 50's and 60's some private breeders began establishing breeding facilities. Madame Widgan Barbare was one of them.

Dany Barbare is definitely another one of Egypt's living treasures. In her younger years she was an accomplished show jumper and her stories of shows in Europe years ago are fascinating. I've spent hours over tea with Dany listening to her tales of riding, breeding and horses in general. She set up Shams el Asil stud on the Mansoureya Road in a grove of mango and palm trees, a private heaven for horse lovers. Her main man, a now aging but utterly beautiful stallion called Beltagi, was the start of a line of some of the most stunning Arabian horses on earth. Yesterday was the celebration of eight generations of bewitching equines.

My horses are not purebred Egyptian Arabs. They are the countrybred baladi Arabs that are the workhorses of Egypt. This is not to say that I wouldn't have one of Dany's wonderful horses if I could afford one. National treasures must be treasured.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Hummer

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Almost six years ago, my chestnut mare Dorika bucked in an outburst of good spirits and took off in a race against a much larger horse in deep sand. Unfortunately the buck snapped a sesamoid and she was sentenced to 6 months of rest. With Dory's son Nazeer too young to ride and her buddy Nimbus pregnant with Nayzak, my husband took pity on me and offered to buy me a horse. After much searching for another mare, I found Bunduq, a gelding with a sense of humour.

'Bunduq'means 'hazelnut' in Arabic and is a fairly common name for any small, brown, rather round horse, dog, or cat. In this case my Bunduq is definitely small, round and brown. He barely makes the official measurement for a horse, but his powerful little body is a match for almost any task. He is broad enough for a good size man not to feel that he is on a pony. Trying him out was hysterical because he had been working as a schoolmaster at a friend's stable/riding school for years. He tried every school horse trick in the book on me, trying to scare me into letting him just sit around his box eating, which is his favourite occupation. Unfortunately or fortunately for Bunduq, I found his efforts to be most entertaining, since they were not malicious in intent. I brought him back to Abu Sir where he made the aquaintance of such extraordinary individuals as donkeys, camels, and water buffalo.

Bunduq carried me in our first efforts at FEI endurance, a 20 km dash from the Sakkara Country Club to the Fayoum railway crossing and back on my 51st birthday. This ride was enjoyed by a wide variety of participants, all of us terribly impressed by how far we had ridden. Later rides let us know that this was truly just a beginning and that 20 km was just a short jog. But he wasn't a lucky fellow and during a trot out for a vet he slipped and suffered a nondisplaced fracture of the cannon bone.

So now I had another horse on at least a six month layoff. On consulting a vet in the US with a scanned x-ray, he told me that what Bunduq needed was a nice bolt to stabilise the bone, but as there was no one to do this surgery, he suggested putting him in a small box to keep him still and praying a lot. If the bone slipped, I would have to put him down. In this respect he was lucky. It never slipped.

A few months down the line brought June 10 and my husband's death, so the fact that I had two horses on rehab didn't really matter. When the time came for Bunduq to be let out of the box, his bad fairy attacked once more and we found him with a nail in his hoof, making a wound deep enough to affect the coffin bone. Osteomyolitis set in and a deep incision had to be made in the sole of the hoof. Another 6 months of rest.

This poor guy became the most patient, accommodating creature on the face of the earth. He spent hours every day standing on three legs to dress the hoof wound, and when he was allowed to come out became the Napoleon of the paddock. He may be small but he is mighty and all of the other horses learned to fear his hooves. Even now he has a separate paddock to maintain the peace.

These days Bunduq is everyone's favourite first riding experience.He saves his bad temper for times when he isn't working and is a cuddly and willing companion under saddle, especially cuddly during the winter when he has a coat rather like a bear. He knows everything and has forgotten nothing of his past as a schoolmaster. He has no fear of anything and seems to know when he has an inexperienced rider. A year or two ago he was diagnosed with a vague lameness that was called navicular syndrome. We pulled his shoes, let him rest on some medication and gradually brought him back to work on hard surfaces rather than the deep sand of the desert. These days he can do some desert work and is pretty much back to normal.

He is the absolute packer of the herd.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Aging Gracefully

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Fares el Gebel means Mountain Horse or Desert Horse in Arabic. Fares has seen them all at this point. Christina bought him roughly six or seven years ago, and at the time she was told that he was only about nine or ten. According to the people who sell horses here in Egypt, they are all about nine or ten years old, if they aren't four. My Nimbus who died last year at about 30 was supposedly only nine when Betty bought her, but she was at least fifteen when I bought her from Betty six months later. Amazing how they age when an honest vet looks at them.

Christina is Italian married to an Egyptian physics professor at the American University in Cairo. She's the mother of two girls and active in charity work in Cairo, so she doesn't have a lot of time to ride, but she wanted a horse that would be reliable and happy for desert rides. Fares was all this and more for her until recently. About a year ago he began limping after only an hour or so in the sand, so she had vets look at him. Their verdict was pretty dismal. He was older than she thought and x-rays showed severe arthritis in his front fetlocks. Some people told her to sell him as he'd never be good for desert riding again, but that was not Christina's way. Some of the veterinary recommendations would have been extremly expensive and no matter where in the world you may live, most physics professors are not millionaires.

Talking Fares' problems over with me, I suggested that she bring him to live with my horses in the paddocks where at least he wouldn't be cooped up in a stall all day. My horses live outdoors 24/7, an arrangement that has been very good for us over the years. Having arthritis myself, I know that movement of the afflicted joints is the best medicine in the world. Living in a box stall, no matter how roomy, simply didn't give Fares enough room to exercise himself to keep the fetlocks moving freely.

She brought him to me and we gave him a four month rest period, took off his horse shoes so that he had more traction in his bare feet, and wonder of wonders..she had a horse who was sound as long as he didn't spend much time in the deep sand of our desert.

At first he was extremely leery of the countryside demons. Mud in the trail? We Arabs don't do mud, lady. Water pumps might eat us. Donkey carts are dubious. Riding for the first few months was an adventure for Christina. But Fares being a cagey old dude, with emphasis on the old now that an honest age estimate put him at roughly 24 years, a venerable age for a horse in Egypt, he caught on quickly and now hops the little irrigation ditches like a pro...even the ones with running water in them. Our horses don't have much experience with running water since the canals really aren't suitable for swimming. They all seem to have the idea that Arabians are made of date sugar and will melt if their feet get wet, although on a hot day every one of them will be grazing right under the water sprinkler in the summer

Kareem Shehata ( took this lovely photo of Fares when he and some friends came riding with me. The young lady on Fares had almost no experience riding, but he took excellent care of her out on the trail. This is one of the characteristics that I so love in the Arabians.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Mr. Sociable

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
One of the hardest things about buying a horse in Egypt is the history of the horse chosen. Most of us never know the histories of our horses and the things that we don't know can, in fact, hurt us. Many young horses don't have comfortable interactions with people here. Dorika was loved by her first owners, but she lived in a garden in a beach community just west of Alexandria where passing children would tease her. When she first came to me she was untrusting and would bite given half a chance. Teaching her to be handled was a major operation. Now, after over fifteen years with me, she is one of the easiest horses in the world to work with.

About seven years ago Dorika gave birth to her first son, Nazeer. Most mares prefer to foal in the early hours of dawn when there will be no observing them. Not Dorika. She waited until a Thursday afternoon to ensure a proper audience. Not at all sure of what to do with a foal at first, she then became a good, if not doting, mother. Nazeer turned out to be a very personable young colt and got much more than his share of handling and petting when he was little, so much so that even now his idea of a perfect time is cuddling. His stable nickname is Cuddles, in fact.

In recent years as Dory has become less sound due to old injuries, Nazeer has become my main man. I don't like to have a fight on my hands when I ride and Nazeer's easy going personality is the greatest. He has all the energy a good Arab should have, but none of the flightiness. He paces himself well, conserving his energy, and sometimes making me think that he might be lazy. But his easy going personality is perfect for the less experienced riders who visit me.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The First Mare

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I was one of those odd little girls who lived and breathed horses from the time that I could talk. I drew them, read about them, and badgered my poor parents until they finally agreed to give me riding lessons once I was old enough not to kill myself. I still remember the man who was the instructor, a Brit named Christie, who growled us around the arena at the Balboa Park Stables and rewarded us with trail rides through the park later. When I was twelve, my family moved north to a rural village where the road in and out of town sported a horse warning, and I spent the next six years begging, borrowing and stealing horses to ride. Ojai was heaven for a horse-nut. Most of the asphalt streets had wide dirt shoulders for riders and it was a common habit to ride horseback through the local Frostie for an ice cream or coke.

University schedules and student poverty put an end to riding for me other than the odd chance at a hack stable. Then I changed my career to "mother" and seriously forgot about the very possibility of riding. So much so that when we moved to Egypt and my husband offered to get me a horse (horsekeeping being a much more reasonable activity in Egypt than in Canada) I turned him down. I did keep ogling the horses in the streets however, since Egypt still has a healthy horse-drawn economy. There are some utterly beautiful horses hauling wagons and carriages in Egypt, not to mention the sturdy mules that pull oil wagons.

About our second year in Alexandria, a friend of my husband asked him if I liked horses. His late wife had given him an Arab filly that lived in his garden in Agami, but he wanted to go work in the Red Sea and needed a home for her. My husband said that I'd love a horse and the next thing I knew Dorika was mine. I was forty years old and hadn't ridden for twenty years. I was the worst possible choice for a green mare and the first few years of our partnership were rocky in the extreme.

I remember falling off her with a massive thud and then going home to have a late lunch with my husband. No matter how much I hurt, I walked tall and with dignity for fear that he might decide that horseback riding was too dangerous for me. He was not a rider and had little understanding of the way in which the need to ride short-circuits nerve endings and good sense. Over time Dory and I have learned to listen to and care for each other.

She's my boss mare at about 18 years. She's fought her way back from almost terminal laminitis, recovered from snapped tendons and a sesamoid, and is now in rehab for crumbling sesamoid bones that have been treated with ultrasound shock waves. I own two of her sons, Nazeer and Fagr, and she is the undisputed leader of my small herd. After her injuries, we have fairly circumscribed adventures now, but she is still my favourite riding companion. I trust her with my life with reason. She has gone out of her way to help me when we were out alone, one time going down the trail to bring back some local folk to help haul me out of a chest deep canal.

Dory and I discovered the wonder of the desert together when we moved up to Cairo from Alexandria. Racing across the sand was her idea of heaven, and I tended to be in enthusiastic agreement. It took us a while to learn the lay of the land, since this corner of the Sahara that included the pyramid complexes of Abu Sir and Sakkara was uncharted territory for both of us. We spent years snooping around this dune and checking what was over that hill. We met every desert dog pack and made the acquaintance of most of the antiquities watchmen. Dory taught me to love the vastness of the desert and introduced me to the idea of travel on horseback. My best friend.