Sunday, May 06, 2007

Trail Marking - Desert Style

There is a relatively new sort of equestrian sport, or a group of sports really, known collectively as distance riding. Some of them are done fast over distances from 25 to 100 miles (endurance riding), others are done slower over distances (competitive trail riding)...but the thing that they have in common is the fact that someone has to go out ahead of time to set out a trail that the other riders have to follow, sort of like an equestrian game of hare and hounds. In places where there are trees and things, a favourite marking strategy is to tie surveyor's tape to tree limbs, but where we ride, in the Sahara, there are no trees, no bushes, no grass, no nothing. The first few rides were marked with flags on poles that had to be planted in the desert and then collected quickly after the ride before someone else collected them to use in some other way. This was a major pain as well as being pretty expensive. Then one day someone got the bright idea of using powdered gypsum to mark our trails.

So now we go out into the desert, scout out an interesting trail, hopefully one that includes some changes in elevation along with twists and turns, we measure it by odometer and gps and then return the day before the race to mark it. Pouring out spots of powdered gypsum in a windy desert is a real treat. Happily, I own the gps, so I ride in the lead car checking distances and waypoints to make up a map for the riders. A neighbour has a vehicle that vaguely resembles a Jeep wrangler missing most of its doors and the roof. He drives the gypsum car. We've found that it takes about 8 bags of gypsum to mark 20 km of trail. For shorter rides, we make a 20 km loop that is ridden clockwise the first loop and counter-clockwise the second loop, creating a 40 km (25 mile) track.

One of the ways that we've found to make a trail more challenging is to take it up the hill from the valley to the quarry area where the sand and gravel miners have been working for the past ten years making odd shaped holes of various sizes and connecting these holes with rough tracks made by trucks, jeeps and heavy earth moving equipment. Some of the riders found this area a bit daunting at first, but I suspect that it gives the horses' legs a bit of a rest from the softer sand in the rest of the desert. Following white dots on the ground along tracks that loop and twist around piles of sand and holes of varying depths (right up to/down to about 150 metres) on a horse can involve some pretty intense attention, and it does tend to slow the riders down a bit. The goal in marking is to have enough marks that the trail is not confusing (it can't cross itself, obviously) but not so many that people are just following a white stripe through the desert.

One of the challenges of laying trails through the quarries is the fact that the miners often work at night, so the trail that you see one day may not exist the next day. We've found through trial and error that they usually don't work on Thursday nights or on Fridays, so a trail laid on a Thursday afternoon is safe until Friday during the day. However, there are usually frequent stops on the marking pass to make sure that the trail measured on Wednesday is still there. The entire process takes about three hours with all the stops...more time than it usually takes to ride if you are moving fast on a well-conditioned horse.

The trail that we marked this particular day ran for about 6 km through the quarries closest to the valley, descended a hill into a wadi, which we crossed and then passed over another low hill to a second wadi where a truck with water for horses and riders waited. Some of our horses were interested in the water, but many weren't on the first loop. When we rode the trail the next day, the weather was, clear and just windy enough. The long wadi stretches of the trail tend to encourage the horses and riders to really move out. FEI endurance races here are almost entirely flat wadi riding and are very fast. The footing on these stretches varies from soft sand to sand covered with flint pebbles ranging in size from large grapes to grapefruit. The pebbles sink into the sand when the horses step on them, so stone bruises aren't really all that common happily.
Over all, the track was about 50% wadi and 50% quarries, giving everyone a chance to slow down and think as well as to simply zoom. The quarry portions were fun to ride and there were moments when the riders would suddenly come up to the edge of a hill from which they had a clear view of the pyramids of Dahshur or Sakkara. Not having any vegetation to change the view during the ride, we have to make due with closing in the vision and then opening it up. With practice, we are getting better. Now we just have to hope that our marking crew survive. A mask to keep the gypsum out of the lungs of the pourer helps as does a good hot shower after the work.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani