Dozing in the field enjoying the warmth of the spring June sunshine on my face whilst leaning on my century-old well-worn Portuguese Officer’s saddle, I am digesting our copious picnic, washed down by white wine chilled in the little babbling stream not far from my ear. All this, whilst a furry bumble bee hums and hovers over my head, searching out the most interesting of the fragrant wild violets. I am drifting in and out of that delicious, dreamy siesta half-world and ruminating over the events of these past three days.
Up before sunrise today, and out into the damp morning mist, the dense undergrowth soaked by the morning dew, birds just starting to twitter to each other. I spot broken branches, then half a hoof print in soft earth next to the inevitable pile of fresh droppings and my nostrils are filled with the pungent, but not entirely unpleasant aroma. Uxelle, our faithful, but ageing Beaucéron excitedly bounds ahead into the deep, lush green undergrowth glistening with this morning’s dew, searching for the horses. She hears long before I do, the tinkle of the distant bells, and races off in glee, barking to group them together. It is not long before we hear them smashing their way towards us through the bushes, and we dodge up out of the way onto the rocks at the side as they noisily push and shove one other, rushing down past us to be first to gobble up more of the morning corn than the others.
Saddling up to the smell of damp horse-blankets and well-lived in old leather, the horses munching greedily on corn, snorting and shaking the burrs and leaves out of their coats, I feel my muscles, still aching from yesterday, start to ease up and we are ready for off. It is still chilly enough to see our breath, although the sun is already rising, starting to burn off the mist and we know that we need to get a move on before that relentless heat starts to beat down.
It is a steep climb to start us off for the day. A forty-five minute hard uphill slog, punctuated by a cacophony of birdsong and the lucky glimpse of a shy deer who darts off before we can catch her on film. The dawn chorus gradually quietens, the mist giving way to the welcome warmness of the sun as it rises steadily into a shimmering, uninterrupted pure azure sky. I am aware of my mare, Sara’s labored breathing in the thin mountain air as we climb ever higher. As we continue to ascend, she periodically grabs an occasional stolen mouthful of grass to the left, or even a leafy branch that has just got to be half a young sapling to the right. I am obliged to take hold of her mane now and then to haul my weight up out of the saddle to help her. The track is so incredibly steep! These horses really are akin to goats.
We are in Indian-file on a tiny, barely visible overgrown mountain trail. Now, it is my and Sara’s turn at the front. Funny how her ears have suddenly perked up. She is totally alert the moment she is in pole position, concentrating intently for the safety of her whole herd. Glancing incessantly from side to side, checking out any rustlings in the grass at the side of the narrow passage, she suddenly stops in her racks, staring sidelong and wide-eyed at something I cannot see, smell or hear. It takes just a quick encouraging caress, then we carry on.
Every few minutes, the whole caravan grinds to a standstill whilst Sara carefully and painstakingly negotiates the best path to take between the huge precariously balanced boulders, loose gravel setting off miniature avalanches. I have to have total faith in this horse, my life is in her hands on this treacherous path! Not much further though before we reach the plateau at long last. Sara’s normally white coat is steaming, damp, rather smelly and streaky grey now, her sweaty sides heaving after the exertion. Someone grabs my arm and points excitedly to a large rock behind me. We spot a plump, furry marmotte squatting on his hindquarters watching us watching him, before giving a piercing, strident ‘warning whistle’ and diving out of view.
After a five-minute rest and welcome water-stop, we start to meander our way across the plain. Aurélie breaks out into song - the first line of the Italian song we were all singing last night at a dinner washed down with generous shots of home-made grappa at the shepherd’s hut. Joe continues, blasting out the second line of “La Bella Ciao”. Then we are all joining in the chorus, whispering first, gradually building up in volume with each line until we reach a crescendo at the top of our voices.
Loic suddenly shrieks out at the top of his voice,
He rips off his leather hat, whacks his horse on the rump and goads him into sudden action! They are off at full pelt, kicking up shingle, already ten metres away towards the forest in the distance. The rest of us are still crowded together, bustling against each other. Knee squeezes against knee. Horse presses against horse. Leather grinds against creaking leather. Bulging saddle bags are pushed, pulled and squashed flat. We are all vying for our own space in the pack before simultaneously bursting into full gallop.
Sara and I head out to the side. She turns, craning her neck to the right at a sharp angle to nip the neck of Haiduc, her arch enemy who is getting a bit too close for her liking. Hey, that’s not allowed! I give her a warning swipe across her neck and the ears go back, flat down. She is clearly in a bad mood today!
Loic is about seventy metres away now. Squeezing my heels into her sides, I loosen the reins and we give chase. The two of us pull away from the rest of the group with a sudden spurt. I can feel the incredible power under me as Sara lunges forward with each mighty stride. I crouch low down over her shoulders, shouting with the thrill, encouraging her to go faster. The adrenalin is pumping through my veins. We are gaining on Loic, but now, the path goes winding off to the left. I am leaning over to the left too, like a motorbike speedway racer.
I love the feel of the wind whipping through my hair, the speed, the thundering of her hooves deafening me. Tiny rocks flick up from Rafia’s hooves in front of us, and I have to dodge the bigger ones as best I can. Such exhilaration! Corny as it sounds, I feel as we are totally at one together. Behind me, I hear the racket of hammering hooves on the loose gravel kicking up stones, and the shouts of excited riders. A dead pine-tree branch hanging lower than the rest suddenly looms close. A bit too close, far too close in fact! Scarcely got time to steal a quick intake of breath, close my eyes, press my head down low against Sara’s neck and we have passed it. I hastily cry out a warning to everybody else behind us, but cannot possibly turn my head round to see. The race continues!
There is a sudden whiff of rosemary as we smash through a clump of freshly sprouting wild herbs. Ahead, I cannot see Loic any more. As we hair round the bend, I just catch sight of him swerving to avoid water streaming down the mountainside from a source on the right. It’s too late to react!
I feel Sara stumble, lose her footing and start to keel over to the left. Time slows down to a crawl and the sounds of this world suddenly disappear. I become aware that Sara’s weight is starting to bear down on my left leg and I just know I am about to be crushed! I hear someone scream and it sounds like it is from somewhere far away before I realize the voice is actually mine. At the sound of my scream, Sara somehow changes side, rolling over to the right to avoid putting her full weight down on me as we go down together in a cloud of dust.
Then somehow I am free! I am not dead, not crushed, unbelievably not even injured! We both scramble to our feet. My breath is ragged, hands trembling and my heart is pounding in my ears, yet it fades quickly away as my sense of sound comes racing back to me.
The other riders are all on the ground now all around us, checking we are both unhurt. Everyone is simultaneously blurting out their version of the events and I cannot quite believe my incredible luck. I hobble over to check on Sara, who is grazing complacently, and hug her with gratitude for moving over to her other side to avoid hurting me. Thank God I screamed back there!
Later, we are all ambling on slowly, subdued slightly. Everyone is lost in private contemplation of nature’s beauty. I feel humbled by the sheer vastness and emptiness of the landscape. It is quite barren up here above the tree line, yet way down below we can still see the lush pine forest and the grassy plain where we had galloped and I had had my near miss. My brush with danger.
The landscape has changed now that we have gained height. Here, we have entered a kind of ‘Wizard of Oz’ lunar landscape. Once again in single file, we make our way along a narrow, tortuous path carved totally from rocks, within rocks, out of rocks, we are surrounded by only rocks. I am amazed to learn that this rocky road, zig-zagging along for mile upon mile in the middle of nowhere, was created over a century ago for an Italian Count and his entourage to be driven up to his hunting lodge in luxury.
Gradually we begin to notice more and more patches of old, crystalized snow hiding in shaded crevices. It is no longer light, white, fluffy or powdery though. This is slightly caked together, a dirty shade of brown and granular in consistency, reminding me of mounds of caster sugar. There are broken and uprooted trees laid flat in each and every direction for as far as we can see.
An avalanche must have wiped out this whole section of mountainside a couple of months ago. It is a scene of total devastation and destruction and there is no path available! No choice but to dismount and let the horses loose to make their own way across the ruined ridge. The only way forward for us humans is to cling onto the cliff side for a treacherous twenty metre passage before we can rejoin them.
I can hear nothing other than my heart thumping wildly in my chest. No way back now! No way up! No way down! We have just got to carry on forward! The sodden grass is slick, wet and slightly slimy. There is absolutely nothing to grab hold of. I try to grasp tiny edges and corners of rock protruding from the cliff side, anything will do! I have to find grip somehow. My fingernails finally make contact with an exposed tree root and I force my trembling fingers to cling on. It takes sheer force of will. I MUST NOT, I CANNOT LET GO!
With trembling limbs, I finally manage to haul myself shakily across to the safety of three huge, fallen pine trees, all entangled together with a mass of mud and rocks. My heart in my mouth, my legs give way and I realize I have not been breathing. It takes a few minutes for us all to pull ourselves together before slipping and sliding down the rest of the slope to be reunited with our mounts again.
We are all ambling along very slowly now, after the effort of the climb. The whole group strides together as one and we soon reach our very first stretch of tarmac mountain road. The clamour of seventeen-times-four hooves creates an immense racket, totally overloading my senses. So many hot, sweaty equine bodies, all wanting to reach destination. Julie is in front and gradually starts picking up pace, the rest of us accelerating in time with each other to keep up. So many metal shoes ringing out noisily on the hot, smooth tarmac. Louder and louder, quicker and quicker but yet all in unison.
Gradually all conversation dwindles off. We are all alert, all in tune with one another. Every one of us seems to be waiting, wanting, encouraging, goading, rising quicker and quicker in our saddles to the rhythm of the trot. The pace gets faster and faster. It is absolutely not possible to trot any faster, yet still we manage to go quicker. Someone behind me breaks into a slow canter. Then someone in front. Suddenly it is all of us. Amazingly, we are all still moving in unison. There are huge smiles, wide eyes, hoots and the smell of excitement all around me. YEAH! We are off again! As canter becomes gallop, hands grab hastily onto precariously-placed hats, smiles become manic ear-to-ear grins, and everybody is gripped in another moment of madness and total freedom!
It is the end of the afternoon and our conversations have gradually ceased. A collective mood of melancholy has somehow slowly seeped into our pores. The atmosphere is contagious, sneaking stealthily down over every one of us, and now I think we can all read each other’s minds.
Our trip is drawing to its close and the horses know exactly where they are headed now. They have already caught the scent of the sweet perfume of those tender emerald-green grass shoots that they can only find up here in the Alps at spring-time. That is the real reason Sara and the rest of her herd are actually so willing to make this mammoth effort for and with us every June. Their weary limbs seem to become stronger and sprightlier, as ours become heavier and more reluctant to close in on our final destination.
We occasionally chance the odd sidelong glance at one other, and unanimously read the same sad sentiment mirrored there. Not one of us wants this adventure to end. We have shared a fantastic, unforgettable experience together. The whole group has bonded as a single unit for a brief yet interminable period. Right now though, realization is dawning that tomorrow it will all be over, and we will most probably never meet again.
Author Notes: I would really appreciate any comments please....