I'm not the first woman to up stakes and set off on a travel odyssey. You might be out there cycling, running marathons and climbing mountains in amazing places. If that's you, I tip my hat. No wait, it's actually a riding helmet, for some, like myself, choose horse-power. Yep, that's right. Four legs and the beating heart of another living being beneath me.
It's early August 2018. I'm 55 years old, ten years divorced, and I've just quit my job as a Magazine Editor and Event Manager. My bags are packed, and I'm about to embark on a journey that will educate, delight, challenge and inspire me in ways I cannot imagine. I'm travelling with a core group of people, and others who'll be dropping in and out of our lives throughout the journey.
Of course, I'm not the first woman to up stakes and set off on a travel odyssey. You might be out there cycling, running marathons and climbing mountains in amazing places. If that's you, I tip my hat. No wait, it's actually a riding helmet, for some, like myself, choose horse-power. Yep, that's right. Four legs and the beating heart of another living being beneath me.
My first destination is Iceland. Astride sturdy, shaggy Icelandic horses, me, my fellow riders and trusty guides lead a herd of 70 free running equines across glacial valleys, lava fields, and through icy, fast flowing streams as we climb our way to the country's lofty highlands and immense glaciers.
From a horse's back you get a close up view. The landscape divulges it's treasures. Dozens of tiny, scattered wildflowers push through stony ground, determinedly clinging to life. For eight long days of perpetual daylight, we sleep side by side in compact timber huts and immerse ourselves in open air hot springs. We tolt – the famous fifth gait of the Icelandic Horse – our way across barren, rocky and remote settings. Our little group bonds. Before we know it we're waving goodbye, treasuring the laughter and memories. Most are returning home, but for a small group of us, it's time to move on.
Next destination, the rolling Pyrenees Mountains of Catalonia. My grey gelding, Hidalgo, carries me reliably from the mountains to the sea on this trek. It's high summer in Spain and hot. We stay in charming Catalonian farmhouses. We clip-clop our way through the cobbled streets of ancient stone villages. Smiling, waving people hover in doorways and hang from window frames to watch us pass. We feast daily on fresh ripe fruit snatched from the abundant wild fig trees, each more fully laden than the last, and we cool our sweaty bodies in mountain river rock pools. Seven days of immersion in Catalonian food and culture pass by in a blink.
Flying north to the UK, our core group share a few days in the Cotswolds before parting ways for a while. I catch up with old friends in Wales and Scotland, touring with a couple of the girls through the Peak and Lake Districts, the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh, before jumping aboard yet another plane to Shannon, Ireland, to meet up with the rest of the riders.
Across a whirlwind month, we ride the fairytale forests and the famous Burren National Park of County Clare, astride an enormous, but completely cuddly, Irish draught horse named Seanachie, (pronounced Shan-a-kie) a Gaelic word for storyteller. We linger a while in the County Mayo village of Cong, sampling a high tea and a lesson in falconry on an inspiring hawk walk at the local Ashford Castle.
From there it's on to a week of five-star luxury. Each day we jump cross-country in the fields of a castle estate in County Monaghan, before retiring to the lodge spa and a silver service dinner in the evenings.
On board Bellatrix, a beautiful Black Irish mare, my visit to the Emerald Isle concludes with an exhilarating (and slightly terrifying) taste of Irish tradition, riding with the County Galway Hunt, known as the Galway Blazers, complete with hounds, dry stone walls, and hip flasks all round.
Waving goodbye to my new-found Irish mates, I board a flight to Bordeaux. My big grey mount, Taram, carries me faithfully through vineyards, villages, and historic, UNESCO listed citadels. At Medoc, he walks quietly onto the ferry. We stand together on the metal deck with the other horses and cars to cross the Gironde Estuary to the town of Blaye. In-between trekking amidst the vines, Taram waits patiently with his equine colleagues while we eat and drink our way through a selection of wineries, learning the intricacies of each variety en-route to our final destination of Barsac, near Sauternes.
Transferring back to our car, we drive down to our next stop near Arles, in the coastal Camargue region. I know immediately on arrival I'm going to love this place. The accommodation is a boutique, family run property with the luxury of a five star hotel and the personal touch of a family home.
The riding is truly extraordinary. The Camargue Guardians proud traditions of horses and cattle seep through every encounter. I ride a magnificent grey, Camargue horse known as Vulvarin. This area of France is an untamed, charming combination of salty marshes, rice fields, swampy pastures and wild beaches where the wind seems to snatch my words away before I can speak them. I've been to some exotic destinations, but here I feel an exhilaration and joy like never before.
After a week that flies by all too quickly, I reluctantly farewell the Camargue. We return to the car for the long drive down to Andalucia, Spain. An overnight in Valencia and we finally arrive at the ancient whitewashed village of Carmona, our base for the week. With its ridiculously narrow, cobbled roads and labyrinthine streets it's easy to lose my bearings, but the place is so fascinating why not lose yourself?
Each morning we are picked up by our charismatic guide, 83-year-old Fernando, and taken to an equestrian centre run by Fernando and his family. Each morning we ride out on trail horses through local farms and olive groves, followed by afternoon lessons on a highly trained dressage horse. I fall in love with Alacran, a young, dapple-grey gelding with personality plus. We are immersed into Andalucian horse culture with a visit to Jerez and the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. In equestrian circles, this place is rivalled only by the Lipizzaner Riding School in Vienna. In nearby Seville, our visit is timed conveniently with SICAB, an expo-like event based around the Spanish horse.
My love affair with Andalucia continues as we move on down to Coin, in the province of Malaga. Our hosts are the lovely Miranda and Giles. They welcome us into their historic, renovated marble mill like we're old friends. Our rooms are comfortable and spacious. This is one of the only places where we have a room each. After travelling in close proximity for months on end, it's a godsend.
My horse is Embrujarda, a magnificent grey mare standing almost 17 hands high. Each day, Giles leads us through the foothills of the Sierra de Mijas Mountains. A largely agricultural town, Coin features abundant groves of oranges, olives and more recently avocado trees. Even when we are caught in a torrential downpour, my enthusiasm is barely dampened. We all return to base drenched and shivering, warming ourselves with local liqueurs and a hearty dinner.
The horses have an afternoon off. Our group hikes the Caminito Del Ray. Once one of the world's most dangerous walks, the track has been restored and is considered much safer, although, with most of it being suspended off the side of a cliff face with nothing but some timber and wire to hold it up, I still find the experience somewhat daunting.
Leaving Coin we drive to Cascais, Portugal. A couple of days for respite, and much needed laundry time, and we meet our next guides at Lisbon. We hand in the car, and are ferried by bus to Barradas Da Serra.
Riding Lusitano horses, we traverse acres of pine and cork forest, open coastal dunes and wave-crashing beaches. Long days in the saddle are rewarded with breathtaking natural scenery. We ride the blue coast in a round trip that ends where it begins, at a quiet, country style hotel on a working farm at the base of the Grandola Mountain Range.
Our final destination is Morocco. A few days in Marrakech to explore the souks, a nausea inducing bus ride over the Atlas Mountain range, and a night in Ouarzazate later, we ride out from Zagora.
It's winter, but typically hot during daylight hours while freezing at night. We are welcomed with a traditional evening feast and dance celebration in Zagora. The next morning, the streets are lined with onlookers. Children run from their mud brick dwellings to watch the foreigners passing on horseback. My Barb horse, Luna, is a bundle of energy. By the end of the first day, I'm in love.
The town vanishes on the horizon. I gasp at the first sight of Sahara dunes and palm trees. The terrain is sparse and stony. We meet camel drivers, locals, date farmers, and the odd tourist. The horses drink sporadically at wells. They are tough, fast and flighty.
Our camps are rustic. Small tents. Open ground. No shelter. The chemical toilet breaks on day two. After that, we head for a rock or a bush when the need arises. There's no luxury here. The desert is a spiritual experience. Each evening, as I sit around the campfire staring up at the stars, my heart is full.
I touch down in Melbourne a few days before Christmas. Back in my world, my bank account is lighter and I'm spending much of my time seeking gainful employment. Would I do it again? In a hoofbeat.