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Volume 36, Number 2March/April 1985

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A Ride to Arabia

Written and photographs courtesy of Pascale Franconie
Additional photographs by Jean-Claude Cazade

Just a year ago, in April, 1984, two French riders named Pascale Franconie and Jean-Claude Cazade rode two Arab stallions called Merindian and Mzwina into the Gardelle Stud Farm at Lauzun in central France, dismounted stiffly and unsaddled sadly. For them, and for the horses, it was the end of a very special journey: a ride on horseback from the Dordogne in France to the Yemen border in Saudi Arabia and back - a ride of 21,070 kilometers (13,092 miles), not counting unavoidable lifts and detours via ship and truck.

For Pascale and Jean-Claude the trip was the realization of a dream that had fascinated them ever since Jean-Claude discovered the wonderful qualities of Arabian horses while serving in the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti.

They rode alone most of the time, but are the first to say that their support from a variety of sources was vital. Josian Valette, owner of the Gardelle Stud Farm, one of the largest Arabian-horse breeding establishments in France, was one such source; he lent the horses to them to show that his Arabians could complete such a trip.

Other sources of help were Her Royal Highness Princess Alia and her mother Princess Dina of Jordan, Denis Letartre and the Randonnée Service which supplied all the equipment, veterinarian Ross Williamson, and Australia's Randwick Laboratories - which dispatched veterinary medicines and food supplements for the horses to each of the major cities they visited after Riyadh - French foreign service officers and, above all, representatives of the Saudi Arab government in Tabuk, Medina, Jiddah, Taif, Riyadh, Najran and Abha.

Even with such support, they said, the trip was always a challenge. The horses, for example, had to be re-shod every 20 days, on average, except in Saudi Arabia where they found horseshoes with tungsten points - so sturdy that the horses traveled 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) in the kingdom with only three changes. Another problem was the need for a continual supply of grain to supplement the meager grazing available.

As they rode, Pascale kept a rough diary of her reactions and impressions. This article is a summary of that diary. – The Editors.

In the dawn light, the whole world was pink and gold, the shapes of the rocks sharp and clear, as we rose and began to feed the horses barley, chaff and, a luxury on this trip, carrots and apples brought down to the frontier by friends in Amman...

The friends, Roselyne and Jean Felix, had come the night before - to see us across the frontier and, In sha'Allah, (God willing) into Saudi Arabia, the end of our quest. I remember the sun as a red circle, with purple clouds shredded on the surrounding mountains and the sky, later, as we slept in the sand, full of stars in a silence broken only by the sighs of a dreaming Mzwina...

While we got ready - while I scraped the saddle cloth with a sharp stone (to clean it) - I kept saying to myself, ''Today is the day ... today is the day...' - the day, after eight months of riding, when we got there...

Finally we were ready. We had groomed the horses. We had saddled them. Now, with a last glance at the saddle bags carefully counterbalancing each other, and at the blue beads threaded into the tails, we girthed up, mounted and were off.

The sun was rising rapidly and a light breeze traced gentle lines in the sand and trembled in the sparse tufts of grass. The silence was broken only by the rhythmic breathing of the horses as, up ahead, a tall white cube detached itself from the background and slowly became the cistern at the Jordanian frontier post.

At the post, the customs officers were polite, but curious; obviously, French visitors on horseback were rare. But they stamped our passports - and, when we vigorously insisted, those of our horses too - and with a final offer of tea waved us into Arabia where, floating in the breeze, was the green flag of the kingdom with a sword in white and, above it, the famous inscription: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." We had arrived. After two years of planning, and eight months of riding we had, enfin, arrived in Saudi Arabia.

The date, I remember, was November 14, 1982. Eight months almost to the day after we had ridden out of the Gardelle Stud Farm and headed for Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and all the other countries between France and the border of Saudi Arabia - places like Turkey and Syria and, just yesterday, Jordan. Since then we had come a long way... tested our courage...and found that the ordeals had strengthened us...

In Italy, for example, we had been desperately worried when Mzwina had almost died from poisoning. Not, as a Greek newspaper wrote, because the Mafia wanted to wreak vengeance on the French, but because Mzwina had eaten grass sprayed with insecticide. It made us feel so helpless watching his eyes roll and seeing his great body lying on the ground in agony until a capable vet came and saved him.

By Yugoslavia the horses were showing their mettle and a Croatian peasant offered us headcollars made of plaited rope as a tribute to their courage; the peasant worked on them all night so that we could take them with us. We had covered 1,500 kilometers in a month (933 miles) at an average of 60 kilometers a day (37 miles), sometimes doing as much as 80 kilometers (50 miles) on good ground - such as the grassy banks of the Sava and the Morava rivers. And during this time the horses had no more than 26 buckets of corn plus some grass.

Controls by the Yugoslav militia were vexing - such as fines for riding on the pavement and, in Belgrade, a rule that made us tie up the horses because they were considered dangerous.

From Yugoslavia, we continued south through Greek Macedonia, where we crossed Thessaloniki (Salonika), a town of two million people, on foot, leading the horses. It began to get hot, so we exchanged the wool saddle blankets for toweling. But there was nothing we could do about the horseshoes; their shoes were ill-adapted for the work they were doing on hard ground: crampons on the heels and nothing on the toes. A painful lack of balance. Still, it is better to wear tennis shoes than walk barefoot!

As we went on, farther and farther, we discovered the limits of what we could ask from our horses. One day we left at 5:00 a.m. hoping to find a riding club in Kavala, Greek Macedonia where we could stop. But we were trapped between the bare and rocky mountains and the turquoise Aegean Sea and there was no water, no village before Kavala. No club there either, so, though it was 5:00 in the afternoon when we got there, we had to go on. There was nothing for the horses to eat.

Night fell, and we let the horses graze for four hours in a wheat field, while we took turns sleeping on the ground. We continued to Xanthi. Nothing. Further on, we at last purchased some grain and spent the night in a field. We had covered 150 kilometers in six hours (62 miles), having already 4,000 kilometers behind us (2,485 miles) and too few memories of adequate rations...

By then, we were sliding gently from one civilization into another. In the north of Greece, as we approached the Turkish frontier, our eyes became accustomed to minarets... to intricately patterned carpets...and to men with long moustaches, fingering small beads of stone or wood. Then the world changed - softly - as we arrived in Istanbul and crossed the Bosporus; Europe was behind us, and we felt that now we were really starting our journey.

During the first week in Turkey, we were apprehensive, but found the people of the countryside to be open and friendly. They stopped us and invited us to share tea, apricots, water melons, sometimes a roof for the night. There were, though, the same problems of communications. People found it difficult to understand why we wanted to give 10 kilos of grain a day (22 pounds) to horses. We also faced our first really hot weather and, near Kirşehir, our first sandstorm.

In Tarsin, we began to cross Anatolia, a region which seemed particularly wild. There were flocks of sheep everywhere, shepherds dressed in sheepskin cloaks, and huge white sheep dogs wearing iron collars with sharp points sticking out. They resembled wolves, but were there to defend the sheep against real wolves.

Then we came to the Taurus Mountains, magnificent bare landscapes and sparse vegetation, with a wind that whistled through the passes. We rode along the edge of the road, accompanied by huge trucks with smoking exhausts. The last rain that we were to feel for many months reached us in the Tekir Pass, through which we descended to Adana on a cotton growing plain. Because of the humid heat, the horses began to sweat, and we had to fix pieces of sacking under their bellies to protect them from flies and mosquitoes.

On again to Iskenderun, the frontier at last. Then the "Gate of the Winds," a sinister pass with dead car bodies scattered everywhere, and ruined fortifications. At the Syrian frontier post, everyone was speaking Arabic... and we went from one office to another, awaiting permissions from Damascus, for we were not expected. At last, at 9:00 p.m., a reply came: we were allowed in. But the barrier was already closed; we were blocked off until morning. So we tied the horses to a tree and lay down between them, with all our possessions under our heads. But then came a hellish din: 200-300 trucks, blocked like us for the night, had to keep their engines running to provide power for refrigerated perishable goods en route to the Middle East.

The first village in Syria, where we looked for corn, was a small, friendly community which offered us tea and expected lengthy conversation in return. We were able to wash, put on clean clothes, drink tea and eat fresh pistachio nuts. Next came Aleppo, capital of northern. Syria. We rested therefor 10 days, recounting our journey thus far, and meeting our first Bedouins - who examined our horses learnedly: their height, width of the tail, the circumference of the cannon bit and to which families did they belong?

(This was a constant question in the three Arab countries which we were to cross. "Is this an Arab horse? But of which family?"). The Bedouins did not seem to be certain that our horses were asil (pure)... but, nevertheless, brought mares to them the next day.

In Aleppo, we marveled at the citadel and the suq, while Merindian and Mzwina recovered their strength. To help, we added bran, salt and twg eggs to their rations of barley and chaff.

We also took them out every day in the Riding Club ring, where we met a Bedouin owner who came every day and was proud of his mare; she had won several races. His saddle was an ordinary cushion, with embroidered panels to cover the sides and croup, and a gaily-colored bridle decorated with shells sewn on it in star shaped patterns, and a chain noseband replacing the bit.

We had to continue, but now two new friends Bassam and Sarai decided to keep us company. How far? We did not yet know, nor did they. It all depended on their horses...

It was now very hot and our riding hours changed accordingly. We woke at 3:00 a.m., set off at 5:00 a.m., rode until 9:00 a.m. Then we took a siesta until 5:00 p.m., and went on again until nightfall. Bassam and his friend kept us company for two days, and then let us continue alone. At first we were welcomed everywhere - though everyone was astounded when they heard that we had ridden all the way from France.

At last, we reached Damascus and found shelter at the French embassy. We recovered our energy and our stallions were introduced to more mares.

At the frontiers there were more problems; we did not have an exit visa. Some incoherence in the system. But at 9:00 p.m., finally, escorted by a French embassy spokesman, we got through the last guard post, passed one last armored car and saw the lights of Ramtha and the uniforms of the Jordanian Army.

In Jordan, our tensed nerves relaxed, but we had asked, through the French embassy in Damascus, for our visa to enter Saudi Arabia and in Jordan the answer gave us little ground for hope. We, however, continued as if we had it, because we believed that we would get it.

For us, the Hashemite Kingdom was a haven of peace and organization. When a police Land-Rover stopped beside us, it was only to offer help. But if those worries were over, so too was flat riding country; hill after hill led us towards Amman.

We passed Jerash, with its splendid and imposing ruins, and on September 23 we reached Amman. There we met other friends, Mano and Enrico Marchis, who were to shelter us for a long month and put us in contact with Princess Alia, the eldest daughter of King Hussein, Jean Felix of Reuters, the news agency, Roselyne, and Hani Bisharah who offered our two horses hospitality at the Royal Horse Club. We visited the city - spread out over seven hills - went to the French embassy, visited the royal stables and spoke to Princess Alia and her mother Princess Dina; they were interested in our adventure and promised to do what they could to help.

On October 24, our patience was rewarded. The Saudi Arabian consulate telephoned; we could go collect our visa. At the same time, we would be given a letter of introduction to the amir of Tabuk. We were also assured that the government wished to help us. And so we went on.

We took the King's Road, an ancient Roman road followed by all invaders. We saw the Crusader Castle at Kerak, once the base for an incredible Crusader raid toward Medina: 300 knights against thirst, heat and the warriors of Salah-al-Din (Saladin). Then Shobak, the last Crusaders' rampart against the Muslim armies, Wadi Mujib, a huge split in the earth, full of bare black rocks, dust and heat, and Wadi Hissa, where for the first time we met the famous Desert Patrol (See Aramco World, May-June 1980). The patrolmen were small and spare, weayng khaki thawbs with red cartridge belts, a curved dagger on one hip and a holstered revolver on the other. The effect was quite breath-taking. And, a miracle, there was hay and alfalfa for our horses!

Further on, we came on a Bedouin encampment - in the famous black tents. Later, we also encountered rain, wind, fog and cold, and took refuge in a village more or less abandoned. The night was jet black, it was raining, and it was as cold as the North Pole. We found a dwelling occupied by a Bedouin and his family and "Ahlan! Ahlan!" (welcome). We were strangers, appearing out of the dark and the cold, but even so, there was no hesitation: "Welcome." We shared the meager stew of cold beans in colder mutton fat. We all slept in the same room. Before falling asleep, I thought, "Is a lifetime long enough to repay all the kindness shown to us?"

Ma’an at last. We were invited to dine with the officials. Then off on the 130-kilometer ride to Mudawarah (80 miles), with nothing to be found en route; we would carry six kilos of barley (13 pounds) for each horse, and a kilo of dates for each of us (2.2 pounds). What about water? It had rained during the last few days and we should find pools along the way. Yallah, sadik! Come along friends!

And then, as noted, we entered Saudi Arabia where, of course, customs regulations required an inspection. Mine took place in a hut set aside for women.

When I opened the door, there were sharp cries, a flurry of black veils and silence. I realized that I had confused everyone; because I was wearing riding breeches and boots I may have looked like a man. I removed my kufiya, the Arab headdress, so they could see me, and a woman came towards me. She saw that I too was female, but still had difficulty in recovering from the shock. She had apparently never seen a girl in boots and trousers, wearing a man's head covering, with short hair and no jewelry. She touched me to make sure and kept exclaiming "Ya Allah, ma besir!" (Good heavens, it's not possible!) In a corner, some young girls giggled and I had to laugh too.

Outside, all was in order. We spent the night there and young men came to look at the horses tied up on a grass plot, and, perhaps, take a closer look at this woman who was traveling on horseback from France!

We left the next morning. Once we were out of the town, the desert took over again; we rode across a long plain of black gravel on a sand base; farther off, red mountains barred the horizon. The road was not far away, and, judging from the number of cars which slowed down, we were obviously a puzzle. At Bir ibn Hirmas, the letter of introduction given to us by the Saudi Arabian consul in Amman was a veritable "Open Sesame." We were led to the house of an inhabitant and in his courtyard were two Arab horses and three salukis; only the falcon was missing.

We were, it turned out, at the home of a prosperous member of the prominent al-Atawi tribe and he obviously was prosperous: the house was built around a central patio, with a fountain in the center flowing into a pool; there was fine fresh alfalfa and as much barley as the horses could eat, and we were welcomed with ceremony: seated on carpets around a charcoal fire the master of the house introduced us to his sons, brothers, cousins, and nine daughters.

During that evening, I was asked about the families of our horses - a great honor, apparently, since horses and war are often subjects reserved for men. And what respect for the stranger, the wanderer, the person arriving hungry and tired, was shown us! The moment for the meal arrived and, discreetly, we were left alone with a large tray placed on a carpet, containing all kinds of smaller dishes: fresh vegetables cut up, different kinds of meat and honey. We picked out morsels with the fingers of the right hand, or made spoons out of flat loaves of bread. In a corner of the room was a basin, a ewer, soap, a towel and scent for our ablutions after eating. A last glance at our horses, and we fell into a deep sleep on the mattresses placed on the floor, drunk with sun, light and space. Arabia Felix! (Happy Arabia!)...

Now that we were in Arabia, the trip seemed to go by at an astonishing speed. We had collected an escort and it stayed with us as we rode on to such memorable places as Taima, where we were able to see a well said to be 1,000 years old. Khaybar, where the green palm trees stood out against the black lava enclosing this whole region; Badr, the site of the first victory by Muslim forces in their struggle with the pagans of Makkah (Mecca). Eventually we got to the Red Sea and Jiddah.

In Jiddah, we spent 10 days at the residence of the French ambassador, learning again, it seemed, how to sit on chairs, sleep in beds and eat with knives and forks after a month sharing the life of our guides, living in the sand and covering 50 kilometers a day (30 miles) without exception. The days had seemed much alike, the desert had no boundaries, no horizons; there was just the light and the wind.

Originally, we had planned to continue on to Yemen and Ethiopia, but now it was too difficult because of the famine in Africa. Instead, we went to Taif, the summer capital of the kingdom, crossed the Great Nafud Desert and saw al-Dir'iyah, a former capital destroyed by the Turks. From Riyadh, we went into the Rub' al-Khali (the Empty Quarter), the emptiest desert on the face of the earth, and after 23 painful, yet magnificent days, we arrived at Najran, an oasis of running water and coolness. Here we came to the farthest point of our ride; after that we would be turning around and going home.

First, however, we joined, on horseback, the honor guard that welcomed the Prince ofAbha, crossed a ford at Wadi Turabah, with water up to our horses' chests ... endured the strange feeling of helplessness in a sandstorm ... breathed sand ... ate mutton mixed with rice and, at last, got back to Jiddah.

From Jiddah, a National Guard truck escorted us to Tabuk. We also visited Yanbu', a huge new port on the Red Sea, al-'Ula, a pass where all the rocks are red and yellow, Madain Salih, a Nabatean site, with tombs and inscriptions hewn into the solid rock (See Aramco World, September-October 1965) - mute witnesses to a former age and a different civilization.

Nearby are the remains of a Turkish fort, an old station and a wrecked railway engine belonging to the Hijaz railway, which for a brief period linked Medina with Istanbul, and which made the reputation of the famous Lawrence of Arabia. Indeed, for the next 400 kilometers (250 miles) we were to follow the tracks of Lawrence and his Bedouins, and nothing much had changed. The rails are still there, torn up, twisted and broken; the carriages are lying on their sides, pocked with bullet holes. The stations and forts built to protect the railway are also intact, and the largest, Qal'at al-Mu'azzam, still had a reservoir full of water, a windmill for pumping it from underground and a graveyard. To us, this bare and deserted settlement, where men had waited, fought and died, was a scene of sterility and death.

In Tabuk once more, we sensed that we were leaving the desert - and that we would soon awake from our dream. Then we rode through another pass, the prolongation of the Wadi Ram, a symphony of reds and oranges of shattered and eroded sandstone in fantastic shapes, and somehow, too soon, we were back in Jordan, our memories already fading, the magic gone.

The rest of the trip seemed to go by swiftly, yet it took days and was rich in adventure. We crossed Syria by truck, unwilling to run more risks now, spent two days at sea, arriving at Volos in Greece, where people were on holiday and regarded us with total indifference. We then started back via Yugoslavia, appreciating now the fields of barley, oats and wheat, the water and shade, the mild and friendly sun. In Zagreb, we had to wait for two weeks to obtain permission to go through Italy in order to return to France, and at Grosupje, on a hill track with a 75 degree slope, Merindian did a somersault and cut his thigh. From Ljubljana onward there was snow.

Italy at last: Mestre, where we narrowly escaped an accident. Ravenna, where cold, rain, hunger and indifference made us waver. Christmas in the Apennines. Rome, and a welcome from the Italian National Association for the Arab Horse. In Rome, we also visited King Victor Emmanuel's saddleries, where 300 bits were displayed, one for each horse in the stable, and had an audience with the Holy Father at the Vatican. The next day Mzwina slipped in the stable, fell on me and broke my collar bone. Next, Merindian, while Jean-Claude was grooming him, reared and kicked open Jean-Claude's femoral artery. Jean-Claude was in agony for 15 days, before a correct diagnosis was made, and was saved in extremis.

At last, though, we returned to the Gardelle Stud Farm, dismounted and unsaddled for the last time. It was over.

As I said, the memories began to fade almost as soon as we left Saudi Arabia. But not quite. In spite of the difficulties - the extremes of heat and cold, the thirst, the frustrations - Arabia had hardened and toughened us and honed our horses. After six months there and 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles), after gallops over all kinds of terrain, and treks of up to 60 kilometers a day, (37 miles) they were lean, fine drawn, well-muscled, their eyes were jewel-bright, their ears pricked and mobile, their nostrils flaring, their muscles still taut, ready to carry us again into the unknown. Sometimes, in the evening, just before falling asleep, we would see them raise their heads and cock their ears as, perhaps they recalled the long gallop towards the horizon, the sun haloed in dust and the dunes rising before us.

Pascale Franconie, who has a degree in arts and a teaching diploma, originally planned to teach French literature, but would now like to breed and train Arabian horses. She is also writing a book on her journey.

Jean-Claude Cazade, formerly in the French Foreign Legion, ran a riding and trekking center in the Pyrenees, but sold it to help finance the ride.

This article appeared on pages 24-32 of the March/April 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1985 images.