Terror and panic. What with civil wars, assassinated presidents and ethnic tensions, I suppose most people on holiday in the Caucasus experience some of that. In my case, though, the terror and panic I felt shortly after my arrival in Georgia were related to horses.
I spent most of my childhood on horses so, although I hadn’t ridden for years, the fear that overwhelmed me when I saw some prancing out of the stables took me by surprise. They were Arab/English/Akhal-tekin crossbreeds, a mixture of recently castrated geldings and young mares, and somewhere in my nervous mind was the idea that they wouldn’t understand English. Rollover for
I was given a three-year-old filly. We greeted each other with mutual trepidation and within minutes I found that, although she was sure-footed and could come to a screeching halt if she wanted, both her steering and brakes were capricious. We set off downhill at a brisk trot. I clung to the pommel of the saddle – something I had been forbidden to do as a child – adapted my English style and ignored my nerves.
We were about to embark on a reconnaissance trip to check out this idyllic country for a new trek. I was one of five Britons – the others were a photographer living in Georgia, an actress, an art dealer and the owner of Ride World Wide. Four Georgians took care of our every need: a wild reprobate artist, a doctor trained in Vienna, a taciturn engineer and the owner of the horses – all the soul of courtesy.
Our introduction to the area had come during the car journey to the stables when our tank was filled by an ancient babushka who shuffled out of a roadside hut with a ceramic jug of petrol. A mile farther on half of this was siphoned off to give to someone else who had run out of petrol. This is the Georgian way.
We were in the beautiful rolling countryside of southern Georgia, an hour from the capital, Tbilisi.
The bitter rivalries and tensions that continue to wrack this part of the world (only this week civil war was narrowly averted in Georgia) seemed a million miles away.
The Khrami Massif ranges from the gentle slopes of beech woods to precipitous gorges of scrubby elm, hornbeam and oak that lead down to fast-flowing rivers rushing towards the Black Sea. Wild boar live here and show their appreciation by digging up the soft, fertile ground.
We rode up sheer mountain paths that gradually faded out, testing our tracking skills and the agility of the horses. On the steepest parts we led them, their soft noses pressed hard against our backs, to 2,500ft crests where the meadows stretched far, far off to the snow-capped Caucasus. These are picture book pastures – with innumerable varieties of sweet-smelling flowers and herbs. The sound of shepherds cracking their whips mingled with the skylarks’ songs as swallows, house martins and swifts swooped around us for the feast of insects the hooves would unearth.
Scores of tiny crumbling churches dot the landscape, hiding in the woods or perching on hilltops. One of the finest is the 12th-century Gudarekhi monastery, which sits miles away from any road. A stream borders the surrounding walnut grove of this little Arcadia where honeybees bliss out on pollen provided by the thick carpet of tall flowers. Gudarekhi’s intricately carved arches and faded frescoes are soon to be restored and the whole complex will be occupied by monks whose predecessors were chased away by the Russians.
One afternoon, out of the silent dappled woods came an elderly man on a pony, his burnished face and wide grin overshadowed by a huge furry hat. Suddenly we were surrounded by his vast flock of goats and sheep eager to reach their summer pastures.
Glorious days rolled into glorious days. Each started with morning tea, sweetened with condensed milk, delivered to our tents by one of our Georgian hosts, and ended 10 long hours later when we rode into camp, usually well after dark, to be handed a bottle of potent home-made chacha (Georgia’s answer to vodka).
In between we watched the scenery change every mile. We scrambled up a five-storey seventh-century lookout tower topped with an eagle’s nest, heard a bear playing in the river, watched a pine martin for longer than it would have liked, rode along a railway track, saw water buffaloes belonging to Azerbaijani nomads pulling carts laden with wood, and swam in a silent, silky lake.
We picnicked in perfect spots, drank from mineral-rich springs, ate succulent lamb kebabs and tiny river fish, washed in sparkling streams and collapsed into exhausted sleep despite the loudest chorus of frogs I have ever heard.
I soon regained my riding confidence, but after a couple of days I wanted a change from the unpredictability of youth, so I swapped to a perfectly mannered older horse that walked instead of pranced and whose rolling canter was a real joy.
One magical day began with our first sight of Dmanisi, from the opposite side of a deep gorge. Inhabited since Palaeolithic times, the citadel stands high above a three-way junction of the east/west Silk Road and the route south to Armenia. It was here that Professor Kopaliani, who showed us around, discovered skulls that proved to be 1.7 million year old – the most primitive human remains ever to be found outside Africa.
When we set off from Dmanisi at 3pm we were assured of a short ride ahead. We took our time to wander through elegant beech woods, stop for a lazy cup of tea and enjoy the novel idea of getting to camp before dark. The track soon became a narrow path and finally even the animal footprints disappeared. This didn’t seem to matter until we reached a particularly breathtaking view we had seen well over an hour before and we realised we were lost. Then we heard a chicken clucking. Where there’s a chicken there’s a pot and where there’s a pot there are people. We knew a village must be near.
We galloped up the hill to a clearing where an Asiri nomad summer settlement was bathed in the setting sun, filtered through the smoke of evening fires. Children led the procession to greet us with turkeys, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats and the helpful chicken looking on. But with the light fading we had to charge on, straight into a ferocious, deafening wind that turned everything in its path horizontal.
In the middle of this hostile, blasted plateau we managed to rendezvous with a friend who was to guide us through the next part of the journey. He was laden with manna – hot-from-the-oven khachapuri, heavenly cheese-filled bread – and led us on his tiny pony down an endless path of overhanging trees and sudden streams.
It was 11pm by the time we reached the dirt road and a house whose owners spoke neither Georgian nor Russian. Instinct led us to the village shop, which had for sale one pair of socks, giant sugar lumps, Champagne, tinned meat, cheese, sweets, the odd toy and – mercifully – cold beer. We then set off for the final, unbelievable, five miles of the journey. We led the exhausted horses along the moonlit, potholed road and finally collapsed at the gate of the Bolnisi Sioni churchyard at 1am. Down the darkened path we saw an ethereal blaze of candlelight flooding through the door of the church. When the priest appeared in the doorway to welcome us with a serene, beatific smile it seemed God had rewarded us with a glimpse of heaven.
An enormous supra – a feast – was laid out in the tiny bell tower where the priest lives, a gun hidden in his bed. Excellent home-brewed wine accompanied the toasts of celebration and thanks-giving that ended the day.
For six days we had seen no cultivation, but now on the home stretch we meandered through tiny fields where women and men tended plots of two or three crops sown together – maize and beans and potatoes. Then up and over an escarpment to a sea of wheat.
We rode on through flowering acacia spinneys humming with bees and cooled off in the Khrami River. But the rock I clung to – to save me from being swept away – suddenly disappeared beneath me when the river rose more than 12 inches in a few minutes and I had to be pulled ashore.
We returned to Tbilisi shaking with exhilaration and exhaustion, our spirits filled with the absolute beauty of the country and the charm of its people. Legend has it that when God was dividing up the world he kept the best, Georgia, for himself. He chose well.
Ride World Wide (01837 82544, www.rideworldwide.com) offers an 11-night trip similar to the one taken by Rachael Heaton-ArmstrongThis includes all meals and accommodation in tents, hotels and guesthouses plus all riding and transfers.
Further reading: Stories I Stole from Georgia by Wendell Steavenson