A horse riding holiday in a remote part of Georgia seemed the perfect antidote to urban life – but then our writer got a bigger adrenaline rush than he'd bargained for
Audio slideshow: Watch more of Kevin's adventure
The Guardian, Saturday 8 January 2011
We had come up a side valley, I remember, where patches of sunlight were slowly warming the rocks. There was forest on the southern side: thick beech, maple and mountain ash underscored with wild raspberry bushes, the fruits tiny yet intensely flavoured. I leaned from the saddle and picked them as we passed. My horse, dubbed Rocket, was a young gelding, slim in the shoulders, less steady than some, but sure-footed and strong. He needed to be. Ahead were the High Caucasus, jagged snowy ridges along the Chechen border, and we were climbing to more than 3,000m, far up into the flower-strewn summer meadows. We had stayed the night in an ancient watchtower, sleeping with our heads full of cha-cha, the local firewater, and Georgian melodies sung to an accordion by our hostess, Maya.
It was at the first crossing that the forces of chaos suddenly took a swipe at us – as they can when horses are involved. There was a mountain torrent, nothing too powerful, but the rocks were slippery and the water cold. The animals wanted to drink. Carlo, our guide, decided to check the girths. In a few seconds the orderly line of animals and riders became disorganised. My horse shoved past the one in front, determined to get at the water. By the time I hauled him to a halt we were among a bundle of riders milling in a tiny space. Finally we could hold them no longer: a group of four strode into the water and stopped. A foal, one of several horses that were tagging along, got tangled up, plunging into a deeper pool.
"Keep moving!" bellowed Carlo. Gru, an experienced rider from Norway, was halfway over and I saw her horse's rear legs sink, then slip. There was a brief desperate scrabble and she went over, eyes wide in shock. The horse fell too, but was up in an instant. Gru crawled out the water, bruised, but ready to ride.
Now I was nervous about crossings, and there were two more before I could relax. We were, however, all being more careful, maintaining the line and the gaps between horses. When I crossed the last river, I relaxed a bit. The drama was over – or so I thought.
The narrow path then led upwards, turning back across the hillside as it climbed steeply. I could see a few stragglers, loose horses, just reaching the last ford. When we were about 60m above the stream, the horse ahead of me stopped. I halted, too. There was no room to go around. I waited, looking down. There was a tussocky grassy hillside, falling steeply away to a rocky lip, then a sheer drop into the stream. We had seen gorges galore by then, and grown used to the sure-footed horses negotiating narrow paths. This spot was no different and I have no recollection of feeling any nerves, perched as I was above a spectacular drop.
I was sitting square in the saddle, holding the reins one-handed on the small iron pommel. I thought about taking a photo, but decided against it and put my camera away – a simple action that probably saved me. I glanced uphill. Still no progress. It was then I felt the horse sway. Like it was changing feet. A tiny outward movement, increasing in speed. My back straightened. "Hey!" But he kept going, falling out into the empty space.
I remember that moment in astonishing detail: the sharpness of the blue sky against the mountains; the cool, moist air rising from the torrent; most of all the sense of disbelief. "This cannot happen." But it was happening. My horse was falling and there was nothing to stop him except an icy rip of mountain water far below.
It is said that many Britons are keen to have more excitement in their lives. A poll of 3,000 people conducted for the Go Outdoors equipment superstore chain found a real thirst for more activity and adventure – hardly surprising since they also discovered that a quarter of Londoners have not walked on a natural surface in more than a year.
Sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson noted: "Getting outdoors is vital for maximising our quality of life and as an antidote to our urban, stressful environments … A life on the sofa is incomprehensible to adrenaline junkies who get the physical and psychological stimulation that comes with the high of extreme sports."
Fine. I'm okay with that, although I don't think of myself as an adrenaline junkie at all. But I love real adventure. Not those health-and-safety sanctioned thrills that involve no danger whatsoever. There is a genuine excitement at being out there in the wilds, without a safety net, without a handrail, without a barrier …
Back on the mountainside, my horse, Rocket, made one last attempt to right himself, but failed. There was no ground under him. I felt myself rise in the stirrups, throwing myself off him as he dropped from under me like a stone. I landed on the edge of the precipice and crouched there in horror, watching the animal cartwheel down the slope: stirrups, bags, straps, reins all flapping wildly. Four, five, six complete rolls. Whites of eyes flashed, then over the lip of the final drop, and gone.
There was a long silence filled only by the roar of the torrent below. Then I saw Richard, our group leader, pushing his way through the bushes on the far side of the valley, climbing down towards where the animal must be. Someone else was there, Sue from California, watching as Richard reached the animal and then she was shouting up to us: "The horse is dead!"
Instinctively I stood up and started charging down the track. I heard someone shouting, "Get a knife!" And there was Carlo clambering down after Richard, a wicked big blade in his hand. Why did they need a knife?
A few seconds later the answer came: Richard and Carlo struggling up the slope and behind them, improbably, impossibly, Rocket. They'd cut his saddle and bridle off to get him out, but he'd survived with no more than cuts and bruises.
Later, walking up into the meadows (no one rode Rocket for the rest of the trip; I was given another horse), I chatted to Richard, our guide, and a man with considerable equine experience, including fatal incidents – he being Richard Dunwoody, former champion jockey and twice winner of the Grand National. "I've never seen anything like that before," he admitted. "These horses are tough."
Richard is definitely committed to the idea of adventure – since retiring from jump racing, he's walked to the South Pole and ridden across Mongolia. So should people take risks?
"Treks like this one do involve danger. But as long as we get people who can handle that, the benefits are huge. I mean, look at this … "
We had come over the brow of the mountain and there spread before us was all the High Caucasus in magnificent array: great soaring peaks surrounded by the clutching fingers of glacial ice. To our right was Dagestan, to our left Chechnya; below were the deep valleys of the Tusheti region of
Georgia, a wild land once inhabited by fierce tribes who battled with their neighbours, hence the 17th-century watchtowers. Christianity came here early – Georgia was converted in the fourth century – but paganism remained strong. "Love thy neighbour" was never an easy sell in a region where raiding and counter-raiding were deeply embedded in the culture: old photographs show Tushi men clutching ancient long-bore rifles, their woollen chokha coats heavily stitched with bullet-holders.
It was the Soviets who finally achieved what even the mighty Persian army had failed to do for centuries: destroy the mountain people. In the 1940s and 1950s they simply moved them out, down to the lower valleys where they could be controlled. In other areas, such as Svaneti and Chechnya, entire populations were transported far away to unsuitable deserts. After immense sufferings they returned. But for the Tushetis, transportation was less severe, only to the lower, less snow-bound, regions of Georgia. Perhaps for that reason the area has never been repopulated, except in summer when Tushetan families come back to the partially ruined villages and spend the summer riding horses, picking berries and holding impromptu outdoor dances (fuelled, inevitably, by cha-cha). By late September all but a few hardy souls head back to warmer climes and Tusheti is cut off by snow for nine months.
We stopped for lunch in a meadow, tethering the horses to wooden pegs and letting them crop the herbs and flowers. After an hour we set off once again, leading the horses down a steep track into the valley below, where we crossed a swift broad river before riding into the village of Dartlo. Here were two well-preserved watchtowers and a clutch of slate-built houses, some with newly constructed wooden balconies. We dined on aubergines spread with walnut sauce, local cheese pie, nuggets of lamb and jugs of rough Georgian wine.
Afterwards, Carlo, a man with the kind of impressive facial hair once expected of Tusheti warlords, got out his silver-tipped drinking horn, filled it with cha-cha, and told us tales of local heroes who battled against Shah Abbas of Persia in the 17th century. Memories of foreign interventions never die here, but then the tradition of foreign intervention lives on too: Georgia was effectively invaded in 2008 by Russia and forced to cede the Caucasian land of South Ossetia.
Outside, a party was brewing, with accordions and drums ringing out in the darkness. Richard, a man with a Strictly Come Dancing record, reluctantly relived his glorious, albeit brief, career as a dancer, while the rest of us tried to learn steps from the fiendishly agile children. A woman sang a wild wailing melody, a soulful fusion of east and west. After downing a hornful of cha-cha, I found the dance moves curiously demanding and crept off to bed.
Next day I was relieved to see there was a bridge for our river crossing and the subsequent days passed without drama – just wonderful landscapes and friendly villages. There was naturally some debate among the group about adventure and risk, but most were happy to accept the potential for calamity ever-present with horses, a potential magnified by the remote location. All agreed that careful research combined with knowledge of one's own limitations was essential before travelling. A few had clearly struggled with the shift from an orderly life to something more risky. They would probably not return. Nevertheless, when we drove out of Tusheti, crossing the awesome 3,000m pass that guards it from the outside world, I think we all felt a keen sense of regret at leaving that magical place.
A few weeks later, after returning to Britain, I had a call from Richard, who had just returned from another trip to Tusheti. This tour had passed without incident and the group had gone home buzzing with excitement and pleasure, vowing to be back the following year.
"I still can't believe the way that horse fell – and survived," said Richard.
"Did anyone ride him on the last trip?" I asked.
Richard chuckled. "No, he stayed behind in the meadow."
Way to go
Wild Frontiers (020-7736 3968, wildfrontiers.co.uk) has a nine-day trip to Tusheti with Richard Dunwoody on 6-14 August for £1,395 excluding flights. BMI (flybmi.com) flies Heathrow-Tblisi four times a week from £409 return.
Kevin travelled from York to London with East Coast Trains (08457 225225, eastcoast.co.uk). Returns from £20. The Heathrow Express (heathrowexpress.com) from Paddington costs £32.