x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Become a tomb rider to see Egypt's other pyramids

Tarquin Cooper saddles up for a gruelling horseback ride from the Saqqara Country Club but is rewarded with unforgettable sights - and silence.

The spa of Kempinski Nile Hotel Cairo in Egypt.
The spa of Kempinski Nile Hotel Cairo in Egypt.

For three hours I've been sitting in the saddle, riding across Egypt's pyramid field, a vast treasure trove of archaeological sites just south of Cairo, when at last we come to a site that leaves me staring in open-mouthed awe. It is the Red Pyramid, one of several pyramids to be found at the ancient royal burial site of Dahshur. Although smaller than the famous pyramids of Giza, it is perfectly symmetrical and just as inspiring and historic - perhaps more so for the hard-won journey to get here.

No one else is around, just myself, my horse, Wadi, and a few others in the riding group. For the last hour the pyramid has been just another landmark on the horizon but now, up close, I enjoy the same sense of wonder that Howard Carter must have felt when he stumbled across the tomb of Tutankhamen. It really is something at which to just stand and stare.

Egypt's pyramids have been attracting visitors from Herodotus in the fifth century BC right up to modern-day Hollywood, for which they have been the scene for murder, intrigue and - courtesy of The Mummy film franchise - historical silliness.

But to modern visitors the experience can be a disappointment. Being one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and a Unesco World Heritage Site has also inevitably endowed it with tourist trap status. With the coach parties, the hawkers and the tawdry tat for sale, it's not like the postcard. However there is a way to escape. Giza is home to just six pyramids and there are 138 in all. The pyramid field stretches from the outskirts of Cairo, about 65km south to the royal burial ground or necropolis of Dahshur. This area is home to dozens of lesser-known pyramids that few explore because of its relative inaccessibility.

That's where the horse comes in. It's the ideal mode of transport and it's also a lot of fun. At least, that's what Maryanne Stroud promises. The doughty 62-year-old is supposed to keep the best horses in town at her farm, Recoub Al Sorat, on the western outskirts of Cairo. (The name translates as "riding the righteous path".)

The Canadian expat moved here with her Egyptian husband in 1988 and has been keeping horses for 20 years. But she only began taking clients out riding a couple of years after her husband, a grain import entrepreneur, died in a light plane crash in 2000. She's now based at her farm where she keeps 23 horses, 25 goats, three donkeys, a mule and a collection of chickens and ducks.

"I lose count," she says in exasperation. The latest addition to the fold includes a couple of goats she named Twitter and Google in honour of their tech companies' role in the revolution.

"You hungry?" she asks.

"Starving," I reply.

We jump in her dilapidated Jeep and head along dusty roads that run alongside the area's many canals to a local restaurant, the Farm. Over dinner, Maryanne tells me why the area is so great for riding. "It's Egypt as the Egyptians see it," she says.

"I've experienced life here as a tourist and as someone living here and I know the difference. My goal is try and show visitors the beauty of life here that you wouldn't normally see." But the real attraction, she says, are her horses. The Arab crosses love to gallop and the desert gives them the perfect opportunity to really open up in a way that even experienced riders have never experienced.

"You're going to ride Wadi," she says. "He's one fiery Arab. His mother was a racehorse. And he's stupid, too. He likes to be out in front. You'll like him."

I don't know whether to be excited or alarmed. As we finish up, the noise from what sounds like a wedding party at the back becomes increasingly raucous and we can't resist sneaking a peek. One of the male guests is standing on a table. He's belly dancing, to wild applause, and he's surprisingly good.

Hands beckon us to join but we politely decline and wander home. For me, bed is at the Sakkara Country Club, once the preserve of Cairo's horse-riding expats. In recent years it had gone downhill; the horses were neglected and its membership declined. Now under new ownership, it's undergone a massive facelift.

In the morning, Maryanne takes us on a gentle ride around the local villages, 15km south-west of downtown Cairo. In what seems to be a typically Egyptian quirk, the area's locally known name of Ghigha differs from its marked name of Abu Ghorab. The session is principally a get-to-know-you one for riders and steeds before heading into the desert.

"You want the English or American saddle?" she asks.

For long rides across the sands, somehow the English saddle just doesn't seem the right tool for the job. I want the cowboy saddle. It also has a pommel you can hold onto, which will come in very handy later. We ride along canals that feed lush green fields of clover, sugar cane, onions and wheat, and pass farmers handploughing their crops in the same way it would have been done in the time of the pharaohs.

At the turnaround point, we spot the pyramids of Giza poking out of the haze. "No one sees them like this," Maryanne says. Although just a warm-up for the following day's desert ride, we nonetheless manage to cover about 20km by the time we make it back to Maryanne's farm. Wadi and I seem to get along fine. He has a soft mouth, a long-strided trot but behaves himself impeccably. We finish lunch with some local strawberries and a much-needed siesta back at the country club.

The plan for the next day is to explore the southern pyramids from Maryanne's farmhouse and back again. It's a 45km loop that will take up to seven hours in the saddle. The route passes three pyramid sites of Abu Sir, Saqqara and the royal necropolis of Dahshur, 20km away.

Through a gap in a perimeter wall that separates the delta from the desert we leave behind the noise of backstreets and bazaars and enter the silence of the Sahara. Just ahead lie the pyramids of Abu Sir, once a cemetery to the elite of the ancient capital of Memphis.

Wadi, however, is no Egyptologist. In the desert, a different side to his character emerges and what he sees is a giant, glorious racetrack. His walk becomes a bounce, he starts throwing his head back and snorting, the pace picks up. We carry on like this for 15 minutes until we come to a wide open stretch of sand 300m across with a hill up the other side. Maryanne gives the nod and I let go of the reins and he launches like a racehorse out of a starting gate. I have just enough time to grab the pommel handle to keep me from being thrown off. In a flash, I'm at full speed. The adrenalin kicks in, the fear recedes and I'm taken on the gallop of my life. The sand scatters behind me like a vapour trail and I leave the others for dead.

At the brow of the hill, he finally comes to a halt. But if I hoped he'd now got it out his system, I'm mistaken. "Oh, given half the chance, he'd gallop the whole way," Maryanne says. But he does ease up enough to make it possible to enjoy the surroundings. And they are spectacular. Everywhere I look there seem to be pyramids dotted about the landscape. Some are little more than crumbling piles of stone but it seems extraordinary that the desert is still throwing up new finds - a pyramid was discovered only three years ago. Scattered everywhere is pharaonic detritus - old human bones, pottery, a sarcophagus, a huge carved tomb - unmoved in millennia, lying in the sand by some railway tracks.

"Feel free to dismount and take a look," says Maryanne. I can't resist and wander over. The stone is as smooth as marble and I climb inside to pose for a photo. It seems extraordinary that the tomb is still here, not sitting in a museum. On the ground is the odd coral fragment, a reminder of an even earlier history, when this whole area would have been under the sea.

Similarly big changes have been underway lately but they're political ones from the Arab Spring rather than to do with sea levels. Not all the changes have been good, Maryanne tells me. Within weeks of Hosni Mubarak's departure, illegal construction began to encroach on the protected desert. There have also been disputed reports of looting.

After an hour, we come to Saqqara and pass the now crumbling ruins of the Step Pyramid, an early layered design, once the largest building of its time. Standing 62m high, it's some way off the Burj Khalifa. We alternate between walking and letting the horses do what they love best, and I revel in the gallops. Towards noon, after riding for three hours, we reach the pyramids of Dahshur where we stop to gaze in wonder at the Red Pyramid.

Dahshur is also home to a lake that's a winter wetland for migrating waterfowl. Here, we turn off the desert into the welcome shade of a palm forest for lunch at a gorgeous terracotta house that belongs to a friend of Maryanne's. The grooms go to work hosing down the horses while we relax on a balcony. The return journey is more sedate, passing villages where troops of barefoot children rush out to greet us with cries of "halloo, halloo".

By now my body is in pain and I'm struggling to stay good-humoured. A pot of tea at the farm goes some way to restore it, but after two days in the saddle my aching body needs something a bit more drastic. I find the answer at the luxurious Kempinski Nile hotel. It has panoramic views over the river from its rooftop bar, a butler service and, more importantly, a spa where I spend the following morning trying to soothe my sore limbs. Egypt is rightly known for its ancient wonders but at this point in time, its modern ones seem possibly even more enjoyable.

 

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.ethihadairways.com) to Cairo from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh1,040, including taxes.

The trip

A two-day tour, including two nights at the Sakkara Country Club and one night at the Kempinski Nile Hotel, costs from Dh6,600, per person. Riding packages can be booked via Unicorn Trails (www.unicorntrails.com). Rides can also be arranged locally for Dh75 per hour, per person, through www.alsorat.com.