Notes from the Blue Coast Trail

This article originally appeared in the 5th January 2023 issue of Horse & Hound Magazine and was written by Carol Phillips.


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A Mediterranean Mission

Rocky riverbeds, thunderstorms and slap-up picnics are all part of the adventure, finds Carol Phillips as she saddles up the Arabian โ€œGeeGee” for a trail-riding holiday in the Turkish Mediterranean.

As I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to a thunderstorm raging outside my bell tent and felt the fine rain falling on me inside, I did momentarily ponder my life choices.

When the chance to go on a trail-riding holiday in Turkey, plus a weekend riding in Wales, came up earlier in the year courtesy of riding holiday agents Saddle Travel, I jumped at the chance. I had not been to Turkey before, but I envisaged riding along beaches in beautiful sunshine, cantering through the forests and swimming in the sea.

The implications of the fact we were going to be camping for several nights in late November and had been warned to wear short riding boots with thick grippy rubber soles, rather than traditional smooth-soled riding boots as these were not going to be suitable for the terrain we were going to be traversing, didn’t fully register at that stage.

Fast forward a few weeks, and there I was, wild camping in a forest in Turkey with my fellow intrepid adventurers. Having flown from Heathrow to Istanbul to Dalaman, on the first evening we enjoyed a generous traditional Turkish meal, accompanied by live music in a restaurant on the banks of the beautiful Lake KรถyceฤŸiz with our guide Nico Guillo, the owner and manager of Kapadokya Ranch in Cappadocia.Born in France, Nico is a horseman with extensive experience of crossing countries, having ridden across Afghanistan, among other places. Having been based in the centre of Turkey for more than 20 years, he is fluent in French, English and Turkish. All of Nico’s mounts were either full or part-bred Arabian. During our trail, he rode a beautiful grey stallion, who was incredibly well behaved, including while being tethered overnight (albeit at a small distance) alongside the mares and geldings we were riding.

After spending our first night in a local guesthouse, we met up with our mounts early on day two. I was introduced to my partner for the week, GeeGee, a small but mighty chestnut mare, who proved more than up to the challenges that lay ahead of us. Despite her advancing years, every morning she stepped out with gusto, eyes bright, ears pricked, taking in everything around us. She was as sure-footed as a mountain goat, always eager to be up with the action, but polite enough to take rear file within the group of eight when asked.

The horses wore Western-style saddles adapted to Nico’s preferred design, with generously sized saddlebags that allowed us to wear multiple layers in the morning then shed them as temperatures rose, or to carry a waterproof coat to put on when needed.

Once we had prepared our horses, we headed out on foot for the first 10 to 15 minutes to allow them to warm up, before checking our girths and mounting up. We followed this pattern at the start of each ride, then repeated it in reverse later to allow the horses time to warm up before and cool down after their exertions. It also helped us riders to walk off any stiffness that had built up from the long hours in the saddle.

Most of the riding was at a fast walk, or a forward but consistent rolling canter, with an occasional trot. As riders, we were expected to remain on the ball at all times, so we could pick up canter or return to walk without advance warning as and when a change of pace was required.

On the first riding day, we were introduced to the eye-opening, beautiful terrain we would be covering, which ranged from wide, hard, stone and dirt tracks to rocky, dry, riverbeds, fording rivers and negotiating steep and narrow hiking trails with sheer drops alongside. Anyone with a fear of heights would be strongly recommended to keep their eyes front and centre, but to do so would mean you’d miss out on the incredible views, of which there were plenty.

Given a loose rein, the horses were incredibly skilled at negotiating the tricky, often very rocky terrain with little or no assistance from their riders. Each day, the challenging route required us to dismount and trek on foot, leading our equine partners for periods, while there were times when part of me would have preferred to do so, rather than continuing mounted. In fact, the horses were more than up to the task and my confidence in their ability grew as the week progressed. It felt like we were rarely riding on the flat, with hills being the constant order of the day.

We typically rode for around three hours in the morning, followed by a break of an hour or slightly more for lunch, then another three hours on the trail before reaching our destination for the night.

During the week, we also rode on the ,beach, through the sea and crossed a deep river, through which some of the horses had to swim a few strides, while we removed our boots and socks and tied them around our neck to keep them dry-all great fun while pushing our comfort boundaries, giving a real sense of achievement to each ride.

The initial plan had been to spend four nights camping along the route, which took us from the north of Lake KรถyceฤŸiz down to Dalyan, over the mountains to Gรถkbel, then on to the beach near Dalaman airport before heading across more mountains to a sheltered coastline, where we enjoyed a lovely swim in the sea, before heading to our final destination in Gรถcek.

However, the storm on the first night, combined with other inclement weather warnings, meant alternative accommodation had to be found for us at short notice while the tents dried out, so we only camped once at the start of the week then again at the end of the week. I was grateful the team managed to find us dry places to sleep, even if some of the accommodation was basic. And it was lovely to spend a night under the stars at the end of the week – with very little light pollution, it really was a beautiful spectacle.

The inclement weather at the start of the week curtailed our daytime activities for a couple of days, as we urgently needed to get to the ferry to cross the Dalyan river before a storm arrived that could prevent it from running. This meant we bypassed a beach ride that would usually form part of the route. Typically the horses would stand on the open deck of the car ferry for the short journey, but the wet weather made it slippery, so they were loaded in pairs into a horse trailer and made the journey in this way instead.

Once the horses were all safely on the correct side of the river, we enjoyed lunch at a local restaurant before heading out on a boat ride on the lagoon. We briefly visited the beach as the forecast storm hit, before heading back to base. The plan had been to stop off and visit the Roman ruins, but as the rain lashed down, the group agreed to give it a miss. We returned to the restaurant that evening to enjoy a fresh fish supper sourced from the lagoon.

Happily, the weather improved as the week progressed, so we enjoyed visiting Turtle Beach, which is home to a sanctuary where we saw injured turtles recovering before they return to the sea, rode in some beautiful Mediterranean weather and took the chance to swim in the calm, warm sea before lunch on the final day – which was much more what I had been expecting.

Ah yes, lunch. It would be remiss of me not to wax lyrical about the delicious fresh food provided by Nico’s excellent crew. A clever set-up of Land Rover support vehicles meant that freshly cooked food could be provided in any location, so we enjoyed breakfast in the forest, lunch at the foot of a waterfall and on the beach, plus evening meals in the open air. We were kept well-fuelled for the active nature of this holiday and it all tasted great.

My verdict? This is an ideal riding holiday for competent riders who also enjoy camping and hiking. Anyone considering it should be happy hiking up (or down) steep, narrow, rocky paths for half an hour or more at a time with a horse in tow – this is more of a challenge than it sounds. On the final afternoon, the trail was so challenging that we sent the horses ahead loose, so we could climb at our own pace and not get in their way. The horses made light work of the job, while many of us were left gasping for breath, but reaching the top felt like a real achievement.