A Journey in the Wild Horse Mountains

The wild horse is like a mythical creature. Liminal, vanishing; in the world I grew up in – Europe – extinct. There was a species of wild horse there once, known as the Tarpan. Many native breeds trace their ancestry back to it, but the species itself was lost some time around the turn of the twentieth century.

So when I learned that for the past ten years, an organisation called Rewilding Europe has been reintroducing herds of horses to the mountains of Bulgaria, I began to dream of travelling out there to see it for myself. I decided to craft an adventure around the idea.

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Two years ago when I first began to plan, I had only been hiking for the past few years, and I had never planned a big trip – let alone in an area as remote and uncharted as the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains. I would travel with Lachlan, my husband and partner in adventure, and though we often worked together to plan our trips, this was the first time I would be the expedition leader. I speculated that the odds of me pulling off this feat of organisation and seeing the thing through were low. But I went for it anyway.

Simply to have an idea of where we might go, how long it might take and how much we’d need to budget, I needed a map. This turned out to be a tall order. After months of searching I planned our journey with a large-scale tourist driving map and a (really quite helpful) map of a mountain biking trail across the ranges. By planning so far in advance, I was able to apply for funding from National Geographic and gear sponsorship from Kathmandu. When I learned I had been successful, I felt astonished, and then validated. Maybe I could pull this off after all.

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I contacted Rewilding Europe early on and told them what I planned to do, and the advice of their very dedicated team in the Rhodopes was what turned this idea into an achievable plan. These people – Hristo, Desi, Ivaylo and Nelly – gave freely to me their time and expertise, purely out of a passion for the work they do and the hunger to share it.

Only once the mountain of planning had finally been summited came the actual expedition. From the moment we arrived in the Eastern Rhodopes, it became clear that the idea of the expedition I had formed in my mind would differ greatly from the thing itself. For a start, our local collaborators were able to photocopy an out of print, fine-scale map of the area for us to use. Hristo then proceeded to sketch out uncharted routes from memory and a lifetime spent in the mountains.

My plan had been that we would walk from Point A to Point B, visiting the horses along the way. From day one, I found that I needed to change my approach. Hristo wanted to take us straight to the horses that have been his life’s work for the past decade and introduce us himself. How could we turn down such an offer?

Many aspects of our trip unfolded similarly. We were introduced to a herd of rewilded bison; we were given a lift down a 20km stretch of tarmac by three men transporting a copper Rakia still through the mountains; we rode into a village on the back of a horse-drawn cart.

I had become kind of fixated on the achievement, on being able to say “I hiked from A to B.” But the old cliché of it being about the journey, not the destination, is true. When I shifted my attitude and opened myself up to other possibilities, I ended up having a whole range of unexpected and unforgettable experiences. Because ultimately, it was about the horses, and whatever it took to maximise our time with them. In the end, I found I would readily exchange a day pounding the tarmac for a quick hitchhike down the highway, if it meant another day to spend amongst wild horses.

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Wherever we went, local people were surprised to hear that we were there to see the horses. The area has a growing nature tourism industry, thanks to birdwatchers who come to see the rare vultures which nest in the mountains. But to travel all the way from Australia – in a way, as Hristo and Desi explained to us at the end of our trip, it lent more credibility to the horse rewilding project in the eyes of local people. After all, this is a one-of-a-kind project. Rewilding horses on this scale, without fences, is an unparalleled achievement.

When darkness began to settle over our campsite and groups of horses moved silently into the clearing, we knew we were truly in the range of wild horses – and many other wild creatures as well. Of course, it is always important to travel with minimal impact, but here the consequences could be particularly direct. So we took away everything we brought to each of our campsites, minimised our rubbish, powered our devices with a solar panel, lit our camp with a solar lantern, and did whatever else we could to ensure that we left no trace behind of our having been there, except a flattened patch of grass.

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I will never forget the feeling of being followed through the trees by a stream of inquisitive colts, or that first sighting of a herd of dun-coloured ponies trotting across a clearing on a distant spur. Now that I know how complete and capable I feel when I can pack everything I need into a single bag and carry it on my back across mountains and rivers, I can never go back to not knowing.

Planning and executing an expedition on this scale used to be my workday-desk daydream. Living it has altered my perspective on myself and what I can achieve. But it has also changed my perspective on where I fit in the environment, and what I need to be content. We are witnessing (and orchestrating) the rewilding of horses, and other species, and whole ecosystems – and in the process, we are rewilding ourselves.

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