Holiday Report: Carpathian Mountain Trails, Romania | Far and Ride

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Holiday Report: Carpathian Mountain Trails, Romania

Carpathian Mountain Trails, Romania, 2017.

Written by Jack Moon

Jack's horse, 'Lazy Stefan'

It all began with an e-mail. Something like: “Dear Holly, I’m looking for a trip that will give my mother sitting at home a bit of worry, something a bit adventurous but that suits an early intermediate with more bravery than talent.”

Luckily Holly did not disappoint, and we had three options, Albania, Romania, and Idaho. Having driven across the US in 2016 I decided to give Albania and Romania some serious consideration, and then I heard about the wild camping and potential to see a bear (see note about worrying mother above) so it had to be Romania, and the Salt Route Mountain Trail sounded adventurous enough if a little above my actual ability, I gave them advance notice of my limited riding skill and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t hold anyone up.
Flights were very easy to find to Cluj-Napoca from Luton, and I was met at the airport by a friendly driver in a Land Rover and three of the group. A few hours later we arrived at the bottom of the mountain where the ranch is built, and I realised why we had a Land Rover (though the locals seemed to think nothing of taking their tiny Dacias up the same steep track!) and the free jeep safari was a bonus to get us into the right mindset for our week of adventure.

I won’t bore you with a re-run of the itinerary available on the website, but a few pictures and my experiences will hopefully help others planning a similar trip.

At this point it is worth sharing my riding experience, which might help others considering the trip. Before I left I had never: 1) Put a saddle on a horse. 2) Cleaned a horse’s hooves. 3) Ridden a horse through a river. 4) Cantered for more than a few hundred metres. 5) Slept in a field with horses in it. 6) Ridden a horse with saddle bags. 7) Ridden a horse in a thunderstorm – I enjoy riding but had never done more than 3 hours at a time, and have been thoroughly spoiled by stables focused on English riding over short distances. Some of this lack of experience I wasn’t entirely aware of until Romania Day 1, thankfully despite being the least experienced rider I made up for it by being the most grateful, enthusiastic and content rider I can be after 6 hours in the saddle.
Luckily for me Csaba and Kinga run a tight but relaxed ship, with loads of help for people just like me, who are keen to learn but lack experience of horsemanship, they gave others in the group the freedom to saddle up (checking everything was set up correctly) and giving me the guidance I needed to get it right and supervised my practicing each morning and evening to make sure the horses and I were ready to ride. Note there are no riding lessons, but other guests gave me some great tips on the trail and Csaba helped with a few pointers when I encountered terrain I had never ridden through before!

My group was made up of 7 Germans, 2 Dutch and me, and despite my GCSE German all the guests and Csaba spoke both German and English to make sure I understood. This mix of nationalities seems to be normal for the centre, another benefit meeting new friends from other countries and lots to talk about explaining the who’s who of the Royal Family and avoiding too much discussion of Brexit!

The first evening we were provided with a very hearty meal that was to become the norm for the trip, expect lots of stews and soups with doorsteps of fresh crusty bread, plenty of palinka, beer and lots of horse-related chatting over dinner. I tried most of the vegetarian options and all were plenty enough to fuel a long day of riding, lunches were packed after breakfast using the same doorstops of bread and cheese, salami and salad.
Then came my first challenge. After a long day of travelling and after meeting everybody and chatting for a while it had got dark, and I needed a shower. So my second adventure after the jeep safari began, walking into a field of horses in the dark to get to the log cabin with the shower. I walked down with beer helping my bravery, and quickly lost all nerve and ended up tiptoeing my way to the shower with a towel around my neck, nervously shooing a dozen horses away that clearly wanted to come and say hello, then having the quickest shower of 2017 wondering if every horse in Romania was circling the cabin, and peeking out of the door before tiptoeing my way back to the main cabin for a far later night than I’d planned earlier that evening!

The next morning breakfast was, as became typical, abundant, and you want to eat a lot every day because you will burn a lot of calories. Then it was time to meet the unfortunate horse that would be carrying all 90kg of my backside and 8kg of clothes across the landscape. I had imagined, probably quite unfairly, a lot of small, fairly skinny horses which would be worked hard to carry my backside around, and was not sure what type and quality of saddle to expect for this adventure. My fears could not have been further from the truth, all the equipment was in very good condition, the horses clearly well looked after but still tough enough to cope with long days of riding, and the care that Csaba and Kinga have for their animals is clear from the first moment you see them around the horses. They capably matched horses to riders, and everybody seemed very happy with the matchmaking process (including me, who was given “Lazy Stefan” for the week, a super stable chilled out buddy that liked nothing more than going wherever everybody else was going at almost the same speed). The vastly more experienced riders also commented on the quality of equipment, and the saddle proved to be more comfortable than I had expected. The best description of saddles would be like an English “postage stamp” saddle but with a wider seat, they advised running the stirrups much longer than I was used to from my UK experience, and the saddle bags front and rear give you lots of reassurance that you are not going anywhere even on uneven ground.

The first day of riding was a relatively easy one, with about 4 hours (one hour more than I have ever been on a horse in one go) planned to get to the first camp. Excitement was clear for everybody, and after a good hour or so of learning the new equipment, other guests giving me pointers, learning the initially terrifying act of cleaning Stefan’s hooves, which after a couple of days I was faster doing, but remain in the very amateur hoof cleaning league, I felt like I had already achieved a great deal before I even put a foot in the stirrups. We set off, and before we knew it we were chopping firewood and putting up our popup tents for the night.

Home for the night, the camp dinner was, as you are probably expecting now, plentiful and tasted great, a big pot of stew, more thick chunks of bread, and lots of exhausted happy riders.

Each morning we packed up our tents, saddled up the horses, and got back on the trail. There was no fixed start time, the saucepan dinner bell rang for breakfast and everybody got themselves out of bed and miraculously were on their horses at around the same time with a real teamwork approach to the jobs that needed doing to get moving. Note, just in case you were expecting sherpas and butlers, that you are responsible for putting up and taking down your own tent, packing your own saddle bags, and saddling your own horse. Everybody on the trip was incredibly helpful, and after a couple of days we had this down to a slick operation that took little more than an hour each day.

The scenery is spectacular. You will literally fall silent when you emerge from a forest to a trail that shows you the mountains in the distance, your fellow riders in front of you, and very few other people for hours on end. Quite a change from commuting on the tube in the morning, we realised as we arrived on Day 4 at the guest house that we had seen less than 10 people since we set off, mostly shepherds. Still, my new best friend was a horse, and we were all the company that we needed. At lunchtimes in the evenings he had his mates, and I had mine, and every morning the partnership was struck again and we were an effective team, with neither of us sure of who was in charge, both of us sure of who was more experienced, and a shared desire not to embarrass ourselves.

A typical lunch stop, the horses enjoying some fresh grass while we tuck into packed lunches and the 10 minute wait for our legs to start working properly again. At this point I should mention the guest houses. After 4 days of camping, on average 6 hours of riding each day, limited washing facilities, and the usual horsey smell mingling with our general odour, a night in a portakabin would feel like The Ritz if it had a hot shower. But clearly a lot of research has gone into finding comfortable places with good facilities, including in most cases a hot tub. Yes, a hot tub. Note, you should definitely use the hot shower before you get into the hot tub, and take some swimwear and camping towel.

As a fairly inexperienced rider, this was obviously the best riding holiday I’ve ever been on. But as an experienced traveller, this was also one of the best holidays I’ve ever been on. The combination of long, varied days enjoying a new country, a group of people with a shared enthusiasm for riding, and lots of opportunities to relax by an open fire was a great experience. I would recommend the camping option for the more adventurous, and I would say that somebody who is comfortable at walk, trot and canter will cope fine with the riding but definitely suggest going on some long hacks in the weeks before the trip to get your muscles ready for any trip with this amount of riding, technical ability is very much secondary to a positive attitude and being comfortable with tired legs.

After the trip we returned to Cluj-Napoca, and I stayed for 24 hours in Turda, where a huge salt mine with a boating lake in the bottom is well worth a visit, and Dracula’s castle is not far away before flying home. Skyscanner found flights for £80 return from Luton, you can fly to Bucharest but it is a significantly longer transfer to the ranch.

So, in summary, this is a very good operation running very good trips on a variety of routes in the area. I would recommend the trip to friends or family, and all future trips will be judged against this trip in terms of quality of service, horses, equipment and food. I doubt others will beat what Csaba and Kinga offer, especially if (like me) you value not having a fixed minute by minute itinerary, being free to assist with basic activities around the camp and relax once everything is set up, and being in a remote countryside location that really is like nowhere else I’ve ever seen.

Far and Ride made the booking process easy, gave me choices about what I was looking for and good advice before I left, and the only minor hiccup was me waiting for a few minutes at the airport for the driver to arrive, concerned that I might have missed the group transfer. One phone call and I clearly had nothing to worry about, an 80p cup of fresh coffee in the airport and free wifi passed the time but Holly was giving me minute by minute updates through WhatsApp that overdid the level of customer service I have come to expect from any operator, reassuring that if ever I needed them while abroad they were willing and able to assist.

Important Packing List:
Very waterproof jacket (if it rains it seriously rains in the mountains) with skirt that covers legs and saddle bags – note these probably have a special equestrian name that I don’t know. This is also useful for sitting around the fire and eating meals if grass is wet. Waterproof trousers are a good idea especially if your jacket doesn’t cover below the knees.
Large water bottle, you need to carry 1.5-2l to stay hydrated each day, there is nowhere to get more water on most days of riding, each evening you can fill up but note this is sometimes from mountain springs (probably cleaner than most tap water!)
Warm sleeping bag and sleeping mat. You won’t carry this with you, it will be in the support vehicle for nights camping, note it can get quite cold at altitude and while you will definitely sleep well after each day you don’t want to wake up cold before another busy day.
A head torch is also very useful for camping and takes up little space or weight.
Battery Pack/Phone Charger – You won’t have or indeed need a phone signal for most of the trip, but you will need your camera every day and a good power pack will keep you charged for the first 4 days before you reach the first guest house.
Take a saddle saver or very padded shorts, or both. More experienced riders may not need them, but I certainly did, and gentlemen please take my advice and bring appropriate underwear for every day you are riding.
Drybags – take two small (6-8l) and two large (15-20l) drybags. If it rains, you will thank me for this, they are available for a few pounds from discount retailers or online, and helps you to pack your bags in a size that fits in the saddle bags each morning.
Half Chaps – everybody had opted for boots and half chaps, which work both for riding, avoiding chafing with saddles, and if the grass is damp in the mornings camping.
Boots – I took riding boots which was a mistake. Hiking type boots are much more sensible for this itinerary, which at times can involve walking the horses on steeper descents or if obstructions block the path through the forest. Smooth soled boots are not a great idea. Walking the horses is an option for almost all of the riding days, with occasional trots and canters that you need to ride to keep up, and hiking boots make walking easier especially in areas off the path or in the event of bad weather.
Jodhpurs – Another good idea, that experienced riders will know are common sense. Do not be concerned about this being a fashion parade, find comfortable jodhpurs and take two pairs minimum.
Helmet – entirely not optional in my opinion, if nothing else because you will be riding through forested areas and plenty of the brush and branches will easily knock off a soft hat, they slide off a smooth helmet and you will need to duck your head to avoid lower branches. You are also at various points in the trip a long way from medical assistance, and looking after your head is a good start if you do have a tumble.

Read more about the ride here: Carpathian Mountain Trails, Romania.

 

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