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June 4th, 2010 | Africa

Endurance and Death…

"Someone turn off the heat, please...!"

I had originally intended to begin my three day ride to Wadi Halfa today, but when George heard that this would mean three days In Wadi Halfa, he raised his eyebrows and said,

“But Wadi Halfa is a hole! Spend another day here in Khartoum…”

I had already spent a week here, and felt that I was in danger of overstaying my welcome, but George was adamant, and besides, who would want to spend three days in a “hole”, especially one that was even hotter than Khartoum, according to Paula…

We were in the process of preparing supper, or rather Paula was, and while we stood chatting in the kitchen, I happened to glance down at the portable air-conditioning unit standing in the kitchen, and saw that the temperature was sitting at an even 40° Celsius! It was 8.05 pm, for goodness sake…!! Could somebody please turn off the heat!!

The riding school that Billy and Christy ran had arranged for eight riders to go out on an endurance ride… Horse and rider were set for 50 km of energy-sapping, sun-blasted riding, with only a few short pit-stops for water along the way. George had agreed to “second” the group of riders and we carried water and snacks on his pick-up, while Billy carried water for the horses on a second pick-up… George and Paula’s thirteen year old son, Nicholas, would be riding with the group, and they set out at from the stables at 6.30am as planned…

The riders set out from the stables on their 50 km endurance ride...

Leaving the squalor of Southern Khartoum behind, they head out into the desert...

The route led us through the mud brick houses on the southern outskirts of Khartoum, before heading south into the more sparsely populated areas on the edge of the desert. With Christy leading, they cantered for about 12 kilometres before stopping for their first water break. We bounced along behind them, with Paula and I snapping away with our cameras, while George concentrated on keeping us in view of the riders and on the dusty tracks they were following…

One of the horses had problems with its hooves and Billy had fitted four “boots” to its feet before we set off. At the halfway mark, one of these boots had come adrift, and we had to make a few running repairs to it, while Billy fitted a spare one he had brought along, for just such an eventuality…

At the halfway mark, and after 25 km of cantering in the heat, Titus looked to be doing well...

Another of the horses, Titus by name, was being ridden by a groom from the stables. This horse did not seem in the mood for the outing from the get go and the groom had a hard time holding him at the back of the group. Titus fought the bit all the way, and when he managed to get close to the horse in front of him, he would lunge forward to bite either the rider or the horse itself…

Despite the fact that they had had an early start, by 9.00 am, it was uncomfortably hot, and I horses were lathered in sweat. We had stopped after about 30 kms and not only were the horse watered, but buckets of water were also poured over their flanks to cool them down. Titus was moved up to ride behind Christy where he seemed to settle down and stopped trying to bite the other horses and riders… At the 40 km mark, we all stopped next to a railway line and watered the horse again for the final stage back to the stables…

While George and I passed water up to the riders, Titus stumbled and nearly went down; he seemed to have gone lame in the right hind leg… Billy got the saddle off him and tried walking him for short distances, but the horse seemed to go into shock, trembling all over and eventually collapsed in the dust, blood slowly trickling from its nostrils…

I could hardly bear to watch as they struggled to roll Titus onto his belly, in an effort to get him to stand again… Water was poured over him to cool him down, and despite the efforts of half a dozen people, they were unable to get him back on his feet… It was decided that the group should continue back to the stables, while Billy stayed behind to administer to Titus… Before we left, I crouched next to him, and scratched his forehead all the while telling him that it was going to be OK…

Titus goes down, and later died here, amongst the litter on the edge of Khartoum... Hardly a fitting end for such a beautiful animal...

His flanks were heaving like bellows, and his eyes were rolling around wildly… I felt helpless in the face of his distress and angry that this majestic animal was lying in the dirt at my feet… I could not bear to see him like this and hoped that with Billy’s knowledge and expertise, he would somehow get Titus back to the stables later in the day…

The Outlaw, "Nicholas Tutt"...

We rode on behind the horses, down narrow rubbish-strewn alleyways, over the main road leading into the city, until we reached the stables, where the horses were hosed down and fed… Nick had ridden extremely well, and it was hard to believe that he had only begun riding a year ago… This was the longest ride he had ridden in a single morning,  but had already completed a seven day expedition down to Kosti, over 300 kms away…

The other riders all showed the effects of this long, hot ride… Stiff shoulders and back, aching backsides and raging thirsts… The horses that had made it back to the stable on the banks of the Blue Nile were all sound and within a short while had recovered from this test of their fitness and endurance.

Christy hoses one of the horse down after the ride...

Later, while we were enjoying our lunch, a call came through from Billy, to say that Titus had died… Gone were the smiles of achievement and the laughter that we had been sharing… A silence hung over us all and I felt for Christy, who sat off to one side, wrapped in her own thoughts while the rest of us tried to make conversation… I asked her if we should go out and help them to bring the dead horse back to the stables, and was even more saddened when she explained that animals could not be buried here because of the high water table, and the chance of contaminating it. Titus would be burned where he had died, piled high with old car tyres and set alight…

Although I understood the reasoning for it, I found it very hard to accept that this would be his final send off… I had to take a little walk to the back of the stables to try and deal with this harsh reality on my own… It just didn’t seem right… The horse had given his all, and on this his first long endurance ride, he had died in the heat and the dust, amongst the litter and plastic bags on a railway siding… It seemed such a terrible waste…

Perhaps I am too soft hearted, and have always felt an affinity with animals of every kind, even snakes, but I found it hard to accept that the death of this animal was hardly mourned… I know that everybody there felt sadness at its passing, but life seemed to go on again too quickly… I felt that Titus deserved far more than a few minutes of awkward silence around a luncheon table…

I hold on while another horse gets a cold shower...

But this is Sudan, where life in all its forms, both human and animal is hard and unyielding… Only the tough make it through, all carrying their scars in one form or another. Perhaps Titus wasn’t built for endurance, perhaps he was only meant to be ridden around a stable yard and on short outings down to the river and back… We’ll never know, I suppose…

His passing was a stark reminder to me, never to underestimate the danger of heat exhaustion, and to respect this dry, hot land…

It can kill a man as easily as it killed Titus…

©GBWT 2010

1 comment to Endurance and Death…

  • Mark Behr

    Winston Churchill once said : “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

    I think that this experience will be one for you. Enjoy the rest of your time with this family.

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