Nowhere in all of Europe is there a place like the Rhone Delta. Over 1,500 of the 4,700 species of flowering plants identified in France are found here. Formidable black bulls and graceful horses graze the rugged plains, alongside over 300 types of birds. It is a magical place.
Camargue horses symbolize the wild spirit of the region. Believed to be descendants of prehistoric equidae that lived in France during the Paleolithic period 17,000 years ago, the white horses of the Camargue are one of the oldest breeds in the world.
Exposed to torrid heat and insects in the summer and the bitter cold of the notorious mistral wind in the winter, these tough little horses mirror the extremes of the local climate. The horses are best known as the companion of the gardians, French cattle herders who uphold the region’s wild-west reputation.
In this out-of-the-way corner of France, the flat terrain and wide horizons stretch as far as the eye can see.Spread across the soggy grasslands are a plethora of Manade (ranches) set up for holidaymakers and the raising of horses and cattle. Riding a horse is almost a rite of passage for visitors, and there are signs everywhere advertising trails for novices, children and experienced riders alike.
Where To Ride?
I book a full day ride at a Manade recommended to me by the local tourism board as a ‘non touristy’ option
Manade St George is off the beaten track. When I arrive at the farm, it is raining heavily and a tall woman in an ankle length oilskin coat opens the gate for me. A guy who resembles a Peaky Blinders character is tacking up a string of grey horses. He is Robin the guide, and he greets me with a firm handshake.
I am given a helmet and introduced to my horse for the day, Icarus a 10-year-old Camargue gelding. We depart the farm and ride single file alongside fields of fierce-looking black bulls and misty lagoons.
A fragile ecosystem
The stillness of the marshlands is disturbed only by our soft hoof-prints in the soil and the occasional comment in French from the guide.
Even though the Camargue has a reputation as a rugged, wild place, it is easy to see that this is actually a very fragile environment. When the rain stops, yellow irises are reflected like a mirage in the now limpid waters. Mosquitoes swarm us. I instantly regret not spraying myself down with repellent. The guy behind me chuckles.
We ride through the marshes at a smart pace. A lot of canters and the odd trot. Icarus is jittery but a keen and exciting horse to ride. On arrival at the little Rhone, our guide enthusiastically explains that we are taking the horses on a boat to the other side.
He wasn’t kidding, either.
We dismount and lead our horses onto the back of a cable ferry called the Bac du Sauvage, which takes us across to the Petit Camargue on the other side. It is the first time I have ever caught a ferry on a horse.
Back in the saddle
We quietly ride through dry, windswept farmland. Semi-wild Camargue horses graze quietly in the distance. Then we are on a private estate that the guides have exclusive access to. Instantly, the landscape change dramatically. Green reeds and colorful wild flowers surround us and soon we are cantering along a sandy track beside a lush green lagoon. The guide indicates for the horses to slow. As our horses drop into a walk, he motions towards the canal where two beavers are casually swimming past.
Robin moves ahead of the group to open a wooden gate. We take turns passing through, and just like that, we find ourselves on the open salt-flats.
The surrounding light is instantly transformed into a pearly glow. Our vicinity to the sea and the low horizons creates a mirror-like effect on the water. The sun is out, and it beats down on us relentlessly. The water is teeming with life. Local plants like sea lavender and glasswort flourish, as do over 300 species of birds. We splash through the water, surrounded by white herons and pink flamingos.
Robin leads us through the water onto the beach. Being private land, we are offered the possibility to enjoy a faster pace without the risk of meeting any tourists.
Icarus is a star, smoothly changing gear as he speeds up from canter to gallop and easing back down to a walk with no objection. It is one of the few occasions on the ride that he does not object to a slower pace. Damp and badly bitten, but too exhilarated to mind. We walk the horses back through sandy tracks and pine forests for a picnic lunch.
Back to the farm
We take a different route home, using a network of country lanes and the occasional piece of busy road. The sky clears and the brilliant sunshine of May warms our backs and casts a sheen on the green fields.
As the light fades, frogs and crickets start their evening chorus. As we return home, a huge catfish is fished out of the canal. I have never seen one so big before. Just another wild extreme that is typical of this landscape.
The wild west of France needs to be seen to be believed. Horse riding and the Camargue goes hand in hand. The region boasts incredible scenery, passionate people, food, wine, and so much more.
Brenda Gatti’s Manade St George stable: https://www.brendatourismeequestre.com