An Interview with
Robin Hanbury-Tenison - Master Explorer
Basha O'Reilly FRGS
Robin Hanbury-Tenison, explorer and equestrian traveller par excellence, was hailed by London’s Sunday Times as "the greatest explorer of the past twenty years." He made the first land crossing of South America at its widest point, led twenty-four expeditions and was awarded the Patron's Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society. Robin is one of the few remaining British explorers who know all the wild corners of the world.
He and his wife, Louella, are Founding Members of the Long Riders' Guild, the international association of equestrian explorers.
When he wasn't in a jungle, Robin was turning his hand to helping others. He is President and co-founder of Survival International, a charity which helps tribal peoples defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures. www.survival-international.org.
Then, with his wife, Louella, Robin went on to make five important equestrian journeys - across France, along China's Great Wall, through both islands of New Zealand, the pilgrimage to Spain's Santiago de Compostela and more recently a ride through Albania.
How and when did you start riding?
I started riding as a child in Ireland. I remember my elder sister Anne who was a Wren during the war and rode for the British military jumping team, putting me bareback on a miniature donkey. She said I couldn't ride a pony until I could trot without stirrups.
I then spent much of my childhood hunting with Irish packs of foxhounds - the Ballymacad, the Meath and the Louth - and later riding in local point-to points. I never won, but it was wonderfully scary. The high point was finishing in the Maiden Race at Fairyhouse over the same course as the Irish Grand National.
Did you ever imagine becoming an equestrian explorer?
Soon after Louella and I were married, we bought two Camargue horses for our farm on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, England. We needed two new horses for rounding up the cattle and the sheep. It is believed that these were the first Camargues ever to go to England and the Guardiens proudly chose two of the very best for us, Thibert and Tiki. We rode them home across France via the wonderful network of sentiers de randonner, and our love of Long Riding was born. Previously, I had only ridden long distances on camels in the Sahara desert with the Touareg.
What made you choose Camargues?
|I suppose it all began with seeing Crin Blanc years ago as a child, which made a great impression on me. Then Louella and I were informed that the horses were as tough as nails; indeed, the experts told us never to put them indoors as they are used to living rough and being worked hard. Of course, I was delighted, as these were exactly the qualities I was looking for in working horses on my Cornish farm.|
|Robin and Louella on their way to Santiago de Compostela|
You and Louella made the journey to Santiago de Compostela. Was it a religious
In a way. Hallowed by millions of feet, the Way of St. James’ very existence transcends the detail of historical or invented facts upon which it is founded. The myths from which so much of Christianity grew still lie deep within our folk memory. Like seeds which have lain dormant for centuries, they are now bursting into bloom as the greening of our consciousness gives them fertile ground. Going on a pilgrimage helped me see some things much more clearly. Today, as confidence in the abilities of science and technology crumbles, we need models to help us believe that there may be other ways to live in harmony with nature and with ourselves. But the greening of Christianity will require us to deny the special relationship of man with God. If man was made in the image of God and given dominion over all the other creatures, he has made a very poor job of it.
We can understand your journey across France and the pilgrimage to Santiago. What made you choose China? Other Long Riders who have attempted to ride in China discovered that the country has a well-founded reputation for bureaucracy and rudeness. Did you find this to be true?
|The reason we chose China was because, at the end of the ride across France many people had overheard Louella joke “Great Wall of China next?” So we had to do it. As for the bureaucracy – yes, it almost prevented the journey! There is an entire chapter in my book, ‘Chinese Adventure’, entitled “Battles with Bureaucracy”. Despite our careful preparations, we had to wait in Peking for three weeks before we were able to leave, and even then they tried to delay us further. We decided, however, to set off anyway and hope the relevant documents would catch us up.|
What were your impressions of New Zealand, said to be the most beautiful country in the world?
|One of the many delights of New Zealand is the way in which it constantly surprises you with sudden contrasts. The weather is liable to change in minutes from scorching to freezing, from calm to gale, from sunshine to downpour. The landscape, too, on a grand, sweeping scale, is full of surprises. One moment it is rugged, primitive and harsh, the next soft and welcoming. But the truth is that New Zealand has been hugely changed by man, perhaps more so than anywhere else on earth.|
And what inspired you to travel across Albania?
It was a chance encounter with a friend of our youngest son, Merlin, then at Sandhurst (the British Army officer initial training centre). Merlin introduced us to his friend and fellow soldier, Crown Prince Leka of Albania, who took Louella’s hand, bowed from his great height and brushed it with his lips. ‘Madam, you will always be welcome in my country.’
Driving home later, we discussed it and thought, ‘why not make another long ride there?’
Who inspired you to become a Long Rider, and why?
No one person inspired me, just the realisation after the French trip that it is far the best way to travel.
Who do you think was the most influential Long Rider of all time, and why?
Of course it has to be the Swiss Long Rider, Aimé Tschiffely. I did dream of following his route, especially as I know South America so well and I have ridden there, but there are too many main roads today.
What is your favourite equestrian travel book, and why?
My model travel writers are Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart. They made an amazing journey from Peking to Srinagar in the 1930s, largely on small Chinese horses like we rode 50 years later along the Great Wall. Peter's book, News From Tartary, created the British travel writing tradition of self deprecating description of hair raising adventures, which I have tried to follow. Ella's book, Forbidden Journey, is funny because it reveals how different they were and how much he irritated her.
There has been a vacuum of knowledge regarding equestrian travel. How did you
prepare for your journeys?
Really in the same way as most of my independent expeditions: by doing lots of research in advance and then just getting on with it. One can over prepare equipment. Local is usually best. We ride Camargue saddles - the best in the world - and later had two made for us for subsequent rides.
During your equestrian journeys, what was the most dangerous situation you
We have been very lucky in never being robbed or attacked. Savage shepherds' dogs in China and Albania were a worry and twice Louella's horse was nearly lost in a quicksand on the edge of the Gobi desert. The biggest fear has usually been the threat of being stopped by bureaucracy or fences.
I have always found on expeditions that for one good moment there are nine bad ones where worry or discomfort predominate. The extraordinary thing about our long rides together has been that both Louella and I have found the proportions happily reversed so that nine-tenths of our travel time has been supremely enjoyable.
You must have met thousands of people on your many journeys in so many
countries. How did most of them react to you and your message?
The great thing about being on a horse in remote rural areas is that people like you and are interested in your problems: grazing, blacksmiths etc. hospitality is universal. On main roads and in towns, however, most people have lost their empathy with horses and can behave very badly.
What is the most difficult sacrifice you have made to become an explorer?
Financial success. Most of my contemporaries have had profitable careers with a big pension at the end. But I have had much more fun.
What do you perceive as being the greatest threat to equestrian travel?
It is becoming increasingly difficult to ride long distances in many parts of the world because of the proliferation of main roads. Also in some remoter areas, especially in Africa, the danger of robbery and kidnap is growing. But there are still many wild and wonderful places left in the world crying out to be travelled through by horse.
What equipment do you always take on your journeys?
The most important thing to take is a notebook, which should be written on each evening - at least two full pages describing what happened that day. If you don't do that you might as well not bother with the ride. Not only will you rapidly forget, but no one else will be able to share it.
What is the most important advice you would give to a would-be Long Rider?
Write a book.
Have leaflets printed in the local language, explaining to the locals who you are and what you are doing.
Any final words of advice or encouragement for would-be Long Riders?
There comes a time when a traveller has to make his own fate if he is not to spend forever planning and never doing. Just believe that anybody can do anything. If you doubt that for a moment, just think of the remarkable Arthur Kavanagh! In spite of being born without limbs, in 1846, at the age of fifteen, he accompanied his mother and older brother to Egypt, where they explored Cairo, ascended the Nile by boat, and then journeyed on horseback overland across the deserts to Lebanon. Later, he and his brother set off for India. After his brother left him there, Arthur obtained employment as an official government dispatch rider!
Robin's books: White Horses over France, Chinese Adventure, Fragile Eden and Spanish Pilgrimage are published by The Long Riders Guild Press and, with his other books, available on his website.
Main Stories from the Road page
Top of page