LIZZIE Graham is finishing up feeding horses as she tells the story about how she ended up working on riding tours through the Mallorcan mountains, day and night, and co-writing with her sister, Anna Deacon, the adventure travel book, Wild Guide Balearic Islands. It begins with a handsome Mallorcan man in a backpacker hostel in Edinburgh.

It was one of those meetings that shapes a life. Graham hadn’t even been staying at the hostel. She had gone over to cook a friend a meal and help her settle in, when she met Mateo. He spoke little English, she spoke no Spanish – but she was fascinated.

Her plan had already been to leave behind her Edinburgh life, working in a respite unit for teenagers and adults with learning difficulties, and travel the world, but meeting Mateo threw her. She didn’t want to go without him, so she bought a ticket for him, and the two lovers set off together.

A year later, after they returned to Scotland, she got pregnant, and she decided that she would go to live in Mallorca.

That was how, at 22 years old, she found herself, with a baby on the way and living in a rural finca, with no electricity and running water, which belonged to her boyfriend’s father. “The dad was quite an interesting guy,” she recalls, “a hoarder. He lived in the middle of nowhere and had a massive house full of glass bottles, newspapers, cats everywhere.”

Though exciting, it was isolating. Graham had left school at 15 and spoke neither Spanish nor Mallorquin, though she would later pick it up. She didn’t have a driving licence and would have to walk to the village.

Her sister, Anna Deacon, she recalls, bought her a copy of the Rough Guide to Pregnancy and Birth. “She was trying to relate to me. She’d got me the Rough Guide to everywhere I’d been travelling, so she got me that too.”

HeraldScotland: Lizzie Graham riding with Naturacavall, copyright Mateu Pascual

Lizzie Graham riding with Naturacavall, copyright Mateu Pascual

 

The two sister’s love of those Rough Guides and travel would be what sparked their co-authoring the latest in the Wild Guide series, going off on trips into the wilderness, exploring sea caves, hiking up ravines, swimming in remote coves and uncovering the wide variety of adventures that Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera have to offer.

But back then, the birth was, indeed, rough. On a visit to the hospital, she didn’t understand that the doctor was telling her she had pre-eclampsia, and left and wandered round Palma. “Someone came and found me and told me you have to go straight back. I didn’t know what pre-eclampsia was.

“It was like a terror show. He was pulled out with forceps. I didn’t understand what was going on at any level. But I had another two sons after that and it was fine.”

Two decades later, she no longer lives with Mateo and his father. After years of struggle, she learned Mallorquin, and began teaching English. She got, she says, “strong”.

Some years ago, she moved in with an old friend, Sergi. Together they bought a finca in the mountains and set up a retreat there. “Sergi is the loveliest guy in the world. I’d known him since I was 19.

“At the finca, we live in this cave house, all off grid, natural spring water, you can hike down to the beach. It’s like a little eco-paradise where we can have up to ten people staying.” But horses were still not yet part of her life.

Then, in October 2018, their paradise was flooded. A storm hit Mallorca, so severe in its flash floods that it took ten lives. “We were driving that day and almost would have died ourselves if I hadn’t phoned a friend whose birthday it was and he had been watching the news. He said, ‘Where are you going? Don’t go that way.’ A short while later that road collapsed and people died.”

She found the destruction it left behind devastating. “Though we avoided the collapsed road, we still got hit by the torrent. We had to climb onto the roof of our Land-Rover. Sergi rescued the boys. Our shoes even came off our feet.” Their home and retreat was also badly damaged.

“My confidence was shot,” she recalls. “Our road had collapsed, so the kids couldn’t even go to school. We had to walk in and out of town, which was six kilometres. It was like paradise had turned to hell.”

Graham enlisted volunteers in to help with repairs. Then, on “one of those days when I was feeling down”, she wrote to the editor of the Wild Guides, suggesting a book on the Balearics.

“I thought there isn’t really anything like that and I’m constantly telling people where they can go when they’re staying with me. They wrote back and asked for a first chapter. I was like, ‘Oh my god, Anna, I need you!”

Her Edinburgh-based sister, already a photographer and writer of wild swimming books, came out to the island and it was while they were on the beach, researching, that Graham first connected with the horses and the cowboys that rode them.

“When I saw them galloping along the beach, the energy of the whole thing, something came back alive in me. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”

HeraldScotland: Lizzie Graham, copyright Mateu Pascual

Lizzie Graham, copyright Mateu Pascual

She had little experience of riding, but she asked one of those cowboys, running Naturacavall, if he could take her up into the mountains for a week on horseback as research for the book. “By the end of the week, he’d offered me a job as his apprentice.”

Did she just have a natural ability? “I’m definitely not naturally talented at anything. But I’m quite relaxed and I quite like daring adventures. I also never give up.

“I knew they didn’t have many clients so I started going onto social media and trying to find people to come on the rides. They needed someone to translate.

“I was on the horse at the back, a rubbish rider with all these brilliant riders, but I was translating and organising hammocks and cooking risotto in the forest for them.”

Naturacavall’s trips are wildly romantic adventures, taking riders into the sea, bareback, to swim with the horses, sometimes under the moonlight, or up into the mountains to camp.

That connection she found with the horses re-energised her – as has the work Naturacavall also does with teenagers with severe learning difficulties and adults using horses as a therapy

“I see myself as like another horse. I’ve worked with a lot of kids with major problems and because I’ve had major problems myself I found a way of understanding each kid when they have trouble learning. “I’ve got the same thing with the horses. They’re coming from a difficult situation – they’ve maybe been beaten or not looked after properly. I’m just reading the energy level of the horse and how it’s reacting to things. The rides are amazing, exciting, but for me it’s all about the horses. They would all going to the meat market otherwise. We’re giving them a new chance.”

HeraldScotland: Lizzie Graham, copyright John Weller, author of Wild Swimming Spain

Lizzie Graham, copyright John Weller, author of Wild Swimming Spain

 

Her journey with horses has been rapid and life-changing.

“I was absolutely terrified when I started doing rides with them. We were going so fast. I was at the back and hoping people couldn’t see how bad I was. But I would just be honest with people.

“They would look at me, these English girls from Cheltenham college, and they would be like, ‘You work here?’ Those people come back again and often they’re surprised. They’ll say, ‘You’re a pretty good rider, now.’ Well, with six hours of riding or more every day, you get quite good.’”

Wild Guide Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza & Formentera) by Anna Deacon and Lizzie Graham is published by Wild Things Publishing

For more information about Naturacavall see https://naturacavall.com/en/

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