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Sweet dreams are made of these

Stirring in the faint light I peer out through the open doors of our tent.  Although we still keep it open at night we have recently been getting more sleep now accompanied by our trusted travelling companion Ralph.  As much as he begs at night to sleep inside he has a job to do so takes up position each evening just outside, pushed up against me for warmth.  Now in October there exists an eerie glow on the horizon long before a sleepy sun reluctantly makes an appearance.  Waking up slowly I survey the empty valley which yesterday had provided ideal protection from the late afternoon's strong wind, typical of this time of year.  Now quiet in the crisp morning everything lays dead still before me, a layer of ice covering most of the scene.  The horses having consumed almost all of the grass in a circle around each of their 12m long lines stand at ease, preserving their body heat against the pre-dawn cold and now as light descends over the vast brown land it reveals the spectacular beauty of the country we have made our home for over 4 months.

A day later, in the early evening of 6 October 2015 and accompanied by our two trusted riding horses, Kitay & Fergus, our two weary but ever strong pack horses Milky & Mongol Mori and our beloved dog Ralph we walked into Baganuur, eastern Mongolia.  In doing so we had completed a 2,000km journey which saw us transverse one of the world’s most remote and least populated areas.  Along with our horses we had tackled challenges including vast desert crossings, gruelling high altitudes and wind swept, snow capped mountain passes. We had tracked minute water sources throughout the incredible heat of Mongolia’s dry summer and in recent weeks endured the frigid cold of the country's notorious winter, often pitching our tent amongst hungry wolves.  We had experienced theft, assault and misunderstanding amongst severe cultural differences.  We had had one of our beloved horses stolen from us in a midnight raid on our camp.  In the preceding 5 months during our time on the vast Eurasian steppe we had faced immeasurable obstacles but had overcome adversity, had conquered fear and most importantly found strength in each others company.  We had lived our dream and ridden semi wild horses across Mongolia.

A few days later in the capital Ulaanbaatar I took up the plush comfort of a hotel bed following a hot shower and felt a pleasant sense of repose in returning to the comforts of modern life.  But what of it?  We were horseless.  For months now our lives had been intertwined with that of our animals, our progression across a big wild land had been measured nigh our survival determined by our ability as horsemen to care for, feed and work alongside living, breathing creatures and our only means of transport.  We truly had experienced life from a bygone era and had encountered a sustained opportunity to became intimate with the culture of one of the world’s last truly nomadic peoples by living a traditional horse based existence amongst its tribes.  Like the people we travelled amongst, our lives had come to revolve around our animals.  As long riders we relied on the welfare of our animals and slowing everything down to travel at 4.5km/h had influenced our perspective on life.  We felt out of place in the city even one as small as Ulaanbaatar, horses aren't a convenient means of travel in the big smoke and walking along the pavement commenting on the quality of the grass we saw just wasn't the same.  At any rate, we were horseless and who is a horseback traveller without a horse? 

On one of the final days of our journey whilst strolling along a vast empty plain we had sat astride our horses and looked up as a passenger jet sent a vapour trail high across the sky.  Spewing exhaust into the precious atmosphere and whisking hundreds off to frantic holidays or frantic business meetings it was the modern, familiar method of transport that we would soon be aboard.  And yet our sentiment rather than celebrating any sort of achievement to date was instead mourning what had been.  Still riding our beautiful horses and amongst people that would likely never experience the cramped confines of an aluminium travel tube it was cause for reflection and the realisation that we had lived alongside a culture like no other.  One that may just not remain forever.  Despite the setbacks or the problems we at times felt with Mongols there had always been the harsh reality that life on the Steppe is hard.  Summers are dry, winters long and dark.  It breeds a certain kind of toughness that perhaps took us months to even begin to understand and really how could we ever truly? Ultimately however we shared the steppe with genuine people, proud of their heritage and perhaps a little fearful of the future.  We had seen it stripped back for everything that it was and in a way that travelling by any other means would never have provided.  The look on the wise old herders face said it all, we had become nomads. 

Becoming nomads despite its aura of solitude for us was, and throughout the journey has been a team effort and so a few thanks.  Perhaps to our surprise, no less because of our complete lack of previous experience with horses, Wintec came on board as one of the early sponsors of the Blue Sky Walkabout expedition.  Supplying two of their acclaimed Australian Stock modelled Pro Stock CS saddles meant that we could rest easy knowing that not only would we be comfortable after long days in the saddle but that the adjustable fit and CAIR® Air-Cushioned Panel System would be best for our horses.  To Kai, Erin and the team at Wintec thanks for your support.  Similarly to Clinton and Cindy at Albany Horseworld who generously supplied a raft of equestrian equipment for use on the expedition, thank you for your unwavering support and belief in us.  We thoroughly look forward to sharing the journey with you and other supporters in Albany upon our return home.  

When I rode a motorbike from Singapore to London in 2012 I did so in a pair of Australian-made Rossi boots which still after tens of thousands of kays look new.  It was only natural then that I approached Rossi who in turn supplied footwear to the Blue Sky Walkabout.  To Jayne-Anne and the team at Rossi Boots, thanks.  New, innovative equipment we used on the expedition included an award winning (NatGeo 2014) inReach Explorer from Pivotel Australia who's service on the Iridium Satellite network would have allowed us to contact critical services in the event of an emergency.  The inReach Explorer allowed us to navigate, create waypoints, log our journey as well as send and receive text messages with our supporters back in Australia from wherever we were in Mongolia.  Spy Optic, Kathmandu, Panasonic Toughpad, Frontline Imports & Gerber Knives and EcoVessel represent some of the best gear in the game and for anyone setting out in the world you will be as thankful as we were for having their reliable equipment along for the ride.  We are hugely grateful not only for their material support but because they shared a passion and energy for adventure and modern exploration with the Blue Sky Walkabout project, thanks!

Being new to horses our preparation for Mongolia started months before we even set foot in the foreign nation.  To Debbie Panizza & Karen Mayfield at Izzafield Stables in Albany thanks for your patience in teaching us how to ride amongst a class of primary school aged children.  To Gussy Saunders at Ringwould Stables thank you for developing our knowledge and starting us out on the training of unridden horses.  To Glenn Wilson and Kelly Bick at Waterfall Creek in Victoria thanks for your belief and understanding of our goals for the expedition.  My (Nic's) time spent with Glenn preparing for the more technical aspects of horse management including packing, rope work and psychology remain some of my most cherished in the lead up to departure and I can't thank you enough.  To Tim Cope, thanks for your inspiration and assistance in preparing us mentally for some of the challenges we could expect in Mongolia and for your support along the way.  Thank you also to Lesley Arnott, our veterinary advisor for helping us to understand some of the equine health issues we would face and for arranging medicines.  Thank you to Hana Byambadash from Perth based AusMon Consulting for helping us to understand some cultural issues ahead of our departure and for being an emergency contact throughout the expedition.  To Celia Waugh, Allison Teede, The Stephens Family, Tim O'Donnell and all of the Albany crew thanks for being the pillar of support we needed during our time in the beautiful south west spent preparing for the expedition. 

We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to two particular individuals who in different ways were responsible for making our time in Mongolia run more smoothly that it should have.  Jan Wigsten, of Mongolian based Nomadic Journeys was never further than a phone call away and his in-country advice, contacts, assistance with visa issues and logistics not to mention securing us a place to leave our horses during our visa run were invaluable to us.  Thanks Jan. 

The goal of the Long Riders Guild (International) is to demonstrate that anyone and a horse can undertake a life-changing equestrian journey of their own.  The Guild has assisted equestrian explorers to complete expeditions on every continent except Antarctica, is the world's first international association of equestrian explorers and an invitation-only organisation.  The assistance, direction and advice provided by founding member CuChullaine O'Reilly (FRGS), himself an acclaimed Long Rider was simply invaluable to us and not only provided for our safety but the due regard to the health of our horses.  Thanks CuChullaine.

And finally our Mums, it is perhaps only with after thought that we can begin to truly understand some of the stress we put them through.  Perhaps no mum should have to receive the kind of messages they received by satellite in the middle of the night, nor do they have to disrupt their normal lives to make sure we are safe and on track in a desert half a world away.  But that's what Mum's do right?  Wrong.  We are eternally grateful for the love, support and belief our Mums Lea and Gill provide to us which surely goes beyond the call of duty for any parent.  Thanks Mums.

But perhaps the greatest thanks should be reserved for that of our horses, Fergus, Kitay, Milky, Mongol Mori and of course Choco.  We are fairly certain that all of our horses thought the grass was perfectly OK back where we found them.  In fact we have it on good authority that Milky thought that the grass was just fine every time we stopped and it constituted a good place to stay, indefinitely.  But our horses didn't stay.  They accompanied us every step of the way, walking thousands of kilometres from their mountain homes carrying us and our gear across the country.  We discovered their personalities, learnt their idiosyncrasies and got to know each as a character not just a horse doing a job.  Developing a special and indescribable bond with our animals was a part of the journey that will remain with us long after other memories have faded.  It should come as surprise to some of our readers that although at first glance treatment of horses in Mongolia might appear harsh, it is only half the story.  Generally horses are part of a semi-wild harem, their natural order, each suitable animal only being caught for riding purposes from time to time and only then for a short period of use.  This is diametrically opposed to horses in the West, who almost exclusively kept in a closed paddock are at the beck and call of an 'owner' who will ride it for their own enjoyment.  Despite often thinking about them post expedition, it warms us to know that the horses that accompanied us through thick and thin have been returned to roam free amongst a hundred other horses.  It really is true that Mongol horses rule the steppe and that like locals say, "never own a horse".

Despite our ups and downs in Mongolia, there was always one constant.  Everyday we woke up, stepping into the wild and breathing in fresh mountain air it never took any reminding us how fortunate we were to simply be there, doing what we love.  To have the choice to live our dreams, to trust in a sometimes winding road of fulfilment, to witness our planet and it's spectacular natural wilderness in all of it's glory.  Not being able to accurately capture in words or photographs some of the things we saw or indeed endured was perhaps made all the more special for each of us by sharing the experience with the person we will spend our life with.

Sitting in a busy Trans-Siberian railway carriage a week after wrapping up the expedition I was struck by an article that caught my attention.  It was about an Australian who recently had a "near death experience" and as a result had turned his life around.  That to most of us he already lived a fairly comfortable existence didn't stop him from overnight developing an insatiable lust for life and an almost divine commitment to living everyday to the fullest.  After our very recent experiences in Mongolia it certainly had me thinking.  With so many of us on a holy grail quest for happiness why does it take a near death experience to; live stronger, love deeper, dance harder, sing louder and smile greater.  Why wait!?  How often do we or should we switch off, listen to our inner thoughts or talk to the people we love, to simply stop and consider what makes us feel such things?  These are the feelings we should never take for granted and the actions we should be living everyday.  Horses for courses I am the first to admit and a trip across Mongolia might not be for everyone but journey's of self discovery do matter.  Ultimately however we hope that bringing our story to you has provided food for thought or even inspired someone to take a leap faith, to accept blind courage or to simply take the path less travelled because after all, "in the end all you really have is your story".

So thanks to you our reader, don't be a stranger and safe travels

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Final Days in the Saddle

(Donna) It is with a heavy heart and teary eyes that I type one the final updates of our 2,000km expedition.  Months back I secretly dreamt of this day, wondered what it would feel like to have achieved what many doubted that we could and how nice it would be to be able to sleep through the night without a constant watch on our horses. Today, however, and for recent weeks as the end drew nearer it merged into the opposite. The yearning for it never to end, the heartache of eventually leaving them and the sad reality of life away from Mongolia. For so long now this expedition has been so much more to us than a simple crossing from A to B; As we spent more and more time riding, packing, unpacking, hobbling, staking, nursing, caring and ultimately falling in love with our companions, the trip became more about life with them and less about the end result. To put it simply, it was about the journey in between and the destination became irrelevant.

After returning from our visa run to China a few weeks back, we were reunited with our very fluffy and if not slightly fat horses that had been cared for and well fed at Arbud Sands tourist camp during our absence. With the weather turning, snow falling all around and with an end date in mind due to my visa extension refusal we departed for the final leg followed by a healthy looking stray dog who quickly became a loyal friend for our final days. With about 250 kms to cover we slowed down and reduced our daily kays to enjoy each moment and draw it out as best we could. The days had become very short with the sun rising at 7.30am and setting as early as 6.30pm it was becoming difficult to cover much more than 18kms per day but that suited us well. I think it took us leaving Mongolia, even if it was only for a day trip to China to really appreciate just how much we have grown to love this country. After 5 months here we are now comfortably at that stage where everything just becomes so much easier. We have attended multiple types of ceremonies, we know the nomadic traditions well enough to join in without explanation and my knowledge and grasp of the language has really peaked. Much of the past two weeks has been sparsely populated enough for us to enjoy some beautiful camp spots with the safety of our new protector sleeping right outside our tent and barking whenever he hears the rumble of a Mongol motorbike approaching.  Luckily for us the nights that we were alone were over the full moon period so we could sleep with the tent doors open and see our horses clearly as they ate their way through the night before us under a night's sky so bright that it illuminates our faces as the galaxy begins its nightly display of shooting stars and glistening effects. A land mass without light pollution is truly fascinating after the sun has set and Mongolia's nocturnal entertainment is one that is hard to beat.

For as long as I can remember we have been laughed at as we told herders and nomads where we had come from and how far we planned to travel that it became an almost natural sound. We learned not to get offended when they tell us in as many ways as they can that our horses will not make it, that we should swap them for a motorbike and that we would fail miserably within the next few days. As time ticked on and our kilometres racked up it made little difference to their response, even when we were over the halfway point. In the past two weeks to our surprise the odd herder here and there looked at our maps, double checked with me how far we had ridden, wedged their cigarette between their teeth and swiftly shot out their hand towards Nic with a nod of congratulation. The first time that it happened I had to consult the phrase book to double check what they had meant, I have to admit that having a nomad congratulate you feels pretty special. Horseman to horseman. We looked at each other and for the first time acknowledged our own accomplishment. Ger after ger it became more frequent but the feeling didn't dull, I was quietly proud of myself; prior to this trip I had never ridden a horse or had the opportunity to love an animal, it goes to show what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.

Our final week had some of our most memorable stays, perhaps because we were a little more relaxed knowing that it was drawing to a close and also in the knowledge that our dog sat firmly in front of our tent when we were inside the ger. By now we were old hat with entertaining our hosts, we would pull out maps, show them pictures of Australian horses, let them try out our saddles and tell them stories of our adventure. Alas, as hard as we tried there's only so much that one can do to drag out the remaining travel, especially when governed by reaching water sources at the end of each day and so we rode into Baganuur our final destination and were swiftly taken in by the petrol pump attendant when I explained that we were in need. Quite possibly the best thing about this country is the hospitality, it's outstanding. We've been taken in, fed, watered and our horses cared for so many times that I've lost count. It's one thing to take in two people off the street but another when those two people have four horses and a dog in tow. They don't even bat an eyelid as our horses eat their entire gardens and leave only their excrement as a sign of their appreciation.

For weeks now we have agonised over how we would sell our horses in a way that would see them live on, the Mongolian summer is over and the preferred meat option for winter is, you guessed it... With this tearing at our heart strings and frantically calling on all of our contacts for this not to be the fate of our horses we finally got a response from Steppe Riders. "You realise that it is the start of Winter don't you?" their director jibed us over the phone. "I will have to feed them, it will cost me in hay and grain", "no one buys horses at the start of Winter...". These were the words that we were reluctant to hear, we knew the realities. Owning animals over Winter in Mongolia is a burden. Thick snow and ice cover the land where grass once grew and the owner has to fund their livestock's survival by providing hay at a cost to them. Livestock trading is the most common form of business in this country and as much as they love their horses, they will always ultimately be food. The director of Steppe Riders, Mendee, spoke great English and after a long conversation with Nic he agreed to drive out to us and take a look at our boys. He arrived within a few hours (Mongol's don't mess about) was impressed with their well trained, loveable personalities and saw a future with them at his tourist camp. We made a deal and he arranged for them to be picked up later that night.

Saying goodbye was incredibly emotional and I don't think either of us were prepared for how we would feel when they were driven off away from us. I felt as though my heart had been torn from my chest and I wailed with pain as Nic bundled me up in his arms. With my face red from tears we concluded that we did our best by them and that they would be looked after well in their new home, they are after all, quite possibly the most well travelled horses in the country.

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Arbud Sands to China and back

(Nic) That we had ridden further in one day than any other previous since starting out almost four months ago was hard enough.  That over the arid ground we had crossed the horses had not had water since the prior morning was problematic.  That there had barely been a blade of edible grass in two days didn't make things any easier and that at sunset on day 98 we finally found ourselves standing at a well should have been cause for relief...had it been operating.  Just a few minutes later we were running for our lives impossibly trying to encourage our tired horses to outpace a crazed drunk who despite his apparently semi-conscious state was throwing fist sized rocks at us and doing his best to repeatedly run us down on his motorbike.  Proving conclusively Mongolia null devoid of a dull moment whipping our horses into a quick pace was difficult at first but once they realised the severity of the situation, a shot-put connecting with Milky's head our team took flight.  Taking off into the descending darkness the moonless night rapidly became our friend as we rode away from our pursuer, a shot of adrenaline cursing through our veins for every time we heard the small engine stall and then be clumsily restarted.

Never quite knowing what is around the next corner, two days later, still in one of our journey's more remote locations to date and freshly hot showered we walked into the luxury, spartan clean dining Ger with adjoining kitchen.  Not quite believing our own eyes seeing actual knives, forks and place mats there was a multiple course lunch waiting to be served upon us sitting on actual chairs.  Amongst future friends and in a valley filled with the relatives of our hosts, famed horse trainer Batbadrakh and his wife Densmaa we had arrived at Arbud Sands 140km south of Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar.   99 nights and 100 days since waving good-bye to the old Kazakh eagle hunter and his family near Sagsai we had now ridden almost exactly 1,000 miles and though pre-arranged with expedition partner Nomadic Journey's prior to us stumbling upon the exclusive camp, we now found ourselves quite unaccustomed to the hospitality and service laid before us.  Perched before dunes on the northern tip of the famous Gobi Desert and part occupied by the last stragglers of a busy season we didn't have long to savour the Sands.  Just a couple of hours later we had said goodbye to our beloved horses and were bouncing along a track heading to the big smoke, our visa run had begun!

Picked up out of the countryside which has despite many ups and downs become our home and thrown into the mayhem of a chaotic city it was an almost indescribable feeling sitting in the plush leather seats of The Grand Khan Irish bar upon mid night that same evening.  Though the lights, sounds and pollution faced us at every turn, the greatest feeling we felt as we sat slowly gathering our senses?  Anonymity.  No one in the pub looked twice at us, no eyes became fixated upon us, no hands were discovered creeping over us or our belongings, no one wanted to talk to us, ...no, no-one cared.  Finally, as if a huge weight had been relieved of our shoulders we were no one, just another expat or backpacking couple enjoying their own-self, their own evening and their own existence.  And far out it felt good.  The pressure of being foreigners in deep and out of their place in a lawless land and untamed wilderness released we looked at each other and just sighed heavily.  It was however a moment we both knew was not to last long as we had just 8 overnight hours in which to book flights, hotels and amongst a detailed itinerary prepare documentation for what we hoped would be a multiple entry visa to that not so small nigh not too distant corner of the world, China.

Standing in line at the busy office we watched the hands on the clock above the embassy clerk tick mercilessly towards the moment we knew the shutters would fall.  Growing more impatient at the constant queue jumping in front of us we thought about other such moments in which the whim of an unknown and more than likely uncaring office bearer has wielded so much influence over the path we would soon take.  Think; Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Indian Himalaya restricted areas.  One of those 'left or right' decisions in life but without the decision.  We didn't have long to ponder and suddenly thrust upon the small window the huffing and puffing began,  "no copy", "...confirmation..mmm", "why so many time enter", "why go China", "why come back Mongolia".  China was never a guarantee especially at such short notice and in the game of visa roulette we came out even.  Though we had thankfully been granted the opportunity to add briefly to China's population twice in the next six months we wouldn't be allowed the more permanent multiple entry option allowing us to take on 2 visa runs then exit stage left.  And just like the door that now slammed closed behind us, our time in Mongolia was now finite.  Donna immediately bawled her eyes out on the pavement outside the embassy.  I looked on wondering how she could go through so much fear, physical pain and remembering the incident of just a few days prior, pure terror yet still want to stay here and continue on?  "It's the horses", she said "I can't bare the thought of leaving them", "I just love them".

An overnight train, 8 dumplings in China and an overnight train back for 1,500km, a bit of shopping and a very welcome evening spent with other travellers in Ulaanbaatar later we were stood in the next office of gross determination, Mongolia Immigration.  Although we had thrown the China dice and successfully performed the rapid re-entry to Mongolia we still had another card up our sleeve...a second extension on our new tourist visa.  Although originally we had received a special 3 month tourist visa to Mongolia, we had already exhausted the permitted one month extension in a 6 month period.  Travelling on dual passports so long as they didn't cross check identities (plausible) I'd be in for another 2 months.  Donna, travelling on the same passport could be an issue and despite being given the all clear minutes before close on the Monday, returning the next day we were given the good and bad news "Big Problem", said the official.  Although deflated, Donna and I have become emotional rollercoaster aficionados during our time in Mongolia and we headed back to Arbud Sands that evening in a positive mood, determined to make warm memories out of our expedition's last four weeks despite plummeting temperatures.  Another brief and unexpected light was shone on our hopes back at Arbud Sands, who would have thought Batbadrakh's cousin was the Prime Minister's wife or that royalty frequented the camp?  Alas, it appears that the once backwater of murky deals and shonky government arrangements, Mongolia is finally cleaning up it's act and special favours don't fly like they used to.  Well that can only be a good thing.

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Still at it, night moves & plans afoot

(Nic) Squinting through tired eyes I set the torch to and scan the near horizon.  As I pierce the darkness outside our tent relieved to still count 4 horses I let my thoughts wander and for a moment consider the ancient Roman punishment for falling asleep on watch, death.  Fortunately for Donna and I the continued fear of again losing one or all of our horses to theft is more than enough motivation to keep us awake through often cold nights and our now regular regime of an overnight watch.   On this particular evening it is hovering around zero degrees and although snow gently falls on our tent outside I return to my book.  Detailing Scott's expedition to Antarctica and the use of horses on the ill fated first attempt to the pole I comfort myself with the thought that things could be worse. 

Four days out of Ih-Uul during a spate of bad weather that briefly hampered our progress we managed to buy ourselves a new horse to replace the sad loss of our stolen pack horse and friend Choco.  It has been just over three weeks since we picked ourselves up out of that rut and marched on across the Arkangi Aymag of central Mongolia and we now find ourselves hundreds of kilometres on and rolling full hoof ahead.  As I write here on a beautiful autumn day we are less than 200km south west of Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar and one of our so called "rest days" (find feed for horses, move horses, feed horses, groom horses, feed horses again, do washing, research route, program way points, buy food) presents a fantastic opportunity to not only reflect on the ups and downs of the last month but also consider now detailed plans for the coming weeks.   

Although initially marred by sour experience and hostile encounters our time spent crossing central Mongolia just north of the Khangai mountain range has seen us pass by an almost unbelievable diversity of natural landscape and simply stunning geography.  Across snow capped mountain passes, through towering forests and across lush grasslands we and our now beloved horses have trundled along gorges, past extinct volcano and even transversed the famed sand dunes of the Mongol Els.  In Arkhangi, we (the horses) have walked through increasingly populated areas and we have had our first significant contact with other tourists.  Yes, we weren't alone after all and can now count on two hands the number of other western travellers we have met in almost four months!  More than anything we have perhaps been witness to visitor ideals of Mongolia, encouraging us at times to both emotionally and outwardly distance ourselves from our warts and all experience.  To encourage our safety, each night we try to stay near gers which has been made possible by the more populated valleys we have been travelling though.  Although this doesn't always work well for us the experience of late has generally been positive and we have been fortunate enough to once again be extended the sort of hospitality for which we can only be thankful for.  This including staying in the yards of police stations!

Though being somewhat forced into a situation that makes an overnight watch necessary for safety our days remain much the same though carried out later due to morning sleep during day light hours.  As it turns out our getting up at 8am is more in keeping with a Mongolian way of life and though previously retiring at around 4pm we now generally arrive at a ger in the early evening just as the men are having tea before heading out to muster.  Our days of late have been typified and in my experience usually at this stage of an expedition by routine and intuition.  It still takes us about 3 hours to go from waking and checking the barometer on my watch (steady at 948 hPa, another simply glorious day on the steppe) to four horses, two people ready to roll though we are now, I must say a particularly streamlined operation. 

Tracking either increasingly bituminised roads or following the compass on shortcuts sometimes days or a week long we ride 1 hour rotations throughout the day, 50 mins work, 10 mins rest, giving the horses sufficient time to take their minds off the job and grab a quick feed.  Horses well ready for knock off time we wrap up around 6 or 7pm for our approximately 25km and try to find a ger or group of to stay near.  Our personal safety and that of our horses somewhat assured and with traditional formalities like chai over we work to quickly strike camp before dusk, usually with a now accrued audience.  We try to have horses staked in their first overnight position close to the tent and our dinner dusted by 9pm giving us opportunity for 2 hours sleep before watch starts.  This interim time is in which our staying near gers provides us cover as there is generally family activity (muster, milking, dinner, long drop visits etc.) all the way up until about 11 or 12pm, coinciding with our up time.  One of us gets to sleep on while the other sets about our nocturnal duties, often beginning with moving the horses to a new position, something that may be done a few times by us throughout the night while we take turns to sleep until day break at 6am when we both turn in for 2 hours.  It has been during these long nights that intuition takes over and it perhaps works well that as a couple we seem to know how much sleep each of us needs as we cover the overnight shift (sometimes 1 hour on/off but usually a variety of combinations).   I have actually been incredibly surprised at just how much I can get done during the night; reading, writing and navigating while still managing to be coherent and functioning throughout an often tough day (if only I had known this while at Uni!)  If anything we both now have at least a faint idea of what to expect as prospective parents and what the unbroken sleep of early parenthood must be like.

Just like that we are now over 1,400 km down on our journey across Mongolia.  We are currently in the village of Erdenesant in Tov, or central Aymag the majority of which sits south of the capital UB.  We have 140km straight line to cover across open terrain to the south east where we hope to arrive at the community run camp of expedition partner Nomadic Journey's on the evening of the 17th.  It is at Arburd Sands on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and close to the tiny town of Bayan-Onjuul that our horses will be looked after while we take the necessary gauntlet of a visa run.   Waiting there for us that evening will be a "Land Cruiser with wings" that will whisk us away to Ulaanbaatar where the very next morning we will front at the Chinese Embassy to plead our case for a multiple re-entry visa allowing us to, within hours jump on a train, shoot down to the border and be back to our horses within a few days.  Should we be successful in obtaining a re-entry visa this process will be repeated further on down our track in another month's time.  That is all going to plan! China visas routinely attract complications and given we have just two working days to sort everything out before we become illegal in Mongolia we'll be counting on every one of our lucky stars.  If worse comes to worse we'll be on a hastily organised and particularly expensive flight out of the country to visa-free South Korea.

All going to plan, our road ahead is likely to be characterised by a marked change in conditions.  Winter is coming.  Already our south easterly path has delivered us into marginal country typified by reduced pasture and shrinking natural water supplies, this will be further compounded by the end of summer in Mongolia.  We have already started to feel the pinch of the cold and yet we have a long way to ride through weather that Mongolian nomads have spent the best part of the last 4 months meticulously preparing for.  We both fear for our horses ability to find enough food particularly under a foot of snow.  How we self-proclaimed "summer people" that haven't seen a winter in years will deal with temperatures known to drop to 40 below but routinely hang around neg 20 remains to be seen but then again readers of this blog will be the first to know!

Thanks for reading.

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Man Down

(Donna): For someone that has grown up in a home without pets and carries a self confessed sense of awkwardness around animals the past 10 weeks of living, eating, sleeping with our four horses has opened up a new me.  I adore each of them and their individual quirky personalities – what they like or dislike, how they best work, what sort of grass they each prefer and somewhat laughably, how each of them behave when there are flying pests around. I wake up each morning and give them all a kiss and a cuddle as they stand there in their docile, sleepy state allowing me to love them. It has dawned on me over the past few days that we have shared very little about the characteristics of our four geldings, so here is a little rundown for you all.

Milky- Our gorgeous baby, he is literally the most beautiful horse alive and even though I’ve tried many times to capture this through a photograph I’ve never been successful. He has the softest, most strokeable nose and I just love it when he nuzzles into my torso and takes a long deep sniff of me (Nic says he doesn’t do this to him). Although he is only a baby at no more than four years old, he is growing at a dramatic speed in muscle and girth, it makes us deeply proud to see him growing into a strong, powerful horse before our very eyes. When we first took responsibility for him the girth straps hung baggy around his protruding ribs, he now wears his saddle comfortably without bundles of extra padding.

He has the strangest horse behaviour we’ve ever known, most notably his ‘hide and seek’ method of avoiding flies. He walks along when being led with his nose running along the ground in the shadows of my riding horse and when we stop he stands there, still as the night, with his head low to the ground, eyes closed as if he truly believes that the flies can no longer see him. When we are riding and a herd of horses approaches he comes up real close and rests his head on my leg to show his fear, he looks up at me and I stroke him to let him know I’ll keep him safe. He bolts if a car comes too close which is quite distressing for him, we try our best to wave intrigued Mongol’s along but being the self proclaimed horse masters that they each are, feel it completely ok to approach us at speed veering off road straight at us just to check us out.

Fergus – Originally one of the pack horses but became my riding horse when Choco got injured, is a joy to ride but a slow pack horse to lead, in fact I feel as though I practically dragged him along the first few hundred kms that we travelled, I think he gets bored too easily at a slow pace. His canter is so smooth that you beam with happiness as you bound along being transported by him, it’s truly a wonderful feeling to canter along the Mongolian countryside through green grass or over a mountain top on the back of a horse.  Fergus loves to roll and is the first to drop to the ground and wriggle about on his back once his saddle is removed, this suits me fine until it’s time to brush him and he has his recent excrement smeared up his side.  He’s finally worked out how to eat with a bridle on during our 10 minute snack breaks. He used to fill his mouth with huge amounts of grass that he held bunched out of both sides of his mouth wondering why he couldn’t get it to his back teeth, he now chews as he goes.

Kitay –  Although the leader and strongest horse, requires constant motivation. Mongols whip their horses profusely and unfortunately with Kitay he knows nothing else and so we must follow suit or else remain stationary.  He is an easy horse to work with and is quite well trained, he stands still while you are around him and has worked out that the better he behaves the quicker we’ll leave him to eat whereas the others haven’t quite got that concept. It took over six weeks for him to understand that whenever I raised my hand near him I was going to stroke him and not inflict pain. None of these horses have previously experienced affection  but Kitay, being older, flinched badly and would dart his eyes around frantically wondering what was going on. This is my greatest feat with Kitay, I don’t know if he even likes being stroked but I persist and he allows me to.

Choco – He’s our character. He whips his head back and forth viciously when there is even just one fly in the area, he hates them. He paces around at speed when staked and leads himself to the others with conviction. When we approach with our orange grain buckets he goes crazy at just the sight of them grunting and willing us to feed him first. Even though he is by far the skinniest, he eats greedily and we always place him in the best patch of grass overnight. When his back erupted like a volcano of puss we spent three weeks nursing him back from the brink of lameness with our vetinary kit. We injected him with penicillin for five days, Nic walked 170kms to allow Choco’s back to heal saddleless and we covered him in various anti-sceptics day and night to minimise his discomfort. Our feelings towards Choco changed after his injury, we grew huge admiration for his tenacity and determination. He, unlike the other three, never showed any sign of weakness (which was part of the reason his saddle sore got so bad before we could realise).

We are both so proud of ourselves for nursing him back to health, we recently wormed him (something that is unheard of here) and were excited to see him begin to pile on the pounds. It’s funny how excited the pair of us got inspecting the piles of poo left by each of them and seeing them filled with dead worms  within two days of giving them the paste (high five to us).  Choco LOVES the water- he would stand for hours on end in even ankle deep water just watching the world go by occasionally stomping his front leg to splash his tummy with cool water in the midday sun.

These are the images that are going through my mind of him right now as I sit here (in the police station garden) desperately waiting for news of his safety.

Some horrid person came and stole him from us while we slept less than 15 metres from his stake at 2am, two nights ago. The feeling of being robbed is much worse when it isn’t just a possession or material thing, this is our horse, our team member and friend.

We are both haunted with the sounds of our other three horses neighing loudly to alert us as he was being ridden off into the night. We woke instantly and had possibly missed out on seeing the culprit by less than minutes but even though we were awake and aware that one of our horses was missing what could we do? It’s pitch black, our other three mounts are going nuts neighing out for him and being in a populated area we were hearing neighing replies from every horse in the area confusing us as to which way he may have been taken. Nic went off in search by foot and on Kitay failing that as I stayed to guard the other horses and our tent.

Before long, it was 4.45am (our usual wake up time) and we still had no luck, we moved our other three in even closer and shortened their lines to keep them near. I had every hope that by daylight he’d just come plodding along the river back to his homies but this wasn’t to be. The reality didn’t sink in and I don’t think it has even yet as we both hold hope even though we are being given very little help or assistance.

We made it back into town on foot, with a horse down both of us are reduced to walking as one riding horse has to carry both of our saddles on his back. The heat of the day here at the moment is high and leading the horses while on foot is not easy at all, both of us sweating buckets and zigzagging the whole way to check if every distant horse was Choco.

Where we’re at now –

We’ve been at the police station camped in their garden since yesterday when we arrived. They aren’t exactly helpful, in fact via a translator last night we were able to gather than investigation would mean hard work for them and so they weren’t best pleased. Everything here is hard work with every Mongol against us doing everything that they can to see us fail, it’s really hard to sit here and write bad things about these people but it’s even harder to find any good in them. The country is just so beautiful and when we are left alone to get on with our day we have a great time, it’s the people that are damaging this experience for us, especially since this is our THIRD robbery in ten weeks!! People literally go out of their way to explain to me that our horses will not make the distance, they persist beyond rudeness to make sure that I fully understand that (particularly Choco) will not make it. My knowledge of the language is actually quite good and I can usually make it through a full conversation understanding most of it but sometimes I find it better to  simply say that I don’t speak Mongolian, especially if I’m not in the mood for their negativity.

Tomorrow is another day and although it will be tough to pick ourselves up, dust off and continue on – we must.

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Horse Theft

This on Facebook, 7 August:

As if someone has flicked a switch, things seem to have become almost too easy for us here in Mongolia! Having put for now some of the more challenging elements of our crossing behind us, our days consist of meandering along seas of green pasture under beautiful blue skies in the shadows of forested mountains. Waking to stunning sunrises on crisp cool mornings, taking lunch-break and afternoon swims in crystal clear rivers, camping amongst pine trees and enjoying evening log fires under the most spectacularly starred night skies we have ever seen. Come join us, I think we have the hang of it! Gain insight into horseback travel in our next blog "A Day on the Steppe with the Blue Sky Walkabout Caravan".

Just several hours later:

That is until one of the horses gets stolen... just hours after our last happy post we woke to incessant neighing from the other horses at 2am this morning to discover Choco, Nic's pack horse taken, perhaps merely minutes prior. Hours of frantic searching in the dark revealed nothing as did more looking this morning when light broke. If you asked me 2 months ago I'd probably have said I was angry about losing our money, now I'd say that we are devastated to have stolen from us a living, breathing part of our team. Fortunately and unusually for us we were camped 5km from a village (and near gers so should have been safe) that also has an open police station so we have been able to make it back in to sort things out. Choco was double tied, staked to the ground, hobbled and PADLOCKED just 12m from our tent. We were warned repeatedly of horse theft before coming to Mongolia from a number of different sources, just never thought it would happen to us particularly with all the precautions we take. Needless to say we have been stopped dead in our tracks and everything is uncertain at this point. We are hoping for the best but perhaps expecting the worst. Hopefully more to follow...

And now:

(Nic) So the night before last, some 19 hours after the theft of our horse while we slept at 2am in the morning, we finally managed to convince the local policeman to help us.  His reluctance seemed valid, mentioning that it would take exactly 15 days to conduct an investigation into the matter.  When I agreed and said that we would stay that long it became 19 days, "OK" then it became 21 days "OK" then a month.  I could see it going nowhere so he eventually agreed to help upon threat of my calling the Australian embassy in Ulaanbaatar (there isn't one).  He would provide Ih-Uul's only other officer for a day and when our search didn't turn up anything he would provide me with a police report so long as I agreed in writing that I didn't want Police help and that we 'lost' the horse.  We were aided in this conversation by one of four limited English speakers from the village of Ih-Uul, a dire place which should have been a fleeting fragment in our memories but of which we now reluctantly found ourselves back in.  From the old man we learnt the story of 2 German girls 2 years ago that had had all of their horses stolen in the same area.  Considering this and since reflecting in a less sleep depraved state on our night time raid it appears that we were likely very lucky to have been left with our remaining three horses.  The thief(s) were probably not expecting padlocked western style hobbles nor perhaps our other horses to make such a commotion.  Our slight delay (mere minutes) in reacting to their cries cost us Choco but likely spared them.  Either-way the bright side is that we still have three healthy horses, not enough to continue riding but we can continue on foot for the time being.  We are trying to think like a Mongol and not bring emotion into it, "it's just a horse" they will say despite both the large cost to us and the obvious attachment we Westerners consider important.  Also gleaned from the English speaker was the method of choice for horse theft in the area.  One simply steals horse from its owner while they sleep, takes it up to the surrounding mountains, ties it up to a tree (with no water or grass) for as long as it takes for things down in the village to blow over and the owner to leave.  Once we leave the horse (Choco) will be collected and sold (usually) for meat.  Charming.

So at 11am the next day (yesterday) a rented motorbike turned up and I spent the rest of the day perched precariously behind a young officer both of us without helmets pelting along dirt roads searching without success for my pack horse.  The same horse we nursed back from severe injury and certain lameness weeks ago, Choco was starting to put on weight and for ever since we started our journey 2 months ago has continually impressed us both with his tenacity and determination.  That the seemingly amateur thief stole our weakest, thinnest and still slightly injured horse didn't go far to appeasing our sorrow at having had a living, breathing member of our team taken from us in such horrible circumstances.  By the end of the yesterday however I was sick of being laughed at by the 20 or so families of the gers we visited and just wanted to get back to the love and understanding of Donna.   Searching until early evening did allow my thoughts to stray however and despite our immediate problems I was reminded of a similar moment of mirth I had almost exactly three years ago.  I had been riding my motorbike through rebel-held territory in Baluchistan, Pakistan and the two AK-47 wielding guards assigned for my protection had just left me in the middle of the desert due to a rising dust storm. After battling off the road to perform an autopsy of my air-filter I dropped, just slightly, the bike against the wall of the abandoned mud hut I found cover in.  The resulting tiny scratch on the windshield of my bike sent me into an immediate funk/rage/homesickness/anger until I realised that at about the same time back home people would be getting up early to go and sit in traffic to get them to a desk they will sit at for the rest of the day.  There has to be something said for living your dreams, taking the path less travelled, accepting challenge despite the hardship and there I was, in a mud hut, in a dust storm, in Pakistan.  And here I am, with Donna, in Mongolia, life continues and dreams live on.

But,

More than just being an irritation or a cultural misunderstanding, Mongolian people are starting to wear us thin and douse our futility to continue on.  We have in our journey so far had the natural environment thrown at us in spades and have come out on top.  We have had to learn totally new skills and become accomplished horse people with no outside assistance and yet problems with people continue to be more of a problem than we could ever of anticipated even though we were prior warned.  That the country is spectacularly beautiful yet the people so constantly and tiringly challenging makes our experience here such a crying shame.  We can almost understand the constant being told we won't get to the next village let alone the other end of the country (even though we have already travelled for 2 months and near on 1,000kms) but ridicule, complete lack of compassion in the face of adversity all the way through to open hostility is hard to take.  Yet the now handful of foreign tourists we've met have expressed identical feelings and experienced similar problems. That these tourists are out in the countryside, not on packaged tours from the capital means they have seen things for what they are worth and I think that qualifies them to their opinions.  However it remains fact that these tourists have mainly been on motorcycles or in vehicles and we have met one couple cycling.  The problem we are finding is that our chosen method of travel is so slow and cumbersome, if we have an incident or problem we still need to spend 3+ hours packing up, readying our horses then moving off at walking pace, not your average quick get away for us.  It is the picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and continuing on that is becoming increasingly difficult, and yet things were becoming so streamlined for us the last week and a bit, so enjoyable.  The fact that we have been away from people for this same period has not gone unrecognised.  Although it is easy to think of Mongolia and it's nomads as romantically from another era, it appears that the sudden and haphazard fusion of modernity has exploded in the country and the fallout has been significant.  Vile greed, a misunderstanding of Western values and a severe resentment of foreign wealth and opportunity seems to have instilled a troubling mentality in the majority of Mongolians we have come across.  That they are hostile and steal from each other while living already difficult lives, desecrating their most beautiful natural environment though relying on it for their well-being makes them a difficult bunch to relate to.  Though we never expected it we have sadly grown no love for this country (yet) and our remaining in it is simply to see our goal realised.

So our immediate future is somewhat unknown, what is certain is that for the second time on this journey we will be reduced to walking.  Of more pressing concern is that of the safety of our expedition and we are currently considering a few different options including a plan to shift the bulk of our movements to the cover of darkness so as to prevent a repeat horse theft.  Of course travelling by night in a foreign country where you are constantly being watched anyway, in a landscape you have never laid eyes on does have it's obvious pitfalls.  Our only other potentially viable option is to set up an hourly watch meaning that we would be sleeping one hour on, one hour off every night for the remainder of our time in the country or at least until we feel safe again.  But we felt safe here! Near a village, camped near a collection of gers and as close to other people's horses as we were to ours.  That our basic human need for sleep makes us so defenceless against the theft of our horses makes me sad yet angry, frustrated yet determined but most of all powerless in a way that is difficult to describe.  In an uncanny way I am almost excited by the challenge of finding another horse and incorporating it into our existing team but the thought of another night time raid horrifies me.  Time will tell.

There is a silver lining to this story (there needs to be), last night we had our first shower since leaving Ulgii over 50 days ago.  I do a lot of thinking in the shower and it was a weird feeling to think of all that had happened since I last enjoyed the simple pleasure of falling hot water.  I thought back to a time when the mission was priority, the objective was to cross the country and the horses were a means to an end.  That they mean so much more to us now, that without them we are nothing, that the loss of one of them is so heartbreaking are thoughts that we are trying to block out.  Think like a Mongol I keep saying to myself as I reflect on advice from a horse buying contact we had in Ulgii, never refer to a horse in Mongolia as "My horse", you never know how long you'll have it for so just call it "The Horse".

 

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Self-sufficiency, The Long March and Robbery

(Nic) Life becomes pretty basic when it boils down to a simple search for water and grass, the theme of which would dominate our 240km march across the barren, desert landscape to Songino in the remote Uvs province of Northern Mongolia.  Riding out of the small village of Naranbulag on 10 July we had questions of self-sufficiency on our minds with enough food packed for 16 days alone and the challenge of moving ourselves, our equipment and four horses safely across the harsh environment looming on the heat hazed horizon ahead.  It is a notion that appeals highly to me but if however we were expecting some sort of adventure on our journey across Mongolia we certainly found it over the next two weeks, the requirement to plan and account for such a long period without being able to restock no less challenging than the need to navigate to water sources without the safety or benefit of roads or tracks long lost in the desert sands.  Occasionally following a track, infrequently used as it may be presented a welcome opportunity to at the very least make us feel as though we were going somewhere but otherwise our ride across the open, incredibly hot and windy expanse saw us travel for days without seeing anyone or anything. 

A chance meeting with an adventure biker the evening before departing Naranbulag highlighted the challenges ahead but also set me thinking about how the way we travel influences the way we interpret our surroundings.  More than just being the first foreigner we had seen since leaving Ulgii 28 days prior, we were eager to impart from DK information about what we could expect ahead of us.  After all, shaking the dust of his jacket and nursing a broken windscreen, the South Korean had just covered on his Triumph Tiger in a day the same distance we were estimating would take us a fortnight. "Desert, absolutely nothing for about 250 kilometres" he relayed.  "Really?", I queried slightly alarmed but hoping from my map for more than simply nothing.   "Ok, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, something for about 50km out of Songino and then nothing for the rest...sort of".  This statement struck a chord with me and as I thought about it more over the coming days it began to typify the major differences in travelling as we are.  Don't get me wrong, I love travelling by motorbike and still view it has perhaps the ultimate way to cross-country, literally, but there are no maybes to be had with horse travel.  Crossing a desert there are no sought of's.  You find water and grass for your team or they stop going, or even worse still, die.  Given that I have done a bit of travelling by bike, motor and with legs it gave plenty to think about over the coming days.  Basically begging DK to camp with us and not continue on for the day our campfire discussion once again highlighted the small world of cross country adventurists.  DK had, in Ulaanbaatar run into a couple, one half of which Donna had run into in Albany before leaving.  Although they normally live in the Kimberley Patricia and Billy are currently headed our way and we hope to run into them somewhere along the road in Mongolia. 

Proof of the saying that you are 'never alone on the steppe' would come a few days later and in one of the more bizarre incidents to be played out on our journey so far, would help us with a problem we had on immediate hand.  For over a month Donna had been riding Choco, the temperamental but sure footed and determined senior member of our team.  Perhaps a result of removing his saddle too early after travel each day he had, for a week or so been showing signs of swelling on his wither.  We woke on the fifth day out of Naranbulag to the ghastly discovery that the skin had perforated opening up a fairly major wound on his back and was oozing puss.  We were camped on a small strip of grass near a disused well and hadn't seen another sole for the best part of two days but 10 minutes after our discovery, a man and two sidekicks rocked up in a truck, he spoke the most English of a Mongol we had encountered for a month and just so happened to be a vet.  Although many Mongols claim to be "horsemen" and to an often dubious extent they are, there was little doubt this man had medical training, his assistance in helping us invaluable.  Although we carry a fully fledged equine first aid kit, the Mongol helped us deliver our first injection in a course of antibiotics and went someway to reassuring us that with the supplies we had we had a chance at rehabilitating our stead.  The injury did mean however that we were reduced to foot, both us for 2 days and me (Nic), the rest of the way to Songino, a march of some 170km...fortunately my Rossi boots were made for walking!  The long stroll did however afford me insight into another form of overland travel, that provided by our own two legs.

That one is never alone of the steppe did however come to haunt us just a few days later in a incident that would cause us to re-evaluate our vulnerability in such a remote area of the country as if things weren't hard enough for us as they were.  We had ridden again for two days without seeing another sole.  We were tracking towards a map marked well which had taken us into the mountains.  Upon arriving at the well we found it dry with few indications of any surrounding water.  It seemed as though this would be one of our first nights without, not a huge problem provided we could find some the next day (the horses drink about 30L - 40L a day in hot conditions).  Not long after we began ruminating our predicament two young men arrived on a motorbike and fortunately directed us to a small spring 2 kilometres away.  The evening was to be bittersweet however, as after watching us set up camp the two men would rob us in a brazen theft of a backpack containing camera, phone, knife, binoculars, horse whip and cash, disappearing into the night.  Donna and I consider ourselves careful travellers and being where we are and carrying survival essentials we need to be.  Unfortunately, in Mongolia we receive constant, often negative attention with regard to our belongings, the major item being our saddles, binoculars and knives, in that order, things a Mongolian nomadic horseman can use.  On this occasion in an area well over 100 hundred kilometres to a main village the assailants waited until I had hobbled each horse and removed the saddle from my riding horse.  They waited again until I was away from our tent (a mere 8 metres) before snatching the backpack from Donna and taking off on their motorbike.  There was little we could do and apart from having to simply pick ourselves up and continue on the next day, we were worse concerned with how the incident would affect our view of our host country moving forward.  Although we can perhaps understand how our belongings are hot property in a much undeveloped nation it has been sometimes painful for us to experience just how intent the people have been in looking us over and through our things, wanting what we have.  This often means people simply opening up our bags or peering closely through the doors of our tent to see what we are up to.  Where we have encountered nomads or villagers they simply sit down next to us while we set up camp and stare at us.  Perhaps even more disconcerting is when we have been riding through hugely remote areas, nothing marked on the map without seeing anyone for a day only to have a horseman ride down to us from a mountain, look us over and then take off again.  We have often wondered where it is these peculiar nomads have come from or where they are going but there is little doubt they know the land like the back of their hand and we are the strangers in it.

The immediate future for us is bright however, we are confident that heading further east onto the steppe proper and the foothills of the mighty Khangi mountain range is going to afford us with a healthy change to increased pasture coverage and availability of water (as I write this has already been the case) as well as more frequent encounter of villages or nomad inhabited areas (for better or worse).  We have eased into a gentle rhythm of travel and have started to make efficient use of the long summer days.  About 3 weeks ago and upon the advice of the International Long Riders Guild, we started to employ the armed cavalry convention of mounted travel.  This means that aside from an early start, we march for 50 minutes and rest for 10 throughout the day.  In doing so we complete our days travel earlier (we were stopping longer throughout the day previously) and arrive at our overnight camp with enough time for the horses to properly hydrate and sufficiently graze overnight.  Although pasture has been limited up to now we expected that increased coverage and more regular access to water will put a spring in the step of our team and allow us to slightly increase our daily distance of travel.  As importantly though we are becoming a close knit, determined team and getting to know our horses, learning their nuances, behavioural quirks and seeing them become the inseparable group they now are is giving us immeasurable joy.  We can't move one of the horses without the others neighing incessantly and a recent overnight breakout from the Tudevetey police yard we were staying in (yes, a jailbreak!) had them all cheekily grouped down the stream together. 

Despite the hardship of the last few weeks, as I write from Nomrog we have already experienced in the last few days seas of green pasture and have woken to completely still mornings, the sun creeping above forested mountains heralding the start of beautiful blue skied days in which we ride peacefully and ever endlessly east.  We have now travelled some 600km by horseback and waking up to living our dream every day fills us with raw energy, often indescribable emotion and a great love for what we are doing.  Quite honestly we wouldn't have it any other way....

Nic and Donna

 

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Update from Naranbulag 3 weeks ago

Poor internet at the time prevented us posting to the website but did allow us to update our facebook followers.  So you can better track our progress here's where we were at on the 9th of July:

We are camped on the edge of the tiny windswept village of Naranbulag, Uvs aymag. Perched high and looking back over the endless desert landscape we have just crossed seems like a good time to reflect on the progress we have made to date. I was hoping to write a more detailed blog update during our two days stay here but the realities of getting the horses sorted and preparing for our next leg have meant otherwise. As it turns out there isn't enough of an internet signal anyway.

We set out from Ulgii, on Tuesday 16 of May confident that a year's planning and preparation would see us face off any challenge we might expect ahead of us in our crossing of Mongolia on the horses we now sat astride. The realities of horseback travel have since delivered a stinging rebuke. Challenging at the best of times, it could be said that we might have been best first to tackle a more temperate, more populated, pastured country where water was more reliably available. But here we are.

At a quick pace it takes us just under 4 hours from waking up to being ready to ride. Our days start before 6am and rarely wrap up before 11pm. For this we are rewarded with about 15 - 20km. Taking care of four horses is (and should be) a never ending saga and trust me when I say that they require constant attention even overnight when we are regularly up to check that they haven't wrapped a rope or simply been stolen (horse theft in Mongolia is no myth). Pasture and water have been an ever present concern for us since departing across some of the most arid land Mongolia has to offer. We did though soon discover why the few remote hashas (mud brick compounds) we came across looking for company were deserted. Insects. Mosquitos/flies/march flies and the dreaded sandfly in biblical proportions are one of the predominate reasons why Kazakh and Mongol nomads for want of a better description simply head for the hills during the months we here find ourselves in. Occasionally our journey has seen us touch on these more mountainous summer camps but for the most part our course has necessitated a more direct path through the currently deserted lowlands (average still 1,500m!). It is hugely disheartening to witness not only the physical result but the severe irritation the insects cause to our horses, the situation made worse by what we are asking of them. BUT they are prevailing and we are happy to report that our caravan is likely looking better than when we first took hold of them some four weeks and 250km ago. I like to think that our careful course planning, requiring constant manual calculation of water sources and sight scanning of potential pasture is playing a part but then again luck has so often been our friend.

And we are prevailing. Despite the hardship, the heat, the cold, the severe wind, the afternoon storms, the lack of food and water we ARE making progress and ever slowly pushing ahead towards the horizon. From where I sit now that goal lies almost inconceivably beyond a distant vista as far as I can see around a saltwater lake shimmering beside a heat hazed desert. But things do seem to be getting easier and to be honest we wouldn't have things any other way. Our slow progress across an otherwise unforgiving landscape has at any rate rewarded us dearly with mesmerising beauty, spectacular geography, jaw dropping scenery and perhaps a rare insight into one of the world's few remaining truly nomadic cultures. Where we have been welcomed into the famed gers of Mongolia, we have also met with the legendary hospitality for which the end of a hard day(s) ride means so much. Like end of canyon camp, two days out from Ulgii, sitting around a small table, the freshly slain goat laid out before us and nothing going to waste. Bloke on one side carving up lung, bloke other side cutting up heart and grandma sitting opposite happily picking out brains, nothing going to waste, chai all round. Or the recent lay over in the town of Omnigov highlighted the open hospitality of Mongol nomads. We arranged two nights care for our horses and expedition sponsor Nomadic Journeys sent a translator, driver and community leader for a high altitude rendezvous with the Myangad nomads of Altan (Mount) Khokhiy to take drone footage and film cultural occasions few foreigners are fortunate enough to be privy too.

The best part of a week across remote territory east of Omnigov and here we are. Tomorrow we head off across what could be some of the most challenging terrain yet. Although we seem to have put the worst of the insect problems behind us (though as I write I see a mist of mosquitos hovering above each horse) we have just packed food for 15 days and plotted a course across a barren schedule of small springs and remote wells (some of which so far haven't always had water). Our destination Songino.

You'll never see the end of the road while traveling with us...

 

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Ölgii and Horses

(Nic) Rolling out of our shared single bed, sans mattress and stepping out of the mud brick Hasha I feel the warmth of the mid morning sun radiate onto my face.  Daylight has been present since four and despite best intentions for getting up early we are both still getting adjusted to a sun that sets after 10.00pm with light still remaining at midnight.  Never to mind, nothing happens in Ulgii until at least midday giving me at least another few hours to start my day by which time Donna will be up also.  My day starts out like any other this week, collect water from the communal well, brave the precipice of the disturbingly nearby drop loo and if I am lucky and the power is on, brew some instant coffee.  Donna and I then both give water, feed grain, muck out, feed hay, brush, pick out hooves and more generally care for four horses, our small caravan that will hopefully carry us across the country, first to it's capital 2, 000km west then everything going to plan all the way to Mongolia's border with China in the far east.

Descending the rocky path into Ulgii almost three weeks ago we were momentarily captivated by mountains glistening with snow rising high on all fours sides above the small city.  That life exists here at all however becomes difficult to fathom, there being barely any green pasture or vegetation to speak of, the city reluctantly sprawled out amongst the Martian landscape that is the Khovd Valley.  This view was reinforced a few days after our arrival when I took a seven hour bash 220km south east to Khovd to collect our horse tack and other expedition equipment.  More than once on that horrid trip I stood frigid in the high altitude cold, staring bleakly out at nothing more than towering snow swept mountains or bare rock valleys wondering how it was that we were somehow going to travel alone with horses across the same barren landscape, and well, make it.

Situated at 1,500m in the Altai Mountain range, Ulgii, the 28,000 strong capital of the furthest west province (aymag) is closer to Astana than Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar.  This perhaps goes someway to explaining why in the city and the surrounding area there lives a majority Kazakh population.  Separated by mountains, desert  or otherwise harsh landscape and preferring their own religion, language and customs has ensured that the people here have remained an enigma to the rest of Mongolia, sprawled out to the East.  Although there exists the first inklings of a tourism industry, the city could best be described as off the beaten track and what Ulgii lacks in running water, rubbish disposal, a sewage system, roads and reliable electricity it more than makes up for in the smiles and friendly faces of a unquestionably tough bunch of residents.  Up to now we can count the number of other tourists we have met on one hand and it still amazes us when walking through town that every child under 15 says "Hello", supposedly the only English word they know.

On Tuesday 2 June, after days of extended local enquiries and negations to secure a translator, Russian 4WD van and driver we departed relative comfort for the mountains to the north west.  We took off at around 11am my suggestion of an early start, at say 8am being met by shock and the sincere concern of our fixer.  What they do here in summer however is work late, often we have been phoned or dropped in on after 10pm at night and as it turned out that first day of horse hunting would be no different.  We would eventually lay camp and crawl into bed at 2am the next morning.  Our search for horses started ominously.  Not long after making a pitch to our first potential seller on open steppe 10km out of Sagsay I was thrown off a bolting horse and dragged through mud before a horrified Donna and a casually indifferent audience of nomads.  Riding an unknown quantity I called for the lead rope of another horse to test its mantle but myself making the rookie error of wrapping the rope around the legs then tail of the horse I was riding.  As time would tell, the gut wrenching helplessness of seeing the other fall would be replayed a few days later alas in reverse.  

One of the biggest factors against us and that we were fully aware of before coming to Mongolia is that after a long and (very) cold winter in which no horses are stabled and all but very few are even fed is that we would struggle to find horses with enough meat on them to safely undertake a long journey.  Tough but currently weak.  This was becoming apparent in the horses offered to us being all but skin and bones, their ribs disturbingly obvious.  Our next stop however was about 20km away and just outside the village of Ullanhus is where we found our first two horses.  We got our own saddles out at this stop, our Wintec supplied Proc CS Australian Stock Saddles, and well that certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst the gathered crowd.  We weren't sure how our saddles would fit or even be accepted by Mongol Horses accustomed to a rudimentary saddle with a simple tree comprising two short planks.  Pleasantly surprised with both fit and the reaction of the horses we entered earnestly into negotiations with who could best be described as the union leader, a local nomad and eagle hunter.  We arranged for the horses to be ridden to our camp, near the first nomads just out of Sagsay and all of a sudden we had our first two horses.  "Unnamed white horse" which stole an affiliation with Donna and although a bit flighty (as we would work out the next day) easily the most healthy of our group, a clear leader.  The other quickly named "Milky" for obvious reasons (photos to follow), a highly affectionate though skinny mount destined to be one of our pack horses.  Both are geldings.

After sealing the deal with family chai in Ullaanhus we headed up high into the mountains, reaching over 2,000km in the late afternoon.  This 110km round trip to visit nomads in the midst of preparing to move to their summer camp appeared to be fruitless when the horses we came to see took off down the valley and into the distance.  Not long after however a neighbour appeared and although it was getting dark he claimed to have some horses he could sell.  We drove to his place and waited, and waited and as it was almost dark with a long drive back to where we had decided to camp we eventually told our driver to get going.  As we glanced up one last time we saw two horses appear over the horizon.  We had found our second two mounts.  The deal was done as darkness descended and a full moon rose over the mountain on the other side of the valley.  Again, an arrangement for the horses to be ridden to our camp was made and with that we took off, arriving at camp well after midnight.

Waking up the next morning to the comparably green surrounds of the Sagsay Valley and camped near nomads it was decided that we would make this our base for the better part of the coming week.  Staying near nomads and with the relaxed company of Hemmo, a Finnish artist we met in Ulgii, we could start the process of fattening up the horses on fresh pasture, have access to river water and give ourselves time to learn the ways of the steppe and pick up further horse skills from the nomads.  Our week staying on the grass near Sagsay went quickly, suddenly with four horses to care for in between games with the nomad children, chai with the family and learning to pack our horses it was soon time to make a move.  The horses we had decided to use for packing our equipment took to the task much easier than expected and we quickly picked up the local method of hobbling horses with rope (or leather as they do) and securing the load on the horses back also with rope. 

Before long the day had come, the first day of our eastward travel and the "start" of Blue Sky Walkabout.  After five long hours breaking camp and preparing our horses for travel we were ready to depart.  Our destination was a return to Ulgii, two days ride away and we would be accompanied by a local guide, Ashlibek, a member of the family we were staying near and despite not speaking a work of English, our emergency back stop should something go horribly wrong in our first precious hours.  As it turned out our first day went relatively smoothly until late afternoon when Donna, slightly misjudging a loose girth strap, went over while mounting.  The horse reared up and in a cloud of dust was trampled on by our largest horse.  From 20m away I looked on horrified picturing broken bones at the least.  Shaken and obviously to be badly bruised, Donna shook herself off and got on with it.  We rode another kay or so then set up camp for the evening,  Donna cooking as we watched the sun set over the Sagsay Valley in the distance from where we had come, satisfying indeed.  Our life on the steppe had begun.

The following day we rode back into Ulgii.  Calling a local contact I was able to arrange a compound on the relative outskirts of the city which would not only accommodate ourselves but the new additions to our team.  Riding back to the city was slightly deflating, rubbish strewn, busy and noisy, we would also have to cross the main bridge in the centre of town and the main highway.  As the bridge neared we settled our nerves and tried to calm the horses but leading our crew across the bridge with cars banked up, trucks honking and spectators cheering would be one of our highlights so far.  And so here we are.  We have been here 7 days now and through careful feeding including with grain our horses are slowly starting to look in better shape.  We have also spent the week researching our next leg from maps and satellite images of expected pasture and water.  We expect to be leaving in Ulgii in the next few days with the next leg to the small village of Hovd to the north east expected to take around a week.  

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London to Beijing, overland

(Nic) Although the significant and most time consuming outcome of our so called Blue Sky Walkabout is to ride horses across Mongolia, the more understated but no less personal achievement for us is to travel overland from London to Beijing this year. 

It goes without saying that in 2015 air travel has its place (though in its current form potentially limited days).  For us however, the best way to immerse ourselves in foreign culture and language or the sights and sounds of far off places is to go by the various forms of overland travel, "By any means" as it was once penned by Charlie Boorman, of Long Way Round fame.  More than just a means to the end, overland transport represents opportunity to better appreciate geography, time and distance as well as the daily ebb and flow of the many distant parts that makes us, us.  In many ways cheap air travel has contributed to opening up the world to those either nil pre-disposed or without the financial means to expand their horizons.  The flip side being that apart from the obvious and now widely understood negative environmental effects of mass air-travel is that at 30,000 feet there is much to be missed.  Parachuting into a foreign destination leaves us with little to comment nigh quality of the airline food.  Perhaps I was born into the wrong era, post Amundsen, Shackleton and the many great wanderings characterised by the "Great Game" played out over Central Asia.  Despite the golden age of overland adventure travel and expedition having lived its useful years, I think that there does however exists a resurgence.  Certainly Donna and I have crossed tracks with many a vagabond traveller living the counter culture.  For us, we hope that in our lifetime we will be fortunate enough to journey in one way or another over what I consider to be the four pillars of world overland legs.  Singapore to London, London to Beijing, Anchorage to Cape Horn and London to the Cape of Good Hope.  What better way to cap it all off than  by sailing around the world?

And so it were that on Wednesday 6 May 2015, Donna and I arrived in London...by aircraft.  And not just any bird but the biggest of them all, an Airbus A380.  Bursting through the arrival gates at Heathrow and welcomed into a flash Jag by a chauffeur, a surprise organised by one of Donna's mates, we brimmed with that nervous excitement yet soul contentment only travel can dish up.  More than just a stopping off point, London is Donna's childhood home and it provided a quick breather for what had at any rate been a hectic prior three weeks.  A short period by any measure but time in which we had not only made final preparations for extended travels abroad but had also taken a large family group on a 5,500km jaunt by road up the WA coast and get married.  Standing on a beach up WA's remote north Kimberley coast, the sand between our toes and the receding tide bringing new beginnings we shared the start of a new life together with our closest family and friends.  This was no small feat and feeling enormously privileged for them to be there it was perhaps fitting that our small number of guests had travelled a collective 320,000 km to witness our vows and celebrate our future as a married couple.

Our short stay in London was punctuated with visits to family and friends but also necessitated by final arrangements such as obtaining a Belarussian transit visa.  This is a task made easy in a place where almost every country on the planet is represented by embassy within walking distance of each other, that appeals to me.  That, and Stanfords.  That last stand in the world of Amazon and ebay, Stanfords in Covent Garden and visited by me every time I return to London is a bookshop where every one of its many maps, every book and every travel diary has one huge question mark behind it.  Before long however we were standing on the platform of the Eurostar, this being an achievement in itself having already missed our scheduled train to Brussels.   Although having lugged them all the way to London through various international airports, the local staff took issue with our "very large knives" and the words "I could have you arrested right here and now" were mentioned.  Our smiles and cooperation with the otherwise friendly staff prevailed and later that same afternoon we were steaming under the English Channel before emerging out to an overcast France. 

Crossing through France, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Belarus and heading into Russia by various trains we soon enough found ourselves standing in Moscow's famed Red Square, the excitement palpable as we stared across to St Basil's Cathedral under the watchful shadow of the Kremlin.  How to describe a city born of a collective desire to go one up on the rest of the world?  Even yet to be crashed by the intensity of Euro style tourism and besides its many imposing statues, public parks, museums, war memorials and public art Moscow seemed to have a staggering new "must see" at every turn.  Even the subway stations feature epic murals, exquisite stained glass depictions and prized sculptures and on at least one evening we simply stood in subway stations staring at the impressive décor, as you do.  Moscow is also the centre of that oft gilded trophy of imperialistic dreams, an expansive rail network and more specifically the departure point of our next ride, the famous Trans-Siberian Railway. 

Spanning all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok and the Pacific Ocean (or Beijing if you take the southern route), the Trans- Siberian is the world's longest railway line and we spent 49 hours, just over half of its full 9,259km length on our way through to Novosibirsk in Siberia.  As we swept past innumerable subsistence farms, rolling green hills and conifer forests, conditions on board although tight in our third class birth were fairly comfortable and we enjoyed the regular reshuffle of passengers as people got on and off sometimes for hours, some for days, none of whom were westerners.  Although fairly mundane, light relief came at times.  Like the Nurse Ratchedess conductress who sternly reprimanded me for whistling every time she or I walked past each other, even though I had stopped the first time on the fear of losing my two front teeth to the woman.  Or the smiling Babushka who amongst a platform busy with sellers of vases, cups, trinkets and snacks strolled purposefully among the malaise with two stuffed ferrets on offer for which I reluctantly declined to purchase.  Or Ivan.  Ivan was well over 6 foot, built like a brick outhouse and with that stern Russian look both Donna and I had failed to get more than "No" in English out of him in the first 9 hours he sat opposite us, noses almost touching.  Ivan surprised us both when he suddenly started to lip sync overenthusiastically to what could clearly be overheard as being 1990's Aqua hit Barbie Girl. 

Days later and a few more buses, trains, couch surfs and vodka shots forward it was just the two of us in our tent for the first time on this trip.  We were camped a mere 100 metres from a closed Russian border checkpoint high in the north western end of the Altai Mountain range where we had arrived after dark.  Although kept alert by howling town dogs, stray cattle and nearby army movements we eventually drifted off but not before woken by thundering hooves metres from our tent, no doubt a Kazakh herder come to inspect the strange sight.  We woke the next day to snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see and just over the horizon, Mongolia.  Adventure beckoned.  

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Punching in a Dream - not your average honeymoon.

We had originally penned the plans for further adventure travel while living and working on remote Shelamar Station, 235km south of Broome on WA’s Kimberley Coast.  Donna and I had moved to the family friend’s property some six months earlier having decided much on a whim that the literal and figurative confines of an office weren’t conducive to our overall well-being.  After the freedom and cultural immersion afforded to us by world travels in 2012 we both needed more than what city life offered and Shelamar gave Donna the chance like I had previously, to fall in love with the red ochre, white sands and turquoise waters of the pristine Kimberley wilderness.

Funnily enough it was during another first for Donna, a tropical cyclone that we hit on the specific idea for our next big adventure.  Alone on the 11,000 Ha property, the wind raging around our small shack we were thinking about our love for overland travel and how in a not so recent age that would almost exclusively have been done on horseback.  Would it still be possible in the modern world?  Incidentally a couple of weeks earlier I had been talking to good mate Tam about Conn Iggulden’s fictional history novel about the Genghis Kahn Empire.  Dots were rapidly connecting.  Mongolia, Land of Tengri and the Eternal Blue Sky, home to once the largest land based empire the world has ever seen, founded on horseback some 800 years ago with nomadic traditions that remain present to today.  The plan had synergy. A complete 16,100km circling of Australia by bicycle in 2010, a jaunt much of the way around the globe by motorbike in 2012 and now this, an ambitious plan to follow in the footsteps of the once mighty Genghis Khan and ride horses across one of the world’s most remote, unforgiving and least populated landscapes, 3,500km along the Eurasian Steppe from Russia in the West to China in the East.

There being just one small problem…we’d never before ridden horses.

Fast forward six months and Donna and I had just returned to Broome from a month or so paragliding in the Swiss Alps and attending a wedding on a Greek Island.  We had a decision to make, stay in the Kimberley and perhaps be more financially secure ahead of another extended period of world travel or move south.  There we could learn to ride and potentially develop the specialist horsemanship skills required of us to safely undertake what would be an equine overland adventure of truly epic proportions. 

Three days later we were packing the car…

Arriving in Albany on WA’s picturesque south coast we knew we had made the right decision, albeit with serious second thoughts about the southerly whipping off the Southern Ocean direct from Antarctica.  Though the weather was cold, the hospitality was warm and we very soon found ourselves enormously fortunate to be amongst family including Becci & Darcy Stephens, Celia Waugh and the ever affable Aunty Alison.  Within days of arriving in Albany we set about organising our lives around the new adventure, setting up horse contacts and learning firstly to ride.  In those early days the influence of Debbie Panizza and Karen Mayfield at Izzafield Stables was invaluable. It would however have been hard to view us as anything but peculiar, rocking up at Pony Club before being led around the park in front of a bunch of giggling nine year old girls.  Two silly adults with grand plans to ride thousands of kilometres across an open wilderness in a land far far away.

Although I quickly progressed to finding out how fast I could canter and how many hurdles I could jump, Donna took a more measured approach to lessons.  It was fairly obvious with her upright posture, tucked in elbows, correctly placed wrists and well positioned ankles that Donna looked a natural in the saddle.  Unfortunately for both of us, beyond the basics of riding we were going to need a different approach to working with horses in preparation for a 6 month expedition across Mongolia.  

As we quickly became domestically organised with somewhere to live and jobs to boot we also graduated from pony school to working alongside Gussy Saunders at Ringwould Stud.  Ringwould had form, one if its prodigy Ringwould Jaguar had been ridden by local star Sonja Johnson to a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics.  What we found at Ringwould was the opportunity to work in and around green horses, some of which at one or two years old had yet to be broken in.  The learning curve was steep and though we had committed to making horses a priority we soon began to juggle that schedule with the early stages of project planning, studying equine endurance theory and a heaving work timetable that would commit us to a departure date in early May 2015. 

Much of the focus in the last three months to date has shifted to expedition planning, including the ordering and testing of specialised pack saddling and survival equipment, logistical arrangements, visa provisions, route research and documenting emergency management procedures.  Although mundane at times the planning phase does have its moments and occasional exciting wins.  Donna has also been delving deep into language study marking solid progress with the perilously difficult to learn let alone understand Mongolian tongue.  It continues to fascinate me, the transition from taking a seemingly random idea or concept, a ‘something’ and taking it through to a ‘thing’ or as I see it punching in a dream.  Of course we see this in all facets of everyday life and many of us are employed to do it, moulding ideas and creating practical outcomes.  For me however, adventure is the dream-idea-concept-reality evolution that interests me the most.  The end result is always influenced by solid planning and sound execution but what of the unknown?  In adventure there is the biggest uncertainty of them all…the natural world.  Anything can and does happen but through character and will mountains do get scaled, rebel held deserts do get crossed, frigid glacial torrents do get forded and bureaucratic political hurdles do get resolved.  I believe it is my approach to these challenges that define me as a person and of which will also ensure success on the Mongolia Expedition and provide for the safety of Donna and myself. 

Considering our journey over the last six months it is hard to not feel that half the adventure has already been run.  Although we remain amateurs we can now talk about horses to an insider.  We can also be somewhat confident that the skills learnt to date will be sufficient to at least see us set out across the steppe and tackle the towering Altai mountain range and our first desert crossing within the first few weeks.  We have been fortunate enough to attract profile equestrian sponsors to the project including Wintec Saddles and Albany Horseworld and have been humbled by not only the belief in us by these companies but also by individuals who have by various means found themselves involved in the Blue Sky Walkabout Project.  People do what they can, a meal here, a lending ear there or even an email full of advice and contacts in Mongolia to assist with the arduous task of obtaining long stay visas or constructing complex freight arrangements.

People are why Donna and I travel, the sum of our experience and our leading light in the search for adventure along the path less travelled.

And so the countdown begins, Perth departure for London staging: May 5. Stay tuned.

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Blue Sky Walkabout News

All the news and updates from the project including the planning phase and during the expedition itself.  Nic and Donna hope to engage, entertain and provide insight to followers of Blue Sky Walkabout about both the journey as well as the fascinating nomadic culture of the Mongol people.

Nic and Donna intend to use their journey as a vehicle for school children in Western Australia and further afield to increase their understanding of different cultures.  Classrooms will have the opportunity to receive age tailored communication and photos from the expedition in an effort to encourage children to learn more about the world they live in and to further expand their horizons.

 

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