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