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.