We’re very lucky to work with hosts and horse owners around the world who share the same adventurous philosophy as ourselves – we all want to get out and explore as much as we can and of course the best way to do that is on horseback! Barry and Joe are two of our lovely hosts in South Africa, they run the Cape Winelands Adventure and the Wild Coast Adventure. This is their account of taking part in the Mongol Derby –
Boxing has been a fabulous revelation for me. I love it, and along with cycling it has gotten me into the best physical shape of my life. Add to that the fact that stepping into the ring has more in common with riding a belligerent Mongol pony than almost anything else I can think off, and my preparation for our second crack at the Mongol Derby was….well….perfect! The difference of course, is that you feel very much alone sitting on a manic hyper skittish equine in the middle of one of the least populated wildernesses in the world! No baying crowd a few meters away pounding the canvass, witnessing you taking another blow to a bit that wishes it hadn’t.
Boxing induced black eyes, a bruised nose and thick lip aside I was ready for this challenge. Joe and I were there to win. We knew what needed to be done. We knew what riding for 14 hours a day felt like. We had done it by the spade full over the previous year, riding over 5000km in endurance rides and our own particular discipline that we call adventure riding. I had pared down both my body and my gear, taking just what was absolutely necessary, and I made the weight limit easily, unlike last year. The most critical addition to our gear was a 7m length of rope; one end to be attached to the bit ring and the other, in a neat coil, by an elastic band to our belts. The idea was that if we got dumped, we would have a few seconds to grab the rope as it fizzed free of its elastic band, hauled out across the steppe by a crazed bolting pony. It worked! Perfectly! Three times! I didn’t lose a bloody pony all race, but I did come home with rope burns on my fingers. I’ll take the rope burns happily rather than feeling that dreadful hollow sensation of desperation you get when seeing your mount heading across the steppe like a Chinese rocket, your precious saddle attached….for the moment, and wondering if you will ever be able to find it or your horse again. On seeing a picture of my damaged hands one facebook friend suggested that I wear gloves in future. I had been!! The rope had burnt merrily through those in a flash before heading on delightedly through my flesh, made tender by too much glove wearing! Catch 22 you might say but the main thing was that I didn’t have to catch even one of the horses from which I had made a messy unscheduled dismount.
We had just a few hours once we landed in Ulaan Bator, before heading to the start camp, to get our phone cards sorted so that we would be able to send text, video and pics back to HQ in Cape Town, as well as twitter messages to anyone who could be bothered to follow. We had fancy new solar panels from Voltaic fitted to our back packs to charge our iPhones for the eight days that we would be flying solo across the steppe without a socket in sight. We also had a promising little gadget called a Spot Connect. It’s like the trackers used by Mongol Derby HQ to track the riders in the race but this one allows you to send 40 character messages via satellite and a blue tooth link from your smart phone to twitter or a designated phone number from anywhere in the world except …well …South Africa! That was what the bumf said. It turns out that you can’t send messages from a pretty large part of Mongolia either as it stopped finding satellites after the third day! This bit of kit does not come highly recommended but the Voltaic solar chargers do, they performed astonishingly well even in overcast conditions and easily kept our phones powered up for the duration of the race, and for sometime after we stopped careering across Mongolia and had taken to our tent at the finish camp to do what Joe and I tend to do at the end of any trip: play cards! Endlessly….for hours and hours! I don’t know why it has become a habit but it has, and we play without thinking or caring about winning or losing. A form of meditation maybe, an interface to get us back into the real world, or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse because Joe won!
Due to commitments at home we would be arriving at the start camp a day late, but we figured we knew the deal and that one day to be briefed, and get a quick ride in to settle the nerves associated with getting on those unpredictable little beasts would be enough. It was, and having dodged the airag and vodka extravaganza the night before, we got to the start line in pretty good shape. We could tell just from the vibe that this year the competition was going to be stiff. I figured early on that the Irish lads were the ones to beat. Some of the girls from the UAE were looking pretty determined and capable too. Coz the Aussie and Will the Cowboy looked like they might be made of sterner stuff than their flamboyant dress sense suggested, but other than that I couldn’t tell who might bubble to the surface. We just needed to be sure that we were in the bunch that did.
An over enthusiastic whoop from Sam the Kiwi set the whole bloody herd off on a mad gallop from the gun, me cursing him under my breath, working hard to keep my horse under control and desperate to stay on till the whole lot calmed down. It was like a not too orderly runaway train, more like the bit just after it leaves the rails than the bit just before with all the carriages in a straight line. Nothing about this was orderly or straight line-ish at all and the crazy dash, lasting for almost 5km, saw at least the five riders hit the deck; some with broken bones and all but the Aussie losing their horses. I survived but only for my horse to take what seemed like an age to get through the first vet check. We finally managed to clear the first station in about 15th position, a little further back than we had hoped but this race is not won on the first stage and we knew that the leaders would poke their heads clear of the pack on about the third day. We just needed to stay in touch with the leading group till then, when first flush of enthusiasm would have had worn off and bodies would begin to tire. We struggled to get through the second station, with Joe’s horse just squeaking through with a heart rate of 64 in the last minute of his 45 minute vetting period. It was a close call early on but we had worked out a system for this eventuality: with me filling backpacks with water, eating and taking food to Joe while he walked his horse to get it through the vet check. This system worked well for us and we consistently made up time on our rivals by being disciplined getting through the horse stations.
The pace had been fast over the first two stages and we knew that we would easily make a third stage on the short first day, but no further. We cruised in at just after 8:30pm in about sixth position with a few others slipping in before the 9:00pm cut off. There were about ten of us who made the third station on the first night, and having got to know each other crammed together in a ger full of guffaws prompted by the hysterical banter between the foul mouthed Aussie, the Cowboy Will, and the Irish lads, we set off in the morning at seven sharp in a mini re-enactment of the previous day’s start. Everyone stayed on, the leading bunch had already shed those who wouldn’t make the top of the leader board, and we rode the first part of that leg with the Irish lads, and Charlotte and Julie, a quartet that we would get to know well over the next few days. Reports had come in overnight of the injuries behind us, a broken collar bone, broken ribs, a cracked pelvis and a punctured lung: a pretty big haul for day one.
I can’t really remember much of day two other than disjointed snippets. Joe’s journal will give a far more detailed account of proceedings than mine, so I will leave the nuts and bolts to him. We settled into a rhythm, trying to get the most out of our horses and to navigate well, trying to be as efficient as possible. We hooked up with various riders from time to time, including Sam who was battling riding alone, but we eventually peeled away from him not wanting to help him along too much as he was looking like a threat. Mattheus, a Swede with whom Joe and I had had a little run-in with that morning, peeled away from us as we passed not wanting to engage with two grumpy South African’s too much (he really does have the worst people skills of almost anyone that I have ever met). His countryman Chris, who sat a bucking horse for a good 30 seconds the previous day, earning huge respect from the other riders, did the opposite, wanting to apologize for Mattheus’ weirdly offensive approach to life. The Cowboy was around and about for a while too, riding in his beautifully fluid western way but he had some kind of mishap later that day and we didn’t see him again until the finish. I had a real dud horse on the third stage of the day, and had to walk him in from a long way out, arriving convinced that we were slipping down the field. To our surprise we found all the leaders at station 6 in various stages of clearing the vet check, eating, selecting horses and tacking up. Due to the long walk our horses cleared quickly and were the first out, surprised but chuffed.
A few kilometres out Michaela came past us at speed, followed shortly by Julie and Charlotte. The chicks clearly meant business! But, I fear, their tactic of going like the gate had been left open, in a straight line over a not too insignificant ridge didn’t really work for them. Joe and I took a low slow ride around the ridge, worried about the heat and lack of water, and hooked up with a track alongside a long straight tar road heading in the right direction. We hauled all three of the girls in over the next hour or two, taking the lead again when we left Michaela whose horse was struggling. We had ridden together for a while but she had fallen behind and her horse had stopped dead. She shouted for us to carry on but we thought that we should try to help get her in to the horse station, so we rode back to make contact and her horse managed to follow for a few hundred meters before it stumbled and rolled, Michaela fortunately rolling free unhurt. Her horse was also unhurt from the fall but clearly tired. She told us to push on as we might not make it in to station 7 if we waited for her. She was going to try and walk her horse in and Joe suggested that she could always overnight at the village about 3km short of the horse station if she couldn’t. That was that, or so we thought!
Joe and I eased our horses into the station, getting in well before the 9pm cut off and, passing the vet check easily, quickly set about selecting our horses for the next day, as the light was draining away fast. The first horse I chose from the high line had not been vetted and I was told by the station vet, South African Pete Dommett, that I needed to choose again. My second and third choices were also declined me before I found a reasonable looking horse, one of only a handful on the line that had been cleared. I figured that this situation would somehow be sorted out by the time riding started at seven the next morning as both the Irish lads, Charlotte and Julie had snuck into the station just after the 9pm cut off, picking up a half hour penalty to be taken at station 9, but they would still be leaving with us the next morning.
We settled down for the night blissfully unaware that the events of the evening would come to have a huge effect on our efforts to win this incredible race.
End of Part 1.
The Ride: Race across the Steppe – episode 1 from The Ride on Vimeo.