Bek Williamson, second overall from Australia.

The Mongolian Herdsman called in the crack rider and....

After a fall in the second ride of the 2017 endurance season I was unable to ride for several months so my plans of qualifying for and riding in this year’s Tom Quilty and then bringing through a new horse were thwarted. As a goal driven person, it was time to find a new goal to achieve. Somehow fate dropped a Facebook ad for the Gobi Desert Cup in my lap and in a spur of the moment decision the completion of this exciting ride became my 2017 goal.

With a lot of excitement but also a good measure of trepidation I arrived in the sprawling city of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia in early September to meet my fellow competitors and race coordinator Camille Champagne. Riders had flown from the USA, NZ, France and Australia to compete in the inaugural Gobi Desert Cup, and one young local Mongolian rider made up the field of 16. We piled into our awaiting 4WDs and off we sped into the Gobi Desert, leaving the traffic and hectic city behind.

I was fortunate enough to be teamed with Bec Jeffrey, an Australian girl who I knew through the Vic endurance scene, along with Jim and Cindy Brown, two extremely experienced USA riders with almost 30,000 competition miles between them. Our team’s strategy was to ride together if it was practical and our horses were of a similar speed, but overall for each of us to complete each day and return our horses to their owners in a fit to continue condition. The local herders who owned the ponies had placed a lot of trust in us to look after their horses, which are their livelihood, so horse welfare rather than competition was our team’s number one priority.

Each day horses were drawn from a hat for all the riders. The herders placed bets on us, although I’m still unsure whether they were betting on us to win or fall off! It became apparent early on that groundwork is not a concept in Mongolia and it was therefore important not to be deterred by your allocated horse’s ground manners. One horse that pulled down the overhead lines, broke a herder’s finger and was refused by another rider turned out to be my best horse of the 6 I was allocated. I named him Caviar after the great racehorse Black Caviar.

I picked up a phrase early on which was “sain meri” meaning “good horse”. Each of my ponies was a "sain meri" in his own way. There was Husker Vartay who soldiered through in the heat even though he was clearly tired. Then there was Cruiser, who spent the entire 80km on cruise control, leaving me unable to change the settings as nothing I did made him go any faster or slower. Cliff Young shuffled his way through our longest, hottest day like an ageing marathon runner. One morning I was allocated the only horse of the 96 ponies to have a mane. We had learned a few days prior that only stallions retain their manes, however a quick check revealed "Hairy" to be a gelding. After witnessing his behaviour on the ground, I did wonder if the loss of his manhood was recent, and he just hadn’t had his visit to the barber yet. The herders called in the crack rider to demonstrate his paces for me and all seemed ok.

As they handed me the reins I turned to the group of herders watching and asked "sain meri?" with hope in my voice. This resulted in them looking me up and down then turning to each other and laughing raucously. I joined in the hilarity and they threw me aboard. I had a great day with Hairy....albeit a thirsty day since there was no getting off for a wee since I doubted that I’d be able to get back on him. The ride organising team generously awarded me the "best managed" prize that day for staying aboard but to be honest he was a fun ride and full of heart, just misunderstood.

Whilst I bonded with each of my trusty steeds out there in the expansive desert, I also formed some wonderful friendships and enjoyed whiling away the hours with each of the other competitors. The varying speeds of the ponies afforded me the opportunity to tag along on different days with all the other 15 riders, learning about their motivations for participating in the Gobi Desert Cup. From riding to honour the memory of a friend recently lost, to raising awareness for a cause to a personal challenge, everyone had their own reasons for undertaking the ride.

I’m not a spiritual person, and I had already “found myself” long before my Mongolian experience so I won’t bore you with any tales of my emotional awakening. What I did discover through my experience though, was a heightened sense of how fortunate I am, and that money and possessions don’t equate to a person’s measure of contentment or generosity of spirit. I leave Mongolia feeling invigorated and looking toward some ongoing reflections and re-evaluations of what true happiness is.

Feeling Inspired? Contact Us for 2018 details and experience your own adventure!

Camille Champagne