Damn! What the hell am I doing here in the clouds on this crazy pony?
Riding shorter than Frankie Dettori I'm scrambling over rocks on a Mongolian mountain top high above my two companions who, not for the first time, decide I have taken loss of my senses with route selection.
I retrace my steps and follow Alice and Lexi down the hill, across the rocky burn, and then pick up pace at an alarming rate of knots. This bloody pony flies, and I can't hold one side of it. Off we set, flat out up this new track, and in no time I'm on my colleagues and past, streaking up the valley in the early-morning mist. This is as close as you get to flying.
I'm riding a piebald pony, initially chosen by Lexi but which had bolted with her – she somehow managed to turn it up the mountainside to slow its headlong rush, then stop and dismount before certain disaster. In an act of uncharacteristic gallantry I insist on swapping, not least because I am worried any further mishap might cost us our deserved top-ten finish. Unfortunately the stirrups are set for Lexi but there is no time to waste, and I’ll just have to ride racing length. We are pushing hard because we sense Shannon, the one-time leader, is just ahead, and with this direct route we might catch him.
Thereafter the kilometres fly by in near silence, bar the rhythmic drumming of my pony's feet. This countryside reminds me of the Black Mountains in the Welsh borders, but with a timeless quality. You could be in any millennium – it feels close to time travel.
By bridging the reins behind my pommel, and making the pony pull against itself, I finally get things under control. All three ponies are fliers, and as the path splits I take a pull, allowing Lexi and Alice to catch up. This is glorious. Both girls are flashing enormous grins, radiating pure joy.
We look at my GPS, and fresh from the humiliation of trying to tackle the mountain head on - and failing - I agree to their route choice and make a minor error by turning left. However we've made great time, and our goal of catching Shannon is looking more realistic.
This is as close as you get to flying
Down the slope I go again, much too fast, wishing I'd used the opportunity to lengthen my stirrups. My thigh muscles are burning and all I can think is that it the pony puts its foot in a marmot hole now we won’t stop rolling for a week. Hitting rising ground we���re off again, as fast as a strong gallop on Newmarket Heath, but this on a 13.2 hands, unshod pony over uneven ground. We are skimming over streams, bogs, marmot holes, rocks and grass as if gliding. This leg between urtuus (changeover stations) is 38km and we've covered 25km of those at a flat-out gallop – he's showing no sign of slowing.
I never expected to feel like this, but suddenly it dawns on me that I don’t want it to end. As I turn right handed and gallop up another valley, a group of wild ponies wheel alongside and then pare away, just as the sun breaks through. I realise we only have two and a bit more days to complete the Mongol Derby, and I have never felt so happy or free in my life. These few days will be irreplaceable.
As the next valley opens up in front of me towards the next urtuu I come across another monstrous golden eagle, not 15 metres away. As I slow my pace to wish him good morning he takes to his enormous wings, and involuntary tears stream down my face. Grateful the girls are still well behind, I blink furiously to compose myself. I allow them to catch up, and we slow our pace as there is only five kilometres to the next urtuu. We have to get our ponies’ heart rates down, but I want to drag this leg out as long as possible.
This is a wonderful day, and I am riding the most incredible athlete of a pony in a timeless landscape with two of the brightest companions. None of us want this to end, yet the day has only just started.
Why am I here? Sheikh Fahad and my great Irish buddy Peter Molony had come up with the crazy notion of putting together a team for the Mongol Derby after they had ridden in a charity race in Ireland.
I'd made the mistake of dismissing the idea as unrealistic madness, but by February I was staring down the barrel of needing to lose 13kg (2st) to make the required weight. By avoiding carbs, drinking minimal booze and undertaking plenty of running, maybe, just maybe, I could make it. I didn't reckon I had much spare weight to lose in the first place, but would just have to give it my best shot.
We then met up with the bright-eyed and sparky Katy Willings of Bristol-based The Adventurists, a company that counts the Mongol Derby among its stable of madcap annual events. Soon after we had a Qatar Racing team of six; Sheikh Fahad, myself, Peter, former champion jockey Kevin Darley and two great ex-army mates of mine, Gareth Jones and Chips Broughton.
'Gaz' is one of my oldest buddies, ex-special forces, a trained medic and brilliant at logistics – he had the honour of looking after both the All Blacks and the British Davis Cup team in 2015. He is as tough as teak with a salty humour and also rode in the same charity race in Limerick. While he is married to an Irish trainer's daughter, he hadn’t sat on a horse until he met me.
Chips is a son of the former senior steward Lord Fairhaven and has just completed a glittering military career, finishing with the dream job of commanding his regiment, the Grenadier Guards. Unstintingly polite and charming with a core of steel, he had ridden out for legendary racehorse trainers Sir Mark Prescott and Gai Waterhouse in a previous life. I thought they both might prove useful assets if the shit hit the fan. I wasn't entirely sure what the shit might be, I just correctly assumed we’d land in it at some point.
During the spring we all craved information on what lay before us, and great allies found their way to our door. Mongol Derby veterans Richard Dunwoody, Pat Sells, Chris Maude, Claire King, and Charlotte Treleaven were all interrogated at length, and as the end of July neared the Amazon parcels of much needed (but as it turned out, mostly useless) kit mounted up, alongside the nerves.
The weight was coming off, my fitness was increasing and confidence building that we might actually pull this off. I went for two long rides with local eventer Vittoria Panizzon and her girl-grooms wearing some truly embarrassing endurance kit. In an effort to keep up spirits, we made a pub the half-way point on each occasion, but by that time I was so thin I was being regularly asked if I was unwell.
From Heathrow airport we flew to Beijing and finally Ulaanbaatar. No hiding place now. Kevin had everything organised to perfection, Sheikh Fahad's eyes were wide with anticipation, and the rest of us were pretty much in denial.
After two days of induction, a weigh out (I made 82kg of a max 85kg in my riding kit after a very hot bath) and some early assessment of the opposition, we headed into the wilderness in a lace-pelmet-lined, gearbox-smashed coach. We gave Sheikh Fahad the name ‘Fred’ to conceal his true identity and help him blend in, and he was getting properly stuck in. To think three years ago he was just over 114kg (18st) and couldn't ride, and now he was as lean and mean as a racing snake and about to take on this risky adventure!
I spent the journey sitting next to a young Household Cavalry soldier called Urbain who couldn’t believe his luck that he was on the trip. He and his mates really had struck gold, and were going to take back some serious memories. I was obviously fascinating company as he slept most of the way. He turned out to be saving his energy for the pre-race party where his dance moves brought about a standing ovation.
There were two pretty girls seated at the back, Venetia and Tatiana. Venetia’s family home used to be Dalham Hall, now Sheikh Mohammed’s famous stud in Newmarket, and she runs riding safaris in Kenya. She had piercing but friendly eyes and an open face, but had clearly come to win. Tatiana is a tall and elegant dressage queen rumoured to be 50th in line to the throne – it would be fascinating to see how they fared.
Opposite me was a rakishly thin American, Pierce, who used to break in racehorses for Godolphin in the US. He looked like he meant business, as did a tall Mexican, Franz, who I liked, and there was plenty of banter between the young cavalry boys and the pretty young things.
Also at the back, and chatting to the girls, was a dark-skinned Aussie with a smiley face called Shannon. Silly name, but he seemed to have plenty of chat and looked fit and competitive. It transpired he was a 'Bush' doctor from Dubbo in New South Wales, and his brother Dan, by freakish coincidence had worked at my own stud, Tweenhills, earlier in the year. Little did I realise how useful he would prove.
After a bouncy ride and numerous arguments with the clutch we made our start camp. This country is vast, reminiscent, I imagine, of wild Montana. Interspersed with yaks, cattle, sheep and ponies, single white gers (the round tents or yurts used as dwellings by the locals) punctuate the green. There is grass as far as the eye can see, and not a fence in sight.
We disembarked and were told to choose a ger. Team Qatar, or 'Fred and the Firm' as we had become known, landed in Ger 3, the young wild lot took Ger 4 with the cavalry behind them in Ger 5. Ger 2 had some steely-eyed, American endurance queen and her mates, as well as a dude from Queensland who was built like a lightweight boxer – I decided to suss them out later as they all looked hellish competitive.
I was starting to get a picture of who looked the ‘real deal’ and who looked out of place. God alone knows what they thought of us. We were definitely among the oldest and heaviest. Sheikh Fahad had broken Team Qatar into two, with one half being the heavyweight division of Gareth, Peter and myself – the sheikh was keen to back his team of Kevin Darley and man-of-steel Chips against us. Some dodgy handicap!
We gave Sheikh Fahad the name ‘Fred’ to conceal his true identity and help him blend in, and he was getting properly stuck in
We had two practice rides, and, judging by the nervous faces, you would have thought we were going to get on bucking bulls. My first pony was a shocker and spent the whole time neighing. I was quickly left behind, and my go-faster endurance tights were rubbing in tender places.
The following day on our second ride was when the magic descended. My second-choice get-up of ladies tights under Mark Todd breeches, although hot, felt great, and I was on a bomb of a pony. Eagles soared above us and we rode through an ancient burial site passing herds of mares and foals sheltering from the midday sun. We met up at the rendezvous and learned about the strict vet procedures, then went for a little short cut and discovered just how sure-footed these ponies are. It seemed 'Fred' had my pony from the day before, and while my confidence had soared, his had crashed.
Back at camp we were given a talk through the route, but it was pretty pointless as the only man taking notes through the briefing was Chips – definitely the man to have by your side. That evening I took a walk up the hill behind the camp with Venetia, Tatiana and bearded-American Loden to take in the sunset behind the camp. It was a stunning spot for a sundowner, and the warm beer I carried tasted great.
A few rivals were catching my eye. There was a belter of a girl called Alexandra with athletic bronze shoulders and a twinkle in her eye. I sat next to her at dinner, but didn't make much progress except discovering she was a project manager for a consultancy firm. She worked in London but came from near Ludlow and her mother bred Cleveland Bays. She looked a real competitor – however, I'm not sure she was taking our lot at all seriously.
Then there was Marie, a hunting lady in her 40s from Montana. She looked a bit nuts, but in a good way, and was lovely. Kelly, who at 56 was the same age as Kevin and the joint oldest and living the dream, a father and teenage daughter from New Zealand, Marcia, a Californian endurance rider who was definitely here to win, and 'Dingo' the Queenslander cattle dealer with the boxer's build. He was as wiry as hell and not here just for the craic, and part of the tough Ger 2 lot.
There was also a sweet English girl called Rosie Bathurst who worked for a publishing company and was raising money for a military charity as her brother was a marine. She looked a bit ‘St Trinians’ but her eyes said ‘don't mess’ and we all really liked her. There were over 40 riders but I felt pretty sure that I was closing on the favourites.
The afternoon before we left they put on a Nadaam, or local pony race. This was a shortened version for our benefit, but we were all struck by how tiny the children were, and how fast they went in the whirlpool of dust, heat, wind and vehicles. There were plenty of jokes around risk assessments, but they soon rang hollow as a small boy at the front took a crashing fall. I couldn’t get it out of mind that the little girl who finished third looked younger than my seven-year-old daughter Fenella. How would I feel watching her do that with no saddle, hat or body protector? If I had let her take part I would rightly go to jail. It was terrifying to watch and I felt slightly sick.
At the pre-race party that night I quizzed Katy, the Mongol Derby organising queen, who was her favourite to win. She opted for dark horse Alice Newling, a smiley eventing girl who she reckoned rode well and was tough. Alice was one culprit of our previous night's lack of sleep. She and a few others sat up outside our Ger until 4am with a Scottish vet called Euan. I needed a gun and the vet was going to get it. While others whispered, Euan's deep voice boomed through the night.
I hunted Alice out and discovered she was a primary teacher from Balham in London, and had raised the money to do this by selling her eventer. She was determined to enjoy every second, had an infectious smile and had joined up with her other drinking partners Alexandra and Dr Shannon. They were the Ger 4 crew, and had covered their saddle bags with silver graffiti slogans, such as Ger 4 It! Adventure before Dementure! We love Chinggis! #Winning. Whatever happened, they were going to have fun - but were they really serious?
The party continued with a mixture of displays, local dances and a stunning contortionist, quickly followed by more warm lager and a great deal of neat Chinggis vodka. The organisers seemed determined to get us all pissed, but I was not playing after midnight and slunk off to my pit. At 4am I awoke with the sweats and chills, and a distorted stomach. Hell! An ecstasy of fumbling and I just made the jacks in time, vowing to keep wet wipes and a torch closer-by at all times hereon.
Morning started to break and the first panic was sorting out my kit. My bag looked like someone had detonated a bomb under it and I somehow needed to sort out everything I was going to need for the next eight days in the wilderness. After much sweat and swearing and lots of packing and then unpacking, nearly every item that had come through Amazon had been discarded on the floor. There really was no space for anything other than waterproofs, sleeping gear and painkillers in our 5kg allowance. I did manage to take a dozen small foil packs of Gloucester Biltong, four boxes of Marlboro cigarettes and some mint tea bags. A mixture of bribes, presents and morale boosters to travel with the essential wet wipes and head torch.
Our saddle bags packed we attached them, put on our racing gear and had our kit weighed out. We received great help from one of the support team, Sam Jones, who had won the race two years earlier. Jockeys valet and friend Chris Maude, who had finished runner-up to her, had described her to me as ‘a machine’. She was a tough Western Australian with a big smile and lots of helpful advice that we gratefully lapped up.
We were allotted ponies. This was to be the only time we would not make the choice from the pony lines. I received number 40, who looked a bit of a lump. Gaz landed a coloured pony, who promptly turned a complete somersault in a 'mouse hole' trotting to the start. One of the cavalry boys was completely buried and two further ponies galloped around loose. Crikey! This shit had just got real!
Gaz remounted and came up to me to give me a "thanks mate" and a wry smile for introducing him to horses. Everyone had their game face on. A quick team photo took place, with Richard Dunwoody and Laurence Squire behind the cameras, and we were off to the start. Although I could already tell mine was no Nadaam pony, I still felt weirdly detached from the whole thing as if watching it on a screen. I felt no nerves.
A bit of poetry followed from Katy, who wished us the ride of our lives. The flag fell and we were off in a cloud of dust with 1,008kms to go. That's the length of Britain, we were going to try to do it in eight days, and my first pony could barely raise a gallop.
Crikey! This shit had just got real!
Those eight days would provide some of the most fun I've had in my life. I fell in love with Mongolia, its people, the countryside, its livestock and most of all its ponies. To skim the Earth on a good one is the closest you will ever get to flying without wings. You feel at one with your surroundings, with nature. You see hospitality and generosity from Mongolian herders, the poorest, hardest, but kindest people on earth and we would all fall a little in love with our new racing companions.
After two days you find your level, and it became obvious that smiley Alice – she of the endless grin and the occasional schoolmistress comment when I cocked-up navigation – and I would stick together. We joined up with Lexi – Alexandra from the party – on day four and the three of us rode at complete ease with each other, sleeping in urtuus just inches apart and sharing water and feeding duties.
I became the bossy 'Dad' character who enjoyed chasing them to keep competitive, but in honesty they kept my spirits high throughout, stopped me from taking too many crazy routes, and I felt we made a fab team. There was a constant need to catch Shannon while making sure we were not caught ourselves, and this drove us on, but it soon became obvious that those in front of us would have to cock-up badly to fail. They were all sound and strong, and only vet penalties or lost ponies would bring them back to us.
We caught Shannon during the final two days, and the four of us rode together, crossing the line in joint-seventh after nearly eight days continual riding from 7am until 8.30pm. We were so strong that if we had been offered a shower and clean change of clothes we would have happily turned around and ridden all the way back.
A few moments and ponies stick out in the haze of dust sweat and tears.
We start in a storm of dust and within three kilometres I am already in the last few riders. This feels like a disaster and although I can pick out one or two behind me I’ve lost all of my team mates and those in front are growing smaller by the minute. This is purgatory. It’s a race and my daughter’s pony Ellen could beat this thing on three legs. I keep reminding myself we still have over a 1,000km to go and slow and steady wins the race. That depresses me even further.
I’m catching one or two who have gone off too fast and their ponies are jacking it in. First is Loden, the bearded American who was an old hand having ridden in a previous race. He looks nearly as jacked off as his pony but raises a smile as I pass. I’ve let my pony go at its own pace and it seems to be paying off as there is another at a walk ahead and we keep going.
I’ve joined up with Rosie on a tired pony and she is just taking her time. I figure if we stay together for the moment then our ponies can egg each other on. Then soon enough I see ‘Fred’ and Gareth and things are back to normal.
After the second urtuu I find myself riding with Peter, but it is becoming obvious we are not going to make the third urtuu before the 8.30pm curfew and will have to camp out. There are no gers to be seen and I massively regret ditching my bivi bag in need for weight loss.
We manage to find an old cattle shed with a herd of ponies milling around it. To the side of the shed is an abandoned minivan with no wheels and most of the engine rusting on the grass behind it. Our first night in the Mongol Derby is spent on the roughly-cleaned floor of the van, listening to the rain hammering on the roof with the tailgate propped open with a log. The Adventurist’s Derby motto is 'feel free to cope' and we feel we’ve nailed that one, although I am grateful for a sleeping pill.
Peter and I leave our makeshift accommodation at first light and head into Urtuu 3, pleased as punch with ourselves but hungry. Before too long we meet up with Chips and although the countryside is magnificent and seems to be slipping from moor to desert, I’m not loving it as my pony selection has been poor. This thing moves like a sewing machine and can’t keep up. The boys are kind to me and wait up, but just long enough for me to catch up before they bugger off again. Lovely!
Peter and I are now riding together along a stunning river in the afternoon heat and the flies are hungry. ‘Fred’ has gone on with Chips as he is feeling strong and competitive and he realises that Chips is by some margin the most competent navigator. However, we get lucky and overtake them - it is typical of the race that positions change easily over these early stages. We are chased hard by two aggressive dogs and as they give up on us we can see them turn their attention to ‘Fred’ and Chips and we joke that whoever has the fastest pony survives.
It has quickly become obvious that ‘Fred and the Firm’ are unable to ride as a team because the ponies all move at different paces. We had initially said we would ride together wherever possible, and whatever happens we agree no-one will leave Fred alone. He takes this out of our hands by returning a bad pony without alerting Peter who is riding with but slightly ahead of him. Taking a carry forward by vehicle to the next urtuu, with a three-hour time penalty to be taken later in the race, he mounts up and rides on, before any of us reach him. He has wind in his sails, and wants to make as much time as possible before the penalty station. It is now every man for themselves.
My most expensive bit of kit is an ultra-light Gore-Tex jacket, and I realise that I must have dropped it on day one. What a muppet! I mention my loss to previous winner and Derby support team Charles, and give him some cash on the off chance he passes a shop and sees anything waterproof.
Chips and I are riding together and looking for a waypoint that is a well. It's unbelievably hot and we seem to be riding across Death Valley - it's littered with all manner of bones. I spot a telephone mast on a far-off mountain and make a quick call home. Huge excitement and it sounds as if Laura and the children are having more fun following the race than we are riding in it. I ring the office and discover they are also hooked and seem to know much more about our whereabouts than we do. Apparently ‘Fred’ is flying and well out in front!
Finally we make the well and it's bone dry; we could cry. Poor ponies must be parched. Charles drives up, shrugs his shoulders and hands me a green plastic waterproof mac with a conspiratorial wink. It's bloody water I want not a rain mac!
We are going to spend night two as a large group in Urtuu 6 and are starting to learn the ropes. Its all falling into place and we know our routines and at this stage my confidence is improving. Everyone looks pretty strong except we learn that Kevin has had to pull out as his knees are killing him. The legacy of 40 years in the saddle as a professional has caught up. That said, Peter is pretty dehydrated, Gareth has a saddle sore and Chip’s back and ankles are now causing him a bit of grief. Apparently the worst morning is always the third morning!
I feel fine! Plenty of pain killers and I’ve leapt out of my sleeping bag determined to be on the move quickly. It’s a magnificent morning as we ride into the mist and everyone seems to be on well-charged steeds. This is pure joy and while we all look happy to be riding together I can see Peter is getting really competitive, although for some reason he is disappearing over a hill to our left and my GPS is clearly pointing to the right! He’s following some Irish navigational instinct and we’re leaving him to it as he doesn’t respond to shouts!
I’m now riding with smiley Alice, Camille and Chips and we are going great guns. We’ve just seen somebody who looks decidedly like Peter riding into the previous urtuu from the wrong direction. I can’t help but chuckle but equally know it wont be long until we see him again as he seems to have a knack for picking the right ponies.
It’s a magnificent morning as we ride into the mist and everyone seems to be on well-charged steeds
Chips' ankles are giving him a shocking time and he's already had two nasty tumbles. His pony kicks me twice on the same knee on the salt marsh as Camille and I try to catch the bloody thing. It’s obvious that Chips' back is in agony as he wrenches it when trying to hold onto the damn thing after it falls in a marmot hole. We all hate marmots and if I ever see one and have a rock in my hand it gets it.
At the next urtuu I notice Chips is in real pain and ask Cozzie, one of the vets, if he can ask the herders to help fashion some chocks for Chips’ stirrups and give him the last of my Gaffer tape. His ankles are struggling with the angles dictated by the size of the ponies and length of his legs. Mine should be worse as I am taller but I'm wearing good desert boots and the support they give my ankles is a godsend. While waiting Peter catches us up ruing his shocking route selection and glad for the company.
Sheikh Fahad is in the urtuu and he is in bits. His back is killing him so I give him the last of my serious painkillers and tell him that Gareth is still behind us and coming and will pick him up when they have kicked in.
I’m immediately repaid as I've picked a rocket, a serious Group 1 horse. I swear if he was a couple of hands bigger he would win anywhere – I'm in love. Montana Marie and I are matching strides, but she hasn't a clue where she's going as every time she looks at her GPS her pony keeps bolting.
Chips is really struggling now and I stop a few times so he can catch up. He says it straight. His pony is going nowhere and he wants us to kick on. Alice insists we will stick together, but Chips is adamant and his pony is grinding to a halt. He is going to have to push the help button on the tracker.
We leave him with heavy hearts and gallop on for miles in the boiling heat until reaching a large river where Marie, Peter, Alice and I give the ponies a drink in the fast-running water before crossing via a bridge to reach a soum (town) on the other side. I buy three cold Cokes and a Sprite in a basic store, and we quench our thirst and have a cigarette with two lads and their ponies in an open-backed truck. Coke never tasted so good.
We gallop on along the river and this fellow makes my heart soar, but damn it's hot and the flies are bad. I let him take a drink three kilometres out from the urtuu, and swear I will come back and buy him one day. He then causes my companions much mirth by jumping into the river with me. It's as deep and wide as the Severn but we somehow get out intact and much refreshed. I love him all the more for it.
Peter now pairs up with the tough French girl Camille who had missed the bridge and been brought across the river by a herder. She is wide-eyed with adrenaline and cannot believe that they didn’t all drown, but the ponies swam like otters. She's married to an Australian cattle farmer in Queensland and it's their first wedding anniversary tomorrow. She is an ultra, ultra-competitive endurance rider and she's bossing Peter around which is good, because he needs that. He's tough and competitive, but his navigation sucks. They seem to have really hit it off.
We've broken into the top ten, although only briefly as Alice and I have picked up a two-hour time penalty at station 11. I pick a stallion and he goes like the wind - Alice and I pull well clear of Peter and Camille. My pony then throws out the anchor and the last five kilometres are torture as I have no choice but to get off and virtually carry the bloody thing.
To my amazement it suddenly plays ball and trots to the end, but its heart rate is 60 after 30 minutes, not the required 56. I just don't understand how Alice gets a vet penalty too, for she walks and trots the last seven kilometres and her pony wouldn't blow a candle out. Maybe it's fate, and we are supposed to ride together. Peter and Camille come in and then ride on ahead. When our two hour penalties are completed we rejoin the race just behind them, but quite a long way behind Venetia, Tatiana and Lexi who had also sat out penalties. We wave goodbye to Chips as he has a three-hour penalty and hope he can catch us up. We have good ponies again.
We have joined up with Lexi, who was travelling blind having lost her GPS and being left by her two ultra-competitive female companions. Her stallion put its foot in a marmot hole and turned over, and they had shrugged and ridden off. She is from the original Ger 4 band and she's pretty and fun, so I have no problem her tagging along. She's entertaining and it doesn't alter the dynamic between me and Alice. No 'three’s a crowd' here.
We ride up a short lush valley with several gers in it and plenty of stock. Peter and Camille are with us now, and at the top of a hill he suggests we take three turns clockwise around a pile of sticks that he has been assured will bring luck. We laugh, but play ball and before long Lexi, Alice and I are pulling clear, an indication of how we have settled on our teams. I've my girls and Peter has Camille to keep him in line.
On a long gently climbing path we slow to a trot, when Alice's pony suddenly trips and falls for no apparent reason, and, riding just behind her, mine throws itself on the floor in sympathy. I hold onto its head all the way to the ground, and grip the reins as it tries to gallop off, but the saddle has slipped forward. Alice is fine and her pony hasn't gone far, but mine looks half mad. As I gingerly undo the girth to move the saddle back it freaks out and rushes backwards. Then it's gone, flat out from whence it came – I'm left holding the bridle and the saddle is on the floor. I've successfully untacked my bloody pony in the middle of the Steppe!
To make matters worse it gallops past a laughing Peter and Camille who can't do much about it, but neither do they try! The gloves are off. Less than two kilometres back a local herder and family have corralled the pony and I can't believe my luck. I give them all my remaining cigarettes and sweets in genuine gratitude. Bridle replaced I nearly geld myself vaulting on the pony bareback before heading off to retrieve the saddle. I won't make the mistake of circling lucky sticks again.
We catch up with Peter and Camille at the next urtuu and they look gutted we are only 20 minutes behind them in spite of our mishap and stopping on the edge of town to buy a cold drink and ice creams. To our amusement even the ice creams taste of mares’ milk.
In addition, Camille receives a vet penalty, so that gives us a huge lead over them going forward. Peter, being a gent and knowing what’s good for him, says he will sit out the two hours with Camille. Think they may not bother with lucky piles of sticks from now on either.
Then there is a bombshell. There is a race ‘hold’ in place as there have been three serious incidents; one sounds very worrying. Someone has been dragged and it may be a spinal injury, which is everyone's worst nightmare. Cozzie, the Australian vet who volunteers annually having competed in an earlier Derby, will keep us informed. He's hysterically funny and every third word is "faaack", but he looks and sounds rattled.
Nothing for it - we all stink, this is beyond the halfway point and there is a gorge below the urtuu with a fast flowing river. We all trundle down, strip off and wash ourselves and our clothes. It is generally agreed I look like Spike off Notting Hill, not my most flattering look.
Camille discovers that her husband, David, is in the small group of supporters camping 200 metres away. Supporters, however, are not allowed to make contact until after the race. Camille is a determined lady and we see a soft side I hadn't previously spotted.
It turns out one of the cavalry boys has fallen and been dragged and badly mauled. He can't feel his hands or feet and it's looking shit. Another lad has broken several ribs and there is a head injury. The medic teams are at breaking point and the hold was imposed as any further accident would have left us completely exposed.
Then the alarming news; Cozzi calls me outside to tell me one of the casualties is from ‘The Firm' and it's Chips who has suffered a head injury. They've retired him, but he will be fine. I also learn Sheikh Fahad has been forced to retire due to a back injury a couple of urtuus after I had seen him and given him some serious pain relief tablets. I pray that my painkillers hadn’t masked something more serious but Cozzi assures me that he will be fine.
So that’s the Qatar Team of lightweights gone and now it’s down to the heavyweights to see this thing through and I become doubly determined.
This morning Camille’s soft side has gone. She is insisting Marie, who had come in late, waits at least two hours before starting. It's wet, dark and foggy and Marie is upset and looks scared. After a brief but firm team discussion it's agreed we all start together and time can be waited out at a later urtuu when it's light.
Alice, Lexi and I are going great guns now and starting to feel really competitive. We are still having a bit of fun following the racing line as Alice's GPS keeps going haywire, Lexi's is gathering dust on the Steppe somewhere, and mine is in the hands of a crap navigator.
After circumnavigating a bog, we climb a long mountain pass before sweeping down on to more flats and bog land, but it is clear we will not make the final urtuu of the day. We will have to find a friendly family for our overnight stop. We spot a pair of gers and as time is running out fast, along with the light, we head there. Lexi volunteers negotiations as she is an old pro at camping out, but the family have no idea what we are on about.
Slowly it dawns on them, and the father helps us feed, water and secure the ponies before ushering us into their ger for some stilted sign language while the mother cooks a feast of rice and meat. They are poor Yak farmers whose yaks, goats and ponies graze side by side around their ger and past it runs a clear, fast-flowing stream. We are struck by their selfless generosity.
After dinner the mother produces an English phrase book that sadly would only be handy if we wanted stamps or directions to the local tourist office. Her husband powers a TV with a car battery and finds a European soap from the 70s (dubbed in Mongolian) to make us feel at home. We spread our sleeping bags out on the floor and all eight of us (they have three children aged under 7) endeavour to sleep.
To save embarrassment for the wife, I climb into my sleeping bag still wearing my stinking sweaty breeches, and plan to remove them as soon as the lights go out. No such luck as the lights stay on until midnight as our hosts study us lying on the floor.
Finally the light single bulb is switched off and just as I am about to make my move there comes the sound of rhythmic heavy breathing from our hosts’ bed. I can’t believe it. I elbow Lexi beside me, who promptly kicks me back, and we stifle giggles as Mr and Mrs Yak Farmer get romantic. I only thank the stars that Gaz isn’t beside me as he would certainly have given them a standing ovation. I still can’t remove my breeches as it feels unfair to put them off their stride, and I am very uncomfortable by the time they finally slump back happy and I can undress.
At 7am on the dot we make good our escape, having unhobbled and tacked up the ponies, although to our disbelief Alice has been unaware of the night’s entertainment, having slept through the whole thing.
We gallop off through the early mist laughing until through the haze appear a herd of ponies that gallop alongside us as the sun breaks through. We are utterly transfixed by the dreamlike image that unfolds beside us. The next leg is one of our best as on great ponies we gallop along a winding river, occasionally crossing to shave off distance but full of joy and laughter.
I love every part of the adventure, even the bad bits as they make the good bits that bit better.
However, there are a couple of all-time lows and the next legs holds both.
My pony is small and foot sore, jig-jogs incessantly and struggles badly to keep up even when the girls are walking. This motion, together with the diet and general fatigue, creates a Mongolian phenomenon I had been warned about that goes by the descriptive name ‘Rusty Water’.
We are in a hell-hole called Big Stones, which is hot, and the ground painful to cross. My pony is understandably going on strike, I’ve turned in to a Rusty Water pressure cooker, and the lid is about to blow. As the girls continue ahead oblivious to my suffering, I take my moment and jump off the pony, making sure to keep a tight hold on both my bowels and the reins, while looking for a spot to release the pressure. An urgent fumbling and all is good until a tickling sensation alerts me that the enormous pine tree I am leaning against is home to equally enormous fanged black ants that have crawled up my backside and are making merry with my skin. I have no idea how I hold onto the clearly startled pony but am at last grateful he is footsore and tired.
I sort myself out and catch the oblivious girls as we enter a small frontier-style town. My pony is cooked and I have no choice but to dismount again walk him in the last four kilometres. It is all uphill and he won't lead. It's like carrying a heavy sack of coal, and, by the time I reach the urtuu, Emma the vet can see my humour is spent and my cheerful demeanor is slipping. She ushers us towards the ger as amazingly the herder's wife has picked wild blueberries in the forest and, careless of the consequences, we fill our bowls. The first fresh fruit for a week is magic and immediately restores us.
I don't fancy repeating the small, sore-footed pony process, and my next choice is a brown horse with a wall eye – he is big and strong and gives the impression he could carry me into war. I feel confident jumping on his back, though my joy is short lived.
Although impressive to look at he is a complete pig, and gallops like an alpaca with his head and tail in the air. He shies at everything and goes up and down rather than forward. I hate him, and my language gets more descriptive until he shies, falls over and does a full somersault, landing on my left ankle. If it had been the Wild West I would have shot him there and then.
I remount and drive him on with grim determination, but as time passes my language and humour worsen and I become aware that for the first time the girls are tiring of my company as they are hanging back. Then a proper Steppe rainstorm approaches, so we halt and put on our rain gear alongside a ger, where a huge group of children stop kicking a ball and watch us like aliens freshly landed. My green sweaty plastic Mac is a nightmare and I am becoming wetter on the inside for the wearing of it.
As the storm drives against us we head for some tree cover, but before we get there the rain passes and sun breaks through. To my right the girls stop, perfectly framed by a rainbow, and the valley opens up in front of us in dazzling beauty. I feel a complete prat; here I am groaning about a shit pony, and yet here I am on the most beautiful part of the planet, riding God's finest creatures with two gorgeous companions. I am blessed and in that moment I know it.
We spend our night in a village hall in the pouring rain with vet Jeremy, who has shown up with a tin of peaches and some beer. Zimbabwean Jeremy is a cool character but we soon discover a downside, as he snores for Africa and this hall echoes. Highlight of the night is Lexi's epileptic fit when a giant moth flies into her sleeping bag. The fact the long-drop has a roof over it is also greatly appreciated as the rainstorm continues throughout the night.
We are all excited, as we will surely catch Shannon tomorrow having learned of a short cut over the mountain, and I like the look of the ponies we have picked for the morning. Lexi's looks fit and hard and is as smart a skewbald pony as I've seen. Let's hope she can hold it because she has an electric bum and the route apparently takes us over some steep passes!
After an exciting morning during which Lexi’s pony bolts with her up a mountain and I swap ponies with her, we finally catch Shannon. He is ready for company having ridden solo for too long. It is a great reunion and the team wait for me charitably on the next leg when I yet again get my route selection arse-ways.
We spend our last night in a leaky urtuu, but the hospitality we were shown is beyond anything before. The loveliest family make for the perfect final night on the Steppe. The husband continually feeds the fire to keep us warm and dry through the night, and the wife brings endless bowls of steaming food. We only have three legs to go and the end is in sight, but we all wish this adventure would go on forever, whatever the discomfort.
I am still slightly rattled that Peter and Camille may catch us and do us for seventh place. We’re pushing hard and Alice and I have picked great ponies, and mine, a strapping stallion, is almost unstoppable – I keep getting my reins in a muddle in his long-flowing mane.
Alice and I could disappear into the distance if we choose, but we are a team now and God knows they’ve all waited for me enough times. We forge on to enjoy some last, mad gallops over the Steppe, and then break into a valley full of double-humped, Bactrian camels, who look unimpressed by our presence. Alice gets too close and is hissed at and chased as we make our way to the final mountain pass.
Damn! I knew we should have pushed on harder. My stallion takes a lame step and I have no choice but to dismount. He must have bruised his foot or tweaked a joint and there is nothing to be done except get off and run the last 13km. He leads well, so Alice leads him off her pony while I head down to a main road and try and hitch a lift to the next, and final, urtuu.
No joy, I guess as my thumbs up signal means something completely different here. I run eight kilometres along the road to a small shop besides a wigwam and some reindeer and there convince a woman to give me a lift on the back of her motorbike. The last kilometre over the rough terrain is the scariest ride of my trip, but we arrive and I jump in the vet’s vehicle to go back and check the stallion before I lead him in.
I’m terrified I have cost the team time and pray there is no vet penalty as I was determined not to push my help button. I guess this again ticked the 'feel free to cope' mantra of the race as I’m informed control are happy for me to continue without one.
As this is the last urtuu we all choose grey ponies to make a nice picture when we cross the finish line. We are in no hurry now and want to savour the last ride, although I confess to occasionally stealing a glance over my shoulder such is my respect for Peter and Camille.
We finish joint seventh, and emotions are so raw when we cross the line I have to take myself away. I know I can't do a team photo as my eyes are filling up. I compose myself and am super impressed to see that Will 'Dingo' Comiskey, a member of the winning trio, has waited all day to welcome us. He joined up with the American endurance riders Heidi and Marcia, and they finish ahead of Venetia and Tatiana, who were followed in by American Courtney.
The following day
Peter and Camille trot across the finishing line together, followed during the afternoon by the crazy gang of Gaz, Pierce, Rosie, Franz and Kelly who cross as one. They are all firm friends and epitomise what is great about the Mongol Derby. This spirit and friendship among strangers could not be forged anywhere else.
A goal in mind
There are many more memories, and they swirl around my head when I try to sleep. Most are of amusing events or embarrassing moments, but the overpowering emotion is one of gratitude that I was lucky enough to take part, to ride those ponies and feel the place. You feel it rather than see it.
For the moment at least I have a part of Mongolia travelling with me and it's a great thing. I feel as if my brain has been washed in ice-cold spring water and I have a clearer perspective.
If you score a winning try or hit a hole in one, shoot the highest pheasant or climb a far off peak, it's not a relationship, but a personal achievement. Until you've ridden one of these ponies flat out for 35km, with only the drum of their feet to break the silence that entrances you through a timeless landscape, you are unlikely to understand the genuine feeling of love you can gain for your sporting partner. These ponies are natural selection at its finest. Hard as nails with hearts unimaginable.
My thanks go to Sheikh Fahad for generously taking us on his adventure, and also to the amazing ponies and herders of Mongolia who gave so generously. I loved every second of it and while it's tough, it is something I would recommend to anyone capable enough to undertake it. It will stay with me forever, as will the friends I made there. As Chris Maude said to me the other day – welcome to the club!
However, the underlying goal throughout was to raise money for the Injured Jockeys Fund, which does such a wonderful job of looking after another very tough group of riders. So please, if you have enjoyed reading about our attempt to complete the Mongol Derby, visit our Just Giving page and help us raise money for a cause that is so worthwhile.
No-one should underestimate how fit you need to be to complete the Mongol Derby, but it was fascinating to see how some coped and got stronger whilst others were knocked sideways by the experience.
Personally speaking, although I felt really strong at the end, the weight continued to fall off me for a week after the race was over. While in Hong Kong I began to suspect I was playing host to an enormous Mongolian worm as my weight had continued to fall. The race had evidently taken a greater toll on me physically than I imagined and yet both Lexi and Alice looked as if they had just enjoyed a relaxing week in Ibiza. I now have a great deal more respect for both the pain threshold and endurance abilities of the fairer sex and it is interesting to note that of the top ten finishers, seven were women.
As touched on earlier, there were several nasty injuries that I am aware of, and no doubt a host of which we knew nothing. Some only came to light well after the event and the Australian doctor, Shannon, who crossed the line with me, looked particularly sore at the end and was complaining of both a sore neck and knees. He had taken a nasty tumble at the 350km point and then latterly as we set out on the last morning. I hadn’t been terribly sympathetic as it looked a tame fall and just yelled at him to hold on to his rein. I was much more concerned about losing time chasing after his pony at that stage of the race.
Only when he finally returned to his hospital in Dubbo did we learn how lucky he was to escape serious and life-changing injuries as he had a clear fracture of his C7 vertebrae. As I write this is still sporting a fancy neck brace.
Chips Broughton was knocked out on day four, but re-entered the race utterly determined to finish. However, following two further falls and a serious further concussion from a kick to the head he was in a serious state. Details are sketchy but a herder found him and with luck then found Gareth, who assessed his condition and immediately activated the SOS button on his tracker.
That Chips had been allowed to carry on after a concussion raised questions, but after his next fall he lay in one spot for approximately eight hours when he should have been immediately emergency evacuated to Ulaanbaatar. By the time I saw him at the finish camp he was in a bad way, and the medical attention he received, during and after the race, was, in my opinion, inappropriate at best.
The organisers just didn’t have enough medical cover for the race as at that point the distance between last and first must have been at least 300km and with three simultaneous incidents someone was going to suffer. Circumstances had conspired against him.
Having identified that he was in very poor shape, Venetia and Tatiana volunteered to accompany him and he was emergency evacuated to Ulaanbaatar. There a brain scan was taken but with no neurologist my riding partner, Shannon Nott, took control and sent the scan pictures to a specialist in Australia via text messages on my mobile phone. He proposed immediate medical evacuation to Hong Kong where a further MRI scan revealed in more detail the bleed on his brain and two separate contusions.
Chips is now back in England and is expected to make a full recovery.
He can remember nothing of the latter part of the race and has lost his sense of smell. We are very fortunate he is not much worse off. Our gratitude goes in particular to Shirley at the SOS clinic in Ulaanbaatar, Venetia, Tatiana and Shannon, Dr Martin Jude in Sydney and Rob Warr in England for the help volunteered to sort him out.
Adam from Colorado, a young ex-marine in remission from cancer, took a fall, bust four ribs badly, and had to drop out. He was devastated as this was an expedition to get his life back on track. He stayed with us to the end and made sure he made the most of the partying, even if he was denied completing the race.
Prize for toughest competitor went to Hanna from Sweden, who fell, dislocating her shoulder badly at the end of day two. She spent hours being ferried around in a bouncy van between urtuus before the medics replaced her shoulder under local anesthetic. She refused to drop out and completed the Derby to rapturous heart-felt applause from all.
The relief of the piece was Tom, the Household Cavalry riding instructor who was dragged and kicked to bits. He was temporarily paralysed and the medics, fearing the worst, organised for him to be emergency evacuated to Ulaanbaatar. Over the following days, as the bruising subsided, he regained feeling and use of his limbs. We were all amazed to see him, albeit a little frustrated and tender, at the finish.
Damp squib was Loden, of my first night sundowner. He had pulled out sick last year and re-entered aiming to complete, but gave up after only 16km. I guess you've either got it or you haven't. No doubt he had his reasons.
Finally I want to stress that we all loved being part of the event, having nothing but admiration of the concept and understand the challenges that putting on something of this scale present logistically. We have all offered to help Katy and her team in any way we can and we only wish that the Mongol Derby thrives so others can be as fortunate as we were. It really was the ride of our lives.