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Riding 700 Kilometres across Mongolia on horseback not for the weak of heart

Chad Deetken makes his way across the steppes of Mongolia with other members of the Gobi Gallop team. - courtesy Chad Deetken
Chad Deetken makes his way across the steppes of Mongolia with other members of the Gobi Gallop team.
— image credit: courtesy Chad Deetken

It wasn’t an episode from the reality TV show The Great Escape, but it sure did look like one.

Seven people from around the world — Chemainus senior Chad Deetken being one of them — spent 10 grueling days on the back of a horse, crossing Mongolia. For 10 to 12 hours at a time, they travelled some 40 to 110 kilometres daily.

But unlike the TV show, there was no cash prize at the end of it.

Which begs the question: what motivated them?

A really good cause.

Julie Veloo established the Veloo Foundation, after learning Mongolian children and their families were reduced to combing through garbage dumps after a brutal winter in 2009-10 killed nearly nine million of their animals and their nomadic way of life.

Today, as a result of her efforts and some generous donations, the Children of the Peak Sanctuary supports 40 children from underprivileged families who migrated from rural areas to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

The children’s social, intellectual and physical development is stimulated through group play, educational games and educating both children and parents about nutrition and hygiene.

“What Julie Veloo is doing for those kids is their only hope for a better life,” Deetken said, adding some of those kids were part of the greeting committee that welcomed them at the end of their endurance ride.

“The squalor, I’ve never seen anything like that, it was as bad or worse than what I’ve seen in Bangladesh or India,” said the well-travelled retiree. “One of Julie’s students came up to me and said that Julie’s school saved him.”

According to Deetken, Veloo is planning on expanding the school.

Back to the ride.

On June 7, participants set out from Mongolia’s capital and drove due west for 700 kilometres.

“The roads in Mongolia are disastrous, they have a Soviet-style infrastructure and craters like the moon in their roads,” Deetken said.

After that ride, getting on a horse might have seemed like a relief.

But not for long.

“Oh my God, every day, I’d say to myself, ‘I can’t keep myself up out of my saddle,’ my left leg hurt and my calf, it was on fire,” Deetken said. “Riding that amount is incredibly tiring, you’re working hard to keep off the saddle.”

It was a real workout for the quads and thighs.

“It was phenomenally gorgeous; I’ve been to a lot of places, it’s just knock-dead gorgeous, huge skies, valleys, everything was big.”

While the moon-like craters on the road were problematic for the support vehicle, the riders were on the constant lookout for underground “rodent chambers.” After a horse stepped on it, the chamber would break up and collapse onto itself, tripping up a horse, and often its rider.

Despite the fact he’s 69, Deetken said his experience riding and his good reflexes meant he was one of the few that didn’t go down.

Nor did he spend any time in the support vehicle. He spent the entire ride right where he’d hoped to, on the back of his horse.

“We didn’t see one fence on the ride, people aren’t allowed to own property, they lease it, so they can’t put fences around it,” he said, adding Mongolians are allowed to build small pens for their livestock. “It was incredible riding under those wide open skies and vistas. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.”

Mongolia has very much been a horse culture since the time of Genghis Khan. Deetken said it wasn’t unusual during his ride to pass through herds of 50 to 200 horses, who sometimes accompanied them.

Bad roads, a sore body and less than stellar food aside, would this almost-vegetarian, who was served goat and mutton daily, do it again? Say next year?

After first answering no, Deetken, who’s had more incredible adventures than a cat has lives, paused, thought again and said, “Maybe if they went on a different route, I could be tempted.”

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