Posts Tagged ‘desert’

Mr Davenport, I presume?

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Ripley with Molly Brown © Ripley Davenport

Ripley Davenport is a desert explorer, originally from the UK, and I was fortunate enough to have the chance to meet him recently, in Ulaanbatar.

We started following Ripley’s adventures in 2010 when he walked across the Gobi for 52 days, with no support whatsoever, pulling all his supplies and equipment on ‘Molly Brown’ – his purposed built trailer.

Molly weighed in at 250 kgs and Ripley hauled this huge weight across the Eastern Steppes and through the desert, breaking the world record for the longest solo, unassisted crossing. Having got our attention, we continued following him. Thinking of Ripley pulling molly, provided me with inspiration during the hard times, as we cycled or pushed our bikes through the Gobi.

In May this  year, Ripley undertook a second Gobi expedition, this time leading a team of 12 people and 12 Bactrian camels, walking west to east across the desert for 1000 miles. They passed through the north of the Khongoryn Els, the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia, from Bulgan a sum district of Khovd Province in the west, to Sainshand the capital city in Dornogovi province in the east. The camels took the weight of the kit and the team were free to walk, and they went at a pretty swift pace too, covering over 30km a day, for 51 days! (That’s more than we managed on our bikes some days!)

On July 15th, 7 of the team made it, and arrived in Sainshand having completed the 1000 mile trek. I managed to meet with Ripley a few days later before he flew home to Ireland.


Ripley and his team at the finish line! © Lauren McLeod

I asked Ripley about the differences between a solo expedition and leading a team. He said that the solo expedition in 2010 has been considerably more challenging physically and was one of the hardest things he has ever done. However this year was also ‘tough’ and  leading a team of people of different ages, levels of experience and  a variety of nationalities comes with its own set of challenges. Some team members withdrew due to injury, whilst others struggled with the pace and distance, or had different expectations, and were sadly asked to leave the expedition. I sensed that Ripley had found this decision a difficult one to make, but ultimately he had to put the rest of the team first.


Chris sitting in the shade of the camels © Sucheta Kadethankar

However, he had great admiration for many of his team members.  When I asked Ripley to tell me about some of the highlights of the expedition, he told me of a day when they had stopped for lunch and he looked up to see Christopher, the youngest member of the group at 18 years old,  galloping up on his camel with such confidence and ability that he looked as if he had been riding camels for years.

In a short space of time Christopher had learnt to ride and manage the camels, helping look after them, alongside Mongolian camel expert, Alvek. Chris threw himself into this with relish, although not always without risk (see Christopher’s blog entry). For Ripley, that was a pretty special moment seeing him galloping like that, and he couldn’t help but feel proud.

The desert presents a unique set of conditions, from sand storms, electrical storms, heat stoke to bolting camels and of course dust that gets everywhere. Ripley’s team also encountered a lot of rain which was most unexpected and unwelcome, believe it or not. Dust combined with rain equals sludge, and damp heavy, kit is a pain to dry out. We swapped stories about seeing storms looming on the horizon and the vulnerability that you feel, seeing this huge weather coming towards you with nothing standing in the way. Like us, they also had nights inside tents wondering if they would stand up to the force of the winds.

Walking anywhere for long enough will give you blisters, but in the desert heat, it seems that blisters can be especially painful and as I sat chatting to Ripley, as if on cue, one of his blisters began weeping and I heard about some of the more painful and gruesome blisters that the team had endured. Ripley’s ankle was also swollen and having carried him 10000 miles, it seems that once you stop to rest your body goes into recovery mode and says ‘enough!’.


Ripley Davenport, Gobi 2011 © Emmanuel Berthier

One of the team members was Emmanuel Berthier, a fantastic photographer and filmmaker, who captured the journey on film, with some amazing shots of the team and the camels walking through the Gobi. To see some of the photos and learn more about the Gobi crossing visit:

The expedition was a great success, raising several thousand pounds for Edurelief and giving the team an amazing experience in Mongolia. The desert is harsh place to be for 51 days, and walking for 1000 miles is a huge achievement by anyones standards; combining the two is not to be underestimated!.

I was delighted to meet Ripley, and he, unlike me, genuinely likes the desert, and plans to continue going to deserts around the world for many years to come, hopefully with more beasts of burden in tow.

Ripley’s next expedition will be to the  Namib desert in 2012. Watch this space.

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Gobi – Day 4 & 5 The search for Ulaan Uud

Friday, May 20th, 2011

I woke at 8am and looked outside… yay, blue sky! It was still windy though and very cold. We got everything out of the tent and shook off all the sand and dust, it was everywhere. The wind helped get rid of it and I realised that despite my western obsession with keeping things clean and dust free, most things seemed to be ok, relatively speaking. I was so pleased that the sun was shining and we could finally leave ‘camp sandstorm’. So pleased in fact that I didn’t really register just how windy it was and Chris asked me what was flapping at one point, I realised it was the tent door – I’d gotten so used to the noise of ‘flapping tent’ that I hadn’t even noticed.

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We were ready to leave bar putting the tent away, which we left until last for shelter. 2 men pulled up on a motorbike, they were friendly and took a seat on the more sheltered side of the tent. Although we’d been about to pack up and go, I felt we should offer them a drink. Who knew how far they’d travelled? We had some hot water in our flask and quickly fished out some cups, coffee and sugar to make them a drink. Having received so much hospitality and kindness from people on the road over the last year and a half, it’s nice to have the opportunity to be the ones giving something to others. They seemed grateful and were very smiley. One man asked Chris if I kept him warm at night, well that was Chris’s interpretation, he seemed pleased to know that I did!

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Once we on the road, it was immediately clear that the wind was going to make this tough. After 7km I was off my bike and pushing. The wind was blowing me all over the place and my legs felt weak. My lower back ached, my hands ached from gripping so hard. ‘Stop being a whinging weedy Wilton’ a voice in my head said, ‘get on with it!’ No one said it would be easy. After climbing a long hill and pushing for most of it, I literally couldn’t catch my breath and my heart was beating way too fast. By the time I reached Chris I was ready to stop and rest. I was so hungry and had zero energy left. Chris cooked me some noodles and I ate a handful of biscuist with coffee while they cooked. After that I felt sooooooo much better and had lots more energy.

We were on a new road, it was tarmac, a revolution in the desert, but I couldn’t work out why all the cars and traffic were still taking the dirt road. After a km or so, we saw why, the new road wasn’t finished and kept abruptly ending. With so much more energy I managed to cycle another 14km and we stopped as the sun set having done 27km.

27km doesn’t sound much? Well imagine a windy day where umbrellas get turned inside out,  sandwich boards fall over and newspapers fly away. Then thing of a farm track or gravel road that would make you bounce in your seat as you drove across it. Finally think of a hill near you that makes you out of breath when you walk up it. Put all three together and you have a rough idea of what it’s like to be cycling through the Gobi today.

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After passing some camels and a couple of yurts we found a camp spot just off the road and watched and amazing sunset as we set up the tent.

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We’ve seen a bit of wildlife, lizards, beetles, big crow like birds, camels, sheep, horses, flies and now dogs.

Dead snake (1024x768)Beetle (1024x768) 'red belly' Lizard as we called him

As I write a dog is sat outside the tent with Chris, he is skinny and hungry but very submissive and friendly we gave him the leftovers from our dinner and a chunk of meat. It’s late now and the temperature has dropped, the stars are out and there is no wind at the moment, hope to get to town tomorrow.


We woke to the sound of no wind, hurray. However it was short lived and we realised that the wind is closely connected to the sun, thermal currents maybe. At sunset the wind seems to drop and after sunrise it picks up again. We decided we would need to get up very early to have no wind at all. Off we went on a bumpy old track to a hill in the far corner. After 3km I was in a bad mood and hating cycling in the desert. It was bumpy sand and windy I was going so slow no more than 7km an hour and feeling very frustrated at how hard it was, how unenjoyable.

It should only be 20km to Ulaan Uud, where we hope to restock with food, fuel and water. We reach the top of a big hill after lots of climbing and pushing. I remember reading Ripley Davenport’s blog last year of him hauling ‘Molly’ through the Gobi desert. I now have some idea how hard that must have been.

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At the top of the hill near a cairn, we had a full view of the entire valley below. No town. We asked a nearby truck driver he pointed down the hill so off we went down the hill and there was no town in any direction. We carried on and followed our NW bearing on the compass, which was also the same track that all the truck and cars were taking. It was a slow gradual climb across the plain to the next ridge. The wind was relentless.

After 27km a jeep stopped and four guys got out, one was from UB and spoke some English. I asked how far to Ulaan Uud, he said about 20km, Hmmm. It was marked as 102km on our map and we had already done 110km. They gave us a 1.5 litre bottle of water, that was very kind. I was tired now and knew we wouldn’t make it to the town tonight, we agreed to get up the hill and then camp. The last of my energy was used pushing the bike up, I was listening to Toto ‘Africa’ as the sun was setting. Looking across the yellow Mongolian plains, with the big red sun setting, I could have easily believed I was in Africa again.

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Chris came back down the hill to help me and enjoyed a brief spell of cycling a much lighter bike! The top of the hill was a long plateau with tracks going in all directions. We finally stopped to camp around 8pm and ate dinner before collapsing into bed. I was shattered but pleased with 34km.

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Gobi – Day 3

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Around 2am a gale force wind rolled in and began blowing the tent about. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep and in the morning I could hear the wind roaring and the sound of sand showering the tent. I undid a tiny bit of the tent door and poked my head outside. I felt like we were on the surface of the moon, no horizon, just dark air filled with sand and dust. It was freezing cold and there was no light. I really couldn’t see very much, but it was desolate and inhospitable to humans and animals alike.

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The wind and dust battered the tent for hours, there was no sign of the wind abating. Inside the tent everything was covered in a layer of dust. In the inner tent, despite the zips being firmly closed, all of stuff was covered in a layer of dust. we looked like we were camping inside an Egyptian crypt or something!

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The wind blew constantly and was so loud that we could barely hear ourselves talk. After a while it just became white noise. The zippers on the tent zips rattled and irritated me. Despite the joy of time being given to you, being trapped inside a tent, that may or may not cope with the conditions isn’t the most relaxing place to be and the noise of the wind made it unnerving. It is strange to have time on your hands yet not feel you can do anything, a bit like being stuck at an airport when your flight has been delayed for 9 hours. Neither of us could face battling with the stove in the porch to make tea or cook, we’d only be shower with dust, so we ate biscuits for most of the day.

I slept for a bit, and read me book for some escapism. We both lay in our sleeping bags for warmth and used the last of the laptop battery to watch half a movie. Chris went outside a couple of times and managed to film the storm and I will try and upload this to YouTube: but internet connection keeps timing out so may not be able to!

Around 6pm, both bored and hungry we decided to try and cook and make coffee. The wind had died down a little bit and we were able to have some dinner. After that I bullied Chris into a game of battleships and we had a really nice evening after that.  The wind continued to die down and we listened to the Travelling Two podcasts – Cindie & Tim Travis, and Nancy Vogel (Family on Bikes). It gave me a boost and having spent most of the day in a bad mood, wondering why I was here at all and wishing I was at home I the UK, I felt more positive. It was a good reminder of how lucky we are to be on the road, with the freedom and time to see places and meet people, with no pressure or stress in our lives. We fell asleep listening to Bon Iver and were cosy and undisturbed all night.

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Gobi – Day 2

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

We woke up late and had a leisurely breakfast – we had a side wind so there was no hurry, it was going to be a slow day. We set off down the hill we’d seen the trucks winding their way up and down. The wind wasn’t too bad but the terrain was hard going with loose sand in places. The road was no longer flat and we seemed to climb up for long periods with some short sharp downhills. After 8km we stopped for some food.

After about 13km the rain clouds started  to gather and the wind increased, across the horizon we could see sand been whipped up into the air forming dust clouds that obscured the land. Even the sheep in the distance were lost. After stopping to let it pass over and a  few games of I spy (including light discussion of the rules – ‘no you can’t ask additional questions for clues, it’s not animal vegetable mineral’), we carried on. There were more black clouds in the distance and more ridges to go over.

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I was struggling a bit with the wind and it was all a bit hard going, I ended up pushing my  bike for a while, then cycling, then pushing. We’d hoped to do 50km today but right now doing 20km would be great. The road turned east and for a short time we enjoyed a slight tailwind and had fun whizzing over bumps and down hills. After 22km we stopped for coffee and a snack. Probably seems that all we do is eat, but the wind saps your energy and leaves you feeling hungry. As we sat there it started to rain and we stuck on some waterproofs. I know I’ve said it before, but I really wasn’t expecting so much rain! It’s the Gobi desert for goodness sake. We’re carrying 30 litres of water because there is no water out here!!

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Finally blue sky appeared and the wind dropped enough for us to cycle. I was hopeful we might be able to get another 20km done before it got dark. Chris said ‘let’s see if we can manage 10km without stopping eh?’ yes, sounds good. We came over a ridge and flying down the other side. Chris was ahead and I saw him pulling over, “What now?”  A puncture! So we stopped yet again.

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Half an hour later, back on the road and it was almost 6pm. The road was nice and quite flat. As we rounded the corner the storm we thought was to the west now appeared to be right ahead of us. Flashes of lightning appeared and the sky was rumbling with thunder. We were high up, we think – everywhere looks like the top of  a fell or moor here – and we felt pretty exposed. Not the best place to be in a thunderstorm. We headed over to the telegraph poles – they would get hit before us, then dumped the bikes and got down into the side of a shallow dried up river bed for shelter.

We sat watching the storm. It seemed very high up but the fork lightning was all across the sky. I felt very small and at the mercy of the elements right then.


As the storm passed right over us, hail began to pelt us, big hailstones the size of marbles came raining down. So much of it, so fast; the ground was covered in seconds. I could feel the ice soaking my socks and running down into my shoes. Chris put our rucksack on my head for extra shelter and I tucked my head into my chest.

After a few minutes it passed and the wind eased up. As I looked up to ask Chris if he was ok, to my right I saw a wave of water coming towards us. ‘”Quick” I yelled pointing to the water, “move!” We both jumped up and got out of the way. The dry river bed was now flooding with water. We stood and watched before realising that we needed to cross to get back to our bikes. We ran 200m ahead of the wave and in front of it to get back to our bikes. By the time we got back and looked at where we had been sat, it was under a foot of water, flooding through at a quick speed.

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But the sun was now shining and the rain and hail had stopped so we couldn’t help but smile. All around us the grass was covered in puddles of water. We were wet and mud splattered, but otherwise fine.

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Realising that we weren’t going to make any progress now, we decided to find a place to camp. With the tarp up and dinner on the go, I changed into some warm clothes and peered out to see that our tent and tarp combo looked like Harry Potter’s tent, with roll mats, stoves, plats cups and all sorts of activity going on. With some hot food inside us we’d be fine and ready for a good night’s sleep.

The forecast for tomorrow is 50kmph wind, so we may stay here for the day, but we’ll wait and see.

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Gobi – Day 1

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

After a hearty breakfast and we met our friend Sukhbat and cycled out of Zamyn Uud about midday, stopping to take some photos, before Sukhbat turned back.

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Loaded up with 30 litres of water and heaps of food we were prepared to cycle and camp for the next few days. The road was gravel to start and rapidly turned to sand tracks, with corrugated section that ensured that all momentum was lost as you cycled. However with hot sun shining and very few jeeps or trucks on the track we were fine and coasted along nicely.

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After 10km we stopped for cream cheese and bread and a mars bar – the joy of being in Mongolia is that the shops stock cheese and mars bars! It was actually really quite hot and I applied sun cream to stop myself from burning. 3 days ago we were freezing in the wind and hail, today we are sweating and worried about sunburn. This certainly is a land of extremes.

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The landscape opened out and all we could see in every direction was flat grass and sand plains, with the trans-Mongolian railway to our east and the dirt track headed north west ahead of us. No people, no houses, nothing except nature and us.

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As we reached the top of a small rise we saw a group of camels in the distance. We didn’t get very close to see them but it was a nice moment, seeing camels just grazing as we cycled along.

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A few trucks passed by and we waved as they came along side. The road here isn’t really one road, there are several tracks running in parallel and stretching off in different directions. We had our compass and stopped to take a bearing every few km to make sure we were still headed in the right direction. We were on a north-west bearing towards Ulaan Uud and Sainshand (which i keep wanting to call Sainsbury’s).

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We came to a rocky outcrop and a group of horses were grazing. We passed them, rounded a corner and stopped for a break. One of the horses decided to come and check us out. He was a lovely horse with a long black mane and tail. He seemed a little agitated and didn’t come to close, but stopped and had a good look at us before turning back and cantering back up to the others. He was neighing and throwing his head around, hopefully telling the others we were friendly! Not long after a troupe of the horses wandered passed us, two with young foals, they stopped up ahead near a large puddle and drank. This may not seem particularly remarkable but it was fascinating to just come across a big group of horses, all just doing their own thing and roaming across the land. I have always liked horses and Mongolia is the home of the original horse, so it was a great experience to see them out in the wild like this (no idea if they are wild or belong to someone).

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Not long after we stopped for the day to set up camp and cook. It was lovely evening and the sun was setting as we sat in our chairs and drank coffee. 31km – not bad for our first day and very enjoyable. We’ll get an early night, the weather is forecast to be very windy on Wed, so we’ll make the most of the day tomorrow to get some miles done.

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