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A Whirlwind Australian Visit for the Aus Geo Awards (6/10/06)

It was during an afternoon in southern Crimea as I was about to water the horses that I received a phone call from Australia with the news. Not only had I been nominated as the Australian Adventurer of the Year by Australian Geographic, but potentially I could be flown to Australia for the awards ceremony in Sydney! Since leaving Australia on May 31 2004, I had been travelling in the steppe and had only spoken English by telephone…. now not only was there the potential for such an honour as to be recognized by Australian Geographic, but to see my parents and brothers and sister, and to have the luxury to be at home. During this journey I must admit that I have learnt more about the value of family and links to ‘home’ than ever before.

It wasn’t long after this phone call that it was confirmed: I was off to Melbourne on the 16th of September. The thought frightened and exhilarated. From one point of view was it right to break the journey? I decided that this kind of extended travel had to encompass everything; my career, travel, and my personal life. This was not the kind of journey that was just a break between ‘normal life.’ Such a unique opportunity was too much to miss, and this journey had long become my life.

On the 10th of September I left the horses and Tigon behind at a horse stable in the city of Nikolaiv, and headed to Kiev by train to prepare for the journey home. Leaving the horses and dog behind is always a risk and as usual I knew that I would greatly miss them. Tigon especially would be quite depressed about being couped up- he loved travel so much that I do not know how he will ever adjust to sedentary living. Vladimir and Natasha at the horse farm though were extremely supportive and promised that I had no need to worry.

On the morning of the 18th the plane descended through typical Melbourne overcast sky and I felt myself in shock. How did this correlate to living on the steppe? Not surprisingly, customs decided to detoxicate me- they took my shoes away, and inspected my clothing. They were going to take my pants and horse chaps away for Gamma Radiation until I explained that I needed them for the Australian Geographic awards….. and would have to wear them out of the country in just nine days time.

Then I stepped out to see my mum and sister who had been waiting since 5.30am. I was kind of just lost for words and in a dizzy haze after thirty-five hours of flights and transit. The next moment we were in the commodore racing home and I was tuning in to a very oddly familiar Australian accent. The green grass- enough for a hundred horses, yet countryside all dissected by barbed wire fences. This was the biggest shock to the system at first glance. I often slipped into Russian language, and awoke at home on the first night speaking it to my sister until I remembered where I was.

Three days passed in a blur at home in Gippsland. The scent of eucalyptus, feel of the familiar lounge room couch, and stunning garden that mum has so carefully cared for gave me great pleasure. After this I spent one day in Melbourne where I met with Graeme from Fuji Film, SBS radio, Saxtons Speaking Bureau, and was lucky to visit a Mountain Designs store. I was overwhelmed with Fuji’s support in developing my 100 or so slide films, and again stocking me up with provia and Velvia transparency film. Since I set out in May 31 2004 I had not had a single slide roll processed.
Having worn all my gear down to threadbare and with the prospect of another winter ahead, I was also grateful to Mountain Designs who decided to help me out with some replacement gear that should see me to Hungary.
It is with great appreciation by the way that I am happy to say that Iridium has also decided to continue sponsoring the journey to the end with the satellite phone which has enabled me to stay in touch and keep my website updated.

On the morning of the 23rd I was on my way to Sydney in the cleanest clothes I had worn for more than two years, and into a hustle and bustle that was so incredibly removed from the steppe. John Kearney, my great uncle took myself, family and friends out to the Australian Club where I found myself dining on Oysters and sipping fragrant white wine. Thanks to Todd Tai, I even borrowed a suit and tie- I now couldn’t have come into a more greatly contrasting world!

The following day was the awards themselves at the Maritime Museum. Considering previous awardees, and the fact that this was the 20th Anniversary gathering for Australian Geographic, I felt particularly honored. Early in the morning before the event I had an interview with Ian Macnamara, and in walked Dick Smith for an interview as well. This was just the beginning of a day of being involved with the kind of people who had inspired me when I was much much younger. There was Glenn Singleman and his wife- Glenn and Nick Feteris in the 1990's made the film 'Base Climb' which has always stuck in my memory- Greg Mortimer, the first Australian to summit Everest, Lincoln Hall who survived a harrowing night below the summit of Everest this year and made headlines across the world, Don and Margie Macintyre, the couple who roughed it in Antarctica for a year in a tiny wooden hut, and many, many more. My good friends Chris Hatherly, Todd Tai, Cordell and Cara were also there which made for very precious time.I remember going to one of these events in 1998 when Chris was awarded Young Australian Adventurer of the year- it was hard to believe that I was now there as the recipient of such an award.

During the presentation of the awards which was made by Sorrell Wilby, perhaps the most striking part was a tribute to Sue Fear. Sue was the first Australian born woman to summit Everest who tragically died in a climbing accident earlier this year. Looking into her teary eyes during footage she took on a Himalayan summit ascent, it reminded me that adventure is all about 'participation' in life. Such a great loss, yet such a wonderful inspiration. A kind of reminder that we are all here for a short and opportunity-filled life.

For me the award was not just a privelege and an honour- as it is for anyone to be recognized in their field of expertise- but it was a win for the hundreds of people who have put so much into helping me complete the journey. Without them- i mean everyone from the nomads who took me in for tea to sponsors in Australia and abroad- I would not be where I am now. Having said that too, I should mention my horses and dog who are the real heroes of this journey. I depend on them with my life.
It is also a win for the heritage of the steppe nomad- a people who brought so much to the sedantary world and yet who are much neglected in our comprehension of the world. Ghengis Khan's former empire still has a lot to offer with the nomad's ideals of tolerance, and deep connection to the earth. This journey is in honour of the people who have forged a way of life in some of the toughest conditions on earth, and among the tough, and often dirty, cruel reality, created a culture that turns living into the beautiful art of celebrating life.

After a luncheon overlooking Darling Harbour, things eventually wound down, but for me it was just the beginning of a gruelling media run. For the next two days I completed around 25 interviews, and found myself on Wednesday in Wollongng feeling absolutely knackered and more than ready to get back on the horses.
On the otherhand Wollongong was a wonderful chance to catch up with Daniel Rowan, Amy and Alex with whom I have had a friendship since 1997 when we all worked together at an adventure camp in England. Daniel, together with Geoff McQueen who run Internetrix, were great hosts, and even treated me to the food that I have craved the most whilst on the steppe- everything that is, from the ocean.

Internetrix has been supporting me since early late 2002 and have become key in allowing me to share the journey as I go. In fact while in Wollongong I caught a glimpse of the new website which is lookig very exciting. Look out for the new-look website which will be coming out in the next week or so.

Anyway, with all manner of people on the phone line (the mobile proudly sponsored by my dad for a few days- sorry about that bill Dad!) Daniel drove me to the airport last Wednesday night from where I rocketed back out of Australia.

I now find myself back in the Crimea in the Ukraine. On sunday I managed to make it to a horse race near Feodossia which I filmed. In the 1200m race one man who I know fell badly and was trampled by two horses. His face was broken in three places and he will be in hospital for another month or so. My footage is now actually part of evidence to prove that the runner of the event was not negligent, and that it was actually a strap which snapped soon after the start of the race that caused the man to fall.

I am now dealing with Visa extension (the hundreth I think during this journey) and working out how to tackle my third winter. Can't wait to see Tigon andt he horses again soon.

Lastly, I would really like to thank Australian Geographic, and the many people there such as Joanne Diver, Todd Tai, and Dee, who have supported me so well. In Australia we are after all very lucky to have a society that recognizes and promotes the spirit of adventure.
Also a very special thanks to my parents, Andrew and Anne, to John and Alison Kearney (John made a wonderful effort to be there in Sydney for the ceremony along with my second cousin Phillip), and my sister Natalie, and brothers Jonathan and Cameron (although Cameron is currently in Chile so meeting him again will have to wait for another time).