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London and the Royal Geographic Society: an event never to forget

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries. And don’t forget to check the photo gallery which is updated weekly as well. 25/3/05 The belly of the plane roared and soon we vaulted off the tarmac, the reality of Kazakhstan rapidly shrinking below until we cut through the clouds. I took a deep breath. In half an hour we traveled what would take me at least a month by horse, and in seven hours the plane was angling in over London. I have always been very skeptical of the term ‘civilisation’ but somehow I was awestruck by what I saw: rows of neat looking houses, towering old buildings, the space-age ‘gherkin’ dome, and then Heathrow airport with a constant roar of jumbos. Then I was stumbling down an elevator, sitting on the tube train, and whacked in the face by central London. ‘Go past woolworths, and turn left at Macdonalds’ were the directions I had. Then I was there, speaking english with Tony, a former Australian heavy metal guitarist and his partner Esther, a good German friend of Kathrin’s. Soon I was having a yarn (or trying to in the face of booming music) in a pub with a beer shoved into my hand, and wondering if it could be true that only a day or so earlier I had been out on the steppe of Kazakhstan. “So where have you come from?” asked one of Tony’s friend. “Kazakhstan” I yelled over the music. “Where? Pakistan?” I tried to explain that Kazakhstan was somewhere between Siberia, China, and Kyrgyzstan but it was useless. Everything seemed surreal, hard to believe, was this me? And yet this was just the beginning of a week laced with dreamy feelings. I had arrived to be inducted as a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and attend what would be the largest collection of explorers in history. Such an honour, such a privilege…such a shock. Little more than 24 hours later I was on the doorstep of the Royal Geographic Society, a grand building opposite Hyde Park. Apart from having BREAKFAST CEREAL WITH MILK and a WARM SHOWER the first event of the day was meeting CuChallaine O’Reilly and his wife Basha. CuChallaine has himself explored Pakistan extensively on horse, is a well known author, and it was he who had gone to the trouble of organizing the event. I had been on the satellite phone with him on numerous occasions, firstly for advice and help, and more recently in regards to coming to London. CuChallaine is one of the founders of the Long Riders Guild, dedicated to helping and promoting equestrian explorers. As he had told me himself “Long riders are travelers who have happened to choose horses as a way of exploring by horse at any one time.” In recent times he and Basha had re-printed 107 historical books which were ready to be donated to the RGS library. CuChallaine himself was taller than I expected with reddish hair and a well tended moustache. “Hello Tim! I recognized your eyes, but funny to see you without a beard!” It wasn’t long before we were touring the building, passing grand paintings of Livingstone, and many other explorers, writers, and scientists. There was the ‘Expedition Advisory’ room, the old library, the lecture theatre, and photos from all corners of the globe. The place hummed with a history and wealth of knowledge that I have never known. After arranging some logistics for the real event the following day, we retired to the ‘Polish Club’ across the road along with several other travelers who had since turned up. Gordon Naysmith was perhaps the most striking of them, or at least his forward and direct nature let it be so. He was a tough looking Scotsman who had, among other things, ridden from South Africa to Austria on the same horses. He later told me of one desperate moment somewhere in a desert of the Middle East. After several days without water he let the reins loose, and the horses followed their noses to an old well. The well was 60 foot deep, and to reach the water with his bucket he needed to use everything including his shoe laces. And then after this he was so spent, so exhausted, so marauded by the desert that he barely had the strength to drag the water up. It took him about nine hours of constant work to water his dehydrated animals, after which he drank some water himself. The water was so foul though that he immediately brought it back up. “Now that was a time I don’t really want to go back to” he said. By the way, if you are lucky, Gordon will tell you that he is about to set off on a four year canoing journey around the world…and he is 73 years old!” Across the table from me among others sat Titti Strandberg, a Swedish adventurer also recently flown in for the event. She had only recently pulled out of an expedition with her husband in Siberia after the cold was threatening to kill her. Mikael, her husband, was at this time in the midst of his expedition by skis along the Kolyma river. Between them they had done some remarkable journeys and had written a prolific amount of books. Later Titti handed me a bag of dried reindeer meat for nibbling along the way back in Kazakhstan. Then there was Ken and Sharon Roberts, an Australian couple who had ridden the length of the Bicentennial Trail along the Great Dividing Range from Cape York to Melbourne. They had used about 12 horses at various stages, and told of incredible hardship. They had learnt so much, and told me little tips like when they were in Queensland how they had to use methylated spirits on the horse’s backs to toughen their skin and prevent saddle sores. This is because the horse hair is so short in tropical climates. “What people don’t realize is that adventures like this don’t necessary involve horse skills, but mainly a lot of common sense and persistence” Sharon says. I was very happy when they offered to send me some decent hobbles, and aluminum rivets from Australia which would help me a great deal. This was all just a preamble to an event the following day that would be all that much more infinitely intense, and filled with characters that seemed to be walking in off the pages of a book. At 10.30am the Polish Club was already filling up for the pre-RGS presentation lunch. The first I met was a wiry character with wispy white hair and a beard. He was quietly spoken and introduced himself as George Patterson. George in his youth had crossed from Tibet to India across the Himalayas in the winter- something that even the Tibetans had assured him was impossible. He told me that he had not washed for five months and used Yak butter to protect his skin from the brutal cold and dry. As I was speaking to him, who should walk in right before me, but Sandy and Rita Cooper. For those who have read my book ‘Off the Rails’ you will know that Sandy and Rita are the parents of my very good former friend Bruce, who had passed away during the cycling expedition in 2000. Our connections were very strong and we had always kept in close touch. Rita and Sandy had flown down from Scotland especially, and somehow for me, having them there to experience the event was the highlight for me. “G’day digger!” sported Sandy with his beaming smile and glistening eyes before we hugged. Throughout the day he kept returning to me saying, ‘this is just amazing Tim! You’ll never know who I have just met! A guy sat down to me, and told me he was the Argentinian ambassador….” The room filled with more and more of these people, all babbling, and doing something that is so rare for adventurers- all meeting together! Among so many others were Vladimir Fasinko who had ridden from Argentina to Alaska, and Bjarke Rink, a Dane living in Brazil, and known as a philosopher and writer about the effect of horse, nomad cultures on the world. Bjarke was particularly interested to hear about things in Kazakhstan and Mongolia. There was a Swiss couple who had ridden from Saudi Arabia back home and a German woman who had ridden from South Africa to Kenya. Almost lost in the crowd was Catherine Waridel, a Swiss woman who had traveled from the Ukraine to Mongolia with the support of a UN agency in 1993. To those who may imagine some herculine-sized adventurer might be shocked that Catherine is probably about five-feet, but with a smile to conquer all. Catherine had been one of the few people I spoke to before undergoing my expedition, and I was thrilled when she produced here original map of Kazakhstan from her handbag. We lay it out on the floor and poured over the landscape comparing experience. I was a little shocked to see that much of my route was within some big circled areas known to have been affected by nuclear testing and other pollution. I will never forget her parting words: “It will be tough Tim, it will be very tough, but always, always keep going! Persist! What you are doing is special!” After lunch I was introduced to Sir John Ure, respected diplomat, author, adventurer, and head of the Thomas Cook Travel awards. He had been ambassador for the UK at posts including Moscow and Brazil. I asked him about his time in Russia and Central Asia in the 1960s. “I always had a good impression of the people, but of course we were at loggerheads with the government….and in reality we were only posted to Central Asia later on to basically stir up trouble.’ I really wanted to speak to him more, but as with most of the day things rapidly moved on. In the grand hallway, myself, and Pedro, a 73 year old Brazilian were to be presented with our certificates as official fellows of the Royal Geographic Society. Sir John Ure handed us the documents and said words of congratulations as the photographer flashed away and others looked on. Sandy joked that he was really admiring taking the wall carpet behind me, and that was the reason for his manic clicking on the camera. In becoming a fellow CuChallaine reminded me that I was the first in history to become a fellow whilst ‘in the saddle’ and that I was probably one of the younger inductees in history. Anyway, the pace and intensity continued and we went across the road back to the Royal Geographic Society headquarters where the official presentation of the 107 books took place (the luncheon and presentation of the certificates had taken place in the polish club because there were too many of us to fit into the RGS venue). There were speeches in tribute to the authors of these valuable books, and a display set up with photos of all the adventurers present at the meeting. It was during this that I was called out for an interview with a News Limited correspondent on the phone. By the time the interview had come to an end I stumbled down to the library to discover that everyone had clean disappeared! Even the books were nowhere to be seen! Heart pounding, I raced through the building with Anna and Veronica showing the way, - publicists who I had just met, specializing in promoting expeditions- and stepped out into the back courtyard to a slightly fired up looking CuChallaine. CuChallaine who is probably pretty intense at the best of times was very direct. “Tim, this is historically bad! Disasterous” Of course one of the main events of the day had been to take the group photo of this, the largest collection of explorers in history…and I had missed it! Bloody typical! Come all this way to Kazakhstan and miss the photo! Dan, the photographer was quick to manage to situation. He had me sitting in front of the stone edging where the group had been and took a few pics. I neatened up the shirt I had bought at the market the previous day, and the suit pants and jacket that Tony had so kindly lent me. Must have looked a little funny though because I was wearing my big hiking boots to go with this. Thank god to the modern wonders of computers: Dan promised to ‘airbrush me in.’ The rest of the day was a mesmerizing blur of faces, characters, stories that you could literally fill a library with, yet somehow it all had to be digested in one day. Typically most of us ‘explorers’ all became a bit lost in the RGS building when we lost Judith Thomsen who was leading us. Didn’t really matter though. Over afternoon tea I met with Keith who had returned from his journey through South America after breaking his finger very badly. “An armadillo frightened the hell out of my horses, and although I was bucked off I made sure I kept hold of those reins- the horses would have shot off otherwise. By the end, my finger was snapped and pointing at a right angle in the wrong direction.” There were a couple of Americans mid way into their journeys too, a woman who had spent considerable time in Iran….and just so many others that I feel a little ashamed that I didn’t get to speak with them and learn a little of their stories. The evening ended up back at the Polish Club for a dinner where CuChallaine announced his plans with Basha to circle the globe on horseback, and set up a fund dedicated to supporting young adventurers with dreams of equestrian exploration themselves. I had arranged for a TV and video (thanks so much to Tony and his work colleague who had generously lent, and even delivered them for me!) so that we could watch the footage of my journey that I had specially put together for the event. It was one of those golden moments- how often do you get to present something like that in front of your so called ‘peers and colleagues.’ Ken and Sharon Roberts also showed footage from their epic Australian Journey to the sounds of chinking wine glasses and gasps of wonder and delight. We ate luxurious food that Sandy predicted would probably ‘make me sick’ after the diet of horsemeat that I had adjusted to in Kazakhstan, and eventually people began to depart- not that is though before I was reminded that drinking culture is not something confined to the villages of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia! Sandy and Rita said goodbye, and the last person I spoke to was Catherine Waridel. I was on my way to the underground station, and she was off to the bus station. What a couple of odd people we were I thought, and meeting together makes it even the more unique. Eventually we waved goodbye, and I found myself by midnight sinking into sleep in the comfort of a home, the events of the day rushing over my closed eyes. The following days were not quite as busy, but there was barely a free moment. A news limited photographer who had just finished a session with Tony Blair took me down to London Bridge and took a few pictures. Ben English, the correspondent let me know that there would be a double page feature in the Herald Sun on Saturday, and possibly in the Courier and Advertiser as well. I spoke with the editor of Wanderlust magazine and various other individuals. One evening I was invited out by Veronica and Anna, the two publicists who I had met at the Royal Geographic Society. I arrived at the classy Landsborough hotel in Hyde Park Corner wondering if they would let me in. They introduced me to a couple of friends- a Chinese publisher from Shanghai, and woman working for the Bahrain embassy. Again and again, I am reminded that the special thing, the valuable thing about these kind of experiences in life is the people you meet, and the connections that ensue. The world, it seemed, was brimming with possibilities! And all I had been doing was riding a horse, looking for grass, finding water, and heading for Hungary. As I sunk into a leather chair and sipped some wine to the sound of the nearby pianist however, it struck me that in just a few days I would be back out there in Kazakhstan, and this would be just a dream. Over the weekend I was lucky enough to get a cheap flight for about 10 pounds to Germany, and so had the chance to visit Kathrin. Kathrin, who had joined me in two months in Mongolia, had since returned to Germany to take up her school teaching position. I must admit that calling her every now and then from the steppe is a great mental support, and it was without doubt special to be able to see her again. It seemed that as I was reconnecting with her though, I was saying goodbye. Since then all of that luxury has been stripped away. The day before yesterday I flew back into Kazakhstan, the last hour or so of the flight going over the ‘Betpak Dala’ (Starving Steppe) where my route lies on the horses. It was a mass of parched rock and sand, just so empty, just so baron. And so here I am in Almaty, back where I started, and preparing to head back to Akbakai. Just hope that my animals haven’t got up to any mischief this time…. I would like to greatly thank John and Alison Kearney for their generous support in making this experience possible. Without them I would have been on the steppe wondering what was going on back over there in London… or more rightly I wouldn’t have been on the steppe at all in the first place. I would also like to thank Tony and Esther in London for their hospitality, all my sponsors who continue to make this trip possible, and CuChallaine who initiated my induction into the RGS and arranged the event. Here in Almaty, Vadim and Rosa of Tour Asia have also weighed in with generous help and support that I am extremely grateful of. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries. And don’t forget to check the photo gallery which is updated weekly as well.