2014 / Sunday

Epic Adventure in the Steppes of Genghis Khan

Scott Hodder

Cope Tim low res

“If you must rush, rush slowly”: This is one of many life lessons adventurer Tim Cope learnt on his epic, three-and-a-half year journey across the Great Eurasian Steppe. Accompanied only by his dog, he rode more than 10,000km on horseback, from Mongolia to the Danube River in Hungary, in a quest to understand the lives of the nomads still roaming the vast landscape.

Mr Cope recounted his life-changing journey and many of his experiences along the way — in Kazakhstan, Russia and the Ukraine — in an intimate setting at Kogarah Library. With photos and videos of the landscapes he’d conquered, and tales of the people he’d met and the difficulties overcome, he captivated the audience.

Fascinated by the horseback tribes of Mongolia, Mr Cope explained how he had wanted to experience the lands as they did. “I was inspired by the nomadic people who rode around the lands so freely. They could roam wherever they wanted; a life without boundaries.” It was this idea that set him off on a horseback journey no one had undertaken since the days of Ghengis Khan, the tyrannical 13th century ruler.

“When I first told my mother that this was my next adventure, she turned pale,” he says. The author, filmmaker and trekking guide had undertaken many before, but this was to be his biggest. “My idea was that I would put my gear on my horses, get in the saddle and keep riding into the sunset. A friend said that if I followed the setting sun, I would arrive at my destination; but if I arrived in a place where they spoke French, I had gone too far.”

Between 2004 and 2007, Mr Cope amassed more than 130 hours of film which became a six-part international award-winning documentary series, On The Trail of Genghis Khan, released in 2010, and later a book, On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, published last year.

Mr Cope told of battling extreme heat, bitter cold, thieves and the loneliness of the vast lands ahead of him. “My first problem was, no-one would sell me a horse. I was born in the countryside but couldn’t ride, and no one wanted to sell me a horse because the Mongolian people considered it bad luck if I injured myself on one they sold me.”

There were days when he struggled to ride, there were times when his horses were stolen or had run off. “I woke up one night to find my horses were gone, and heard what I thought was a snigger. I went in search of the horses and the man who had them said I must have tied them up very badly.” He became wary of the people he met, and slept next to his three horses to protect them.”

After a time, Mr Cope began to get to know the nomads, and became not only a guest in their homes but close friends with many. “I was taught an old proverb: a man on the steppe without friends is as thin as a finger, but a man on the steppe with friends is as wide as the steppe.” He didn’t realise the truth of this proverb until he reached his destination: word of his adventure had spread, and he was met by hundreds of people.

In Kazakhstan, he met a man who offered to guide him for his first 10 days’ of travel in the country. “At the end, he said I needed a friend to protect me from the wolves and keep me company, and he gave me Tigon.” Tigon was only five-months-old, a small puppy that would grow to become not only a travel companion, but also the adventurer’s closest friend.

Mr Cope’s journey was sadly interrupted by his father’s passing. He headed for home, leaving his horses and Tigon behind. An emotional turn in an already difficult journey, he then faced the decision of whether to return. “I didn’t know what to do; stay at home in Australia, or go back,” he said. “I decided to continue and complete my journey, to finish what I started.”

Along with Tigon and his horses, Mr Cope travelled through Kazakhstan, Russia and the Ukraine to finally reach Hungary in September 2007. He recalls another old proverb he was taught, “If you must rush, rush slowly”, and reflects that as well as overcoming the dangers, along the way he had learnt the importance of community, and discovered much about himself.