ExWeb interview with Ripley Davenport: The challenges of the Gobi Desert and team mates

Posted: Sep 04, 2011 11:07 pm EDT

(By Correne Coetzer) Ripley Davenport took a team of adventurers 1000 miles across the Gobi Desert, where they endured bad dust, sand storm, blizzards, equipment failure and injuries.

ExplorersWeb caught up with Ripley in the comfort of his house. He talks about the camels and their 21- year-old Khazak camel handler who was a delight and very skilled, and the team that was a brutal 51-day mental exercise. There were more low points than high points, he says, but he learns from low points and looks at them as a learning curve.

ExplorersWeb: What fascinates you about deserts?

Ripley: Almost certainly the most overwhelming sensation that you get when you are in a desert is how vast, utterly vast, and extraordinarily isolated you are. It is like no other person exists except you.

It can feel and look-like the dark side of the moon. And yet, when you plot that point on the map you become conscious that youre a meager speck.

Going further is a psychological leap of the mind and continuing is powered by your mental condition. That call of the raw unknown has a certain subconscious beckoning to an odd few and I feel it every time I stand facing a vast scorched landscape.

The indigenous people that subsist within these regions, and how they live and adapt to their ever-changing surroundings, appeal to my interest. Theres a whole lot to learn.

ExplorersWeb: What is the attraction of the Gobi Desert?

Ripley: It is a desert that offers everything; steppe, mountains, desert, flat terrain, extreme weather and endless challenges. In 2002, by accident, I found an old book for sale about Roy Chapman Andrews and from that day I began to harbor plans about crossing the Manchurian Steppe and the Gobi Desert in 2010.

For some peculiar reason I felt that I just had to go to the Gobi and immerse myself.

Further research and reading about the extraordinary people, landscape, culture and environment just popped that cherry on top, and then as a result, I discovered I felt at home there.

ExplorersWeb: How big was your team?

Ripley: I started with 11 team members, plus our superb photographer Emmanuel Berthier.

It was a challenging walk but from the beginning, I knew not everyone would make it. The finishing team endured 1000 miles through many problems and challenges, both physical and mental.

It was sad to see two team members fall to injury and that's always a thorny decision to make.
To go further than the accepted median and to propel oneself to such limits is what made the finishing team Lauren, Christopher, Faraz, Peter, Sucheta, and Yihui complete their journey with such zeal.

We also had an outstanding Mongolian support crew consisting of a driver/mechanic, cook, and camel wrangler and support guide.

ExplorersWeb: Where did you get the camels from? Did you have their handlers with you? What was the team members responsibility regarding the camels?

Ripley: Camel sourcing started many months before the expedition commenced and it can be a challenging task especially after a hard winter. Our camels were tracked down from several nomadic families and bought altogether to be fed up and fattened ready for their walk.

We were very fortunate to have the support from an experienced Khazak guide that lives in Olgii out in western Mongolia called Agii who was raised with camels. He spent many weeks fluttering around the western Mongolian countryside looking for the appropriate camels and responsible for transporting them all to our starting point.

We had a twenty-one year old Khazak camel handler with us who was a delight and very skilled. Without him, we would have been lost and in a pickle as camels tend to display various traits that can cause frustration and setbacks.

For me, it was learning curve as I have only worked with a maximum of 3 camels at one time and with harnesses but we had twelve camels with nose pegs something that I am not accustomed with, which in my opinion are very problematic with large camel trains, which can be clearly stressful and painful for camels, and hard to work with.

Some team members decided to learn and get involved with the camels taking their responsibilities seriously. Loading, unloading, and leading one or more camels was a fundamental duty and took two, sometimes three team members to load up one camel.

Our youngest team member Christopher assisted in many other chores and became a master cameleer.

ExplorersWeb: How was the water situation in the Gobi?

Ripley: Finding water is always a concern and I spent many months planning our route to ensure we were always within range of a water source. Dont get me wrong here, there is sufficient of water in the Gobi but its just knowing where to find it and be on the lookout for certain land features that indicate water.

We were very fortunate with regard to good water. We sourced our water from local wells, springs and small settlements along our route, replenishing every 2 to 4 days for the team and for the camels every 5 to 7 days. The water was relatively pure and caused no serious medical problems, which I was very satisfied with.

I had recorded the position of several dependable watering holes from my last crossing in 2010 and welcomed information from many individuals, organizations and other sources on the location of possible water sources.

In addition, I had to hand some fairly good maps from the Russian military and now have a long list of unmarked watering holes.

Every team member suffered from the odd stomach bout throughout the walk but never anything serious or lasting more than 24 hours. In such conditions, its common given the change of water, diet and conditions.

ExplorersWeb: What were the challenges of the Gobi and the expedition in general?

Ripley: The team. For me, it was a brutal 51-day mental exercise. Dealing with team members from all walks of life, different backgrounds, physical and mental abilities was a demanding challenge.

Within days it was evident that some team members were struggling with physical and mental issues and as the expedition leader, I became the easy target.

I found that when others reach that barrier they look for something or someone to blame and just simply turn from positive to negative and from there it is a rapid downward spiral for their frame of mind.

You find and hear about this a lot in adventure and it's why there's a delicate balance between what your body can deliver and what your mind thinks you've got. At times your mind can run off with your body.

ExplorersWeb: What were the high points?

Ripley: I wouldnt call them high points but more small amazing experiences that needed to be seen with open eyes. However, I was fighting back emotions when we finally made it to the 1000-mile mark. That was a good day. It was an inner experience that cant be expressed in words.

Seeing a team of individuals that had never accomplished such a difficult physical and mental journey, under their own power, was overwhelming. I am sure in their own time they will process everything they experienced and be proud of their efforts.

Every team member had their high points but for me they were few and far between. There were more low points but I learn from low points and look at them as a learning curve.

ExplorersWeb: What clothes did you wear?

Ripley: Clothing is a personal thing and I tend to stick with what works and feel comfortable in so I always sway towards clothing from RailRidiers. Nothing is going to stand up to 1000 miles without some sort of mishap but RailRiders are strong, practical, light weight and suited to harsh environments.

ExplorersWeb: What were the temperatures? Did you walk in the heat of the day?

Ripley: Desert temperatures are always an issue but this year we had it pretty good with average temperatures lingering around 32°C. Our hottest day topped 44°C, which only lasted a few hours but it took its effect on the team and had us all panting like cheetahs in the African sun.

We acclimatized pretty rapidly so walking throughout the day was tolerable.

We experienced a few cold days with our lowest dropping to 10.5°C, which felt like polar climates at the time and had us wrapped up in everything we owned. The wind played its part and rain made many days walking very tolerable and refreshing.
Night temperatures averaged 14°C and the warmest night was recorded at 22°C.

ExplorersWeb: What lessons have you learned in the Gobi?

Ripley: Flexibility is key to success. As long as the core principles and values are not compromised, being flexible in times of change and adversity (and expeditions have their far share of them) will allow more opportunities for success.

I also believe that every experience, every stroke of luck, every challenge and every person you encounter each day will only serve to enrich you and make you a better person.

The greatest lesson that I have learned is that there is really nothing certain in life no matter how experienced. A long expedition carries many uncertainties and one must be prepared for sudden changes to routines but sometimes are never the right answers and you just have to suck up the mistakes, errors and whatnots and plod on.

I made mistakes but I learn and move forward adapting and correcting to ensure that I never encounter them again. No one is perfect!

ExplorersWeb: Tell us about your next adventure please.

Ripley: Well, its been 14 years since I last traversed the Namib Desert taking 82 days. I have always thought about returning and was delighted when Antony Jinman called early one morning expressing his desire to join.

So, I am pleased to be partnering with Antony Jinman from Education Through Expeditions. We are intending on traversing the oldest desert in the world the Namib Desert on foot, supported by camel caravan, across 1000km of the Namib Desert, a narrow coastal strip of gravel flats, isolated mountains and sand dunes.

I am really excited and joining forces with Antony is a something I have always to do. This is not only an expedition of challenge; this is an expedition of education, for both of us and the schools that will follow.

We intend of crossing the dry lands of Namibia, which have been inhabited since early times by Bushmen, Damara, and Namaqua, and since about the 14th century AD by immigrating Bantu who came with the Bantu expansion.

We intend on carrying out research into Desertification, available water sources, the climate throughout this region, and looking at a beast of burden also known as the camel, which has been used as transportation throughout history.

The website is: www.namibia2012expedition.com and is due to start in September 2012.

The Gobi 2011 Expedition trekked across the fifth largest desert in the world and Asia's largest. On the May 26, 2011 Ripley Davenport, his team, camel support crew and 12 Bactrian camels started their 1000 miles / 1600 km trek across the Mongolian Gobi Desert from Bulgan, a sum district of Khovd Province in the west, to Sainshand, the capital city in Dornogovi province in the east. On July 15 at 11:40 ULAT the expedition concluded after 51 days, 11 hours and 40 minutes.

Ripley Davenport resides in Denmark with his Lithuanian wife, Laura and two kids, Stella and Scott. In 1998, Ripley completed trek across the Karakum Desert in 21 days with one water resupply. Then in the same year, Ripley successfully crossed the Namib Desert, alone with two camels in 82 days. In 1999, he spent two weeks in the company of the Air Tuareg of Niger. The purpose was to learn about desert living and their culture. In 2010 Ripley trekked a 1000 miles solo with a trailer across the Eastern Mongolian Steppe, Gobi Desert and the Altai Mountain Range.

Antony Jinman has done several desert and Arctic expeditions, among them a ski trek from Canada to the North Pole in 2010.

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Ripley Davenport: Loading, unloading, and leading one or more camels was a fundamental duty and took two, sometimes three team members to load up one camel.
Image by Emmanuel Berthier , SOURCE
"Dealing with team members from all walks of life, different backgrounds, physical and mental abilities was a demanding challenge."
Image by Emmanuel Berthier , SOURCE
"That call of the raw unknown has a certain subconscious beckoning to an odd few and I feel it every time I stand facing a vast scorched landscape."
Image by Emmanuel Berthier , SOURCE
"We had a twenty-one year old Khazak camel handler with us who was a delight and very skilled. Without him, we would have been lost and in a pickle..."
Image by Emmanuel Berthier , SOURCE
"There is sufficient of water in the Gobi but its just knowing where to find it and be on the lookout for certain land features that indicate water."
Image by Emmanuel Berthier , SOURCE
The team at the finish L to R: Faraz Shibli (UK), Christopher Schrader (Nederland), Lauren McLeod (Australia), Sucheta Kadethankar (India), Peter Syme (Scotland), Yihui Sim (Singapore) and in front: Ripley Davenport (UK).
Image by Lauren McLeod courtesy Ripley Davenport