• Ashley Dowds

Barry Armitage: the Mongolian Derby

Updated: May 2, 2019


Having journeyed - and I use the term advisedly, because I know how thin it sounds now to use that word when it covers everything from genuine Shackleton type extremis to the esoteric trust fund generation musings over a chai latte. so… having JOURNEYED with a TV Travel show called Going Nowhere Slowly, the adventure was in “getting out of your dialing code”. In a world where the highway takes you to a holiday resort the day school term ends, and the prize is finding unknown territory, the off-road option is king.

But we’re talking about epic journeying when it comes that impulse that drives you to challenge history. To opt for the longest and toughest horse race in the world, or to follow in the tracks of near suicidal historical missions on horse back, have got to be prompted by something deeper than just for kicks. On one of these ventures, Barry Armitage - winner of the Mongol Derby 2017 put into some context when he said “It delves into who we are as people in South Africa” and “We’re here to FEEL what making a history felt like”.

Cooling down on the steppe

From The ADVENTURISTS - who organise package deals to the race in Mongolia.

“…we do these things because our lives are under assault from boringness and predictability. Because all the edges of the map have been explored. Because we can’t afford space travel. Because mobile phones destroyed our ability to get lost. Because getting out of our depth is a vital part of being human.”

Interview with Barry Armitage, winner of the Mongol Derby 2017, fashion designer and creator - along with his riding partner Joe Dawson - of ‘The Ride’, an epic adventure in itself, through the Wild Coast.

Q. How did you start out in your career?

B: I used to be a professional sailor

Q: Where did that take you?

B: I was based in Majorca in Spain…spent a lot of time in the med, but went up the North Sea…the Red Sea. Took a boat to Australia.

Before I left SA in 1993, I didn’t really feel SAn. I left to live in Europe, and then discovered I definitely wasn’t European. Do I have any greater insight into all my travels and how I fit in? Not really. I’m part of this culture.

On Endurance riding:

I got into riding because I got into the development of a reserve in KZN. I used to be a yacht captain and …called it a day at the end of 2003… and the guy that I’d worked for for years had seen me catching trout in KZN on a property …on the Bushman’s River - in the course of 6 years bought up farms along the Bushman’s (Now called Zulu Waters)… Initially Apaloosas caught my eye…a local woman, Penny Winter had a horse for me - Pepsi taught me how to ride properly.

Pepsi taught me how to travel Endurance on a horse. You’ve got to understand the horse…pace the horse…my experience if you want to cover distance, in SA 16km per hour is it- a horse can manage that hours on end - a horse that is foot sure, isn’t spooky, isn’t worried about its mates…

Q: Did you grow up in Cape Town?

B: No. I grew up in Durban. Left in ’93. Was based out of Majorca until 2009 then came to live in Cape Town at the beginning of 2009 - I was unemployable and I came up with this idea to create a TV series about epic horse-back journeys that shaped history. And that had come about because I had become obsessed by SA history during my time in the wildlife reserve. Because I didn’t understand how an English-speaking South African white boy fitted into the history of SA. The history I’d learnt at school didn’t quite cover it. So I started reading SA history.

Q. Did you read Kommando? (Denys Reitz’s personal account of the Boer War - in which he had participated on horse back.).

Yes! ‘Commando’ was the defining thing… I think everyone should read Kommando.

'Commando' is available at amazon.com:

“Deneys Reitz was 17 when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899. Reitz describes that he had no hatred of the British people, but "as a South African, one had to fight for one's country." (He) had learned to ride, shoot and swim almost as soon as he could walk, and the skills and endurance he had acquired during those years were to be made full use of during the war. He fought with different Boer Commandos, where each Commando consisted mainly of farmers on horseback, using their own horses and guns. Commando describes the tumult through the eyes of a warrior in the saddle. Reitz was fortunate to be present at nearly every one of the major battles of the war.”

Barry: “The postal system was set up (as) a fresh horse every 40km - and the British based their postal system on Ghengis Khan’s postal system. (He) was the first person to use a structured horse-back messenger system. And it existed until the nineteen seventies, interestingly enough. And then the French and the Chinese and the British and Americans all copied… Forty Kays is the distance any horse will be able to do - whether the horse is fit or not.

On the last day of our (Harry Smith) ride, Joe and I rode two hundred and five kilometres. I haven’t come across anyone who has ridden 205km in one day. That was a long way, and Harry Smith beat us by four hours.”

From The ADVENTURISTS again:

“In 1224, Man of the Millennium Genghis Khan set up the world’s first long-distance postal transmission system. Using a massive network of horse stations his messengers could gallop from his capital Kharkhorin to the Caspian sea in a few days. It’s thought the speed of this communications was one of the great tactical advantages of the Mongol warriors.

Riders carrying messages directly from the Khan would ride non-stop wearing a gergel (metal plates showing the authenticity of the message) on their belts. Messengers would leap onto their new ride at each Urtuu at full tilt. Not even the call of nature or hunger would stop them. The remnants of this horse-wise-web carried on delivering post and messages right into the 1950’s. And now it’s back. Delivering you.”

“It was the nerve system of the largest empire in human history. Genghis Khan’s mighty horse messenger system connected ½ the planet. For a decade we’ve been rebuilding this ancient network to stage the world’s greatest equine adventure race.”

Q: So I still want to get to the nerve of what this adventure’s about…

B: WHICH adventure!? MY adventure or the Mongol Derby?

Q: This quest - and I think it’s a universal quest as well…and why do we do it, you know? How does it change your life? I mean when you walk away from the Derby, for example…or SUCH an adventure, what does it DO for you? I mean HOW has it changed your life?

B: The Derby’s special, but I’ve done other long distance journeys - different in character…but the Derby…you WANNA get off that horse in the end, but you don’t want the journey to stop. And when you DO finish, and particularly if you WIN, there is this little GLOW that you keep, this little…I dunno, sense of achievement that you keep with you. You’ve won the longest horse race in the world. But that aside…just finishing is a pretty big achievement…there’s a lot that happens in the course of that race. I mean I remember…I had quite an interesting moment, because I’d gone to the Derby to WIN. And I’ll tell you about the last day, because there was a lot going on, and decisions to make … but I remember on the second to last day, and it was before my last horse - I think it was on my second to last horse…I knew I was in third spot and I’d given it a good shot, and I thought “Hey man, I’m just going to enjoy this ride.” … I was coming to terms with the fact that I was going to finish third. I’d gotten all philosophical about it and I thought “It’s cool, I gave it my best shot. I made one mistake, it’s probably cost me the race…and that’s fine.”

I got to the next vet check and they were covering the entries…the time out of the previous riders. We had been getting grumpy about this - the riders had been getting grumpy about this, and the one time-keeper was standing in front of me and she had a rule book covering the top of the sheet. And I said “whats this covering the top of the seat rubbish, and I lifted the book up, and they were forty minutes ahead of me. And this philosophical “third’s good enough for me” just went out of the window! And you know, then it was race on. That was my last horse - the one I’d made a deal with to get me to the top of the mountain pass, and if he did I’d run him down the other side…

Q: Which is luck really - to have chosen a horse like that?

B: No, you choose. You’ve got to find the right horses. You learn which horse to choose.

Listen to Barry’s ‘SPOTTERS GUIDE’ in the podcast!

On strategy:

“Riding alone is riding to win” - if you have a strong horse, you don’t want someone who doesn’t to ‘feed’ off the strength of yours. You’re looking for opportunities to make a break. The race is like a cross between the Tour d’France and a 5 days Cricket series. It’s long!

Q. Does it get busier in your head towards the end?

B. Oh yes! Half an hour to the vet check, I get off the horse, have a wee (which makes the horse wee too and its heart rate drops. I take its heart rate - if its slow, then you know you might ride another KM, take off the saddle which gives it more surface to cool down; rub its hair up, lead it in; get through quickly.)

Q.Tell me about what’s going on in your head when you’re on the journey across the steppe:

I think its many things, but life becomes so simple: you’ve got to get THIS horse to the next vet check, as efficiently as you possibly can. And you don’t think about anything else, at all. Its just this simple task that you have to achieve. You need to There’s this wonderful simplicity - its almost like meditating. Because you don’t think about all the other stuff. It just kind of drops away. I think Your brain becomes still for a very very very long time. There’s a shedding, and your body is under tremendous pressure. There’s a purging. Although you’re completely fucked! And then when you finish you just lie around and do nothing for days. Some days I can’t even remember which horse I rode… you’re attached to this little purple line that’s taking you across Mongolia and you don’t even get this feel that you’re I the middle of nowhere really… You’re attached to this little purple line. (The GPS line)

References to Barry’s historical journeys (The TV Reality Series)


Since the beginning of the British occupation of southern Africa at the Cape Colony in 1806, the Xhosa tribes had been pushed steadily eastwards. By the end of December 1834 this pressure on traditional Xhosa lands exploded with the outbreak of the Sixth Frontier War. Thousands of Xhosa warriors poured over the border laying waste to the farms of the Cape Colony. Settlers were abandoning their farms and Grahamstown was under threat of being over-run.

The Governor at the Cape, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, urgently sent Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Harry Smith (called “Harry Whackalong Smite” by his troops), veteran of the Peninsular War and of Waterloo, to take command of the garrison at Grahamstown. Smith chose to ride rather than make the journey by sea as was the norm, concerned that weather conditions may delay his departure. Utilising the established postal system of the day he was able to travel the 950 km in just six days. Even with fresh horses waiting for him at post stations every 40 km, it was a remarkable equestrian feat, a testament to Smith’s horsemanship, physical fitness and determination. He rode at an astonishing average speed of over 22 km per hour and covered a remarkable 224km in a single day. Smith was accompanied for the duration of his ride by Manie, a Khoikhoi trooper.


“It delves into who we are as people in South Africa” Barry Armitage

“We’re here to FEEL what making a history felt like”

From the site: “In May 1842, on the southern tip of Africa, Boer commandos of the Republic of Natalia laid siege to the British Imperial forces struggling to gain control of the port at Durban. Much was at stake for both sides: the Boers desperately needed a sea port to become a prosperous independent state, the British, if defeated, would find their supremacy in the region confined to the Cape Colony. Without reinforcements the British garrison would certainly fall to the superior numbers and firepower of the Boer commandos. The British commander turned to Dick King a local trader, farmer and big game hunter of British decent to summon help from the nearest garrison at Grahamstown in the Cape Colony.”


The Ride goes to Mongolia to take part in the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest, toughest horse race; a race based on Chinggis Khaan’s messenger system which operated for centuries through one of the world’s greatest empires. Barry and Joe race 1000km across the Mongol steppe while filming another heart stopping series and attempt to triumph against some of the toughest equine adventurers in the world.