Nightmare on the Bridge
Australian adventurer Tim Cope has reached the half-way point of his journey from Mongolia to Kazakhstan. He sent us this story about the perils of crossing bridges!
It was a fleeting thought, quite funny really. 'What would happen if my third horse panicked now and jumped backwards?' I had been riding since 2am and now in the light of morning at about nine I was crossing a very haphazardly built bridge. It crossed an empty canal and was made by two slats of steel laid down with a gap in between. Each bit of steal was about 40cm in width. I set off on one side and led the other two horses on the opposite side. These two horses were tied together. The horse usually directly behind me, Darkie, began to cross calmly.
then it happened. Ogonyok, the last horse freaked out. He jumped, pulled back,
and thrashed his head about in a frenzy of fear. Darkie was pulled backwards off
his feet and tumbled in between the two pieces of bridge. Hysteria. Ogonyok
pulling back. Darkie hanging in mid air, the two boxes on his back catching his
fall, resting on both sides of the bridge. The situation was now serious. Would
Oogonyok now also be pulled into this crevasse? He was holding on with all his
might. 'Shit! At the very least Darkie is going to
break his leg!? I don't have a gun! How will I knock him off!?' I raced my horse to the far side and returned. I managed to untie Ogonyok from Darkie, and now Darkie was literally hanging by his saddle and boxes which were wedged into the gap. The girth straps and ropes were cutting desperately into his ribs and stomach, but worst of all with all of 60kg or so on his back, one leg was caught up on the bridge. It seemed to be stretched out to snapping point. I quickly surveyed the saddle and straps that were holding him in mid air. There was no way of pulling him up . I would have to somehow get the saddle off and let him drop three metres to the empty canal bed below. Even with all the pressure I managed to untie one girth strap. Then I cut my tie rope with a knife and jumped down into the canal. From underneath I just managed to reach the last girth strap and let it loose. 450km of animal came tumbling down, and luckily his leg came down with him. We then darted out of the canal before the mud swallowed us. It was all over in the space of a minute or so.
I couldn't believe it. How could I have been so bloody stupid!!! It was the stupidest mistake I had ever made on this trip. What was even more unbelievable was how I had survived this scrape without a dead or badly wounded animal. If darkie had been pulled off the far edge of the bridge then it would have been a different story, as it would have been if the boxes hadn't caught his fall. If I hadn't had the knife at the ready, and made simple to untie knots then I would have also been in huge trouble. It took me an hour to remove the boxes and saddle without them too falling below. Then gradually I packed up and left.
It only occurred to me later that this mistake was probably due to tiredness. I hadn't slept in 48 hours and had been riding all night.
I left the bridge in a bad way. It was now up to about 35 degrees celsius. I had been relying on that canal for water, and knew that I had to take the horses a further 15km. We had already travelled 38 kilometres as the crow flies and in the heat I was consumed by fears of saddle sores. It seemed that no matter what I did, every day was an epic in recent times, and this was seriously slowing us down. I knew that by riding like this until after midday would make it unreasonable to start riding at night again. By next morning it would again be searing heat and so I would have to wait a day to keep moving while the horses recuperated. Problem is that when the heat is extreme, the horses don't like to eat anyway- and I ride during the cooler hours. Seems impossible to find a workable routine. That is other than a slow one, and my visa expires in September!
Anyway, we all lost a bit of morale over the next 15km to the village of Bikbauli. Ogonyok was refusing to walk at a reasonable pace at the tail end and so I let him free. As usual he took the opportunity to eat grass at first, but soon came bounding along- petrified to see his herd leaving him. Tigon was searching for any sign of shade, and I realised I was quite hungry. Hadn't eaten anything but a chocolate bar since yesterday evening. The heat making my back burn even below my shirt. Sand blowing about. How had such a pleasant night ride gone so wrong? My plan had been to stop by nine-o'clock before it got too hot. Let the horses eat. I would lie back in the tent and sleep. Plans it seems rarely work out in Kazakhstan. Trying to predict the road ahead is very difficult if not impossible. Most villagers have not been further than the next village and no nothing of the terrain, let alone whether there is water or not. Then one small mistake can put you off by a couple of hours, and the point of getting up at midnight to pack suddenly seems futile because you have been riding in the heat that you were trying to avoid anyway.
The nerves cooled in the village of Bikbaulia. I had been given the name of a Babushka who was the relative of someone I had met on the road. In a state of near delusion I led the horses through the large corrugated-iron gate and tied them up. Tigon drank water and I took the load off. The air is so dry here that within a few seconds of stopping the sweat on the horses body dried and left white salt stains everywhere. The poor animals looked scorched and shrunken, much like myself I guess. Considering this I am forever haunted by the locals reaction when I ask them about heat: "Heat? This isn't heat! Wait until summer. Then you will know what heat is!" Oh, the difference a cup of cold fermented milk, some water, a change of clothes, and some company can make. Entertaining in my state of mind as usual was a bit tough though. I lay down by the low table and tried to answer a hundred questions. My Russian was failing me. I just wanted sleep. The Babushka's family was large and tangled. There were about 10 people at least living under this roof. Locals came to see me and shake me hand. Many people had seen me on Television during winter and came with notepads for autographs. A kind of dumb grin gripped me- something that tends to happen when I am just so exhausted and the body just goes on doing things by itself.
A few hours later the world was bright again. I watered and fed the horses, and even gave them a thorough wash with water from the well. Then I set them free into a patch of green. I gave tigon a can of meat and his favourite old coat to lie on in the shade. I then slept until evening in the cool of the Babushka's mud-brick home.
By 1 am I was ready to go again but could sense that neither the horses or I were up to it. And so I paid a young herder to graze my animals today and am recuperating myself. The last week or two has been full of intense days, and those like today- lying low. I managed to escape the tangle of canals a while back when I crossed the Syr Darya at the town of Zhusali. It was a real relief to be back out on the steppe. Choosing wheel tracks as I pleased, far from a road. I camped on the banks of the river and let the horses graze on lush green grass. The river itself is mesmerizing. It meanders through a landscape of sand and dry steppe, bringing with it a corridor of unthinkable greenery. Along its banks I came to meet many families set up for summer in Yurts. The cry of a camel at evening as milking gets underway, sunset over the soft waters, letting the horses wander free and eat heartily. Drinking gallons of milk, and even swimming every now and then. It brought enjoyment and reward back into my journey. There was also a full moon at this time. I would rise at 3am, and by five be on the move to this golden orb casting a blue light over the river and steppe. The silhouette of old graves, a cool sweet breeze, and the horses moving happily. The sun would rise almost at the same moment that the moon set. They seemed to mirror each other for a moment before saying goodbye. At this point the day begins to eat up rapidly. By 9am you are wondering if that cool air was just a dream or not.
One obstacle to get over was the city of Baykonuur. This is the city built purely to service the nearby cosmodrome- the centre of the former soviet space program. It was from here on the moonscape steppe of Kazakhstan that the first man was launched into space. Nowadays the city and cosmodrome is rented by Russia and is closed to foreigners without a permit. The city is walled and official currency inside is the Russian rouble. Since I had no permission to be there I had to make a detour to avoid it (the city is set on the river bank). A long, bizarre day ensued. Here I was on horse riding among massive satellite dishes, the roar of a strange looking aircraft above, and not far away from buildings after buildings on the steppe all boasting technology just so far from the reality of my journey- and that of the lives of local Kazaks as well! Eventually I made it to a herder Yurt camp on the far side of the city. From here where life revolves around camels and sheep the sight of towers and lights and other strange structures dominate the horizon. From their Yurt tents Kazaks must have watched with a sense of awe as the rockets were launched (and are still launched).
From there I have made my way gradually towards the large town of Kazalinsk, and am now only 100km or so from the far flung village of 'Aralsk' which used to be on the shore of the Aral Sea. The sea itself has since receded about 80km from the town. Nazarbaev, the president of Kazakhstan, recently announced that he will back a plan to bring the shore back by damming up the northern section of the sea which now forms not much more than a little lake. This will mean that all of the Syr Darya's outflow will enter the northern part of the sea.
Anyway. Feeling exhausted as usual, but the reward is in getting to know the locals. And I am incredibly grateful for the unending hospitality I am receiving. Stunned by the extreme of the climate. Its one thing to read about the extreme of central asia, but another to experience it. Not sure what lies ahead. Do not know how to overcome the problem with my routine at the moment. I have left the Syr Darya and will be reliant on the water at railway stations to feed my animals for the next few hundred kilometres. This means that camps will be rare, and the hope of sleeping in the day remote. Each day is a problem to be solved on its own. Time to eat lunch!
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