Margery Hookings meets young Bridport man Luke Shirley who leads horse trekking tours of Mongolia
Photograph © Steve Luck Photography (www.steveluckphotography.co.uk)
A lust for life and a quest for adventure have led a young Dorset man to set up an exciting new business.
Luke Shirley, 23, is one of the people behind Wide Stride Expeditions, a company specialising in horse trekking tours of Mongolia, that vast country where the word wilderness seems almost an understatement.
‘I’d travelled to 20-plus different countries before visiting Mongolia. Each country had its own experience, but Mongolia blew me away. Nowhere else did I have such an immense feeling of freedom and adventure,” he says.
Luke moved to Bridport as a teenager with his mother, paddle boarder Sally Newman, who was featured in the Marshwood Vale Magazine three years ago. His early years were spent on the Somerset Levels.
‘I was constantly exploring and building dens,’ Luke recalls. ‘I had about four or five dens within 100m of our house right on the levels.’
His memories of Dorset include horse riding with his brother and mother at Golden Cap, an activity he loved.
After leaving The Sir John Colfox School, Bridport, Luke went to Exeter University to study sports science. Considering a military career, he joined the Army Officer training corps and completed his basic training. But the Army life was not for Luke.
‘I learnt a lot of new skills and picked up a few qualifications, but the military wasn’t my true calling,’ he says.
So he went travelling after finishing his studies.
‘I did what came naturally to me, I see how far I can get. I motorbiked the length of Vietnam and then ended up leading a group doing something similar in Laos. I climbed volcanoes in Indonesia and took people on overnight treks in China. I realised everywhere I went I wanted to share my love of adventure with others. I had always dreamt of a life of adventure.’
In the autumn of 2017, Luke went to Mongolia where he met Munkh-Od, an experienced tour guide who had lived and studied in the US and he taught himself English.
Says Luke: ‘He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and is such a hard worker—the man doesn’t stop. He cooks, he drives, he guides and he will still sit around the fire with you into the early hours for a chat. If I’m honest, it’s worth going to Mongolia just to meet him.
‘Mongolia is the land of the horse and blue sky. Because of this, it’s the perfect country for horse trekking. Combine the fact that it’s the least densely populated country in the world and the 18th biggest and you have a lot of untouched wilderness to explore.
‘I knew this was a place I wanted to come back to, so when I meet Munkh-Od, who wanted to work for himself and share my enthusiasm for meeting new people and the great outdoors, I knew we would be friends.’
Munkh-Od had been guiding tours in Mongolia for more than five years.
‘He was an outstanding guide, but he wasn’t free to reach his full potential working for other tour operators,’ says Luke.
‘We both wanted to show the world the majesty of Mongolia and share our love of adventure. So we started Wild Stride and ran our first tour in June 2018.
‘Now we are planning on running seven horse trekking tours, a winter ice festival and dog sledding tour in March this year.’
The aim is to run sustainable tours that show off Mongolia’s potential for adventures in a way that supports the local people and environment.
A third of Mongolia’s three million population is still nomadic, a lifestyle so unique in our modern world. Many of the team lead typical nomadic lives for most of the year.
Luke says that climate change and global industrialisation is making life harder for Mongolian herders to survive.
‘Fortunately, tourism is having a really positive impact,’ he says.
‘Many of the people who make up Wild Stride are local to Khovsgol province and we don’t want their way of life to disappear. Some of the skills and knowledge these people possess has been passed down over thousands of generations.
‘By running horse trekking tours in Khovsgol and visiting the Tsaatan people, we provide a way for the younger generations to continue to practice traditional skills and also earn an income that is, unfortunately, becoming essential to nomadic survival.’
The mantra for Wide Stride is ‘take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints and kill nothing but time.’
‘We take all of our rubbish with us, none of the wildlife is harmed and we respect the local people’s way of life,’ Luke says.
‘Our tours are designed to help people get in touch with nature, which is why we do our best to run low impact tourism that supports the local wildlife and people. Mongolia is changing but by inviting tourism to experience some of its most beautiful wilderness, we hope to preserve as much as we can.’
The horses roam free for most of the year and can end up getting quite fat on Khovsgol’s bountiful pastures. According to Luke, the exercise on the treks is good for them and keeps them fit and healthy.
‘The reindeer also have it pretty good. The Tsaatan show immense respect to their reindeer, protecting and nurturing their herds. The Nomadic people show an incredible amount of respect to their animals and are extremely forward-thinking in the way they manage the local wildlife.’
Trekkers camp out in tents at night.
‘The camping in Mongolia tends to be quite easy due to the fact it very rarely rains,’ Luke says. ‘Day time temperatures also average around 24°C in the summer. However, the nights are cold.
‘Mongolia is a country on the up and rated as one of the top ten hottest destinations of 2018 by multiple travel magazines and commentators. It’s a destination people don’t really know about yet, a place where you are free to feel wild and a country your friends will definitely want to hear about when you get back.
‘There is nowhere else you can get such an intense feeling of freedom. It’s just you and nature. The riding experience is amazing, with a hugely diverse range of landscapes to explore.’
For more information visit www.wildstride.org