Pete Breidahl has spent more hours in the saddle than he can count through countries most people only dream of visiting. How did an Antipodean lad end up riding across some of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes? He tells the story in his own words.
Luisa has never been very good at getting up at the best of times; but when it’s cold, she’s even harder to get moving and will often lie all snuggled up in our sleeping bags whining about how badly she needs a pee. She screws her cute little face up and squeals “Peeeeeete … it’s cold! I don’t liiiikkkke it!” and then starts giggling through fake tears.
I’m more a morning person, and when I need to go, I just get up and go for it if there isn’t an empty bottle handy “old army habit – gross, I know”. This morning though, I saw Luisa move out of bed faster than ever before.
We were staying pretty much smack bang on the banks of Turkey’s longest river, “The Red River” which winds its way through nearby Avanos before ambling towards the Black Sea. It’s an impressive body of water, and the only river we had stayed near of any size, other than the Euphrates since leaving Mongolia. We were staying in a tiny little hut that was separated from the water by no more than 10 meters and a small fire pit where we had more than one boisterous party with the stable workers. Then, some 2 meters above the current water level, a large, decked area sprawled out over the water, shaded by overhanging willows with the last of autumn’s leaves grimly clinging to their limbs.
The crystal-clear water moved slowly, waving the long strands of maidenhair-type water reeds back and forth rhythmically under a low morning fog clinging to the colder air just above the water. Some 50 meters further, the narrow far bank was dotted with boulders at the foot of a towering limestone cliff every bit of 100 meters in height. It was a stunning scene; one Luísa was missing from the confines of her sleeping bag as I stepped outside to relieve myself in the very crisp morning air. I regretted not putting on shoes immediately, with the cold grass burning my feet as I walked towards the nearby bushes.
Just as I started a good stream … I saw it. A grey ghost – the first I’d seen in Turkey. It moved silently through the morning mist at first light, slinking silently along the far bank amongst the boulders. Well over a meter in length, almost white in color, it was the most incredible and unexpected wolf encounter I’d had yet. Without thinking, I spun and sprinted for the door making a right mess of myself as I threw myself into the hut, diving for the camera and saying the only word I could spit out at Luísa: “Wolf!”
Luísa was on my heels in nothing but undies and a top, standing beside me shirtless and barefoot in my urine-soaked camo pants. The ghost was clearly visible, and neither of us could believe our eyes as it moved downstream, vanishing as if into thin air, swallowed by the gently swirling mist. We were both freezing but fixated on the far bank by the one-in-a-million experience we had finally shared together. So often I will see the ghosts, and our encounters have on many occasions been under violent circumstances; but Luísa had only ever caught the most fleeting glimpses. This time, the ghosts had finally decided to show themselves to her and I felt far closer to her as a result.
It was finally “our world”, standing by the remains of last night’s fire and the empty beers cans surrounding it half-naked and barefoot, marveling at a grey ghost of the steppe covered in my own urine.
Everyone has this idea of how a wolf sighting will be; everyone has an idea of how we live, and what the “romance” is really like. Well, this is what it’s really like. Luísa and I have no intention of dressing it up as anything it’s not. We are “real”. This adventure is real and we’re going to tell it exactly how it is regardless of how it makes us look. But our adventure started long before this latest in a very long line of encounters with wolves, some of which killed and maimed horses in our care, and some that met me and my heavy Mongolian horse bow on my terms, not theirs.
I grew up in Australia but lived in New Zealand for most of my adult life, and to be honest … nowhere has ever felt like “home”. I’m the lost child of a narcissistic mother, a horrific car accident in my teens, military service, a life in the hills as a hunting guide and endless adventures in hostile places and the carnage that dwelt there. I was born into a storm, and the calm doesn’t suit me or those like me, and sadly far too many men like me have grown up in search of something they can never quite find. With an ex-wife, anxiety, a complete and utter inability to “fit in and play the game” in New Zealand I found myself once more returning into that storm to which I feel so accustomed.
Only this time, I wasn’t coming back.
With two suicides of blokes just like me fresh in my mind, I desperately struggled with the words of a recently deceased friend’s wife. “Pete, I’m just glad he’s finally at peace and his suffering has come to an end”. My suffering was all my fault, and despite counseling and even trying medication briefly, the only thing that really helped was that beautiful struggle to survive in a wild place with the smell of the horse underneath me, the bitter bite of a coming winter against my face and sounds of the forest around me.
My ex said I’d never be happy until I found a glorious death. But she was content with a tiny house in Dunedin’s northeast valley and a job cleaning rat cages. Me, I wanted a glorious life, and if death comes with that then so be it; I will go to it singing my death song. Goodbye New Zealand, goodbye rules, red tape, taxes, debt and everything else that cages a man and crushes his soul. Goodbye to the house you don’t really own, and the debt that owns you. I left with 23kg of belongings, cut all ties and left a free man having lost literally everything for what I felt would be the last time.
It felt good, knowing a man is only truly free to do anything, when he’s got nothing left to lose. Drunk, exhausted, and emotional I returned to my favorite park in Outer Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar with a tall boy can of beer in my hand shortly after stepping out of Chinggis Kahn international airport. I’d been here before a few times and knew my way around, so a walk first thing in the morning seemed like a good way to deal with the jetlag and 5am arrival and a two-hour stay in customs.
That’s when I met her; the woman that would change my life, and the dog that would bring us together. A little Australian cattle dog trotted past me, heading straight to a gorgeous young woman with blue eyes, a shaved head and sun-kissed skin.
And here’s where I’ll let her tell her side of things.
Three weeks pass; I want to cry. I want to scream. I close my eyes and can almost feel my hand running through the soft fur of a dusty stock horse. I can hear the birds; smell the eucalyptus and see Jill “my cattle dog” by my side with a smile. It’s all too much. I’ve failed. I’m stuck in Mongolia and the only way is back.
I’m furious with the Chinese border guards even though it’s not their fault. I’m angry at myself. I’m angry with anyone crossing my path. Empty and frustrated, I still put on a smile. I don’t want to explain, I don’t want your advice, I just want to be left alone. My dream to get Jill and I all the way back to Australia failed due to red tape. Her vet passport had the wrong chip number written in it and I couldn’t get her into China via the land borders; she had to fly in.
There was little more I could do other than sit in the park on a sunny day and feel miserable as I contemplated my inevitable return to Germany by train. It seemed so pointless, I’d come so far. We’d come so God dammed far and now I’d go back to work a kitchen job to save for a flight I couldn’t afford. As if Jill could read my mind, her soft puppy dog eyes wander to mine as if to say, ‘it’ll be OK Mum’.
“G’day mate, can I pat your dog? Seems a bit off seein’ a Bluey here, what’s ya story hun?”
A wiry blue-eyed stranger, “clearly Australian” holding a tall boy can of local beer strides confidently towards me, snapping me out of my gloom and straight back to the confusion I so often feel in places and moments like this.
“Sure, if she lets you.”
I just watch him, ruffing up her fur, scratching her ears and tummy and giving her cuddles much to her delight. Without stopping, he turns towards me and talks as though he’d known me half his life.
“What brings you to Mongolia sweetie, and how the hell did you end up with an Aussie cattle dog?”
I wasn’t overly warm in my reply, still trying to figure out this random fella’s intentions.
“Well, we’re trying to head back to Australia so I can get back to work on my friend’s horse farm.”
He looks at me, this time for real. Clearly interested in more than Jill and more than just for the sake of talking to a woman. No; he looks at me because I speak his language, and share a love of horses, dogs, and living wild and free with a fearless expression of individuality. He smiles; pulls up the sleeve of his shirt and a tattoo of a horse appears. His horse, “Digger”, a wild Mongol pony from the far north of the country. To be honest I didn’t know what I should think of him at first. He’d given up on the society he’d left behind and was here to just ride off into the sunset in the direction of Europe.
Crazy … I shake my head; it’s such a ridiculous thing to do. But I have just ridden around Mongolia for four weeks. He’s fascinating and seems harmless, so I give him my number when he asks to chat later regarding my horse contacts here. A line? He has horses. .. or genuine interest in me perhaps? We part after a meeting lasting no more than two minutes … but I can’t get him out of my mind. He was so direct and so different from most of the people I have met.
I was curious about this Aussie fella, so I called him and agree to meet up with him the following day. He came past the backpackers I’d called home for months, and we walked Jill to a river flanked by tall summer grass and low sprawling willows and sat chatting over a few beers. He said I was crazy after my four-week adventure … laughing about the hazards I’d been blind to; inspired as much by my passion as I was of his. He talked with so much love; going on and on about his old dog who’d recently passed, and his pony that he “connected” with while wolf hunting for weeks on end in the forests along the Russian frontier. So much so that I immediately felt I could trust him. He was not only equipped for his ride but prepared after years of training and life experience. He fascinated yet scared me a little in such a way I lost track of time and space … and then there’s an offer. At first, I think he is joking, but no, he is serious.
“You wanna join me? I’m going that way anyway; I’ve got no real plans other than living …”
I am speechless… Me? No! Why not? No! Ten days later, hours and days of wondering, questioning … and I’m on my way with a happy scream!
And 780 days later, we had crossed some 12,000km to Bavaria covering no less than 9000km of it in the saddle of dozens of horses across 13 countries. I literally can’t even begin to tell the tales of these adventures in a magazine-length article. I mean … where do you start? The bear encounters? Galloping across the steppe amongst wild horses on a buckskin stallion at sunset, or playing Kupkari perhaps? A game as old as horsemanship itself, in which men charge about atop Karibair stallions using a 70kg dead sheep as a ball? Or the Caucuses, Carpathians or the Austrian Alps? It’s a tale that takes a long time to tell, and it’s the moral that I will share here: That empathy and honesty lead to love.
Luísa and I fell madly in love despite a big age difference, the fact she was a vegan chef, and I was a former hunting guide, and we were from completely different cultures whose great-grandfathers fought against one another. The honesty and empathy needed to deal daily with each other and the horses living as nomadic horsemen was the foundation for everything I had ever dreamed of finding in myself and a partner. I found the missing piece of myself not so much in Luísa, but in the person that she and our mutual love and understanding of horses has allowed me to become.
I am finally happy. I have found peace, love, and a sense of contentment looking in the mirror despite all my personal failings. Horses, a little cattle dog, and a crazy German chick weren’t waiting for me a few streets away … they too were waiting out in the storm. We marry in June this year, then we are back in the saddle to do it all over again, and again, and again. This is our life now, pure wild and free.
In June we set off on a 4000km wander of the European Alps on my Kabardian horse and Luísa’s pure Arabian from the high deserts of Cappadocia in central Turkey, before setting our sights on a ride all the way to Singapore so we can fly our boys to Australia and keep on riding.
We fund it with both our books about our travels and how to set up for long rides, as well as making custom carbon fiber saddles and fitting out saddles for long riders.
It’s a good life, and if you would like to find us on social media, find our books, or see our entire trip on YouTube, visit us online.