Paul Erskine, bucket-list maker and hopeful Mongol Derby conqueror

By Sipho Hlongwane 29 July 2011

Former mining executive Paul Erskine is taking part in the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest endurance horse race, as part of his already formidable bucket list. He’s also raising money for a Durban orphanage for abandoned children. We chatted with him in Sandton before he left for Mongolia. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous realm the world has ever seen, stretching from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan and from Siberia to the Himalayas. Started by Genghis Khan in the 1200s, it boasted a legendary postal service built on a medieval “pony express”. Centuries later, the Mongol Derby replicates the gruelling ride of those postmen with a 1,000km race across the steppes of Mongolia.  

Durban entrepreneur Paul Erskine is taking part in it this year, and explained to the Daily Maverick how it would work. “The derby itself is all about the rider,” he said. “You get a fresh horse every 40km. Don’t worry about the horses being fit; they only have to last 40km. The rider has to last the entire 1,000km.” The success of the Mongolian postal system was based on a network of stables spread across the steppes at 40km intervals. The dispatch rider would get a fresh horse at each point, and belt it out at full gallop to get his message to its destination as quickly as possible.

Erskine has been training at a stable near Graaff Reinet. He said, “The region’s dry and there are wide, open spaces. The Springbok captain [not the rugby one, mind you] has a stable of about 100 horses down there, so there are plenty to ride. I do 80km every day for five days. I did 360km last week. Before 270km. I feel fit and ready.

“The body is an amazing thing. Once you get past about 250km, your body is fine. There is no pain in your joints or anything like that. You ride yourself into what they call saddle fitness. I’m saddle fit now. I also do a lot of gym.” Erskine said. His fitness regime includes running, cycling and rowing.

The derby has an entrance fee of around R66,000, which Erskine is covering, plus the cost of getting to Mongolia. The race starts on 6 August about 100km outside of Ulan Bator and ends 11 days and 1,000km later. Each rider is expected to go through at least two horses (80km) a day to complete the race.

Erskine was chief executive of Nucoal Mining, which acquired a coal mine for R65 million in 2004. In 2010, Nucoal was sold to Coal of Africa for R650 million.

“These days I’m just enjoying the rest of my life,” Erskine said. “I’ve made up a ‘bucket list’.” It’s is quite impressive and includes climbing the highest peak on every continent (he’s already climbed Kilimanjaro), visiting all seven wonders of the world, diving eight undersea locations, taking a spin in a MiG fighter jet, crossing the Sahara on a camel, the Mongol Derby and other suitably manly pursuits.

“More importantly, when I semi-retired, I got involved with Fairhavens in October 2010, the orphanage,” Erskine explained. “I call it the abandoned babies’ home. I’m in charge of their financial responsibilities. I cover all their financial obligations, which is about R420,000 a year. When I was making my bucket list, I thought I’d combine the Mongol Derby, with fundraising.”

Erskine is hoping to raise R420,000 on his ride for Fairhavens. “To raise funds for babies, you’ve got to look for something with a ‘wow’ factor. It’s not just running the Comrades or climbing Kilimanjaro – everyone has done that. I will become one of 22 people to go into the Guinness Book of Records for completing this race [this year]. It’s a rare feat,” he said.

He has already raised about R300,000 in pledges. “I can’t give you up-to-date figures because the money goes straight to the Home,” he said. “I only get updates from them from time to time. A lot of people are sponsoring such that they will give R1 for every kilometre of the race I complete.”

Erskine said his participation in the Mongol Derby was ultimately about creating awareness about the many abandoned children in South Africa: “We have 18,8 million children in South Africa and about 1,5 million of them abandoned. Only about 2% of them actually get adopted. We’ve got a terrible child abandonment problem.

“As Nelson Mandela said, the soul of the nation is judged by the way it looks after its children. We’re doing a very poor job of it,” he said.

“Next year I’m doing the world’s most difficult hike – the Snowman’s Hike. It goes through Bhutan, the Himalayas and Tibet. It’s almost like the Shangri-La of walks. You do 500,000 steps to complete it and you’re at about 4,500m at any one time for 18 days. You cover about 342km, so that’s the one for next year in September.

A family man with four children aged between 13 and 17, Erskine has his wife’s full support. “She understands why I do this,” he said. “In fact, she came with me last year when we dog-sledded for 200km in the Arctic Circle”.

Having scaled Kilimanjaro, dog-sledded in the frozen north, rafted the white waters of the Zambezi and hunted fox in Ireland, Erskine almost certainly will see this one through. His bucket list remains one to envy. DM

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