Belinda Ritchie knows a thing or two about transport. Her day job is as general counsel to Arcadis, part of the consortium of companies building Sydney Metro and WestConnex. Her expertise is in project management and sorting out the legal headaches presented by large infrastructure projects.
But today she departs for a transport challenge of a different kind. She will be part of a four-woman Australian team competing in a race to cross the Gobi Desert in Mongolia on horseback. The inaugural Gobi Desert Cup across the desert known for its dunes, mountains, snow leopards and Bactrian camels, will take six days covering 80 kilometres a day. That's a long time in the saddle.
And she admits she hasn't done much preparation: "You should probably do a lot more than I have," she said. "I only found out about it five weeks ago.
Ritchie is no stranger to long hours at the reins. In 2014 she was awarded Young Adventurer of the Year by the Australian Geographic Society after spending a year riding the entire 5330 kilometres of the Bicentennial National Trail from Melbourne to the north of Cairns. It was a horsewoman friend who has just completed the trail who told her about the Gobi challenge
The race starts on Friday and contestants can walk, trot or canter starting at sunrise and each rider must reach camp before sunset. Two vet checks are held daily; one at the 40 kilometre checkpoint with 30 minutes rest for the horses and another one at the end of the day. Each day riders will be provided with a fresh Mongolian pony - a breed related to Przewalski's horse, the only true wild horse in the world, at one time extinct in the wild but reintroduced to the Mongolian steppes.
The organisers say: "The horses you will be riding will be selected after they qualify based on their health, age, experience and ability to complete long distances. The Mongolian horses selected for the cup are similar to a green horse. Get on and off quickly, make yourself discreet and you will be just fine."
A support team covers the course which runs from the start camp outside capital Ulaanbataar towards Dalanzadgad, the capital of Umnugobi south of the Gobi Desert. A traditional camp awaits at the end of each day, with a local family of herders helping to unsaddle and take care of the horses.
"Getting to know a new horse each day and finding out what their capabilities are will be the challenge," she said. "When I did the Bicentennial National Trail with three packhorses I covered about 40 kilometres a day and that was mostly walking. This will be harder both physically and mentally.
"The food will be provided by a chef - apparently he competed in Mongolian Masterchef but I don't know if he won."
Ritchie is joining the race to try to raise awareness of Engineering Aid which is a charity that encourages Indigenous students to study engineering at university. It provides scholarships and workplace experience.
She says there is one advantage of riding in the Mongolian steppes compared with the national trail of rural Australia. "I am looking forward to riding 480 kilometres without seeing a single fence or a gate," she said. "On the national trail I must have opened more gates than I have had hot dinners."
The story From WestConnex to the Mongolian plains of Genghis Khan first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.