We recently caught up with Katy Willings, founder of Morindoo Adventure a company which specialise in adventure travel in Mongolia.
Katy has been in charge of organising some of the World’s most renowned adventures, including the longest and toughest horse race on Earth, a hair raising long distance paramotor challenge and a motorbike ride across the Globe’s largest frozen lake.
In the process of running these trips for others, Katy has had some incredible adventures of her own. She now hopes to inspire and encourage other women, and men, to step out of their comfort zones and experience new adventures; with ‘experience’ being the key word.
Hey Katy, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to set up your adventure travel business Morindoo?
Hi! I am 37 years old, Basingstoke born and Bristol-based since 2010. The horse is my adventure partner of choice, having been more or less born in the saddle, and ridden internationally as both a dressage and an endurance rider.
I create adventures. The good for the soul kind, that stretch your mind and vision, not just your muscles. I worked as an event manager for The Adventurists from 2010-8, having met them as a customer on their Rickshaw Run, and Mongol Derby, in 2009. We produced logistically complex and dangerous events in far flung locations on very exacting budgets. I thrived on it. I spent a good deal of my working life in Mongolia, land of the horse and home of our Mongol Derby, the world’s longest horse race. I fell in love with the people, horses, land and way of life, and imagined many journeys and adventures I myself wanted to execute out there. Eventually this imagining crystallised into ambition and I went freelance in 2018 in order to try and concentrate on my own adventure company in Mongolia, Morindoo, which I founded and run with a wonderful friend and colleague.
I spent 2019 experimenting with curiosity and enthusiasm, encouraged by my course providers at a great organisation called Escape the City. I did their Career Change Accelerator course last spring. We were supported to strip things back to our values and build a career and a lifestyle around those. We were encouraged to step outside of expected roles and identities, something I found really tough after a very linear Oxbridge education, and even at the Adventurists, an identity that was easy to explain, high status, sounded cool at a social. I had a big hang-up that my best chance of attracting customers to Morindoo was to trade off my previous employed work on the Mongol Derby, that this was the only source of my reputation. I felt strangled by the old identity, and yet still hugely dependent on it. My instinct was to move away and do something totally different, literally just shed a whole decade of experience.
Escape the City gave me the tools and impetus to start again (if I chose to), or, in my case, the permission to dabble, and keep my Mongolia and adventure connection for as long as it served my values. I could build a reputation post-Mongol Derby simply by having great products. Having been switched on to personal development as a concept, I quickly noticed how Mongolia is in fact a fertile ground for human development of all sorts. So, my ‘tourism’ business is taking a ‘development’ segway; we will run retreats that help people build or re-build resilience, veterinary outreach programs that incorporate a heap of student development, both clinical and non-clinical…the possibilities are endless.
Our sweet spot at Morindoo is horse trekking, as I am an avid rider and equine adventurer, but we are starting to introduce multi-sport trips, including pack-rafting and trail running, as well as off-roading. These were all due to debut this year, but hopefully, we can pick up the threads in 2021. I enjoy sharing hard to access experiences, and helping people interpret them, usually from the saddle.
Where did your passion for adventure begin? Was there anyone or anything in particular that was responsible for kick starting this passion?
Ha, you might say that, yes. In mid-2008 one of my closest friends died very suddenly, and he had entered an adventure called the Rickshaw Run. I had spent the weekend with him before his death and he had talked excitedly and incessantly about how brilliant it was going to be, driving a tuk-tuk the length of the Indian subcontinent. All I could picture was squalor, danger, confusion, being lost, taken advantage of…and using up your entire year’s holiday allowance to boot. And yet somehow at his funeral, when the subject of the Run came up and we started to talk over what to do about his entry (a group of our uni mates had ganged together to take part) I remembered that chat on the M6 and said “I’ll go instead of him”. By the time I said the words, I meant them, though I must have looked pretty surprised as they escaped my lips.
Well, that was a big catalyst, fair to say. Having eaten from the tree of adventure, there was no going back. I absolutely loved that adventure – the contingency, agency, the simplicity and practicality of every day, the immediacy of the challenges upon us, the living like kings one minute and street rats the next, and overall, the amount of help and goodwill we found, wherever we stopped, from ordinary folks in the middle of nowhere. That blew my mind, the simple human to human connection. The day I finished the Rickshaw Run was the very day that The Adventurists, who had produced the event and inspired me beyond what I could have imagined previously, unveiled their next adventure coming to market – a 1000km horse race across Mongolia, pony-express style, fresh horse every 40kms. I was probably the only horsewoman at the finish line that day and in amongst the gasps and “no ways” I said “I reckon I could do that. Pass me the entry form”. I’m no athlete but show me a horse and I can ride it – much of the “it’s the toughest wildest craziest” language went over my head. I was going.
By the end of 2009 I had handed in my notice in London, where I was working as a management consultant in the remuneration sector, and sent my CV, as well as my debrief notes, to the Adventurists for their consideration. They implemented many of the debrief points immediately, and around 9 months later, implemented the one that said “hire me!!” There I spent the next 9 years, running not just the Mongol Derby but a whole suite of their events. Whilst ostensibly ‘at work’ I learned to ride a motorcycle (on ice and snow and off-road, as well as in rush hour in Russia), fly a paramotor (effectively paragliding with a motor on your back), set up communication networks and plans in remote areas, import previously un-registered vehicles to hectic and far-flung jurisdictions, evaluate several hundred semi-wild Mongolian horses for type, age and suitability in a day, and generally pull an event together. Also to dial the adventure up or down, based on the market, and to balance what was responsible, available, commercially sound, with that star dust that made people want to sign up. All my best experiences in that job were of not only putting on the events, but selling them out; getting under the skin of the folks who were considering signing up, and seeing what they wanted, needed, expected, could and could not tolerate. There, the real adventures started.
So you could say I got dragged into it. Adventure made an immediate, lasting, positive and profound impact on me, and I became fairly evangelical about it, as a way to put a decade’s worth of formative experience into a month.
Is there anyone that particularly inspires you in the adventure world to get outside and out on your own adventures?
My first colleague and mentor at the Adventurists was Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent. She’s a tiny person who casts a huge shadow, and she has been very inspiring to me, as someone who feels the fear and does it anyway. She is not aiming to point score as a survivor, or ‘bag’ world firsts, and she doesn’t do what she does to get attention. I think she keeps the same small circle of friends that she always did, and follows her curiosities. It helps that she’s a great writer and her articles and books make her money, but I always feel like if no-one else was interested, or read or bought her published work, she’d go anyway. She’s thrifty and makes sacrifices to do the expeditions that she does, so they are never a product endorsement. Her impetus is always personal, and as a result, her writing has that same flavour, of integrity, originality, personality. Some of her descriptive passages stay with you for ever more, and yet you don’t read a single ‘buzz-word’ from her. I imagine the people she has met along her travels still talk about her, just as she still talks about them. She has done brave and ambitious and magnificent things but I believe the main beneficiary she has travelled for, and with, is herself. She goes to learn.
You can join her on a select few adventures that she or her partner Marley have reconnoitred, but she is not the big ‘personality’ that will dominate your company and your memories of a trip with her. She allows events, situations, and the local company she seeks out, to do the talking. I love that lack of vanity and arrogance; she has something sage to say if you ask her, but she doesn’t need everyone to hear it. She’s not peddling soundbites and photos, but experiences and self-knowledge. We are very much on the same page there.
I had always hero-worshipped Ants and felt like her junior, a poor substitute, when she left the company, but we caught up at a travel expo a couple of years back, she in a speaker role and me scoping out a possible trade stand for the future. “I don’t know how you produced all those Mongol Derbies”, she said. “It was by far and away the most stressful project of my life”. That was comforting to hear, kind of a commendation. It gave me some confidence.
She’s also a gin drinker, like me.
You have mentioned that you set up Morindoo so that you could offer your own idea of what adventure is. What do you think sets Morindoo apart from other adventure travel businesses?
Well to revisit some of the points made above, I am not trying to send folks home with an album of new Instagram posts, over and above everything else. How it looks is one thing, but how it feels, for me, is far more to the point. Hopefully a new perspective will be their main souvenir. I aim to design trips that engender real connections, within the group and with the Mongolians we meet, ride with, stay with. I aim to let people lose track of time, and status, and just be where they are, in the moment. It requires effort for a day, maybe two. From there it’s actually a very enjoyable experience, that disconnection.
I’d say “the Mongolia focus”, but there are dozens of companies offering horse treks and adventure travel in Mongolia, some much cheaper and some double our prices. I would say what sets our trips apart is the right balance of quality and luxury on the one hand, and adventure and freedom on the other. We are less itinerised than the ultra-luxe folks and our interactions with herders and Mongolia generally are much more spontaneous and genuine. I’d certainly never ask our herders to ‘dress up’ for our guests, or do anything other than what they naturally do, which is offer real hospitality and comfort and a wry sense of humour. Where we have ‘special guest’ leaders or special interest tours, e.g. a film-makers trip or a photography workshop, our ‘star’ attractions are quite genuinely our friends, not branded “Nat Geo” experts. I am not whacking a great premium on our trips because of a single personality factor. Compared to the cheaper operators, well I’d say we feed our teams a lot better, and use much better equestrian equipment. I am two things; a foodie and a horsewoman. I want the food to be memorably good, good enough to excite and delight other foodies, and the riding and horses to be good enough to reassure real horse people. So, we have the most brilliant cook on our trips, and our tack is high quality, our horses are in great shape and have regular veterinary attention, we work with a brilliant regional vet to help us manage our horses. I believe that makes our riding trips more sustainable, the herders and their horses benefit. We spend enough money putting the trips together that it really shows, and we bring in high enough revenues for each trip to offer beautiful and thoughtful little touches. That is true hospitality. I prefer the term ‘guest’ to the term ‘client’, and I think everyone that we work with in the company naturally has that ethos. The depth of the friendships and bonds we form with our guests, and that they form with each other whilst riding with us, is testimony to that.
In 2020 we had intended to start to offer our first hybrid or multisport trips. There are actually many ways to explore Mongolia, you could (and should!) spend a lifetime there, but I am aware that most people are time poor and their holiday time is truly precious. To visit Mongolia and not be on a horse seems criminal. So, we are incorporating packrafting, mountaineering, trail running, or driving and lodging in the Gobi desert, with short format horse treks, so that people get a taste of both. I have also worked with a friend to put together an amazing self-driving tour, something which is very new to Mongolia – kind of like Top Gear’s Grand Tour, but without the racism and histrionics.
What feelings do you think or know your clients take away from one of your trips? Do you think it changes the way that they may view adventure?
My favourite piece of feedback was from an exceedingly high functioning business man, who in spite of all the trappings of power and wealth, was basically on a pretty tight leash in his day to day life. “I feel like you have taken my brain out of my skull, and washed it clean, and then, so tenderly, replaced it”, he said. I’d aim for that, again and again!
Personally I think people take away a greater trust in nature and their affinity with it, from one of my trips. It’s exhilarating to be off the grid, and truly remote. Of course we carry a satellite tracker, and folks are properly insured, and I produce meaningful risk assessments and do my utmost to keep our guests safe throughout the trips. But, Mongolia is an incredibly wild and remote place. No amount of insurance can circumvent that power that nature exerts out there; forces much greater than commerce are in play there and that is a wonderful lesson, and eventually, comfort, to our guests, who are so used to controlling their environment, and have perhaps forgotten whether seeking and exerting such control was their idea, or some societal expectation. The Mongols know they cannot control their environment. They seek no such control, nor protection, but learn to live and thrive in harmony with powerful and exacting environmental constraints. They are genuinely comfortable in a lifestyle that most westerners would find intolerably insecure.
I think this is a great definition of ‘adventurous’ – to trust in your own ability to interpret your surroundings and work with them. Our guests in Mongolia will see 4-year old children herding the family’s sheep and goats from horseback, bareback, at speed, and using sharp knives to butcher a carcass, and managing the fire inside the family ger. They have no ‘world firsts’ or ‘bucket list’ adventures to their name but they live a life of vigour, enormous skill and dexterity, and finely managed risk. They have fun in situations that would leave many a TV adventurer in tears.
So, a healthy review of what you need to feel secure is a frequent take-away. I had a Zoom catch up with some of our September 2019 clients a couple of weeks back. It was remarkable how well they are all coping under lockdown, economic hardship, redundancy, companies folding, all round the world. I would hope some of the Mongolian stoicism, adaptability, and ability to endure through externally imposed conditions and events, has rubbed off on them. Those brains have stayed washed clean!
We guess like many people, your plans will have been put on hold due to the current global situation. However, for when we are able to get outside again, do you have any major trips planned or anything that you’re particularly aspiring to?
Yes, my entire year is up in smoke sadly. Every entry fee for every trip returned. The sales window for tourism is generally first quarter, and even if things pick back up again later in the year, I will miss that boat. Why?
My next big adventure is a baby, due in June, so my aspirations are deeply personal; a safe delivery and a healthy family. It’s very difficult to picture life post-partum, but me and my partner are very outdoorsy and adventurous, and I’d wager that as soon as we feel able to get out and about with our baby, we’ll be off as a family in the great outdoors. My treasured motorcycle is currently for sale, a sad casualty of a year’s lost income and the fact that in this country at least, you cannot put a baby in a sidecar. So it’s on our own two legs, or four, for now.
One of the best books I have read on parenting is called The Continuum Concept, written in the 1970s, I believe, by Jean Liedloff, who spent years studying the Yeqana tribe in Ecuador. Her book is basically an invitation to continue your adult life, and model adult behaviour for your baby, and just keep it close all the time like any other mammal would. Strap it on and get on with your day. The rationale being that this is the best way for a baby to socialise, far better for parents and for children than the alternative of turning your house into a baby development zoo, lying it on an interactive mat and staring at it to see what it may or may not be able to react to. Babies are born with all the programming in place to grow into helpful members of the tribe; they don’t need ‘distracting’ from the fact that you have left them there alone in baby-land; just bring them with you into real life.
I love her philosophy, anyway, and I must say my own upbringing had shades of this; I was so very lucky to have a Mum who was a rider and was confident for me to be outside, with her, with the horses, sat in on her adult conversations and her adult life. I certainly fell off a lot of ponies as a tot and got a foot trodden on one time, but for me, an absence of risk and experience is more abusive than a healthy dose of it. So, perhaps we’ll have our aspirations met, and just bring the small one with us. In the dream scenario that will mean I myself recover in good time from the birth.
Do you have any tips or useful pieces of advice for our readers that may help them to plan and prepare for their own adventures, no matter how big or small they may be?
Be meticulous if you are organising your own, and take pleasure in covering off the details. Roald Amundsen is famously quoted saying “adventure is just poor planning” but I take issue with that. Poor planning will end your adventure before it can even begin if you have taken on something really ambitious. The real pleasure is in being comfortable and self-sufficient in a different or challenging environment, and of taking responsibility for yourself and those around you. That great rush of wellbeing that comes from coping in tough conditions has to be earned. Otherwise if you wanted an adventure you could just put yourself in harm’s way all the time and see if you could muddle your way out of it, no help, limited resources. I’m not saying that’s not a formative or useful exercise, I just don’t call that an adventure. Otherwise Syrian refugees would say they were having a great adventure.
If you don’t have time for the planning, but want the rush of wellbeing, just buy an off-the-shelf adventure from a great guide or tour company and let them handle all the details. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. You may learn skills you don’t yet have, and pave the way to planning your own adventures in years to come. You will not fail to notice every piece of forethought and professionalism that will have gone into preparing a successful ascent of Mont Blanc or whatever you choose as your challenge.
Always have an analogue plan B; pen and paper, map and compass, ready to eat food, etc. Assume that money, phone signal, anything battery powered or electronic, can fail. An over-confidence in technology is an invitation for disaster, as is a failure to account for delays. You might be really well dressed for daytime temperatures, but what about the top of the mountain? What if you sprain an ankle on the way down and your speed is halved, will you be warm after sun-down? As my dad would say, “better to be looking at it, than looking for it”. Don’t begrudge the life-saving kit you may have lugged all day and not needed. Train to be strong enough to carry the lifesaving kit, the extra layer, without feeling the extra weight! (Oh yes, I am also a certified kettlebells strength coach, did I mention that? Get strong! Physical strength carries over to every possible corner of your life. Including adventures.)