Giving back

Top CEO's drive for charity

Simon Pearse, Marriott CEO
An intrepid South African investment professional is set to tackle the most gruelling horse race in the world in the wilds of Mongolia – to help eliminate needless cataract blindness amongst poor communities in South Africa. 

Simon Pearse (51), chief executive of The Income Specialists, Marriott Asset Management, has signed up for the 1000 km Mongol Derby for the benefit of Right to Sight, an international charity founded in Ireland, that works towards securing a sustainable supply of eye surgeons in Africa and providing accessible affordable eye care for all.

What would tempt a successful business person to take on the planet’s longest and toughest horse race? 

"Wide open spaces make me feel happily insignificant,” says Pearse. “Whether motorcycling in the Atacama or Namib or Lesotho Highlands, riding on the plains of the Masai Mara, running in the Libyan Desert, mountain biking in Botswana or Zimbabwe and now real insignificance - Mongolia.” 

Pearse is no stranger to extreme sport. He followed the Dakar Rally on a KTM690 motorcycle in 2011, driving 7500km through South America over the Andes twice in two weeks.

“I am still trying to put the weight I lost back on,” he laughs.

In 2007 he tried on horseback to herd 10 000 stampeding wildebeest across a Kenyan plain. “Unsuccessfully,” he explains with a rueful grin. “The migration continued unimpeded.”

And when he cycled 300 km through the trans-frontier game reserves of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa in 2011 on the Tour de Tuli, the adventurer was disappointed that the big five ignored them completely. 

Always ready for a fresh challenge, it seems the Mongol Derby was irresistible to this easygoing, polo-playing, family man who lives with his wife, two daughters and six thoroughbred horses at picturesque Midmar in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.  A respected businessman, Pearse holds the joint positions of CEO and investment professional at Marriott, where he was instrumental in bringing the benefits of listed property to the private investor in South Africa. 

When the sun rises over the Mongolian steppe on 10 August, Pearse and 35 men and women from all over the world will have completed a 3-day pre-race training session and will set off on horseback on what should be a 10-day marathon through this remote and unforgiving territory.  

Fortunately, these are no ordinary horses.  They are the same breed that carried the all-conquering Mongol warriors across half the world. Mongolian horses are diminutive, sturdy, fearless, wild and unbelievably tough. They are revered by their people.  

In the months leading up to the derby, the organisers select and prepare about 1000 horses belonging to local nomadic herding families and breeders along the route, or “unroute” as they call it as there is no marked course. There is simply an impressive network of horse stations at 40km intervals that have been likened to “a recreation of Chinggis Khaan's legendary empire-busting postal system”. 

Each station, or “urtuu”, houses a small collection of “gers” (canvas and felt tents which the nomads live in), a supply of fresh horses, a veterinary team and a few nomads. Basic meals are supplied here, largely “airag” (mare's milk) and mutton. Use of the “gers” is optional and riders may choose to sleep alone on the steppe beneath the star-studded sky.

It is up to each individual how they navigate between stations and a GPS is allowed. The organisers have made sure there is enough water available en route and horses are changed at every station. Competitors must weigh less than the race limit of 85kg and may carry just 5kg of essential survival kit. Mongolian horses are small and their welfare is a priority from start to finish. 

“There are no showers, no packed lunches, no stabling,” says Pearse. ”It's just you and your team of horses pitted against your competitors and the great outdoors in the Mongolian wilderness.” 
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