The last of the reindeer riders

Chloe Phillips_Harris (Supplied)
Chloe Phillips_Harris (Supplied)

Chloe Phillips-Harris is every bit the intrepid traveller, spending much of her life visiting places many dare not go.

"I've been in Egypt when Arab Spring was happening… I've been in India and I've been in Fiji," she says.

"I've really seen the poverty side of working animals and people and how it all interacts because I was looking to use my skills in a way that is a bit more positive."

When she is in New Zealand, Ms Phillips-Harris is a horse trainer and top level event rider based in the Bay of Islands with aspirations of one day representing New Zealand.

But every May following the closure of the eventing season she leaves our gentle, comfortable shores for her annual dose of adrenaline.

In 2013, she took part in the longest horse ride in the world.

The bareback ride crosses 1000km of untouched Mongolian terrain and riders don't have access to guides, support crews and are only allowed to carry 5kg of gear.

Falling in love with the unkempt nature of Mongolia, Ms Phillips-Harris delved as far as she could into the country's culture.

"I heard about the last tribe of people who ride reindeer. No sleighs, nothing like that, they actually ride them. They live in this very isolated set of mountains on the Mongolian-Siberian border," she says.

Enlisting the help of a US horse rider Eric Cooper and an Australian vet Campbell Costello, the trio decided they'd go in search of the tribe.

"I train animals for a living. It is very interesting to see how people interact with animals and how they are trained. So I thought getting the chance to go and see this reindeer tribe sounded amazing and with a bit of planning we decided to give it a go."

According to Ms Phillips-Harris, the horse trek took a couple of days and scaled around 3000 metres to where they thought the reindeer tribe may have been.

Nomadic by nature, there was no guarantee of any success and Ms Phillips-Harris says she endured some of the worst riding conditions she has ever experienced before finally reaching the destination.

However, despite the difficult journey nothing could outweigh what they then stumbled upon.

"It is absolutely magical, even talking about it gets me so excited. It is just amazing. Just an amazing tiny, corner of the world, the photos could never do it justice, it is unbelievably beautiful.

"These people are just incredibly remote and they live pretty much completely off reindeer."

The tribe has herds of up to 30 reindeer in which they use for transport milk and food, says Ms Phillips-Harris.

"They're amazing actually, they kill one reindeer a year and they use that for food. They hang it up in their tepee alongside where the family sleeps.

"They don't have any grains, but occasionally they will have a bag of flour which they can turn into noodles and have a soup with dried reindeer meat."

Ms Phillips-Harris and her partners only stayed a week, but vowed to return – and they did in May of this year.

"So we went back this year, went back up into the mountains, back up to the same area and saw them again."

With no real exposure to the modern world, there were concerns Ms Phillips-Harris and her colleagues may be putting themselves in danger. And when she told her parents she was heading back to find the tribe, she was laughed out of the room.

"I think everybody thought I was mad, they were kind of like – oh yeah, good luck, we'll see you when you get back. I don't think anybody thought it would actually happen."

But, the trio did find the tribe again, and Ms Phillips-Harris says they were totally accepting of the travellers and proud to show them their way of life.

Without knowledge of English, basic sign language and human decency goes a long way up the mountain.

"With the reindeer people, it was amazing. They are so remote, no one goes up there. So they literally just took us in and we just lived with them," she says.

"We were out there herding reindeer, milking reindeer and they are just this amazing welcoming community that just do really take you in. You don't sit on the sideline."

Despite being so distant from modern culture, Ms Phillips-Harris says the people are all very well educated.

"This year was really sweet. The kids go off to boarding school in winter and this year when we went to see them they had learnt a little bit of basic English.

"The one thing that really stood out, is that because the kids do go off to boarding school they are really well educated."

Although she is back in New Zealand at the moment Ms Phillips-Harris says she still has a whole list of places left to visit.

One group in particular is another reindeer riding tribe in the Arctic Circle.

"I love reindeer, they are the coolest [animals]. They are like something out of a fairy tale.

"They have the longest annual human migration every year, which they cover around 2000km a year with their reindeer herds. I'd love to go and see that and maybe spend some time following them along with bits of their migration," she says.

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