The next overseas motorcycle odyssey for Gareth Morgan and his intrepid companions portends to be one of their most difficult – not so much because of the rough terrain that stands in their way – but rather because of the socio-political hurdle they are confronting.
As part of their “Long Drop” ride down the 151st Parallel from Magadan in the Russian Far East, 40,000 kms south to Sydney, Morgan has been planning a traverse of the Korean peninsula from the northern tip to the very bottom. While a small part of the overall route it will prove to be the most significant part of this expedition from his perspective.
“Joanne and I have long had an affinity for the Korean people and have travelled many times around South Korea, both using public transport and riding motorcycles. The food, the fantastic mountain trails, the ancient history and most of all the gregarious nature of the people, have always drawn us back to the southern part of the peninsula. But in 2012 we decided our connection with Korea wouldn’t be complete unless we visited North Korea. So we did. As guests of the Korea New Zealand Friendship Society we flew to Pyongyang and got a little familiarity with the north of the peninsula. It was a fun visit and again we were able to make that connection with the mountains, the food and more of the people that define Korea”.
“We had connected with another New Zealander Roger Shepherd who has been working on a big project to document the historic, social and cultural significance of the Baekdudaegan, the watershed mountain spine of the Korean peninsula – much like our Southern Alps. Roger has hiked all around this mountain range in North and South Korea as he’s gathered the material for his book, a book which has major significance for the Korean people.”
And so to this year, and specifically the month of August, when the Morgans and Co will enter North Korea on their motorcycles having completed a ride of the Russian Far East down to Vladivostok. Once across the Tumen river they will set off to Baekdu, the highest and most revered mountain on the peninsula and home of the heavenly lake which Koreans see as their ancestral origin – where the Koreans came from.
Their ‘Riding the Tiger’ traverse of Korea really will begin here and traverse the length of the Baekdudaegan (known as the spine of the tiger) until they reach Halla, the southernmost mountain of the range on Cheju Island at the bottom of the peninsula. Fittingly, they will be accompanied on this Korean immersion by Shepherd, whose book will be launched to the Korean people as they move along the symbol that defines their homeland. Koreans dream of walking the length of the Baekdudaegan trail. That a group of New Zealanders, with an affinity for the peninsula and its people will be able to achieve this, Morgan sees as “rather special, and a real privilege”.
Morgan is under no illusion re the logistical difficulties of the journey. While the motorcycles are already in Magadan, awaiting the arrival of the group, he has been furiously working with others putting together the organisation needed. And of course smack in the middle of his plan to traverse the Baekdudaegan, lies the DMZ, the partition that for a mere 60 years of Korea’s 4,000 year history has divided the peninsula in two, kept families apart and prevented Koreans from enjoying the full expanse of their heritage.
Indeed he acknowledges that it’s even possible the wire could scupper his attempt to complete the continuous traverse of the Baekdudaegan, and force them to travel around the end of the divide via China, and so missing out on the traverse of the peninsula by less than 100 metres of the border at Panmunjom. But he’s fatalistic about this.
“We’ll see what transpires”, he mulls, “as it stands today we are fine to get to the line from the north, the DPRK authorities appreciate the symbolism of our quest, the recognition that the 50 million people to the south are the same as the 24 million to the north, that the Baekdudaegan is the unifying geographic, historical and cultural symbol of the Koreans, and that we – a group from a single country of two peoples, are reaching out to what is for now two countries of one people.”
“Clearly New Zealanders don’t empathise with every political regime in the world, but we do respect nationhood – trade with, play sport with, and have cultural exchanges with all peoples if at all possible. I don’t think an approach of isolation and escalation is really the New Zealand psyche and personally would like to see rapprochement on the peninsula rather than the upset Korean folk have suffered of late. This division of the Koreas was constructed the same year Joanne and I were born, it would be wonderful to see it disappear before we die. That we have the opportunity to connect with Koreans from the top to the tip of the peninsula is absolutely marvellous from our perspective. I do hope the South Korean government will be able to see its way clear to letting us come through the border at Panmunjom and remind the world that this is one people here and we have to all keep trying our best to enable them to resolve their differences and live together”.
Ever the optimist and never one to shirk from missions impossible, Morgan is excited about his Korean challenge, and is hoping the international media attention in his quest will be somewhat greater than that shown his recent crusade to save the world’s wildlife from people’s cats. That will be no mean feat as the cat campaign grabbed inordinate international media interest.