Escape to the Steppes on a family roadshow

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WHEN the Grant family from Scotland rolls into town, the locals are often perplexed. The sight of two grown-ups, three children, a horse and a caravan can cause some confusion.

"We've been asked, `Are you a factory, a museum, circus, shop or a cafe?'," says 13-year-old Eilidh.

"Or, when is the concert?" adds Fionn, aged 10.

"An Italian wanted to book our act," says their father, 53-year-old David Grant. In fact, the Grant family troupe are putting a far more ambitious show on the road - circumnavigating the globe by horse-drawn caravan.

Four years and more than 7,500 miles into the odyssey, the Grants have seen war in Slovenia, played the bagpipes in the Ukraine, and eaten sheep's ears in Kazakhstan. Footsore but surprisingly healthy, the family is currently wintering in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator.

Traceur, their magnificent 2000 lb carthorse from Avignon in southern France, is enjoying a well-earned rest in his nearby stable at Mongolia's State Circus, with performing bears and wolves for neighbours. Outside in the yard, where the circus camels take their lunch, the red and green wooden caravan which was built in Perthshire is in storage, guarded by the team's travelling dogs, Tsar and Lenin.

The Grants set off from the Orkneys in September 1990. Why have they embarked on such an enterprise? "It's just as logical to do it as not to do it," David replies. "It's just that most people don't do it..."

An advertisement for horse-drawn caravan holidays had sparked the Grants off. They sold their house, banked the proceeds, and sailed for Holland where they purchased their first horse, Offy. The wooden caravan was barely large enough to sleep the family:David, his wife Kate, 43, the two sons, Torcuil, aged 14, and Fionn and their sister, Eilidh. It also had to accommodate life's necessities, including encyclopaedias and schoolwork for the children. "The biggest problem - apart from the bureaucracy - has been weight," says David.

Weight proved Offy's undoing. "It was too hard for him," David recalls. After gamely pulling the caravan through Holland, Belgium and France, Offy was traded in for a larger model in the shape of Traceur.

The voyage has not gone exactly according to plan. In June 1991, having passed through Monaco, Italy and Austria, the Grants arrived in Slovenia, just in time for the Slovenes' declaration of independence. When the Serbs invaded, the family found themselves in the middle of a civil war. One day they were directly beneath a Serb air raid.

Kate recalls: "It was really frightening." The children shrug their shoulders. "What do you mean?" she laughs at them, "you were terrified!" "No we weren't," they chorus back. The family retreated across the border to Austria, but came back to Slovenia when the Serbs withdrew. Winter was approaching, and "our 14-day crossing of northern Yugoslavia turned into 14 months". David, an ecologist, found work planning a nature reserve, Kate taught English, and the children went to the local school in Dravograd.

The following spring, "Russia looked very unstable indeed". Rather than leave Slovenia immediately, they waited until August 1992, and then set off at their customary 10 or 12 miles a day towards Hungary, where they spent the next winter. In Budapest, they secured the necessary visas and set off across Russia.

It took three months to cross Ukraine. "Things kept changing all the way along," says David. As new republics asserted their independence, border controls came and went. Travelling through the winter to reach Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, was "chilly" - temperatures dived to minus 28 C.

They bedded down for two months at the Alma Ata racecourse, and then headed back into Russia, reaching the Mongolian border in July 1994. Then came a rude shock when officials refused to let them out of Russia. A week later, after their case had been referred to Moscow, they were allowed through to the Mongolian town of Tsaganuur.

"They did not have much food in Mongolia," says Mr Grant. "Actually, the town barely had a food shop." They stocked up on flour, sugar and rice in the regional capitals - "we ate seven sheep on the way across Mongolia" - but still lost weight.

Crossing the Mongolian steppes has been the hardest leg of the trip so far. In the summer heat, Traceur needs up to 350 pints of water a day, so a Mongolian pony was purchased to carry supplies and sometimes Eilidh and Fionn. It took three and a half months to travel the 1,000 miles-plus across Mongolia's empty grasslands, finally reaching Ulan Bator in mid-November.

As Traceur pulls them round the globe, the Grants have generally remained in good health. The unluckiest has been Eilidh, who broke her ankle in Italy, and then broke her arm in the Ukraine. Torcuil also abandoned his appendix in Italy. The most disturbing complaint was a fierce headache which afflicted all of them in Kazakhstan. Iit had "all the symptoms of brucellosis" apparently but wasn't.

Apart from short visits home, the three children have been on the expedition the whole time. Kate, for family reasons back in Scotland, has had more extended breaks. After more than four years, what has been the most difficult part?

"Mongolia," says Torcuil.

"I thought that bit in Ukraine was pretty bad," says Kate.

"Kazakhstan - 12 miles of sand dune; had to be pulled through by truck," muses David.

This spring they plan to travel south across the Gobi desert to reach the frontier. It is an empty and arid terrain. By the summer the Grants aim to be in Peking, the original goal of the voyage . Then it is across the Pacific by boat to Canada.

"I intend Canada to be a bit more leisurely," says David.

It will be another two years before the family completes its epic voyage, but already David has in mind another, as yet undisclosed enterprise: "Maybe not with a horse."

"Not with a caravan," Kate adds firmly.