My journey to Prague as part of the Mongol Rally begins with a taxi ride from Chichester railway station to a field five miles away. As we drive along roads lined by hedges the driver asks me if I'm sure the directions I've given him are correct. Moments later we come across a field full of cars, vans, ambulances and fire engines. One of the cars appears to be covered in purple fur. His question, it seems, has been answered.
The plan is for me to be 'embedded' with one of the 350 teams entered in the 2011 Rally – to get a taste of what it's like to travel a third of the way around the world in a one-litre car. Not all the way to Mongolia, sadly. Just for the first part of the journey – from the starting line at Goodwood Motor racing course to a 15th century castle in the hills in the south of the Czech Republic. The European teams are already gathering there for Czech Out, a party to send the participating teams off to the wild east with a bang.
I track down Dan, PR guru for The Adventurists, the organisation behind the rally. He seems a little vague about which team I'll be travelling with.
“We haven’t found anyone suitable yet,” he says. A team driving a big American school bus has offered to take me. And so has one of the ambulances. But Dan insists that neither offers a 'typical rally experience'. I would be too comfortable, apparently.
Dan hands me a shot of Mongolian vodka, hoping to distract me. I ask if he is sure I’ll get a ride and he gives me another shot. It's called Chinggis Vodka and seems a little stronger than I'm used to. Dan assures me that it is.
Dan introduces me to Dave. Dave is a bit of a legend amongst Mongol Rallyers. He is the guy who drove a mini with a phone box on its roof all the way to Ulaanbaatar. Wearing a morning suit and a bowler hat. Dave is a mechanic by trade and as we wander amongst the various team vehicles, he pontificates on the likelihood of each making it to the end. A Vauxhall Corsa is deemed too low for the potholed roads of Mongolia. A Rover Streetwise too unreliable. And any of the ambulances would be a bugger to get out of the mud in Kazakhstan if it rains.
We spot a Robin Reliant. It has been entered by a team called MechSpesh and it's three tiny wheels seem totally inadequate for a drive along some of the worst roads in the world. Dave had hoped to be the first person to do the Mongol Rally in a Robin Reliant next year. He is gutted when he learns one of the team is a mechanic.
"You’ll need to take care of the leaf spring," he says. "Notorious for snapping."
The mechanic opens the back and shows him a pair of spare leaf springs, along with a number of other spare parts.
Deflated, Dave asks MechSpesh which route they are taking. They say across Russia and he raises his eyebrows, unimpressed.
“The easy route!” he whispers conspiratorially as we walk away. “I would have taken the desert roads through Kazakhstan.”
We stop by an ambulance with a map of half the world along its side. Dave traces out each of the routes. The southern route through Iran and Kazakhstan. The central route through the Ukraine. And the so-called easy route through Russia where teams drop down into Mongolia somewhere near Lake Baikal. He is determined I realise just what a cop-out this route is. I say it looks like fun.
Dave stares at the map in silent revelry, remembering a past adventure or maybe visualising some MechSpesh mishap that would allow him to be the first person to do the rally in a Reliant after all.
I take a closer look at the map too, searching for all the possible routes to the Czech Republic, looking for a country that I haven’t visited. A plan begins to form in my mind. Maybe, just maybe, if I can find a team willing to accommodate me, I can finally visit my 100th country.
I've been stuck on 99 countries for two years now. I’d been all set to go to Kurdish Iraq but that was scuppered by a certain Icelandic volcano. A city break to Algiers was cancelled because of a friend’s wedding...
I trace the possible routes to the Czech Republic looking for a country that I hadn’t visited. And there it is, nestled between Belgium, France and Germany. Luxembourg. If I can’t go hardcore, I’ll go lame.
Two guys are looking at the map too and overhear my conversation with Dave.
“We’ll take you to Luxembourg,” says one of them. He is an Aussie called Peter. His mate is an English guy called Leon. Their team is called Genghis Carnage and they are driving a tiny Suzuki Alto.
I’ve found my team, just like Dan said I would. And I’ll be travelling in the true spirit of the Mongol Rally – in the space the size of a handkerchief in a car that would be hard pressed to get a grannie down to Tescos.
We shake hands. I am now officially part of team Genghis Carnage.
Well, as far as the Czech Republic anyway.
Coming Soon: Team Genghis Carnage get their first traffic ticket and risk the wrath of a Belgian farmer by camping in his cornfield...
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