Tom Morgan, founder of The Adventurists, talks about the Mongol Rally, perils in Peru and becoming a culture institution for ASEAN
Tom Morgan, the man who founded The Adventurists, is a hard man to interview. I finally caught up with him at Goodwood Racetrack during the launch of the organisation's signature event, the Mongol Rally. Now in it's eighth year, the Mongol Rally sees teams from all over the world attempt to drive 10,000 miles across a third of the planet in a tiny car most people wouldn't use for the shopping run – from Europe to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
As we wander around Goodwood Tom rattles off some impressive statistics. This year's rally has 350 teams, comprising almost 1,000 people. The Adventurists' Visa Machine, a service offered to help teams acquire the necessary paperwork for places like Iran and Turkmenistan, processed over 3,800 visas. The rally so far has raised £442,000 for the Christine Noble Foundation. Over the years the various adventures have raked in well over £3m for various charities.
Around us bands play, Mongolian wrestlers wrestle, visas and carnets are collected. Eventually, each team gets to do a lap of the historic race track before setting off. The sense of excitement in the air is palpable. Tom excuses himself. He likes to meet each of the teams before they set off.
Other adventures have been developed by the Adventurists and are proving equally successful. The Rickshaw Run in India sees teams wobble across the sub-continent in an auto-rickshaw. The Mototaxi Junket sees teams drive a wholly unsuitable sofa bike down the winding almost-roads of Peru. The Ice Run that sees participants ride an old Russian sidecar through Siberia in the depths of winter. A new Rickshaw Run in South-East Asia has been nominated as an official ASEAN cultural event.
The next time I spot Tom is at Czechout, a second launch party, in a field in a southern corner of the Czech Republic. It has been organised for the increasing number of European teams participating but most of the teams from England have made it too. Imagine a mini-Glastonbury in the ruins of a 13th century castle. There are bands, DJs, fire twirlers, free food and worrying amounts of Absinthe. It all goes off incredibly smoothly. For an organisation that radiates with an aura of ramshackleness, it's a very slickly run event.
Finally, the morning after the night before, I catch up with Tom over breakfast in the kitchen of the house the Adventurists team have bunked up in. Bleary-eyed team members wander in and out, grabbing coffee, contemplating breakfast. Tom is looking in decidedly rude health, despite not getting to bed until a few hours before.
That was some party. How many teams are involved from Europe now?
98. The Italians, in particular, love it.
How did it all start? The whole Adventurist thing?
I studied Fine Art, so I didn’t actually study anything for four years. But I did a study exchange here, in the Czech Republic, and bought a crap little Fiat 126. I had a lot of spare time and tried to think of the most stupid place I could drive to. Me and my mate Joolz decided on Mongolia and failed miserably.
That was 2001. After that I lived in Russia for a while and learnt Russian, not very well. I started developing the rally as an event, thinking it was something I could do in my spare time.
The first official Rally was held in 2004, with four teams, and it's kind of grown from there.
You've got teams coming from all over the world. This year there's a team from Korea and a Mongolian team as well. How do they hear about the rally?
Word of mouth, usually. Or they read a story about other teams in local press. We had a New York team that got a good piece in the New York Times and suddenly there was an influx of teams from New York. If you look at our web stats you can literally watch the impact of each particular article.
I was speaking to some Danish guys and they said, ‘Oh yes, a man in our local town did the rally and it was in our local paper and we decided we wanted to do it.
Canada is amazing like that as well. There is a town called Sasquatchian, which I don’t think is very big. And for about three years we always had two or three Canadian teams and they always came from Sasquatchian. And they were all like, ‘I must be the first Sasquatchian team!’ and we’d say, “No, there are already a couple of other teams from your weird little town. They had a falling out about it. Became very competitive. It was quite funny.
I was surprised to learn that the Rickshaw Run gets a lot of Indian teams.
It just kind of took off in India. It gets a lot of Indian press. Everywhere it goes, it’s quite funny and the locals like it. Plus it’s hard for them to get time off work for something like the Mongol Rally. That’s why we started offering the shorter adventures. I think that will happen with the South-East Asia Rickshaw run as well. Something like this doesn’t exist yet. We've already had a lot of interest from Singapore.
I've been talking to a lot of the teams and the motivation for them seems to be this real yearning for adventure. There there doesn’t seem to be many outlets for that any more.
Most people’s idea of independent travel is backpacking. But we set them a challenge. They could just wander the world for six months aimlessly or take on the challenge of driving a highly inappropriate vehicle to Mongolia.
A lot of people backpacking, all they do is religiously follow the Lonely Planet guides. Their day-to-day activity is staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. OK, they might be cheap hotels and cheap restaurants but it’s just not interesting.
Having a banana pancake and while you’re watching The Fast and The Furious on a screen in a cafe on Khao San Road.
A lot of people perceive the Rally as this Cannonball Run kind of thing, treating the countries they pass through as a playground. How do you respond to that?
In any group of a thousand people you’re going to get a couple of dickheads who are pretty irresponsible. It’s no different from other travel situations.
But if you look at the effect of our teams passing through it’s quite low impact. They actually see different parts of the country. Look at mainstream tourism, they decimate towns, completely change the culture of an area. These guys get into a tiny town in the middle of the Kazak desert and they get benefit from the culture rather than sitting on the beach or the pool in some concrete monstrosity.
The fact that there are these lone kind of teams coming in, it’s not like a bus load of tourists you have zero interaction with the locals other than the girl at the checkout of the state-sponsored souvenir shop. They’re not going to specific areas so their money isn’t going to specific areas, it’s much more spread out.
So I think it’s the other way around. Ordinary tourism is destructive and invasive and you don’t get a genuine sense of the culture. You’re not really engaging with it. You’re engaging with a postcard of it.
There is a bit of japery and Friday-night-on-a-high-street shenanigans, especially at the start of the rally.
Sure, but there are guys doing that every night of the week in the UK and will be doing that for the rest of their lives. The guys that do it here might drink a bit much at Czechout, but along the road, their car breaks down, a Mongolian family goes out of their way to help them and all of a sudden the scales fall off. The scales are never going to fall off on the high street of High Wycombe.
How do the Mongolians feel about the rally?
They don’t see themselves as a backwards culture that needs protecting. They see themselves as part of globalisation. That’s why we’ve got Mongolian teams on the rally this year. They don’t see it as an insult to their culture. They see it as fun and want to be part of it.
And besides, if there is any nation that likes a good party it’s the Mongolians. They annihilate our rallyers every year! “You must drink vodka!” They get through a litre of Vodka each. Our rallyers are left looking like a bunch of wimps.
What keeps you going? Is it coming up with new ideas like the Ice Run through Siberia and testing them out?
Yeah. And things like this. Obviously I can’t go on the rally anymore – actually, I could – but I get a kind of sick pleasure from organising it and dealing with the shit that arises all around it. You find yourself in situations meeting Prime Ministers and stuff. That’s an adventure in itself. It’s the same as going on a journey with a purpose, except the purpose is organising an adventure.
The problem solving aspect?
Yeah, we’ve got 300 people in prison and two-weeks to get them out.
You had the President of Honda Peru shut down the manufacture of the vehicles needed for Mototaxi Junket because he thought it was too dangerous.
Yeah, that happens. But in most places we are positively welcomed. South-East Asia has been the best example. The chairmanship of ASEAN rotates and at the moment it’s Indonesia. The Indonesian government, as the current chair of ASEAN, want us to be one of their offical ASEAN cultural events. They’ve got this big drive to promote connectivity in the region and to promote ASEAN to the people in the ASEAN region. It’s very much an inter-government body and the actual man on the street has very little clues as to what it does or how it benefits them.
So they want to promote this idea of connectivity and they chose the South-East Asia Rickshaw Run. They like it because it’s going to be very visible and we’re using regional vehicles.
And you’re 'connecting' with all the different countries you pass through...
Yeah, we’re physically demonstrating, by crossing lots of borders, how easily connected they are. It works for ASEAN and it works for us because we’ve got a kind of Green Card into the area.
How did the connection with ASEAN come about?
One of the sons of the advisor to the secretary general of ASEAN came on the Rickshaw Run three years ago and suggested something similar to his dad. Then I went out three or four months ago and had a meeting with the Secretary General and the Indonesian government, put a proposal forward, explained who we are and what we had done and how we think it would work and they gave it a green light. That’s been our highest level of approval so far.
You've changed the Mototaxi Junket so that it just goes through Peru now.
Yeah, it got to the point where it was impossible to get to the end. We like our adventures to be possible… Just.
There’s trouble that’s fun like getting lost or getting stuck. And there’s trouble that’s not so much fun which is sitting on a border for five days. On the Mongol Rally that is fun because you’ve got that much longer but we want this to be a hard and fast adventure. You have to minimise that kind of bureaucracy.
You don’t want a border crossing to be a huge percentage of the trip. And it’s expensive. 50% of each person’s entry fee on the first Mototaxi Junket went on getting the paperwork stamped and notarised. There were like 20 different bits of paper to be notarised and then legalised by each embassy along the way. It was just untenable. It’d be alright if it was successful, if all that bureaucracy got them across the border but it didn’t.
The first junket just in Peru was in May and was much more successful. It’s kind of a whole world in one little country. And it’s a big enough challenge because the machine is so shit.
I was going to ask, what is the worst vehicle.
The Mototaxi, by a massive yard. And because you’ve got the Andes, so you’re at 5,000 metres, you just have to push, in thin air (Laughs). That’s what makes the Mototaxi run so cool – the fact that you’re trying to do something so ridiculous. I mean that’s where the Mongol Rally came from.
Ensuring that there’s going to be challenges...
Exactly. And that it’s going to be more fun than just driving from Point A to B.
How big can you let The Adventurous become? Are you at the level you want it to be now?
I think it’s important that the size of the events and the quality of the events stay at a level where we can personally meet all the teams. It’s really important for us as a company, and to a degree, for the teams, that we’re in it with them. We’re in Mongolia. We’ve done the adventures. We’re part of it.
This guy came up to me last night who said that it’s only through meeting us, coming along to the afternoon teas, coming along to the rally that he realises that the reason he doesn’t get an email back from us within 24 hours is because of what we do. We’re out in the middle of nowhere trying to do it!
It’s completely shifted his perspective on that need for instantaneous customer service. We don’t have customer service people working through the night, there's just 12 of us. Not a call centre in Mumbai.
‘Welcome to the Adventurists. Press one for the Rickshaw Run, two for the Mongol Rally...’
So it's as big as it's going to get?
It might be in the future that we run more small events. There are lots of new things that we can try out, that we’ve got in the pipeline There will come a time when if we want to do something new we’ll have to strike something old off the books just to keep the size manageable.
Surely you can’t get rid of the Mongol Rally?
Well it is by far the biggest event. But it can certainly evolve. We’ll get rid of it when there’s tarmac all the way. Or we’ll dig it all up.