Peter Moore chats to Pete Donnolly, part of a three-person team determined to become the first wheelchair users to complete the gruelling Mongol Rally
Peter Donnolly is a Brit in his mid-20s who became a paraplegic after a motorcycle accident in 2006. Being confined to a wheelchair hasn't slowed him down though. In 2011 he travelled 5,000 miles visiting 14 countries throughout Asia. Now, along with fellow wheelchair users, Richard and Jan, he is in the middle of driving a beat-up silver Rover Estate to Ulaanbataar as part of the first wheelchair-user-only team to tackle the Mongol Rally.
Peter Moore caught up with Pete feeling refreshed after a good night's sleep and a big breakfast in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Tell us a bit a out your team. You've been involved in adventurous travel before with your original Rolling Back Home project. What about the others?
Neither of the other guys have done anything like this since their accident but they recognised what an amazing adventure it would be. They've decided to join me on what will be a once in a lifetime adventure. As I've done this before I've been able to pass on some of my experiences and ideas.
I guess the big question everyone asks is 'Why?'
When I was told about the Mongol Rally, I saw what an awesome road trip it would be and a challenge that I'd like to undertake. I decided that instead of making this too easy I should recruit another two wheelchair users so we would be the first team of chair users to undertake the rally. We are capable of doing this and it's something we want to do, so I guess the question for me is, why not do the rally?
What are you most looking forward to?
Seeing all these different countries and cultures is a real eye opening experience. The challenges along the way also push you into problem solving skills that you wouldn't usually have to tap into. Meeting people from all these countries is absolutely fantastic, everywhere people are so friendly giving us a smile and a wave wherever we go.
What are some of the extra challenges you face and how are you overcoming them? I saw on your website, for example, you're learning to conquer a pop-up tent.
The pop up tent is a technique that took a couple of tries to get used to but now it's put down (almost) as quickly as it goes up!
The other challenges we face come from the physical environments we encounter, stairs can be difficult and sand is damn sight worse!
You've had hand controls fitted to the car. What other modifications were necessary?
After hand controls, all that was added was a sturdy roof rack for all our gear and we have a bike rack for two of the chairs while the third one rides on the back seat.
What has been the reaction to your team so far? Is it changing the further you go east?
People smile and wave a lot when they see us in the car, they stare a bit more when they see us out of the car. I'm guessing that's out of curiosity as it's a lot different for people with disabilities in their country.
On the border, guards will stand round like spectators as either me or Rich load the chairs on the back of the car, I guess it must be a bit of a spectacle for them.
Any unexpected problems? Things you didn't plan for?
The car has been really good so far (touch wood). We had difficulty when we found out we couldn't withdraw money from our accounts in Iran or Turkmenistan so our funds were running low until we arrived in Uzbekistan and managed to top them up.
My plan to get solid tyres to avoid punctures has backfired as they have decidedly less grip on than the pneumatic tyres that I usually roll on.
Highlights so far?
The people. No matter where we have been, people have always been there with a smile and a helping hand. Some going out of the way to offer assistance and even inviting us to their home for the night – it's times like this that my faith in humanity is restored.
The Kurdish people in northern Iraq were so friendly and helpful, this was great for me as it smashed a preconception that I held of what Iraq would be like.
Tell us about the Back Up Trust, the charity you are raising money for.
A person gets a spinal cord injury every eight hours in the UK, it doesn't discriminate and can happen to anyone, any age or background. Spinal cord injury affects people massively both physically and psychologically. Back Up offer services including mentoring, wheelchair skills and activity course aimed at increasing confidence. We're aiming to raise £10,000 for Back Up, £1 for every mile we drive, so they continue to run these life changing services that help hundreds of people every year, as all our team know from personal experience.
How can people donate?
The cars get auctioned off at the end of the rally. I can't imagine there are too many cars like yours in Mongolia. Are you hoping it will go for a good price?
I hope that the car will get a good price so that the charity can do some valuable work. However, I would like even more for the car to go to someone who actually needs the hand controls and will gain independence from the use of a car, I know what a difference a car can make.
Finally, what's next? More solo adventures? Or are the Wheelie Wanderers now a 'Band of Brothers' (and sisters) ready to take on other challenges?
Jan and Rich are both happily settled in their home life and have families to return to.
With nothing tying me down, I have more freedom with my plans. I recently received a working visa for Canada, so later this year I'll be heading out to Vancouver to work there for a year.
The plan is to visit west coast USA after that and then head into Central and South America. These ideas are a long way off at the moment, merely pipe dreams, but dreams all the same and I will strive to achieve them.
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