Part 2 of my Mongol Rally covers Team Raven Shoe’s escape from the United Kingdom, all the way through Europe to Turkey- the first 7 days of our journey.
Every day, I kept a short log of the major events which happened, hoping that along with my photos, I would be able to remember and piece together the many experiences we had… Anyway, from now on, posts will be a ‘day-by-day’ account of our Rally. Enjoy!
D-Day minus 1 (19th July)
We’ve arrived in Battersea Park, after a short drive from Ealing. As we approached the entrance to the park, we started to see all the other vehicles for this year’s rally. It turns out that this year, there were around 205 registered cars and motorbikes taking part!
Having a stroll around the carpark within the park, we noticed that Australians were, dare I say, overly represented! I reckon we were the most represented country there, except for maybe the Brit’s themselves – pretty crazy stuff seeing as Australia is one of the furtherest countries from the UK (not including New Zealand… is that a country?). Thinking it through, Aussies would actually be leaving Australia in a GMT+10 time zone, flying into GMT, then driving to GMT+8…. At least they wouldn’t be so jet-lagged if they fly from Mongolia back to Oz… One of the many Aussie teams actually came from Cairns. They were called the FNQ Medics and comprised of four vehicles, painted in green and gold.
Some ‘stand-out’ entries included a limousine, several ambulances, a Moke, some ‘classic’ vehicles, ice cream trucks and a 1999 Ferrari 456… Yep, a Ferrari… Some token awards were handed out, including a golden washing machine for the most ‘boring’ vehicle. The initial winner was a heavily modified Suzuki Jimny, with custom everything (supposedly against the spirit of the Rally). But, since they refused to take it, it was awarded to this Ford Transit van instead…
After completing our final registration checks and getting the invitation documents from The Visa Machine for our entry into Turkmenistan, we took our photos and settled in for the night.. We decided that we would ‘camp out’ in the car, to prepare ourselves for the week ahead. Other ralliers were far more adventurous, including a certain individual who decided it was too far to walk around a fence to go to a pub, and attempted to jump over the said fence (iron fence, nearly 2m tall, spiked..). The result was a punctured scrotum (and lots of blood on the bitumen….) and a trip to the emergency department… This incident had me thinking… how many Darwin Awards are going to be handed out this Rally?
D-Day (20th July)
With a loud ‘good morning’ from the PA system, the carpark started to wake up. This was it, Departure Day! Unfortunately, it took around 4 hours to drive out of the park… Was definitely a huge anti-climax…
Out of Battersea Park, it was a quick zip (well, we did get stuck in a lot of traffic actually…) around Central London, going past Westminster and the Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge etc. straight onto the A2 to catch our 1425 ferry from Dover to Calais. We met a whole heap of other teams along the way, as well as when lining up for the ferry, including a team of Brits who had strapped their roof rack onto their vehicle, denting their roof in the process and a clinically prepared group of Austrians who would put any German teams to shame (I didn’t actually meet any German teams…?)
In the bleak Dover morning, the white cliffs were mostly blocked by the white clouds, however, our red rocket definitely stood out at the front of our line! The conversations at the wharf were mostly other ralliers nervously asking questions related to “do you really know what you’re doing?” or putting out statements like “you don’t need to know too much about how to get there right? haha….” As for us, we were definitely putting on the mind games, saying stuff like “You mean you haven’t thought about this? or that?? Seriously??” 😛
Locking up the vehicle, we settled in to a corner on the ferry and napped the entire way over… Probably because of the lack of sleep the night before. Upon landing in Calais, it was straight off the ferry, onto the wrong side of the road and onto the motorways. Our plan to was try and reach Germany that night, however once we left France and drove into Belgium, the rubbish condition of the motorways meant that we stopped just short of Luxembourg, at one of the servo’s by the motorway, which had a nice quiet area to park. Though we could have driven through the night, we decided that to take it easy on the first night. Our decision to do so was further justified after we checked the 2014 Mongol Rally Facebook page using the wifi available… It turns out that the Morris Minor team was rear-ended by a drunk driver in Belgium just a couple of hours behind us, resulting in their vehicle being flipped and totalled.. Luckily no one was seriously injured. But this did mean that one team was already out of the Rally.
After a whole day’s driving, my patch on the exhaust started to come loose (partly due to the exhaust scraping on the exit ramp from Battersea Park) so it was out with the tool kit to do a quick re-patch.
Whilst I was doing this, this brand new Subaru XV, complete with ‘rally-esqe’ stickers arrived, with two Canadian girls inside… Turns out they were doing the “Rally to Mongolia”, which is the event run by the other original founder of the Mongol Rally, but specifically run with vehicles of good, usable, practical condition to be donated to charities in Mongolia. Anyway, these two girls managed to convince Subaru to sponsor them their vehicle, which had all the bells and whistles, such as air-con.
Chatting to them for a bit, it was clear they were on a different page to us… They had a fridge in their car and though they said they didn’t want to use the air-con, they had to use it to blow cool air on their iPhones to stop them from overheating… They were also worried that their vehicle would not make it all the way to Mongolia…
Day 2 (21st July)
Waking pretty damn early to get as far as we could, we hit really bad weather by means of torrential rain as we zoomed through Luxembourg and Southern Germany. The purchase of new front tyres were well justified as there was so much water and rain on the autobahns, which at times, required us to pull into the nearest rest stop.
Today was a pretty uneventful day… You realise how uneventful it was when our biggest kick came from discovering the ‘self cleaning toilet-seat-toilets’ featured in most of the servo’s along the Autobahn… If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the video below taken by someone else who found it just as entertaining.. 😛
Oh and yes, I can confirm that a ‘quarter pounder’ is Europe is called a Royale with Cheese… Because of the metric system of course..
Anyway, that evening, we crossed into Austria and intended to camp somewhere there…. But in fact, the nice park we decided to sleep in was back in Germany… Who would have known??
Day 3 (22nd July)
Waking the next morning, we decided to take a drive down to a nearby mountain lake to check out the view and we were really glad we did!
From there, our goal was to reach Bled by around lunch time, and walk around for a bit, then try and get as far as we could thereafter. Once leaving the lake, the little Micra was really put to the test, climbing 12% gradients (according to our inclinometer!) as we pushed through the Austrian Alps… At times, it was down to first gear, climbing at a miserable 30km/h… Luckily the weather was still quite cool so the engine did not overheat, even though at times we were bouncing off the rev-limiter!
For those who don’t know, Bled is a 11th century town in north-west Slovenia, situated around Lake Bled. In the middle of the lake is a small island, with a small church- a very popular pilgrimage destination. Overlooking the lake is Bled Castle, which offers spectacular views over the area… In the area, we also stumbled upon the local ice-hockey stadium, catching the regional ice-hockey team trials. Crazy some of the things people can do on ice!
Unfortunately, we didn’t have too much time to spend in Bled, as we needed to push onwards. The next couple of hundred kilometres from Bled were all mountain roads with lots of wind… You don’t realise how little power the car has until you’re struggling up a long mountain motorway in 3rd gear, at 65km/h, then a huge gust of wind knocks you back far enough to require shifting back down to 2nd… All whilst you have semi trailers trying to overtake you.
Anyway, we managed to survive and stumbled upon a small camping area next to the Adriatic Sea called Izola. The road down to the sea-side was the first ‘off-road’ challenge we faced being really narrow, muddy and pot-holed tracks with exposed rocks. Along these roads, we had our first major smash of the sump guard, which held up fine! (trust me, I’m an engineer.. :P)
Unfortunately, as it was peak season, by the time we got to the bottom, near the sea side, all areas were full of caravans and campers… Luckily however, we managed to get the very last room (essentially the attic) in the seaside motel by offering to sleep on the floor…
That night, Bej fell victim to the first bout of food-poisoning, after having a steak for dinner… Whilst Gary and I managed to get some good sleep, Bej was up, fumbling through the medicines packed by his girlfriend… Unlucky..!
Day 4 (23rd July)
The next day was a really calm drive towards Bosnia. Our goal for the day was to reach the famous/infamous town of Mostar, famous for it’s historical bridge which ‘men’ jump off yet infamous for the 18 month siege that took place here in the Bosnian War.
Entering Bosnia meant that we were leaving the EU for the first time on our journey and resulted in our first ‘border crossing’ experience. As we approached the booths which marked the crossing, along with plenty of “no-photography” signs, we were actioned to stop and present our passports…
The only English spoken by the border guard was “Green card“, referring to the fact that we needed to show proof of vehicle insurance. Anticipating this, we kept asking for a place to buy it… Finally, after many charades, we were directed to a small office where a strict lady sold us some papers for something like 32 Euros… As I presented the papers to the guard, he caught Gary in the corner of his eye trying to take a photo with his phone… Immediately, he moved over and, forcefully repeating “No photo!!” and trying to grab Gary’s phone… Luckily, Gary was able to convince the pissed off guard that he was just trying to make a phone call and so he hesitantly waved us along… (Bloody hell Gary!)
Anyway, our relief that we made it through vanished when we suddenly heard a crack then scraping noise coming from underneath the vehicle… The damn exhaust patch had given way again! Nothing too serious but and within 10 minutes or so, we were back on the road with a slightly reinforced exhaust…
Finally, we reached Mostar and it was immediately obvious that some serious events happened here. Even though the Bosnian War was nearly 20 years ago, battle scars across the city can still be seen, with many buildings with patched and unpatched bullet holes and artillery damage… In fact, the Old Bridge was actually destroyed during the War, but was restored to it’s current state in 2001-2004.
Parking near the bridge was also abundant. As we followed the P signs, we were stopped by a local person, with a high-vis vest and lanyard, supposedly calling himself the ‘official council parking officer’… We asked how much parking was, and the reply that we got was a real ‘welcome to the Balkans‘ sound bite… “Parking is free… you pay for security…”
How much was this “security fee”? (a fee to stop the dude from breaking into your car we presumed…) Well, it was only $1USD, so we paid up and made our way down to the bridge.
The main city area has largely been restored and the atmosphere when we visited was friendly and bustling. We were even given a free city map by the local tourism information office as we walked past. After a short walk around, we decided to try and find some accommodation. Luckily, when we returned to our vehicle, nothing was missing!
With the threat of unexploded ordinance in the land surrounding Mostar, we decided to find a designated camp ground to settle in for the night. Around 10km south-east from the bridge, we found the “Wimbledon Camping Ground”, run by a Islamic veteran of the war. From the outside, it seemed to be a pretty nice place with free wifi! Whilst eating dinner, we met two Belgian brothers who couldn’t help but notice the Mongol Rally stickers on our car. It turns out that they were cycling back to Belgium from Turkey… Crazy if you ask me. Anyway, they were really helpful in giving us some advice on road conditions, as we were going to basically do the reverse journey.
That night, as we set up tents, we learned that it was Bej’s first ever camping experience. Like a duck to water however, the tents were up and we treated ourselves to a nice dinner, (courtesy of the convenience store located around the corner) coated in bug-repellent to shield us from the mosquitoes…
Day 5 (24th July)
The next morning, we headed back into town to see if anyone was going to jump off the bridge. Luckily, we managed to see just exactly that!
Stocking up on bottled water, we set our sights for Serbia, which we planned to transit through to Bulgaria then Turkey. Things were going well, including a pretty uneventful drive through Sarajevo (again, another scarred city… lots of bullet holes in buildings) to the Western border of Bosnia. From there, we exited Bosnia and headed to the entry point for Serbia. Unfortunately, we didn’t really check the visa requirements for entry into Serbia and whilst Australians are able to get one on arrival, the guard told Gary to turn around to get a visa from the Embassy in Sarajevo…. Great….
With no other option, we decided to turn around, enter back into Bosnia and had dinner at some cafe on the side of the road whilst we planned what we were going to do. Looming in our minds was the 28th of July – the day we needed to be at the Turkey/Iran border. Checking the visa requirements for the surrounding countries, our only way forward was to go through Montenegro, Albania and then Greece, to finally enter Turkey and then Iran. Setting a driver rotation plan, we aimed for the Albanian border that night.
Along the way, we hit a massive traffic jam near the border to Montenegro, where this motorcyclist was chopped in half by a red Corvette. When we drove past, we thought the red vehicle was the Ferrari! To get around the mess, the Police were diverting traffic ‘off-road’ along a hillside, where it had been raining throughout the day… Another test of the ‘off-road’ capability of the Micra! In the end, we just told Gary to gun it to make it back up the hill, past a bunch of confused Policemen!
Past the traffic and after refuelling, we hit this crazy laneway which led to the Montenegro border. Seriously, it was a single lane path with hedgerows either side, wet, rutted out and with plenty of blind corners. Occasionally, we had to ram the hedgerows to allow traffic to pass! Finally however, we made it to border at around 2300hrs… The guards were actually quite helpful and though the ones manning the post couldn’t speak English, they ran 30m to the border crossing pub to drag out the guy who could.. So this beered up guard eventually comes over, talking to us and telling us that we need to buy insurance from the girl at the insurance office, which was closed. Luckily she too was also in the pub, fraternising with the border guards, so she happily came up and pushed through the paperwork for a cost of $15USD!
The road into Montenegro was coined as the ‘ghost road’ by us, as the rain caused a lot of steam to rise off the warm roads and were freakishly illuminated by our driving lights.
Finally, around 2am in the morning, we reached a LUK service station, around 12km from the Montenegro/Albania border. Filling up, we discovered that the lady running the shop spoke the best English of anyone since Austria, so we asked her about driving in Albania, especially at this time of the day. Her reply, verbatim was this:
“Don’t drive in Albania when it’s dark. You have old women, pretending to need help. Young women pretending to need help. When you stop, people will come out and assault and rob you. Only drive during daylight hours. Be careful of the mafia. Best if you enter after sunrise. Do not stop for anyone! Even the police! There are lots of fake police!”
So… Bej and I decided to skip the Red Bull that night and parked across the road from the servo to get a few hours sleep before sunrise…
Day 6 (25th July)
Albania. So, for those who know me, I like to make a lot of cultural references to themes and scenes from various movies… I mean, we all know how accurate Hollywood is in portraying the world, so what better knowledge base to consult from? (for those who do know me… you’ll know that it’s all in sarcasm… ) Again, Albania. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear Albania is a movie…. Taken to be exact in case you were wondering! I clearly remember that when the movie Taken came out, a lot of negative press was generated on how it unfairly portrayed Albanians as a crime ridden, sex-slave coordinating, mafia-controlled people… Going form the comments of the lady at the service station in Montenegro, it looks like Hollywood isn’t alone in sharing this opinion!
Anyway, with this image of Albania locked in our minds, we entered the country as cautious as ever. Speed limits were obeyed to the dot, which was really really annoying as first, we didn’t know if signs were in mph or km/h (assumed km/h), they changed from 80km/h to 50km/h, to 30km/h, then to 60km/h for what seemed like every 500m, with plenty of police checkpoints along the way (it’s not like we were inconspicuous).
The first crisis point occurred at around 8am, when we were finally pulled over by a policeman… Keeping the engine on, I wound down the window and he started making symbols with his hands after he figured we couldn’t speak Albanian… We had no idea what he was after… so he reached through the window and hit the windscreen wipers and after seeing them work, he smiled and waved us along!
Finally, at around midday, we stopped in at a service station to refuel and take a short break. An old man, who was the pump attendant, wearing a ripped shirt walked over and started talking to Gary, really curious at our vehicle and where we came from. Showing him the flags, he understood we were from Australia, evening mimicking the actions of a kangaroo and offered Gary a cigarette!
In return, we gave him one of our Team Raven Shoe tshirts, which absolutely made his day… Our impression of Albania was slowly but positively changing! (especially when we hit this crazy stretch of brand new dual-carriage way with no cars on it!)
Driving through a town called “Elbasan” (by this stage, we were pretty sleep deprived and delirious), the song “How Bizarre” started playing through the iPod, which gave us a big of a kick… Either way, I had to pull over and swap after driving for 8 hours straight that day…
A couple of hundred kilometres later, we were pulled over a second time by the local police. This time, another Mongol Rally team, travelling in the opposite direction were also pulled over!
The two Brits informed us that the road ahead was closed and some how ascertained that the only way to Greece was to back track all the way back to the capital to head due south… But in the distance, we could see the massive Lake Ohrid and the road which ran along it to Greece… Anyway, the other team were set of backtracking, so after they left, we wandered over to the policemen and traced a finger over the route we wanted to take on our map… Surprisingly, the policeman gave us the thumbs up, saying that the road was definitely open!
Entering Greece was like returning ‘home’… I.e. re-entering the EU. No fuss at the border, English speaking guards and quick wave through. Even better, we finally hit a ‘real’ motorway with motorway speed limits! After a massive lunch at Kozani (and getting lost trying to get back to the motorway…) we were full speed to Turkey… Our goal was to be in a position to hit Gallipoli and Anzac Cove by sunrise the next morning.
At 11pm, we arrived at the Greece/Turkey border crossing at Ipsala. After a drive over a bridge lined with army personnel, we arrived in the “Duty free area”, where we were able to purchase our insurance, make any duty free shopping purchases and join the queue to enter the country. Immediately obvious to us was a huge Turkish flag, flying the crescent moon – a definite ‘east meets west’ experience!
Even though we were driving in Turkey in the early hours from midnight to 3am, the amount of cars on the road was crazy, not to mention how crazy the locals drove as well! No regards to speed limits or lanes… absolutely nuts. After we passed the town of Kesan, we decided to pull in at the next service station, which conveniently had a large ‘sleepover’ area to rest up for our visit to Anzac Cove in a few hours time.
Day 7 (26th July)
Though it wasn’t quite April 25th (ANZAC Day in Australia), we decided early on when planning the route of the rally that we would make it to Gallipoli and Anzac Cove for sunrise. For those who aren’t familiar with the ANZAC Day, it is the national day of remembrance for Australian and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations and the contribution and suffering of all those who have served. The 25th of April was the day in 1915 which marked the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula, starting the Gallipoli Campaign against the then Ottoman Empire. As one of the charities we were supporting on the Rally was Legacy Australia, we thought it was fitting that we visit ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay on our way though.
With Ramadan literally around the corner, traffic onto the Gallipoli Peninsula was crazy! If we hadn’t arrived so early the morning, we would have been caught in the 20km+ traffic jam… To save having to go back up the peninsula and cross into ‘Asia’ via Istanbul, we instead took the ferry from Gelibolu to Cardak. From there, our goal was to get as close to Cappadocia as possible for the next morning.
Along the way, we stopped at a whole heap of roadside restaurants and enjoyed Turkish coffee for the first time!
As we were cruising along the motorways, we happen to detect an open, unprotected wifi network. It turns out that the “Jet” coaches have wifi on board, and that if you drive behind one, you can pick it up and surf the net for free! Score!
This morning, we woke up positioned approximately 1hr from Cappadocia. The night before, we figured that we should stop and wait until sunlight to get there, as we would otherwise miss seeing it as we drove it…
Cappadocia to me is simply the most alien looking landscape I have ever seen. Almost a scene from Star Wars. I was told by many people that the best way to see it is via hot air balloon and I can see why. You don’t really appreciate the grandeur of it unless you’re perched up high. Unfortunately for us, time was against us, so we tried to find the highest formation to view it from… Nevertheless, we were impressed.
After roaming around the area for an hour or so, we decided to make our way towards Doğubayazıt, the Turkish border town closest to the Iranian border. Along the way, we passed this crazy motorcyclist who was doing his best to optimise his aerodynamic profile @ 130km/h!
One thing you don’t fully appreciate (and this is coming from Australia, the land of long, empty roads) is how wide across Turkey is… From Cappadocia, the border town was still 1000km away! After stopping to stretch and eat a few meals, the drive that day showed the most visible change from the West to East… Europe by now seemed so far behind. In the end, we arrived at Doğubayazıt at 1am in the morning, having confirmed with Hossein (the guy we used to get our car temporarily imported into Iran) to meet him at the border crossing first thing that morning.
Though we saw that a few teams had checked in to a local motel, we decided to find another service station to sleep over night. It just so happened that the one we stopped at had this really friendly attendant, who not only directed us to a nice quiet spot, but also wanted to give us food and tea for the night as well! Wanting to get as much sleep as possible, we kindly declined but were most appreciative of his consideration!
At this stage, all bar one night was spent sleeping in the car. We ended up having a pretty good system, clearing enough room in the back seat for a person to lie down in, whilst the front two seats could also recline. Our scarves also proved useful as mosquito nets, allowing us to keep the front windows down, whilst keeping the bugs out and we stumbled upon the fact that if we park on a slight incline, it makes sleeping in the front seats that much better, as it tilts the front seats back even further to achieve a more natural sleeping position… The only thing now was to figure out how to stop the snoring!
Anyway, we couldn’t believe that we had come so far in just a week and we were on the verge of entering Iran… More stories and photos to come!