Let Mission Mongolia Begin!
So the day had finally come. A year of blood, sweat and tears had been spent getting the paperwork, crew and vehicle together for this day.
It was going to be a tough launch. We had to get the final kit on board, get our personal bags in, sponsor merchandise and fill our fresh water tank. We had also invited all our families friends and sponsors to wave us off.
For a trip like this, there were so many moving parts. Currency, visas, borders, crew, kit, accidents and the vehicle (which had plagued our last year with issues), there was so much that could go wrong. I was trying my best to be positive but to drive to Mongolia is such a massive feat… considering the China detour I had planned, was this even possible? As the person who thought up this trip, chose the crew, chose the vehicle, prepared the vehicle and completed all the permits and visas – the success of this trip was ultimately on me.
After a year of obsession with success, I was now at the ‘reasoning’ stage where I compromised that if we made it out of Europe, I would be happy (we’ll see how that works out!).
Under the bright blue sky, Scott, Luca and Me started work on the vehicle whilst our partners sat watching in a subdued mood. Talking about their worry for us taking on this epic adventure.
We worked to load the vehicle and we were very short on space. We had loaded up the roof rack and under the beds. We started to ditch our ‘last minute’ comforts and started to prep the living area and cab. We now had an audience which was growing by the minute…
As we finished, we started to say our farewells to the fifty people who were there to wish us luck. It was difficult to say goodbye when I realised it was my idea to put them through this with my daft adventure but it was a little late to pull out now!
We had our final photos as we started the engine and we were off! We drove down the road and just out of sight of our families. An absolute ecstasy came over all of us. With no pre-warning we all just started cheering and laughing for no reason other than this was it. No more practices. No more training. Mission Mongolia was underway.
Kylie started the driving and I was navigating. I wanted to keep an eye on a few issues that had persisted for the last few weeks.
As we went down the country lane towards the motorway, I noticed the extreme roll that came over the vehicle. I knew the weight on the roof was at the limit but the rolling was really off-putting. Over each bump, the van would launch left and then back to the right. I would need to keep a close eye on that!
We hit the motorway on the way to the port and the handling returned to normal. We turned up the music, the day was beautiful and sunny and it was a high I haven’t felt before – a true sense of the brutally hard work, starting to pay off.
We set off at 5pm which left plenty of time for traffic, minor issues and a bit of dinner before the ferry. On the way, I ran through all the details in my mind. I checked the map and memorised our European route and timings. I checked the tracker was working that our families could check. I checked the kit we had and made sure I was confident and knew all the details off by heart.
As it turned out, someone was looking after us as we arrived at Dover just before 7pm – an hour earlier than planned. As we drove up to check-in, Kylie asked whether we were sailing with P&O or DFDS. . . Whoops, OK, maybe I didn’t memorise all the details!
Under pressure, whilst I frantically searched for my folder with the booking it, I confidently told Kylie we were definitely with P&O…as she spoke to the man in the check in hut, we weren’t.
After some truly skillful reversing, avoiding the HGVs piling up to check-in, we got the right company.
The guy on the check-in desk who had clearly just watched our expert maneuver, opened his window and asked if we were in a rush to get the earlier boat leaving at 7.30, we honestly weren’t but as he had mentioned it, we weren’t letting a two-hour head-start pass by.
He explained that check-in had closed for that sailing but without letting him finish, I started to tell him about our Mission. He thought it was hilarious and Kylie, without missing a beat, had got a handful of sponsor sunglasses from the back and passed a couple over. He loved them and booked us onto the 7.30 sailing.
We flew around the port roads and boarded the ship straight away. We walked up and out onto deck… we were on an absolute high. We were leaving the UK and entering our second country.
We had some time to ourselves and it felt strange. It would be five weeks until I was back in the UK, at my house or in my bed… not any old five weeks, five weeks of the unknown…
Our schedule was very ambitious, we had to compromise on time to get sponsor buy-in, China was a reasonable detour when we signed up for it but as soon as we started planning, its significance became clear. We agreed that this was a mission, it was not a holiday, we had some great charities and causes that we believed in wholeheartedly and we were doing this for them.
In order to keep to our schedule, we had to drive 24-hours a day. We were fully kitted for a driving and sleeping crew. We would do 4 hours driving, 4 hours navigating and 8 hours rest. We would operate in pairs and swap driving partners every 72 hours.
Kylie had taken first driving shift and I had taken second, Scott and Luca had first rest period. Although it seemed fair, how could Scott and Luca sleep with all the starting excitement? They did their best to try to rest as we drove off the ferry and hit the A16 towards Belgium – country three.
The A16 runs across the northern coast of France, it is mostly a great road for driving trips. It it not often congested and the road surface is like glass. WIth 130 km/h limit, it is a great road to make up time on. Although we were ahead of schedule, Kylie didn’t hang around.
As we drove through Belgium, there was a really strange smell that started off faint but was becoming more obvious. I had noticed this smell on our last training trip to Scotland. We had an oil leak from the turbo then and I thought it was to do with that but the leak had been fixed.
I wondered whether it was left over oil from the leak, warming up and causing a false-issue. I plugged in the diagnostic machine to check ‘the vitals’ (fluid pressures, temperatures and other engine measurements). All seemed normal, good, actually. I started to worry. We were an hour onto the continent and we had signs of trouble.
I assured Kylie all looked good and I expected it to clear. Meanwhile, my brain was ticking through all the things it could be. We carried on chatting and the smell got worse. I turned on the map light as it was now completely dark outside and I wanted to check some more possibilities. The second I turned on the light I saw it. Billowing from under the driver’s seat and rising slowly, around Kylie I saw smoke.
Suddenly I knew we had to act fast, we were responsible for each other, the vehicle, but most importantly, the sleeping crew in the back.
‘Kylie, can you pull over please’ I said calmly.
‘Yeah, there is some services in a few kilometers, everything OK?’ Kylie suggested.
I asked her, more directly to take the exit immediately to our right. She pulled off the road and went up the slip road. At the junction at the end, Kylie took the right turn and pulled off onto the hard shoulder of a minor road, under a street light.
I jumped out and opened the side door ‘ can you get out the van for a minute gents, we have smoke.
‘Smoke?’ Kylie asked, ‘What do you mean, Smoke?’
I assured them it was nothing but asked them, to get out. I immediately felt under the seat (this is where the Batteries are fixed in a Ford Transit) – BOILING HOT!
I went onto the roof rack and got all the tools I needed and whipped out the front seat. The battery had been seriously overheating and was virtually dry. I made a rig out of a small funnel, a small straw and some fuel hose to refill the sealed battery through the vent hole. It took more than 3 litres to refill. This wasn’t good – the battery was probably dead.
I checked all the battery wiring and it seemed fine. I went underneath and started stripping the conduit off of the alternator wiring. As I did so, the cable came off in my hand. My heart sank, the signal wires had corroded all the way through.
This was one of the most awkward bits of wiring to get to in the whole engine bay. It would be a really difficult fix but without it, we would be stuck here.
If if got the fix wrong, we would fry the second battery and we would have a serious delay.
Scott and Luca offered to help but I knew this was an easier job to finish alone, I repaired the cables, and wondered how I would get the batteries to work.
I put the van back together and luckily the Ford Transit is a twin battery system so I used a jump cable to swap the primary and secondary battery. Luck seemed to again be in our favour as it started and drove great! All the readings were right on the multimeter and we were ready to leave again.
Without anyone seeming to notice, Kylie had curled up on the side of the road and fallen asleep. She was not bothered by the cold road in the middle of the night with cars and lorries driving past. Kylie got up, happy the van was fixed and we were ready to set off again. I took over the driving shift as Scott and Luca tried to get some rest again. I was uneasy that we had an issue this early on – just get out of Europe, I thought.
We drove on and into The Netherlands and then into Germany, it was time to swap. It was the first time to practice our crew changeover from sleeping to driving crew and vice versa. (remarkably complex but very effective to keep morale up!).
We changed over and although the beds were very bouncy, the road was smooth and I slipped into a very deep sleep, still worried about the van.
Scott and Luca drove the entire length of Germany in their shift, they navigated well and when we woke up, they had hit every checkpoint on-time and the vehicle had performed well. I was elated at this, the UK was fast vanishing behind us and daylight had brought a new wave of optimism over me…for now.
I checked our route in detail and ran through all our timings carefully as Kylie began driving into Poland; we were doing really well. Europe was, however, more of a checkbox. We knew the roads and how it works, we had completed a 2500 mile European training trip so this was more a run-in of vehicle and crew shifts. Once we got out of Europe, the adventure would really begin. Even with that considered, we were doing well.
We stopped at a services in Swiebodzin, Poland. As we got out, three women walked over to us and started hassling us to buy sunglasses and perfume. We fuelled and I changed some of our Euros for Złoty.
Money was another issue that had to be worked out. British Visa and Mastercards were pointless in China and Cards were generally useless in The Stans as they are cash-based countries. We couldn’t take too much cash with us through borders as they can be subject to customs controls. In addition to this, some of the closed currencies we were buying weren’t meant to be taken out of the country either. Having a lot of cash, even when legal, could attract unwelcome attention from Border Guards and Police too. Sterling was also not very useful in comparison to US Dollars and Euros were even more useless that the rest (controversial subject, enough said). So we had to take US Dollars for most of the countries. Buying the currencies that we needed in advance was fairly difficult to as most were ‘closed’ and the others were so obscure that no one stocked them.
As our vehicle was a mobility van for the disabled, a ‘Flexi-Trans’ floor was fitted. This was a box section floor to hold wheelchair anchors and movable seatbelts. The bonus was that a cover at the rear could be removed to access the box section channels and in there, I bagged up $500 dollar bundles in cash and stuffed them far back with a broom handle and attached wires to the bundles to I could retrieve them before each border. Not legal or easy to explain if caught, but it might just work…
For now, the Euro’s I had brought with us, worked fine and we swapped what was left for złoty and kept a few hundred back for the Lithuania and Latvia section.
As we came back out to the van, the sunglasses and perfumes were being sold in a more direct way, Kylie was being told she NEEDED some perfume which I thought was hilarious. Kylie, on form, grabbed a couple of pairs of sponsor sunglasses and gave the ladies one each. They seemed ecstatic and walked off comparing sunglasses with each other.
We all got together and talked over a coffee before we set off again for the next leg of the journey.
From there, we headed along the A2 towards Łódź and Warsaw. On the A2, we got to see first-hand what Polish driving was all about – it was bloody awful!
On the A2, drivers seem intent on not dropping below 160km/h and they were not even that good at driving fast! No exaggeration, in our 7 hours of driving, we saw 11 accidents that looked fatal. There were cars in ditches, lorries with no cabs left, cars on one end balancing against the central reservation – Kylie and I were genuinely shocked. Having heard about Russia, this really brought home our mortality and I though this may be the calm before the storm…
On the note of storms, there was one brewing…