So Mission Mongolia had been born but now to find a vehicle to complete this adventure…
GoHelp operate a number of projects in Mongolia. They have run ambulance schemes to provide emergency medical transport across the capital, they have run mobile libraries to deliver reading material to remote families and some other great projects too.
To turn ideas they have into actual functioning projects, useful vehicle donations are crucial. Anyone can drive a modified rally 4×4 across the desert to Mongolia but what use is that to the charity?
A useful vehicle is less than nine years old, left-hand drive, either a minibus, fire engine, land rover or an ambulance. Additionally there are many import vehicle rules (as the vehicle is imported before donation) to keep an eye on.
The vehicle should be hard-wearing, good quality, looked after and parts should be available globally too.
If you can only find a vehicle that is no use to the charity, they will still gratefully receive it and auction to keep the profits for their work, but for us, we wanted to find something that fit the bill…quite a tall order in the UK!
As we were covering so much more distance than many other teams, and had a tight schedule due to our China detour, we needed something where we can rotate driving crews to drive 24 hours if required.
I got to work immediately on scouring the web, searching all the UK websites and magazines in one afternoon, concluding that there wasn’t even one vehicle of use in good old blighty.
I then had to try to search the european listing sites, this took a couple weeks and everything was either UK export right-hand drive, too old or out of our budget.. I had nearly given up and resorted to a right-hand drive model when something turned up… 3pm on a Friday afternoon!
Our ford transit rollstuhlwagen… the ad was written in German – all 10 words of it!
I don’t speak German, and after a brief exchange of emails, it was clear the seller didn’t speak English either…
Luckily, I found a colleague, Lawrence, who was a German speaker. After a lot of backwards and forwards, we established that the vehicle was indeed a Ford Transit Minibus, a Rollstuhlwagen turned out to mean the Minibus has been modified for disabled passengers and it was manufactured in 2009… and even better, it was in budget!
I made the phone call to approve the vehicle and that was it – We had a vehicle!
Easy…except the one small issue was that it was located in Bad Driburg in Germany…
I spent all afternoon trying to convince Lawrence to come to Germany with me on the bank holiday Monday (this was on the Friday afternoon!) to be my trusty linguist, he finally said yes and I booked our flights immediately. We spoke to the seller and he confirmed the vehicle was all ready to go and we agreed to meet at 3am on the Monday morning.
We flew out of Stansted with Ryanair, nearly missing our departure due to currency and cash issues – another post entirely! We took off destined for Düsseldorf.
We arrived in Germany and walked out of the arrivals hall to look for the station. From my research, I knew it was only a 2.5 hour train ride to Bad Driburg if we caught the next train.
There were no signs for a station and we walked around for a while looking. Eventually, we asked at the info desk and they said there was no train station here. We disagreed showing her our phone maps and she lost her mind laughing… ‘You are not in Düsseldorf, you are in Weeze’ she managed to exclaim before laughing some more.
‘We booked tickets to Düsseldorf and the pilot seemed to know what he was doing!’ I returned sarcastically.
‘They call it Düsseldorf Weeze, but it’s nowhere near Düsseldorf!’ She laughed a lot more.
It hit me that in the rush to book tickets, I hadn’t done my research. Airports always pick a random large city name and claim to be there, regardless of actual location i.e LONDON Stanstead?!
Lawrence and I jumped into a cab and headed for the nearest station. Weeze airport is at most 100m from the Dutch border… we were nowhere near Düsseldorf!
After about 10 minutes, we arrived at the station and tried to work out how far from Düsseldorf we really were – an additional 2 hour train ride away it seemed.
It was already 10am in Germany and we now had 5 hours of train riding ahead to get to Bad Driburg. We then had to make the deal, insure it and drive it back to the UK via our 9pm ferry from Calais…what could go wrong, eh?
We finally arrived in Bad Driburg at 2:30pm and called our friend, and to my surprise, he was still open and offered to collect us. I told Lawrence to turn down the offer, as there was a taxi in front of us, but the seller refused and insited he would pick us up.
He arrived 10 minutes later in a Smartcar! … a bloody Smartcar! ‘Ask him how he plans to get two of us, our stuff and him in a bloody Smartcar Lawrence!’ I laughed.
He whisked Lawrence away and promised to be back for me…
True to his word, he came back and we spent 10 minutes in an awkward silence on the way to the sales forecourt. I then regretted not spending the last 5 hours on the train learning basic German niceties from Lawrence.
We arrived at the forecourt and I saw three men gathered around our Transit with the bonnet up… this was just perfect. Lawrence walked over to me and explained that the vehicle wouldn’t start but he reassured me it had just been sitting a long time (I have used the excuse myself in the past!).
The men jump started it from an indestructible 90’s Isuzu and it spluttered into life. It ran poorly and was slow to pick up revs. I was starting to worry as we had no way home and a vehicle that didn’t look like it would pull out of the car lot!
The men disappeared content with their handiwork and I had chance to look around the vehicle myself. It was straight and clean. It had a rear hydraulic tail lift. It had fully customisable rear seating and air-ride suspension all round. It was a little tatty on the inside and had clearly seen better days but that would all clean up. The engine was fairly clean and it had some service history with it too. For the price we had agreed by email, we had plenty of room in the budget to do some work – so it wasn’t a dead end.
After a more thorough inspection with my phone torch, I was happy to go ahead and buy this vehicle which should be easy as we were to exchange at the agreed price.
Lawrence started the conversation and it seemed to get a bit heated. Lawrence turned to me and asked whether we brought our reg plates with us. I said no and he looked unhappy with that.
After about half an hour of discussions, it seemed that to allow me to take the vehicle, I would have to go to the post office and buy a registration (now closed until tomorrow). I explained to him that we bought it with the Belgian plates it currently had. He explained this was not acceptable and offered us two British plates from something or another and I explained to him that it didn’t work that way in the UK.
We reasserted that we had told him we were coming and he confirmed that the vehicle was all ready to drive away.
He had offered to take us back to the airport or even drive the vehicle to Calais for us if we were willing to pay ‘Taxi Rates’. We explained that this didn’t work for us.
The discussions continued and there were a number of issues and the only one that didn’t seem resolvable was the fact that it was missing the rear number plate.
Getting close to loosing the plot, which is surprisingly unusual for me, I grabbed a piece of cardboard and a pen and wrote on the reg number and stuck it on the back of our van.
He was very unhappy with this and insisted that he drove it to Calais for us. Instead, we left the cash on his desk and left with the signed registration document.
We left with one Belgian plate on the front and a cardboard plate on the back and phoned a UK import insurance company. They agreed, for a large premium to insure it for 24 hours on the VIN number – that would do!
It was now 5pm and we had to get some miles under this van to make our 9pm ferry (physically impossible at this point!) but we started out of Bad Driburg.
Heading west, you leave the town via a winding hill road – this is where things got worse again. As we went us the hill, the dashboard lit up like a christmas tree! We slowed to about 10km/h and stalled. I restarted the engine and a couple of the lights went out so I carried on up the hill to the melody of beeping car horns and angry Germans shouting…
On the downward slope, the sky turned from blue to black as the soot bellowed out of our exhaust, the performance improved gradually as groggy daylight returned to the sky behind us.
We stopped for fuel a little while after and the German police pulled in behind us… I was convinced that this was it – 4 miles and our trip was over.
I casually filled up with fuel and Lawrence said hello to them, we exchanged smiles and our tank was full. I went in and paid and as we drove out of the petrol station, they waved us off! I am still unsure why they didn’t stop us but I am always grateful for small mercies.
We carried on into the Netherlands and night set in. We made good mileage and the dashboard lights were blinking off one-by-one.
We got into Belgium and a police car pulled out behind us. Lawrence was half asleep at this point and didn’t notice; I didn’t plan on worrying him either. It followed us religiously for a number of miles. At the next slip road, two more police cars pulled out. One came in front of us and once pulled up beside us. Lawrence notice now and asked if they were boxing us in, I agreed that was what it looked like and I indicated to pull onto the hard shoulder to avoid any further maneuvers. As I pulled over, the one at the rear overtook me and all three drove off.
Oh the joy! Another small mercy and I was definitely grateful!
We arrived at the French border by 10.30pm – an hour and a half after our ferry left port and only 20 hours since I left home that morning!
There was a lot of traffic on the A16 in France and we were at a standstill. As we finally made our way through the queue, it turned out that the French police were pulling and questioning all the Brits for some reason.
As he leaned into the window he said ‘Bonsoir’.
‘Bonsoir’ I replied.
‘Allez’ he said and without hesitation, I went.
We decided to go for the Channel Tunnel on the way back as we had missed our ferry and The Tunnel is much quicker. At the entrance gate, I explained to the lady that we had missed our ferry and wanted a ticket. She helpfully agreed to put us on the next train and took my card. I asked when it was and she said the next available train was at 7.30am!!! We quickly left and headed for the ferry terminal to see if they could do better!
From Dieppe there is a midnight ferry which arrives in Newhaven about 4am – that could be our last resort if needed as it always had space!
We got back to the Calais ferry terminal and the man at the kiosk handed us our rearview mirror hanger and wished us a pleasant crossing. ‘Excuse me’ I said, ‘We missed our ferry – it was at 9pm’.
‘You bought a flexi ticket, you can still sail on that ship but be quick, they are waiting for you before they leave!’
I could have jumped out and hugged him, we were so happy to be going home!
We arrived back at 3am and I headed home for a couple hours sleep before I was due back at work.
I couldn’t have done that trip without Lawrence and his German, but if this was an omen for how Mission Mongolia would go, I might have bitten off more than I could chew….