Let’s say you bumped into me in the street a month ago, and asked me about the Mongol Rally.
I’m ashamed to say I’d have sounded like a misinformed idiot.
A Few Idiotic Myths About The Mongol Rally1. It’s some kind of race, right? (To Mongolia? Duh). 2. It’s some kind of holiday. (Probably involving lots of good food and sunshine, the lucky gits). 3. It’s totally safe. 4. It’s just a bit of a laugh. 5. Hey, I could go on the Mongol Rally. Easily.
Then I attended the Festival of Slow – and the following things became clear to me.
A Few Idiotic Myths Bust Wide Open
1. It’s Not A Race
Last Saturday, at Goodwood motor circuit, a long line of cars, trucks and ambulances revved their engines and honked and nee-naa’d their horns. The tannoy barked “Ready….set…..GO…SLOW!” And off they roared on a parade lap of a 2.3 mile track that has hosted the likes of Graham Hill, Donald Campbell and Sterling Moss – this was the track that ended the latter’s international career in 1962, and took the life of Bruce McLaren in 1970. This is a track built for danger and for speed.
Let’s get one thing straight here. You don’t race 10,000+ miles. You survive it. The Mongol Rally is daunting enough without a competitive edge. That’d be like setting up a space programme that encouraged astronauts to race each other to the ISS. It’s a stupid, dangerous suggestion – but more than that, it’s internationally illegal. There is absolutely no way the Mongol Rally would be allowed to cross the breadth of Europe and Asia, by whatever route the drivers choose, as a race. This is no Cannonball Run.
Cheer for these people. Cheer your socks off.
But not because you want them to win – because you want them to get there.
2. It’s Not A Holiday
Have a look at their car. Nice little motor, yes?
Now imagine being in it for 6 weeks, driving over a third of the circumference of this planet. Imagine being in that car for hours and hours at a stretch, day in, day out, sometimes driving, sometimes map-reading, sometimes panicking because the road is turning to a quagmire or increasingly banged full of potholes that are about oooh, roughly the size of a car. Imagine extremes of weather lashing at that car, terrifying the occupants. Imagine all the things that will, will, go wrong in the many fantastically desolate places in between Chichester and Ulaanbaatar.
Imagine there’s no support crew.
Here’s the thing about the Mongol Rally: once you’re off, you’re absolutely on your own. It may have felt scary during preparation – organising visas, working out which route will require the least amount of bribing or waiting at border-crossings, realising there are some things you just have to leave to chance – but that’s going to be nothing compared with getting onto the road. Because it’s now your rally. As terrific a job as rally organisers The Adventurists have done to get you to this point and see you off, their responsibility for you ends here, for practical and legal reasons.
It’s now completely up to you.
(I spoke to Adventurist Dan Wedgwood about this. His opinion: the most common problem for competitors is overpreparation and its wretched offspring, overloading. You know when you put a travel-iron in your suitcase and you end up lugging the damn thing from hotel to hotel without using it once? Magnify that by a car boot load and 10,000 miles. The only sane course is faith. Faith that out there is everything you need, and faith in your ability to track it down when you need it. Faith. Remember to pack it).
One definition of holidaying is “travel with some kind of safety net”.
No safety net? Then this isn’t holidaying.
3. It’s Not Safe
The Mongol Rally poses risks to your health and your life. You will be driving for many thousands of miles in parts of the world that are unfamiliar to you, which means your chances of being involved in a road accident or in any number of other health and life-threatening situations is significantly increased from your day to day life.
Download the Mongol Rally handbook (pdf) and have a read. Notice the utter candour about the risks involved. Notice phrases like “hectic, chaotic and dangerous”. Imagine something going wrong – as in really wrong – when you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest doctor, let alone hospital.
Explore that feeling for a second. Thrill in the horror of it.
(Don’t forget to breathe).
This is a risky business – and people have died while attempting it. The fact that almost everyone completes the Mongol Rally in (more or less) one piece is a testament to the type of person who enters – people with their eyes open, their brains fully engaged and an unshakeably optimistic “can do” attitude firmly in place.
Yes, it’s risky – but these people can handle it.
4. It’s Not Just A Bit Of A Laugh
Why on earth would 350 teams of apparently sane people drive halfway across the world in ridiculously underpowered vehicles?
Because it’s fun. Isn’t that reason enough?
Actually…no, it isn’t. And it’s not the sole reason they do it, either.
Beyond the £700 entry fee, every participating team is required to earn at least £1,000 for charity. Half of that money will be going to the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, to a specific project running in Mongolia called the Blue Skies Ger Village Project that develops housing for Ulaanbaatar’s orphans and street kids.
(Note that’s £1,000 as a lower limit: the record for a single team’s fundraising is a whopping £55,000).
But that’s not all. The vehicles are themselves part of the event’s charitable donations, turned over to the Foundation at journey’s end to be resold and spruced up by Mongolian car mechanics. This is the reason behind the recent stipulation that all entry vehicles must be less than 10 years old…exempting the emergency service vehicles.
(When I first heard decommissioned ambulances were being used, I blinked. Ten thousand miles – in an ambulance? But if you think about it, what is an ambulance other than a supremely tough, super-maneuverable public service tank analogue designed to tackle any kind of road? This year, over 40 teams had ambulances. The Mongol Rally may be developing an Ambulance Problem).
This isn’t just a bunch of moneyed twits hee-hawing their way to for’n parts. This is hundreds of dedicated, well-prepared, adventure-hardened individuals putting their welfare on the line to raise money for people who need it, organised by a much smaller number of dedicated, well-prepared adventure-hardened folk.
This is a human endeavour to warm your heart.
5. Would I Go On The Mongol Rally?
I can’t drive.
I get mildly car-sick.
I get grouchy when I’m tired.
I’m easily bored.
And frankly, I’m terrible at Travel Scrabble.
But would I go on the Mongol Rally?