Our little detour down to the Croatian Coast had taken us a little off track in terms of a direct route to Asia, meaning we had to cut back north into the mountains and over the border into Bosnia. Upon leaving Croatia the customs officers asked if we perhaps might have a gift for them, alcohol? Cigarettes? We politely declined to indulge them. Fortunately our detour meant we were able to drop into Mostar on the way, which despite a deluge of rain as we arrived had a lovely old town and ancient bridge. We weren’t able to stay long though as we had a lot of miles to cover so like Japarazzi we snapped some photos and hopped back into our chariot. The mountain roads were pretty dicey in places and the standard of driving had dropped off considerably since crossing the border from Croatia. We might have been more tempted to pull over and stop for a bit were it not for the sporadic red land mine warning signs dotted in the woods at the side of the road. We did meet Irhad, a Bosnian lad who was a big fan of the Mongol rally and who spun his car round to come in for a closer look after he spotted as stopped at a petrol station. It was also strangely reassuring to see convoys of British troops rolling through Sarajevo. On a “training exercise” presumably.
With night falling and an epic electrical storm overhead, we headed back into the mountains toward the Serbian border. As the roads grew narrower and the signs less helpful, we started to wonder whether the border crossing would be open to international traffic or whether we’d be forced to head back hundreds of kilometres out of our way to a more major border (something Al had experienced once too many already on a previous trip). Fortunately Saint Christopher was smiling and we crossed the border without incident, the Bosnian official even wishing us an ominous “good luck”.
Serbia passed by with the night, the only other vehicles on the road a seemingly endless stream of high value GB and Dutch plated cars driven at high speed by suspiciously Albanian looking single drivers. Never has the expression “drive it like you stole it” been better illustrated. When dawn broke we were still driving; Dave and Al coaxing each other along the pothole riddled stretch of soviet era asphalt that passes for a motorway in Bulgaria. Pushing on we reached the Turkish border. Even this was passed with relative ease – some later teams apparently had a considerably different experience.
It was at this point we made our worst call of the trip so far: “let’s book a hotel in Central Istanbul and have a nice chilled out night, Turkish bath, massage, kebab and a few beers to soothe us after our epic drive”. Sounds like a great plan right?
Wrong. After four hours in standing traffic we reached the area where our hotel purported to be, in a maze of tiny streets you’d struggle to drive a motorbike down, with inclines you’d think twice apart walking up. After yan hour or so of Don valiantly guiding the Skoda through the narrowest of cobbled streets, we finally reached Turan Caddesi. But the street was blocked by a cement mixer. Thinking we could cut left and then rejoin the street we once again we plunged into the maze, unable to get back where we wanted. Eventually we pulled over, exhausted, and Al went into the maze on foot to try to find the best way to drive in.
The maze was no less confusing on foot, and took on a distinctly more threatening atmosphere outside the safety of the car. Even when Al finally found the street, the hotel was nowhere to be found upon it. Asking more help brought more problems, as Al found himself being asked to follow down a dark side street which seemed highly unlikely to be the location of the hotel, especially given his guide had now been joined by two more “friends”. It was at this point Al decided that being mugged, stabbed or gangraped would not improve the chances of finding the hotel and beat a hasty retreat back to the car, where Don and Dave had been enjoying a nice ice cream.
Pressing on through istanbul’s seemingly never ending (and barely moving for that matter) rush hour, the lads crossed the bridge to Asia and crawled out of the city. Finding an out of town hotel didn’t prove much easier until a chance wrong turn brought them to a newly built, plush Best Western. Totally broken by their epic drive, and still unsure it wasn’t a mirage we stumbled into the reception and checked in, thirty-six hours after they left Zadar.
After a beer and sausage fuelled evening in Munich where Don came to the conclusion that the “HB” of Hofbrauhaus actually stood for “Hitlers Bar” we retired back to the campsite to get some sleep before the long drive to Croatia. Arriving back at the campsite Don dug out two warm cans of Stella Artois from the boot he had been saving and so we drank those whilst formulating the following days plan – drive to coast, drink beers at sunset – simple!
I was up first so did the vehicle checks and packed my kit up, Rob was being annoying as usual just standing around looking enthusiastic whilst actually doing nothing. He doesn’t do any of the driving and doesn’t even buy a round in – I’m not sure why we let him come with us to be honest. By the time I’d started moving around the others were up and it wasn’t long before we were packed up and heading out of town. A quick detour to the nearest McDonalds so we could use their wifi and toilets then it was a smooth drive out of Bavaria, through Austria and it’s epic tunnels and into Slovenia. The drive through Slovenia was pretty as ever but the road up to the Croatian border was a pain in the ass as we wound our way through hills following much slower vehicles (yes believe it or not the Skoda isn’t so slow) both up and down hills for miles. A hassle free entry to Croatia soon became interesting when we took a wrong turn and ended up driving down this single lane road through a forest area, it was like being on some rally stage, the Skoda was faultless and soon we were back on the motorway making good time. I fell asleep for a short while and when I woke up we were on some plateau with mountains all around us, it looked like something from Jurassic Park, oh I almost forgot to mention, it was pouring with rain too – this was not the plan.
Don now at the wheel guided us out of the mountains and down to the coast where it was warm and sunny, we rolled into Zadar with not Croatian Kuna, no where to stay for the evening and no real idea where to park. We abandoned the car and walked into town for a beer, this was and always will be considered the most important thing at the end of the day.
Zadar is beautiful, it has buildings that are thousands of years old, it’s right by the coast, the beer is cold and the women are easy on the eye too – needless to say we are all big fans of Zadar right about now. Having sunk a beer we found a great little hostel called Wild Fig just out of town and went straight back into the old town for food and a boat load of beers. The girl at the hostel recommended Canzone which was a little Italian influenced place tucked away down a very narrow street, we finally found it and were greeted with big smiles from the waitresses when we ordered 3 of their largest beers before we’d even been seated.
We had a fantastic meal of pizza and pasta and quite a few beers before going off to look at Zadar’s sights, I wouldn’t normally go off sightseeing at midnight but we were assured that these were spectacular regardless of the time of day – they were right. First up was the Sea Organ, yep, that’s right I did just say that. Basically it is a load of concrete blocks with holes cut into them so that when the waves lap up against them they play a tune, it was really cool, we all just sat there listening to it for ages before walking a little further up the promenade to some solar art work they have built into the ground. We were a little unsure how this worked but it seemingly charged up by the sun (obviously) and then played a light show – difficult to explain but still cool. It was almost 1am and so we decided to wander back to the hostel but en route got drawn in by this amazing music coming from a 1300 year old church in the square. Being half cut and nosey we went to investigate and discovered that it was a Light Art Exhibition, we went inside and led on the floor of a 1300 year old church for ages just watching these lights and listening to the music it was backed to, we didn’t say a word to each other the entire time we were in there, I think we were all stunned. In the end we called it a night and headed back to the hostel, checked the route, had another beer and then bit the hay, although it was a million degrees in the room so none of us got much sleep.
Having skipped out early from the launch party the intrepid Plan F boys slipped out into the London night, and after a brief pep talk from a Lewisham bouncer we were out on the open road and headed for Dover. Obviously, we got stopped by customs, but apart from that all was golden, and we settled down for a brief evening snooze on the grubby floor of a cross channel ferry.
Dave took on the monster-fuelled graveyard shift, through the rainy French night until the sun came up. Don’s first act on taking his stint was to take evasive action to avoid a unidentified but distinctly wolf-like creature which decided to get a closer look at the Skoda at 130km/hr. Al then took over to set an early land speed record attempt (90mph, downhill with a stiff breeze behind – perhaps we should get a sail like the Just Add Water guys!) before steering the good ship Skoda into Munich just in time for some mid-afternoon beers. Time taken to pitch tent and have cold beers in hand: 2minutes 39 seconds, but we’ll get quicker.
It had been a mammoth 30hr drive but almost 10% of the rally had been smashed out and there was still time to take Don on a cultural and historical tour of Munich’s beer halls (I always thought HB stood for Hofbrau, but history detective Don assured me it was a cunningly disguised code for Hitler’s Bar). Some cracking street music and the lure of more beers almost led the lads astray, but with a lot of driving to do the next day, the boys decided to be Earlynight Steves and call it a night. Rob had a great time.
So originally when we signed up for the Mongol Rally the start was going to be today, Saturday, but for whatever reason plans changed and the start was moved to the Sunday morning. The idea was that all teams would head to the iconic Battersea Power Station in Central London for a jovial knees up before getting up and leaving at 7am on Sunday, no doubt ridiculously hungover and quite possibly still over the legal limit. With being on such a tight schedule for getting to Mongolia we decided to forego the official launch and head out late on the Saturday evening for a 00:30 ferry to Calais on the Sunday morning.
Having got up, packed, unpacked, re-packed at least twice Don and I cruised down to Alan’s in Bilsborrow to pick him and his kit up. More of the pack, unpack, re-pack went on and finally we were waved off by the mothership and Al’s mum Brenda. This was it, we were off!
Grey overcast weather changed to a pretty much full blown monsoon before turning into yet another scorcher of a day as we made slow but steady progress towards Battersea Park. My Dad and Penny were already there waiting to greet us and had passed us numerous updates on the best way to find the correct entrance to the park, but with no knowledge of Central London whatsoever we typically ended up on the total opposite side of the park to where we wanted to be and so had to try and work our way around the park whilst passing numerous other Mongol Ralliers heading in all different directions, clearly as lost and confused by the lack of directions as we were. Literally the last gate we came to was the one we had been looking for and so finally Plan F rolled into the start line to show our faces , meet a few old friends and to register our team.
I have never been so glad to get out of a car in my life, it was literally hotter than the sun in the Felicia but unfortunately it wasn’t much cooler out of the car. The father greeted us all with a hug, apologies dad, we were soggy and stinky! Al got us registered whilst we listened to Buddy the compare rabbit on over the PA system, Don did what he does best, he sourced beers – me? Well I was looking after Rob, he can be a bit of a handful at times!
We spent a few hours wandering about looking at other teams cars and saw all sorts of different vehicles ranging from a Citroen 2CV to an Ice Cream Van and even a £200,000 Ferrari… How the hell he expects to get that to Mongolia without A) breaking down and suddenly realising there isn’t a Ferrari dealership in Kazakhstan or B) Getting raped and pillaged by some of my less distinguished foreign colleagues I do not know! Good luck to him, hell of a story if he can avoid/take the raping and pillaging and proceed forth in the face of adversity to Ulaanbataar!
Whilst at the Launch Party we met up with Caroline – a girl who Don and I were on the Dixie Chicken Bus with last year and had a catch up with her whilst she scribbled “Never in a million years will you make it” on the side of our car – cheers Caroline ;). We also chatted with some sound northern lads from team Lost in Allegro, no guessing what they’re driving and also the folks from Just Add Water who with four in their team are also driving a Skoda Felicia to Mongolia, only they’ve mounted a little wooden sail boat to the roof – Nice. Whilst everyone left to go to the pub to get ridiculously drunk prior to an early morning rise for a police escort out of London and quite possibly to the nearest custody cell, Alan, Don and I loaded up and slipped out of Battersea Park into the night, our adventure had begun.