Mongolia – The rally car graveyard
We headed for the Mongolian boarder, a two day drive from the Russian City. All the stories we had heard were true. As soon as we passed the Russian boarder the tar seal road abruptly ended and we were greeted with the roads to take us to the capital. Bumpy, dusty, non-maintained roads. We drove through 10 kilometers of no-mans-land to the Mongolian border, our final border crossing.
As soon as we arrived another team informed us it would be a 24-36 hour wait. Not too bad I suppose. The border guards put us, along with our cars, in a large prison like compound and we waited. On our arrival there were 8 cars in front of us. We talked to some locals about breaking out and finding a goat to feed the group. They were only too happy to oblige. They came to the gates after sunset and without any guards around we jumped the fence and headed for the boarder town.
They provided us the goat and the locals quickly skinned it and cooked it up for us. While we were waiting for it to cook one of the men took us into his home for tea. He was happy to have us there and quickly got out his Kalashnikov (AK-47) to show us. After a few tea drinking formalities, we found ourselves walking out into the Mongolian darkness to shoot a few rounds. I was with two other convoy members at the time, Dave from our team and Dan from team Ronin. They were very excited to shoot a Kalashnikov. I had fired a few before, but was happy to have a go in Mongolia. We returned to the boarder compound feeling like kings with our large goat feed. It fed around 25 people who were happy to be eating something other then pot noodles.
We left the compound after 48 hours. By the time we left there were 35 cars waiting behind us. Some would be waiting up to 5 days to get out. We left the compound with a new attitude, ready to take on Mongolia.
The guys in the convoy were a little too eager to pick the pace up and only 10km into Mongolia the Takhi racers (a Greek/Spanish team) drove into the back of Treeking in Tweed (Kiwi/Aussie team) taking out the back right of the Tweed’s car and the front right of the Takhi’s car. The teams weren’t too happy. But this is the rally and both cars were still drivable. We set off again for the first Mongolian checkpoint.
We made the first city after a few hours. The roads were bad, but nothing too challenging yet. The city was a welcome relief. After a typical Mongolian lunch of goat meat and a team discussion, the convoy decided to stay in Olgii for the night. Each of the cities along the southern route has a vehicle drop off point, as long as you get your car into Mongolia and to a drop off point, it counts as completion of the rally. All six cars in our convoy had made it to the first checkpoint.
We set out early the next day, the driving was difficult and very tiring as usual. We were yet to see any form of Police Officer along the route, but I think Mongolia is too big of a country to police the roads between cities. The first half of the day consisted of long straight, braided roads. By lunch time they made a drastic change into a single road winding in and around hills. Some very defensive driving was needed. After clipping a large stone and tearing the side of our tire out, it was time for a driver change and a fresh start. We made some of the first river crossings that afternoon. Every team made it through without a problem, which was great. For a few people it was quite a challenge as many teams did not have a driver that had forded a river before. It was interesting to watch! After a quick dry of the air filter we were back on the road to the next city.
We made it there late at night, then drove around for about 2 hours trying to find some form of accommodation. Our plan of camping had failed when we realized there were thousands of mosquito’s waiting to ravage us as soon as we stepped out of the cars. Finally we found a hotel, a very dirty hotel. But it had a bed and shelter from the mosquitos, so we were happy. Only a short amount of sleep as usual and it was back on the road to make up ground.
We were only 2 hours out of town when calamity struck the Australian Kahngaroo team. Their Suzuki carry van had destroyed its front right spring, along with the shock. They tried to limp on but soon decided that they could not make the 10-14 hour drive ahead and needed to turn back. At this point the convoy decided we did not have time to accompany them and had to push on. Goodbyes were said with the hope the town would be able to repair their van and they would catch us on the road. We parted with them at lunch, which was the last time we would see them until the finish line. The town they had returned to was unable to repair the car and the team was un-willing to drive without front suspension. They were the first team of our convoy to fall victim to the mighty Mongolia and we still had days left to travel. We pushed on as a convoy and made the next town. It was a bittersweet relief. We had a cold beer and a toast to the lost Australians. Hopefully they would be the only casualty. Hopefully…..
Another early start (I’m getting used to this.) The mornings are cold, only a few degrees above zero. With layers of Swazi gear and a good attitude, we pushed on. The morning was rather un-eventful. Hours spent driving, watching the camels pass by on the side of the road. A few other rally teams were spotted from different convoys. A quick wave and a nod were always given. As the roads opened up, we had made a plan that our team and the Takhi Racers would push ahead to scout the next town. We drove off ahead of the group, more capable and willing to drive at faster speeds than some of the other convoy cars.
With speeds approaching 100kmph we were making good time. The corrugation in the road was bad, but with enough speed you would just ski over the top of it. We were happy, the time was good, it seemed like it was going to be a good day. But Mongolia has a way of challenging you. The car lurched, a grinding noise was heard, I knew straight away it was not a tire, it was worse. The front right spring just broke in half. We inspected the problem and found it was bad. There was nothing we could do in the field to repair the spring. Our only option was to limp. So limp it was.
We started crawling, hoping we would find a small road side village soon. That did not happen. Two hours later the road had shrunk to a single dirt track. With the Takhi Racers leading, we had taken a wrong route and ended up 50km off course. 50km is a long way on a Mongolian road.
We decided to keep following the track as the map showed it would join back to the main road eventually. So follow it we did. We followed it until it ended. It just got harder and harder to see, until it was no longer there. But that’s the nature of roads in Mongolia. One year they exist, the next year after the snow melt they disappear. We did not want to turn back. We were slow enough as it was with the broken spring, so we made the only decision that seemed reasonable, at least reasonable to people on the rally. We decided to drive cross country, where no roads exist, in the hope we would hit the main road eventually.
Luck was finally on our side, before too long we came across the main road and a small hut that sold some supplies. We got a cold drink and decided on a plan of action. After only 20 minutes the convoy caught us up with some great stories of their own. One car had broken down and it took them an hour to get it running. They had wondered why we did not return to see what the problem was. We told them what happened and showed them our broken car, which everyone had a laugh at. Before long it was back on the road, limping to the next city.
Right before the next city we came across a team of British boys that had smashed off their fuel filter. They were stranded with no knowledge of how to fix it. Light was fading fast and some of the convoy wanted to leave them so we could make the city before it was too late. But I knew I could help them and the rally is about helping people. So with a bit of kiwi ingenuity, a hollow tent pole, and some cable ties, we patched their fuel line and their Suzuki Swift was running like new again! Thanks were passed around and their team set off. We carried on limping, making it to the next city by 10pm.
The next morning we inspected the Punto and found our right rear spring had also broken. We set out quickly to the mechanics, only to find another 5 teams already there needing work done. We paid for four new springs and I quickly went about replacing them all. Two and a half hours later the Punto was good to go. With new heavy duty springs, it sat with about 130mm extra ground clearance at the front. It had become an off road machine and was ready to take the worst Mongolia could throw at it! And throw the worst it did.
Late that afternoon, after a few hundred kilometers traveled, the Punto died. It suffered what I later found was ignition system failure. Initially thinking it was a fuel problem, we tried numerous ways to jerry rig new pipes to the fuel rail to get a better supply of fuel. Nothing worked. We were dead. Dead in the middle of a desert. With a tow rope hooked up and a few hundred Km’s to go, we set out on another long distance tow.
We towed till night fell, which happened to be at the river crossing where tractors were needed to pull us across. We set up camp, ate what we could and got some rest. At dawn, with the towrope hooked up, we drove down to the river. We sealed what we could on the car and a tractor pulled it across. The water was deep, even large four wheel drives couldn’t ford this river. It came up onto the bonnet and flooded the back, a minor inconvenience on the rally. With all the cars across and working fine, well, with the exception of ours, we set out again.
Not long passed before we had to ford another river, this one a lot shallower, but still a challenge for the small cars we were doing the rally in. All the cars made it across bar one – The Takhi Racers. The Nissan Micra they were driving did not have the guts, or the grip to cross and it stalled mid stream. Nothing that a tow from a bus couldn’t fix! We got them back on dry land and inspected their engine. They took the advice given from an Australian named James and myself and did not try to turn the car on. We went to work at taking the spark plugs out to get the water out of the engine. With the plugs out, we turned the engine over, only to find large volumes of water spitting out. Lucky we removed the plugs! Once we were satisfied the water was gone we put the spark plugs back in and with a blast of WD40 into the air intake, to help it fire, they were quickly on the road again. We were happy with our efforts; our team was starting to get the reputation as the “most valuable team to convoy with”
We towed for hours, breaking four tow ropes and tearing our tow hook off. We made it to the next city with two ropes attached to the chassis. It was late so we decided to go to the mechanics first thing in the morning and attempt to get the Punto going again. We made the decision that if we could not have it going by 3pm, we would put it on a truck and get it to Ulaanbaatar no matter what. The next day came and 3pm sailed around all too quickly. There was no hope in getting the Punto to run.
Moral was shattered as we loaded it onto a truck. The convoy had left us around lunch time so our team was there alone. The feeling of loading our car onto a truck was horrible; it was like losing a loved one. After so many days, so many hours driving it across 19 different countries, it was only 12 hours from the finish line. The Punto, called Bruce, had carried us so far and done so well. Now it was our turn to carry it to the finish.
We sat in the back of the truck for 16 hours straight. The worst 16 hours of my life. Overloaded with people, there was no sleeping, there was no comfort. But it had to be done. We arrived at Ulaanbaatar with a sigh of relief, unloaded the Punto and waited for the convoy to catch us up. We had driven through the night, so were 6 hours in front of the rest of the convoy.
Finally the convoy caught us up. Happy to see everyone, our moral was now sky high. We had made it to the capital, the place we all needed to be. There was only a 10km tow to the finish. With smiles on our faces and a desire to get to the end, we carried on. At around 1730 the Tweeds used their car to push ours over the finish line. People there were cheering, we were cheering, we were happy. We had made it. 16,000kms, 19 countries, 41 days, one car, and we made it.
The rally was done. The car called Bruce was handed over to the organisers to be auctioned for charity. We retired to the comforts of the Mongol Rally pub and finished with a well-earned beer. We spent days sharing stories with the other teams. Some had some extraordinary things happen to them. Our own team got the reputation as the team that keeps everyone else going, from fixing tires with a bicycle puncture repair kit to draining diesel out of a petrol tank and fixing fuel lines. The irony was that we were one of the teams whose car had died. We helped so many, yet lost our own. That’s the way of the rally, everyone brings their unique skills and you share those skills when needed. I had seen the best and worst of Mongolia, a true proving ground. We beat it. We had finished one of the greatest rallies in the world.