Mongol Rally 2005: Ben Cribb looks back after 14 years…
May 28, 2019
Fourteen years after doing the Mongol Rally 2005, Dan from Adventurists HQ asked his co-driver Ben to dig up some dusty memories. The result is a corker. By the end of this post you’ll be able to smell the petrol.
If you’re reading this then it’s probably too late. There’s a kink in your genome strings. A cluster of rogue synapses gone dark. A bulge on your off side tyre that pulls to the East.
As the masses pile up at the ports and borders of Europe you’re cutting at the wires from the inside. Hankering for a taste of economic wilderness. Burnt clay beneath your blistered tyres. Scorched air cat calling through open windows. Foreign adverts battling the muffled static amnesty of your radio presets. One arm slung round a dusty steering wheel and all the bullshit you’ve been accumulating for a winter receding in the rear view mirror.
The Mongol Rally offers you passage to the fiscal polars of the world: London Town to the Gobi desert. Maybe..
I’m sat with my feet in a pool somewhere in Thailand, somewhere in my thirties, considering my brief for this piece. Fourteen years on what do you remember? Make it punchy. 800 words.
I have a series of frantic subheadings following this sent via Messenger.
‘Tell the teams to stop planning, everyone’s trying to plan too much. Tell them that’s a shit idea’.
My ice cream is down to the nub exposing its thin naked wooden plinth.
‘Tell them to do the rally when they’re young, when they’re old they’ll be sat by the pool with…’
This is a dig at me.
‘Maybe an expose on the MD of The Adventurists. What was it like navigating to Mongolia with a thin lipped bad driver who now steers The Adven…’
What a narcissist.
For a while I remembered everything. A kaleidoscope of border crossings and dodged bribes. Left and right in seventeen different languages. The taste of iodine in warm water. How to stack the car and leave clearance for a rear view. Every word to every song on every CD.
The giant Soviet rest house television sets and their flashing night diodes. The way the car clicked twice before it coughed into life.
The two stage rub of the windscreen wipers and the dusty visceral border they painted on the scratchy glass. Filling the jerry cans with petrol from low pressure pumps. Overtaking lorries running on low octane fuel. Packing up the tent and spitting toothpaste out by the side of the road and feeling the cool back splash on exposed toes.
After a while the details coagulated, grouping themselves into stuttering memories like old cine-film. Discarding the waiting, the endless driving, the uneventful soft tissue of 8000 miles.
A leopard skin queen size bed in a Ukrainian motel, with a complimentary midget porn VHS cassette in the bedside draw. Stays. As does a desperate roadside squat toilet with corrugated graffitied walls and the gripping spasms of diarrhoea.
A drunken night of karaoke in a small Mongolian village bar stays. A clattering diesel generator powering a projector and a howling microphone. Platters of food, warm beer, low hung fizzing lights. A hangover of biblical misery.
The punctures stay. Not individual cases. Rather a soup of flayed rubber, sweat and cursing fury. Those fucking roads mined with flint and fissures, and the sun glaring like a blow torch caramelising the landscape.
The flats of the Siberian Plateau stay. Drinking vodka and chain smoking in rest stops with hard men who drive freight to the Eastern capillaries of Russia.
These are the private details. The indulgent wanderings of a memory given the time to venture off piste. What loiters closer to the surface are the anecdotes. The sound bites that tell of adventure and daring. A version of the truth minus the soft tissue.
My co-driver Dan catching a rock and ripping the fuel tank off the car in the Gobi desert. Not a soul for 200 miles. Circling birds against a cindered sky. The gasping scream of leaking petrol. Sandy rivulets of gasoline seeping past the tyres and hardening under the sun.
A long hard stare. Fold out chairs. A brew. An inventory of supplies. The dawning clarity of being proper fucked. Assigning blame.
This is the sort of memory that draws a line in the sand. That forges a benchmark for getting yourself in a bit of a pickle. That stares down your future shitty days and asks ‘is this as bad as the time you ripped your car in half in the Gobi desert?’
When people ask me about the Mongol Rally I wince.
And then I tell them about the time we had to ratchet strap a 20 litre jerry can to the passenger door as a temporary petrol tank. How we pulled the fuel line through a cut hole in the top of the bonnet. Wound it around the wing mirror and down the passenger window. Cleared the air from the lines and charged another 700 kilometres across Mongolia. T-shirts tied round our nose and mouth to temper the smell of exposed petrol. Dust pouring in through the air filters like a leaking smoke grenade.
Broken forks on the rear suspension clattering our spines in an agonising concertina on every rock and crevice. The manifold torn from the exhaust leaking fumes through the footwells that made our eyes water. Every light on the dash consumed in a panic blinking death rattle.
When I tell this story I don’t say about arriving in Ulaanbaatar. It doesn’t need it and I don’t wish to dilute the drama. A good pub story has a nice clean finish. ‘We made it’ is enough. No one wants to hear the rest. The shit you dredge up on a wintery day staring out to sea scratching at four days of stubble. Tell it to the bottom of a glass. Park it down wind. It’s a midday shadow.
I offer only this…
An overland drive to Mongolia is the sort of experience that settles you. That distillates the silt. That vaccinates against safe and boring.
That means in ten years you can have a mortgage and kids and still be grateful you’re alive. Maybe it will fire you up to be MD of an adventure company. Or perhaps you’ll be sat by a pool in Thailand feeling quietly smug about your air-conditioning and mini bar.
Either way you’ll never shake that grit in your eye and the spit in your hands.
Sign up for the 2019 rally closes on 5th June – get on it.
Skip the website and go straight to the Full Details on the rally here.