BAKU, August 10, 2006 - If driving a beat-up car with an obscenely small engine across 10,000 miles of punishing roads with no support and less money sounds like a bad idea, then the Mongol Rally is not for you. For about 300 people currently on their way to Mongolia's capital Ulan Bator from London in some of the most ill-equipped vehicles imaginable, there's no better way to spend the summer.
"The whole point is that you're going to break down, and that's part of the adventure," said Henry MacFarlane, a 22-year-old Briton who teamed up with university classmate Eleanor Garnier to drive an old Citroen 2CV dubbed "Alice" across most of Eurasia.
The Blazing Camels, as MacFarlane and Garnier call themselves, are one of a handful of Mongol Rally teams that have made it as far as Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea shores, but not without some major hiccups along the way.
That's to be expected, the Camels told AFP as they awaited -- for the third day running -- an elusive ferry that they hope will take them across the Caspian to Kazakhstan.
Three other cars are currently camped out at Baku port waiting for the same ferry. Alice towed one of the cars part of the way through Georgia when the 1987 Fiat Panda's gearbox gave out for the umpteenth time.
"All the cars are pretty crap," MacFarlane said, adding that rally rules require vehicles used for the trek be purchased for under 500 pounds (950 dollars) and have engines with a volume no larger than 1,000 cubic centimeters.
"Every day is a bit of a bonus when you're in a really rubbish car," MacFarlane said, explaining that the team has not bought plane tickets back home because they're no sure where the 2CV will eventually fall apart.
The rally's website (www.mongolrally.com) puts the issue pretty bluntly in the FAQ section answering the question "Will I definitely get to Mongolia?" with "No, what would be the point of that?"
In Georgia, the Camels' 1986 2CV had to tow team Alan Paca's Fiat Panda up hills. They would then release the car so the Fiat could build up enough speed to get into fourth gear, the only gear that still worked.
"We had to drive it for about 100 miles without stopping or shifting gears until we got to Tbilisi," said Briton Simon Meir, 22, one of the Alan Paca pilots.
Another team in a Fiat Panda did not make it to Baku because their car burst into flames when a rock tore open their fuel tank on a highway in Azerbaijan, the ralliers recounted.
No-one was hurt but witnesses said the team lost all their possessions, including passports, in the fire.
"It's really emotional for them because they've come all this way and now they have to go home," Garnier said.
For all the difficulties, which aside from car troubles include mountains of Soviet-era red tape, the Mongol Rally has grown from a two-man joy-ride in 2001 to an international event raising tens of thousands of pounds for charity.
Each team has to donate at least 1,000 pounds for charity to take part.
The Blazing Camels organised a party with a five pound entry fee to raise part of the sum while the Alan Paca team did odd jobs such as washing cars to drum up the money.
"I had to wash a lot of cars," Meir recalled, adding that he earned an additional 150 pounds by shaving his waist-long hair in a crowded pub somewhere in Staffordshire.
The money goes to organizations such as Send A Cow, which uses the donated funds to send livestock and provide training for needy families in East Africa.
Sadly, a cow was injured slightly in last year's rally when the Infinite Improbability Drive team's car hit one in Azerbaijan, which meant one of the team members had to spend a night in jail.
Participation in the rally has rocketed from last year's 43 teams, of which only 14 actually made it to Ulan Bator, to 157 in 2006 of which 153 are still on the road 17 days into the adventure.
Many of the participants are students or just out of university. Others have jobs but very flexible bosses willing to let their staff go for weeks at a time.
"Microsoft doesn't want us to be here," chuckled Alex Slepak, 28, a member of the three-man Rust Box 360 team, all of whom are US computer geeks for the software giant when not pushing the envelope with their '84 Lada.
"We've taken six weeks off of work. If it was a good idea we wouldn't have done it," said Slepak's 29-year-old team mate, Theo Michel.
Mongol Rally doesn't offer any prizes to the team that makes it to Mongolia first, or at all. In fact participants are required to sign a document saying they will not compete. So why do they do it?
"Before I've got a mortgage and only 25 days of holiday per year I figured I'd do something like this," Garnier said.
* * * * *
Published on 10/7/06