The Foolish Adventure Begins

August 13, 2008 by

Asia, Europe, Places to Go, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Editor’s Note: Read the latest on the Optimistic Fools preparation for the 2008 Mongol Rally. Viator is pleased to be a sponsor of the Optimistic Fools rally team, on their journey to complete the 2008 Mongol Rally from London to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. The race began July 19, and this is the Fools’ first post from the road.

Mongol Rally
Irene ın her native home, the French country sıde

“To get away from one’s working environment is, in a sense, to get away from one’s self; and this is often the chief advantage of travel and change.”
-Charles Horton Cooley

For so long it seemed little more than a dream: driving from London’s Hyde Park to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, in a sky-blue Renault 4 called Irene, in the 5th annual Mongol Rally. Preparing the car, sourcing the visas and studying the route all failed to hit it home as my teammate, Olly, and I (a.k.a. the Optimistic Fools) each went about our daily routines of waking, working, girlfriends then bed. That this simple routine was about to be blown from the waters of monotony was beyond our comprehension.

As I awoke on Saturday 19th of July in my 1-bed flat in Marble Arch, void of all its usual contents – bar a small bag and a pop-up tent I had recently purchased of eBay – I realised that I had no idea where I would lay my head that night, or any other for the next seven weeks. It was a truly glorious feeling, for a short period of time I would be completely free of my suits, schedules, appointments and, above all, tedium. For once I would have a brief glimpse into the world of a hobo and it was a feeling without description.

On the drive to the Hyde Park launch site, sitting impatiently at a red traffic light, a large silver Mercedes smoothly pulled up alongside us. A burly suited chap with sleek black aviators rolled down the window of his nicely air-conditioned and fragranced car. ‘Where are you guys off to in that rust bucket?’ he mused.

‘Mongolia, mate,’ we answered nonchalantly. ‘What about yourself?’

Yet before we could relish his retort, the lights turned green and he was off to his office, leaving us smiling in his wake as we made our way to the adventure of a lifetime.

Spluttering up to the start line we were joined by Fiat Pandas, Minis, Suzuki Sjs and an assortment of various cars, all under 1000cc, whose heydays were mostly around the time I thought Bonjovi were the best band in the world (and that was a long, long time ago). Having somehow managed to persuade the Mongolian Ambassador for a private photo shoot we were off, out of London in the direction of Folkstone, where we would cross into France via the Channel Tunnel, an ingenious feat of engineering. Now if there is anything that the elder generation of French people love more than oaky red wine and robust smelling cheese, it’s a Renault 4. And it was this nostalgıc love that endeared us to all as we bumbled down their motorways and clogged up their little country lanes.

Having lent us her forests (to me France is decidedly feminine) for two nights of free camping, the first had us chased off in the morning by an irate farmer and his son, Irene proving herself worthy as a getaway car and the second in the alpine forests in the mountains next to Switzerland. The following morning we crossed into this wonderfully neutral country. Legend has it that the Swiss boarder patrol are as overzealous and efficient as brain surgeon, so to prepare we changed the Reggae to Rakmaninov and the ripped shorts for suits, only to cross the boarder with little more than a bemused look from a cheery customs officer.

Wanting to cross into Italy within the day we drove from dawn until dusk, finding ourselves surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the middle of the night, navigating steep, windy, unlit alpine roads dressed in thin cotton suits. To say the situation felt surreal would be an understatement. Having thought that the assent was painful on Irene’s 30-year old radiator was bad, the descent proved to be even worse on her brakes, filling the car with the smell of burnt rubber. Finally we made it down to the Italian boarder, bewildered and shaky, only to be subjected to the most intense and thorough search worthy of the aforementioned Swiss legend. Yet, being the relatively good boys that we have now become, they found nothing and to add to the surreal experience of the whole day. They offered us sweets to take on our journey.

Both of have having had previous knowledge of Italy we kept up the fast pace speeding into Milan, getting lost and putting Irene’s satisfyingly intrusive horn to the test, and out again into the farmland of northern Italy. Once again it was getting late and having been on the road for 15 hours we decided to pull off the motorway at the next junction marked ‘Citadella’ in order to find a small forest where we could pitch the tent and pull out the longed-for Whiskey. Being 11 o’clock at night and thoroughly exhausted we hadn’t put two an two together to realise that you don’t call a town Citadel without reason. As we rounded a corner of the deserted town we were greeted by an enormous castle keep, flanked on either side by majestic turrets before which lay an ornate stone bridge undewhich rippled the murkey waters of a moon reflecting moat.

On surpassing the dumbfounded awe that had befallen us at this second bizarre encounter, we continued on our way to our next camp site, a small grassy lane nestled between two cornfields ripe for harvesting. As the moon glistened down in a gothic manner through the towering corn we nursed a few glasses of Whiskey and once again realised how incredibly lucky we were to be undertaking this journey.

Changing the shock absorbers in Italy after the bashing in the Alps

The next morning, wanting to get back on the road early before our morning yawns were met with the barrel of an incensed Italian farmer’s shotgun, we tickled Irene’s rusty (yet so far reliable) engine into action and continued towards the Slovenian boarder, where we would enter for a few kilometers before arriving at the Croat customs. At the passport control the guard joked with us how I, as a German, could allow myself to trust a French car. He then looked solemnly towards the Croatian boarder and remarked, ‘you see that? That is no longer the EU, if you drive just a few meters from here you will no longer be protected.’ Ollie and I looked at one another, grinned the grin of two school boys laden with fireworks outside a nunnery, and sped off with renewed vigor.

Hailed as the new med Mecca, free from the tourist hordes that plague its neighbor’s shores, I had high expectations for this rapidly developing country. So it was with great regret that I felt, no doubt unfairly, slightly let down with my perception as the smiles and waves from the previous countries were exchanged for uninterested gazes and bored faces. True the quaint beauty of the precariously windy road that meanders down the coast, dotted with small coves embraced by gently lapping blue waters and crested with small stone houses were enough to break even the sternest heart, but I was not sold.

Due to a historic political olive branch, Bosnia cuts through southern Croatia, allowing its otherwise landlocked country a few kilometers worth of coastline. So heading down the Croat coast one has to enter Bosnia for brief glimpse before reentering Croatia at the ancient and majestic fort like city of Dubrovnik. Whilst walking its white slippery stone alleys, Ollie asked two beautiful Slavic girls if they could snap a photo of he and I before the grand cathedral steps. ‘Of course,’ they chorused before handing Ollie back the camera , grabbing me each by the arm for Olly to take the photo. As they walked off, heads held high, proud of their splendor, we decided to get back on the road to hit the Montenegrin boarder before midnight.

Christoph Courth

To find out more about this foolish adventure visit the Optimistic Fools over at their own website: www.optimisticfools.co.uk



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