I pulled into the Goodwood Racetrack a little after 4pm on Saturday, ready to begin the adventure. The early afternoon had been spent in a mad hunt for jerry cans as gas stations may be few and far between in some countries. I was afraid that I was going to be one of the last to arrive. However, when I pulled into the grass field where all the teams would be camping, I was surprised to see I was one of the first hundred or so (put of a projected 340 teams). The dull brown/green grass field was brought to life with colorful vehicles in neat lines, their drivers and passengers clustered around them in boisterous groups.
A brightly glad attendant directed me to the fourth row back, next to a team of three from Sweden and England called The Steppe Brothers. Their Nissan Micra was piled high with all their gear as they had elected to go without a roof rack. They shook their heads in disbelief when I raised the rear hatch of the Rascal and showed them the array of spare parts in the rear. To their credit, they had at least remembered to pack toilet paper, so I assured them they were one up on me!
The rest of the evening was spent meeting my fellow Ralliers and checking out each other’s vehicles. I was pleased to discover that I was one of the most prepared of all the tams. No one else is carrying a spare engine! One row in front of me was a lovely, forest green 1966 split window VW bus. I immediately made my way over and made their acquaintance. It turns out the young man who owns it (seriously, I’m not sure his beard has come in yet) has owned it for six years, imported from California. He was busy bolting on a custom made skid plate to protect the pedal mechanisms from rocks, water crossings, and other hazards. He and his twin brother are taking the VW, and their friends are following along in a “how can that be legal?” Mitsubishi 4x4.
As dusk began to fall, we were treated to demonstrations of Mongolian throat singing, Mongolian wrestling (including an opportunity for Ralliers to participate), and three for five pound beers. Suffice it to say the party was in full swing by 9pm! Having drunk my fill I headed back to the car park to socialize with my fellow Ralliers someplace where there was less of a chance of getting tackled.
Overall I found the Ralliers to be an easy-going group, quick to share beer, swap advice, and share route plans. Convoys were being formed and friendships as well. Before I knew it, it was after one in the morning and festivities were supposed to start at seven. I settled into my hammock and comforted myself with the fact that everything had been running at least an hour behind schedule, and were we really going to get up that early?
Sure enough, at 7 am there was a blast from an air horn and we were all up. I would like to say that everyone leapt out of their sleeping bags and got right to work packing for the trip. The reality of the situation is that most people partied much deeper into the early morning hours and were feeling the effects today. One guy was wandering around looking for his charging station, trying to remember not only where he left it, but who he had been drinking with, and where those people might have been. His blinding headache and queasy stomach were not helping matters.
We were all on the paddock by 10 o’clock, ready for the start. A few speeches were given and some prizes awarded (mostly to teams who were woefully underprepared). It was clear that the teams were antsy to get on the road. By the time we were all gathered for the group photo, people were looking at their watches and calculating ferry times. But, good to their word, we were on the road by eleven!
We were allowed a ceremonial lap around the Goodwood Racetrack. I took it pretty slow, getting up to 40 on the straightaway. I was sure the Rascal could have done better than that, but I didn’t want to be the guy who crashed out of the race before even getting out the door. A few of the other rally teams were not so cautious and took to weaving in and out of the parade as they zipped along. It was all in good fun and everyone laughed and had a good time as we avoided the decorations falling off their cars.
The route from Goodwood to Dover is fairly straightforward...until you ask Google Maps how to get there. On paper, you just take the A27 all the way there, no problem. But Google seems to think it is better (read faster) if you go out of your way towards London and then cut back down. Lacking a navigator, I foolishly decided to let Google do the driving. Unfortunately this meant that I had to constantly check the phone for turnoffs, roundabouts, and street changes. I missed at least four turnoffs from the roundabouts and any time savings I was to pick up from taking Google’s route were quickly lost. By the time I rolled into Dover, I was definitely in the back of the pack.
My ferry was scheduled to leave at 3:45. Most Rally teams were to be on that ferry or a later one. Many cars were pulled to the side of the road or turning off to McDonald’s to get some lunch and wait for the ferry. I rolled up to the kiosk and the woman informed me she was going to check to see if there was room on the earlier ferry, Sure enough, there was and I was whisked away to the waiting queue with a couple dozen other Rally teams who had also gambled on an earlier boat.
This was all good news for me. My plan is to make it to Germany today and camp for the night. But the 3:45 ferry (plus the 90 minute transit time, plus the unload time) was going to make that pretty unrealistic. At least with this earlier ferry I would have an “extra” hour and quarter to get lost on my way to Deutschland.
As I rolled along the French highway, I was overcome with emotions. Nine months of planning had finally come to fruition and the reality of it all hit me. I was simultaneously laughing and sobbing, overcome by the realization that this was truly happening! I was driving to mongolia! As the line of Rally cars made its way past me, I saw a medley of emotions on their faces as well. Some were elated. Some were in shock. And some were still feeling the effects of last night’s revelry.
Within an hour the signs changed from French to a mixture of French and Dutch as I crossed the border into Belgium. A Mason brother of mine lives in Brussels so I sent Tim a Facebook message asking him if he wanted to go out for a beer. He replied a bit stunned, “Are you in Belgium?” I responded that I was 80 km outside of Brussels and heading his way. Good friend that he is, he dropped everything and met me outside his apartment. What was supposed to be a quick beer and catching up turned into a lovely evening of strolling the streets of Brussels, sampling good beer and a traditional meal of rabbit in a sweet, thick beer sauce (with frites!).
I was taken to see the Manneken Pis,the third most photographed statue in the world, and a good representation of the Belgian sense of humor. We also took in the main city square where friends and family gathered in the warm summer evening to drink wine and enjoy each other’s company. It was in no way “all” of Brussels, but I was assured by Tim that I had now seen the two main sights that all tourists are required to find.
Tim would not hear of me sleeping by the side of the road, so he invited me to stay for a night on his air mattress and a morning hot shower. I could not believe my good fortune! Not only did I get a guided tour of the city, but also a place to sleep?!?! The Mongol Rally was truly off to a fantastic start! Tomorrow I continue to head south, through Luxembourg and Germany, and possibly into Croatia. We’ll see how far the road takes me!
(Speaking of road, the live tracker appears to be working. You can follow me in more-or-less real time on my site: www.seemedlikeagoodidea.net )