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Lawyer and best mates hit the road with a lemon for marathon rally adventure

01 September 2017 - By Nick Butcher

A rally car drives on a dirt road in Mongolia

Some people might question why a group of young men would want to travel in a small beaten-up car from London to Mongolia, crossing borders near war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and less friendly to the west nations such as Iran and Russia.

Surely, there are safer ways of seeing that part of the world?

However, nothing appears to have deterred a Wellington lawyer and former ‘scarfie’ from the University of Otago, and two of his oldest mates from taking part in an unpredictable 17,000km road trip for charity called the Mongol Rally.

LawTalk caught up with them before they left for their journey, and also during the odyssey.

Litigation solicitor Simon O’Donnell, James Sawers and Nico Clere are all 25-years-old and are in the midst of what they hoped would be the adventure of a lifetime.

“It’ll take us about six weeks so it won’t be a quick trip as the rules of the race mean the car has to be powered by a 1000cc engine or less,” Mr O’Donnell says.

Nico Clere, Simon O'Donnell and James Sawers
Nico Clere, Simon O'Donnell and James Sawers

The plan is to drive one day and explore the destination the following day.

The Mongol Rally organisers encourage competitors to enter the worst chariot they can find. Mr O’Donnell and co got a 1999 Nissan Micra in England for about £350.

“The shittier the better. If you’re spending more than a few hundred quid on your car then something’s wrong,” the organisers say.

There were 332 entries in this year’s event and the New Zealand team were lucky to get sponsorship to help with costs from car dealers Gazley, in Wellington, and chartered accountants Staples Rodway, in Hawke’s Bay.

The rules of the Rally are gloriously simple:

  1. You can only take a farcically small vehicle,
  2. You’re completely on your own,
  3. You’ve got to raise £1,000 for charity.

Mr O’Donnell’s team is called Flightless because they’re Kiwis.

Planning well could make the difference between sleeping in the car in a Middle Eastern desert or at backpacker accommodation, but then sometimes plans go out the window.

Mr Clere, who is an engineering surveyor, apparently took a crash course in mechanics before the event began on 16 July, which Mr O’Donnell says gave them some peace of mind.

“My first car was a Toyota Hilux flat deck so I know the basics, but Nico said he did some night classes on how to fix engine problems so we’re not totally hopeless.”

In preparation for the adventure the team had to obtain several visas to be able to enter the many countries scattered along their stray tangent journey to Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar where they’ll eventually cross the finish line some two months after leaving London in mid-July.

“The Russian embassy (in Wellington) was interesting. A tiny room with a picture of President Vladimir Putin in the corner. It was quite frightening, actually. Just one man who spoke very little English. He just said ‘papers please’ and instructed me to come back in two weeks and I popped the papers through a small hole in the wall in a complete nonchalant building in the middle of Karori,” Mr O’Donnell says.

A rally car drives through a Mongol village

During the rally ‘Flightless’ was due to stop at Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat, in the supposedly safer north-western part of the country.

“I’m a little nervous – these countries are the unknown but breaking down people’s preconceived ideas about these places will be good,” he says.

The event and experience is costing each team member about $5,000 each.

I spoke with Mr O’Donnell when they stumbled into Georgia a few weeks into the rally and it appeared as if they were in good spirits and the journey was rolling on smoothly, despite some of the rugged terrain.

Team ‘Flightless’ had been driving about nine hours a day, making good ground and clocking up to 1,000km daily in the Micra.

“We can’t go any faster than 110km/h or things start to fall off the car. Many of the roads were actually really good especially the Autobahn highway system in Germany,” he says.

Disaster strikes

However, a couple of minor disasters struck, hand-braking the team just after we hung up the Skype call.

Mongol rally drivers stand in front of a monument

“The Caucasus mountain road turned out to be a 4WD track which had us hopscotching rocks and fording ice melts. The scenery was absolutely stunning, but halfway down a 2,600-metre pass our driveshaft failed. We were towed by a 4WD to the nearest village three hours away. The next day, after another two tows, we had the car repaired in Georgia’s second city. Things were looking up after an anxious 24 hours,” he says.

As it turned out, Nico Clere didn’t actually take the course in mechanics he promised the team, and he was forced to buy beer as penance.

Before the driveshaft gave in Simon was complimentary of the car, almost stunned that it had survived; after all, it was only worth the equivalent of NZ$700 and had travelled thousands of kilometres.

“Oddly, its coping, only one problem, a squeaking suspension, we’ll check it once we’ve found a cheap mechanic. Nico was meant to have done that mechanics course, but it turned out he hadn’t. We are running blind but we are going well considering,” Mr O’Donnell says.

So, with the car repaired, team Flightless took off again. However, disaster number two was about to hit.

The priest and his Lada

“Half an hour later, driving through the small town of Zestafoni, Georgia, the local orthodox priest, driving a solid yellow Russian-made Lada Niva, veered across the centreline pinning us against a lamp post, before continuing head on into the car behind us.

Damage to a door of the Mongol rally car
The result of Zestafoni's town Orthodox priest
veering across the centre line pinning their car
against a lamp post.

“The rule of law and the road as I understand it is gone. It looks like we’ve finally found ourselves in the chaos that makes the Mongol Rally,” he says.

“We were unhurt; the occupants of the car behind us were less lucky and were injured. The priest wiped out our two left doors and a wing mirror.”

As the day unfolded, the old saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ came true.

“A young lad, Davit, who spoke some English, offered us a place to stay. After a six-hour ordeal at the police station, we went to his village. Lucky for us, in Georgia, guests are considered gifts from God – in this case from his messenger the priest. Over the next two days Davit took us into his home and helped us rescue our car from the pound and replaced the doors,” he says.

The following day, the trio were back on track and my last correspondence with them was positive as they travelled through Azerbaijan and had entered Iran.

A few setbacks, and plenty of highlights

There were some notable highlights, such as their time in Romania.

“There’s a road there that Top Gear called the best road in the world, the Transfagarasan. The road wound up a steep hill, pretty bloody fun. We ended up driving up it twice so everyone could have a turn. It’s 90km long. There’s a 10km strip that just twists and turns perfectly,” Mr O’Donnell says.

A road winds down a valley in Romania

He says in Bulgaria and Turkey the road conditions deteriorated.

“They just got worse, but that’s the fun of it, there’s potholes and cows plus the crazy local drivers to deal with. The locals are great people until they get on the road – they turn into nut-jobs.”

The team freedom-camped near Gallipoli and held their own dawn ceremony to remember the fallen ANZAC soldiers.

“We were near Anzac Cove, we got up at six o’clock to go there. It was just us, very peaceful and reflective. It was good to be able to put into context the horrific images we saw growing up, such as the battle of Chunuk Bair,” he says.

“The event is better than we expected. We entered every country ending in ‘Stan’ but Pakistan. I feel we should go to Pakistan just to get the stamp.”

As to where team Flightless are now? That’ll be another story we may bring you in the next edition of LawTalk, or you can check them out on Facebook at ‘Flightless – Mongol Rally 2017’.

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Last updated on the 1st September 2017