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A rule change for this year's rally requires each entrant to drive a car that is no older than 10 years.
A rule change for this year's rally requires each entrant to drive a car that is no older than 10 years.

Adventure playground

The Mongol Rally begins today where amateur crews in average cars drive from Europe to the other side of the world.

Car obsessions come in many shapes and sizes. There are those that wax lyrical about the sleekness of an Aston Martin, others that celebrate a Ferrari's price tag and those that revel in the economy of a Smart car. But Tom Morgan's outlook on four-wheel machinery is different. He loves small cars, and bad ones at that. "The smaller and more banged up they are, the better," said the founder of the Mongol Rally, an annual event that, starting today, will see crews set off in small, beat-up cars from Goodwood in the UK in a bid to reach the Mongolian border. "I'm not into F1 or fast cars - just cars that the smaller and worse they are, the better."

This love affair lends itself to Morgan's first motoring purchase while on a year's university exchange in the Czech Republic in 2001. He and a friend decided to buy a car - a battered 499cc Fiat 126 - and got talking about the most bizarre place they could travel to. "We decided to go to Mongolia," said Morgan. "My friend Jules couldn't drive, so it meant I had to do the whole lot. Sadly, we didn't make it. We got turned back trying to get into Iran from east Turkey. But it was a pretty lively journey which included getting mixed up in some stuff in Macedonia. I say 'stuff' as I didn't really get politics back then, but I knew it was bad stuff. But I vowed to try to do the trip again and succeed this time."

And so the Mongol Rally was born. It took until 2004 - via some time living in Russia, Syria and Cambridge, in the UK - for the first rally to take shape. The same overriding rule applies in 2009 - all cars must be under 1.2-litres in displacement - and it is believed to be the largest single rally, surpassing the Cannonball Run, with 500 crews already committed for this year. In fact, the 500 places up for grabs for this year's race - which cost 640 each (Dh3,778) - were snapped up in just two minutes, a far cry from 2004 when six Fiat 126s stuttered off the line from the then starting point in Shoreditch, east London.

Morgan and his 16-man team describe themselves as "adventurists first and foremost", but they have evolved considerably from the early days when he first set up the League of the Adventurists, the company behind the Mongol Rally. Back then, he says, he was "sponging off his parents" living in various places, "sort of stumbling my way through it". He recalled: "But I realised it was taking up more and more of my time, so I decided to set up the company and do it full time and I've gradually got some other people on board and it's sort of just evolved from there."

Using the motto of making life less boring, the team have five main events: the Rickshaw Run, the Africa Rally, the Mototaxi Junket, the Mongol Derby and the Mongol Rally. For now, the Mongol Rally remains the flagship event, an event Morgan has personally done two-and-a-half times, including a botched attempt back in 2001. "I generally like the events to be stupid enough for me to do," he said. "Actually, the aim is to make them slightly stupid and slightly dangerous but still achievable."

Morgan's background is hardly in putting together such logistically difficult ventures, having studied for a degree in fine art that he says taught him very little. "I found when I started that people talked a lot of guff in the art world," he said. "The degree course taught me to speak guff and then get people to believe that guff." This one aspect of his course has come in immensely handy as he has talked all manner of people into lending their support to his events as well as occasionally talking his way out of trouble.

"The government of Mongolia have been massive backers of the Mongol Rally," said Morgan. "I remember meeting the Mongolian ambassador in London for the first time. This was a guy who clearly had better things to do than talk to someone like me, but he was an amazing support. "And he continues to be a big backer. In 2006 at the launch, he even gave out his mobile phone number in case any of the crews got in trouble. I'm sure plenty of them did, but I never heard whether he got any calls or not."

There has been no shortage of trouble in the Mongol Rally or Rickshaw Run in particular. One competitor from the United Arab Emirates, a banker known only as Geoff, regularly comes up in conversation with the Adventurists team at their headquarters in Bristol in the UK. During the Rickshaw Run, he was known to be doing multi-million-dollar deals via a satellite phone while competing, once drove through the remnants of a burning truck, had to contend with a tornado and, at one stage when he needed to make up time, started hallucinating he was seeing tigers having virtually driven through the night.

Other crews have been known to roll their vehicles - three did on the Mongol Rally last year - while Morgan admits he feared that none of the entries would return in one piece on the first running of the Rickshaw Run. "I remember being in Darjeeling being really nervous waiting for all the crews to make it in," he recalled. "Everyone said it wasn't possible and it was just too dangerous but everyone made it, which was a relief."

The variety of stories, which have included plenty of brushes with the law in various countries, are what, in Morgan's opinion, make the Mongol Rally and the other events exist. "It all started with six crews coming back and telling widely over-egged stories of what they got up to," he said, "and that's where it goes from strength to strength." Unlike most rallies, the team to finish the Mongol Rally in the quickest time are not necessarily greeted the most richly. If anything, the longest, most arduous and entertaining journeys tend to be the most celebrated.

He added: "The quicker they are normally means the more boring their journey has been. It generally means there's a straight run with no problems. "We like people to have some challenges and generally people take up to a maximum of about five weeks although one crew one year took three months." Another suffered the ultimate setback of having their vehicle and all their equipment stolen while at a rest stop.

Dan, another of the League of Adventurists, explained: "Mongolia's a very safe country, so something like that tends to be unheard of. And they're actually no good at being unkind. So these guys were able to find out who'd taken their car and got it back, possibly by handing over a little cash. "Then they realised all of their stuff had been shared among loads of nomadic families so they had their work cut out getting a jerry can from one family, their trainers from another and so on. They got it all in the end which was quite impressive."

Aside from all the adventure and misadventure, there is a more serious side to the League of Adventurists, most notably the work the organisation does to raise money for charity. This year, they are confident of raising 1 million (Dh5.9m) in sponsorship money - half of which is from the Mongol Rally. The money comes from a guaranteed 1,000 (Dh5,950) sponsorship each crew must raise, all of which is used to aid charities in countries where the events take place.

"We are adventurists first and foremost, but it's great to be able to do something for charity in the process," he said. "We leave teams to their fundraising and there are varying degrees of success. Some go crazy - one team raised 55,000 for charity - while others just raise the 1,000. It all helps the charities we work with." This year's Mongol Rally sets off two weeks after the world- renowned Festival of Speed at Goodwood at the same venue, with what organisers are calling the Festival of Slow.

An array of crews will take part -"they tend to be younger students or older people as most regular people can't tend to get five weeks off without losing their jobs," said Morgan - and an array of new stories will be born. Such stories rather than the machinery remains the main lure for Morgan and those lining up. "You get some car nuts, but most are adventurers who want to do a one-off," he said.

"We're trying to move away from cars, hence the Mongol Derby [which will see 26 horse riders compete over 1,000km] and we have plans for an event down the Amazon in dug-out canoes. "But we don't want it to get too big ? maybe 10 events at most each year with the focus being on keeping the fun." Eight years on from setting off on his first journey to Mongolia, Morgan is in no danger of bucking the trend. mmajendie@thenational.ae

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