Sunday, 20 July 2008

UB or Bust!

The morning after the birthday beers we were rudely awakened by the sun slowly cooking us in the tents and so made an early start. 6 hours driving through some amazing canyons and rocky plains we managed to find the Gobi’s largest sand dunes.

In our usual fashion we decided to head through the dunes to the base of the largest one and then climb it, so with Spike at the wheel we set off. Unfortunately it turns out sand is a little softer than rock and in the first valley we got stuck. Although we could move we could not get up enough speed to get up the sides. This prompted us to us the sand ladders for what they where designed for and we made slow progress up the sides. This was very tedious and then, like all great ideas, inspiration came from Mr Clarkson and the Top Gear guys. We let all the air out of the tires (like they did crossing the snow in the Arctic) and low and behold we positively flew up the side and we were out.

This then prompted an afternoon of driving around the dunes having a huge amount of fun. two of us would run ahead and plot the route, whilst doing front flips and superman dives off the steep, soft dunes at the same time.

We finally made it up the highest dune and back out to the edge of the sand by about 10.00 at night. The big drops off each dune started to be hard to spot so we called it a night and planned a quick dinner and then bed. Unfortunately we had to finish off the lamb stew, now five days old. I have never finished a plate of food and been physically shaking, it was the worst thing we have eaten so far. With the consistency of canned tuna and a smell of dog food, the experience on the tongue made you wretch every mouthful. But we all kept it down and hit the sack with the prospect of a long days driving back to UB the next day.

Now things start to get interesting, we could not have made this next bit up. It started with Dave getting up when his alarm went off for the first time on the expedition. Normally we get up about an hour after we wanted to but this time we where packed up and moving by 8.30. I was at the wheel and having a lot of fun on the sand tracks when we took a turn to cross the dunes. Around the next corner we nearly drove in to three bright orange Land Rovers. The guys from the G4 Challenge were there doing press shoots (G4 is the premier off road adventure challenge run by Land Rover). They where very happy to see us and invited us back to the their camp of a cup of tea, so off we went. It was about a 5 minute drive and in those five minutes Roxy lost all power. The engine was coughing and kept wanting to stall, and in this state we limped in to the Camp.

Land Rover Camp

Let me just set the scene properly. We were in the least populated part of the world least populated country, we came across a Land Rover team and where driving in to their camp (hidden from the road so we would have driven straight past) and we had our first mechanical problem in 11500 miles of off road driving. As we where driving in one of the G4 staff apparently said “I recognise that car, I built it”! So not only did we have a fully trained Land Rover mechanic on hand, he already knew the vehicle. Out came the laptop and the fault was quickly diagnosed. It turned out that if we had carried on driving the engine would have cut out and not started again, the mechanic said we have less than ten miles before we broke down and would not be able to move again. He also said the fault was a broken wire and would be nearly impossible to find, but he would have a go, the first cut through the insulation and he found the break. After a little bit of soldering all was good and we were ready to move.

With some boil in the bag meals and other goodies we set off with a working Land Rover. Some people said that we where really luck to win this bursary, and we always maintained it was through hard work, but after that little event may be that luck is traveling with us. Unfortunately after about an hours driving we started getting mild power loss again. At this point we had left the G4 team well behind and we still in the middle of the desert, if we broke down here it would be a 5 day wait for the G4 guys to come back past and even then they might not have had the part required, so we had a choice. Should we push on through the night to UB nursing the car and try and get it to a garage before the weekend, or do we take it slow and stop to let the engine cool every time the symptoms of the problem started (it was to do with a valve sticking when the turbo got hot)? We decided to drive to UB through the night trying to use the turbo as little as possible. This sounds easy, but Mongolian tracks are no place for an under-powered car.

With a final diesel stop we headed off in to the darkness with our spotlights showing the way, things where not to bad as the cool night air kept the engine from getting too hot. The only problem was when she cut out and we had to turn the ignition off and on again. With switching off the ignition the lights go off too, so do the brakes and so does the power stierring, driving becomes interesting with no lights. But despite this we managed to push on through the night stopping for some very welcome instant meals courtesy of the G4 guys and to watch a stunning sun rise.

Amazingly the car carried on going and as we got more used to driving, feathering the throttle and using the clutch to coast we nearly stopped noticing the problem. As we approached UB with Dave passed out in the back, Spike and I noticed a strange sound coming for the back left wheel. On closer inspection we found that somehow we had broken the brake disc guard. This involved a quick wheel off, guard off, wheel on again and finally we made it in to the town at about 3 in the afternoon. We had managed to drive a very sick vehicle 800km on terrible tracks in 30 hours, tired but happy we could now start to sort things out.

The main north-south road in Mongolia

We are meeting the G4 fixers tonight and should be able to get things fixed at the beginning of next week. If not then we could be in for a long wait while some new parts are sent out. Roxy is an amazing car, we take her all sorts of places and probably drive her very badly (i.e. my meeting with a certain tree) but she just keeps going, however Mongolia is no easy place to live for a car and the list of faults is as follows.

  • Broken roof rack (every stanchion is cracked and it is being held on by paint)
  • The rear diff is leaking oil
  • The turbo can not maintain pressure
  • Spare tire is flat
  • Wing mirror is broken
  • The ABS has stopped working
  • The brake light keeps coming on while we are driving (not sure why so ideas are welcome)

Despite all this we have managed to keep going and should be able to get all the medicine to cure our baby in the city, I might even have managed to fix the turbo problem today. We are off to meet the G4 people now, but want to thank Asif (the mechanic) and all the G4 guys, you really saved us on thursday morning, enjoy the desert and I hope we will catch up with you all again soon.

- Pete

Playing on the iPod: “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds

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