Tuesday 4th of June 2019, Mongolia.
Day 3 in the rally.
The Chinese – Mongolian border crossing is for any adventurous person a treat, a fairing. The Chinese side is big, ill-conditioned and ugly but once you pass all formalities on this side and drive towards the Mongolian buildings, one can sense the change. It begins with the total absence of tarmac or any other flat surface. The Contal dives for the first time in potholes that can cripple a cow. The surroundings change from neatly laid out to chaotic and totally dry and the buildings… do I need to explain? Once again, like on every border crossing, the uniformed authorities look at us as if we collectively robbed a bank and our papers are handled as if they are soaked in vitriol. But also this ends with stamps and then comes the moment we have all been dreaming about… the entrance in Mongolia, country of the broken suspension and cars on trucks. And from the first hundred meters every promise is fulfilled. The roadbook gave us some amendments and the first 10 cars get immediately and hopelessly lost, so did we, of course. We wiggle from one side of the settlement to the other until Skippy comes to our rescue and tells us to follow him. So that is what we do. We hobble from broken tarmac to gravel with large holes to deep soft sand with big stones underneath. I cannot see the other competitors because all my enduro skills are needed to overcome these obstacles. The Contal goes everywhere and Herman bounces up, down and sideways like a small vessel in a big storm. For the first time I endure the full absence of a rear suspension and from behind it must look like I am riding a wild bull. It must appear ridiculous and I am sure that the betting rates amongst the competitors whether the Contal was going to reach Paris or not would go from 1 on 10 to 1 on 50 that night. I could hardly follow Skippy. There was also a very strong wind and the sand was blowing horizontally in our faces. Herman and I could hardly breath and our bluetooth intercom whistled like a fog horn in our ears.
After some 10 Km in this wild sea of sand we arrive at the Time Control where we learn that the next stop is after 200 Km tarmac. There we are told that Johnn Spiller will wait for us to make a convoy to the Camp… Without questioning this, but with a bad premonition, we set of on what is to be a windy 3 hours in a straight line. Since when is there tarmac in Mongolia, Herman asks me, because all the stories I told him about my 2013 experience were in sand or on grass… Anyway, once arrived, we learn that Johnn decided to make a convoy because lately the floods in Mongolia were so heavy that following the roadbook would bring multiple competitors in difficulties. Since when is there water in Mongolia? Apparently since now. So we all had to follow him towards Camp 1. I check the front axle once more and braces me to follow Johnn and Charlie. This ‘following the lead car’ appeared to be a nerve-racking activity since they went fast and as promised there was deep sand, muddy potholes and difficult terrain. I presumed that we were driving quite slow holding the convoy at low speed. I could feel the Fangio’s and the Chryslers becoming nervous behind me and indeed, on the first occasion they were offered they sprinted away leaving Herman and I dust and stones as a farewell present. Johnn turned around to help the second group of competitors passed the flooding and Herman and I, now on our own, worked ourselves and the Countess towards the first Mongolian camp. I learned a lot in those 3 hours.
The Contal has three wheels. Two in front on the outside and one in the back in the middle. All propulsion comes from the back wheel. When the Contal is taken on rural roads where cars have driven (99% of all roads in Mongolia), there are two ruts that are about 80 to 120 cm apart, with sloping edges. The middle between the ruts is mostly rounded, not flat. The main exercise on that first Mongolian afternoon was to find out what the Countess liked most. The truth appeared to be that she likes nothing, it appeared to be a choice between cholera or syphilis. Not the two front wheels more or less in the ruts, because then the back wheel searches its way away from the middle part towards the rust and then we look like a drunken cyclist staggering home on a Sunday afternoon. Not the back wheel in one of the two ruts, because then the two front wheels want to get of the sloping edges back into the ruts. On top of that the stones hidden under the sand in the ruts and on the middle part made the Contal jump like a furious horse. No suspension in the back means I was going to feel every pebble between Bejing and Paris… and I really did. The only way I could protect my back was to stand up, what I ended up doing for half the trip… and almost all the time in Mongolia.
The result was that I had to go from one option to the other (from cholera to syphilis) pulling and pushing the steering wheel back and forth like in an intense fitness exercise, for 3 hours. Herman heard me swearing and cursing all along while he tried to avoid most body shocks by lifting his ass on the right moment and holding on to whatever he could hold onto without losing the roadbook. Sometimes we both uttered primitive throat noises that made me smile during this physical punishment.
Arriving at the first Mongolian camp made us both smile broadly though. It was a picture. We were designated to our reserved tent (tent number 1, noblesse oblige) and Herman told me he wanted to go for a short run in the mountains. I thanked him for the proposal and went looking for beer, something the Nomad Organisation normally has plenty of.
This was ‘a good day’ but again, the physical stress of the driving and the mental grizzle on the failing front axle took its toll. If tomorrow will be more of the same I don’t know if my arms can take it.
Anyway, we wrote a first little page in the history books where a Mototri Contal made its way through a part of Mongolia, in the tracks of Auguste Pons. We got this far. The betting rates went up instead of down that night and Herman and I slept, side by side, a deep and reparational rest in that little yellow tent with the Contal outside in front of it. Sleep well Herman… Sleep well Anton… That night I had the first cramps in legs, arms and hands not knowing that there were a lot to follow in the weeks to come… Tomorrow is the day we arrive in Ulan Bator, ergo: rest day! I would soon learn that the term “rest day” was ill chosen since the Countess demanded all our attention, all day long. Anyway, a rest day meant a day without anguish and that was something to look forward to. We just had to get through another 270 Km of Mongolian wasteland first before we got there. But that was a problem we could solve tomorrow…
The question “WHY” is not answered yet.
First this. The way I look at the rally today (five weeks after the finish in Paris) is completely different then how I looked at The Project before the start. Today, I want to know why I did it… knowing that we made it, that we did meet the challenge, that we drove the Contal all the way to Paris (and back home to Ghent the day after, our 37thrally day!). The perspective has changed completely because of that fact. Just imagine we did not make it… what a different outlook that would have been. But we did, so let’s get back to the “why” question.
I created the context for you where and how The Project took its form, but the search is now for its function. I realise today that I found a lot of pleasure in the research on Auguste Pons and gradually, as my knowledge grew, also the Mototri Contal became more and more important. Looking back at that first period (May 2017 to March 2019, the time before the rally), it is clear that three main elements got combined: 1) the drama of the Pons story, 2) the technical challenge the Contal represented and 3) the romantic and adventurous element of engaging in a sort of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ dynamics. This trinity was enough to fascinate me to a point where I gladly invested more and more time and a considerable amount of money to get to the ultimate goal: being the first person in the world to drive a tricycle from Peking to Paris. It had all the elements that I needed to get focussed. There was an investigational part, a business element, it was technical to a point that I could understand and follow it and there was eternal glory to be bestowed. What else does a modern man, looking at its sixtieth birthday, need to be happy? There it is… this is the part where I humbly have to admit that the fact that I will be turning 70 years old in 11 years… has been on my mind lately. The door to the third part of my live is wide open and I reluctantly but unavoidably have to go through it. I know that, but as these things go… there are different ways to go through doors. Some do it quietly, some dance from one part of their live to the next… I sort of wanted a grand finale to close off my middle adulthood (40 to 60) and move on to my late adulthood (+60)… got it? I admit it, I am an extrovert person and this proves it excessively. It is a well known fact, my wife Inge will confirm this poor character trait of mine with joy, that I like to be in the middle of the attention. To my defence though, and I admit that I did not cure cancer nor save the world from poverty, in classic rally circles, driving from Peking to Paris on three wheels, is big shit. The attention the vehicle and the implementation of the challenge generated is, in my opinion, well deserved and earns a place in the history books. “More men walked on the moon…”, remember?
As for the “why”, I have one more element to add, and hold on, it is a big one. I am a sucker for a good story and you have to admit, the Auguste Pons story is a hell of a story! The fifth competitor, the smallest vehicle, the only one that didn’t make it, was he betrayed or did he fuck it up himself… all elements for a Netflix movie, I would say. To pick this up 112 years later, while nobody has done anything with it since, makes the story not only bigger and better, but constructs a bridge between past and present.
It brings us right back to the glorious first days where cars were still to be discovered and the driving of them was adventurous. Finishing The Project successfully and being, in a way, the last of the original five ‘Mad Motorists’ to make it to Paris, blows my mind. Perhaps, bringing all the others elements that substantiate the “why” together, this is the biggest “why” I can relate to today. There is more between heaven and earth than we know and somehow Auguste Pons and Oscar Foucauld are now related to Anton Sr Gonnissen and Herman Jr Gelan or vica versa. We are one team. We did this together. They started it and we finished it. That is how I see and feel it today. You can call it what you want but in the five weeks past the finish in Paris the metaphysical connectedness became only stronger to the point that I must and will find Auguste’s last resting place and put the Paris trophy on his marble. If that isn’t an answer to the “why”… nothing is. If this doesn’t embody the spirit of the rally… nothing does.
End of part 3