Sunday 9th of June 2019.
Day 8 in the rally, Mongolia.
John Spiller held its hat firmly pressed on his head against the swirling gusts of wind and shouted to us that we had to put on every item of protective clothing that we had brought with us, NOW! I thought he was joking, John is almost always joking, but the rain that started half-heartedly fifteen minutes ago now came down like a full-fledged tropical storm. Then he shouted something else but the crackling of a huge lightning made his words disappear. Herman and I jumped of our seats and started opening our luggage to get to the rain gear. Again, John came nearer to us and shouted, louder this time:“you. are. going. over. a. high. mountain… there. will. be. rain, snow, hail and lightning… hold. tight. and. good. luck…” My first reaction was disbelief, again when a long and intense thunder abruptly cut off that thought. This guy is not joking?! Snow… no, they didn’t make a roadbook that goes through snow?! It took Herman and me long enough to put on our rain gear to be completely soaked underneath but at least, now we were relatively protected. John Spiller was long back in his car when we left the Time Control. Hesitant the Contal wobbled away taking off on what was to become the toughest four hours of the whole rally.
The road, if one could call the ‘thing’ we have been driving on a road at all, just disappeared. It became a field with rocks, potholes and bumps and the Contal didn’t like it at all. Herman growled and cursed the whole time now and I had bloody lips form biting them in concentration. This was ridiculous, we now had to go skewed on the mountain. The Contal didn’t like that either. We ‘slipslided’ downwards to the lowest point of the valley where the only way was up again… So we went ‘zigzagging’ along the mountain making 50% more distance then the roadbook indicated. At some points I thought that the downward flowing water would take us down into what had become a small river and steered the Contal as much up as I could. But with the heavy load on the front axle the back wheel slipped, clawed and spun as never before. If I wouldn’t have insisted on changing the back tire (to be able to attack the mountain with fresh studs) yesterday evening during ‘the axle battle’ we would be in trouble now. I can only thank sweeper Tony on my bare knees he accepted to destroy his knuckles with this tire change in the Mongolian grass.
Then the snow came. It wasn’t everywhere but mainly on the tracks we were on. Temperature dropped another 5 degrees and the handling of the Contal became a holiday-on-ice experience. At the same time the rain changed into hail and the wind got stronger. I shivered violently realizing the freezing cold won the battle against my sweat. Immediately my goggles fogged up and there was no other way then driving without them, eyes narrowed to a minimum. We drove like that for more than an hour. Herman never hesitated when he pointed to the directions to take and waggled along in front of me with his roadbook and the ballpoint pen that was attached with a string to it in a plastic bag swinging from left to right. William Wordsworth wrote: “suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, and shares the nature of infinity”. No quote was more appropriate that afternoon. For me it felt as there was no end to this ordeal. My shoulders were on fire, my arms felt like gum and my hands were numb… and every direction change was a tribulation. But as these things go, slowly but surely the terrain changed and the weather got better. As the rain finally stopped we got into an area with deep sand and so we were presented the final challenge of the day. The Contal does NOT like deep sand. But it was as if the exceptional effort before (and the brand new back tire) prepared us for this last battle. We swirled through the sand as a ship along the waves. The Contal took sandy hills with ease and passed every sandy plain as it was made to do so. The sun broke from behind the clouds and as in the movies we took a last hill in high revs and a lot of noise to fall still on the top of it, overlooking the fourth Mongolian camp… Undur Khangai.
Herman turned around and looked at me with half a smile. “Let’s go” he said and held his right arm straight in front of him, indicating towards the camp. When we approached it seemed clear we were early. There were no competitors in sight and Guy Woodcock, the competition director and Chris Elkings were sitting relaxed on the edge of a table next to a white tent with a million flies on the canvas. The people from Nomad just started mounting the small yellow tents, the bivac seemed empty.
Guy looked at us with raised eyebrows. Chris was smiling. They stood up and approached the Contal. Then Guy asked us THE question, repeated by many competitors that evening: “you didn’t come over the mountain, did you?” I understood right away that we not only stayed in front of all the competitors (we started an hour before everybody else) but realized a formidable performance by crossing the mountain on three wheels without suspension. I jumped off the Contal to look at the axle and… all the weldings seemed intact. At that moment I felt a wave of relief and I looked at Herman. He asked with his eyes how the axle held this ordeal and when I nodded he smiled from ear to ear. We walked towards each other, did a high five and hugged. Tears welded up and I held Herman firmly. This was the pivot moment. This was the end of a disastrous beginning. From this point on, we had a solid chance. This was day 8 of the 36. Later we heard that some fifteen teams had to spent the night in de desert for various reasons. Skippy worked until the rest day in Novosibirsk to get them all back into the rally. Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail, wrote Syd Stelvio about this day (a song by A Day To Remember), right he is!
By the time we got out of Mongolia Herman and I were looking forward to the rest day in Novosibirsk (day 14). The Contal doctor (Rudy) was coming from Belgium and we needed the physical rest more than anything else.
My hands were the biggest problem, by far. The trembling of the handles at the ends of the steering wheel became a little bit more intense every day to a point that it turned into two constant vibratory sticks that wasted the nerve endings in my hands, day after day. At night, the pain sometimes woke me up and then I had to hold them under cold water to ease them so I could sleep again. But honestly, there was no way around this. The only thing I could do was wearing my thick leather gloves so they would absorb a bit of the trembling. Today, eight weeks after the arrival in Paris, the forefinger of my right hand is still numb. This is a big progress compared to four weeks ago where both forefingers and both thumbs were completely numb. You could cut them off with big scissors, I wouldn’t have felt it. And today, in the mornings, just after waking up, it still takes me ten minutes to be able to make a fist. Both hands are sort of cramped after sleeping. Weird!
Rudy came, saw and conquered Novosibirsk. We found a workshop not too far from the Marriot Hotel where the front axle was taken off again and reinforced in an ingenious way. Rudy brought steel triangles from Belgium and connected the old and the new axle together right on the weak spot of the old axle. After this operation he spray painted the rusty truck part in black and mounted the whole enchilada back under the Countess. Damn, it looked good! And it felt good too. From that moment on, my mind was not struggling with the idea that I was killing Herman any more.
This construction will hold until Paris, I thought… and it did. Apart from the axle Rudy fixed all small matters that needed some attention and I figured we were ready again to take on the second third of this challenge. We overcame Mongolia without major injuries and threaded every needle. We drove every mile, passed every Time Control and slept in every camp on the evening we were supposed to sleep there. We needed no truck nor were we towed. Our biggest fear was Mongolia, and that was behind us. People walked up to us with big smiles saying that we were going to make it, that Paris was evident now… and so on. I kept silent on those moments, knowing that nothing is done unless it is done, especially in this rally, especially on a Contal Mototri.