Based on a true story


The race now completed, Matt Kennedy-Good looks back at the highs and lows of the London to Ulan Bator car rally.

I agreed to go on the rally largely because of ignorance. Central Asia was a great unknown. No one I knew had been there. I didn't even know that Turkmenistan existed.

Marta, Chris and I did suspect that 16,000km was a long way, even before setting out. It is rather obvious. Even tracing our route on a globe with your index finger takes a while.

(Click here for photos of the final stage of the great Mongolian Car Rally.)

We just did not comprehend how many hours of driving it would take. We had no idea how regularly we would have to sleep in the car, go without a shower or miss meals in order to stay on schedule. The bliss of ignorance quickly departed.

As a substitute for food and hygiene we had anxiety and stress. We worried about the health of Oddy (our beloved car), the crossing of borders and the lunatic drivers around us. They were time consuming substitutes - although not nearly as filling.

Yet at my sister's wedding, only days after landing back in New Zealand, I found myself forgetting the unpleasant details and romanticising the experience.

With a beer in one hand and a pretty girl to impress on the other, the story of us lost, broken down in the Gobi desert sounds awfully adventurous.

Policemen asking for bribes seems exciting. Even travelling at 10km/hr for 32 hours looks like a lot of fun in a photo if Chris is lying on the bonnet.

At the time these situations didn't feel adventurous. They were stressful, uncomfortable and annoying. I wonder if the defining aspect of adventure is that it is more enjoyable in hindsight.

The experiences that were enjoyable at the time are less memorable, less likely to raise a friend's eyebrows.

For hours a day we would stare out the window, enraptured, as dense green forests thinned to barren red Martian landscapes, then rose to snow covered mountains.

Often we would look up from reading a book or a quick nap to discover completely new scenery. I had no idea that the terrain in enormous countries like Russia or Kazakhstan changes as rapidly as it does in New Zealand.

Sleeping in Oddy was horrible; but waking to bear sole witness to an intense sunrise over an empty steppe always made the restless night seem worth it.

Even more of a surprise than the diverse scenery were the people. The well worn backpacker trails of the world, with their generic tourist culture and reliance on the tourist dollar did not prepare me for Central Asia.

Far away from the convenient infrastructure of the tourist trails, instead of wanting money, people wanted to get to know us, help us and show off their culture.

The further we drifted into the unknown, the more difficult it was to find food or functioning showers and the more people wanted to befriend us. We were treated like celebrities and the lack of regular eating and sleep only enhanced this image.

In Iran - the heart of the axis of evil - the warmth and generosity of strangers was overwhelming. People invited us to stay with them, paid for our food and petrol, brought us gifts and put themselves at our service.

With hindsight the inconvenient and uncomfortable details slip away. The most unpleasant situations become impressive adventure tales.

In my mind, the formerly vague black and white outlines of Central Asia are now coloured with rich images and memories of kind hearted people.

Perhaps if I had known exactly what the trip was going to be like I wouldn't have agreed to go. But who was going to tell me that story?

- Matt Kennedy-Good

Click here for photos of the final stage of the great Mongolian Car Rally.

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