Maestro to Mongolia! (And then the Arctic Circle...)
As one of the planet's toughest events, the Mongol Rally can break even the most rugged classic. We tackled it in an Austin Maestro – what could possibly go wrong?
Road trip: two words that dilate pupils and raise heart rates across the car fraternity. Speeding through foreign lands in a rag-top E-type, Aviators in position, flat-cap snugly seated and Mark Knopfler's soothing tones guiding you into that idyllic sunset.
Or, if blessed with a credit surplus of lunacy but a budget of a few quid, an Austin Maestro, some fluorescent paint, a map of the Middle East and a welded straight pipe. Welcome to the Mongol Rally.
Originally purchased for £510, and resplendent in an art student-applied coat of paint, the humble Maestro is going to be challenged to its absolute limit.
July 16, 2017
Goodwood Motor Circuit, West Sussex, England
Today is the day. After 12 months of preparation and 200 hours of labour on Manuel, my fondly named Maestro, we are on the starting grid for the most ridiculous adventure yet. No fewer than 22 countries lie between us and the finish line in Ulan Ude, Siberia.
We are at one of England’s most cherished race circuits, with a 250-car roster worth less than a new Dacia Sandero sat on the grid. The crowd is loving every ridiculous moment of it. Contenders that catch my eye include an A-Team inspired Bedford Rascal, a Morris Minor that looks distinctly retired and a Renault 4 that is already on fire from the anxiety of such an undertaking. Considering the Austin Maestro was once voted the worst car ever made, I am quietly confident in my pride and joy.
July 17, 2017
The Juras, France
1400 hours: The distance between us and our final destination is beginning to sink in. After precisely 24 hours we have already lost our breakdown virginity, and are currently blocking a rather steep section of road winding its way through the Juras, approximately 50km from the Swiss border. The two fully loaded trucks behind me appear particularly upset, and are hurling various expletives in my direction.
1900 hours: Troubleshooting has revealed our incessant breakdowns are down to fuel evaporating in the fuel pump, as the rather large sump guard is obstructing air from circulating in the engine bay. The solution – tin foil. Exhaust manifold, exhaust downpipe, fuel lines and fuel pump are now wrapped expertly by hand.
July 21, 2017
The past two days have involved 3:30am alarms, far too many hills and four border crossings. Having driven quite a considerable distance, it’s about time I thought about the car. Maestros are known for being built out of Cadbury Flake, according to journalists of yesteryear. However, I believe that by anyone's standards it’s nothing short of spectacular – honestly.
The steering is one of the most precise racks I have ever used in a car. It’s a feeling that cannot be reproduced in modern vehicles with their mammoth kerbweights. Feedback yearns for your attention, yet despite the lack of power assistance it's surprisingly light, even with 200kg of luggage that has dropped the ride height by a good five inches.
The interior space reminds me of a particular Disney nanny’s handbag, and the seats are genuinely comfortable, bearing in mind there is no reach or rake adjustment and I’m 6ft 4in. The suspension is comfortable over the rough terrain, and the A-series engine, developed in the early 1950s, is bulletproof albeit hopelessly underpowered. With its fuel efficiency, direct, VW Golf-derived five-speed gearbox from the 1970s and progressive, featherlight clutch, this car feels brand new. British Leyland, why didn’t you have modern management?
July 29, 2017
Travel from Istanbul to Samsun today. Istanbul traffic is a joke, and not a particularly funny one. Every day, I’m thanking myself for fitting the fan-override switch. I see a taxi on its roof in the centre of Istanbul; it has somehow managed to take out a set of traffic lights. How is that even possible, in this traffic? Black magic and sorcery, I suspect.
Having arrived in Samsun and set up our tent, we find a local kebab house for dinner. While enjoying our greasy doner, a dispute begins between two men on the street outside. The free entertainment is the perfect distraction from our dining experience. This quickly turns into a scale war between about 30 people, including one of the co-owners of the establishment we are dining in. Alas, a revolution isn’t established. Time to depart in the Maestro.
August 4, 2017
We're unsure about where to camp once through the Turkish border into Georgia. We have been driving all day, and despite the utterly jaw-dropping Georgian landscape, fatigue is beginning to claw its way in. Around 10:30pm we decide it is futile searching for a place to reside in the dead of night.
We divert down a rocky track with some houses either side. It's a scene straight out of a horror movie; one lost-looking street lamp flickering, a few scattered and dimly lit houses, the sound of barking dogs all around. Millions of mosquitos flitting all over the place are bemused by our hippy wagon trundling down the muddy track.
We continue all the way to the end for some extra security and a dash of irony, as the setting is somewhat creepy. After a quick munch on a tin of cold beans we make a valiant attempt at sleep. It's a fairly unpleasant experience. Five hours later, amidst a smattering of unconsciousness, we are awoken by our car surrounded by cattle, with an elderly woman peering in. I think she is inviting us to get lost.
August 6, 2017
Twelve hours of waiting in the docks at Baku, two hours boarding an abandoned-looking 1970s Soviet cruise ship, one 30-hour crossing and nine hours collecting paperwork to leave the port. Thinking back to our journey across the Channel, I rather miss the blissfully simple process of registration recognition, along with an actual timetable for the boat, on-board facilities such as a toilet that won’t give you cholera, typhoid or diphtheria, a shop, a bar, or any provision for basic human needs.
Dover seemed simple somehow, what with no AK47-wielding Kazakhstani army officer screaming at me for not having my Maestro V5 immediately to hand. The most entertaining part of the disembarkment is the rather stupid assumption we could show our passports and that would be that. Oh no! Instead, a nine-hour journey around the port of Aktau, wandering into as many as 20 Portakabins, offering an array of useless, but beautifully bureaucratic, documents to anyone who will listen, in the hope a stamp will appear. Like a maze, but with a real reward at the end; freedom from no-man’s land.
August 7, 2017
Having escaped the port yesterday, we stay with some other teams in a local motel a 20-minute drive away. After a night of true debauchery, violence and sin to celebrate our arrival in Kazakhstan, we arrive in Beyneu at 1am. The hotel manager, Murat, has kept the kitchen open for our arrival, so we sit in the restaurant with him and plan our next move over a casual pint or nine.
The plan is to drive to Aralsk, a small town by the long-forgotten Aral Sea. The sea has since totally dried up leaving abandoned boats on the sea bed, which now forms the desert. Our two options are to either traverse the entire country by road – some feat, as it’s one of the largest landlocked countries in the world – or to drive 600km as the crow flies, across the Kazakh Steppe. Naturally, with sheer Maestro power, we choose the latter.
August 10, 2017
Things we've decided to ignore about our basic knowledge of deserts: they’re hot, they’re sandy, and there’s nothing for hundreds of miles around. Possibly not the brightest decision, then, for two old cars, a van and a bike to attempt in their ignorance.
With as much water and fuel as we can carry, we head off down the main road leading out of the town, and then use a bearing to find the track that leads to the vast expanse of nothing. Approaching 46 degrees Celsius outside and 51 in the car, it's hot. Hotter than anything I have ever experienced, not helped by having the heating on full blast in an attempt to keep the little engine as cool as possible.
Strangely, it is not as unpleasant as it sounds, as the adrenaline of it all distracts me. However, at these temperatures, I am drinking five litres of water a day, without a single toilet stop. Our plan is to follow a recently built train track that heads nearly the entire way to our destination town of Aralsk, but to find the track we have to cross hills and tracks even a diff-locked Land Rover Defender would question, let alone a Maestro with enough weight in it to re-question assumptions about gravity. Having put so much work into my Maestro, I am a little hesitant, especially as it has yet to put a toe out of line thus far.
The others make it up the first hill, a 45-degree sand pile that leads to another track. This is rutted, deep and rocky, with approach and departure angles that would surely wipe the smile off Manuel’s overhanging face. Approaching the hill gingerly in first, I aim for 10-15mph, as I know the front will hit the incline, yet speed is necessary due to the total lack of traction. A quick squeeze of the throttle at the point of impact, a crackle and pop from the exhaust, the scrabbling of tyres, some nasty bangs from the hardworking sump guard, and we are up!
We drive for two days. The Maestro is struggling in the deep slog that is more like a fine dust than sand, yet still we plough on. We set up camp away from the railway line, driving a few kilometres behind a hill for some cover. An evening of merriment and good food is had, provided by the team in the truck who enjoy a full kitchen at their disposal, along with large quantities of wine.
What a feeling. Hundreds of miles away from the nearest inhabitants, with the sun setting in the distance and our group of nine taking some time to enjoy what the Mongol Rally is all about. A group of strangers enjoying some cheap plonk, covered in dirt from a day’s driving, sharing stories of the past month driving across the globe. After a quick debate regarding whether or not white scorpions are lethal, having found a scary number in our camp, we head for bed.
For the Maestro and its team, this turns out to be our finishing point. Having lost several days to figuring out our action plan prior to landing us in the desert, and due to some technical trouble with the team in the van, we realise we will be too pushed for time to head to Mongolia and the finish line. The following day, we plough on for a few hours, and the realisation we are only 200km through our 600km crossing, the fact we were running out of water very quickly and that the sand is slowly but surely killing our cars, we all accept we should turn back and head for the hotel in Beyneu for a beer or nine.
As our dirty and tired team crawl back into the car park the following day, we are greeted by Murat, the hotel manager, in a fit of hysterics. Three days earlier, our vehicles were relatively clean and working well. Now we're black from head to foot, with what seems like half the desert's sand inside the cars, engine and bodywork. It must be quite a sight.
So now for the journey home. Seeing as time is now on our side, having given up on the idea of Mongolia, our next destination is the Arctic Circle.
August 24, 2017
Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway
The return journey has been breathtaking. My reserve driver flew home from Helsinki, so I have just myself, Manuel and my Spotify playlists to guide me home, through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have witnessed on my journey.
I am pleased to have taken full advantage of the lax wild-camping laws on offer in this part of the world. Today, I cross the famous tarmac rollercoaster known as the Atlantic Ocean Road, then travel all the way up to Trollstigen, nudging the cloud line with a smattering of snow at the peak.
At this point, it really hits home how I’ve totally fallen in love with this little car. From its humble entry into the world as a budget hatchback, known for appalling build quality and invisible desirability, it has safely taken me to Kazakhstan and all the way back to Norway. Over some 10,000 miles in six weeks it hasn't broken a single component, and it has drunk only one litre of oil – yes, you read that right, one litre.
My emotional moment is cut short, as while driving down the mountain the other side of Trollstigen, listening to Matt Monroe’s On Days Like These, I notice my brakes are smelling somewhat zesty. It takes a moment to re-assess and realise I am not in a Lamborghini Miura driving through the Alps in 1969. I come to a squeaky, hair-raising stop in a thoughtfully placed lay-by to find flames licking the dirtied front wheels.
At this point in the trip very little can phase me, so I just wait for the brakes to calm themselves, and indulge in a cigarette or two while leaning on the car. I'm enjoying the sunshine and some utterly perplexed tourists aboard the many coaches passing by, probably wondering if I am aware my hippy wagon is slightly sizzling. Once the brakes have cooled I gingerly set off and, thankfully, they work perfectly.
November 10, 2017
Safely home, the Maestro now stands, polished and primed, for the good people of the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show to view upon the Maestro and Montego Club stand. I plan on keeping Manuel the Maestro for some time yet, with South Africa firmly in my sights. See you on the other side...
Funky Maestro cartoon design by Rebecca Anderson, Anderson Illustrations.
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