Week 1: Nottingham to Istanbul

"The Beginning"

For us our journey started up in Nottingham. We had both finished quit our jobs on Friday 17th July. We had spent months planning and preparing: obtaining visas, getting camping gear, car bits. We had contemplated what we were undertaking and how ridiculous it sounded. Emotions crossed the full spectrum from excitement to fear, nervousness to emboldened exploratory resolve, disbelief to acceptance of the task in hand. In the week building up to the rally I (Barry) had spent time getting the car prepared. The roof rack was on, rally lights attached, stickers stuck down. The small red Ford Fiesta that I had owned for 10 years previously, my first and only car, was ready for a glorious send off: to Mongolia and back!

Day 1-2: Nottingham to Aachen

The first part of the rally involved congregating with 245 other teams at the Goodwood Motor Circuit. We departed Nottingham at 11 am, heading along the A606 to my hometown of Stamford. After an hour long pit stop saying farewells to family, we headed down the A1. Through the powers of Facebook we knew that there was another team nearby, so we pulled over in a layby and waited. After only 20 minutes we had formed our first convoy, joining up with Yorkshire Special Branch (Vauxhall Agila). Together we drove the remaining 140 miles, passing a small number of teams on the M25, and seeing more and more unsual looking small cars the nearer we got to our destination.

Some of the cars lined up at Goodwood.

Upon arriving at Goodwood we embarked on a mission to find our passports, having sent another rallier on a last minute flight to the Iranian embassy in Frankfurt to get the desperately needed stamps. We discovered another team in a similar situation, 40% Nuts (K11 Nissan Micra) and immediately got discussing all things rally, in particular where to pitch our tents for that night (a conversation that we would have all too frequently during the rally). It turned out that the team with our passports, Strange Fellows (Renault Clio) were still on their way, with us all starting to get a little concered that maybe our rally might have a delayed start.

"...only 14 hours before leaving the UK we got our passports back..."

With the quick realisation that our passports were still on their way, we headed to the car/camping area and set up our camp for the night. In the week building up to the rally we had helped an American team get some stickers printed, we had picked them up in Nottingham and brought them down to the rally start. We found the team, To Yak and Back (K11 Nissan Micra), and Kate helped with the sticker application. Having done our good deed for the day we got changed and headed back towards the bar/dance floor area. We caught up with various people and teams that we had only ever spoken to online, trying to figure out who was going to be travelling in a similar route to us. The rest of evening was spent in this manner, enjoying the lively Russian folk style music and cheap beer. Eventually, late into the evening, we heard that Team Strange Fellows had arrived, and only 14 hours before leaving the UK we got our passports back.

Dressed up and celebrating at the launch event.

We got up bright and early after a sleepless night, being kept up by loud music and random horns. The schedule for the day included a visit to the Goodwood Motor Circuit, where cars were parked in the paddock area prior to a lap of the famous circuit. We wandered around the paddock admiring the various wonderful and wacky vehicles people were taking on the rally. We eyed up various mods, getting extremely jealous of the cars that had musical (dixie style) horns.

CLICK TO ZOOM: All of the ralliers assembled at Goodwood.

After watching a few wacky drag races on the main straight we were called back to our vehicles to get ready for our lap of the circuit. Teams that were early to the circuit got first shot at a lap, we were in the final group to have a go. Eventually we queued up in three columns on the main straight, engines reving, horns beeping, and general excitement in the air. Getting waved off we embarked on a lap of the famous Goodwood Circuit, this being named the 'Fesival of Slow'. After setting a blisteringly slow lap we left the circuit, immediately getting lost. Reorientating our bearings we pointed the car towards Hastings, where the Sellens Brothers of Team OMJ (Mini Moke) had arranged for a fish and chips send off.

Gathering at Hastings seafront.

Arriving solo, we saw several teams that we knew from the Facebook group, including a team in our Iran convoy group, Team Give Us a Push (Nissan Sunny). We grabbed our very much appreciated free fish and chips and chatted with other teams. It was at this point we started to realised just how vast our undertaking was. Several members of the public were wandering around, discussing the car, taking photos, and asking questions. Our large bonnet map proved to be particularly interesting, detailing our epic journey and giving an instant conversation starter. Eventually we decided to head out on the road, we sent a message to find out where 40% Nuts were, and just as we pulled on to the main road they appeared behind us. Together we formed our two car convoy and drove further along the coast, and for a few miles we were joined by the American team For Those About To Yak {We Salute You} (custom chopped roof VW Beetle). This wacky car had been shipped over from the states and was definitely one the favourite cars of the rally.

"...you've missed your ferry by one month..."

Motoring along we eventually arrived in Dover, and at this point we encountered our first problem of the rally. It was touch and go as to whether we would make our ferry, and having arrived at the port with minutes until departure, it was looking like we were definitely going to miss it. There were several ralliers in the same position and queues were long. Finally we arrived at the desk. 'Name and registration number please' asked the lady in the small booth. We complied and gave our details. 'I can't seem to find your details, what is your booking reference?'. After a quick search through my emails I found the reference number. 'There seems to be a problem, you've missed your ferry by one month'. Somehow, when booking over the phone, someone had input the wrong number into the system. Luckily the lady engaged brain, saw the multitude of ridiculously decorated cars, and rescheduled our sailing for that day. Unfortunately we missed our original sail time, and instead had an hour and bit to waste whilst we waited for the next boat.

Spot the rally cars amongst the normal holiday makers.

The ferry was uneventful and after arriving in Calais, we embarked on a drive into Belgium. At this point we had no plans, we had no aim for the night, all we knew was that we had to make good progress. Quickly we were out of France and into our third country of the day/rally. Passing motorists were taking photos, waving, and generally showing a lot of interest. Pushing on it was getting later and later, and we still had no definite plan. At some point in Belgium we encountered another team, Bourne Dubbers (Volkswagen Polo) who had an aim for the night: Germany. They mentioned that they knew of a decent campsite just across the border and that their aim was to hit it that evening. Without any better idea we convoyed up, our trio of rally cars pushing on into the night, eventually arriving in the small German town of Aachen at 2 am. We put up our tents, had a quick can of beer, then got some sleep, drawing to a close one of the longer days of the rally.

Day 3: Aachen to Prague

The next big drive. We had a leisurely start to the morning, not setting an alarm. 40% Nuts had left earlier than us, in part to make good distance, but also to save money (avoiding the mid morning money collection for the campsite). For the second time we packed up our camping equipment, and along with Bourne Dubbers headed out on the open road.

Convoying through Germany with Bourne Dubbers.

This was an anticipated long slog. In previous years the Czech Out party was organised for a Tuesday evening, but this time round it was brought forwards a day. Furthermore, the location had changed from being just across the border to being in the centre of Prague, a few hundred miles further away. We had made good progress the day before, pushing through into Germany on our first night, however, the slower cars would be up against it. We set out as a duo of cars, making fantastic progress and sporadically coming across other ralliers.

"...after 370 miles we found several more teams..."

Our route took us along the Bundesbahn 3, swinging around Frankfurt and across to Nuremburg. From there we took the Bundesbahn 6 towards the Czech Republic. After 370 miles we found several more teams. Everybody had had the same idea to stop at a petrol station just across the border into the Czech Republic. This was our first road tax purchase of the journey, forking out 310 Czech Koruna (approximately 12 Euros) for a small vignette sticker.

Gathering at a petrol station just after crossing the border into the Czech Republic.

We were just about to set off on the remaining 105 miles when out of nowhere 40% Nuts appeared. We had assumed that they were already in (or near to) Prague. Instead they had stopped for a break in Frankfurt enjoying a leisurely lunch. We regrouped and Team Tin Khan (K11 Nissan Micra) joined our reunited trio of Bourne Dubbers, 40% Nuts, and Gobiyond (us) pushing further on into the Czech Republic. There were moments where other ralliers drifted in and out of our convoy, with this being the motorway to Prague. The Bourne Dubbers Polo and our Fiesta were slightly faster than the heavily laden, underpowered, Micras. We held back for them and remained as group of four, although not too far out the Polo disappeared ahead into the distance, the lure of cheap czech beer being too strong for them.

"...there's always one idiot trying to drive into tents..."

Our three cars entered Prague city and immediately got lost in the centre, however we gained another rallier in the process, team 'Don't worry I know a Scandinavian shortcut' (Vauxhall Corsa). We started driving along a street that was clearly marked as taxis only, getting thumbs up from the police as we went (clearly it was OK for our ludicrous looking cars to break traffic rules). We finally arrived at our destination, an abandoned train station. Straight away we set up our tent on the cobbles and noticed a rallier leaning against their car. It turned out that this was a team member from The Baked Potatoes (Mini), and that they were seriously considering ended their rally there and then. The team had had a very fractious start to the rally, with this team member getting caught up in the middle of a brother and sister argument/feud. We left him at his car, not really being able to console him or help.

Wild cobble camping.

The evening was spent drinking, talking, and route planning. One thing we learnt from the Czech Out party was that there's always one idiot trying to drive into tents. Unfortunately for us, the particular tent in question was ours. Despite our concerns and arguing, the older gentlemen of team <NAME REDACTED> didn't seem to find a problem with the situation, partly because one of them was trying to chat up two young ladies (despite being married with children). Luckily we had intervened before any serious damage was caused (to our tent, not their marriage), with the keys (and an engine killswitch) being confiscated to avoid anything worse from happening. This whole scenario put a dampner on our evening, and made us realised that there were definitely some idiots amongst our fellow travellers.

The Czech Out party, located in an abandoned train station.

Day 4-5: Prague to Budapest

We awoke bleary eyed to lots of noise, reminiscent of the morning of departure from Goodwood. Speaking to other teams it seemed that many people were aiming for Budapest, with this also being our plan. We teamed up with possibly the youngest team of the rally, Tin Khan, plotting a route that involved a lunch time pit stop in Bratislava. Again we passed many different rally teams, all with their own agendas and pace.

Convoying with Tin Khan, staying together for 330 miles.

We made good progress and arrived in Bratislava. We navigated around the centre, trying to find somewhere to park. Eventually we remembered an underground car park we used the previous summer, handily located in the centre of town. We parked up, went for a wander with Conor and Harry of Tin Khan, and grabbed a quick spot of lunch and a coffee. With our pit stop over we headed back to the cars and onwards. The lads trusted us implicitly with navigation, and so we took the lead with the drive to Budapest.

Our quick pit stop in Bratislava.

Somewhere close to the Hungarian border we pulled up to by another vignette sticker, this being a common road tax system in this part of Europe. Whilst parked up another rally team appeared, Genghis Khan't (Mk2 Volkswagen Golf Breadvan). We chatted to them briefly, and mentioned the name of the hotel we had booked for Istanbul, just as an off the cuff remark. We left them and carried on with our journey pushing further into Hungary. We arrived in Budapest whilst it was still light and made a beeline for the camp site we had read about.

Camping Haller, an unusual inner city camping spot.

After some time driving around, going back and forth, asking locals, and staring intently at our sat nav we realised that we were never going to find said camp site. Instead we changed our target to an alternative camp site, one that we had stayed at the year previously. At this point I caused the first bit of damage to the Fiesta. Whilst trying to turn around I backed the car into a raised bit of curb, damaging one of the attachment points for the rear bumper. A quick fix with a pen knife and we drove onwards. It became clear that several other teams had found the same camp site and we ended up camping next to other ralliers.

Day 5-7: Budapest to Istanbul

This was the start of our solo travelling, aiming South. Our timings and route was determined by the fact that we had booked a hotel in Istanbul and needed to be there by the Friday. At this stage many teams were heading east towards Romania, having done the legendary Transfagarasan road the year previously we decided to take a different route. We set out from Budapest, the plan to try and get to Greece in one day. This was an ambitious plan, aiming to cover 1,100 km, and we didn't help ourselves by having a leisurely start to the day. Our route would involve a Serbian section, essentially driving the entire length of the country. With the camping gear packed away, the car loaded with supplies, and a decent playlist on the radio, we said goodbye to Tin Khan and departed from Budapest. We made reasonably good time to the border. Entering Serbia was surprisingly easy, the border guards not really showing any interest in us or the car.

Smooth clear Serbian motorways.

We were immediately surprised by the quality of Serbian motorways. They were smooth, clear, and featured extremely modern service stations. This made our long slog that little bit easier, being able to eat up the miles. We passed a team that had broken down on the hard shoulder. Ordinarily we would pull over and help, but we instantly recognised this as being the 'driving into tents' idiots. So instead we put our foot down and left them behind, karma right? In total we covered 540 kilometers on the Serbian motorways, arriving at the Bulgarian border in the late afternoon/early evening. The border was incredibly slow, a feature of all non-EU borders, and temperatures were rising, but eventually we were through with little drama.

Arriving at the border between Serbia and Bulgaria.

Pushing further into Bulgaria, we passed Sofia and continued further South. After several hours driving along motorways we stopped for a quick fuel stop, and wi-fi access at a McDonalds in a service station. Realising that Greece was too ambitious for that night we booked a hotel in Bulgaria about an hour down the road. It transpired that our hotel was in an out of season ski resort. It was eerily quiet but the room was comfortable and it gave us some much needed sleep having camped the last few nights. The next morning we made plan to stay in Kavala, Greece, a short drive south.

The beach, only a short walk from our camping spot.

We camped up at the resort style place early in the afternoon and enjoyed a relaxed day on the beach. We treated ourselves to a decent meal and a few drinks. This was part of the comprise rally approach, drive quickly somewhere, then ensure we had time to relax. Early on the Friday morning, six days after leaving Nottingham, we packed away our camping gear and drove to Istanbul. This was part of the rally we were extremely excited about. We had travelled to Istanbul the year previously and instantly fell in love with the city. We had even book the same hotel as the year previously, having enjoyed it so much.

The view from our hotel.

We arrived in Istanbul at a reasonable hour, then meandered our way along the streets towards our hotel in the old town. We took a few wrong turns, with the city being quite a complicated place to drive. Luckily we ended up in the old town and started to recognise a few streets and various sights, finally spotting our hotel. We parked the car up on a very steep hill, the clutch burning a bit whilst trying to manouveur the car into position. We went out wandering for a bit then went back to the hotel, bumping into Genghis Kan't, the team we chatted with briefly in Hungary. They had remembered the name of the hotel and fancied treating themselves to a bit of luxury for the night.

Team Genghis Khan't and our car parked up outside the HHK Hotel Istanbul.

We ventured out from the hotel, taking a brief stroll around the old town. We saw various sights we remembered from last year. There was a stark difference between this visit and our visit previously, mainly that we were able to eat food. When we last visited Istanbul we were both suffering from severe food poisoning, so food was definitely not on the cards. This year we were excited to try various dishes, and this first night we treated ourselves to some grilled meats and salad.

The amazing Yeni Cami Mosque.

At a reasonable hour we walked back to the hotel, before settling down for the night, bringing to an end a very long and hectic first week of the rally.

The view from our hotel roof top lounge.

The story continues... week 2: Istanbul to Tiblisi