Trip duration: Well… it was suppose to 2 days | Approx cost: £Who knows how much it cost us in the end | When: June
Doinit factor: An ill fated recovery mission, what could go wrong?
We’d driven 10,000 miles to Mongolia. Now what? With the Mongolian government being very clear that we are not to abandon, sell or ‘lose’ our car we’ve two options. One, drive it back; two, get it shipped back to as close to home as possible, which turns out to be Lithuania. We opted for the latter.
Our car is among many other which has been transported by train to Vilnius, Lithuania. It’s a couple of months later when we’re contacted by the shipping company. They inform us we can either have it scrapped, or for a fee we can collect it. Perhaps too emotionally connected to our Vauxhall Corsa, neither my brother of I can bring ourselves to agree to scrap it. Instead we ignore the question… for about nine months. Every so often I get an email reminding me the car was still parked in a storage yard and that we need to do something with it of they will.
Then one summers afternoon with a wave of nostalgia we make a decision, we want our car back. This means flying to Lithuania and driving it back over a long weekend. But, first we must negotiate the storage fees. At five Euros a day with over nine months it’s supposed to cost well over a thousand euro’s so we count ourselves lucky when we agree a sum of €300, in cash of course.
Above: The plan was simple, get a ferry from Klaipeda to Kiel then a manageable drive to Dunkirk before getting the ferry to Dover
At the edge of town we’re at a large industrial site and spot our car. I can’t help but feel I’ve been repatriated with a long lost friend. It’s great to see the old girl and she looks in pretty good condition, despite the harsh Baltic weather. There is only one other team car in the lot, a Mini, which looks like it won’t be being driven back any time soon, but then again neither might ours.
Above: The last two cars left in the storage yard for over 9 months
The car’s been stationary outside for about nine months. It’s a given it won’t be starting so we call over a mechanic from the neighbouring unit to see if he can jump start us. We open the bonnet and realise the battery has been stolen, so in true Mongol Rally spirit I turn to the Mini in an attempt to take their car battery, only to find it too has been stolen. The mechanics rolls our car to their workshop where they sell us a new battery, fix a wheel bearing which was about to snap when we left it in Mongolia, top up the fluids and tires and make sure we’re good to go. We also inspect the car to see how much has been stolen while it was being transported through Russia but in all I’m happy that within two hours we’re driving north through Lithuania, once again in our chariot which we spent a month in driving to Mongolia. Our destination is the port town of Klaipėda where we’re booked on a 22 hour ferry to Germany across the Baltic Sea, cutting around 800 miles of driving.
Above: The garage conveniently located across the road helped us out to get the old girl running again
The drive is uneventful as I familiarise myself with the car again. After three hours we’re in the charming ferry port town and stop to load up on supplies and grab a platter of Lithuanian dumplings for dinner before boarding.
The DFDS ferry is pretty much like the ferries that service English Channel, albeit a bit dated. Perhaps this is the 80s fleet. We got ourselves a cabin as we anticipate a long drive tomorrow but for now there’s time to relax and have a beer as we depart from along the Curonian Spit. It’s approaching 11pm and still rather light outside as we emerge into the Baltic Sea and call it a night. The inside cabins, which are much cheaper than those with a window, are exactly what I need for a decent lay-in as there’s no natural sunlight to wake me up. When I do eventually get up the day is spent milling around the boat sipping coffee. Apart from the occasional offshore wind-farm there’s not much to see.
Above: Boarded the ferry and sailing across a calm Baltic Sea
We dock in Kiel and are ordered to disembark. As we drive off the ferry ramp, suddenly and without warning, the gear fails to engage. After a few attempts to find a gear, in the futile hope that something will happen other than useless revving of the engine, we jump out and push the car off the boat and out of the way.
Stuck in the ferry port with no idea what to do next it’s not long before we realise we’re not going anywhere. It’s a punt but we call the AA to see if there is anything they can do. They agree to contact the German ADAC recovery service and three hours later they are loading our car onto a low-loader. They take us to the nearest Opel garage, but it’s eleven o’clock on a Saturday night so there’s no chance of a quick fix there. With not much we can really do but unhook the car and make our way to a hotel which is rather conveniently next door.
On Sunday morning we’re stuck in Germany but have to be in work the next day so a last minute plan is formulated. We will leave the car in the garage car park, post the key through the letter box, fly home that day, then on Monday call the garage (or find someone who speaks German and get them to phone on our behalf) to explain the situation.
Above: And things start to go wrong here | With a breakdown and now car the next day we’re left no option to walk
Back home in London we recruit a friend to call the garage and explain what’s happened, and ask how much it may cost to fix the problem. I’m completely taken aback when they say €3000! I could buy a car in the UK, break the gearbox and have it replaced for less. That afternoon I explain the situation to my friend Chris, a seasoned mechanic, who also can’t believe how much they want to charge. He catches me by surprise when he suggests we drive to Kiel and tow it back ourselves where he will have time to look at it and fix the problem.
So on a Friday evening at around 7pm and we’re meeting at Junction 1b of the M25. Chris is there waiting for Dan and me, in a newly bought £100 1997 Nissan Primera. I must admit I was expecting a tow truck. But if Chris says it’ll be fine it probably will. We’ll be towing our Mongol Rally car with an A frame device – this essentially turns the towed vehicle in to a trailer.
With three English lads recovering a car from extortionately expensive German mechanics we can’t help but have a bit of friendly banter. Without any prior arrangement I sport my English gentleman’s summer hat, my brother goes for an England football shirt and Chris does us all proud, opting for a tuxedo with Union Jack bow tie and cumberbund.
We make the 10pm ferry and have the whole night to drive to Kiel, a whopping 650 miles. The motorways are clear as we make our way through Belgium, the Netherlands and finally Germany, only stopping to refuel and grab a snack. We take turns behind the wheel and manage short naps between us. It’s hard work keeping alert but as the summer dawn gives rise to the sun we begin to get a second wind. It’s 10am when we get to where we left the car the week previously. There’s no time to mess about as we are still only half way into our mission to recover the old girl. Chris hooks the car to the A-frame, puts a towing light on the roof and, in the spirit of things, whacks some ‘Rally Support Vehicle’ stickers on the side of his Nissan. After half an hour we’re on our way again, back to Blighty.
Above: After Chris is willing to come and tow us back the least we could do was buy him a German sausage at a motorway rest stop
It’s a ridiculously hot day and the traffic picks up. We can tell it’s going to take longer to get back as we have to take it easy due to the tow. Tired and sweaty the trip is mostly without highlight until about 30 miles from the Dutch border where we’re stopped by a police car. For the life of me I can’t figure out what we’ve done to warrant the stop, wishfully thinking it will be just a routine check of my licence. I was wrong.
The police officer rather abruptly informs us what we are doing is Illegal. Apparently you are not allowed to tow a car on the motorway, or anywhere in Germany. Breakdowns require an immediate call to the recovery service who load the car up and take it to the nearest garage. Secondly he’s not satisfied that my licence covers me to tow a trailer – which it would in the UK – due to weight limits. Thirdly he’s assumed the towed Corsa is not insured. Of course I was insured and after going through the paperwork and maths I clear on both those counts. His tone begins to soften as he says, ‘Instead of big problem you now have a small problem.’ It is still illegal to tow and we’re guilty as ignorance is not an excuse. The fine: €30 Euros. I think to myself this could have been worse.
The bad news follows. The police officer doesn’t want to let us continue with our journey, at least not with the towed Corsa.
The bad news follows. The police officer doesn’t want to let us continue with our journey, at least not with the towed Corsa. First he says we have to leave it there and call a recovery truck. At this point I’m thinking ‘please just go’ so we can hang about for a while then make a dash for the border. Chris then takes charge of the situation and calmly explains to the officer that it may be faster if we are allowed to continue and find a garage ourselves, rather than taking up his time waiting for us and, ah yes, it is also the weekend so we are unlikely to find one that’s open.
Result. The police officer says he will escort us off the motorway and we can take a side road – and our chances with the local police – to the Netherlands where, he explains, he does not know the law regarding private towing, but then that’s not his problem. We’ve probably spent close to an hour with the police which means we’re going to miss our ferry but the good news is that while we take the scenic route into Holland we don’t come across any more police so are pretty much home free.
We make Dover at around midnight. It’s been a 1300 mile round trip in 24 hours with very little sleep but we’ve got our loved rally car back home almost a year after we first set of for Mongolia. Back on home soil Chris turns the engine on to see if he can diagnose why the gearbox isn’t working – and why he had to come to the rescue – but it engages first time and the car moves forward as usual. With a tired and confused look he asks, ‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘Oh bullocks,’ I sigh.
Above: On the ferry to Dover, we made it back home