Sometimes at night, Tim Navis lies awake thinking about camping alongside a dirt road in Kazakhstan or, too tired to drive, slumping over the steering wheel of a beat-up Fiat in Russia — just two experiences from a saga-like journey a few years back that began in England and ended in Mongolia.
Described as “the greatest adventure in the world,” the occasion was a 10,000-mile road rally that requires participants to employ vehicles decidedly unfit for the task.
The rally begins this year July 19, and organizers suggest entrants prepare themselves to “kneel at the altar of chaos.”
“If I could do the trip every year, I would,” said Navis, 32, a photographer (www.navisphotography.com), who grew up in the St. Croix River Valley and now splits his time between Los Angeles and his father’s home north of Stillwater.
Certainly among the wackiest outdoor exploits ever conceived, the Mongol Rally, organized to benefit charity by a group called the League of Adventurists International, is governed by few rules, except that engines of participant vehicles can’t displace more than 900 cubic centimeters.
“You can take any car,” the rules say, “as long as it’s crap.”
Motorcycles, meanwhile, can’t exceed 125cc.
Thus, for Navis and a partner, the purchase of a well-used Fiat.
“We bought the Fiat for $900 in England on e-Bay,” Navis said. “I was living in California at the time, and met a guy who heard about the rally and said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’
“To that point, the only thing we had in common was that we could both solve Rubik’s cubes easily. Still, we flew to England together, bought the car and headed out.”
In some ways, the rally still haunts Navis, as it doubtless does many of its participants dating to the event’s initial running in 2004.
That year, six teams started and four completed the trip. The next year, 43 vehicles left England and 18 arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s ancient capital.
As could be expected, mishaps do occur, including in 2010, when a rally participant was killed in a road accident in Iran.
“You pick your own route and there is no support from organizers,” Navis said. “People who drove through Russia made the trip in a few weeks because of the paved roads. We followed a southern route instead and took considerably longer.”
Through France, Belgium, Germany, Hungary and Turkey, the trip unfolded more-or-less swimmingly for Navis and his partner.
During daylight, they traveled roads — paved and not — before pitching separate tents at night to gain welcome respites from one another. In the early going, the Fiat held up, though it drew progressively longer stares the further the pair drove toward and into the “stans,” including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
“Before we left England we painted the Fiat to look like a Rubik’s cube,” Navis said. “So it was a different kind of car than most people were accustomed to seeing.”
In Azerbaijan, Navis and his partner slept on a dock for six days, waiting for a ferry to cross the Caspian Sea. One night, calamity struck when a stray dog stole one of Navis’ flip-flops.
“I really liked those flip-flops, and I looked all over for that dog,” Navis said. “I didn’t find him. Finally, the ferry came and we had to leave.”
Whatever the exact number of countries Navis and his partner entered and exited, they didn’t set a rally record. That belongs to an American team that called itself The Fagawi, which in 2013 touched 40 countries before crossing the finish line in Mongolia, where, one advisory warns, “damage to cars, robberies and minor injuries are common.”
Prophetic enough, Navis said.
“Even before you get to Mongolia, there are about 20 miles of no-man’s land to cross in Russia,” Navis said. “After that, it’s all bumpy roads, hills and deep mud.”
Not far into Mongolia, Navis’ backpack, money, camera, glasses and passport were stolen (eventually, all but the cash was returned). Also the Fiat met its match: It couldn’t surmount the first large hill it encountered.
“Finally, we lost our forward gears altogether,” Navis said. “Luckily, we found a guy to give us a tow. We paid him $200 to pull us to the entry to Ulaanbaatar, our destination.
“There were guards there, and we showed the officers our papers. Then we drove past the guards under our own power, backwards, before getting towed to the finish line.”
Footnote (literally): In a Mongolian bar before flying home, Navis saw a British guy wearing his missing flip-flop, along with a mismatching sandal.
“Hey,” Navis said, “that’s my flip-flop.”
Turns out the Brit also was in the rally and had lost one of his sandals to the same footwear-stealing dog that had victimized Navis in Azerbaijan.
“The guy couldn’t find his sandal before he caught the ferry across the Caspian Sea, but he found my flip-flop,” Navis said. “He gave it back to me.”