Since then, his company, the Adventurists, has been behind rickshaw races in India, motorcycle trials across Siberia and an epic derby in Mongolia, raising £5.5million for the Cool Earth charity in the process.
I was on an exchange with a friend called Jules in the Czech Republic when we were students studying fine art, which meant we had virtually no work to do and were drunk quite a lot of the time. We bought the world’s worst Fiat 126 in the north of Prague which turned out to be two cars welded together. We ended up picking the most difficult place to drive – Mongolia – and set off without even packing any spare clothes. We failed to get there as we didn’t have the right visas meaning we only reached the Iranian border.
When I left university I swore never to get a job. When I was starting the Mongol Rally, my goal was to make a million quid in a year. I failed miserably, and didn’t even get past £300. I bought a Fiat 500 that I optimistically thought I could restore in two weeks. If you look in our warehouse you’ll find a very rusty, unrestored Fiat 500 still sitting there ten years later. It was probably the worst financial decision ever.
We thought we ought to try again, so I started a website and invited people to join us for free. I expected thousands to queue up but only six teams arrived.
We used to encourage people to donate things like ambulances to charities in Mongolia but the Mongolians couldn’t get the spare parts so we stopped. Some cars were sold for charity, but now we ship all the cars back on a train because it’s simpler to do. It helps to keep Mongolia clean.
We had an old-school London bus enter once that did quite well. It was owned by a Russian oligarch so he was obviously going to make it. When there are unlimited resources you generally make it to the destination. We had a Ferrari this year; it doesn’t really fit with our rules that the cars should be small and crap, but we let it through because it was obviously going to struggle and sure enough, it got stuck in Georgia waiting for a part because it had zero road clearance.
The next race we set up was the Rickshaw Run in India. It runs three times a year crossing 3,000–4,000 miles, using a little motorised rickshaw fleet we have out there. My favourite story is a team that went through Orissa when there 1used to be quite a lot of riots and road blockages. Angry crowds came out on the streets and were smashing the rickshaw with sticks. Afterward they discovered an arrow stuck in the back of their engine.
We run the world’s longest and toughest horse race, recreating Genghis Khan’s ancient postal system across the Mongolian steppe. The riders change horses every 40 km so even though the horses are okay, the jockeys get a serious pounding. There are about 49 riders in the derby from around the world. Even the Queen’s Guards came along this time, which was fun to see.
When you talk about the number of local people we use in herding and training for the derby, there’s about 500-600 people employed during the event. We have vets from across the world, too. There are 1,500 horses to train and vet.
The derby is a complete mixture of professionals and amateurs. References are taken to make sure they’re not idiots who will hurt the horses. Two or three years ago we had an Irish jockey who won, but it’s not necessarily straight-up jockeys who are good at it because a mixture of skills is needed. It requires living in the wild because riders can only carry 5kg with them meaning they can’t have a tent. They can’t really carry all their food either, so they have to make do over the two weeks just living with the nomads or out under the stars.
We also race with Ural motorcycles. They are fundamentally quite rubbish. The bike is based on a BMW stolen from the Germans by the Russians during World War II. The Russians continued to make it almost to the same design right up to the mid-90s when the factory shut. Then someone opened it back up and carried on making them. We bought old ones because those are less reliable. In midwinter we ride up to the Arctic Circle, but we are changing the route now to make it across Lake Baikal, so it’s quite an epic ride.
Our general philosophy is to organise slightly stupid and slightly silly adventures that anyone can take part in. It’s much more about not making it than it is about getting to the finish.
2001 Attempts to drive an old Fiat 126 from the Czech Republic to Mongolia, but fails
2003 Graduates from Winchester School of Art with a Fine Arts degree
2004 Stages first Mongol Rally with just six teams, and succeeds in reaching Mongolia
2006 Organises the first Rickshaw Run from Kochi to Darjeeling
2009 First Mongol Derby, a 621-mile long race that recreates Genghis Khan’s postal system
2012 Debuts Ice Run on Ural motorcycles across Siberia
This story was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine