Travel: The Mongol Rally In A Mini Is Actually Not As Easy As It Looks

The Mongol Rally In A Mini Is Actually Not As Easy As It Looks

By Nicholas Bokaie
September 7, 2016

Photography by Nicholas Bokaie

With pent-up excitement and an overwhelming desire to begin the journey, we left the Goodwood Circuit in high spirits. A year’s worth of planning and prepping had finally resulted in us hitting the road to take part in the Mongol Rally from Goodwood to Ulaanbaatar.

Our itinerary was quite simple…we had no itinerary.

The organizers had set up several meeting points in Heidelberg, Budapest, and Constanta, and we decided it would be best to meet up with fellow ralliers and participate in the rally festivities. But other than that, we wanted to allow ourselves as much flexibility as possible. We didn’t want a fixed itinerary to get in the way of potentially caravanning with other teams, or having plans ruined because Penelope decided to throw a temper tantrum.

For those first 10 days or so (the days tend to blend together when you are constantly driving) went on without a hitch. Penelope was running fantastic. Oil pressure was rock solid, engine temperature remained on the cool side, and there no abnormal vibrations that made you question whether or not the wheel was going to fly off and leave me at the mercy of the truck driver I had just passed.

We grouped up with an awesome team and were making our way to Burgas, Bulgaria to catch a ferry across the Black Sea to Batumi, Georgia. We made sure to our route wasn’t purely motorways, traveling through switchbacks on the Austrian/German border, most importantly, tackling the infamous Transfăgărășan Highway in Romania. Should you have opportunity to take the road, do it. Not only is the road in a fairly good condition, but the views are incredible. Penelope felt right at home swiftly moving through the tight hairpins and long sweepers.

As the odometer kept climbing and we continued east, both Roberto and myself were feeling confident in Penelope’s abilities to take us to the finish line.

However, our confidence was a bit premature…

Just outside of the Greek/Bulgarian border, Penelope decided to take up a brief but nasty smoking habit. From underneath the dash and hood, we saw smoke beginning to billow. We quickly pulled over, and I ran to the truck to flip the battery kill-switch.

At this point, so much smoke had formed within the cabin that it looked like it could be on set of Mad Men. I truly thought the car was going to be engulfed in flames at any moment. And yet, as I waited for the end to come, the smoke dissipated—leaving behind Penelope still intact.

It was now time to inspect and see just what the hell could have caused this. Upon opening the hood, we quickly identified the damage: an electrical short had occurred somewhere and melted the majority of our wiring loom. If there was one thing I didn’t feel confident in fixing, it was the electrical system. Granted, the Mini has about 12 wires that control the whole car, but given that we were parked on the side of Bulgarian back road, at dusk, and rain drops beginning to ever so softly taunt me, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident.

Maybe it was adrenaline or luck, but I was able to identify which wires were the root cause and isolate them from getting any power. It didn’t look like the ignition system got affected, but here was only one way to be sure. Being 90% confident that I safely disconnected the troublesome wiring, I switched the battery back on, put the key in the ignition and slowly turned the tumbler clockwise to the “on” position.

Much to my surprise, the ignition light came on and I was able to fire up the car, albeit with no working headlights, taillights, turn signals, gauges, or windshield wipers.

At least the automotive gods were a little generous.

Luckily we were able to get a place to stay about a mile away with some friendly locals, and got to enjoy a healthy pour of Black Label at their bar to finish off the day.

The next morning, we woke up early to make a dash to the Greek border. Seeing as our headlights didn’t work in a country where they are required to be on during the day, we followed closely behind our fellow rally team, trying not to look suspicious. We made it to the Greek border within out incident and carried on toward the city of Thessaloniki in hopes of finding a mechanic that was more electrically competent than myself (couldn’t be that hard, right?).

Once we arrived we began the search of a mechanic who was, 1) Located in the city center and 2) Spoke enough English comprehend our issue. After about two hours of searching, we found a shop that roughly met the above criteria. Upon arrival, the mechanic one look at the Mini, laughed to himself as I showed the melted wires, and picked up the phone to make a call.

Twenty minutes later, a man arrives on the back of a Vespa, with half a cigarette hanging from his mouth and no helmet. He seamlessly gets off the Vespa as it was still moving, walks over to shake my hand, and takes a look at the melted pile of plastic and copper I called a wiring loom. After about 3 minutes he looks up at me and says, “I grew up with these cars and learned to drive in a Mini. I can fix this for you Nicholas”.

Just the fact of him using my full name gave me confidence in his abilities, even though we had just met. He proceeded to jump in the driver’s seat, turn the car on, giggle, and tell me to follow him to his shop around corner.

Without question or hesitation, I got into our fellow teams car and follow this stranger who is driving my car to his shop in the city center of Thessaloniki. It was definitely one of the more surreal moments of the trip.

We arrived at his shop, and he proceeded to make me an iced coffee and have a closer look at the melted wiring loom. He then said to me, “Come back in two days and I will have this fixed for you”.

Just like that I shook his hand, said thank you countless times like a babbling idiot, and drove back to our place to consume some gyros, copious amounts of Ouzo, and ponder whether or not I would ever get my car back…

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Sifu Alex
Sifu Alex
7 years ago

Interesting article but they only stopped in Greece. Is there more? Will there be further installments later on? Did they get to Mongolia? Why did they go through Greece instead of going by the northern rout through Russia? They going the ultra long way and into some questionably safe territories if they are continuing on.

Devin Fahada
Devin Fahada
7 years ago

I thought mongol rally was in Mongolia..
This story is so fascinating, i wanna have trip like that someday

7 years ago

Thank you for sharing! This is what makes the automotive hobby worth it: the stories.

Jack White
Jack White
7 years ago

Looks like you had quite the adventure, I was following a competitor on facebook who was driving completely different animal…

7 years ago

I really love these posts! My friend and I are dreaming of doing it in the next 5 years. Our ‘ideal’ Mongol Rally car is a Fiat Panda 4×4.

Doing it in a Mini must take so much courage! But I guess it is the ultimate Mongol Rally car 🙂

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