With just days to go before Team Offtrax set out on the grueling Mongolia Charity Rally we meet up with members Jess Watt, Corinne Copreni and Elly Ruge while they carry out the final check on their Robens kit and two Subarus. They are clearly excited that countdown is rapidly drawing to a close and that the months of hard planning are about to end with the start of one epic adventure. You can follow their adventures online through the usual social media channels like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. All the links can be found on their website www.offtrax.ca where you can also meet the team and find out more about the charity and route. Meanwhile, for curiosity, we fired off some questions that go beyond our usual interest in the thoughts about and performance of the chosen gear.
For a start, we were interested to find out what our Canadians found to be the hardest thing to organize? Finances were an obvious worry for fund-raiser Elly but supplies, packing and her kitties were always close to the surface. It was the selection and purchasing the vehicles from a distance that concerned the Pro Driver/Mechanic, Michael, who entered the post-gear-inspection conversation. In fact, he says the distances involved made all preparation a difficult exercise – especially when taking into account constant change on vehicles.
Logistical pressure proved a great challenge for Corinne: “Visas, sponsors and making sure we can always be connected throughout the entire trip… Since signing onto the trip, I have juggled a full time career and spending nights and weekends organizing the trip. Basically two full times jobs.”
You can find maps of the proposed route on the Offtrax website and the thought of dealing with the red tape generated by all those embassies is horrific! Some entry requirements precluded visits to a country, like the demand to hire obligatory guides. Jess found such demands and specific entry times hard to juggle: “Visas were the hardest to organize, as trying to plan out where and when you're going to enter a country in the winter, when you're not actually going to be in said country till the summer. It was a lot of guesstimates at first and working with many different calendars, distances, points of interest and possible hold-ups like breakdowns and border crossings.”
This led to some surprising moments. Corinne reminisces about the friendliness of Goshgar, the consul of Azerbaijan in Ottawa (Canada). “An amazing person who has helped us not only for the Azerbaijan visa, but also proved to be of great help for some other tips to visit his country. Also, being called and invited to Afghanistan by the Embassy of Afghanistan in Toronto. Although we won't be going to their amazing country (saving this for another trip), getting called by the Afghani embassy is not something that happens every day.”
The biggest surprise almost proved the team’s undoing when their passports went ‘missing’ at the final embassy just one week prior to leaving Canada. With all the other visas done and paid for this proved a nightmare that Jess says: “Never in my mind would I have guessed this would happen.”
It is hard to factor in such problems. Elly says: “Prepare, prepare, prepare and get as much money as you can.” – advice echoed by Michael. Time is also important. Corinne – “Prepare early and make a list of things you need. Become friend with a mechanic!!! If you come from overseas, think about flying into Europe to buy the car and have a mechanic go through everything. If you wish to have sponsor, be smart, serious and think business! There is a lot to be gained on both ends of the deal, so seize the opportunity. You never know where these might lead both parties.”
Flexibility is also a factor to preparation as Jess says: Start your planning really, really early, at least six-12months in advance. Maps, visas, supplies, visas, mode of transport, visas… Research and communicate with people who've made similar trip to get advice. Read about where you're going. Both fiction and non-fiction to better understand/appreciate the cultures and history. But, remember, you should know that nothing is set in stone. Doesn't matter how much you plan for, plans will change and the need to be flexible to a degree is important. Expect the least and enjoy the most.”
Preparation will go a long way to easing the worries that everyone experiences before a big trip, such as Elly’s fear that they may not complete the adventure’s aims (scorpions and the heat are also minor concerns!). Accidents and the loss of documentation are a real problem as expressed by Corinne and objectives are also a key concern when you have sponsors desires and personal aims to fulfil. (“Will I have time to see everything and capture it on film,” wonders Jess. “And what if I lose footage?”) Practical Michael worries about border crossings – although his concerns of terrorists, gulags, scorpions and being sold into prostitution may hint to, er, let’s leave it there…
Nothing is insurmountable and as Elly says: We deal with it. We are a team. And there’s always more Scotch.” “And Air Canada plus a motorcycle if the car breaks down!” adds Michael, with a grin. Corinne advises always have a plan B, C, D all the way to Z, but always keeping in mind that any plan will get shattered. “Stay wise and alert and don't do anything you wouldn't do at home. Be respectful of the laws and rules of other countries. You might not always agree on everything, but keep in mind you are visiting their country. Given that we are headed in some of the most remote places on the planet, it’s hard to predict what will/can happen, so expect for everything TO HAPPEN. In case everything fails, push the InReach SOS button.” Jess picks up on this: “Do not to react immediately to a problem but talk things out and brainstorm solutions problems to come up with options. We also have photocopies and seven electronic versions of all important documents.”
But it should never be forgotten that any expedition is also about collecting experiences and having fun on the way. New places, cultures and experiences – they all come high on the list of expectations with Tajikistan and driving the Pamir Highway, spotting Kazakh’s hunters who use eagles to take prey and playing soccer with kids they meet en route being mentioned. And, of course, Jess is excited about the unknown and the chance to capture the unexpected on film.
Such experiences also include food and drink. All the team love this aspect of travel and try only to eat and drink local. Corinne sums things up: “Always love trying new food, spices, drinks and so forth. No matter what country, food is an amazing part of the trip. It allows you to discover the country and its people. And, when things are just plain bland or taste rotten...just pour on (very) hot sauce. Goats beware: I'm coming to eat ya up! But I'll leave the mare milk and the sour cheese for the boys. That’s just nasty.”
So, how do they feel now the start is just around the corner?
Elly: Wondering how it will all work out, especially as we are away for so long and with so much to do before the departure. I do miss my grand kiddies.
Michael: Anxious, sense of wonder, overwhelmed at times.
Corinne: Complete excitement that makes it hard to sleep. I've been wanting to do this trip for the last three years now, since being in Mongolia, and now that it’s coming down to mere hours to the start its almost nerve racking (in a good way)
Jess: A mix of pure excitement. This has been a trip in the making for a long, long time. Now that we're across the pond all I want to do is get started and explore.
We wish Offtrax all the best from Robens and look forward to following their adventures online, along with a safe and successful return.
Corinne offers Elly pitching tips
Jess checks the Robens banner to fly in Mongolia
Jess, Elly and Corinne with their Robens tarp for daytime breaks
Corinne fixes the Robens tarp into position.