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Overland Challenge - Week One

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Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen

Watch The Video for Week One.

This is the first installment of Richard Creasey's diaries written while he was leader of the world-famous Overland Challenge Expedition. In charge of a team which would attempt to drive from London to New York, Creasey had to preside over a whole range of testing situations. He would have to contend with political and bureaucratic shenanigans, world-wide media attention, extreme weather conditions and the odd bust up in the ranks. And it's all written down in the diaries, exclusively serialised here for the first time by h2g2. See the Overland Challenge - Overview for background information and to get a general overview of this fascinating expedition.

27 December 1993

The Channel Tunnel

London - Folkestone (UK)

Well, there's nothing about us on the six o'clock news - thank goodness.

6.00am Singing birds, paperboys and the milkman all starting the day under the bluest of cold blue skies. Great omens but what a way to start the first overland drive all the way drive from London to New York. Hoping not to hear the record breaking news that we’d be the first team ever to drive through Channel Tunnel1 - as part of a journey.

London: Big Ben struck at noon which marked the start of the journey. Then followed the bland but necessary, official baton hand-over ceremony which was being done for television. By the time transmission could hit the air we’d be well away. Thousands of well wishers seemed to disappear and I could only feel a contradictory feeling of overwhelming elation and terrible loneliness as I looked everywhere for a final glimpse of family. I caught sight of them - waving, smiling - and the tears welled up in my eyes. Soon they too were gone and all that was left was the road ahead.

The 17-strong Overland Team got mildly lost driving on the way to Folkestone, the port town on the south east coast of England. Not for the first time I found myself wondering how on earth can this freshman expeditionary force, with our short hair cuts, neatly ironed clothes and polished shoes - how could we ever begin to drive across the whole of Russia to America. All following my dream2.

The Channel Tunnel

Driving through the tunnel with our wheels on the ground the whole way was the gateway to the whole project. No one had done it before and no one can do it again, because once the tunnel is officially open, every car, bus and truck will have to be ferried through on a train - and that just won't count as a record-breaking overland journey.

By four in the afternoon it was dark and rainy giving us a 'cloak and dagger' type approach as we arrived at the Eurotunnel Visitors Centre, ready to make the crossing. I was desperate that no 'red tape', no political or bureaucratic machination should hinder us now so early on at such a crucial stage of the challenge. With the stakes so high I now look back at those fraught hours as if they appear through strobe lighting in a night club, on a dance floor - staccato, tense and immeasurably exciting.

We drive to the Tunnel Security Gate in convoy. The signs are good. We all don heavy gum boots, red overalls, goggles, helmets, reflector waistcoats, and stuff ear plugs in to our pockets. What is ahead of us? Nine small diesel tractors are lined up - petrol engines are banned in the tunnel. Each Ford Mondeo and Maverick will be towed by a tractor. They'll have a team driver behind the wheel with the steering lock off. Officially, we'll soon be going through... overland.

28 December 1993

Folkestone - Paris via Channel Tunnel (UK and France)

It was now morning and after waiting a while we're able to progress. It's an unbelievable feeling - one that I have no trouble rationalising into us 'driving' through the tunnel. If I was caught drunk being towed along the M1 I'd lose my driving license. So we were, in other words legally driving.

A right turn and a slight downward gradient was the only sense we got of where we were - beneath the ocean. There was of course no need at all for the heavy gum boots, goggles, and ear plugs, but I wore the red overall, reflector waistcoat, and helmet. It was as if I were playing out a part, a performance, and somehow felt that I should dress accordingly.

The tractor drivers were just as excited as us, for they too were going all the way through for the first time, and were full of the exhilaration of 'being first'. Indeed my tractor driver, Leslie, was so excited at this extraordinary first that he declared it would be the 'roughest part of our entire journey'. Little did he realise that this crude Tunnel road was far better than most of the roads I had already travelled on in Russia during the past 7 years and would be immeasurably smoother than the iced-over river beds that would become our roads in Siberia.

Emerging on to French Soil

The first thing that struck me, as we emerged from our five hour drive, was the daylight, the second was the snow and the third was the smiling faces of our French officials. There was no fuss and all our passports were stamped with a Eurotunnel stamp.

It seemed right for a French person to be 'first' seen driving from England to France so a French member of our team, Marielle, drove the first Ford Mondeo out of the tunnel and led the way to the French Visitors Centre through swirling snow, and on to a hot congratulatory lunch.

But soon the glow of elation wore off as the lunch lengthened, and the turmoil of petty worries and decisions that would haunt me as leader of the expedition started their crawl round my mind. Conflict I know is an essential ingredient of life. Without bad how can you measure good? Without worrying how can you appreciate the joy of relaxing? And today, so soon after we'd been the first and last expedition ever to drive from London to France, this petty conflict curbed my celebratory mood - we had much to do and we needed to move on. I was worried about the snow - would it cut us off from Paris? - not to mention the effects of too much French wine. Shouldn't I be enforcing a strict no drinking rule here? Most of the team would accept this, but one member I had doubts about, former KGB man Major General Victor Karputkin, who was celebrating hard our Channel Tunnel success in quite Russian style.

Yeltzin Wants Money

I was expecting to see him in Moscow four days from now so Stepan Pojenian's arrival in Paris was a complete surprise. Knowing Stepan there'd be good news (Stepan was brought up a true Soviet - always kept bad news to himself until he'd worked out a solution). but this time there'd be a surprise sting in the tale in the form of feedback regarding President Yeltzin's attitude towards the venture. I’ve a photo of Yeltzin and me together in a grand reception building, and was hoping we’d meet again to celebrate my expedition across his vast country.

In fact, far from being helpful, he had seen the Ford name - one of our main sponsors - and suggested Russia kicked off its relationship with us by charging a $100,000 for the reception. And Yeltzin had plans to claw in a lot more money from this Ford-financed expedition. Stepan was in Paris to attempt to change the Russion perception of the Overland Challenge as a Ford project in to a UNESCO project. For that he needed the right feedback from tomorrow's UNESCO press launch.

29 December 1993

Paris - Berlin (France, Belgium and Germany)

Gerry Brennan and Peter George of Logistic Support had us wash the Fords and drive with almost military precision through the presidential-style gates of the impressive UNESCO head quarters. I've a feeling Peter, Jeff and Doc Ford especially are beginning to resent it all this fuss and political manoeuvring, as opposed to smiling at it they I do. Major General Victor on the other hand is biding his time. How, I wonder, will he react when we get to extreme conditions? Will he take advice or give orders?

More work for the expedition leader coming up, but for now I'm keen for Stepan to get from UNESCO what he needs - their backing - to help us get across the former Soviet Union, the largest landmass in the world.

The UNESCO Press Conference

The turn-out for the press conference was poor. The Paris-Dakar Rally which had started yesterday, had grabbed all the headlines with photos of some very serious looking vehicles - in alarming contrast to ours. Indeed, I was not at all surprised to overhear Nikita Dergatcheff and Monsieur Gillet, two UNESCO pros, comment with incredulity on our chances of getting all the way to the Bering Straits in these shiny cars. I asked Nikita what he thought of the Mavericks and our chances. 'They look all right in Paris', he said, defensively.

But Stepan did get what he needed. The baton had been handed over to me by Mikhail Fedotov, Russian Ambassador to UNESCO who had been hearing from an ebullient Major General Victor Karputkin all about our Channel Tunnel 'coup'. I had, as far as Victor was concerned, proved my worth as leader.

Stepan, seizing his opportunity, asked me to invite Nikita to the reception in Moscow to be held in the grand Metropol Hotel. There Victor would impress Stepan’s middle-ranking Russian bosses of the expedition's first great success – our journey through the Channel Tunnel - with the man from UNESCO at is side.

We were late and had a 750 miles drive ahead of us to Berlin. And in my dash to round up everyone I ran straight into the closed plate glass door of the UNESCO building.

To Berlin

At mid-day, we left for Berlin. And, like Major Peter and General Victor, I decided to drive the whole way in continuous heavy rain which made it a dangerous and exhilarating experience. I could almost believe we were on an expedition. During this, our first real hard day's drive, I looked and I listened. There was the Belgium border - Victor and Sasha had no visas. 'Is this a moment for panic?' I thought to myself. Not at all, it turned out, as it was clear from the radio chat that Victor has been through borders with no visa many times before. And it was different this time.

Throughout Germany, where the rain kept pouring down, Peter George was in the lead car issuing a constant stream of instructions and encouragement via his VHS radio. He was clearly surprised at how well the team kept up in the fastest3 eight car convoy that I'd ever seen. Doctor Paul beside me was continuously worried, using our radio to issue instructions on safety. Doc had attended countless fatal car crashes and knew the exhilaration of a fast drive from the bad end of the spectrum. And he was right to be worried. We missed what turned out to be a fatal crash just outside the old West/East border by a couple of minutes. And as we detoured around the tangled wreckage I wondered whether I was really up to leading this rag tag team on the world's longest drive.

But by the time we'd reached the Berlin Penta , a good day's progress having been made, I felt more confident. Soon I fell into a deep dreamless sleep on and under what would definitely prove to be the most comfortable mattress and duvet of the entire journey!

30 December 1993

Berlin - Warsaw (Germany and Poland)

Day four starts at 8.00 am with a routine call to the IRN news desk which, I had been assured by Shadwicks (Meridian Television's chosen PR firm) had been briefed to expect a daily update for the news programme. However the news desk reporter had no idea who I was, what the Challenge was about, or why the hell his routine was being interrupted by a pretty insignificant news story. Going through the tunnel two days ago isn't news!

At breakfast I met Dieter Depping for the first time, Ford's nominee and champion German rally driver who would join the team for the rest of the journey. 'What!?' I can hear every reader exclaim. 'You met one of your main drivers for the first time, after you started!' And you thought that expedition teams were chosen after cautious assessment and with great care. Four days in and I've already given up trying to work out what other expeditions do, on this one I'm amazed at how reality dictates that most people are untested and 'unknown' before they're firmly on board. Dieter would, I already knew, be joined by 20 more Russian drivers - none of whom I know and all of whom could be a nightmare. They were to be the fixers across Russia and Alaska. Also, much closer to home, I didn't even get to meet the Ford Mechanics or the second unit camera crew before they actually joined us. As a result I'm no longer at all amazed at how well nearly everyone fits in.

Dieter had been chosen by Ford because of his driving skills. That's the exact opposite of everyone else! How, when you think of it, could it be otherwise? If only first class drivers were to come on the expedition, there'd be no room for me. It was this lack of driving skill that no doubt prompted Ford to insist on having at least one of their own kind. With one opening Russian hug I knew he'd be a great member of the team.

Victor Takes Charge...

A couple of hours later we left for the former Eastern Bloc via the Brandenberg Gate and immediately our world was turned upside down as Major General Victor Karputchin shed his diplomatic western hat and became the former Soviet Union Major General. By now things were shaking down. And I decided that either Victor or I should be in the lead Mondeo L1 (It's time to slip into short abbreviations - L1 comes from out grand number plates : L1 FMC), and Dieter would be the number one driver of Mondeo L2.

I had spent most of my life practising my belief that rules are there to break, and am consequently expecting most of the decisions I'll be making to be broken too. But for now Victor took to this decision like the hero of the Soviet Union that he was, as he led his team through once-conquered Soviet territory. All red lights, traffic signals, and one-way street signs were ignored with the blaring of his horn, the waving of his outstretched arm and his 'keep going' cries on our VHS radios. The convoy mounted pavements, dodged down one-way streets and cut up on-coming traffic until the country side and its open spaces gave this mild insanity a rest. The team was surprised, speechless and impressed all at once.

I knew that a police escort awaited us at the Polish/Belerus border to take us all the way through what I think of as the foothills of our expedition, right to the heart of Siberia, and gambled it was better to say nothing to Victor about his rather mad behaviour, and instead dwell on how his form of 'leadership' could get us back on schedule. It didn't seem prudent to have a leadership row right now. Knowledge of the coming police pace car also kept me out of the first inter-team radio punch up between Doc Paul and Major Peter. This was over our speeding in driving rain on the single carriageway roads of Poland. Peter was keen to keep the convoy moving quickly, yet Doc remonstrated bitterly about the 'suicidal overtaking'.

The race was well and truly on to get to Kornik Castle near Warsaw where we would rendezvous with a traditional Polish Christmas choir, standing by for a live insert into the first of nine of ITV's The Big Race programmes. ITV had paid a lot of money for this, and Ford had only put their money in against the television publicity the expedition would generate, which goes some way to explaining why I was keeping out of the Major Peter and Doc Paul row. We had a television schedule to meet.

31 December 1993

Warsaw - Minsk (Poland and Belarus)

Twelve hours later, after a packed press conference in Warsaw, it was television that was getting in the way of the schedule. And I could feel us losing our race against the clock. Ever since my second world trip, when my brother Scoop and I drove endlessly to beat the Australian rains, lose, ferry the car from Tennant Creek to Mount Isa and then get caught again so that we missed the boat from Syndey to Vancouver, I've found myself getting needlessly irritated when we miss driving deadlines. This time I was keen to press on to the Polish Belerus border by 2.00pm where Stepan’s team, led by Igor Nosov, fixer extraordinaire, would have officials standing by to clear us through customs quickly. But Mike Lomas and his three man Beta television crew wanted to get the best shots for the television series and asked for a second take of our leaving the hotel foyer. I protested, internalised my anger, and agreed to the second take.

By now though we were late and Victor took it upon himself to get us out of Warsaw quickly. Like me he was well aware of the fact that vast delays might be caused if the CIS border officials objected to our timing - it was New Years's Eve - and decided to take apart our fledgling expedition. As in Berlin, red lights, pedestrian crossings and the 30 mph speed limit were all ignored with Victor's blaring horn. This time though the police were on to us, and before the back markers could catch up, they had started to take the passports off all those driving. Victor, a little chastened to say the least, gave me a running commentary of events. 'They threatening to imprison all the drivers, smash the camera, fine us $1000 ...' With a rare act of total delegation I decided to let Igor work it out.

We were hours late at customs but amazingly persuaded the officials, keener than ever to get home and see the New Year in, not to open a single bag. And for the third time, in record time, I crossed the worn-out bridge across the River Bug in to Belarus. Thinking of the first time in 1960 with Scoop and me in the back of my Dad's Rolls Royce, and then in 1991 with my two sons Simon and Guy repeating the journey in a reconditioned Landrover, I found tears in my eyes as I rounded a corner to see a huge banner screaming 'only 13,000 miles to go to the Bering Straits' held high by a smiling, happy welcoming committee of folk-dancers and singers bearing the traditional bread and salt. This was the 'Russia' I so wanted the team to see. We had to get all the way across, just for them. But as no one else had ever done it, could we honestly really expect to?

Ceremony over and Victor gave up his place at the head of the convoy to a metallic grey Mercedes police escort car which led us to our fir Soviet style hotel. And from there we had a New Year's party compared with great gusto by Igor, making sure we celebrated midnight as it came. To Russia, for Victor and Sasha and the whole East/West Creative Association4team; to South Africa for Deon; to Germany, France and Holland, for Dieter, Marielle and Kees; to England for Peter, Doc Ford, Paul, Mark, Neil, David and myself; to Ireland (North and South) for Jeni and Peter; and we remembered to celebrate Canada for Jeff. This international team, brought together because of a mad dream, was really beginning to gel.

1 January 1994

Minsk - Moscow (Belarus and Russia)

Why did Mike and his Beta crew make me feel so ratty? It wasn't their fault that we were two hours late starting, although their Maverick does take so much longer to pack because of all the 'professional' kit they cart around. No, our midday late start was caused by the fuel tanker that had lead-free petrol inside and a damn great Russian lead-friendly petrol nozzle stopping it getting to the Fords. But I silently blamed Mike for the delay as I felt myself move from a life career as a television producer to an expedition leader whose main job would be to keep the convoy moving until we got to the end of the state-maintained road at Semchen, Siberia. That was 39 days away, in my mind a million years down the road. Today Moscow was our target.

Just past 10.00 that evening when a sane team would have stopped for that night at the Smolensk Hotel, the VHF car radio shook the sleep out my eyes: Victor's Mondeo L1 has come off the road. At first I didn't believe it, but a dozen red brakes lights snapped on, shouting 'believe it and stop'.

Tom Lasaka, Victor's interpreter until Moscow, who had taken over the wheel of Victor's Mondeo to give him a rest from almost non-stop driving, had slipped off the icy road into a four foot ditch. In pushing-on mode I stamped over the team's 'this is what we came for' feelings in favour of getting us back on the road as fast as possible and went along with Gerry's order that everyone except for Gerry, Peter, Mark and myself were to step back. After a snappy half hour we had moved from practice to reality with a copybook military exercise in winching which impressed our Russian escorts with its efficiency. This turned out to be the first and last time a Ford needed a winching hand until we got properly off-road.

At 2.00am we reached Moscow. A film team from Reuters was at the outskirts of the great city to escort us to the East/West Creative Associations offices in downtown Moscow. Vera, the one person I was dying to see, wasn't there, but so many other friends were, including Karen Mellor and Roger James from Central Television and John Raymond and so many other colleagues who had set up the Association with me.

1 January 1994

Moscow (Russia)

I caught up with Vera again in the lobby of Hotel Moscow. Yes, that was the hotel that we stayed in with Mum and Dad all those year's back. And I can still remember my 16 year old embarrassment at Mum using puddle water from a summer shower to wash the Rolls. 'If you car is dirty the communists will impound it, put you in prison and send you to Siberia ...' she'd been told not believing a word of it, but keen to wash the car nevertheless! Vera, had worked with me from my very early days in Russia - well before the Association was founded, and before she emigrated to Tucson, Arizona. We had worked and travelled all over the former Soviet Union together. In fact, it's almost easier to work out where we haven't been than where we have, and one of those places was Siberia. I was so pleased to see her.

Ford Make Demands

Gerry Brennan quickly took the smile off my face by telling the Ford chiefs, Ken Cannel and David Hunt, that the Russian schedule was unachievable and we would slip backwards by two at least weeks. If he's right, I'm going to have to really push the whole time to make that weather window at the Bering Straits. A slippage of two weeks would cause chaos with the ITV television schedule.

As a first step I quickly took over the responsibility of deciding who would drive with whom for the next leg of the drive to Novisibersk - nine very long icy days away from Moscow. One day, soon I kidded myself, these kinds of decisions would no longer be mine. Here's how I allocated the cars: Victor and Vera, Dieta and Paul would be in the two Mondeos. The Mavericks would be driven by Jeff and Jenny, Deon and Marielle, Mark and Neil, Doc and me, Peter and David. Two journalists, Eugene and Pal, who had been invited by Ford to join the first leg to Novosibersk, would float in and out of all the cars so that they could get a good overview of the early stage of the expedition, and write good things about it.

Within 12 hours, at an elaborate dinner with the Ford Chiefs at the Metropole, Moscow's most expensive hotel, I realised David had a vastly bigger problem on his mind. He wanted the Mondeos to go all the way to the Bering Straits. He didn't mind if they were driven or towed; from his point of view Ford had put in the cash to make the event happen and that was a pre-requisite. The dinner had been fixed to make sure that I fully understood that. By now though I had been convinced by everyone who had ever visited Siberia in the winter, that there was no way in which a family saloon could be dragged over the 3000 garageless off-road kilometres that we had ahead of us. A parallel argument, saying it was far too tough a journey for women, was also being rammed down my throat.

I agreed with these chauvinists about the cars, but certainly not about the women. Fine food, good wine and a promise to do the best I could satisfied Ken Cannel. David, I realised, decided the best way to achieve his objective would be to put pressure on Paul Wilson, Ford's loyal and formidable chief mechanic, and Dieter the German rally driver.

Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen

1Much to the chagrin of the channel Tunnel's British contingent, their French counterparts had promised a major French car company first access through the tunnel with all the resultant high profile media attention. The British, angry at not being told about this, decided to let the Overland Challenge team pass through the other way, before the French car company, on the one condition they keep it all very hush-hush, ie no press. Hence Creasey finding himself in the rather odd position of embarking on a truly historic 'first' - driving through the newly-completed Channel Tunnel - and hoping that no one would notice. See the Overland Challenge - Introduction for more details.2And at the time of writing, an under-financed dream! The Discovery Channel had all but pulled out along with their £1,000,000 commitment. After yet another of those 'America for one night' hops I got them to agree to £150,000 for just one documentary, but it still left a hell of a financial hole.3Time was such a crucial factor for the Overland Challenge, and already lots had been wasted - and would continue to be wasted - on receptions, press conferences and other niggling 'political' meetings. The Overland Challenge team had a limited time scale to get across Russia before the Bering Straits began to thaw.4The East/West Creative Association was the first collaborative venture of its kind where people from the Eastern Bloc and from the western world worked together on a number of TV projects, films and documentaries. Richard Creasey founded the Association and one British TV programme he was responsible for making - which could only have been made by a joint east/West venture as it was filmed on location in Crimea - was Sharp starring Sean Bean.

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