Overland Challenge - Week Four Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Overland Challenge - Week Four

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Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight
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18 January 1994

Camp Fire

Bratsk (Siberia, Russia)

Stepan had just flown in from Moscow via London, and would only be here until 12.00. He's had a lousy flight and is still on UK time. I take that into account when he is adamant that I fly Jeni, Marielle and Vera from Ust Kut to Mirnyy. The excuse he uses is that there are not enough bunks for everyone in the bitter cold that is ahead, but he adds they are passengers, and looking after them will hurt the project. The crash, he tells me, was wholly Jeni's fault.

I wasn't surprised. The politics that I knew would rear it's head as soon as I realised it was Jeni in front of the crashed Ural was coming as predicted. Many of the Russians drivers and fixers feel that only General Victor and Jeff can make it all the way to Lavrentia.

My only course open is to fight this day by day. With anyone else Stepan, whose Soviet background can make him impossible to argue with, would just say niet, no. With me, his Chairman, he can't - quite.


I argue that there will be no shortage of bunks because the English speakers will use the Mavericks and tents so that the Ural truck drivers will all have a bed. Taken aback by this suggestion Victor Nickoliavitch jumps into say he must see the tents to know they are safe. I say that's fine, but remind him that these are the ones we will be using in Alaska where it will be as cold as Russia.

For the time being the Russians who would like to see some of the English speakers leave the convoy are stumped. Everyone wants to know exactly who is sleeping in what trucks and I say that Vera, Jeni, Marielle and Victor N will work that out this morning.

Soon everyone has gone except for Stepan and me at one table and Marielle Jeni, Vera and Victor at another working on the bunk list. In all we have travelling and sleeping: UK/Association 17, Ural drivers 10, Security 5, Guides 2. There are still three too many people for bunks.

But that is a fight for another day. Stepan accepts that Jeni, Marielle and Vera will go to Yakutsk. He'll be there too to see how we did and to insist that the weaker members of the team do not go beyond Seymchan.

No Goodbye

Stepan leaves just after our discussion without saying good bye or even hello to Vera. The Ural crash is a great pity. The undercurrent of the conversation is that we may not get as much help as hoped from UralAz and that we could end up with two camps - them and us, which would be very serious, especially if General Victor is on their side.

So when Stepan has gone I ask Jeni, Marielle and Vera to travel in the Ural truck cabs more so that the Ural truck drivers become as determined as I am to take them all the way.

At 1 o'clock we have a press conference which I found difficult because there is so much on my mind. General Victor's set piece about how great the Channel Tunnel was okay but not as convincing as usual. He's definitely on the 'send them on' side.

19 January 1994

Bratsk to Ust Kut (Siberia, Russia)

Mark told me at breakfast that all the Fords vehicles had a change of oil in Bratsk, everything was fine although the sump guard on the leading Mondeo, L1, driven by General Victor who is always at the very head of the column, is well dented probably by large lumps of coal. (Coal dust is used here instead of salt/sand to 'sand' the ice on the roads, and large lumps of coal end up into the mix). Without the sump guard we would have been in trouble.

Peter Duncan was at breakfast too, having just rejoined the team. It seemed as if he had gone forever. Time's flying.

For that day's drive Jeni and Marielle followed my advice and took to the trucks. We reached Ust Kut, on schedule with copybook organisation from Stepan's Association team.

Ust Kut is a key trading city because of the Lena River which goes north taking trade via Yakutsk to the Arctic Ocean and Olga River which goes to Lake Baykal. In summer its a major port. In winter a few trucks drive on the frozen river.

I learnt that from the District chief who wants us to become back any time and trade in diamonds, minerals, anything. He didn't tell us about how the river had once been essential to maintain the dreaded gulags which we would learn a lot more about in the days to come, or about environmental horror story that the mineral exploitation is creating. But he was nice, and the presentation in front of a local, very nervous, television reporter, was delightfully low key in the Sanatorium bosses office. I was given a wooden crane as a memento and felt I would very much like to come back. Although for now all I can think about is whether or we'll cope with the conditions ahead.

20 January 1994

Ust Kut to Mirnyy (Siberia, Russia)

A day of topsy turvy emotions. It started well. I woke up in a bed that had been good enough for me not to know I'd been in it. Ahead of us were our first ice roads - 3 to 5 nights in the trucks. The real expedition was about to start, off road and full of the unknown. I felt as ready as I could be.

Valery was unconvinced. In the spacious corridor outside my even more spacious suite Valery was sorting through a large cardboard box full of very Russian fur hats and heavy Russian winter wear, convinced that our down filled, feather-light, super-hi-tech kit just served to prove that we westerners had no idea about the real cold that Siberia was about to throw at us.

The biggest and best hat was reserved for the leader. This hat, which used to be a fox, felt just right for the Russian cold. I stuffed it on and marched out briefcase in hand.

I should have stuffed the wolf hat on my briefcase. Outside the mayor was bearing gifts, a small painting of snow and trees. After receiving it with lots of thanks, listening intently to his words of caution about the road and the cold ahead I got out my much loved POQET computer to add his name to the list of so many people I wanted to thank.

My computer had frozen to death.

I had a complete panic attack.

The computer was my brain. Everything was in it as I discovered that with one I could get by even with my dyslexia.

For the first time I turned away a camera crew that had been patiently waiting for an interview in the freezing cold, scowled at a stills photographer and refused to talk to his reporter.

Instead I got into the front of L1 with Victor K and the wheel and Vera in the back and ordered the convey to start.

Black Mood

Everyone sensed my angst and the get away from the hotel was our fastest ever. Victor who remained convinced of our unpreparedness for the winter road ahead, caught my leadership tone and took it on board. He stormed at Marielle five times during the five minute drive to the fuel stop for one driving fault after another, but Marielle took no notice.

At the gas station he insisted that Rupert replace his VHF radio for the third time and then, screaming into it, ordered the Urals to set off up the ice road. Finally lectured me for being late. I'd no recollection of what I was late doing. I do remember blowing my top. I slammed shut the door of L1 and, with Vera in tow, climbed up into No 5 Ural truck.

I got Victor on the radio - his new aerial was about to be put to good use.

I was the leader not him - if I was late that my business. Victor had no right to split up the column by sending the Urals on ahead - that was hopeless for Kees who had an inexhaustible appetite for convoy shots. And I was not going to be told off.

All very uncharacteristic stuff.

Three hours later in a frozen lay-by, for the first time since we arrived in the former Soviet Union, our police escort left the convoy. Their cars were not equipped for the winter roads. It left me really wondering what was up ahead.

I put Victor in L1 at the head of the convoy, followed by the most of Urals to pack down the snow and insisted that a car driven by Dieter, Paul Wilson or Jeff should lead the Fords. All three were used to driving on snow.

Finally I decided to make Truck 5 my command car and stay at the back of the convoy as sweeper.

General Victor Drives his Ford Mondeo Like a Tank

The first decision turned out to be mistake. With no police car to slow him down Victor took full advantage of his saloon car's prototype four wheel drive and charged ahead of the rest of the convoy, driving L1 like a tank. During a cloudless sun filled day the radiator vents were blocked with snow and, despite the cold, as the sun slipped over the horizon the car was overheating badly.

With a General's instinct, Victor spotted an isolated house and stopped for Paul and Mark to put things right as an officer would his sergeants. And in true style he announced the convoy's presence, and started on the food, vodka and champagne that was hastily brought out by the Mum, Dad, whose names I never got to know, and 10 year old Sasha, to welcome the surprise international team.

It was the first house, as opposed to hotel that most of the team had been in. And it turned out to be a real treat for all but Paul, Mark and Neil who had to work on L1.

Sasha asked if there was anyone important in the team. General Victor Karputchen allowed Valery to sing his praises. Vera announced that I was the expedition leader, Jeff's North West Passage was mentioned but Dieter quickly became the star. Sasha had a true rally driver in his house.

As Victor glugged down his champagne and vodka he suggested we stay there for the night certain that there would be at least one spare bed in the house.

I should have said yes, but my British concern about outstaying our welcome, a determination to move on while the weather allowed and a glance at my watch, it was still only 7.00, persuaded me to move the convoy on.

We left with great bonhomie, and Victor's L1 back in reasonable condition.

Mistake Repeated

Repeating my past mistake I let Victor drive alone out front. He'd had much more vodka than I'd realised and alternated between charging off into the murky distance and slowing down complaining on the radio that he was tired and that we should stop.

The next hour turned into a true cat and mouse chase, or perhaps bear and fox. Victor was drunk enough to be convinced he was okay to drive and alert enough to be determined that no one else should take over pole position.

It quickly became clear that he should be anywhere but driving - especially on an ice road in L1, our most prestigious car. The only person who could replace him without loss of face was me.

First Vera then Volodia attempted to cajole him to stop over the VHF radios. He slowed down often but charged off when we got close. Volodia, who was in his Green Goddess at the front of the trucks tried to add a twist by turning off his headlights. But Victor quickly worked this one out.

Eventually we stopped the convoy and Vera and I pulled on our Rab clothes, climbed down into the minus 40 night and started to walk. Victor, waiting for the convoy, was caught unawares as we got to his door.

Vera Takes Charge!

I addressed General Victor as a conciliatory British leader.

Victor, I know you want to drive, but I do too and anyway you'd be better off in the passenger seat or the back.

Vera threw off her translator hat, realising Victor couldn't understand a word of my English, and swore at the General:

Get the f*** out of there, right now!
Where do I go?
Who cares? Just get the hell out.

And he did. Finding space in Sasha's truck.

21 January 1994

Ust Kut to Mirnyy (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

My sleeping bag was stuck to the tiny window in the Ural 5 sleeping truck with the frost when I woke up. None of our three forms of heating (the engine, the oil cabin heater or the wood burning stove) had survived our first night in the frozen outback. Other trucks had done better though. Desert temperatures had been achieved by Sergey in Ural 7 who revelled in waking through the night to stoke up the wood burning fire.

The day turned out to be full of extremes - typical of the Russia I so loved. The sun again had the cold blue sky to itself making me all the more keen to keep moving while the weather held. Valery announced that breakfast was just up the road, it would be quicker, he said to eat there, rather than boil water in the trucks.

So, by 7.00 we set off on the ice road, yes 7, we left on schedule! Nepa village was the other side of the river and, without so much as a backwoods glance, we drove straight across it. No bridge, no bank, no road. It must surely be the 20 century equivalent of walking on water. The biblical mention is of course in the desert, so it should be no surprise that the 20th century wheeled version is in the frozen midst of Siberia.

It should also be no surprise that after a trick like that it was time for a lengthy chat, breakfast, fuel and fun stop.

Breakfast, Fuel, and Fun Stop

Nepa is a district headquarters. Its primary job to keep what they so accurately called the Liferoad open for the diamond trade, and be a centre for all the fuel and food that is used to keep it open during the long hard winter.

My lengthy chat was in Boris Servevich's office, which doubled as bedroom for three at night, who was the big shot road builder, Vitaly Kusaov a hunter with a full bottom row of silver teeth, and Fyodorovich Krasnoshtonov the local king of the transport.

It was a slightly one-sided chat because Vera was too tired to translate too many words and much of my interest was taken up in trying to read the thermometer which hung outside the window, and the stunning river scene beyond. All the while the outside temperature stayed constant at minus 30'C. I began to wonder why the talk was going on for so long.

I was soon to find out. Breakfast, was served in dining room that was a little bigger than it's long table and twenty chairs. We'd need to take shifts eating what turned out to be breakfast, lunch, dinner and enough vodka for a battle ship to float in.

Westerners Don't Drink and Drive

Unsportingly, I made it clear that us westerners didn't drink and drive. A thought-line that was toasted at length by our Russian colleagues.

As chief guest I sat through both shifts and was getting increasingly keen to move on, aware that half the English speakers, the first shift, were by now outside and alcohol free, the "girls" were co-opted into helping with the washing up. The sun was imploring us to move while it kept the storm clouds at bay.

But the end wasn't yet insight. There was a presentation to be made in Boris's bedroom office.

Why the hell couldn't you do that while we were eating? I screamed silently to the many characters inside my own head.

I quickly found out.

Moose's Head

As Marielle walked into the office to declare the washing up completed, and Peter D stamped in from the cold to suggest we moved on. A giant moose's head was unceremoniously dumped on one of the three beds.

Half laughing, half appalled and wholly astonished Peter and I carried our trophy with it's frozen tongue hanging out, and its frozen blood thankfully staying put to the crowd of children and other well wishers who had collected around the trucks and cars to see us off.

During the ten minutes it took to stow it into the already crowded supply truck, a giant bears claw shook my hand amidst a roar of laughter, I stowed that under my seat in truck 5 until it started to thaw out and bleed and Volodia took it to the outside tool box.

It was a grand departure and I had high hopes that the long stop-over would lead to an uninterrupted three or fours hours of driving.

Victor's L1 thought differently. During his tank-like ventures of the day before he had cooked the alternator.

Paul wanted two hours to put it right, but agreed to run the car on an array of re-charging batteries. At the end of the day and I found myself giving Victor an ultimatum. L1 was the only car he had, drive it into the ground and he'd become a passenger.

22 January 1994

Ust Kut to Mirnyy (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

Dieter's L2 Mondeo over heated over night because the fan had frozen solid. Mark and Paul, in the freezing cold had to over-ride the car management system to get it going again while the rest of us scoffed boil in the bag breakfast of baked beans and sausages.

Valery was deeply displeased. 3 hours later than planned, we arrived at what should have been a surprise breakfast, sauna and rest stop.

The sun was out, there was wood to chop for the Ural truck heaters, food galore to eat and people to meet who were as friendly and curious as could be.

Everything around me screamed "look around and rest and enjoy". But my head screamed that in these perfect conditions we had to move forward - take advantage of the fine weather by closeting ourselves in our cars and truck cabins while the sun shone down.

I almost missed lunch - one of the finest moose stews on offer - and the first doubts about whether "Richard was okay" started to ricochet round the expedition team. I could feel the burdens of leadership straining down. It would have been so much nicer to have enjoyed our stop rather than push with every muscle in my body for the fuel to get into the truck a little quicker and the wood that we needed to be chopped a little faster.

Instead my angst saved not a minute and we set off as the heat of the short lived sun was already waning. That evening long after the sun had gone down we reached the border of Yakutia, the heart of Siberia.

The Heart of Siberia

There was a reception to meet us with fires burning in the frozen snow making no impression on the freezing ice. Soon a welcome dance started. The village chief looked exactly as I would expect an Alaskan Inuit to look, in fine seal furs and great inherited importance that goes with the role.

Their tradition had been smashed and this was gulag country, but those clothes had now been changed with signs of PEACE AND GOODWILL drawn on sheets, reflecting a tinge of orange from the roaring fires welcome.

23 January 1994

Mirnyy to Nyurba (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

I was woken with a bang on my bedroom door. It was as if the last few days, sleeping in the freezing trucks, had never been.

We were in the central hotel of Mirnyy, a diamond centre in the middle of Siberia. Yes we had slept in real beds. And John Raymond was on the phone from London filling me in about the bureaucratic mess that he had been saddled with because of my determination to be at the front where I'd thought the fun would be.

There were huge changes taking place in London television scene and reading between the lines, something that 14 years as a top executive in the cut and thrust of a major television company had taught me to do exceptional well. I could sense that life would never be the same again. That my company Central Television was about to be taken over by Carlton Communications.

In the meantime we had successfully coped with our first days of winter road and had come through. And it was clear to me that we could make it all the way to New York. That was a long way from saying we would, but we could and that was very important.

Minimalist in Me

Writing these notes I had got into the habit of having a flask of tea at my side. Black tea, no milk no sugar. Strong or weak as it comes. It represents the minimalist part of me. I abandoned milk and sugar during my earliest days of documentary researching when I found the tea at the roadside cafes in the UK often tasted more like porridge and treacle than tea and milk. The easiest answer was to go for black.

Now the tea had disappeared so the minimalist in me had progressed to just hot water.

My flask was always full of it.

The schedule for today had been split in two.

There was a sightseeing, I should say filming, trip to see the world's second largest diamond mine, after Kimberly and we had to repack the three Ural trucks into which all the spares from crashed Workshop truck had been thrown.

These include all the FORD spares that Paul and Mark would be relying on for the road ahead. It was a job that was scheduled to take one and half hours.

The two jobs could of course be done in parallel so I ordered a lunch time start to take advantage of continuing good weather.


Our guide, that's too precise a word for the very kind man that shuffled along with us in minus 40°C, started to explain a bit about the biggest hole in the ground that most of the team here had ever seen. My recollections of Kimberly diamond mine flooded back to me.

I was 17 when I first peered into that vast hole in the ground. But it was more the rigs and the paraphernalia all around that grabbed my attention along with offices and sheds that looked too old to house such rich pickings. I can also remember the tour of the diamond diggers' quarters. Apartheid hit me hard for the first time as our steersman, a past master of public relations, expounded about how well the "bantu workers" were quartered, how they didn't mind not having their wives with them because the blacks got drunk all the time, and how they got punished if they 'misbehaved'.

Here in Mirnyy there was a vast hole overlooked by just one rickety viewing platform and hidden from sight by a freezing fog that was trapped at the bottom of this enormous hole.

As we stamped our feet and slapped our arms around our padded five layered bodies to keep the blood circulating we learned that this hole had been started my a diamond prospector whose eye was caught by a fox emerging from a burrow and he recognised the blue coloured soil that was just like he'd seen in Kimberly.

Soon the place was full of prospectors, diggers and gold seekers from all over the world. And a few had stayed.

Even during the height of the cold war all the diamonds had been exported via the London diamond exchange, but London seemed so far away, not even connected by a proper road as the last few days had shown us.

We cut short our visit to be in time for a sharp getaway.

Hell of a Mess

I should have known better. Word came back to the hotel that reloading the trucks was taking a lot longer than had been planned. All the spares were in a complete shambles and lots had been crushed in the bone shaking ice road journey in the back of the three trucks that had hardened springs to withstand the even more difficult conditions that lay ahead. I rushed to the garage.

The good news was that it was big, warm and the Mavericks were in good condition. The lower swung Mondeo saloon cars were much the worse for wear though, especially their titanium sump guards. I was taken down the pit to inspect the scars in Victor's which was especially bad. He had to drive more slowly said a worried Paul.

But Paul, Mark and Neil were much more worried by the hopeless condition of so many of the spares which were now forming a pyramid-like rubbish heap in the corner of the vast shed.

In another section were the emptied trucks. All the drivers were stacking and re-packing and gesticulating their horror at the state of things. Tins of special oil that was needed for the shocking conditions ahead of us were punctured and empty leaving the oily content over everything in sight.

Another problem was the heater in the Ural bus. It still wasn't working.

Warning bells about sending the "girls" on over the most difficult sections ricocheted around my head again. Without seats for them I'd have a much more difficult job persuading Stepan when we got to Yakutsk that there they'd be safe.

I was asked if we could stay for another day. But knowing that falling behind schedule would weaken my hand I said no and set our start time for 5.00 that afternoon.

A 5.00 o'clock departure gave us three more of hours of sunlight, and I grabbed the opportunity to walk around the town and see the romantic beauty of hundreds of mini waterfalls that were caught in a frozen state at the joins of every drain pipe. I could see myself as a bewildered fish looking in horror at the frozen Niagara falls. But here it was a powerful reminder of the hopeless state of the environment in the cold extremities of the Soviet Union. Every beautiful frozen waterfall was the site of wasted heat.

I began our night drive in Studio 8, Kees and Richard's converted Maverick, which was now full of blinding lights and microphones and cameras .

Evening Interview

Every team member was being invited to disclose our secret thoughts and tell the silent camera, prompted by Kees and Richard, about what we thought of each other, the expedition and our own concerns.

With the spot light shining on my faces and the enormous amount of vapour pouring from the exhaust pipes of the cars and trucks ahead I could hardly see, but could easily feel the snug comfort of our small moving warm shell.

And as we drove out into the frozen wastes of Siberia I talked about my admiration for Stepan and his team who had used the UNESCO link to persuade the snow clearing bulldozers to make a road just where we were at no extra cost. "They have to plough somewhere - why not where there's traffic" they argued with an imagined holograph of the UNESCO log shining in the clean cold air. And I talked of my coming fight with Stepan over the "girls".

Marielle had become much more one of the Jeni, Marielle, Vera team. And I now had no doubt that they would all get themselves there, and might well carry some of us chauvinist men with them.

It was also clear that the move from the never changing tarmac road to the challenging ice roads had raised the moral of all the English speaking team. We had a lot more tarmac to go, but I was less and less concerned about the most difficult part of the Siberian deep freeze that was still a month away. The challenge was to get there while the weather allowed.

It was gone 2.00 the next morning when we arrived at Nyurba.

Gulag Country

Nyurba is a village in the middle of nowhere where Sakarov had come for three days to visit some fellow exiles of the monstrous Soviet system.

A good reminder of how far we had penetrated the hinterland of Siberia which was so notoriously renowned as Gulag country where the exiles are sent.

In fact we were only just beginning to see what had really happened in the closed and forgotten past of this mighty country.

We went straight to the dining hall which reminded me of the communal eating centres that had overtaken China in Mao's times.

The food was fine, the welcome by the people of Yakutz who had stayed up all night to welcome us there was extraordinary for its complete sincerity.

Up until now I felt that most reception committees had been expecting, willing almost, us to fail. But here, when they talked about the brave international team that had come to their town, you felt there was a ring of truth about it. Indeed it was clear they were willing us to keep going and go where no one had gone before - all the way to the Bering Straits. And by us they meant all of us - men and women. For the people here were exiles from Moscow many of whom had come as women and children and had made it. They took it as read that we would too.

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

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