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Overland Challenge - Week Eight

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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

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14 February 1994

Man and dog

Cherskiy (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

St Valentine's Day in the real world. A day of thinking for me. Seymchan to Cherskiy was the road that worried Victor and Stephan the most and we'd overcome it. So the time had come to think my way properly across the Bering Straits.

I spent much of the day writing a fax to London, but ended at the library thumbing through one of Dad's Inspector West books. That is the series which featured Scoop and me, and like an enthusaistic cat with cream I was able to point a description of 'Richard' West's scraped knee - just as had happened to me on the day Dad wrote that page. And there I was reading it in the far north of Siberia. What an amazingly small world.

I was, I wrote, within an inch of deciding to restrict the number of people who go the whole way across the Bering Straits in the Arktos to an absolute minimum: Jeff, Victor, and me. I may add Doc Paul and Richard B.

Thinking and writing that consumed most of my day. But with the garage only a few yards from the hostel via a hole in the fence and the restaurant only five minutes walk away, it was good to be freed of dependence on Truck 5 and to wander from hostel to garage to restaurant. And the weather too was comparatively fine - minus twenty perhaps.

Before bed - with surely more than a hundred cockroaches in the room - Roger called with an update on the programmes.

1 - London to Moscow was completed and okay, which meant pretty bad. 2 - Moscow to just beyond Miass and the crash had been put together by Julian as the last thing he'd done before going to ITN. Roger was very pleased with it.

We'd started talking about the other programmes when his side of the line suddenly went dead. And I didn't manage to get back to him.

February 15th

Cherskiy to Bilibino (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

Cherskiy meant for us the end of the Kolyma River. Meridian had taken helicopter time out of the programme budget but there were some shots that were just crying out to for aerials. So in the morning, the convoy retraced its tyre-tracks, went 60 kilometres upstream and waited for Kees, Richard, Rupert and Peter to arrive in an Russian MI8 helicopter.

I stayed behind to work on the fax a bit more and to talk to Doc Paul about the Arktos decision. The more I thought about it, the more his inclusion looked obvious. What was the point of having a doctor on the team who wasn't at the place where we had to expect the worst disaster? But Paul was also very much part of the team, someone people would come to if there was a major groan. Bringing him on board would help everyone over their disappointments, so it was wise, I felt, to talk to him early.

Paul felt that if you couldn't take everyone then the minimum number was the only answer, rather than try and work out subjectively who should be going. He also agreed that Victor, Jeff and I were the obvious minimum. I felt more strongly that safety was the overriding argument but if you went Paul's route there wasn't room for everyone: There were only twelve seats and sixteen people in the team.

The convoy came back late from its helicopter filming and Victor Nikoliavich was fully expecting me to cancel the leave and stay for the night. I didn't - we'd go as far as possible to Bilibino and then be there, come what may, early the following day. Reluctantly he agreed, after arguing that we'd miss some great mountain sequences.

At the garage, just before the convoy started, I asked Deon to send the fax off.

I'd be very grateful if you didn't read it."

The Arktos decision had been taken.

We set off at four thirty that afternoon and completed the 280 kilometres that night! Bilibino at two short hours after midnight. The hour had changed for the last time in Russia and we were now exactly 12 hours in front of Greenwich Meantime. Precisely opposite. I couldn't be further from home.

Bilibino looked different even at night, the light bulbs were definitely brighter. It was where a nuclear power was situated.

16 February 1994

Bilibino (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

We woke up to find that Bilibino had no smoke stacks, in sharp contrast to Cherskiy and Zyryanka.

It really was a day off; we'd arrived there faster than Victor thought possible and the work on the Fords and the Urals had been finished the day before.

When the mayor came to the impressive dining hall in the same square as the hotel, he talked about the day's schedule: visit to Bilibino power station, sauna and swim, press launch then dinner.

Nuclear Power

The nuclear power station visit was, in fact, just as I'd imagined. Clean in a Russian sense. Very low tech and seatbeltless.

Clad in slippers, white coat, scarf, cloth hat and workman's helmet, we went into the reactor and stood around listening and talking for over half an hour. And we went to the control room and the generator plant.

Jeff and Peter were in charge of filming and the news to me was hearing Alexander the deputy director say that Chernobyl came about because of a design fault, not human error. There was no doubting what he said, even though the world had been told otherwise.

What the world also didn't know was that Alexander, like all his colleagues, hadn't been paid for three months.

And, somehow, the power station had overwhelmed the town. It was incredibly muted. No one on the streets, no drunks, well-stocked shops and a heated hotel. As if the power station meant they had too much to lose, had enough to keep them out of trouble but not enough to be freed by a modicum of anarchy or fun.

For Jeff, it was an extraordinary day, proof of how much there was to do to rid the world of nuclear power.

17 February 1994

Bilibino to Pevek (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

I still had the stomach ache when I woke up. Rice pudding, with no melted dob of butter, for breakfast.

We set off from the garage with a request from Nikolai Smirnov to do a circuit of the town so all the town's citizens could catch a glimpse of our courageous team. A crowd of thousands was on the street to wave us off. It was nice to see Bilibino come to life again.

Half an hour later we crossed the tree line. Beneath a bright blue sky, the landscape changed.

Vera described it to Volodya, Truck 5's driver, as the caption of a painting she'd call 'Valley of White Silence'.

I saw a lot but also slept a lot and ate nothing. My stomach ached far too much.

At the roadside lunch break, I went to the back of Truck 5 onto my own bunk. A bang on the door. Volodya had brought some Russian medicine which he'd had to scrounge from his mates. Vodka and salt.

For a while I felt much jollier but soon started to doze again, missing most of the Northern lights as we pushed on until ten that night.

By then, Doc Paul and Peter Duncan had had four punctures and changing the last, the jack had whiplashed back onto Paul's thumb.

18 February 1994

Bilibino to Pevek (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Doc needed an X-ray.

"If it needs a pin in it I'll have to go home - can't have it done here - but it may just be dislocated".

Paul Wilson less charitably said it was metallic revenge, "Paul had three punctures and Peter one - I say no more". He meant they were driving his cars much too hard.

Dieter wasn't driving his two-wheel drive anything like as hard, afterall he was a rally driver and knew how important it was to take care of a car.

Frozen Ocean

To get to Pevek we drove on over a frozen ocean for the first time, over cliffs and under their shadows. In this white, treeless land it was fantastic to see and gave an overpowering feeling.

We stayed for a while to walk to some fishermen using the same rods as in Miass. So it was liquid underneath, we were, in other words, walking and driving on water. The rest of the day was spent slogging our way through four-inch snow to Pevek.

Doc was the same as ever, joking, albeit a little more subdued than usual, which impressed me a lot.

Stepan was on the outskirts of town to meet us. We'd made it further than he or I had expected with everyone. And all the Mavericks had made it here too.

It was an amazing achievement. I felt proud and, strangely, as if it was an anticlimax at the same time.

UNESCO Youth Reconciliation

At the hotel, Maunia and Ronnie and Robin Eggar, our team journalist, were impatiently waiting for our arrival.

My first reaction was one of despair. Two more passengers and a professional sent by Meridian to do what many expedition leaders would have done themselves.

I know I had asked for the UNESCO reconciliation pair but seeing them impatient after months of delay, disappointed they hadn't been with us, reluctant to ask too much about the journey so far - for fear of jealousy about what they'd missed, yet still full of anticipation, laid heavily on me.I felt much more tired than I hope I looked.

Four hours later, after a long shower, a chat with Robin and dinner sitting opposite Maunia and Ronnie, I had changed my mind.

They would all greatly strengthen the expedition - I was sure of it.

19 February 1994

Pevek (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Breakfast call at 10. I made it by 11, much to Stepan's irritation. It wasn't until 1 that we could have a proper discussion about the next two weeks. Mys Shimdta to Nashkan appeared to be the worst section, but once again it was almost impossible to work out how good or bad each section would be. It ranged from Volodya: 'I'm sure a Maverick can make it', to Stepan: 'I'm arranging for a snow tank to be standing by for one or two of you to go in'.

From Mys Schimdta there were also three possible routes:

1. Coast road to Nashkan 2. Crosscountry 3. Double back to Pevek to go down a tortuous but maybe possible route to Provideniya.

Concern About The Arktos

As difficult was the Arktos. Permission for getting a Hercules to Lavrentia hadn't been gained yet. This, said Stepan, was all to do with Gerry Brennan who had done nothing. I only really believed in being positive but on and on Stepan went, mainly furious that a simple application hadn't been sent in weeks ago - they had had since December 27th and had done nothing.

Another problem was the Arktos team. UralAZ were determined that Sasha be on it. A fleeting hint that he would not be and the convoy would be brought to an instant halt. I let Stepan know that it was most unlikely Sasha would go. He fought to change my mind. I agreed to keep it open until we got to the Straits but knew that if all the team didn't go, then Sasha wouldn't either.

UralAZ also wanted to fly Truck 6 from Mys Schimdta to Fairbanks so that it too could drive to New York. And that brought back the old 'too many people' problem. If we lost Truck 6 at Mys Schimdta, we lost seven beds and three seats.

Two Ural drivers would leave the convoy. One back to Miass, the other to load the Ural at Mys Shmidta. Stepan half heartedly volunteered the security guys but Volodya and Victor were very against this.

'You must lose four people', said Stepan. "And I must know who they are by the time I go tomorrow".

Stepan thought I was taking lots of seemingly wrong decisions but was impressed they turned out all right in the end. I in turn realised that we would never have got anywhere near this far had it not been for his extraordinary logistics skills and determination. We were a good team but under a lot of stress.

20 February 1994

Pevek (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Up for a nine o'clock breakfast and a 10 call for a helicopter to take us to our last gulag. On the stairs, I met Stepan and Olga dressed up to the nines in extreme-cold kit.

They were off to the airport and I'm sure wouldn't have said goodbye if I hadn't met them by chance.

The helicopter was grounded because of a very strong wind.

It was so strong that I was blown clear off my feet on the way to the restaurant for breakfast, and on the way back to the hotel was able to lean against it like a child at play.

But it wasn't strong enough to prevent Stepan's plane taking off - late I know because the pilots, who were staying in our (the only) hotel, overslept!

So the day was lazy. In the morning, I had a long discussion with Robin about the best way to promote the programmes that were going out in the next two weeks.

I stressed my increasing concern about concentrating only on the core team. As I looked at the various groups of people that were now doing their different jobs, it was crystal clear that Mark and Paul, Kees and Richard, Vera and Rupert were doing every bit as much, if not a whole lot more, than the driving team that would hopefully be credited with being first around the world.

At lunch, Victor Efimenko, a geologist, came to talk. He wanted the United Nations to help preserve Lake Algygytgyn created millions of years ago by a meteor. I couldn't work out from the conversation what it needed conserving from but would try and find out more when I got to the UK. Now we'd shown how possible it was to get there we might encourage more people to pay a visit.

I then sat down to write the fax I said I'd send when I phoned Wendy.

And I read a book, the first time since the trip started: 'Childhood's End' by Arthur Clark. I was relaxing.

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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