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Overland Challenge - Week Nine

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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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21 February 1994

Man draping material over window to keep heat in - a cold night ahead

Pevek to Mys Shmidta (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

During the night, the wind died down so that I woke to silence and calm. That meant the helicopter could fly. We went to the airport and waited from 10 to 1 for all the formalities to be completed in the guise of a speedily handwritten letter for me, as leader, to sign. This time a 'sign away of your life' insurance disclaimer. It was times like these that I wondered how much a signature was really worth. The truth was the same signature was worth so much more on one slip of paper than on another.

At the gulag we were about to visit, signatures killed. Seververny, the worst in Chukotka, is on top of a barren hill, rich in uranium.

The Arctic sea lies to the north and beyond that - nothing. Breathtakingly beautiful if you know your helicopter is waiting. Completely crushing to have been here in the forties and fifties, my early lifetime, when you knew that this was thought of by all as a death sentence.

Zeks (prisoners) came here on overcrowded barges up the river during the three-month long summer, knowing that they were expected to work themselves to death.

Seververny, under a sunlit sky, had a kind of dreadful permanence about it in comparison to the other gulag - no wooden structures here. Conceived to supply uranium for the forthcoming nuclear revolution, military and civilian, built from rock and cement and built to last.

But there was no water around and the mine (called factory to confuse the west) never worked. The camp's only successfully carried-out job was that of murdering and it felt like it.

In fact, Seververny was a mixed camp of condemned criminals, many with death sentences confirmed just by being here and political prisoners.

Just as we were about to get into our helicopter of escape, Jeni called me over and, in the middle of this emotional nowhere, presented me with the Duke of Edinburgh pin. She had been waiting for an appropriate time and place to give it to me and I wouldn't have wanted it to have been anywhere else.

'Thank you for leading us here', she said.

The helicopter returned to Pevek flying high above the ice roads, for cut ins for the shoot, and circling the town before landing us outside the hotel and within striking distance of the restaurant.

Despite the fact it was already 5, I decided to leave that afternoon primarily because the Ural drivers had been ready to depart for so long and any more kilometres would put us in good stead to take advantage of the weather.

The only trouble was that as we made ready to go, Kees and Richard got back, they had to de-rig from the helicopter. The long and short of it was that everyone but Kees and Richard with Nikolai in the Maverick, Eddy, Volodya, Vera and me in Truck 5, went ahead. We stayed back for a couple of hours.

My relief as they all went, leaving us behind, was probably palpable

A bottle of red wine was opened with Kees and Richard's meal.

At Komsolomsky, a fast 140 kilometres away on a "metal" road built by German prisoners of war, the convoy was intercepted by a demonstration from the town.

No one had been paid for nine months and they wished to bring it to the world's attention.

Robin Eggar did a story, took some stills and collected a petition. In the meantime, Kees, Richard, Vera and I witnessed the most magnificent show of Northern Lights.

This time the lower edge of the waving white misty banner in the sky looked as if it had been dipped in pink.

21 February 1994

Pevek to Mys Shmidta (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

The convoy had stopped a kilometre or two from the town and that morning, we set off promptly at 8.30 for what turned out to be a long day's drive towards Mys Shmidta.

Clear blue skies hung above a truly vast landscape. There was a mountain with the top sawn off for goldmining. By afternoon, though, we found ourselves very slowly ploughing through expansive plains of metre-high snow.

Behind us were Peter and Doc in the front seats of their Maverick, Maunia and Ronny in the back. Four up for the first time on the journey and I could tell from the few times that I climbed down from Truck 5's cabin that they were thoroughly fed up. Maunia, Peter told me, would gladly have flown onto Fairbanks there and then.

And Doc told me Peter was mumblingly and wondering why the hell I hadn't got down myself to attach the towrope, drive the Maverick or suffer the jerky tow instead of sitting high and mighty in my command post.

Just after 10.30pm, we were seven kilometres further on from Billings on the cold shores of the Arctic Ocean. Our pace was agonisingly slow.

Minutes later Jeff dropped dead to the world inside his sleeping bag and bivvy sack having given up his space in a truck to Valery.

23 February 1994

Pevek to Mys Shmidta (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Between 290 and 340 kilometres lay between us and Mys Shimdta. It was too far really for one day's drive unless the winter roads were good to us but I was determined to make it whatever.

That determination governed my whole day, leaving free time only for a few snaps of the two wild, but simultaneously oh so tame, husky dogs that were playing amongst the cars and trucks as we we woke right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean to one of the world's finest sunrises.

But I was in too much of a hurry to appreciate the Arctic ridge where Kees captured Jeff's enthusiasm for it just half an hour up the road. Snow white plain. By 3, lunch time, we'd only gone 60 kilometres. To the astonishment of Victor and others, I scuppered lunch.

'Victor I want you at the head of the convoy leading us to Mys Shimdta - not stopping it for filming'.

'Show me the man that can stop you', added Vera for good measure

Victor instantly stormed off into the deep snow and away towards Leningradsky, a town where, I had been assured, a good winter road led all the way to Mys Shimdta.


I felt I'd been driving all twelve vehicles by the time we arrived and so readily agreed to stopping to eat our boils-in-the-bag in the village canteen. It would, I thought, give everyone enough of a break to go on to Mys Shimdtad whether the road was good or not. But, as always, it didn't quite work out as expected.

We were stopped outside the Mayor's office, instead of the canteen, and before I could even introduce ourselves the Mayor, a young woman, was rushing round making tea for everyone with one teapot and three cups. More soon emerged.

Leningradsky, a relatively rich 3,600 strong fishing and goldmining village that served the Army depots around, had of course been following our journey on Central and Pevek television and had been anticipating our arrival for some time it seemed.

We'd been brought to the Mayor's office while the canteen had prepared to provide a genuine welcome including vodka and champagne to celebrate our passage through.

Lost Passport

An hour later we were in our vehicles and ready to take our leave when Robin discovered his waist belt had fallen off him and he'd lost his passport. It might be in the town or on the road.

We charged back to the Mayor's office where she and her assistant were sipping a 'thank god it's all over' cup of tea, to ask her to write and sign a confirmation that Robin's passport had been reported missing. Without this, Valery could envisage difficulty exiting the country.

The local police officer promised to send out a track vehicle to search for it the next and we were away by 8.30.

The drive had been estimated to take any thing between two hours, Victor's as ever optimistic assessment of a situation, to four, Nikolai's second guess. Nikolai was back home; his sister lived just up the road in Pil'gyn so he'd taken the Ural tanker up there to say 'hallo' while we were boil-in-the-bagging in the Mayor's office. So his prediction became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

A sweepstake had been taking place in the Mavericks. I didn't know who'd won though Rupert got pretty close. He'd heard the 'Two hours' once too many times before.

At Mys Shimdta, we bypassed the town and went straight to the aerodrome and pilot's hostel. It was 1.15. We were being looked after by the Russian Airforce because our plans to get the Mavericks and one Ural to the USA had changed to a third option. We would fly the out from here.

Dinner was waiting for us and we ate it watching the Winter Olympics on a good-sized TV. That was the last thing I expected. And eventually cleaned my teeth in one of a row of four basins fed only by scalding hot water, no cold, before clicking off the light at past 3 o'clock.

24 February 1994

Mys Shmidta (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

After a late breakfast, I had my first route meeting. It started with the Deputy Chief Administrator Valery Nickoliavitch who said it was up to me of course but he and his colleagues in other districts strongly recommended the southern route via Egvekinot, Emmelen and Provideniya.

We were joined by Genya, Rupert and a journalist Vladimir Sudman who'd accompanied Nikolai on his drive from Mys Shimdta to Moscow. Genya and Vladimir were supportive of the northern route via Vankarem and Nashkan.

Neither route had very convincing arguments, the north was shorter but had never before been successfully negotiated and used a dangerous coastal lagoon route where it was quite easy to slip through the ice. The south went through very mountainous terrain and was, as a consequence, more subject to snow and fog from Egvekinot to Emmelen.

Genya's most convincing argument was that it would be easier to evacuate us from the northern route.

Rupert had come in expecting to be persuaded of the northern route because he had seen tracks there when he, Valery and Victor had made the recce by helicopter almost a year earlier. I was tending towards the southern one but we kept our minds wide open looking ahead to a meeting that was to be arranged for 5 at which all the experts would be present.

Vladimir Sudman then wanted to talk while most people were packing and unpacking the cars and stores' trucks to make ready to fly to Fairbanks. We went to the blissfully empty canteen and drank herbal tea.

'Who's driven from Mys Shimdta to Lavrentia recently?' I asked. 'No one. Ever.'

Getting to the 5 o'clock meeting was a cold process. The bus to it, a small Arctic van with the cabin on the back, had no heating and no intercom. Valery, Genya, Igor, Rupert, Vera, and I slowly froze. The Administrative centre itself was like all the others, efficiently stolid, the kind of place where people only work in suits.

Inside the Chief's office were over a dozen glasses of coffee and a bunch of experts waiting to drink them and meet us. They started with a relatively respectful grilling: did we have warm clothes, did we have food, did we have fuel, did we understand the conditions? Valery and I tried to explain we'd driven from London to be here through weeks of minus fifty but...

Noman's Land

'The weather here is different, we've watched lots of expeditions go off ill-equipped, people die, you are going into noman's land'.

But at last they appeared satisfied and we were soon talking about the possible routes. There were four; the northern coastal route, a northern inland route, a southern inland route which went down to Egvekinot and Enmelen to Provideniya and then up to Lavrentia and the southern route that went via Egvekinot to the goldmining centre Pipin and then tried to join up with the northern road to Lavrentia.

The northern coastal route was the first to be dismissed, the Pipin southern route the most favoured. We could definitely make Pipin - but could we make Lavrentia from there? Another meeting was set up for 12 the next day.

25 February 1994

Mys Shmidta (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

I woke up as the second programme was going out in the UK. Not a great help to Roger, Mike and the team but I was thinking of them. Rupert phoned John and Karen at 3 in the morning and conseqently set off an alarm bell that had my mind blowing fuses for the rest of the day as I wrote an atypical fax to Roger and Mike:

'I am seriously alarmed at hearing a Betacam crew is coming to the Russian side of the Bering Straits.

No one can move in this part of Russia without heavy support and, in my view, the camel's back is nearly broken. A film crew is not just three more people - it makes big, albeit justifiable, demands on interpreters, fixers, vehicles, let alone food, accommodation and time, and I'm aware I'll need everyone and everything I can lay my hands on just to cope with what I know is coming up. In other words:


If they do come, it's me - no one else - that's going to have to decide how high a priority they have and I already dread having to give a standing instruction to the Association for a Central Television crew to be put at the bottom of the priority list. However if I am to keep everything together I can't think of anywhere else to put them.

It's not only logistics. I'm also very much against them coming to Lavrentia for similar reasons to the ones Mike, Karen and I used to dissuade David Hunt from sending journalists to the Russian side of the Bering Straits. And the reality is another crew, even though we know them, will be immeasurably more difficult to cope with from a moral point of view than David's journalists. This is especially so as I am going to have to tell some people they aren't going on the Arktos. That's bound to be difficult for everyone and a huge disappointment for some. Good television except that a camera team that's not been with us since Moscow is likely to make people go into themselves rather then say what they really feel.

Having said all that, I do realise that to make a whole programme on the Bering Straits you will need more film than Kees and Richard can provide, so I am very much in favour of another crew flying to the Bering Straits. Just please, please ask them to operate from Alaska'.

The first draft of that was a lot stronger. And I spent much of the time trying to work out if my head was the problem. But Kees was also pretty upset at the idea of a new camera team intruding into the very close relationships that he and Richard had started to enjoy with everyone.

I was also aware of my horror at the idea of Rupert or Vera being stretched any further. Their nature was to help, not mind about the burden on themselves and perhaps not notice the burden on others that had been counting on them.

The thoughts and fax were interrupted by the route conference back in the administrator's office.

At the meeting, we were represented by Victor Karputchin and Nicolai as well as Rupert, Victor, Valery, Vera and myself. And everyone from the local side from yesterday was there plus a few more, all eager to help in any way they could. We discussed every route in great detail.

Halfway through Victor Karputkin had leapt for the southern route. I'd got used to seeing him make his mind up very fast. But also used to finding that he was in fact often right, in every aspect except how long it would take.

'Three days - no problem.'

This summation got Victor Nickoliavitch to show his true colours. He wasn't that neutral. He said his fixers had spent a lot of time and energy on the northern coastal route because of the horror stories they'd heard about the amount of snow that could so easily block the southern one and I had to take his views seriously because after all he had got us all the way here with out any help from me.

The meeting was split down the middle. No one was prepared to upset anyone else. No one sure of their facts. No one prepared to take a big decision that could so easily be wrong. I was beginning to see decision making in its true light particularly with a decision that could spell major delay and at worst, death.

In the end I found a compromise was found. Victor Nickoliavitch and Victor Karputkin would drive this afternoon down to Uelen to see the goldmining boss, Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny. They'd then decide whether the southern route had a reliable and responsible backer.

And if it was still undecided, then a helicopter would be organized by Valery to fly the two Victors to Pipin to take the route from Pipin to Lake Ione for them to check out the next day. It would mean a delay to us but if it had to be, it had to be.

That done, our hosts were mostly interested in the time of a press conference and, above all, in setting up a football match for the evening. I'd miss that but the press conference would give me a chance to introduce Ronny and Maunia publicly for the first time.

Lost the Football Match

When we got back for lunch, I caught the signals of frustration and called a meeting, something I should have done in Pevek to update everyone on trucks leaving, the consequent seating and sleeping numbers, where we were heading. Everything except for the Arktos decision which I knew would have to wait until the Bering Straits. The team soon emptied Truck 3 which was off to the States and the two Mavericks, 4 and 6.

The English speaking team lost the football 6-5, with a lot of people surprised at how seriously Peter and Doc played, while I put in calls to to Mike/Roger, Stepan, and Brugerman

Mike said the crew had already left to Alaska but had read my fax carefully. He also said Programme 2 had done well; a lot of people had said they liked it and the rating had gone up from 5.2 to 5.8 M. That was good, it meant moral was fine.

Brugerman, talked to via Vera, sounded fine, but was unsure about whether Volodya should go to the States. I was very keen and we agreed to talk the following day.

Stepan said he was well in control of the Ural situation and had sent a fax to Brugerman in my name saying I was determined to get Volodya to the States and that Brugerman had already sent him Volodya's passport for the visa. Games were being played by someone but by now it was four and I was too tired to take part.

Stepan also appeared to be aware of the Pipin thoughtlines but knew the final decision hadn't yet been taken. He asked how many people were going to go straight to Fairbanks from Mys Shimdta on top of Paul and Mark and sounded appalled when I said no one and Mark and Paul were coming too to look after two Mavericks.

26 February 1994

Mys Shmidta (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

The start was delayed from 10 to 12 as was so often the case with this time a goodbye to Alexei, the Ural driver who was staying behind to load Truck 3 and two Mavericks onto the 'plane, and to George from security.

And it wasn't until 12.30 that I realised it was Rupert's birthday. Sometimes I'm a lousy leader.

But the road to Uelen was very fast, helped even more by having only two Mavericks, both now in four-wheel drive. We were there in four hours where we met the goldmining boss. Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny knew Tumanov and had been in the gulags himself for eight years.

I wished I could talk to him about that rather than about the route. We - Rupert, Victor, Victor, Valery, Vera and I - met with Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny in his canteen where I got the impression he ran the town and everything else around.

He was very much in favour of the true southern route right down to Provideniya and up. Victor Nickolaivich was still in favour of the northern route. Victor Karputkin in favour of the Pipin lake route. And the discussion started to go circular just as it had for the last three meetings.

'Time for a decision,' I said. 'We'll go via Pipin - now'.

And we did. It was dark so we missed much of the superb scenery down to Egvekinot. Rupert completely missed it because he'd taken five bottles of cognac into the Arctic bus which was being used for the first time because of the absence of the Mavericks.

The stopover that night should have been at Egvekinot, but Monastyrny was keen to press on at least until we were over the first pass. The stop that night at 1 was in the most extraordinarily beautiful pass. And Victor, Valery and Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny stayed overnight in a hut with a half barrel that was burning hot in no time with wood from the back of the stores' truck.

Four of the English speakers slept out in bivvy bags. I almost envied them as I crawled into truck 5.

27 February 1994

Mys Shmidta to Pipin Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Woken at 6.15 by Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny.

'Time to go - wind' he gestured and shouted then jumped out. It was a rude awakening but it made me remember I'd heard wind during the night and that it was the one sound I hadn't wanted to hear.

Jeff was in the kitchen. He hadn't slept well - so much for the envy - and was already starting the water boiling for breakfast. Realising that if that could be done quickly we could get underway fast and perhaps outrace some of the wind, I poured water, spilling some over the floor knowing it would soon become ice and generally got in the way until past 7 when Peter came on duty.

And we were away before 8. And there was wind. Not much but enough to make me want to keep on keeping on.

And then, just as I was convinced the two light cars would have to be towed all the way to Lavrentia, there was a five kilometre stretch of almost snowless track past black, not snow white, mountains just as if this was back at the very beginning of the Siberian leg of the journey.

Lunch was quick and cold boils-in-the-bag in a roadside hut. The thermometers said it was only minus 25 but with the windchill factor Kees' nose was going white from the start of frostbite - he went quickly inside to warm upp as soon as it was pointed out to him - and the balaclavas, gloves, fur hats and thickest coats immediately became the norm.

The Arctic truck was now full of English-speakers who had lost their Mavericks.

Only the heater in the rear cabin was working and they were freezing.

The Mavericks weren't much better although they were hot. Too hot ironically. At about 10 with thirty kilometres still to go to Pipin, the towing "punctured" two tyres on the film car. But it wasn't the ice and snow. During the towing, the number plate had been smashed, nothing in itself but it had led to the radiator being punctured by three stones.

Fridge on Wheels

The engine had to be switched off. The heater in the Maverick didn't work and before long Richard, Kees and Robin found themselves being towed and bumped along in a fridge on wheels.

They got out to go to the Arctic bus. So Truck 5 pulled an empty car. During the next hours the twobar broke twice. That left me well and truly at the back of the convoy which had gone ahead to what they thought was part of Pipin. In fact they'd reached a one hut stopover and by the time I'd got there, had set camp for the night.

That meant I didn't know what Pipin itself was really like, couldn't talk to Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny and couldn't sense whether I'd gambled rightly or wrongly in coming on the southern route. Everything hinged on whether Pipin had the vehicles to support us continuing, and whether or not when we got there, we could persuade Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny to keep coming with us to Lake Ione.

It was, to say the least, a gloomy night for me. I fretted and strutted and marched about impatiently in the freezing cold outside and didn't get to my truck bunk until well after 2 o'clock.

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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