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Belgian team sets out on brutal Mongol Rally road race for charity

21:02 18/07/2019
A team from Flanders is taking on the gruelling Mongol Rally, driving 12,000km across Europe and Asia to Siberia, without a GPS

When 55-year-old Pilates instructor Delana Loevbak was talking to her son, Emil, about his plans for taking on the epic annual Mongol Rally road adventure, she found herself wishing she’d had the chance to do something like that, too.

“Then something woke up inside me, and I thought: ‘Why can’t I do it’? I’m in a great place. I’ve raised the kids; nothing is going to fall apart if I go away for five weeks.”

And so began an adventure she says has already changed her and her teammates before they’ve even driven a mile of the journey that starts in Flemish Brabant on 20 July and – they hope – ends five or six weeks later in Ulan-Ude, Russia.

The four-strong team, called There And Back Again, also includes Emil Loevbak, 24, a doctoral researcher at KU Leuven; his friend Daniël Slenders, 26, an MBA student at Insead; and human resources director Sissy Georges, 41, a Pilates student of Loevbak’s.

Together they’re raising more than €3,000 – and counting – for their chosen charity De Eglantier, and €1,000 for the rally’s official charity, Cool Earth.

The 'rules'

In keeping with official Mongol Rally rules, the team will drive old cars with small engines and have no back-up or support. None of them know much about cars, they won’t be using a GPS, and they aren’t sure when they’ll arrive, or whether they’ll get back home in the same cars (that is, thankfully, not required).

“We have to be very flexible. We’re not over-planning it,” says Loevbak, a Belgian-American who lives near Kortenberg in Flemish Brabant.

Although the team will rely solely on paper maps for navigation, rally organisers The Adventurists install GPS devices on the vehicles. This allows all the teams – some 350 – to be tracked. Loevbak: “So basically we’ll know where we’ve been but not where we are going.”

Their cars have been chosen to comply with the rally rules, which include taking a “farcically small vehicle” with an engine of 1.2 litres or less. That means it’s more likely to break down, forcing participants to interact with the locals and “have an adventure”. Organisers warn the trip is “extremely risky”.

One of the team’s vehicles – a 1996 Opel Corsa B named Barney – had fallen prey to pine martins and horses by the time they rescued it from a farmer’s field. Their second car, a “bruised” 1994 Nissan Micra K11 christened Maggie, was bought for €275.

Both have been spruced up using their own funds and materials from sponsors, like paint and stickers. They have also been helped by a range of companies with gear such as tents and rucksacks.

A good cause

Teams can choose their own route to get to the finish line, which is open for a month starting on 14 August. The team are planning to drive to the official launch party in Prague on 22 July, then through Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia, sleeping “anywhere we can” along the way.

Their planned route will range from the dizzying altitude of the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan to the intense heat of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert. There they plan to take a detour to the Darvaza gas crater – dubbed The Door to Hell – a collapsed natural gas field than has been alight for nearly 50 years. The team is also hoping to visit famous ancient Silk Road landmarks such as Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

Planning so far has involved grappling with bureaucracy such as multiple visa applications and permits for crossing borders with a vehicle. They have also had to put up €2,900 in deposits, introduced to ensure rally cars aren’t dumped at the destination. “It has been pretty much a logistical nightmare,” says Loevbak.

The people at De Eglantier are just so wonderful and uplifting. There’s a lot of love there for these children

The team has also been learning the mechanical ropes, “frying” an alternator and “killing” other parts in the process, she says. After starting out with a plan to teach themselves car maintenance via YouTube, Loevbak soon roped in her neighbour Bart Alenteyns, who works for Toyota, races old cars and is an “ace mechanic”.

With the women driving Maggie and the men in Barney they’re aiming to stick together as a team, although they’ve not travelled as a unit before. “We get on with each other!” says Loevbak. “So far, when we have seen things from a different point of view, we’ve handled it well. But then we weren’t tired, in 40 degrees heat with fluid leaking from the car … I’m sure there will be some sharp words, but we have talked about that.”

She says they’re hugely motivated by raising money for De Eglantier in Bertem, just a few minutes from where Loevbak lives, a day centre for children with severe mental disabilities. The team’s donations will go towards a new adolescent centre, offering families more overnight stay and weekend options.

“Those people are just so wonderful and uplifting. You leave there feeling so good. There’s a lot of love there for these children.”

Despite the many risks, Loevbak is most worried about food poisoning and altitude sickness, she says, but adds that three team members have taken Red Cross training.

And if they hit a major problem? “I’m sure we’d come up with something. We are going to do everything possible. I won’t be cocky about it, but I can say we’ll do whatever we can to get there.”

There and Back Again depart from De Eglantier, Coigesteenweg 19, Leefdaal (Bertem), on 20 July at 1100. Donations are more than welcome at Go Fund Me. The team’s progress can be followed on Facebook or YouTube

Photo top: Sissy Georges, Delana Loevbak, Bart Alenteyns, Daniël Slenders and Emil Loevbak

Photo above: De Eglantier has been caring for disabled children since the 1970s 
©Dieter Telemans

Written by Paula Dear (Flanders Today)