Could you find Uzbekistan on a map? No? How about Azerbaijan? Still drawing a blank? OK, let’s try an easy one. Georgia? No, that’s the state in the southern USA you’re pointing at. The Georgia we’re thinking of happens to be next to Russia.
All these places and a host of others were visited by a convoy of three brand-new British-built Vauxhall Vivaro vans on a 12,000 mile odyssey that took them from Europe’s most westerly road to Asia’s most easterly city. That means they journeyed from Clogher Head in the Republic of Ireland through two continents and 20 countries until they reached remote Magadan in Siberia on the Pacific coast of Russia at the far end of the infamous and ominous-sounding Road of Bones.
The convoy crossed two continents in two months. As well as the countries already mentioned, it travelled through the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
The epic trek was organised by Max Adventure and led by Mac Mackenney.
With 20 years of overland expedition experience under his belt, Mac has been a consultant to legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes since 1996. He has driven across deserts and the Arctic, established four long distance driving records and was part of the first team to swim an amphibious vehicle across the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.
So why on earth drive all the way to Magadan and encounter confidence sapping places such as the Dracula Region, the Mask of Sorrow and the Gateway to Hell while doing it? Why face 2,000 miles of roads in Siberia that, as it turned out, were little better than graded dirt?
Partly it was to remind people just how tough the Luton-made Vivaro is. “It was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the all-new Vivaro is built to take it all” says Vauxhall Commercial brand manager, Steve Bryant.
The other was to raise funds for Help for Heroes, one of the most deserving charities ever established in Britain.
That explains why some ex-members of the armed services who have been injured on active service were at the heart of the expedition, Ian Wright and Kes Bradley, both had their own, personal, reasons for going, however.
A former Lance Corporal, 47 year old Ian from Kent and served in the army for 9 years. A radio operator and driver for the Royal Signals in the first Gulf War, he finds that staying active helps his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I’m part of a team and challenging my boundaries, the effects of my symptoms are easier to handle,” he says.
Ex Sergeant Kes Bradley, 41 is from Yorkshire. She spent 17 years as a theatre nurse in the the Royal Army Medical Corps, served in Afghanistan and is now a personal trainer.
She took part to push herself and help others with post-traumatic stress disorder do the same.
They went through a tough selection process before they made it onto the Siberia Challenge team. It included a practical test in vehicle marshalling, to ensure each individual could take control in crisis and guide drivers through any hazards they might face.
Their training thereafter encompassed everything from off-road driving to first aid.
The expedition was accompanies by two mechanics.
Paul Marsh has worked with Mac Mackenney on several expeditions and has over 20 years experience of vehicles in some of the remotest corners of the planet. Among other things, he has worked as a safari guide in Botswana, where he learnt to execute impromptu repairs in the middle of nowhere – and without the necessary parts.
Tony Mole represented the Luton Plant. He has been repairing Vuaxhalls for a quarter of a century and knows the ins and outs of the latest Vivaro better than anyone.
The team faced some extraordinary challenges along the way. In Mongolia they had to cope with roads that were little more than rocky tracks or grass covered paths that turned into long stretches of thick, unrelenting mud in torrential rain, negotiate an extremely rickety bridge and a shallow river – all while encountering the odd herd of camels and wild horses.
The river crossing demanded particular care. Expedition members waded over first to check for potholes and rocks – the last thing you want is a puncture in the middle of flowing water – and sudden changes in depth.
Elsewhere, they encountered ghost towns, abandoned mines, a clearly hungry brown bear, and shrines to the mountain spirits.
The sight of eagles circling overhead hand cranes stretching their necks in icy rivers more that outweighed some of the tougher times they had to deal with. So did the high peaks, dense forests and churches with glittering golden domes they saw.
Happily, Rich Wain-Hobson, the doctor who accompanied the expedition, is a keen photographer so all of its challenges and the way in which they were overcome were painstakingly recorded. he caught the travel bug while he was still at medical school, spent a term working in Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi and hasn’t looked back.
Although it was his first trip with Max Adventure, his most recent expedition prior to that involved driving to South Africa, so he was no stranger to hard roads.
The trip was fully funded by Vauxhall, and other participating equipment sponsors included Max Adventure, Craghoppers and Continental.
The great news is that the team and their indomitable Vivaros made it to their destination in one piece after 12,000 miles and 426 hours and 50 minutes driving. Thee vans and the individuals concerned proved as tough and as durable as each other.
During a particularly arduous river crossing, one of the Vivaros practically disappeared under water but emerged with nothing worse that a water logged air filter.
“It’s been an incredible experience and we wouldn’t change it for the world”, the team says. “We’d like to thank Vauxhall for giving us the chance too make this dream come true, and in particular we’d like to thank Mac, who masterminded the whole journey. None of this would have been possible without him.”