That’s more or less how it happened, not months of planning or deciding I needed adventure in my life, just “Fancy the trip”.
Of course no money in it (when is their ever?) but who could pass up such an offer.
Dave at Broadcast Services in Chertsey had been preparing a Landrover for the journey for some months having acquired a left hand drive model from the Romanian Water Board, where else. Dave was to be the navigator and John Quincey (Visual Impact) the driver. Both had done rally’s before, for fun and work. I was a complete novice but liked cars, travel and perhaps most importantly people. A director had once told me “There’s not a lot to this filming lark, it’s just a matter of getting on with people really” not a bad bit of advice as it has turned out.
So after the briefest of discussions we were all set. Jack Pizzey (ex BBC etc) having got some money from the Travel Channel was to be the presenter/director; I, together with Dave and John, would be camera ops.
The Rally, for vintage and classic cars, had been arranged by the Endurance Rally association in celebration of the centenary of the first ‘Peking to Paris’ rally in 1907! 135 cars were to make the trip the oldest a 1903 Mercedes the youngest a 1961 Aston Martin.
The trip would take us through China into Mongolia, where there were no roads.
Into Siberia, across the Urals into Russia on to Moscow, a diversion to St Petersburg; Prince Borgese the winner of the 1907 event had done this ‘to attend a party’ and we were following his route. Then on through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and France. A total of 10,000 miles, 5 up in a Landrover and never a cross word. Well ok we chucked the stills photographer out. He had more gear than us, not a matter of jealousy just room.
We had taken three Z1 HDV cameras along with half a dozen AV1’s. The latter given out to selected competitors to make video diaries. Z1’s were chosen, as firstly they were known from our hire business to be robust. Secondly we knew from experience that filming in China and Russia could be tricky if we looked like a broadcast crew. In Moscow this proved to be all to true.
So having arrived in Beijing all cars were collected from the dock, having been shipped out some two months earlier and we set about picking our video diarist’s. The all girl crew in a Sunbeam Rapier were an obvious one as were two mad hooray Henry’s in a 1907 Itala; together with a father and son team from Australia, although every other word they uttered would have to be bleeped out.
We then set about fitting camera brackets to the front and rear of the Land Rover, to take an additional AV1 we had. This was then linked to a LCD screen mounted on the dashboard. Special steel cabinets, which doubled as seats, had been fitted in the back to store cameras, together with an inverter to charge batteries and boil the kettle; well a chap needs a cup of tea.
We very quickly discovered that we had rather under estimated the space to equipment ratio. We were four people with luggage and equipment plus we soon discovered a fifth member, Gerard the stills cameraman. After much ‘discussion’
about whether Dave could keep all the Tesco fruit cake he had hidden about the Land Rover, together with the Espresso machine, it was decided Gerard could stay until Mongolia. He would then transfer to one of the crew vehicles.
We were all set when Philip ‘I told you’ Young, the rally organiser informed us we had entirely the wrong vehicle “Should have a Toyota Landcruiser” but undeterred we set off for the Great Wall and the start.
It was not long before I was to experience what had been obvious in planning. We were one camera car following 135 cars which left each day at timed intervals, some going flat out at 80mph plus, others going flat out at 25mph. They very quickly get spread out, so we either had to leave before the first out, film them going by, then chase to get ahead. Or film the start then chase. Luckily in John Quincy we had a great driver and Dave was one of the few who understood GPS and the rally notes! So not too bad.
On we went through China joined now and again by a Range Rover Sport with a Chinese camera crew complete with giro-mounted camera, and the biggest (none box) lens I have ever seen. We never did find out who they were as any approach was greeted by closed doors and tinted windows. This isn’t a travel mag so suffice to say China was a country of contrasts, surprisingly sparsely populated. I can only assume everyone has gone to the big cities to work.
Then Mongolia, a country bigger than France with fewer roads than Staines. Across the Gobi and into, well much the same really. It is a stunningly beautiful country, desert as far as the eye can see, then mountains, rivers and grass lands.
Very hot by day freezing by night and we were camping. When I say camping, we did have to carry and pitch our own tents but a company called Nomads had two crews in huge lorry’s that went ahead and put up a makeshift kitchen. Whatever time you arrived at the campsite they always had hot food! They even had a wood fired boiler for hot showers.
As you can imagine this type of terrain was very hard on the old cars. Every day they had to cover 400 – 500 Km over sand, rocks and across rivers. It was also pretty hard on cameras. Sand storms had done quite a bit of damage but amazingly with a bit of a clean up they kept going. Only the lank arm on the tripod giving up.
By the sixth day many cars had serious problems, we had already towed or winched several cars out of trouble with our trusty Land Rover. By the last day in Mongolia the mechanics in the three support vehicles were on their knees. They had been working from dawn to dusk and as they were very experienced, were like me, not in the first flush of youth.
So we were asked by the organisers if we could give up our filming role and act as sweep car. That is leave after all cars had gone and pick up any breakdowns. Both John & Dave were pretty good mechanics, we had a Land Rover with a winch. Which Tony Fowkles one of the professional mechanics told us (almost daily) was a ******* great winch. I had a camera.
That day we did running repairs on cars, flagged down a truck with trailer, driven by a young Mongolian lad, with wife and young child aboard. Persuaded him to load a 1930’s Cadillac (Australian) and a blower Bentley (Irish) on to his truck via of course our ******* good winch and then drive to the Russian border! We arrived in camp at 2am and I sat under a starlight sky, drinking coffee, smoking a fag thinking, “This beats filming consumer survey’s for Procter & Gamble and, of course, that really is a ******* good winch!
After a day at the border crossing, specially set up for us, we were off into Russia.
Apart from Siberia, some of which is very much like Switzerland, mountains, pine trees and log cabins, Russia was a bit boring from a filming point of view. Lots of rough tarmac roads with big trucks, and the Russians had banned us from racing.
There is only so much an audience can take of cars, however beautiful, going across screen. So Jack’s idea of giving out cameras to competitors was not such a bad idea after all! Of course we were getting mixed results from these. Some were endless drones “now we are heading for Novosobrisk having done 500Km……. Others all to often had left the camera on in its case, interesting audio, particularly from the Geordie boys, Bob & Joe 1934 Lagonda, on Russian girls - but no pictures!
We knew all this as we were able to digitise tapes on route, we had the mains inverter and had pre wired the Land Rover for this. So tapes were converted to AVI /DIVX and from there onto an ARCHOS player. Jack then could view tapes as we drove along. The only down side being that the laptop transformer was under my seat and they get very hot!
Although in many ways Russia was not visually exciting the people were a delight. There were endless tales of how small garages had worked all night on cars but would accept no payment. One chap came out of a restaurant on his wife’s birthday to knock up new leaf springs for an Alvis, his wife made food and drinks!
This hospitality continued until Moscow, then stopped. Everywhere we went with cameras police stopped us. There was of course a language barrier but it seemed anyone with a ‘professional’ looking camera was stopped. I think this was to gain bribes rather than an official policy, as a lot of the cars were pulled over and told they had to pay ‘fines’. All in all everyone was glad to get out of Moscow.
So it was on to Estonia (don’t worry we are nearly there) through Lithonia and Latvia or was it Latvia then Lithonia? Anyway they all loved rallying and old cars so we were racing again. Roads were closed forest tracks opened and crowds lined the roads to cheer us on. As if that wasn’t enough it never seemed to get dark and the young ladies, just as in Russia, were stunning and 6ft tall! It’s hard work this business.
Anyway after more adventures too numerous to mention here (buy the DVD) we arrived in Paris to a rapturous reception. On the way John Q had burnt the midnight oil and produced a 15min video of the highlights to show at the awards dinner.
All that remained was the edit of 145 HDV tapes. This was handled by John and Jack at Visual Impact. Quite sensibly Jack decided the best way of doing this was the old fashioned way of logging tapes, writing notes and filing cards by shot type.
A long job but in the end proved it’s worth. The event was then edited into ten 30min programs to go out on the Travel Channel.
Lessons learnt? Take more care logging material, how easy would it have been to do a bit to camera each day saying where we were the date etc. Sound wise never use the Z1’s internal mic, circumstance dictated we had to at times. Oh and do take a Land Rover, it never missed a beat, and lots of Tesco fruit cake.
The oldest car in the rally (1903) Entering the Gobi Desert in China en route to Erenho
Flat out at 30mph Car 5 in Mongolia
Car 8 tackles a river crossing on the way to the border camp