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Middlebury team raises money in Mongol Rally

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August 2, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — About a week into the 2007 Mongol Rally, an annual extreme car race from London to Mongolia, recent Middlebury College graduates Tommy Heitkamp of Orwell and Joya Taft-Dick, and their friend Alex Switzer, a.k.a. Team Ironsides, stumbled upon a country they didn’t know existed.

Driving “Diana,” their 1995 Fiat Uno — the rally requires participants to drive a beat-up car — the trio had zipped hundreds of miles since the race began July 21, booking through France and Germany and then easing into Eastern Europe via the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Just as they were about to reach the Ukrainian border in Moldova, Team Ironsides hit Transnistria. The 1,600-square-mile region nestled between the two former Soviet republics broke away from Moldova in 1990 but is not recognized as independent by the rest of the world. 

“We spent over seven hours at borders, being harassed and having to pay bribes to make it through the six military checkpoints,” Heitkamp wrote in an e-mail en route this week. “An absolute nightmare, but a great story now that we are safely out.”

Apparently, that’s what the Mongol Rally is all about: mishap and adventure. But it is done in the name of charity. Last year the rally raked in more than $500,000 for various causes. To date, Team Ironsides has raised about $1,800, which it intends to contribute to international charity organization Mercy Corps and to Send a Cow, an organization that provides livestock to farmers in Africa.

The rally was born in 2001 when two Brits, for lack of anything else to do, decided to drive their dilapidated Fiat to the most unreasonable place they could imagine, Mongolia. They never made it — they had visa trouble at the border — but the journey was so much fun they invited the rest of the world to join.

“The world is just a little bit too safe,” they wrote on the rally’s official Web site. “Gone are the days where the edge of the map called you forth to discover what lay beyond. Satellite maps and (global positioning systems) have it laid out before you leave the armchair. What if you want things to go wrong?”

This year 180 teams from across the globe departed nearly two weeks ago from London’s Hyde Park. They won’t exactly be racing: the goal isn’t as much to arrive in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar as it is to have a great time trying. In fact, ralliers are encouraged to take zigzagging routes. In past rallies, teams have driven as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as Afghanistan.  

There are only three rules: The car must have an engine of less than a liter, unless it has “high comedy value,” like a cherry-picker; teams have to raise at least 1,000 British pounds (about $2,000) for charity; and ralliers are entirely responsible for their own safety and behavior.

“Other than these (rules) you are free to sneak, bribe, cheat, connive and generally out-wit the world to get yourselves to Ulaanbaatar,” the Web site declares. “In fact you will probably have to. If you get to the end of the race without some good stories to tell, then the Mongol Rally has failed in its mission.”

So far, Team Ironsides is living up to the expectations. Heitkamp, Switzer and Taft-Dick started out with no explicit route, though they secured visas for Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Heitkamp and Taft-Dick graduated from Middlebury College in May, and Switzer, who is from Shelburne, graduated from Iowa State University. Listing some past experiences they believe might help them in the Mongol Rally, Taft-Dick cited off-roading in a U.N. four-wheel-drive vehicle in Chad, and Heitkamp noted he recently slept in the trunk of a car.

The trio bought Diana the Fiat on eBay in London, and they knew nothing about her history. Her steering wheel was on the right, for driving on the left side of the street British style, and she had a stick shift. Only Taft-Dick had experience driving a standard.

“We basically picked her up, and pointed her east,” Heitkamp said. “We are asking a lot of our 1995 Fiat and she’s rising to the challenge, whining occasionally up some mountains in Romania, but overall going smoothly. She’s not pretty, but we’re confident she’ll get the job done.”

Crossing the border into Slovakia, the Fiat’s alternator blew and the trio had to push the car to the nearest gas station.

“After a wonderful night in a tent behind a gas station in Slovakia, a tow truck came and picked Diana up,” Taft-Dick wrote on the team’s blog. “The driver, who spoke no English, communicated that only two of us could accompany him to the mechanics.”

So they left Heitkamp behind. Their cell phone was out of credit, and Switzer and Taft-Dick found the tow-truck driver was taking them farther and farther out of town.

They did get to a mechanic and, through a tangle of hand gestures, managed to communicate the problem. The mechanic fixed the Fiat but remained baffled as to what these hapless Americans were doing in Slovakia.

“I explained to the nice mechanic that we were driving from London to Mongolia and he responded with a lot of head-shaking and, ‘Fiat? Oh no! Oh no!’” Taft-Dick wrote.

But they continued anyway, only to find that Heitkamp, tired of waiting for his team at the gas station, had hitchhiked to Bratislava with a Danish family. So they drove off to meet him and, hours later, reunited. Then they hit the road for Budapest.

What is ahead for the trio no one knows for sure. They don’t even have an estimated date of arrival in Mongolia. To track their progress, visit www.badcolonies.org/ironsides, where Team Ironsides has been posting stories and updates from the road and where donations to their charities can still be made. ?

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