It started with a fanfare of horns, horrific outfits, and for us, choking on smoke grenades. 310 teams set off from Goodwood and, after an egg sandwich and a few family farewells, we followed behind. We’d set our sights on Luxembourg as our first stopover, a steady 8-hour slog to a city we’d no accommodation booked in or plans of a bed for the night.

The drive to Luxembourg was tough. Rambling off our P&O ferry from Dover to Calais we swapped to the right, or wrong, side of the road and shuttled towards Brussels.

Hours past and the sun dropped before finally we entered the slither of a valley that cradles Luxembourg’s old town. Chance found us a hostel with three spare beds – for me, George and camera lady Alex, and we got our heads down ready for the drive the following day.

Pitt-stop in Heidelberg

The next leg of our drive saw us head east to Nuremberg. We’d planned to stop by in Germany’s famous Black Forest and the quaint town of Baden-Baden. We ditched our sat-navs and pulled out our European Road Atlas. An hour later and we were 90 miles off-course of Baden-Baden, so Heidelberg it was.

Orange roof tops and narrow streets mosaicked the valley floor, stretching far out of view from the castle we stood atop. Relatively low-rise, Heidelberg sprawled across the flats of the plain and edged gently up the sides of steep tree-clad mountains. I’d seen something similar in Graz, but here we were offered first relief from 16 hours of driving, and our weak bodies and minds were quickly charmed.

Heading East

Week one of the Mongol Rally was always going to be a dash across Europe. The next few days were tougher than we’d thought however. Before arriving at the first party in Prague we camped on the outskirts of Nuremberg, and in the morning wandered around Hitler’s Nazi rally grounds.

Standing in the very spot that Hitler would have commanded tens of thousands of people was uncomfortable. The main grand stand had been built to hold over 100,000 people. Fronted by a large central podium and wide Greek style columns spreading out in both directions, its architectural style and that of Hitler’s coliseum like conference building / lads-pad was designed to do only one thing – disempower. The buildings and structures around asserted as much, perhaps, as Hitler’s speeches. Walking in the footsteps of those that could have been today’s rule makers, I felt both sick and overwhelmed by the precision of their campaign execution.

A boozy night in Prague gave chance to catch up with the friends we’d made so far. Billy, Huw we’d met at a pre-rally event, and TJ we’d shared our stories with whilst waiting for our Iranian visa back in London . It was the third time we’d met in 750 miles, and we’d seen all three again just two days later in Vama Veche.

1,800 miles in four days

Vama Veche was our next stop where our fellow Mongol Ralliers regrouped to share hiccups and mishaps. It was a stupidly long drive though, which meant Czech, Slovakia and Hungary were sacrificed and simply powered through.

Romania is when it really got interesting. Almost as quickly as we’d passed the border, the landscape changed. Nothing was flat. Everything was green. The land rolled around in constant argument and godly peaks disguised themselves as clouds in the distance. This was why we were doing this. This is what we were here for.

The Transfagaren Pass has featured numerous times on Top Gear and other driving shows. But, it’s tight pinhead turns pale into insignificance when you look up from the road ahead and glare out along the rolling valley. An Eastern European Snowdonia, the horizont was almost invisible as the valley ahead spanned endlessly into the sky.

Judith was doing well, but we were not. Wild camping in Deva around 60km back had meant we were unshowered and feeling pretty rough. Over the pass and a stream gave us just what we needed. It was fresh (cold), but woke us up and got us set for the six hour drive to Vama Veche.

Bulgaria was our final visa free and easy country. A shorter drive than the days prior, we set our bearings for a lake just outside of Bagras, where we’d cook some dinner, enjoy a beer with a view of the water and wild-camp. Turned out this particular lake was not quite what we’d dreamed. The power station adjacent was a touch noisy, and Bagras’ ring-road that pinned to the shores was a touch off-putting. A beach campsite 40 minutes further south meant we’d catch five hours sleep at least, before hitting the border of Turkey the next day.

Istanbul and the doorway to Asia

Our final stint was a short five hours behind the wheel. Turkeys border proved to be an arduous four hour drama involving at least seven different stamp wielding officials and cat-arse faced passport controllers. We were in the same boat as many other ralliers around, but eventually broke free of Europe and crossed the border into the unknown,

Istanbul welcomed us with a two hour deep traffic-jam and crazy dodgem-style driving further into the heart of the bustle – the type I love but which puts terror into my passengers. We pulled up to the Bahaus Guesthouse, where 30 other ralliers greeted us with free dinner, beers and an awesome view over the city.

Seven days had passed already. So quickly and yet so full of sights, sounds, experiences and people. The journey to come would be just as much an adventure – and we couldn’t wait.

…to be continued