Photos: Andrei Ivanov
You know you are going on a seriously hardcore expedition when you have to design and build your own vehicle to cope with the terrain and conditions.
The fact that there wasn't a vehicle in existence capable and durable enough for the month-long 3200km route up the spine of Russia's Ural mountains, the geographical line between Europe and Asia, didn't put a local extreme tourism company off and designs for a very unique vehicle were began for this extraordinary journey. Big enough to carry an autonomous amount of fuel, be extremely capable off-road… and to be able to float, meet the pair of Makar 6x6s.
Weighing 2500kg each Makar can carry four passengers, all their food for a month and 400 litres of diesel. The base is a modified chassis and drivetrain of an imported Toyota Landcruiser 78 fitted with 80-series axles. The bodies are lightweight and insulated but more importantly, absolutely watertight, as for the dozens of water crossings in the wilderness the six 1.3 metre high tyres provide so much buoyancy that the Makars can float. A necessary capability as they were really going where no other vehicle had ever been before.
I met with photographer, driver, cook, navigator and mechanic Alexey Ivanov to get the full story of this remarkable adventure. Starting in Ivdel, a town if you look at it on the map is pretty much half way from the border of Kazakhstan and the Arctic coast, thee 8 crew started in high spirits… but they didn't last too long as on the very first day they learned the lesson that little issues can cause big problems... Because the Makar is based on an imported Japanese Land Cruiser it is right hand drive and with the balloon tyres the width is 2.4 metres... so it's quite an unusual vehicle for someone more used to driving a Lada Niva. Just after the start they found that it didn't quite fit between two trees. The tyres didn't do any more than strip off a bit of bark but between them the axle was bent. So, what to do? Everyone had taken a month off work so just going back home wasn't an option. It would have been possible to take the shafts out of the front axles and carry on with just drive to the rear four wheels but the route would be too hard not to have an axle driving and so it needed to be fixed. After half a day rigging up two winches, using chain saws, ropes, hammers and mentioning someone's mother in less than positive tones it was clear that they'd definitely be going further... even if they needed to wait two days for someone to come and find them with the new parts.
But the wait was worth it. “The day we started going again we came to the Dyatlova pass, a really remote place that only extreme hikers ever see and we found a raft of fishermen beached in the river, the sad look of doom in their eyes. What do you think we did? Yes, we floated the Makar into the river, secured their raft to the back of it and pulled them down stream to deeper water. More than the driving, for me it's the moments like that which stay stronger in the memory.”
The plan wasn't to find the hardest route possible away from any roads or civilization but to use tracks and 'winter' roads that went in the general direction of north. A winter road is frozen for a few months, and up where they were maybe half a year or more, so it's passable for 4x4s, but in autumn, when the expedition took place, they are rivers of mud and all you can do is ease ahead at 10km/h. Many times the tyres lost grip and they had to get out and winch. It was slow and hard work and sometimes it seemed easier just to find a route through the trees to the side, but then broken branches could easily cause a punctures in the massive tyres and this was the biggest and most constant issue. A hole would easily take three hours to fix and this added to the sense of needing to hurry up as those three days had been lost at the start. So those who wanted to just get out and enjoy looking for mushrooms or berries, or to hunt, as there was one guy who wanted to shoot absolutely anything that moved, were always told to hurry up.
Roughly half way there is a place called Vorkuta and this name will be forever synonymous with the horrors that mankind is capable of. The Nazis had places like Beslan and Auswitz but the Russians had something no less inherently evil, the network of Gulag prison camps where untold millions died thanks to Stalin's mad plans. One of the worst was here. “Now though just a few strands of barbed wire and old planks of wood are all that remain of this camp of tortured souls... yet because of the unnatural silence it seems that there is something here that nature remembers. We didn't stay long and we kept our own silence.”
“The further north the more the landscape changed. One day the last of the stunted trees thinned out and we emerged into the open tundra which in September is absolutely stunning. Small bushes, only a few centimetres tall carpet the land in these soft swathes of red, purple and blue. But just because you can see over to the next hill the tundra is very hard to drive on as the soft ground is cut everywhere with small streams and rivers... and some are nearly two metres deep. This turned out to be a very serious challenge for the suspension and in just the first hour trying to cross we broke the steering bar... I know, that doesn't sound to much to you as you read this now, but we were hundreds of kilometres from the nearest village and we had only the tools and parts that we were carrying. Some little problem in such a harsh and remote place could easily have huge consequences... and this was always in our minds.”
For the bigger rivers there was a plan to get across. The Makar floats but it is not a boat and doesn't have enough power when it's in the water to fight against the current if it's flowing fast. So the job for the bravest co-driver was to somehow get himself across the river, sometimes wading, sometimes swimming, with the winch rope attached to the back of his trousers. Then he would hold onto the rope a bit upstream of where they were aiming for and he'd drive into the water and he'd pull the Makar over like some kind of sailor pulling a boat into harbour.
And the best memory? “The others agree that they see the whole expedition as a wonderful experience as a whole, but for me there is one. We'd been driving north for something more than three weeks when we came across a small camp of reindeer herders. These people are kind of mythical to Russians, no normal person from a city would ever see them in their lifetime, but we had somehow managed to cross some imaginary boundary and entered their world. They have lived the same way for hundreds of years, taking only a few things from our modern society and living in balance with nature and the ways of their ancestors... and I think that it's a beautiful life because they have to live in such harmony with the land. It's a lesson that perhaps the rest of us need to learn. It looked like there was no one around, they were all away with the herds we guessed, but then there was one young woman waving at us. It was as though she was from another world, one so far from our own, and it was like being in a spell as she started speaking our language and invited us into her tent. Inside it was warm, cosy and clean and you know, I wanted to stay in this tent, in this world, to leave everything and to trust the fate of the ancient ways of following the reindeer... But this is not out world...”
“And at the end at the very north of Russia you would perhaps think that our way would get harder and harder, but actually no, the final 200km is a road built next to the new Gazprom oil pipe. It's closed to normal traffic of course, but for us it was easy to find a way up the bank and then there was a very new sensation for us, speeds of 75km! After so long in the pristine and untouched wilderness we were worried that the company would have made a terrible mess as they laid the pipe, but thankfully no. Happily it seems that Russian companies are much more sympathetic to the environment than they used to be.”
“And suddenly we were approaching the last waypoint on the GPS and with the wind in our faces it seemed as though it was all ending too quickly... but then with perfectly still water all around us we were almost there. When finally the sand was gone and we were parked in the water, we were at the end of the earth. It doesn't end in dramatic cliffs with the ocean crashing below but rather like the tips of a dead man's finger... pointing at something but it doesn't matter what because it's not part of our world...”