So you want to take part in a car rally? One of the most important decisions you'll make is who to choose as your travel companion. Ideally you want someone who is a great mechanic, an excellent camp stove chef and fun to spend time with. The chances of ticking all of those boxes are slim though as you also need to find someone who can take the time out and shares your enthusiasm for overland travel in old cars. Here are some of my own co-driver experiences, plus a film I made of Paddy walker and his co-drivers, including comedian Pete (Hugh) Dennis.
The Plymouth - Banjul Challenge
This was my first rally; I would spend 3 weeks driving from the UK to Gambia, including an off-piste crossing of the Sahara Desert. I needed a good mechanic. I signed up with my friend Tony, owner of VW specialists Lust for Rust. Even the best laid plans can fail though; Tony sourced and prepped our car but then his mum was taken ill and he couldn't be away for so long. The car was ready but I needed a new co-driver! I asked around my friends, none of them could take so much time off work but as I was chatting to my friend Ceejay his flatmate showed an interest. She bombarded me with so many questions that I wound up asking if she wanted to go. Claire and I had only met once before, she had no mechanical skills either but promised to spend time in Tony's workshop learning. She did have lots of experience camping though, having lived in the Kalahari desert for 2 years and led expeditions. What could possibly go wrong?
Despite our best efforts neither of us were able to fix the car when it broke down, however we shared the same determination to achieve our goal. Neither of us ever even considered giving up, even when our first breakdown was 20 miles from home. We found help, got it fixed and carried on. We didn't know each other well before the trip but became close friends, we only had cross words once, we were both tired and it was such a ridiculous thing to argue about that we burst out laughing mid row! We travelled in a small convoy and sometimes one of us would swap into the Fiat Uno so we could film our car on the road. This was in 2007 so pre go-pro cameras, the only way to achieve those kind of shots on a budget was by hanging out the window of a leading or following car. This usually fell to me; Claire and I are both broadcast camera operators but she was a trainee at the time and not quite confident enough to hang out of a moving vehicle with £5k of camera (borrowed from Canon). The resulting movie is available on DVD from Amazon. amzn.eu/43He2oB
The Mongol Rally
I hadn't planned to enter the Mongol Rally so soon after the Plymouth - Banjul Challenge but then I was invited to a pre-launch party 2 weeks before where I met Simon. Simon's co-driver had dropped out at short notice and he was desperately looking for a replacement. I didn't know him but had friends taking part in the rally who encouraged me to join in. Also, having been in the same situation myself, I felt a bit sorry for him. Once on the road his OCD tendencies began to manifest, spending at least an hour packing our luggage in the car each day, stressing about every tiny noise the car made and wanting to give up when it really did start making a noise in Kiev. I found a garage to fix the car in Ukraine but by the time we reached Russia I could take it no more! We'd caught up with another group of ralliers though and I discovered ours wasn't the only inharmonious car. Maso was travelling with his best friend but Aaron couldn't drive and spent the whole time playing guitar in the back seat (badly). They both had concerns the rally would damage their friendship. We hatched a plan where Aaron and I swapped cars. I continued travelling across Kazakhstan and Mongolia in Maso's Nissan Micra while Aaron joined Simon, on the quicker route across Russia, in his Suzuki SJ. Maso and I got on great and are still friends to this day, I don't think Aaron kept in touch with Simon but they made it to the end of the rally without a fatality.
Maso (in the distance) and the Micra we drove across Mongolia; after we lost the roof rack but before we lost the rear bumper!
Beetle Drive - UK to Singapore
My best mate Tracey was supposed to come with me on this one. We've been friends since we were 7 years old and never argued even once in all that time. We did have a reputation at school for being practical jokers and trouble makers when we get together which could have caused some issues but we never got to find out. Tracey had to drop out and I was again left looking for a replacement co-driver, but this time one that could take more than 3 months off work! I was giving up hope of finding anyone when Rica, an American backpacker, got in touch. Naturally the first thing I asked was if she could drive a manual gear box, she said she could ......she couldn't! To say we clashed would be an understatement, we had some screaming rows, usually when the car broke down and she expected me to be able to fix it or because I felt she was treating me as a tour guide, expecting me to do everything. We did have a lot of laughs too though and when we ran into bureaucratic problems in Tibet she stood by me and we teamed up to argue with our tour company (essential when transiting China). She was also the one who called a doctor and looked out for me when I got altitude sickness at Everest base camp. We haven't kept in touch and I probably wouldn't choose to travel with her again but the good times out weighed the bad so I don't regret taking her along. Read more about our travels in Beetle Drive, out now on Amazon: amzn.eu/6KZvSBL
The Samurai Challenge Rally
Earlier this year I was asked to film a classic car rally driving the length of Japan. The rally would take almost a month to complete. I noticed several cars had split co-driver duties as they couldn't find one person who could take the full duration of the rally off work. There was one car that stood out though, car number 14 owned by Paddy Walker. Paddy got through three co-drivers across the course of the event! Comedian Hugh Dennis (real name Pete) drove from Fukuoka to Kyoto, Scott Grenhalgh took over from there to Tokyo and Richard Cunningham joined Paddy for the final stretch from Tokyo to Sapporo. I took the opportunity to chat to all three and came to the conclusion that Paddy chooses his co-drivers based on comedic value.
My advice would be choose someone with a sense of humour and the right attitude, you don't want someone who'll give up the moment the going gets tough. If travelling in a convoy, give yourselves a break from each other by occasionally swapping co-drivers with friends. It may seem natural to choose your best mate or your partner but if they don't share your passion for uncomfortable, overland car journeys in unsuitable cars then they are probably not the right person. Then we have the opposite side of the coin, maybe they like driving too much and you'll be fighting over who gets to take the wheel. Kate and Dougie took part in the Thunder Dragon Rally of Bhutan in a Jaguar XK150. Kate enjoyed her occasional turns at the wheel so much that she didn't want to give it up. This resulted in her buying her own XK150 when they returned to the UK; on the next event, the Paris - Vienna Rally, they entered separate cars and both brought friends as co-drivers. For petrolhead couples this seems like the best of both worlds, enjoy a days driving with a mate but still spending time with your partner at sight seeing stops and in the evening.
All photos and videos my own: www.worldralliesproductions.com