TFT Meets: Will Rankin
15 July 2006
In 2004 Will Rankin was crossing the Great Wall of China when he stumbled and fell, making what was later described as 'a noise like a pregnant dinosaur'. He could have died. He should at least have snapped a rib, punctured a lung, or something. But he escaped with cuts and bruises. In 1993 he was driving from Melbourne to Alice Springs via the Oodnadata track with three mates when, 250 miles from the nearest human being, they snapped the water pipe on their camper van. They could have died. They should at least have suffered heatstroke, been carried off by dingoes, or something. But no, they scrambled through. He's also had a gun pointed to his head in Kathmandu whilst clenching a bin bag full of grass between his knees. In La Coruña at the age of 16 he kicked a persistent beggar up the backside, unaware that said beggar was holding a Bowie knife to his friend's spine. But to top it all, in December 2004 he happened to be eating an omelette on a beach bar in Sri Lanka at around 9am in the morning when he heard someone screaming 'RUN' like they really meant it. Will Rankin ran, the tsunami breaking behind him like a bomb blast. Thousands died. Will survived with cuts and bruises, shaken up for sure, but he survived.
It could be simply dumb luck of course - actually, let's face it: it is - but Will seems to have convinced himself he has a guardian angel. And one he's just about to put to one of its biggest tests. 'It's not as if I've got a death wish at all,' he explains, as we sit drinking beer outside a pub on the Thames. We are forced to agree. Considering the 27 countries he's visited and the healthy enthusiasm bouncing around his fulsome, florid chops, he has, if anything, a really rather vigorous life wish. 'I'm not really religious,' he continues, 'but I do think that someone looks after me.' Hence the guardian angel.
As a youth, Will studied Law, but to make ends meet started working as a journalist midway through his degree, found that he liked that more and decided to stick to it. He later found work with a publishing company which included lots of international conference travel. Then in 1997 he got a job running a publishing company in Dubai, which remained his base for seven years. Returning to England last June he decided maybe it was time to do his old mum a favour and settle down. 'When I came back to Britain I thought, right, I'm going to go corporate. I'm 35 now. I'm going to get my head down, work for an ad agency - copywriting - below the line IT copywriting, and fuck me, was it boring. It was great location too, a lovely place to be but that counts for nothing when you're fundamentally unchallenged and unfulfilled by your job.' And so he quit that job and bought out the entire stock of a knackered old bookshop for £600. As you do.
'You know, I'd rather be getting up at four in the morning and selling books at car boot sales to *nutters*,' he says with feeling. 'I'm ten times happier now. My friends commented on the change. I went from the miserable grey commuter face to the more relaxed, hideous Hawaiian shirt kind of person you see before you now in a matter of weeks.'
But shifting thousands of books, fun though it may be, is apparently not enough. Which is why along with his friend Pete, Will is taking part in this year's third annual Mongol Rally.
The logistics of this rally are thus: there are 200 teams, which means 200 vehicles and 400 plus people. Each car - and this is the wacky bit - is limited to a one litre engine. This means a lot of embarrassingly crap cars, including lots of old Minis, Fiats, Renaults, Skodas, Robin Reliants, Trabants, Citroens and Hillman Imps. Will and Pete have a Ford Fiesta. As rally organiser Tom explains, 'What would the point of the Mongol Rally be if you could do it in a Land Rover?' The Mongol rally then, is wholly about adventure, not engineering.
From the UK, the cars will travel roughly 8000-10,000 miles through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Kazakhstan and finally into Mongolia. Although the route is flexible, and Will and Pete intend to take in Turkey on the way, as they've never been and rather fancy it. If everything goes according to plan, this should take approximately three weeks. But in the Mongol Rally, things rarely go according to plan.
Last year, of the 43 cars that left London, only 27 made it to Mongolia and only 14 actually reached the finish line in the capital, Ulan Bator. Of the 43 teams that participated, two were robbed at knife point, three were chased by armed bandits, one was rammed off the road after an argument about watermelons and one ended up getting engaged. Of the rest of the participants, three ended up attending weddings, one spent time in a Kazakh jail charged with five crimes against the state, another was stoned by a Mongolian nomad, three were banned from Turkmenistan for a year and one was threatened by a dwarf in Azerbaijan. But, thankfully, no one died.
Each team has to stump up £1000 to enter the race, all of which - minus a small admin fee which stops Tom bankrupting himself as he did the first time round in 2004 - go to a small selection of effective Mongolian causes, including Send A Cow and the Christina Noble Children's Foundation. As Will points out, 'It's all worthy stuff.' As he also readily admits, if it wasn't for the charity element, he wouldn't get to fuck about the planet having adventures.
Back at the Thames-side boozer, pint in one hand, fag in the other, the magnitude of the task ahead is really starting to hit home. Will admits to being something of a procrastinator. Which explains why the car, bought off of eBay for £70, had only earlier that day failed its MOT. Nothing that isn't easily fixable, twisted chassis aside, but it didn't fail on that, and a few decent pot holes will probably sort that out. This is Will's theory. But as Will knows only too well, he needs to spend less time formulating theories and more time digging around for sponsorship. They're not doing too badly at the moment, but if the rally was this weekend as opposed to next weekend, they wouldn't be able to go.
However, they're not completely disorganised. Will has been preparing himself by reading far and wide on the subject of Mongolia and has even downloaded a spot of Mongolian throat singing, perhaps so that he may master the eerie warble of the human didgeridoo and impress the natives when he arrives. He's also got hold of a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet to help with the handful of road signs they hope to encounter.
As far as challenges go, the continual day-long driving on non-existent roads, the heat of crossing two deserts in a tiny car with no air-conditioning and only two working windows rank highly. But Will is perhaps ore concerned about offending his hosts once he makes Mongolia, what with him being a namby-pamby vegetarian.
'They invite you in, give you a cup of tea - salted tea with yak's milk, which, you know, will be a treat, and these deep-fried meaty parcels which... I'm going to have to sort of pop over my shoulder and hope they don't notice. But you've got to appreciate that they live on horse and yak and whatever they can get their hands on, including marmot. A lot of them get the plague because they eat marmot. So I'm looking forward to that. I think the idea of being vegetarian is completely alien to them. They love wrestling as well, so I fully anticipate being wrestled to the ground, bitten by rabid dogs and forced to eat diseased meat every step of the way.'
In an ideal world, presuming he survives the marmots, Will would like some time in the future - when he's read and sold all his books - to establish a sort of hippy retreat in Sri Lanka, with teepees built from local wood. This would be a permanent structure apparently, capable of sleeping about 20 or 30 people, rather than the dinky little wigwam we initially imagined. They'd be completely self-sufficient, growing their own food and harnessing their own energy. 'A classic, environmentally friendly, hippy... very, very chilled resort...' - we imagine something like 'The Good Life' meets 'The Beach' - '...which would give me an excuse not necessarily to live there but at least to visit every couple of months.'
Sod it, we're sold. If Will - guardian angel permitting - can make it happen, we'll definitely slip on a Hawaiian shirt and pop out and join him for a couple of weeks. It sounds like fun.
Will and Pete are driving to Mongolia on Saturday 22nd July. If you'd like to help them help others, maybe pop along and make this look less pitiful.
Maybe do it yourself next year.
A Foo Fighter photo-journal from last year.