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Mongolia or bust: The appeal of the Mongol Rally

Today 500 'totally unsuitable' vehicles set off for Ulan Bator. Why? Because it's there...

Take a nine-year-old ambulance with more than 100,000 miles on the clock and a pimped-out fire engine covered in fake red fur. Line them up alongside 500 other ludicrous vehicles driven by thrill-seekers, point them in the direction of Mongolia and you have a recipe for disaster – also known as the Mongol Rally, which departs today.

It was founded by Tom Morgan, 29, who in 2003 set up a website challenging people to drive to Mongolia in a Fiat 126 – a feat he had unsuccessfully attempted two years previously.

He later slackened the rules, allowing "any car under one litre and totally unsuitable for the task" to compete. In 2004, six vehicles lined up outside a bar in Shoreditch, east London, and four made it all the way. Sensing a public appetite for jaunts of similarly ridiculous proportions, he set up the League of Adventurists with the aim of "making the world less boring".

This year, more than 500 vehicles are taking part in the rally, which begins at three starting points: Goodwood, Milan and Barcelona. The finish line is in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.

"There are always people who get into trouble and people who end up lost," said Morgan. "One year, a guy was driving through a desert in Kazakhstan, and it was so hot that he'd stripped down to his pants. After a while he started seeing smoke coming out of the air vents on the dashboard, and then a few flames. He jumped out of the car, which promptly burnt to the ground.

"So he was left standing in the desert wearing nothing but his pants. He lost everything he owned, but was actually very lucky, because by chance he'd left his passport in another person's car."

Morgan added that, although the trip was dangerous, all of the teams knew what they were getting into: "Most people who do 'adventure travel' these days have a guide and a sherpa carrying their luggage, and a carefully planned itinerary. But that's bollocks. That's a holiday, not an adventure."

Dave Andrews, 25, is a member of one of the teams setting off from Goodwood today hoping to complete the 10,000-mile odyssey, crossing 16 countries. He and four friends from Durham University managed to persuade their local NHS trust to donate a decrepit Fiat ambulance to their cause, and have so far raised almost £11,000 for their main charity, Helen & Douglas House, which runs two hospices in Oxford.

"It was the adventurous side of it, the thought of doing something unpredictable, that really grabbed us," Andrews said. "But it was only once we decided we were going to do it that we realised how much fundraising we could do, and how much it could help other people. You can spend the same amount of money going to Tenerife and have nothing to say for it at the end. We'll be seeing some places we'll probably never revisit – you would never go on holiday to Kazakhstan."

When (if) they reach their destination, the team plan to donate the ambulance to a local hospital where it can continue to serve the community.

Tom McShane, 28, is a member of the Great Balls of Fur team. Along with five friends from the British Army, he will travel to Mongolia in a 1983 Dennis fire engine, which they bought on eBay and coated in red fur.

"It was previously owned by a limousine company, so it's got a PlayStation, TV, sound system and champagne glasses – we're well prepared for 10,000 miles across the desert," he joked.

"I joined the Army to travel and have a bit of an adventure, but you can only go to so many hot, dusty, sandy places being shot at. I wanted another adventure where the chances are against it."