Interview with Emily Horgan, Director of the Greaseball Challenge, part one

Emily Horgan, Director of the Greaseball Challenge, ready for adventure!

It is my pleasure to bring you a comprehensive interview with Emily Horgan, Director of the Greaseball Challenge charity rally. The Challenge is set to take place in April with participants driving from the U.S. down through Central America promoting biofuels and green adventure travel.

If you haven't already, be sure to read our article on the Greaseball Challenge as background to this remarkable interview (seriously, Emily has some great stories to tell). Emily, who originally sent us details on the Greaseball Challenge herself, was incredibly generous with her time in answering my questions with the final interview being quite long for a single post. As such, I have split the interview in half and we'll will run it over two days.

Today, we cover Emily's charity rally background and her motivation for creating the Greaseball Challenge.

ABG: It sounds like you have been involved in a few charity rallies over the years. Where in the world have you been?

EH: I've driven twice from the UK to West Africa as part of the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge - down through France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal to the Gambia, the final destination. That's around 4,500 miles including three days off-roading through the Sahara Desert! The first year, December 2004, I did the rally in a 1991 Ford Fiesta with two friends. Ford Fiestas are known for being very, very bad or very, very good. We were lucky - the engine on the car had been rebuilt by a Fiat mechanic in Turin and the only real problem we had was a dead fan motor which caused us to overheat in the desert. We had the heating on full to draw the heat off the engine, but when we were stuck in a dune with steam pouring from the hood and the clutch burning out it was a make or break moment!

Interview continues after the break.

Like Greaseball, cars are donated in the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge, and due to the number of vehicles, they are auctioned off publicly. Our Ford sold for a few hundred bucks and ended up in the hands of an Internet entrepreneur. I ran into him in the Gambia a year later - he was using the Fiesta to shuttle between his internet cafes in downtown Banjul! In 2005, I bought a 1980 Mercedes Benz 300D for $50 which I called Dusty Springs. Like all Mercedes diesels, she was a tank to drive, but unstoppable. We had a few problems en-route - the exhaust fell off in Morocco and then it was stolen off the roofrack, so we ended up travelling 3,000 miles without one. You can add to that dragging rear suspension due to a hydraulic leak, sliding into a ditch in the Atlas mountains during a rain storm, and brake failure en-route to Fez. But the car was sound. Every country we stopped in, people offered to buy the car - border guards, taxi drivers, gas station attendants. 300Ds are prime taxi vehicles in Africa. In fact, Dusty is now a taxi in the Gambia!

Last year, April 2006, we organized Busman's Holiday: The Chechen Job. 14 people, 14 countries in 14 days. We were on a mission to deliver two tons of wooden gymnasium floor to a troupe of Chechen dancers, called Diamohk. Diamohk was established to preserve traditional Chechen music and dance for children during the Chechen war but their dance hall was destroyed by bombing in 2000. We laid the wood in the back of a 1981 Bedford bus and drove it from York, UK to Tbilisi in Georgia, where the bus was picked up by some Chechens and taken over the Russian border to Grozny. We were advised against driving into Chechnya - too dangerous for foreigners due to the kidnap threat. Safety is paramount on these trips, despite our eagerness for adventure.

The Busmen drove through UK, Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Georgia. Quite spectacular landscape and adventures we had along the way. We had some major breakdowns - with two tons of wood and 14 people, we kept busting out our tires! Other problems included the fuel lift pump and blocked fuel lines which held us up for four hours of nighttime repairs, a sudden loss of pressure in the air brakes on a hairpin bend entering Trieste was scary, the gear stick came out in one of the busmen's hands going around a major intersection in Belgrade, and cracked leaf springs just over the Turkish-Georgian border almost ended the trip. Thanks to 10 hours of welding by some Georgian mechanics in Batumi on the Black Sea Coast, the busmen rolled onwards. Getting there is half the challenge - breakdowns are when the teams pull together. Apart from these adventures, I've driven in Mexico, Honduras, Indonesia, South Africa - you get used to bad roads and their hazards - the four-legged kind usually. The other organizers, Ben, Dan and Nicky have driven in many, many countries around the world as well. We're only getting started!

ABG: Which charity rally would you say you enjoyed the most?

EH: These trips are all different in so many ways - due to the terrain, the characters you meet on the way, the people you travel with, the epic breakdowns, and other comforts and discomforts on the road. They have been the best adventures I've ever had, and i think everyone taking part has felt the same. There are moments of breathtaking landscape - driving through the Western Sahara desert was an unforgettable experience. Likewise chugging through the precipitous black mountains of Montenegro was like something out of a dracula movie. Borders can be tricky and involve a lot of waiting which can be frustrating - things were not that friendly at the Senegalese border a few years ago when we were escorted to cash machines to pay huge bribes.

The first year we did the Africa rally, we almost hit a traffic cop at night outside Layoune in Western Sahara territory - he wasn't wearing his reflective coat. We had our passports confiscated and some tense negotiations followed - but we were lucky. On Busmen's in Georgia, four burly men in a Lada crashed into the front of the bus late at night and tried to bribe us hundreds of dollars. Travelling by car like this we are often off the beaten track and rather vulnerable. Generally you can talk your way out of anything as long as you respect who the boss is and play by their rules.

The first trip like this is probably the best - there is something liberating about buying a car and hitting the road without knowing what might happen next. The days can be long with 10 -12 hour drives to make time, but we try to schedule in days off for repairs and visiting interesting places along the way. Travelling in a convoy is great fun - there is security in numbers in case something goes wrong, like a major mechanical problem. The first Africa trip was when I met Dan Clemens, one of the Greaseball organizers, who was driving an icecream van from the UK to Africa with his brother John. They are incredible mechanics, and seeing an icecream van glide over dunes in the Sahara with the jingle playing was one of the funniest things I've ever seen!

Busmen's was special due to the characters we had on board including a retired NY fire chief, an organic bison farmer, a chemical engineer, an attorney, a teacher, the owner of a haulage company, a tech guru, etc. What a mixture - people tend to fall into roles - chief mechanic, translator, chef,'s very funny. After many breakdowns and trials of 24 hour driving with people sleeping in rotation (we had an onboard fridge, generator, beanbags and TV), to make it all the way to Tbilisi in Georgia was fantastic. Our average speed was about 40 mph I believe! We left the bus and its contents in a secure parking lot guarded by mafioso types. It was then to be smuggled by Chechen black marketeers over the border into Russia and to the dancers. I believe they ended up dismantling the whole thing and taking it over in parts.

ABG: What was your motivation for creating a charity rally based around promoting biofuels?

EH: I work in the environmental field as a writer at the World Bank. I've been interested in renewable energy / alternative technologies for a while and started to get interested in biofuels a few years ago. When I was preparing for the Africa rally the first time in 2004, a friend of mine and I spoke about doing it on vegetable oil and waste grease. We had read about an oil campaigner who had achieved this the year before, driving to Mali. I contacted Justin Carven at Greasecar to find out more about what this required, which is when we were first in touch. As it was, it was too much to organize for that and subsequent trips since I was based in Washington and sourcing the cars in Europe. The biofuel equation kept bugging me though. While alternative car rallies like the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge (set up by Julian Nowill, a British stockbroker) had successfully turned the traditional car rally on its head for a good cause, none of them had factored in an environmental twist. There are now many imitators of the Plymouth-Banjul in Europe (Amsterdam-Dakar, The Mongol Rally, Staples to Naples) - we wanted to do something different and expand the model to the U.S.

Somewhere between Venice and Dubrovnik on the Busman's trip, myself, Nicky, Ben and Dan, the Greaseball founders, started talking seriously about doing a larger rally in the U.S. in 2007. It was the perfect time to go green and we felt the U.S. was the right place to try this, especially as the drive from the U.S. to Central America is manageable timewise and there is greater awareness of biodiesel and veggie oil for use in vehicles here. Given the response, we have had the idea of making it a larger event in 2008 - we hope we can encourage many teams to take part next year. We're not out there through this event to be activists for biofuels but we would like to help raise awareness around some viable fuel alternatives available, and keep people thinking about ways they can change their behavior at home and on the road to minimize their environmental footprint. And of course have a lot of fun in the process!

Stay tuned tomorrow for the second installment of the interview where I ask Emily about her work with the World Bank, reducing your environmental footprint and what makes a great Greaseballer.

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