Ambulance charity reaches its Mon-goal-ia

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After 32 days, 7,438 miles and 1,306 litres of fuel, Charlie Hogg and Matt Burgum’s adventure is finally over; thanks to them, however, a fully-fledged ambulance service in Ulan Bator is just beginning. Their project, ‘Ambulance to Mongolia’, successfully delivered a fully kitted-out, NHS-quality ambulance to country’s impoverished capital, where it will be used as an emergency transport and mobile clinic.

Mongolia’s GDP per capita is in one of the lowest of any country outside Africa. Access to healthcare is poor in urban areas and virtually non-existent in the country’s vast expanses of desert, mountains and steppe. Despite facing these problems, Matt says Mongolia “actually doesn’t benefit from direct aid products, and it’s not really in the spotlight—which is why we chose it.”

The project required months of planning and, at a total cost of over £30,000, considerable fund-raising talent. “We initially scored a few thousand pounds worth of funding from Cable Street just to buy the empty ambulance,” Matt said. After that came the courting of more corporate sponsors, which raised £22,000 for the ambulance’s equipment and £8,000 for other costs. “Unfortunately ambulances aren’t cheap, so it cost a lot, but then there’s all the equipment which really did rack up,” Matt explained.

Matt feels that the unique nature of the project helped win over potential sponsors. “It really was an adventure. All these companies wanted to get involved because it’s something a bit different, something that gets people motivated.”

Donations didn’t just come from companies, though. “We did a sponsored skydive,” said Matt, “which worked really well. It brought a much-needed £1,200 into the project, which helped us get a lot of the final preparations for the ambulance ready.”

Preparations took months, but the three weeks before the trip left were most intense. “They were solid preparation,” Matt said. “We hat to put a roof rack on, fit under-plating, fit a new winch point, fit the roof tent, fit all the spare tyres, fit all the jerry cans.” The planning paid off, though: not only did they arrive safe and sound, the journey’s only problems were a single puncture and a broken cupboard door handle.

Travelling in such an expensive vehicle—as you might expect—attracted the attention of over-zealous and corrupt officials at seemingly every turn. “At every single police checkpoint, every single border they wanted to know every single nitty-gritty detail about the ambulance,” Matt said.

“They’d also say things like: ‘you’re in jail for heroin smuggling’, just to make you a bit scared. The first time, I was scared as anything, but it really didn’t intimidate us towards the end—it just became part of the journey, part of the colour of a country. You can’t really get offended at it—I mean, policeman are only paid $200, which is less than what a good office job is there, so that’s how they supplement their wage.”

Everything paid off, though, when the ambulance finally arrived at its destination. “The welcoming ceremony was incredible,” Matt said. “We had a member of parliament come greet us, and we met the charity who are the trustees of the ambulance so it’s sustainable out there. We looked around a few other projects out there too—we saw a kid’s school, looked ’round an orphanage (which made me cry), that sort of stuff.”

The ambulance now serves as an emergency transport vehicle in Ulan Bator. “It goes on about two or three callouts a day,” Matt said, “but only for serious, serious stuff where people have to be in a flat position; otherwise they’re going in cars.”

In a country where emergency vehicles are as scarce as they are in Mongolia, the sight of an ambulance can be unusual. “We were mucking around with the siren,” Matt said, “and people out there didn’t really know what it meant; they thought ‘ah, it’s another car alarm again’ because they’ve never really seen emergency vehicles out on the road.”

The project was so successful that a repeat journey in 2009 was inevitable, and planning has already started. “We’ve already secured funding from the companies that gave us money but did so sceptically—now they’ve seen it’s a success,” Matt said. “2009 is a real opportunity for people… we could’ve taken five people in this ambulance just for the journey, for the chance to experience nearly every culture from here to China.” Those interested should look at the project’s website, www.ambulancetomongolia.com.