Sunday 16 July 2017, day 1 of our road trip to Mongolia. We’re racing at full speed (which, for our Fiat Panda 1988, means a meagre 95km/h) towards Brussels. As we make our first fuel stop, three Flemish strangers strike up a conversation with us, amused by our car and intrigued by our plan to drive it to Mongolia. Our first Mongol-Rally-inspired encounter, I realise. Two of them, I quickly find out, are volunteering to help refugees who live stuck in a limbo in nearby Dunkirk, camping by the trees of a public park. The third doesn’t speak any English, and recurs to the others for translation. He looks, as Marco later suggests, like Gimli son of Gloin, Lord of the Ring’s famous master dwarf. His name is Andrè de Struickrover and, I am told by our impromptu translators, he is famous – though no one says for what. André insists that we take a photo together, by the bonnet of our Panda: then, with his blessing, we part ways.


The following morning, whilst looking for a place to stay in Prague, which we will reach in a few days, I cursorily look André up. To my amazement, he actually is famous: many photos show him speak in front of small crowds, on a background of banners and flags covered with incomprehensible Flemish slogans. Then, I chance upon what looks like an interview and hit Google Translate. And that’s when I find out that Struickrover means ‘the highwayman’ and that André has been campaigning for a lifetime in defence of nature and trees. In what looks like a translated quote by him, I read: ‘the need for trees to humans is a powerful story that will appeal to more people’.

For us who are trying to raise $5000 for Cool Earth, a charity that works to stop deforestation – this is likely to become a slogan, if not a rallying cry. It is for chance encounters like this that we’ve embarked on this trip. No doubt, there shall be many more to come.