Plymouth-Dakar/Banjul Old-Bangers Challenge Lawrence Bransby The Basic Premise: · Take a car worth no more than £100.00 · Spend no more than £15.00 preparing it · Drive it unsupported from Plymouth to Dakar Rules: · The car has to be left-hand drive · Rules are meant to be broken The rally, according to its "un-organiser" Julian Nowill, is a poor man's response to the Pari-Dakar Rally, held each year, which costs competitors hundreds of thousands of pounds to enter, where most vehicles and bikes are fully supported by experienced crews who are able to rebuild a car or bike at the end of each day (and do) if need be and where helicopters fly any injured competitor out immediately to hospital in the nearest city. Day 1: Paignton - France Left Portsmouth at midnight in a howling force 7 gale after Charlie (my co-driver) had overshot our meeting place by 40ks and had to turn back - an auspicious start, I thought. Don't think I'll rely on him for navigation! Our little Ford Fiesta is loaded to the roof and all around our feet - too much, I feel. The old traveller's dictum of doubling your money and halving your luggage still holds true, I feel. I have a horrible feeling that the little car will be overloaded in the desert, especially when we add the extra weight of fuel and water. Met three other P/D cars in the ferry queue - all painted and stickered like graffitied walls. We greeted each other with excited smiles like small boys on the verge of an adventure - which I suppose it is and we are. The fact that we have old cars we can paint all over any how we like and it doesn't really matter because (a) they are pretty worthless and (b) they are going to be given away is somehow liberating. Even the team names suggest a bunch of little boys off to have fun and escape the rat-race for a while: "Pint-Pullers"; "Havan-a-Go"; "Les Medecins Sans Front- Tyre" and so on! Onto the ferry but after a very short 4 hours of sleep we were rudely awoken, started up the car, groggy with lack of sleep, and set off on a 12-hour drive in bitter cold and uninterrupted driving rain. The Fiesta is going beautifully except for a disturbing grinding/shrieking noise when one selects reverse gear. Charlie comments, "Don't think about it and it'll probably go away," and we keep on driving. I assume that's the engineer in him speaking, trying to confuse me with technical jargon. Well, I suppose we won't be going backwards much on this trip. At 7.30 we finally reached Bayonne, exhausted and dirty. Booked into a cheap hotel, lovely hot shower and a drive into town to eat fresh salad with olive oil, a delicious pizza and red wine - alive again! Day 2: France to Sotogrande, Spain Late start because we didn't wake up until 9! Constant rain, just enclosed in the car trying to make progress across the vast expanse of Spain in one day. It's a strange experience sharing the intimate confines of a car for so many hours with a virtual stranger - like being trapped in a lift for 12 hours) feeling your way and being sensitive about potential areas of conflict. We have not known each other long enough to establish a bond of friendship and still sufficiently wary to keep clear of conflict. And so we sound each other out, establishing routines but not pecking order, both of us, I hope, old enough not to need or want dominance or to score points, both sufficiently comfortable in our ages (me 53 and he 55) to enjoy ourselves and share and allow each other space. So much needs to be negotiated - who drives when and for how long? How do we split our finances, what is joint expenditure and what personal? For example, who pays if one of us gets a traffic fine (we agreed to split any fines). But so far we both seem similar in many ways: both married with grown-up children (boy and girl), similar ages, both enjoy cars and driving, conscious of being on the downhill side of life, but we don't share a spiritual belief. I doubt that we will become friends - I am sufficiently a loner not to depend on the company of friends - so, hopefully, we will rub along sufficiently to make this an enjoyable trip. Charlie has thrown himself into the preparation of the Fiesta with loving attention to detail; as an ex rally driver, he knows what to do and I have full confidence in his ability to get the car to the end in one piece. Back to the trip: we finally got away and headed South towards Madrid. The motorway was good and we averaged 120-130 kph through driving rain and blustery wind which buffeted the little car about. At one time we stopped for a quick cup of coffee when with a cheeky melodic toot from an air horn, in turned 2 cars - obviously P/D, painted and over-laden! They drew up alongside us - it was Teams 5144 "Hafan-a-Go" from Wales, a very heavily laden and very small Trabant (a little 2-cylinder, 600cc 2-stroke pile of junk from East Germany). They had flashing Christmas trees in the window and flashing valve caps on their tyres in keeping with the Christmas spirit. Their mates David and Juan, young lads from the Isle of Wight in a Renault 19. Juan has only had his driving licence for 3 weeks! (Interesting that it was these 4 whom we got to know most well on the trip and who became part of our small group who crossed the desert together.) I walked past the front of David and Juan's car and promptly broke their number plate in half when it hooked on my trousers! Good omen. We shrugged our shoulders - so what, this is the P/D and things are meant to break! Anyway, he'd attached the number plate protruding half out the side of his mudguard to make room for 4 massive spot lights so it was his fault for bad planning and showing off with his lights! Then on, heading South for Sotogrande near Gibraltar - only another 650 ks to do this afternoon. Delicious salami and cheese sandwiches for lunch, made on the dusty roof of the car - our only table. I'm glad Charlie didn't say, "Ooh, it's dirty!" so I think we will get on well together! 15 hours' drive through increasingly barren countryside. Arrived finally, pretty exhausted, at 1.30 am, to find the hotel locked. Eventually Charlie and I found an open side door and slept a cold and uncomfortable night on the floor of a corridor still under construction. We were rudely awoken at 8 am by Spanish workers. They muttered good-humouredly at us and motioned for us to stay lying down which we gratefully did. Roused ourselves finally just before 9 to a miserable blustery day to meet red-eyed and dazed P/D'ists, many emerging from the front seats of cars where they had spent uncomfortable nights. The hotel was still not open, even for those who had slept in a proper room. Foreigners! Outside was a blue VW buggie which had dropped a pushrod and was running "like a bucket of bolts". The driver had pulled the tappet covers off in Calais and found the pushrod; after a quick roadside repair it was now going "sweet as a nut" - said with love in his eyes. However, shortly later it packed up again and they completed the remaining 1300ks on 3 cylinders, a long, slow drive. Another VW had blown his engine travelling through France but it just so happened that a French VW enthusiast lived in a little village down the road and this man not only swapped the shot engine for one of his own reconditioned ones, but assisted with the job. Another car had a damaged alternator and had to travel the whole way through France and Spain swapping batteries every 150ks with a fellow P/d'er they met on the road as it discharged. Now looking for a spare alternator. I think these are the first of many such stories that will emerge from this trip. Day 3: Rest day - Gibraltar Rest day before crossing into Morocco. My camera has packed up so we drove into Gibraltar to buy another. A claustrophobic experience - only 3 miles of roads and a 1000 people trying to get past surly and uncooperative Spanish border guards. Then into the enclave. It was great to see the red post boxes, British bobbies and hear English again! Had bangers and mash for lunch just to prove a point! The afternoon, back at the hotel, was spent fulfilling every little boy's dream: groups of men (there ARE one or two women, let's be honest) beers in hand, stand around staring into engine compartments while someone covered in oil fiddles with an obscure engine bit; others look on intelligently and give advice; sharing anecdotes; kicking the occasional tyre. Everyone has entered into the spirit of the trip, treating the whole challenge (it has now been listed on the "100 things to do before you die" and the "50 greatest sporting challenges" websites somewhere, so I'm told) with a blasé casualness, a "we're men and we're tough and can handle it", we'll do it in the great British way of very little preparation, face impossible hardships with a shrug and a joke and finally snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a nonchalant smile and a dismissive comment - I love it! The cars are covered with deliberate anti-heroic slogans and cute girlie mascots implying we are so sure of ourselves that we don't need to be macho; in fact we can be as silly as we like because we don't need to prove anything to anyone! Some offerings painted on cars: "Fat people are hard to kidnap!" and my favourite: "Operating on the naïve and obviously flawed premise that everything will turn out alright."; fluffy pink dice dangling from a rear-view mirror; cute dog stuck on one bonnet, an orange rubber duck on another; snowmen and kitsch Christmas trees; 20-ft flagpoles with the cross of St George flying defiantly; banks of spotlights so powerful and numerous they just have to be ironic. Teams come from all over the place - most British, but others from South Africa, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Isle of Wight and Ireland. The cars are very special, lovingly prepared and each one with its own story - a Land Rover found in a field with a tree growing through it and saved for the trip; an 8-litre V8 Mercedes; the little 2-cylinder Trabant; 3 VWs, a VERY low Citroen CX with a ground clearance of a few inches; a Merc camper van supporting a 125cc Yamaha trail bike; a Chev Camero V8 automatic rather bent from an accident and sold off cheap; the old Series 2 Land Rover fire engine with pumps and hoses, everything in full working order to be donated to the Gambian Fire Department (it blew up its rear diff near Bordeaux, drove on with one diff until a replacement could be found on the way); a Swiss team with pink fluffy dash and door panels, leopard skin seat-covers and bright pink duvet covering the back seat, snow board strapped on the roof next to the spare wheels and spade for dune boarding in the desert. The Swiss drivers wear matching orange racing overalls and dark glasses. Most vehicles are heavily overloaded - spare wheels (some with 4!), spades, sand mats, food, spares, jerry cans; some roof racks are very well built, bolted right onto the roof and body of the car whilst others seem as if they are just waiting for the first corrugations and pot holes to vibrate them off. But we must all learn from experience and our own mistakes, I suppose. A maroon Merc 23D. The owner told me that it had been left unused for a year in a field. "People leave them but don't want to throw them away. It was a bit rough at first - junk in the fuel tank - but it smoothed up after a while -" said with obvious affection. I just know there's going to be some great reluctance giving these cars away in The Gambia. Later we had a team briefing and detailed instructions as follows: "Cross on the ferry to Ceuta, which is still Spanish territory, fill up your jerry cans then look for signs to Morocco.then go straight on to The Gambia - any questions?" - a shrug and a wry smile. Some questions: "What do you do if you don't have insurance for Senegal or Mauritania?" Answer: "Just write 'Senegal' and 'Mauritania' at the bottom of your car insurance document - they can't read anyway."! Wise words of warning: "In the desert, 15 seconds of wheel spin when you're stuck = one hour of digging!" Also told us that we have to drive through the mine-field on our own and then pick up a desert guide AFTER the minefield. At least they know what they are doing, I suppose! Phonecall in the middle of the meeting from a team struggling along somewhere in the middle of Spain: "Anyone got any good ideas about how to get from X to Sotogrande?" (where we are now). Calls from the assembled group: "DRIVE!" Frankie's (our mentor) loving answer: "Look at the man and make sure you get here by 8 tomorrow for the ferry." Again, a clear indication that, although we are all together here, now, we are really on our own and must nurse our cars through because it will only be by the good-hearted kindness of others if it all goes pear-shaped. The spirit of the trip is elegantly captured in the "Route Instructions" each participant was given prior to the trip. The term "Instructions" is perhaps misleading. A few quotes will suffice, beginning with: "DISCLAIMER: There is no requirement to follow what you read below. In fact, the information is incomplete and cannot be relied upon. It is a compilation of rumours, hearsay, personal opinions and one-time experiences faded by the passage of time. It is only offered to help you avoid some of the inconveniences involved in driving from England to The Gambia and should not be relied upon for the safety of yourself or your vehicle. You are travelling independently and unsupported on an inherently dangerous venture." "GROUP LEADERS: The term "leader" is used very loosely. Most of these guys are simply people who have done the P-D Challenge before. So hard luck if your "leader" slept through his last run." After the briefing we grouped up to discuss routes; the mountain route through Morocco from Fez to Marrakech is, I feel, really too simple and straight forward. I am looking for something more remote, smaller roads deeper into the desert. Found a small group with similar intentions - two young Dutch lads, a guy in a Land Cruiser and us. General feeling: You only do this sort of thing once in a lifetime so make the most of it - YES! Day 4: Morocco The old Land Rover fire engine arrived in the early hours, oooh-aah siren and blue lights flashing, much to the annoyance of the locals. Beautifully turned out. The smashed diff story is, I think, typical of what is going to happen on this trip - they limped in front wheel drive to the first fire station they came to in France and there they met a Land Rover enthusiast who took them home to his store of spare Land Rover parts and they fitted another rear diff. he just happened to have and they were on their way again in a couple of hours! The atmosphere this morning in the before-dawn dark was fantastic, all up in the dark and cold, making final adjustments and packing, cars starting up, hooting, laughter, one with rock music playing loudly, fire engine siren going and its blue light flashing. We finally set off in convoy - 46 vehicles - towards the ferry port, Charlie near the front and promptly missing the first turn-off, thereby leading 44 vehicles down the wrong road then with 44 vehicles u-turning and heading back while the tail-enders dutifully followed the car in front down the wrong road passing us coming back! Seems right! The Swiss team with their vehicle labelled in official-looking lettering Les Medicines Sans Frontyres are wearing white lab coats with Dr Robinson and Dr Smith stencilled above the pocket. (They will, of course, nominate themselves "Brain Surgeons" at every border crossing and petty official who demands to know their occupation. It would not surprise me to see them in days to come administering pills and advice to sick Africans along the way!) Another large participant of Greek appearance wears a fez and a white shirt, black trousers, jacket and tie - "It makes me look important," he assured me, "and they let me through the borders more quickly!". Mark and George, Charlie's friends, who will probably be travelling with us, slept on the floor of our room to avoid the hotel charge and Charlie made off with one of the hotel towels - he's a very "Stuff you, I'm British, we won the war!" kind of guy, not averse to driving to the front of a long queue of patient, law-abiding citizens and shoving his way into the line, quite unfazed by the hoots and cries of outrage and shock coming from behind. I just sink low in my seat and hope no one can see me! He also added Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia in pen to the bottom of our car insurance - which I suppose is OK because we are told that if we have an accident in any of these countries the insurance means nothing and we'll never get a penny anyway. In the car, he puts this insurance document next to the photocopy of the car's V5 papers and the colour photocopy of our tax disk (the original having been sent back for a refund the day he got it!). And so, back onto African soil, into Ceuta, the Spanish enclave, and onto the Moroccan border. It was, as expected, chaotic but as not as bad as we had been led to expect. It took us an hour to get through, filling in random and meaningless forms, being sent to the back of the queue because we hadn't written the car make and registration number on the BACK of one form and being pestered for money from the officials on duty. And Charlie and I got ripped off for £10.00 within five minutes of arriving at the border. A "helper" latched onto us with a sheaf of official forms in his hand, demanded £20.00, Charlie gave him £10.00 and the tout took the money and then started a long argument because he wanted £10.00 EACH but we stood our ground. We filled in the small form as directed to in broken English, he took them and our passports away for 2 minutes, brought them back and then followed another ten-minute argument because he wanted more money. Only when we became aggressive and abusive and he realised he wasn't going to get any more out of us did he ungraciously hand over the forms and our passports. He had made £10.00 in ten minutes and we still had to negotiate the chaos of customs and immigration, where the forms were freely available anyway. (Always a sucker!) I thought he, like the "facilitators" at the Zimbabwe border, was going to "facilitate" us all the way through. Twenty minutes into Africa and we'd already been ripped off and I wasn't happy. The customs officers were slovenly, walls paint-spattered, torn cloth on the tables, dirty and chaotic. While we watched, an official's stamp fell apart as a screw came loose; no queues, just pushing crowds at tiny windows. Cries of, "He's putting his jacket on, he's going off for lunch!" and "Empty the car!" from crowds of laughing P-D participants revelling in each others' misfortunes. We finally got through and headed along the coast together with Frank and George, the day clear and crisp, the sky a deep blue above the pale rocky coastal mountains. I had managed to persuade the group to take the inland route over the High Atlas and into the desert on the other side which continues unbroken to the Algerian border. It turns out, though, that I badly underestimated the distances involved. Mark has done a similar trip two years ago in a truck and they took seven days to complete what we were proposing to do in two. It is just not possible without killing ourselves and the cars - 840 ks over very rough, narrow mountainous roads with suicide trucks and bush taxis on every corner. But we only decided that later. As we left the coast road and headed inland into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains from Tetouan to Chefchaouen the road climbed and switch backed up and up, seeming to go back in time as we climbed: men ploughing the land with wooden ploughs pulled by donkeys and emaciated horses; sowing wheat by hand like in Biblical times; ridiculously overloaded hay trucks overtaking slowly up hills; cacti with ripe prickly pears and dark-leaved trees laden with oranges; olive groves dark and cool; strangely plastered hay-stacks like little cottages on the sides of the road; ropes of onions and beautiful ceramic plates and jars for sale. From Chefchaouen we travelled across a wide, fertile plain before again climbing; then another plain and then another climb, the sun beginning to set and the mountains and plains softening and turning purple. We were making slow time and my vision of the desert road was fading. We decided, instead, to make for Meknes and camp there for the night and then push on to Marrkech tomorrow - a mere 467 kms. Thirty-five kilometres before Meknes we stopped to look at a beautifully preserved 2nd Century Roman town, Volubilis, with arches and columns still standing, an olive press with channels for the oil to run, incredibly beautiful mosaics in a perfect state of preservation, channels and flues for under-floor heating - we could have stayed hours but the sun was setting and we had to find the camp site. We reached the sprawling, mad, bustling city of Meknes just after dark and it took us a frustrating hour to find the camp site. We quickly set up the tents and cooked supper, sitting around and drinking red wine and reminiscing over a long and eventful day. And as so often happens on these long journeys, half an hour later another three P/D cars arrived and set up camp next to us. They had been going well but one had burst a radiator hose and they had had to stop to make emergency repairs. The other car, a Citroen, was making unpleasant noises from the half-shafts but still going. At nine we all decided to visit the city centre and explore the medina, the commercial hub of an old Arab city. Meknes was once the foremost city in Morocco and has 25 kms of high, thick crenulated mud walls surrounding it; the souk is a rabbit warren of a place with narrow cobbled alleys winding through arched gaps between high walls with hundreds of small shops making and selling everything on either side, including camel heads staring dolefully from butchers' tables and mounds of beautifully polished and arranged oranges and black and brown olives. Although we had eaten, others in our group hadn't and we were lured by a Moroccan man into a small, low doorway which, once we entered, opened out into the most amazing Moorish restaurant, high ceiling, ornate mosaics up the walls all decorated in black, red and gold. We spent until nearly midnight there, eating local dishes and chatting - sharing anecdotes about the trip so far, previous travel experiences and generally getting to know each other. On our way out we came across another P/D group of about twelve, eating kebabs at a small street restaurant. Then back to the tents for a late crawl into sleeping bags. Day 5: Marrakech A long, hard day. We are tired now but still need to do 1350 kms during the next 3 days before a scheduled rest day in Dakhla, southern Morocco, and our next group meeting. I awoke at 6.45, cold, tired and uncomfortable. Thoughts of "Why am I doing this when I could be snug and warm and comfortable in my bed at home?" crept in but I dismissed them by turning on the gas stove, which warmed the tent nicely, and making a cup of tea. We got away by 9 and paused briefly to look at the old city walls with their beautiful ornately- coloured doorways, and the Great Mosque. Except for petrol stops, a lunch stop and two friendly police stops, we drove steadily until 4.30 through a landscape which grew increasingly dry as we descended from the Middle Atlas, with their clear cold air and stark isolation, to the low coastal plains. As the mountains fell behind us, we encountered more people, more filth and more typical African attitude to bits of machinery and abandoned cars left on the side of the road, falling-down walls and general decay in the towns and villages - so much so that at times it felt like we were passing through a bombed-out Beirut, except that the buildings were like that by design and neglect rather than war. In these places the air smells of rotting garbage and smoke and the stench of burned diesel from the many decrepit trucks that wallow about the roads belching fumes. Often it is only the front of buildings that are painted, plastered or decorated in any way, a façade to hide the crumbling side and back walls. Buildings are constructed by making up pillars and cross-members of reinforced concrete (the bits of reinforcing iron protruding above the flat roofs are just left there and not trimmed away) and then the gaps between are filled with badly-laid breezeblocks. When scaffolding needs to be put up, a pole-shaped hole is knocked into one (or both) sides of a breezeblock and the scaffolding pole thrust through. Mostly unpainted, and fronted by dirt pavements and garbage and broken-down vehicles, it is often an unpleasant but strangely exhilarating sight because it is so obviously foreign, so African. The streets seethe with pedestrians and cyclists and cars all working on the logical principle that someone will get out of the way before a collision occurs and (most of the time) it works because everyone is looking out for everyone else. Crossroads are negotiated by edging forwards until a gap can be pushed through; and, because everyone is polite and accommodating, the system functions very well. Without exception, drivers are polite, considerate and friendly. Outside the towns and villages, the roads are flanked on either side by rows of blue-gum trees and, behind these, the gnarled trunks and dark leaves of olive trees. The ground is stony and reminds me of the mountains of Lesotho and, in places, the dry thorn-veld of the Western Transvaal. On the way we met the little Trabant and three other P/D cars, all of whom, with minor niggling exceptions - leaking radiator and overheating - are going well. As we reached the outskirts of Marrakech, the gums and olives gave way to date palms; these, with the sandy ground and sparse vegetation, goat herders on the sides of the roads and men riding donkeys, give one a feeling of being in an Arab country and drawing near to the desert. I was looking forward to a hot shower, meeting up with the other participants, who have taken various routes from Ceuta to Marrakech and who will mostly be getting in later tonight, visiting the Djemaa el-Fna, the large market square in the old city with its open-air food stalls and centuries-old traditional entertainments that occur in the heart of the city each night. Day 6: Marrakech - Agadir Marrakech is known as the "Red City" because so many of the buildings are plastered with a slurry of local mud which has a deep red colour especially in the late evening light. Last night, after setting up camp, we took a taxi into the famous centre of Marrakech, the Djemaa el-Fna, to absorb the ambiance and sample local food. This huge open space in the heart of the city is transformed at night into a hive of activity - mostly men selling and serving food from plastic-covered stalls with wooden benches all round, where people sit and eat. Each has its smoky charcoal fire in the centre with food on offer displayed around the sides. Touts encourage passers-by to partake of their food with good-natured insistence, one repeating "Bloody good food -!" at us in a desperate attempt to encourage us to stay. We chose a place that looked fairly clean, ordered and ate a little bit of this and a little bit of that, aromatic and piquant local dishes in a chaotic bustle of humanity. Unfortunately the atmosphere was ruined when we came to pay and the owner attempted to rip us off. Despite prices clearly displayed he demanded about double; after much argument we thrust what we had calculated was the correct price and walked off, ignoring his shouts and threats. And then we went looking for some gifts and got properly ripped off - all of us - by sophisticated bargainers who wooed, flattered, plied us with tea, brow-beat, intimidated and carved us up with a smile on their faces. We stood no chance but at least we all bought some gifts for those left at home. Trying to cover the huge distances we need to cover each day makes it very difficult to look for suitable gifts; also, the endless drawn-out process of bargaining and the fact that nothing is priced (things seem to be sold on the principle of: the price of anything is whatever-the-stupid-tourist-can-be-duped- into-paying). Despite the annoyances of last night, today has been the best day of the trip so far. Even though we all feel tired, the four of us now travelling together are getting on well as a group and feeling as if we are really on our way now. We have driven steadily for 8-9 hours each day for five of the past six days with another 1100 kms to complete in the next two days before our rest day in Dakhla. We are, I suppose, trying to pack too much in and I hope our bodies will take it. We spent our first rest day in Gibraltar, lost the second because we decided to travel instead into the Middle Atlas mountains and so haven't really had a break at all. But at least the cars are going well - just reverse gear in ours and, at the end of today, a knocking sound from the engine when under load but Charlie is sure that it is just poor fuel. And so, to today: It took us an hour to get out of Marrakech because so few roads are sign posted, but we learned to stop in the middle of intersections and ask the policemen on duty. They, despite the line of cars that piled up behind us, didn't seem to mind (and nor did the drivers who waited patiently until we had got instructions). We then began the long drive up into the Atlas mountains on our way to Agadir. Charlie started driving this morning but, unfortunately, once he is in the driver's seat, it is very difficult to get him out. He is, to say the least, thick-skinned and subtle hints from me rebound without penetrating. He also seems to have only one aim: to drive. He will not stop to absorb the atmosphere of a place and seems totally uninterested in the people, the culture - anything but getting there! As we wound further and further into the mountains, the road became smaller, rougher and narrower. In the distance we could see peaks covered with snow and the mountain slopes became steeper and more barren. I finally managed to get Charlie to stop at a small mountain village so we could have a cup of coffee. Outside was freezing and an icy wind cut through our clothes. I took a walk up the street trying to get a feel of the place; at a street corner, a man stood in front of a brazier cooking small pieces of meat, a skinned goat thigh in one hand and the still- wet skin in the other, aromatic smoke perfuming the air. Next door was a small, dark blacksmith shop, grinder driven by an old washing-machine motor. The Arab blacksmith was making wrought- iron gates and other things using the most rudimentary of implements, fashioned from whatever comes to hand - in the African way. Amazing, in fact, how the people in these remote and poor places just make do. Mark and George happened by just then and we called in to a cold, windy café and drank a delicious cup of strong coffee. Then on, driving together, we wound up and up into the mountains, the soil red on bare mountain slopes with the snow-covered peaks beckoning in the distance. Still cold and windy, we passed small villages lined with dark-leaved gum trees, square mud-walled houses with tiny windows against the cold, perched on rocky slopes, some four-stories high; old terraced mountainsides seemingly cut out of the rock itself on one side of the road, a sheer drop into the valleys on the other. Charlie now in his element, the old rally-driver glint coming into his eyes, talking about under-steer and using the hand brake to "get the back out" as we negotiate hairpin bends with sheer drops on the right hand sides. And I don't think he's joking! Finally we reached the snow, the roads completely iced up and very slippery. Mark and George rather worried because they have tyres with very little tread and are afraid they might lose control. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in the snow and, like little children, had snow fights. Finally we had to leave the mountains as the road began to descend towards Ifni and a welcome hotel for the night. On the way, we passed another three P/D cars - a Datsun Skyline, Ford Orion and a Saab. At breakfast the next morning, Charlie smiled (a rare occurrence!) and cried, "Can we drive like idiots in the dessert?! Rally-mode - either in total control or out of control!" - and I don't think he was asking permission! Day 7 - Ifni - Laayoune Got away by 9.20 after a restful night and pleasant breakfast. In the morning light, the land was clearly more desert-like: red, stony soil with stunted bushes and prickly pears and we saw our first herd of camels. The Moroccan towns are interesting because nearly all buildings are square in shape, 2-3 stories high and without the distinctive Arab horseshoe arch. But what makes them unusual is that most buildings are painted with the same reddish-pink wash so that, in a certain light, they blend in with the surrounding countryside. In some towns, the ugliness of the concrete buildings is softened by trees planted on either side of the main street. Within an hour of setting off we were finally into desert - low stony hills with occasional sage and tamarisk bushes. The road is fairly narrow and bumpy but good - no potholes yet. Our little car is still going well - cruising at 120 kph across this level coastal plain and passing the occasional P/D car travelling more slowly along the same - and only - road south towards our rendezvous at Dakhla tomorrow night. Finally arrived at Laayoune at 5pm after a long drive. Very tired indeed now. The road from Sidi-Isni wound inland through low rocky coastal hills and increasingly dry desert landscape until, suddenly and unexpectedly, we came upon the sea, deep blue with large Atlantic swells crashing against a 30ft high cliff alongside of which the road ran, following the coast. We passed about five interesting shipwrecks along this stretch of coast, many herds of camels and some beautiful wide river estuaries. Then, in the distance, a band of real Sahara sand dunes appeared, soft-looking and sculptured by the wind. We passed quite quickly through them and then the road curved away inland but they were still visible in the distance for about an hour. We stopped for lunch, heading off the main road towards the sea cliff. Three men were fishing, perched right on the cliff-edge, casting their lines into the water. On either side, the cliffs continued until they disappeared into sea haze, the sea and sky still a startling blue and the large waves crashing and sending up spray which, when the wind blew, reached us standing near the edge. On either side huge chunks of the cliff had collapsed in to the sea and, as there was no beach at all, just a wall of red disappearing straight into the sea, if anyone had fallen there would be no rescuing them. On the way here our trusty little Fiesta finally started showing signs of tiredness: first the exhaust sheared just below the manifold (so we rode along sounding like a V8 tractor for the entire day) and then, at one of many police checkpoints, our top radiator hose burst. Charlie taped it up and we headed on, meeting familiar faces in other P/D cars on the way until four of us were travelling together: Charlie and I, Mark and George in the Renault, the little Trabant and David and Juan from the Isle of Man. We finally reached Laayoune at 4.30 and, while we checked into a cheap hotel, Charlie found a side-street workshop and had our exhaust welded. George, Mark and I took a long walk about the town and, as we made our way through the narrow side streets, we bumped into P/D friends all over the place. The big Mercedes delivery van was on the side of the road with water pouring from its water pump, the young Swiss Yamaha 125 rider looking exhausted, drinking tea at a pavement cafe. He has been setting out at 6 am each morning just to keep up because he can only make 90 kph top speed. They very quickly managed to find another street workshop and had the water pump repaired within an hour - in this part of Africa Mercedes and Renault spare parts are reasonable easy to obtain. That night we all went to a restaurant for supper and, as we sat, more and more P/D participants arrived, having seen the cars parked outside. In the end there were 18 of us, all sharing wildly exaggerated stories! Cars and people are starting to take strain now, all of us very tired. One car that we know of has dropped out, one had a gearbox replaced in France, the VW is now running on all 4 cylinders after travelling for days on 3; another's suspension has collapsed and had rubbers fitted to raise it. At 11.30 a group of us took a taxi to try to find a church which was supposed to be having a midnight mass but it was closed so off to bed by 12. It's now 12.15 and it's Christmas day! Day 8 Laayoune - Dakhla This morning George got up and opened his little stash of presents from home, including: a book to read and an elastic fly-killing catapult! Then he and George donned Father Christmas outfits complete with fake white beards and drove off through town, much to the amusement and confusion of the locals. Heading South now with a vengeance, although the trip continues to take its toll on the cars. More and more dusty and travel-stained participants and their vehicles are to be seen on the long drive to our next and last meeting at Dakhla and often we ride together in groups of 4 or 5 cars who travel at the same speed. The day is glorious - pale blue sky filled with cumulus clouds, pale turquoise sea turning deep blue as the clouds pass overhead. In the car the sun is hot but outside a chilly breeze makes the day comfortable. We continue to drive along a long, fairly straight road with the sea on our right, separated from us by between 100 metres and a few miles of desert, still with the 30-40 ft cliff plunging straight down and every now and then an interesting shipwreck. Just outside Laayune we came across a military Land Rover graveyard - over 150 wrecked Land Rovers in various states of decomposition, some Willys Jeeps, all neatly lined up for cannibalising but, by the looks of things, little is touched. Many had just 5000 kms on the clock and the average was 11-12,000. Mark and George, Land Rover enthusiasts both, spent a happy hour there like little boys in a sweet shop. Two hours into the day we saw a group of cars and people on the side of the road ahead. It was a number of the P/D group clustered around one of the VW beetles which, sadly, seemed to have broken a timing chain - the fuel pump wasn't working, there was no compression and horrible clanking noises were coming from inside the engine. One of the cars attached a rope and towed them. (After we had arrived in The Gambia we heard the full story. The timing chain had broken and all sorts of damage done to the engine. A street garage in Laayune pulled it apart, managed to locate spares a few hundred kilometres away, fetched them and completed the job only to find the spares were wrong; located more spares from Marrakech and completed the job. The two drivers were delayed ten days before they could get going again but they were happy in a warm daze of cheap kif - a strong local marijuana - and finally finished the rally.) But at the time, standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere while various men peered into the engine compartment of the little VW made me realise again just how vulnerable we are - yes, we have fellow competitors who stop and offer advice and assistance, but when it comes down to it, if the car packs up completely, you are on your own and have to find your own way back - the idea of another vehicle fitting you and your luggage in and completing the trip all in one vehicle is pretty remote; every car is pretty overloaded as it is and there is little spare room, except in some of the larger 4X4s. Even for less serious breakdowns, while repairs are being effected, the rest just carry on and you have to catch up as best you can. I felt very sorry for the VW guys as we drove away; I do hope they can get the car fixed. They seemed so lost and vulnerable - neither seemed to have any mechanical knowledge at all. We stopped for lunch again on the cliff-top with the Trabant and the David and Juan in the Ford Orion and Matt Fletcher in the Renault 4; Matt works as a sound technician with BBC radio and is making an audio diary of the trip. Charlie made a cook-up of pot noodles, his staple diet on the trip, and I ate a Christmas lunch of tuna salad from the tin, stale bread roll and an apple - delicious! I wouldn't swap it for the world! As we headed back to the road over rocks and sand, the Ford ripped its exhaust apart but with the Isle of Man flag flying and the Welsh flag fluttering above the Trabant, we continued, quite far behind schedule - 340 kms to go this afternoon. Finally, though, we reached Dakhla without incident and set up camp. P/D cars coming in steadily, each with a tale to tell - stuck in the snow in the High Atlas, having to push and manoeuvre various trucks and buses out of the way to get through; another found all main routes blocked by snow but decided to follow a small road marked on the map and made it through remote and beautiful mountain passes to the lowlands; the South African pair in a Subaru 4X4 who bought a leg of lamb in Laayune and plan to braai it tonight (or dig a hole and make a bush oven!) and who got ice from a fish factory to keep their beers cold (typical South Africans!). The fire engine is here and still going steadily (although the umpteen crates of beer they brought along are weighing the thing down); the Nissan 4X4 has had to have a new alternator fitted and evidently the Ford Camero is planning to do 90 mph on a flat stretch of desert outside town tomorrow and set a new Moroccan record! Dakhla itself is situated at the end of a 40 km sand spit which protrudes from the coast of Southern Morocco and our camp site is just outside town. The drive along the spit was beautiful with the sea very close and the road raised in places above what seem to be sandy tidal flats. I was so tempted to try a little off-roading but Charlie wasn't interested and it did look very soft. The South Africans are interested in trying tomorrow so perhaps a few of us will venture forth! We need, over the next two days, to form into groups of 5 cars for the desert crossing. Rest day tomorrow. Day 9: Sunday 26th December - Rest Day - Dakhla A welcome day of rest - listening to music, reading, flying kites, organising a game of football (British vs the foreigners!), tinkering with the cars and doing last-minute preparations, repacking, filling up with fuel and water, finalising the groups of 5 cars. Charlie raised our sump guard a little to give a cm more ground clearance and removed the thermostat to help keep the engine cool. The VW Beetle was towed away to a garage in Dakhla where I hope it can be repaired; unlikely because there are just no VW spares around here. If it can't be repaired they will have to abandon it. There is such a lovely sense of camaraderie here with people strolling about, chatting, asking how things are going, borrowing this and that - a spanner, a globe, a piece of wire - sharing tactics for desert driving. I'm so looking forward to the desert crossing. Our group of 5 has now been settled: Charlie and me in the little Fiesta, Mark and George in the Citroen, the little Trabant (how on earth did THAT happen?), Matt Fletcher (the BBC guy) and his girlfriend and David and Juan from the Isle of Wight. This afternoon by 4 pm I was bored with resting all day and, while Charlie was having a sleep, I took the car for a drive out into the desert. I loaded the sand mats in the back and was very careful to keep on fairly firm sand - wonderful! The solitude and the vast emptiness of the desert create a very special emotion and, although it is good to be travelling as part of a group, I find it important to spend some time alone. I enjoyed this so much that I felt I had to share the experience so drove back to camp, woke Charlie and let him drive off-road - he was like a dog with two tails! We headed further along the peninsular and came across another three P/D groups who had been playing in some very soft sand - two 4X4s and a small Renault. Of course, we had to follow suit and headed off the road, down a steep bank of deep soft sand and onto the plain. Within 100m we were stuck! We got the sand mats out, dug the sand from in front of the wheels and, with me pushing, we got going but were stuck again with 25m. Every time Charlie tried to turn, even ever so slightly, to get back to the road and firm sand, the front wheels acted like plough shares and dug in. The car didn't have sufficient power to get into 2nd gear and first gear was too low to get the car riding on the sand instead of ploughing through it and digging in. In the end we let the tyres down and, with a final push, Charlie got going again and made it back to the road. Evidently the fire engine is joining our group - interesting. One of the Citroen drivers discovered late this evening that their clutch cable was hanging from about 4 strands; they had no spare so removed it, got a taxi into Dakhla and a small back street workshop with no lights, made up another one in half an hour for £15.00! Briefing over and ready for bed. It's only 9 pm but a howling wind has been blowing for two days now and we are sick of it. Inside the tent it's cosy and warm; we have located BBC World on the radio and I'm listening to the reports of a huge earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the havoc it has created. Evidently a large tsunami has devastated large areas of land. Day 10: Into Mauritania and the Desert Some more extracts from the "Route Instructions": "ABOUT GUIDES: There is one minefield guide, the desert guide and the customs escort. Just be aware that there are good ones and bad ones. Our desert guide was pretty useless or possibly devious. He will take your car logbook for the duration (so take a duplicate and give him that!) Ours got lost and wouldn't listen when told." "ABOUT SAND When you get stuck (and you will).you will need a piece of wood for your car jack.best to let your tyres down.drive too slow and you get stuck, too fast and you do unspeakable things to your suspension and exhaust. Just remember not to ride your clutch but do rev the balls off the engine as you need power to get through soft sand." "ABOUT INSURANCE: .do not expect to be able to claim on any African insurance policy." "ABOUT FUEL AND WATER: It is advisable to buy petrol whenever it is available. It is not unusual for petrol stations to be completely out.Worse than running out of fuel is running out of water, so carry at least twice what you think you will need at any point in time. Better not waste drinking water on washing up in the more remote places." Last day in Morocco. The slower vehicles - like the fire engine - left last night on the 350 km drive to the Mauritanian border. Others left at about 6.30 in the dark. Because we are reasonably fast, we got away by 7.45 and will catch the rest of our group on the road. Endless miles of nothing - vast tracts of flat stony desert stretch in front, behind and on either side of us with occasional glimpses of the sea on our right. The land is barren but for the occasional small bush struggling for life. We see no birds and no animals except for camels, scrawny dogs in the cities, the occasional friendly cat and 2 or 3 little brown mice that ran across the road. Not even the ubiquitous donkeys or goats seem to be able to survive out here. As we drove along, a brief glimpse of England came to mind: the greenness, the quaint little villages and winding roads, the variety of countryside compared to what we have become used to: hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of straight, level road with nothing but stony desert and the occasional settlement or town, police and army checkpoints every 100 kms or so who, fortunately, are very friendly and shake our hands and ask for our fiches - photocopied sheets of paper with all our details on which saves us the hassle of dictating all our personal information to every policeman or soldier who deigns to stop us. They glance at these, usually ask our profession and then wave us on. They must have piles of these which I'm sure they don't look at in any detail. One wag in the group filled in on his fiche: Father's Name: Daddy; Mother's Name: Mummy! I am now writing this on the other side of the Mauritanian border. It is 6 pm and we have driven round in circles for 5 hours, getting stuck (not us - yet!), crawling along the most atrocious roads imaginable in first gear. The 320 kms to the Mauritanian border were fine, just kilometre after kilometre of desolation, the wind howling (as it has done now for the past 3 days) sand being blown across the road so that at times it is completely hidden as if under a swirling mist. Even the sky is white with dust and sand. What this place must be like in mid summer does not bear thinking about. I have travelled quite a bit in Africa and yet I have never been in a place so desolate, so far from anywhere, so empty of anything - people, animals, birds, vegetation or water. If we were not travelling as part of a group, this place would be very scary; I would hate to travel it alone. We passed through the Moroccan border before midday and immediately the tar road ceased to be. The track towards Mauritania through the minefield was rocky and potholed with sneaky stretches of soft sand and soon the unwary and inexperienced began to get stuck. We came to a 3-way fork and Mark, who was leading and who did this route a few years ago, insisted we take the right fork. Bad move! We struggled along for about 7 kms at just over walking pace, scraping over rocks and carefully choosing the best track. More from the "Route Instructions: "INTO MAURITANIA: This is the end of your holiday. Things get serious now. Leave your ego here. It's time to break into groups of five vehicles and (despite the idiosyncrasies) co-operate with the other crews. Try to share the teams with satellite phones and GPS so each group has one in case of emergencies. This is the last day our mobiles will work. Beware of landmines that are unmarked and can kill." Then, ahead of us, the road suddenly stopped. It had been deliberately blocked by a 7 ft high wall of bulldozed earth which stretched away on both sides of the road for about 30 metres. There was no way round because of very soft sand. By now we were sixteen vehicles and agitated consultation took place. Mark was adamant that this was the right track; some wanted to turn back; others suggested digging partly through the barrier and making a ramp, using all our combined sand mats and ladders and manpower to manoeuvre the vehicles over. And this we did! Great spirit and camaraderie, spades out and everyone digging. In about half an hour we had dug about half way through the barrier and spread the sand into ramps on both sides. Then, one by one, we drove, ramped, stuck, pushed, tried again, pulled with the 4X4 until all cars were through. We then all waited while the Trabant's exhaust system, which had been ripped off, was repaired. Just as we were finishing the job, over the horizon appeared a number of soldiers, shouting and waving their hands. Quick debate: shall we make a run for it? Saner minds prevailed and, with much gesturing, bad French and sign language we realised that the border between Morocco and Mauritania had been moved, a number of months ago, to one of the other tracks from the 3-way fork we passed about 7 kms back, and this abandoned road had been blocked by bull-dozing the wall of sand across it. We had, therefore, entered Mauritania without getting our passports stamped so we had no option but to turn round, ramp, pull, push, drag the vehicles over the half dug down wall again, bounce and bump our way back to the 3-way fork and then, after milling about and not really knowing where we were going (and all of this in a mine field - although we scrupulously stayed on the track at all times!) and the wind howled and filled every exposed orifice and our hair with sand, we finally reached the border. We have hired a guide who will lead through the Mauritanian desert over the next 3 - 4 days. Day 11 - Rest Day - Nouadhibou From the "Route Instructions: "Nouadhibo is rumoured to be an outlaw town run by criminals." Awoke to a gale blowing yet again with blown sand turning the sky milky and making walking about quite unpleasant. 4th day of high winds and flailing sand - the dreaded Harmittan of the Sahara doing its thing. Made coffee and then went for a long walk through Nouadhibou and onto the beach opposite the harbour. Nouadhibou is a fascinating town reflecting the extreme poverty of this part of Africa. Every street seems to reflect poverty and the local people's struggle for mere survival. Men - it's mostly men and very few women are to be seen - crouch on street corners in aimless lassitude; hundreds of tiny shops, some just a few feet square, some just consisting of one or two items placed on a small piece of cloth spread out on the pavement, sell anything and everything, the desperate seller sitting all day hoping that his packet of cigarettes or his few hats or small pile of biscuits or whatever will be sold so he can eat. A dead dog is left to rot and stink on the pavement; men stand about, holding out cheap mobile phones and scratch cards to passers by; unspeakably wrecked cars drive about, so wrecked that not even scrap yards in England would take one. I found it very emotional and reflected again, as I have done so often on this trip, on the sick richness of the West and the abject poverty to be found in Africa. But I am also aware that charity and handouts, UN aid and relief organisations are not the answer and tend merely to breed a philosophy of apathy, a "give-me" attitude to life which stifles initiative and weakens the vital natural law of survival of the fittest. I don't know the answer and just thank God I was born where I was and am who I am. This town is the antithesis of the quaint orderliness of an English country town in every way but I have yet to witness an incident of anger or road rage, I have yet to see a bored yob or a single incident of drunkenness. For drunken yobs to flourish, perhaps, requires the apparent sophistication of a society which allows people the money, freedom from want and handouts which make these excesses possible. The coast around Nouadhibou is a surreal landscape littered with wrecked ships; there are lines of them both on the beach and with their superstructures protruding from the water further out in the bay. I walked for about two miles along the coast - feeling rather alone and vulnerable, I must admit - and then came back to our campsite, on the way stopping to buy bread and delicious onion bargees and some eggs for supper. The entire purchase was conducted by gestures from both of us without a word being uttered and we got by perfectly! I was rather taken aback, though, when the shopkeeper refused to accept a very grubby Ouguiya note, paper thin and stuck together with sticky tape! Most of the other notes are in this shockingly poor condition but the one I tendered in good faith was obviously beyond the pale! Mauritania seems to be a joining of the Arab north and the West African south; the Arabs seem to be generally more wealthy, their clothes are rich and colourful, while the Negroid people seem to be generally poor and given the menial jobs. What I have most enjoyed about this city/town (other than its colours and smells and dilapidation so foreign to us) is the fact that, because it is most definitely not on the tourist route, life goes on about one as if one is not there. There are almost no touts selling souvenirs, no shops catering for tourists; other than potential guides to lead us across the desert and two people selling things in the campsite, I have not been approached by a single person to try to sell me something. I have gone out of my way to walk all over the town, along the beach, into a fascinating area of open-air ships chandlery covering hundreds of square metres where one can purchase anything new but mostly second hand (salvaged from the hundreds of sunken and beached ships along the coastline), watched the fishermen on the beach with their beautiful long, slender, brightly-painted boats offload fish and octopus on the shore, pulled up by little donkeys drawing rudimentary carts - and in all this walking, although I have felt very exposed and vulnerable being a lone European in a city full of very poor people, I have not once been approached or solicited other than for the exchange of a friendly greeting or a smile and an opening conversation in French. A most memorable stay in a fascinating city and perhaps the most special day of the while trip so far. Tried to make a delicious omelette for supper tonight until I realised too late that the eggs I had bought earlier were hard-boiled! Day 12: Into the Desert From the "Route Instructions: "The going is firm but sandy. Desert Camp 1 is next to a tall dune. there is a hut and a rusty Merc. the locals may kill a goat for you but the flies are epic." It is difficult to find words to describe the sheer joy of today! Again and again throughout this day's journey both Charlie and I exclaimed to each other with a delirious sense of wonder - we are in the Sahara! We are crossing the desert, hour after hour of nothing but sand and rocks, mostly trackless, for about 200 kms without seeing a person, a goat, a camel - anything! This is what we came for; this is what we've dreamed about for so many months - in fact, what I have dreamed about ever since I was 20 and Glynis and I met our first trans-Africa overlanders in a Series 2 Land Rover in Durban and the adventure travel bug bit deeply. I'm just so sad that Glynis has not been able to share it with me. The morning started inauspiciously with two cars getting stuck in the soft sand of the camp site(!), one car not starting because sand had got into his distributor and worn the cam flat effectively closing his points! Then another car discovered a leak in its petrol tank. We got everyone ship-shape, filled up with fuel, bought bread for 3 days and headed out on a newly- constructed road towards Nouakchott. After a frustrating hour, we finally turned off into the desert following a rough track which alternated between very stony and very soft. Cars were getting stuck regularly but with 10 of us in our 5-car group, many willing hands, tyres let down to about 0.7 bar, we could always extricate ourselves. Then, finally, there were no tracks! We were driving across the desert proper, 5 little old cars, in one of the most remote places in Africa. The Western Sahara! The Sahara desert! The surface was infinitely changing, stony, rocky, pebbly, very soft fine sand, long stretches of very black nuggets of iron ore covering the ground, the occasional acacia tree, stark and thorny, clinging to life, tufts of dry, yellow grass, each with its own little sand dune trailing off behind. These were dreadful to drive through because each was the height of a brick and, when hit at anything above a brisk walking pace, felt like hitting a pavement at speed. At first we shuddered and grimaced at each other each time we hit one, feeling as if we had ripped the suspension apart and checking in the rear-view mirror for bits of car left in the desert, but after an hour or so we became quite blasé about it and the poor little Fiesta pounded its way along at a jolly pace. How its suspension survived and wasn't ripped apart I just don't know. At one stage, though, we noticed that Mark's car was no longer behind us so, after waiting a long time for them to catch op or find us, a few cars drove back to look for them. It turned out that the car had broken an engine mounting which, with ingenuity and Marks "happy box" - his box of miscellaneous spares, bits and pieces to cope with any eventuality - they managed to strap up. Fortunately, although broken, the engine still rested on a cup-shaped depression in the mounting. We slowed down somewhat after that. While we were waiting, I walked away from the car into the desert towards a low range of rocky hills alongside of which we had been driving. It was so beautiful, austere and pure and clean, just nature in all her harsh beauty - a very special moment. At other times the desert surface was smooth and firm and we made our own tracks, at times driving at 80 kph in line abreast across the featureless, endless desert plain. It was then that we were most happy, sliding a little, making doughnuts in the sand, passing cameras from car to car while driving, racing each other, cutting each other off, sitting outside the door and hanging onto the roof, ramping up the sides of small dunes. A glorious, delicious time! We were supposed to be driving not more than about 80 ks into the desert on this first day and then, hopefully, meeting up with other groups to camp the night alongside a large dune. But our guide (whom we nicknamed 'Yoda' because of his small stature and unusual looks) decided on his own to take us where he wanted and, after about 280 ks we realised there was a problem. It was getting late and Yoda suggested leading us to the beach and camping there. We were not particularly happy but what could we do? I think he then got completely lost because we drove about, this way and that about the desert, up and down dunes and dry water-courses for another hour, getting stuck in the very soft places and generally going round in circles. Finally, as it was starting to get dark, Yoda led us to the base of a beautifully shaped barchan dune about 25 ft high and indicated that we would be camping here. One of the lads had a GPS and discovered we are still 15 kms from the coast and a very long way away from Nouakchott, only about one third of the way, in fact. This camp site is absolutely delightful, pure and untouched. George, usually so introverted and serious, rushed up to the top of the dune and leaped and rolled down like a little boy! We got our sand mats out and tried to sand-surf but they dug in and flung us off, rolling and flailing down the steep dune sides. We then put up our tents and made a fire with very dry wood we had collected throughout the day. I have decided to sleep under the stars. While I write this, the wind has finally died down (it's been blowing and filling the air with sand for the past 5 days now); we are sitting around the crackling fire chatting, nibbling olives and sipping whiskey from a bottle passed round the group; above us the sky is black and clear showing millions upon millions of stars so close you feel you could reach out and touch them. Day 13: 2nd desert day From the "Route Instructions": "This is a hard, hard day with lots of pushing and digging. Cars may die and be abandoned. Cars will die from smashed radiators, stuffed clutches and blown cambelts. you will be knackered." My decision to sleep under the stars last night was, in retrospect, unwise. Soon after bedding down, the wind came up again and sand blew into my face and hair no matter how I tried to cover up, rattling on my groundsheet like thousands of little insects crawling all over me. I did eventually get to sleep and woke just before dawn. The night was perfectly still, the moon very bright, casting a pale sheen over the desert. I could see a lightening in the East so, feeling rather cold and uncomfortable, I got up and made myself a cup of tea. Seeing I was already up and dawn was clearly imminent, I decided to set off over the sand dune behind us and towards the rose tint where the sun would rise. Just over the dune I noticed a number of tracks in the sand, obviously made during the night: birds, beetles and, most exciting, the paw prints of a 4-legged animal about the size of a dog, probably a desert fox. Amazing how, even in this featureless and apparently waterless desert, life is abundant. The desert landscape in the pre-dawn dark was beautiful and completely silent. I walked on for about two miles, crossing another two long dunes and a high ridge of rock. I kept on looking back to maintain my orientation and made sure my footprints were always clear in the sand. Every time I reached the top of a dune or ridge, there was another just ahead luring me on and which I just had to explore. Then, finally, the sun rose and I sat on the knife-edge of a dune crest and watched it, feeling the earth roll under me and tip. Reluctantly I headed back, following my trail over the dunes and back to camp where life was beginning to stir and coffee was being made. Today was a delightful repetition of yesterday. We left late after necessary vehicle maintenance and then drove on through the desert for about another 100 kms. At one stage Yoda stopped and let our tyres down even more because the land between the desert proper and the coast is made up of very soft sand and some quite high soft ridges. At times the tracks we were following were so soft and impassable that we branched off and headed through a low scrubby underbrush which had appeared as we neared the coast. Although the sand was very soft, the small bushes provided some traction for the tyres and this, with speed and momentum, kept the cars moving forward. We had to drive as fast as the terrain and soft sand permitted because, if any car bogged down, we all had to stop and it took at least 6 of us pushing and shoving to get the bogged car moving again. Although we are all now getting more confident in driving in soft sand, cars were regularly getting stuck and progress was slow. Finally, at about 1 pm, we reached the coast. The tide was fairly low exposing a firm, wide beach so we set off just above the water line. The wet sand just after a wave has sucked back was most firm and we flew along, soon becoming more confident and spraying through the waves as they swirled up the beach and becoming more and more daring. People hung out of windows, clung to roof racks, skimmed their feet in the water as we flew along. Finally, just after 4, we lugged our way up the soft sand above the high tide line and made camp. Some of us stripped off and had a welcome though icy bath in the sea while Mark and George headed back along the beach to a fishing village we had passed about 20 minutes before and returned just before dark with 10 fresh sea salmon and a dorado which we gutted and char-grilled over a driftwood fire. The dusty bottle of whiskey miraculously emerged again, a bottle of red wine was dug from the depths of some car, I contributed a pot full of new potatoes, some one else donated a plate of couscous, another tomato and onion, another chapattis and we all sat around the fire, peeling back the charred skin of the fish and eating the delicious white flesh with our fingers, with baked potatoes and tomato and onion chapattis on the side. A wonderful still evening with good food and a very close and friendly 10 people who have gelled into a very special and united group. Day 14: Friday 31 to New Year's Day I write this in a little hotel in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania. A mixed group of us have just wandered about this dilapidated town, visited the market and then had a delicious schwarma. I've been suffering from a bad headache for a number of hours which pills just don't seem to cure. The schwarma helped somewhat although I still feel as if I am walking about in a daze. We are all very tired but clean at last from a hotel shower. We have become used to sleeping, living and eating in sand. In the desert we would clean our pots and plates with dry sand and then wipe plates and eating utensils free of sand before eating. Any fastidiousness one had before the trip has gone. We eat bits of stale bread, eat out of the same tin together and share spoons. Our clothes are dusty and we smell of fire. As the groups come in and share war stories, it seems that much damage has been sustained through the desert run: the beautifully painted Escourt has been abandoned in the desert with an incurable electrical fault, sadly, and one car has been a little bent in the middle; David and Juan's car has burned out its clutch and this is hopefully being repaired in town today. They will follow on either later today or tomorrow. Even though there is no real need for groups of 5 to stay together any more after the desert section, our group wants to. The trip just wouldn't seem the same without them in front and behind us. We have all grown very close. New year's celebrations were a rather muted affair. A group of us walked into town, had a Coke and a pizza and then walked to the taxi rank to marvel at the unbelievable decrepitude of the town's working taxis. Imagine the worst example of a Renault 4 demolition-derby car on its last legs after having been rescued from total write-off and a prolonged stay on a scrap heap, raced until it is no longer fruitfully holding together and then dumped. Now picture a Mauritanian taxi driver finding it in a ditch and, joy, oh, joy! resurrecting it as a taxi in the town. No lights, panels rusting and rattling, bald tyres, doors hanging lopsidedly, boot held closed with a chain locked through punched holes, suspension propped up with bits of wood - a Mauritanian taxi, ready for service! And yet they are all so very polite, making way for others at intersections, none of which have traffic signals, stop or yield signs, even in the middle of town. As there are no rules, everyone just keeps out of everyone else's way, very politely with just the occasional toot to let you know they are there. Not a single example of road rage at all - we can certainly learn something from this gentle chaotic society. At 11 I returned to my room, my bed and a good book. Colin had to usher a dusky lady of the night, protesting vehemently, out of his room before he could get to bed, much to his indignation. 2005 tomorrow and into Senegal. Day 15: 1 January 2005 Nouakchott - Senegal I am sitting on my folding chair at the Senegalese border writing this. Some if the group have already been here for 6 hours and there seems to be no end in sight yet. This is rip-off Africa at its very worst. To get out of Mauritania, which was fairly simple, we had to visit 3 offices and pay at each one, the last quite openly asking for 2000 Ouguiya for each vehicle and 1000 for a "petit cadaux" because it's new year. He didn't ask, he demanded quite aggressively in his smug little way, leaning back fatly in his chair knowing he held all the cards in his fat little hands. A receipt for only one of the four payments was given. Then across a barrage (£10.00 to cross) and to the Senegalese border where a large group of P/D vehicles were parked up with participants milling about, sitting around on deck chairs, brewing cups of tea. Clearly they have been here for a long period of time and are attempting to psych the greedy Senegalese officials out. They are demanding 120 Euros per car in groups of 5 with 3 guides per group - fully paid for by us - for every 5 cars. Silly money. We are digging in our heels... The day started late as usual. We hoped to be away by 9 but got going in the end just before 12. Our exhaust broke off at the manifold again and needed to be welded. (it broke off again on the road here today.) The road from Nouakchott to Senegal is interesting, tar which varies in quality but has HUGE potholes every now and then which catch the unwary. (It would take so little effort to fill them but then, this is Africa!) As it was, we hit a few but escaped unscathed except for the exhaust breaking and our windscreen cracking from top to bottom. (In another group, two cars hit the same pothole one after the other and smashed 4 wheels within one minute.) The landscape has changed from very dry, semi-desert to coastal estuary as we reached the Senegal River. It was blowing a howling gale (again) and the sky and ground were white with dust - so white, in fact, that at times it looked as if it had been snowing. Visibility was only a few hundred yards. We passed over a number of established and a few new sand dunes, some with deep red sand like in the Kalahari and others with pale, almost white sand. Increasingly acacia trees appeared as the land turned to semi-desert and then to a dry savannah. Finally, after 200 kms, we reached Russo and found the little track which wound on and off the flood defence dyke which runs the length of the Senegal River from the barrage on the coast to Russo. This road, too, was a death trap for vehicles: dirt with numerous deep and wide drainage ditches which just appeared on either side of the dirt track. We hit a number of them, each time extending the cracks which are running around our windscreen with gay abandon. It's now 6.30 pm and little has happened at the Senegalese border. P/D cars are still straggling in, some being towed. Charlie is attempting to repair one and get it started as I write this. Many cars have lost their exhausts. People are beginning to prepare suppers next to the cars and brewing up endless cups of tea - settling in for a long wait while Frankie negotiates/argues with the officials. It's now 8 pm and we're still here. A price of 60 Euro per car has been agreed and I think we are waiting for some stragglers to arrive. Six more have just turned up as I write this, including the fire engine. They have just told me that Colin in the Trabant was last seen on the side of the road in the delta, on the shockingly bad dyke road. The car was on its side having broken a rear suspension strut and they had rolled it over to try to bodge a repair. We are the only one of our 5-car group to reach the border so far. Day 16: Rest Day - Zebrabar Camp It's 7 pm. I'm clean, rested, just had an ice cold beer, surrounded by P/D participants sharing anecdotes about the desert and beach crossings; a large fire is crackling, settling down for an evening braai and life is good! The Trabant and the rest of our group arrived just before midnight last night, having bodged the rear suspension with a bolt taken from another car's roof rack and a ratchet strap. Colin and Charlie spent the whole of today restructuring the rear suspension after turning the Trabant on its side for easy access. Fortunately this campsite has a welding machine and lots of bits of scrap. They welded in a shock absorber from a Toyota and straightened and bolted it all back together. I think, with prayer and some careful driving, it's going to make it. Another lucky escape story: the Mercedes van got bogged down to its axles on the beach with the tide coming in. They couldn't budge it, even with all 9 pushing. It was down to the chassis in the sand, water all round it and getting higher when, luckily, another group happened along the beach with a Land Rover. By then the water was so high that the Merc was starting to floating, the engine was off because the water was too high and the guide was screaming for everyone to get going because they were going to be trapped on the beach with a rising tide. With 18 people now pushing and the Land Rover pulling they finally managed to get it free and then they all made a dash for the low land before the tide caught them. Today I have rested, socialised, gone for a walk along the estuary looking at the birds, washed clothes, had a sleep, read my book and generally chilled out. Day 17 - Rest Day, Zebrabar Camp After a lazy morning and a late rise, a group of us took a local boat on the hour-long trip to St Louis, founded in 1659 by the French as the base for their colonial expansion into West Africa. The town, established on an island in the delta of the Senegal River thereby controlling access to the interior and providing an easy waterway inland, is now mouldering away despite being declared a world heritage site a number of years ago. Walking down its streets one could be in the heart of an old French or Spanish town, with crumbling pastel walls and overhanging wrought-iron balconies. I headed away into the bustling centre of St Louis, crossing the cast-iron bridge, originally designed by Gustav Ifel to cross the Danube, but it was decided to build it in St Louis in 1897. The centre seethed with humanity: pavement sellers, horse-drawn carts, pedestrians and tooting cars. I bought some peanuts and fruit for my lunch and absorbed the frenetic atmosphere of an African town then returned over the bridge (making way for a herd of goats passing the other way!). This time I avoided the main centre and made my way through a maze of little alleys through the local residential area where tens of thousands of people live in little breezeblock or mud houses opening onto small, sandy courtyards where tethered goats stand forlornly and children play. At times the alleys were no more than shoulder wide and, although I was deep inside the area where the local poor lived, I felt little fear. At one point, a number of small children ran up to me and held my hand, gabbling away to me and walking with me all the way to the beach. Emerging from the maze of buildings onto the beach was quite breathtaking: pure white sand with azure Atlantic waves breaking, blue sky studded with cumulus clouds and, above the tide line, a seething mass of humanity. The contrast was amazing and shocking: beautiful when close to the water, pure and clean, but between the packed shacks of the island and the tide line was a seething mass of people and ten million flies. Gaily-coloured fishing boats had been drawn up onto the beach and the fishermen were doing their thing; children played football on the sand wearing odd pieces of European football strip; women sat in groups pulling the heads off distinctly rotten fish and dumping the bodies into an egregious boiling soup of mud-coloured water in open 44-gallon drums under which fires burned. When par-boiled, the women scooped the fish bodies out, layered them in large baskets, sprinkling each layer with course salt; these will later be sold on the streets. When the "soup" became too obnoxious, they would pour it out on the sand next to the pulled-off heads - intestines, fins, tails, bones, scales - a disgusting pile which was immediately covered by millions of flies. It was strangely surreal - the white sand and azure water contrasting with the buzz of life and detritus of humanity further up the beach. Day 18: Southern Senegal Having been told to be ready to leave by 9 because we have to travel in convoy under guard (Senegal has a law which only permits cars under 5 years old to enter the country. Older cars may enter but have to be escorted the entire way by a customs official - at the owner's cost - and out the border on the other side.) But despite close on 50 cars ready and waiting in line with drivers getting increasingly impatient, our customs official (who looked disturbingly like Idi Amin) turned up late and proceeded to partake of a leisurely breakfast while we fumed, and hooted and passed comments which he ignores with infuriating sang-froid. Away finally in a long line by 10.40. We have been instructed to stop at the entrance to three towns on the way to be counted. I can tell it's going to be a long day. And so we made our slow way across Senegal, with lots of stops to check and count the convoy. On the way one of the Mercs packed up with a drive-shaft problem. We left it in the hands of a roadside mechanic and pressed on. It's getting hotter and hotter even though we are still a long way from the equator. Heaven knows what these places must be like in mid summer! Saw our first baobabs as well as vultures, starlings, lilac-breasted rollers and doves. No 4-footed wildlife to be seen, though, except the ubiquitous goats, the odd horse and camels. As we make our way south, though, more cattle are to be seen and the villages are cleaner and less poverty- stricken. School children wave to us as we pass. (I am still looking for a small rural school to give all our gifts to, collected by our pupils at Hayes.) It's 10.15 at night and we are finally in the Gambia - another 13-hour day of horrendous roads but, as usual, as the sun went down, the harsh African bush seemed to soften and quieten, the smells of cooking fires and silhouetted thorn and baobab trees all about. Our guide/guard insisted we press on for the border but most of the group rebelled and turned off unnoticed at a small town 20 kms from the border where there was a campsite. We didn't know they had done this because we were near the front of the convoy and when we reached the Senegalese border only 5 vehicles in the whole group were left, much to the anger and annoyance of our customs official/guard! Three of us decided to press on through the border thereby beating the rush and the other two vehicles turned back, afraid of the crowds of very pushy and in-your-face people who were surrounding us. Because we had done what our official had asked, he went out of his way to smooth our passage through the various stages of an African border. As a result of this, we were done and dusted in about fifteen minutes and, before we knew it, we realised we were at the Gambian border and the officials were speaking in English! Hallelujah! Just the ferry to cross and then to look for a place to sleep. We have done it! Our little Fiesta has simply purred the last 50 kms in Senegal, as tight and healthy-sounding as when we left - a marvellous, reliable little thing! Day 19: Senegal to The Gambia Slept the night under the stars on the side of the road because the last ferry had already left hours before we reached the river. We were woken at 5.30 by a group of local ferry "facilitators" so we could buy our ticket and be on the first ferry at 7 am. Finally drove onto the rust-bucket of a boat on which they managed to cram 3 trucks, 5 cars and 10 000 squashed people, sitting on the cars, on stairs, anywhere there was enough space for a body. Evidently, so we were told, a while ago when making the crossing during a howling gale, the ferry gave signs of imminent sinking so the passengers took matters into their own hands and pushed a truck overboard to lighten the load! Anything can happen in Africa! Alighted eventually and made our way through Banjoul and into the suburbs to the Safari Gardens Hotel, a wonderful place run by an ex-pat English couple who one day decided to "do something different". They welcomed us - smelly, dirty and bleary-eyed - sat us down on cane chairs at a clean table (there were even flowers in a pretty vase) and served us copious cups of coffee and a large English breakfast called, justifiably, "The Morning Glory"! Their hotel was fully booked by other more-organised P/D participants so they sent us off round the corner to an equivalent hotel run by local Gambians. It was, you may say, adequate. Sorry to sound slightly racist and South African, but having just driven through 3000 miles of Africa after 1000 miles of Europe, we have discovered some significantly obvious areas where European and African hotels differ: (This is a collective list, mind you, put together by a group of us P/D members and not my bigoted opinion alone, may it be said!) European hotels: · Have lights which come with light shades · Have light-switch covers not painted over with wall paint · Have toilets whose seats are attached to the bowl and bowls which are attached to the floor · Are clean · Have water emerging from both taps (preferably at the same time) · Have clean cutlery and enough plates for the number of people sitting at the table · Are able to find change when one pays one's bill · Don't allow prostitutes or touts to wander the corridors at will · Have pictures which hang straight on the walls · Have tiles which are not cracked · Have showers with roses · Have all four screws in the door handles I could go on for pages but - point made. Not a single one of the above would normally cost much to do/fix and yet it never is. It's the African way. If it breaks, so what? - leave it. If there's a pothole in the road which regularly breaks car suspensions, so what? - drive around it. It would take half an hour to patch it, but it is just left, month after month, getting bigger and bigger, breaking cars' suspensions until a well-marked track has been made where cars leave the road to miss it. If water comes from one of the 2 taps in the basin - what's the problem, you got water haven't you? If only one light works in the room, you've got light, so what's the problem? If change can't be given, shrug your shoulders and keep the difference (them, not us). If you live far away from your work and the transport is poor so you can only get to work by 10 or 11 am, that's just how it is. It's not your fault that the transport is bad. You would get to work at 9 if you could but you can't, so. And it's all OK. You don't work the extra hour you missed after 5 or by working through your lunch hour to make up. Instead you probably leave an hour early because the transport is bad and you need to get home and it's not your fault, it's the fault of the transport, so. No, I must stop. It's why I simply can't live in Africa any more. Spent a gloriously lazy day, clean and refreshed, drinking ice-cold Cokes at little tables under the cool foliage in the courtyard of the Safari Gardens, waiting for the other vehicles to straggle in. They finally started arriving after 3. Juan and Matt, 2 of our desert group, had to be towed the last 30 kms by the Trabant after their clutch finally gave way again just before the Gambian border. Four other cars were also towed in during the night. Then followed a lovely evening relaxing and chatting, eating and drinking with all the participants we have got to know so well over the past 2 weeks. (Charlie has managed to get an early flight and has flown home, leaving me with the car.) It's good to be here at last. Finally managed to phone home after being incommunicado for 8 days. Day 20: Banjoul The day of the big parade! I was so sick of the African "service" at our hotel that I packed up this morning and left for a campsite run by a German couple I have found. I write this in my own little thatched rondavel, cool and shady, with mosquito net over my bed and a paraffin lamp for light and bird sounds all about. Rustic and special. We met for the parade outside the town stadium, cars all clean and smart, ready to show off to the town and attract potential buyers for the charity auction. Led by the police, we wound our way into town, lights on, horns blaring and with many a wave and encouraging shouts from the locals. We paraded for an hour, even stopping to have our hands shaken by the local mayor. The rest of the day I rested, relaxing quietly outside my little rondavel, then I drove to the coast for a delicious swim. There were even some waves for body surfing. What was, for me, sad, though, was right along the tourist beach where overweight pale whites toasted their flesh, many of the women topless, there were Gambian guards in uniform every 50 metres or so keeping the locals away. I can understand why - the tourist touts (youths in their late teens and early 20s with a glib patter and false bonhomie, far too ready to want to shake your hand and know your name before asking for money for a service not requested) are an absolute pain in the neck but it seemed a sad reflection on both our cultures that sunbathing Europeans in a state of socially unacceptable undress have to be guarded by local police while locals are prevented from enjoying their own beaches. Sex tourism, too, is an unfortunate blight in this area and a sad comment on our moral values. Back to my ronadvel and, over supper, I was invited to join a Dutch couple. The husband had just completed a desert crossing of 1200 kms in a Toyota Land Cruiser from Morocco to Mauritania, deep in the desert following the Algerian border. The Dutch couple and I shared our experiences over a glass or two of cheap red wine. They, too, are heading east soon and, despite warnings about the shocking state of the roads, I will head off on Sunday to explore central Gambia and, hopefully, I might see them on the road. Day 21: Eastern Gambia, following the Gambia River I am sitting at a small plastic table outside my little room in the compound of a local guest house in Mansa Konko; the diesel generator has just kicked in, giving me some light; I am relaxing with plastic cup of red wine, mosquitoes are probing my repellent defences (which so far have proved strong but I don't know how long they'll last!) and I am clean from a cold-water shower. Today I drove for 8 hours solid, covering a mere 180 kms over the most appalling pot-holed roads I have ever driven on. For most of the way cars and trucks have abandoned the road for the edge which necessitates a fairly dangerous drop and then driving with the car at a horrific angle, one wheel almost touching the road edge, a sharp tyre-cutting edge which can be up to 9 inches high, and the other brushing the trees, grass and nasty drops on the other edge! Very tiring, sometimes reduced to a mere walking pace, but the day has been worth it. I have seen something of the real Gambia, not the coastal zone clogged with humanity and tourist touts with their glib patter of insincere familiarity and middle-aged white women clinging with lascivious zeal to the arms of handsome local youths. Out here there is very little at all and the road snakes and bumps through groves of palm trees, mangrove forest, occasional villages and small fields of rice and groundnuts. I am still looking for a needy school. This road follows the meanderings of the Gambia River but about 1-2 kms South so. Becoming bored and looking to explore even more remote parts of the country, I took a small dirt track heading north, away from the "main road". After about 5 kms of winding dirt track, I eventually emerged from the thick trees and there, in front of me, was the river. It was about 400m across, muddy and fairly slow-flowing. Because of the flatness of Gambia, the river is tidal for about 300 kms inland, the banks muddy and covered with mangrove trees. Occasionally massive trees with magnificent buttress roots are to be seen. By 6 I was exhausted and managed to stumble upon this place - catering for local Gambians, cheap, clean and typical of rest houses throughout Africa. As soon as I arrived I was shown my room (with shower and toilet) a cold Coke was produced and a supper of omelettes (universal fare in Africa) offered. (Where there is an African village there are chickens, and where there are chickens there are eggs - hence Omlettes!) Tomorrow, I have decided, I am going to leave the car here and take a bush taxi up river to Georgetown, stay the night there and return by bush taxi the next day. It will save the car and give me a feel of local transport. Day 22: Georgetown I write this sitting at a plastic table in the courtyard of a small local rest house on the island of Georgetown, in the middle of the Gambia River. I am exhausted after a 7-hour struggle to cover a mere 120 kms; a group of enthusiastic but unskilled local drummers are beating the life out of bongo drums with more enthusiasm than rhythm just across the courtyard from where I am sitting. (I think they are hoping for some money from a young Australian back-packer whom I met on the ferry. She has been back- packing for the past 3 years and has taken 6 months to cover the same distance we did in 18 days!) Georgetown is/was quite an historical place, built on a large island in the centre of the Gambia river; it functioned as the centre of British administration of the interior during the period when slavery was being abolished and many slaves were freed here. Why it took so long for me to get here today? - I somewhat unwisely decided to cover this distance from where I spent last night, to spare the poor little Fiesta which is being battered unmercifully by these shockingly bad roads. I left the car this morning outside a friendly police station and dutifully made my way to the local taxi rank - where I sat for an hour with a growing crowd of Gambians all waiting for a bush taxi east. Finally one arrived and we all scrambled on (the Australian girl had waited 6 hours yesterday to get on a taxi because usually there are more people wanting a seat than there are seats available and the strongest or quickest gets one! - and she showed me a long scratch on her arm which she got while fighting for her seat. Squashed in the taxi, we then waited half an hour before we set off whilst the driver made sure every available space was filled with a body before he would even think of leaving. We managed to fit 24 into the taxi but then the battery was flat. A quick shout to those milling around outside, a push and we bump-started our way down the main street. I was surrounded by (squashed into) a friendly group of people - one was a Nigerian man who was setting off on a 2-year sabbatical, paid for by the Nigerian government, to share his expertise as a nurse with rural Gambian government hospitals. We shared peeled oranges and peanuts along the way, bumping and grating and thumping along. At one point we were stopped by the police who pointed to 4 of us (me included), marched us off to the police station and conducted a full search of all of us. And then, after hitting one of the atrocious pot-holes, the taxi broke its right rear spring. All piled out to peer underneath at the damage. Instead of being convex, the springs were concave, every one broken. Piled back in and drove slowly along the road until we came across a handy roadside al fresco workshop for repairs. Everybody out again to sit under the shade of a tree. In no time at all, the taxi was jacked up, springs detached from body and back axle dropped to the ground. EVERY spring leaf was broken, including a massive piece of truck spring holding everything together underneath. What ensued made the entire frustrating trip worthwhile! I observed the roadside mechanics go to their large scrap pile and select another thick piece of truck spring and then, using a 20lb hammer and an engine block as an anvil, bash the broken springs straight, find a bolt which would go through the centre holes and then reassemble all the broken pieces together, alternating so that each piece of broken spring was held in the middle by the centre bolt. They then attached the piece of truck spring onto the bottom, tied all the pieces together with lengths of car tube and then reassembled the whole back on the taxi! There was only one unbroken spring leaf on the whole vehicle! To be brief, we limped on. I changed taxis at a town where the road forks to Georgetown, squashed 28 into this taxi, over the ferry to the island and another taxi ride (10p) into the centre of Georgetown. It was, unfortunately, more of a dump than I had anticipated with one dirty rutted road down the centre with a few crumbling relics of the British occupation, a so- called "slave-house" where a local (self-appointed as the "curator") gave me his spiel and showed me a set of modern scaffolding clamps which he tried to pass off as ancient slave manacles. I pointed this out to him and he had the grace to look embarrassed. I asked him, if he was the "curator", why was the place so filthy and run-down; he replied, without a blush of shame, that he had only taken over a short while ago. How long ago? I asked him. - 2 years! A pleasant evening was spent at the rest house, sipping a beer, eating "omelette" and sharing travel anecdotes with the Australian. Not being prepared to face another uncertain day in a bush taxi, I organised a lift back to Mansa Konko tomorrow, where I left the Fiesta. Late last night, not being able to sleep because of the heat and the excitement of being again in Africa, I went for a walk, following dark sandy roads into town, listening to the sleepy sounds of people and animals and smelling the smoky African atmosphere. The generator which supplies the town with electricity had been shut down so that I could only make my way by the slightly paler road surface in front of me. Somewhere in the maze of small side streets I became aware of a flickering light illuminating someone hunched over a table in a large empty community hall. I decided to investigate and came upon an old man, crouched over a foot-treadle Singer sewing machine, busy making brightly-coloured print dresses by the pale light of a candle. We spoke a little and he told me that he buys pieces of material in bulk and makes them up into dresses during the night and then his daughter takes them and sells them in town. And I was profoundly moved: here was an old man, sitting up late into the night, labouring in dim candlelight so that he could feed his family; and, what is more, he was happy! He smiled a great deal when he talked to me and never complained about the lack of electricity or light or the burden of working long hours or the struggle to survive. To him it was natural: you work so you can live. You don't work, you don't live. And again, the shocking contrast between our cosseted world and the world of Africa was apparent to me and left me profoundly moved. Day 23: Return to Banjul My penultimate day in The Gambia. I am sitting on a most pleasant deck built out over the river, the only person in the camp, cold Coke consumed, chicken and rice ordered for supper (they will buy it from the local village which is just behind some massive baobab trees on the water's edge). I can hear people's voices, goats bleating, roosters crowing. The sun is setting and the river has taken on a smoky calmness so that the distant mangroves have faded away into white. On baobab branches above me are about 20 vultures; fork-tailed kites chase each other, mewling plaintively above me and, at the water's edge, a reed heron is dabbing away in the mud. On the river in front of me a local man poles his dugout canoe silently down the river. It is idyllic - just how the evening after a long day's travelling ought to be. I have washed (the shower is broken, of course, but a bucket of clean cold water and a mug was provided), have put on reasonably clean clothes, taken a long walk following the water's edge and am now sitting writing this as the sun goes down. In a way I have the best of both worlds: the comfort of a rustic bed (hand made from logs), a candle for light, cold water to bathe in, cold drinks, a chair to sit on and, in front of me, the most beautiful scene of raw Africa as it must have been when the explorers first came here. Not another tourist or white face anywhere about, locals who have not been tainted by the tourist disease - perfect. This is my second-to-last day. Tomorrow I drive the last 100 kms to Banjoul, hand the dear old Fiesta over for auction and get ready for my flight back home. I want to pause a little and absorb the sights and sounds and smells that surround me, absorb it so I can bring it back to mind when the frustration of life presses in upon me. Africa: frustrating, exhausting, dirty, chaotic but, in moments like these, with the wonderful, wild, happy rural people about and far from the corruption of the cities, the real Africa, which is so very special, emerges. I know Glynis would love this moment and am so sad she has not been able to share it with me. And so, I drive back to Banjoul, see a small sandy road heading off into the bush with a sign pointing to a school. I take it and find a small primary school with dirt field and bare-foot children playing during their lunch-break. I drive in and introduce myself to the headmaster and staff then, while they send a runner to call the head boy and girl, I pull out the box of goodies our school children have collected. The joy and wonder of it can be seen in the faces of the children as they crowd around. I leave them after swapping addresses and make my way home. And so "Operating on the naïve and obviously flawed premise that everything will turn out alright." - well, it has. The Plymouth- Dakar/Banjoul rally is over and all I have left are memories. On the dining-room wall at the German-run camp where I stayed in Banjoul was written: "The true yearning of every man is to mould his dreams with reality. Never let reality stifle your dreams." These are wise words and true.