Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Putting it all together

Sausages haven't figured much in my life recently, not since the field in Devon have specialist, gourmet bangers figured in my dietary landscape. My original idea of 'The sausage trail' has not completely disappeared from the horizon, in fact after the postponement of the Mongolia trip until 2013, when it will be less difficult to obtain the required visas for Will and me, I felt a higher resolve to make it happen.
The current plan is to replace the Mongolia trip with the journey to Murmansk, with a larger team. I assumed that I would wait have to wait to resume 'The sausage trail' until then but after reading, or starting to read (I am halfway through it) 'And did those feet' by Charlie Connelly I realised that with sufficient planning, dedication and a really good concept the wait was not necessary. An early night in order to have a good hard think about it and to see how this is going to fit in with my comedy, travel, writing and other such activities.
Resolution tomorrow.

Monday, 26 September 2011

After Amsters

Home again. A few days in Amsterdam and yet another realisation. The real, fundamental, reason for our trip was for Sam to meet up with two online buddies he had known through the game 'Everquest 2'. I have detailed events on Friday and described our encounters at the hostel, which I maintain is not a hostel, so I will not labour this.

Saturday was bright and clear. Dam square was full of opportunistic, fancy-dress clad icons; Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger, Gorillas and sexy national dress clad ladies so we took some photos.
A good morning all in all. I have been to Amsterdam, seven or eight times and have never taken the time to explore the tram-ways and squares of the city. With this in mind we schlepped off down to the train station and enquired about 24hr passes which we bought and set off to the Leidseplein to drink beer. We stayed basking in the bright, crisp sunlight of the Dutch autumn as musicians, break-dancers and wandering hawkers milled around the square.
After a couple of hours we returned to Nellys for lunch and a game of pool or two. It was at this point that Wiebe and Marjit (major apologies if I get the spelling wrong) turned up and suggested that we decamp to a Dutcher bar (if such a phrase exists). We dutifully followed the two brothers and end up at De Dokters where we drank dark Belgian beer until we were all a little drunk, except Marjit who had recently given up drinking. Some time later Sam was a bit worse for wear and it was suggested, can't remember by whom, that he return for a snooze. He staggered off possessed by some bizarre temporary homing instinct and I followed amused and curious. He found his way back to the hostel and went directly to bed, I ensured he was settled and returned to the bar to watch the football.
I sat with a stag party from Stoke and watched Stoke vs Manchester United whilst drinking more beer. After the game I availed myself of some Dutch fries and retired to the room. Sam was awake and quite ill, he had been violently sick since I left until minutes before I returned, just for a change. And so to sleep.

Sunday dawned bright and clear, I rose around eight with a hangover and decided to go for a walk as it would be some time before Sam tore himself away from his 'crows nest'. I sat with a coffee in Dam square and watched the world go by until just after ten when I rang Sam and we met up for breakfast.
The day passed gently and as our hangovers faded we revisited the Argentinian steak-house where we had eaten a fantastic meal on friday night. What a contrast, the food was almost inedible. I sent my steak back to spend some more time on the grill, medium-rare had somehow translated as not quite deceased, I am sure blood spurted when I made my first cut. Sam and I struggled through the shit fare, and as we were up early for our flight, repaired to Nellys for an early night.
We had the room to ourselves and for some reason ended up playing I-Spy for three hours. Believe me there's not that much to identify in a small, sparse room. I do maintain, Sam, that you cannot have 'green'. We eventually went to sleep and were awoken at various times in the night as co-habitants arrived and took to their beds.
Not much to say about our journey home, train, plane and car and we were back in Gosport. I went back to work and the weekend was over. All in all an enjoyable relaxing few days,no weed no red-light district and nothing controversial, but definitely NOT dull.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Waking up with more people that you went to sleep with!

The first point worth making is that 'hosteling' in a popular and cosmopolitan city such as Amsterdam in no resembles the same activity experienced when on journeys to out out of the way places. For example the hostel in Mopti, Mali, was an oasis of calm and security in a chaotic ocean of poverty, decay and danger (I include the wildlife and environment of the Sahara as much as the locals). It was as though the enclosed environs of the large multi-roomed building, compound is a more appropriate term, sought to create an air of isolation, generate a sense of safety. This it did and even though Tony and slept in a large, ten or twelve berth, mixed dormitory we felt relaxed in the knowledge that we were secure.
What a difference in Amsterdam. The hostel, not sure if actually qualifies as such but never mind, consists of three floors above the 'Durty Nellys' Irish bar on the outskirts of the red-light district of Amsterdam, more of that later. Our room lay on the second floor and contained six beds. Initially, when we checked in at the earliest stated time of 12pm, we had the room to ourselves. It was basic, with the smallest en-suite bathroom I have ever seen, but exactly as I expected. Compared to the faded shine of the Colibris in Larache, Morocco it was immaculate. After spending the afternoon mooching about the city and downing half-a-dozen pints both Sam and I opted for an early night. OK, we had a couple of hours snooze in the afternoon but that was due to the extremely early start. With the window open and the sounds of the leering and curious throng that milled around in the red glow of the alley-ways visible from our window, we fell into a light sleep.
The incongruous church clock that sat in the centre of the whore riddled streets struck the quarter-hour and I faded back to consciousness, there were harsh voices and footsteps in the hallway outside. I just knew this was someone additional for our small, yet cozy, room. Sure enough seconds later the door opened and high heels clattered in the darkness. Using a mobile phone for a light the unidentified intruder fumbled towards an empty bed by the window.
'Turn the light on if you really need to.' I offered, Sam grunted.
'Really? You sure?' An American, there seemed to be more from the USA in Amsterdam than any other nationality, even the Dutch.
Sam grunted again as harsh light illuminated the room making sleep a dim possibility. I checked my watch, ten to eleven. Much fumbling in suitcases and smaller bags ensued and it was twenty minutes later before accented voices from the hallway called for our new room mate and the room was plunged into darkness once more. I finally fell asleep around midnight.
I do seem to remember the door opening several more times but failed to register the reason. However when I awoke this morning, around seven, the room was full of slumbering occupants.
I rose and washed with the intention to get some breakfast at the bar downstairs. The free breakfast, already laid out, seemed poor fare so I will wait until the kitchen begins serving a 'Full Irish' at nine (three minutes hence). Predictable when I left the room Sam was still asleep and offered no more than the characteristic grunt, I'll kick him in an hour.

Yesterday was a nice slow day, even with the travel element. We arrived at twelve, checked in, were served a beer just to illustrate that it was cheaper as a guest. After a walk to Rembrantspien we deserved a few beers and sat watching the world pass for a coupe of hours. Then it was back to the hostel/bar for lunch which I must say was excellent. Back out for a few more beers and to get an IPhone charger for Sam. Then a snooze and dinner at an Argentinian steak house. Our chosen eatery was somewhere I had tried to patronise during a previous visit to Amsterdam but due to the late hour of our arrival had shut minutes earlier. Now, finally, I managed to order the large Sirloin Steak I had craved after driving from Prague to Amsterdam two years earlier.
Throughout the day Sam had received a call and texts from his 'Everquest 2' buddies. This MMORPG (Massive Multi=Player Online Role Playing Game for the uninitiated) provides players from around the globe a platform to make friends much the same way as a more conventional social networking site. Sam had been in contact with two brothers from Amsterdam for some years now and he finally has the opportunity to meet them.

Sorry, had to stop there for my full Irish breakfast, which was awesome and most welcome. With Mumford and Sons playing in the background I think that this is a great start to the day. Good omens hopefully. The plan is to visit the Van Gogh Museum and meet up with Sam's buddies this afternoon, and to find a power adapter so that I can charge the mac and keep the blog running. Blimey it's hot though.

Friday, 23 September 2011

In Amsterdam for a bit

After a rather unremarkable, or alternatively painless and easy, flight and train ride Sam and I find ourselves sitting in Durty Nellys Irish pub and hostel drinking Amstel and Cider respectively. predictably there was a stag party on our flight our of Southampton, this made me realise that there is seldom a 'Stag Night' rather a 'Stag weekend'; testament to the advent of cheap flights and an increase in disposable income coupled with the fact that couples are getting married at a greater age, hence an increased budget. Never mind.

We checked in to Durty Nellys, hovering at the edge of the red light district which in itself seems smaller and tamer that I remember from my first visit back in 1989, bloody hell!!

Don't want to write any more as I need food and to play pool.

More later.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared...

I used to love Mister Benn. I loved the idea that the mundane and every day can conceal a doorway to the fantastic, a portal where adventures exist for everyone, even the stereotypical Mister Benn. I guess that's what really appealed to me was that even the evidently dull and boring protagonist craved excitement. What I couldn't understand was at the end of each episode when he had triumphed of adversity, solved the problems of those he encountered in the many varied settings and was about to attend the Royal banquet (with a distinct opportunity to get it on with the princess), or is invited to an excellent piss up with pirates, circus folk or cowboys and indians that annoying little shit, 'The Shopkeeper' would put in an unwelcome appearance and direct our hero back to his fancy dress shop, BASTARD.


The foul, fun spoiling shopkeeper!

I would like to think that I am trying to keep the spirit of Mister Benn alive and well in this new millennium.

The last trip we did failed in certain respects, mainly that I don't feel that we raised enough money for our chosen charity or that my brother, Tony, was adequately supported by his employers who have a well publicised employee fundraising initiative. Perhaps we left the charity/fundraising/sponsorship far too late. This time I will start by approaching Howden's Joinery to secure some sponsorship, at least for Tony's time and hopefully a car, or two, and some equipment. Oh, and some money for our chosen charities, both local, which have yet to be decided.

Just realised that I have the Mister Benn DVD somewhere, narrated by Ray Brooks if I am not mistaken. I'm off to find it.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Launch Party

The date originally set for the Dakar Challenge Launch Party came and went. Julian Nowill, the flamboyant impresario of crap cars and breathtaking, adventurous routes, rescheduled this years event to coincide with 'Bradninch Rocks'; a music festival in a small village close to both the original farmer's field where the normalmeeting usually happens, and Cullompton. The latter has no relevance at all, it's merely thrown in for perspective. When I say perspective I mean that in comparison Bradninch makes Cullompton look like a sprawling metropolis.

We (me Sam and Bill) arrived just before noon. Tony, Gareth and Hayley (my brother and his two eldest) arrived twenty minutes later, not bad timing considering Tony left from Hull almost at the same time I left from Gosport.

At first sight the venue looked ideal, a slightly sloping,well looked after field, was already full of camper vans and a few expensive looking tents. We erected out small. lightweight affairs and began drinking as we cooked our collection of meat on experimental camping stoves.
And of course really inefficient, cheap disposable BBQ units.

It was good, really good, to meet up with Graeme and Dave again; we met and chatted last momentarily last year. They were hardy sorts and keen to push themselves as much as possible, kindred spirits in a cliched way I suppose. When we saw them over twelve months ago they were about to embark on the 'Metros to Murmansk' run, our goal next year. This year they were embarking on the Timbuktu challenge, our destination last year. We exchanged advice, very successfully. We even managed to attract a crowd of those solid, brave souls leaving for Timbuktu at the same time as Graeme and Dave.

We, Tony and I that is, related our experiences from the trip over Christmas last year, then trailed off to check out what the Bradninch Rocksfestival had to offer. Things get a bit hazy from here but I do recall that there were definitely two, perhaps three, factions present at the festival; the rally contingent, the honest, genuine, Bradninch contingent and the 'kin violent, useless, up-their-arse, chav contingent. The latter really spoiled it for all of us. I, thankfully, slept through most of the pointless, childish attacks on the honest clientele. We were saved any attention due to the fact that my brother, Tony, was so incensed at the disappearance of his daughter at 3 AM that his rage gave the underclass no doubt that if they wanted someone to fall on them like a tsunami he was it. They melted away like the pathetic cowards they are. Just as well really, for them, as they had made the event a bad memory. Tony needed retribution, in a strange way I wish the sad posturing and abuse aimed at my brother would have pushed him to the point where he would have not only sent them packing, but, sent them to hospital.

We woke, I did anyway. Start again. As the sun began to warm my small, two-man-tent and evaporate the light condensation, I openedmy eyes and light and sound began to pervade my dulled senses. The OO-OOs, as Emma (my wife) calls wood-pigeons or collared doves, made me smile and reminded me of the times I awake at our holiday home in Warsash. I was cold, uncomfortably cold,so dragged myself out of the small green tent:

(The one in the middle) and sorted the chaotic campsite out. Tony must have really scared the idiots off as I realised that my sunglasses, jacket (with car-keys), knife and Gerber multi-tool had been left not only outside the tent and car bit in full view.....THANK YOU TONY ;-)

The conclusion is that next year Julian should stick to the standard, defined, normal field and that we now, after talking to Graeme and David, have a clearer approach to the Murmansk run.

Finally; thank you Julian and crew for trying to do something different.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Timbuktu Challenge 2010/2011 Pirate Badgers Blog

Reposted, in its entirety for the benefit of those undertaking the challenge this year, you never know there may be something of use in the words somewhere!!

Day 1 – Thursday 16th December

A bit of a stuttering beginning to our journey this morning. The final hours before we were due to leave saw us with no Sat-phone, no car stickers and no jack. The sat-phone was missing in action, our suppliers checked with the couriers and gave us assurance that we would receive it by five thirty.

Just realised we have Tom-Tom for Spain, back in a bit!!

OK, we're on the ferry now. The clutch took a pounding sitting on the entrance ramp for too long, Tony reckons it'll be OK as long as we take it easy.

All the last minute preparaions are done and dusted. Last minute dot Tom Tom done, we're all Satnaved up for Spain and France AND Morocco. Just need to remember where the hotels are ;-)

Back to the disasters, the car stickers were sent to thet head office of the charity in Chesham. Nice spanner. No problem, a lovely lady from Brain Tumour UK offered to meet us halfway at Fleet services, did't really want to do much driving today but off we went. We collected the stickers and were back home by twelve thirty. Dan and Tony then left for the nearest, and only multi-story car-park within a reasonable distance. It was closed! They rigged a tarpaulin and attempted to fix the stickers in the heaving rain with partial success. The main stickers are on, pictures on Facebook soon (if my net book battery holds out).

The trip Ipod has been loaded with loads of banging tunes, NO JUSTIN BIEBER Beth, sorry. I think we're pretty well good to go.

We are currently in the bar, with pints and blogging away (Tony uses the old fashioned way of pen and parchment ;-)

Videos will start appearing tomorrow.

Thanks to Ems, Dad and the kids. Love to you all.

More later.

Day 2 – Friday 17th December

A few pints in the bat last night and then off to bed. With the hours difference that meant we finally retired at one-thirty and were awake at six, not a lot of sleep, especially when faced with a ten hour drive to Burgos in Spain. Breakfast was ghastly, dreadful, appalling, well you get the picture. Tony opted for toast only, wish I had.

The car started first time but chucked out a hell of a lot of smoke, so much in fact that I couldn’t see the car behind us in the mirror. We smacked the back end, tow bar I think, on the off ramp. Just into France and there are already concerns about the car. We know that we’re carrying far too much weight, me included hehehe, so will empty the large twenty-five litre water jerry can this afternoon at our lunch stop and will probably only end up using one of the diesel jerry cans.

Will update when we stop later.

More later.

The lack of washer pump is starting to be a real pain, every time the windscreen becomes streaked and obscured with filth the driver, Tony in this case, has to lean out with a bottle of water and simulate the effect of the pump. This and other points from today are on the livestream feed.

We stopped for lunch and used the gas hob for the first time. It worked, after a fashion, but took twenty minutes to boil the water for our boil-in-the-bag meals and brew of tea. We also had a look at the washer pump, nothing obvious so we aim to swap the aft pump for the defective one when in Tarifa.

Back on the road till we reaches Bordeaux where we swapped drivers. I took over and attacked the Spanish border and the Pyrenee crossing. The weather was harsh, the wipers struggled and the de-mist does ‘kin nothing to help. We battled on and finally reached Burgos just before nine. Big problem. Trusting to technology, more precisely our sat-nav, turned out to be a major error of judgement. Burgos is currently under major redevelopment and as such the city centre has very few usable roads, most are currently suffering a pedestrianisation scheme. Our wonderful kiwi female guide got it all wrong and we ended up driving in circles, hopelessly lost so we found a municipal car park and left Captain Flint for a while. After questioning several very Spanish locals Tony eventually discovered the hotel atop the steepest hill in the city.

After checking in we returned to the car. It would not start! Tony persevered, eventually convincing old Flinty to get going. We rocked up at the hotel dead on ten, result time for a pint and a meal. NO! The restaurant was booked out for a function and the bar was full of punters awaiting their call to the trough. By the time we’d dumped our rucksacks and returned to the bar there was sufficient room to elbow these insolent Spaniards aside and sink a couple of San Miguel beers. Still no food though. Room service sorted that so we can blog and write journals until the early hours.

Concerns; the car is showing us certain limitations i.e. clutch, power, starting from cold and the electrics in general, the washer pump specifically. If we treat The Captain with respect we should get there. Fingers crossed.

More later.

Day 3 - Saturday 18th December

It was about one AM when I finally got to bed last night. Thanks Joe for helping with the website. Slept OK, but did wake up around four wondering where I was and why, still not sure but by tonight I’m certain I will have figured it out.

Opted for no breakfast at the hotel as the bill came in around two hundred euros, the room service was more expensive than the room! Tony has been concerned about the amount of black fumes that have been spewing out of the exhaust when we start the engine and after checking the oil level his fears were confirmed; no oil. The nearest service station was on the way out of Burgos, taking the chance we left the hotel around nine thirty. As we were picking our way through the city we stopped at some traffic lights and Tony noticed that the engine was smoking. Sure enough, as we sat there watching the lights countdown, a brilliant idea by the way, you could definitely see wisp of smoke coming out from under the bonnet. Thankfully we found the service station almost immediately after this and bought some oil. Three litres of oil later Tony was satisfied with the level and we set off for Tarifa in earnest.

An hour later we decided to pull over for a bite to eat, the sandwiches were confusing, in fact we have come to the conclusion that Spain is a country populated by surrealists, nothing is what it seems. For example when asking directions yesterday I was told left as the man pointed right, this happened on two separate occasions with two different individuals. Also an apparent children’s television programme this morning, with silly foam costumes and daft voices, suddenly turned out to be a news report. Signs point to non-existent or different locations and the food is not what it appears. That said I do like Spain and the Spanish, although when Tony and I finally turned up at the hotel, unshaven, unwashed and carrying a lot of luggage he was loathe to let us into the bar, some people.

We will probably miss lunch preferring making up some time. We heard from Dan, coming over Ireland, he arrived in Cherbourg and has been badly affected by snow. I think we have been just ahead of the really bad weather, last night over the Pyrenees was harsh but at least we didn’t have snow and ice to contend with.

Pushing on, changing drivers at around two. At the moment we’re still in hills/mountains, the low clouds are giving us very poor visibility but thankfully there is nothing on the road.

More later.

It is later, and once again there is lots to tell.

We changed drivers at a very lonely looking service station somewhere on the road to Cadiz. There were concerns from Tony, still, about the engines ability to deal with the continuous mountain roads. The temperature rises to almost maximum, then falls. We will have to trust the car.

All was well and on schedule until we reached a point where we changed drivers again in order for me to navigate via the wibbly, wobbly, web and Tony could drive. We topped up with fuel and hit the final miles to Tarifa via Algeciras around six. As we left the service station and joined the road to our destination, the heavens opened. A cliché, I know, but the rain was really bouncing down. It was so bad that the locals refused to exit the tunnels beneath the precipitous mountains we were driving through. Tony plugged on and we approached Algeciras with relief.

At the first traffic lights in the port town of Algeciras Tony announced that the brakes ‘had nothing’ meaning there were no brakes. He pumped them and stamped on them but only managed minimal effect. After a sterling effort using gears and the handbrake we drove past our hotel unexpectedly, Tony tried to stop. Nothing. A combination of heavy gravel, the handbrake and swearing brought us to a halt. Tony turned us around and we limped into our parking spot at the hotel.

Checking in was simple. The surly, moustachioed, comedic Spanish stereotype said little but issued me with a swipe card and pointed to a doorway. We dropped of the gadget bag, had a depressed beer and met Stephan and Stefan from Austria. We explained our predicament and they immediately offered to help. As Tony and I realised that even Tracy Beaker would have as good a chance as we did of fixing the brakes we agreed. Actually they really did sound knowledgeable.

As we approached our car, the blue lights that had been flashing (Tony did suggest that the Policia had decided to check out our car, or one close) turned out to be the Danish team, Andreas, Mikkell and Paulo were great but professed no mechanical knowledge to help. Tony and the Steph/fans began their troubleshooting activities so I opted to ring the RAC Euro cover (thanks Emma for getting this information for me) to see if I could get the breakdown service to help us out. The upshot of this was that they wold have to check my details and get back to me. I knew I was as I had taken this extended cover out for my trip to France earlier in the year. I returned to tell Tony the news. He took it well and we returned to the bar. Scott and Lizzie, a great couple we had met earlier in the year at the Exeter briefing, organised by Julian, were at the bar. We said our hellos and told Scott our problem. He seemed infinitely more knowledgeable than either Tony or I so when he suggested he have a look we both agreed instantly.

As Tony and Scott opened the bonnet my phone rang, it was the RAC Euro people. I retired to find a quiet corner for the conversation. After much dialogue it transpired that without a specific policy number they could not progress. Fine. I hung up and once again asked Emma to get this info, she’s great!

When I returned to the car park with the news I witnessed a miracle. Our car stopping and starting. Scott had given it the once over and taken it for a test drive. It was fine. With lighter hearts we promised to test it again tomorrow and return to the hotel for a meal.

The meal was with excellent company, all mentioned previously plus a few others, the food was good but the service surly and slow. We all agreed that a date needs to be set for the border crossing to Mauritania, that’s my job for tomorrow. Tonight, I’m tired.

More later.

Day 4 – 19th December 2010

A strange night filled with surreal, vague dreams against a backdrop of violent electrical storms lashing the rocky Tarifa coast. I awoke feeling tired and a little disoriented. We planned to be up at seven- thirty and to test the car prior to heading off to catch the eleven AM ferry from Tarifa to Tangier.

After swiftly attending to our ablutions we skipped breakfast, one again, preferring instead to test the car. Even though Scott had managed to get it working the previous evening, both Tony and I were dubious about the reliability of the brakes. Our doubts turned out to be fully founded. We still had no brakes. Feeling completely disillusioned and beaten we had a discussion and decided to scrap the car and continue on foot. One of our options was the RAC euro, I had tried last night but it was probable that my Euro coverage had expired. I took out a new policy online then rang the RAC. They were very polite and helpful but dubious that I had driven from the UK to Tarifa in the twelve minutes since I had taken out the policy. They asked for proof of our ferry crossing, I asked her if she knew anything about braking systems then politely hung up.

The next plan was to ask for the contact number of a local scrap-yard. Wandering down to the hotel lobby proved to be a great idea as it was full of our motoring comrades. It transpired that the weather was so adverse that the ferries between Spain and Africa were not running. I chatted with the Danish contingent, Andreas and Paulo, they were adamant that we did not quit, instead try to convince a Spanish mechanic on his day off, it is Sunday after all, to work on our car. I pointed out that my Spanish is only slightly worse than my Felane, this made them more animated as their Spanish was passable and they were keen to discuss this problem with the hotel manager on our behalf; he was certain to know of an available mechanic. At that point the French ‘Bozos’ team offered their assistance, JP was fluent in Spanish, I accepted immediately.

The discussion was fierce and over quickly, I understood nothing. It transpired that there was almost, possibly, maybe a mechanic in Algeciras that would be available. I thanked JP, he’s awesome by the way, and went to speak with Tony. He was adamant that the car could not, and should not be driven in it’s current state. I had to agree with his wisdom and suggested that we both talk to the other teams, best decision yet. We were both vert demoralised and ready to quit the driving experience. We talked with all teams around the lobby and their enthusiasm and advice spurred us on to have another go. Tony persevered with his theory that the rubber hose between the pump and the master cylinder was defective. In the mean team the Daves team had arrived and offered their assistance, between them and the Danish team they offered to tow, push and help us to the mechanic in Algeciras. At this point Tony found a problem with the hose, it was split. After chopping the final few centimetres off the rubber he tried again. Slightly better but still unsafe and undriveable. He carried on with this idea and found a couple more holes. During this time team safe turned up and offered their advice. They have opted to stay till tomorrow and take in Gibraltar.

To cut a long story short, Tony managed to get the brakes to a state where we could drive, perhaps ten or twenty miles to a mechanic. Lizzie and Scott, the Danish boys, the Daves and Stefan and Stephan all managed to get a ferry across this afternoon, as the weather had improved. The Bozos remained to install their spot-lights whilst Tony and I repacked the car and put the remaining stickers on. In order to reduce some weight we used the gas hob on our hotel room balcony to cook up an awesome pot-mess, best meal we’ve had since we left.

I found a mechanic in Tarifa on the wibbly, wobbly web and tried to call. No answer on the land-line but success on the mobile. I had pre-generated some useful Spanish phrases via Google translator but failed spectacularly to make any headway. I rushed out to the car-park to see if JP was still around, he was. Another frantic conversation in Spanish left us with an appointment with a potential means to proceed tomorrow at nine. After a discussion with Tony we agreed that the six mile drive to Tarifa would be better undertaken now, on Sunday, in the dry with little or no traffic.

I booked us a bed at a hostel in Tarifa for two nights, the most likely scenario would be that we were there for this length of time. We checked out of the soulless hotel and left for Tarifa around three-thirty. The journey was short and uneventful. One point to note was that as we approached this small port town we gained our first glimpse of Africa across the cloudy straights.

Tarifa is quite small and we found the hostel straight away. It was very friendly, clean, cozy and far, far better than the hotels we had stayed in so far. After dropping off the bags we found a bar in the old-town, had a few beers, called home then sought some food. A promising Chinese restaurant was closed until seven-thirty, damn. We then saw the beach, Tarifa point! To the left The Mediterranean to the right The Atlantic, ahead Africa. We were so close but without old Flinty.

The hour we had until the restaurant opened seemed ideal to catch up with writing etc.

That’s where I am now, looking forward to some food.

More later.

Day 5 – 20th December 2010

Wasting time in Tarifa without a car;drunk. More later.

Day 6 – 21st December 2010

First of all we are still in Tarifa and will be until tomorrow morning. On Sunday night after we had eaten we sat and talked with the other guests at the hostel. Sara and Filip, from Finland, Jim from the USA and Mitch from Australia. We sat and drank and talked and suddenly it was midnight. We all decided to take the conversation to a bar. It took some time to find somewhere that was open but eventually we did and shared a couple of bottles of wine. The bar then closed and we were directed to a night-club where we stayed for the remained of the evening. I finally decide, a round two-thirty AM, that I had drunk enough and that it was time for bed, so I left. Unfortunately I neglected to tell anyone of my intention to go to bed. It transpired that Filip had the same notion leaving the others looking around the old town of Tarifa in an attempt to find us. They caught up with Filip quickly and were relieved to find me safely tucked into bed and sound asleep. Sorry all!

The following day, yesterday was another day to kill. We awoke a bit worse for wear but at least we managed to get up for breakfast, some of the others stayed in bed for a little longer. We drove our errant steed to the mechanic and tried to explain our predicament, my Spanish is non existent as was their English but we managed to get across the difficulties we were experiencing. It took el mechanico a mere thirty seconds to point out ‘promlemo’; the brake vacuum pump was kaput. A quick ‘manana’ and he left with a wave. That done we returned the car to a convenient spot, shuffled the luggage around a bit and remembered that we had offered to take Filip and Sara to Morroco, as far as I first stop; Fes or Rabat. We would have to lighten the load somewhat. A lot of soft stuff; sleeping bags, blankets and tee-shirts could be stuffed into corners but the 25litre water jerry-can had to go. We just left it at the road side and went to find a supermarket. On the way we found, in the old town, a covered market which also had a small beer. Two small beers certainly helped our hangovers immensely, the locals were drinking too, ten-thirty didn’t seem too early here. We wandered aimlessly into the new town and found a supermarket.

A period of light shopping later we found ourselves down at Tarifa beach watching the waves and drinking wine, again. When we collected the folding camp chairs from the car we noticed that the jerry-can was where we left it, back in the UK it would have disappeared in seconds. We watched the surfers for a couple of hours then returned to the hostel where we played perudo together and then later cards with Filip and Sara, still drinking. I also decided, as did Tony, that in order to look a little less like tramps we should shave, so we did. Now I don’t resemble my photos on my passport and driving license.

When seven-thirty came around we decide that we would like another Chinese meal, the same as the previous evening. When we returned to the hostel I exhausted so decided on an early night. My blog post was a little disappointing and for that I apologise but I did need the rest.

Once again weird dreams punctuated a night of fitful sleep with the violent electrical storms flashing and booming in the near distance. My dreams were filled with exploits of driving a car with no brakes, at one point Kat Slater (a character from Eastenders, as if you didn’t know) tried to fix the problem all the while Michael Caine yelled at us from a tower.

I awoke extremely dehydrated and fuzzy in the head. A shower and a light breakfast sorted that out. We dropped the car off at the mechanics, I think he told me that it would be done by late afternoon, that threw a spanner in the complicated mechanics of our tightening schedule. Tony and I returned again to the hostel and discussed this problem, we agreed to not even attempt to make up for time today as leaving late would only leave us stuck in Tangier. I had been there before and didn’t relish the thought.

We hooked up with Sara and Jim, Filip had taken ill with a horrible virus leaving him tied to the toilet at least for today and Mitch had moved on. We checked on the car, it had’t moved so we carried on to the beach. The waves were crashing violently on the Atlantic coast and the wind was high, perfect for kite surfers. There were a number out in the surf showing us their skill, Jim was fascinated and stayed for some time taking video footage of their antics. We all then sauntered down the beach to Tarifa point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. It was quite odd to see, on one side, the violent crashing waves of the Atlantic and on the other the flat calm of the Med.

Wandering back Sara left us to check on her brother and Jim had to mail his postcards. Tony and I sat at a café and drank some coca-cola on the road to feeling better. Jim joined us and we discussed further our options. With the decision to leave tomorrow, Jim suggested we accompany him to Algeciras and Gibraltar, we considered this but as time would then be tight to get back to pick up the car we decided against this. We split up, Jim returning to the hostel and Tony and I went to check the car. As we approached the garage a courier turned up with a pile of packages, the daily parts delivery, progress. We picked up Jim and Sara and had lunch a great little Tex-Mex restaurant called Coyote. The food was really welcome and the final step to feeling normal. We all went to check on the car, Jim has some understanding of Spanish, just as well as I couldn’t understand anything. Apparently the mechanic would start work on the car at five-thirty and it would be ready by seven. He would also not give an idea on how much it would cost.

Jim left to check on the details of his journey to New York; he is travelling as a passenger on a freighter, what a fantastic idea, I’ll store this in my memory for later. Tony, Sara and I picked up the tickets for the ferry tomorrow, some cash and some shopping for dinner tonight. We then returned to the hotel to await the final verdict on the car.

I took a nap while Tony wrote his journal and read the Lonely Planet guide to Morocco.

That takes us up to date. A quiet evening planned. I’ll cook a pot mess while Tony plays Tetris with the car in order to accommodate out new passengers. I will also upload as many photos as I can and try to get a video or two sorted.

More later.

It is later and there’s good news. Quinitos the mechanico did us proud, with a minimal fee, seventy euros, he fixed Captain Flint, old Flinty, The Flinster, and so forth. It’s still not one hundred percent but certainly driveable and certainly good enough to get us into Morocco.

The plan has suffered and changed. We now aim to hit Rabat tomorrow, critically before the Mauritanian Embassy closes for the weekend on Thursday night. We need to allow us time to make our application and to wait twenty-four hours to pick it up. That means if we do not make our application tomorrow the we will have to submit it on Thursday and return next week to pick it up leaving us very little time to travel to Dakhla. Onwards.

More later.

Day 7 – 22nd December 2010

Another fitful night’s sleep, once again due to the violent storms plaguing the Southernmost point of Europe. The intermittent lightning followed by the crashing thunder woke me several times in the night and was still present as we re-packed the car in order to accommodate our two new passengers, Filip and Sara who will remain our passengers until we arrive in Marrakech. Jim was there to bid us farewell, all other were leaving too so Jim would spend his final night in the UK at ‘The Melting Pot’ hostel in Tarifa. I will try to keep in touch with him as he is one of the most interesting and genuine people I have met in a very long time.

The rain continued to fall in sheets and the electrical storms raged all around us as drove our newly fixed car the few hundred yards to the ferry port and left the still dark hostel behind. We arrived at a little after eight and were summarily told by the steward that the ferry due to leave at nine AM was not running and there were likely to be no crossing for some time. We opted to stay put until that further notice transpired. We all dozed in the car for a couple of hours and watched as, one by one the other waiting passengers lost patience and left. We stayed put and talked, dozed, read books until just before twelve when I heard one of a group of French caravanners, all driving nice looking motorhomes, saying they were leaving. Initially we thought they were going to board the ferry but as we drove towards the barriers it suddenly dawned on us that they were in actuality really leaving. I asked the steward who, I realised, spoke very good English. I was slightly annoyed at this as I thought that miraculously my Spanish had improved. He informed us that no ferries were leaving from Tarifa and we would have to get to Algeciras in order to get to Morocco via the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. The next ferry was due to leave at twelve-thirty, twenty-seven minutes away, the car was still untested after the mechanics attention so we followed our fellow passengers the French caravanners and, watching the grubby digital readout, raced the clock to Algeciras.

The road was wet but not busy and it was a swift twenty minutes later that we joined the queue waiting to board the ferry to Ceuta. On the way we passed the Meson de Sancho hotel, where we had spent the first night in Tarifa and realised what a truly soulless place it was, devoid of spirit and energy, so unlike the hostel we marked time awaiting our cars resurrection. As we watched the ferry unload the remainder of the French caravanners pulled up in the queues all around us, we were hemmed in like a wild west wagon train circle. I caught snatches of conversation as the elderly campers speculated on our purpose, they seemed to arrive at the correct conclusion when they saw the stickers on the bonnet; Brain Tumour UK and the Pirate Badgers ‘Tumbuktu Challenge 2010’ logo. There was no time to discuss this as the ferry began to load. Pedictably we bottomed out on the steep on-ramp, thankfully once again it was the tow-bar. The car was left on the bottom, and indeed, only deck on the catamaran which was a relief to Tony who had, once again driven onto the ferry.

The FRS ferry was small in comparison to the giant cross channel ferries but there was more than enough seating space to spend the short crossing in comfort. As we left all four of us found the small area of the upper deck where we could stand and watch as we passed Gibraltar. It has changed much since I was stationed there in the last eighties whilst in the navy. The marina is much larger and a large area of the harbour has been reclaimed for luxury apartments and a shopping area. The moment we steamed into the straights the weather changed from miserable to very miserable. We returned below decks for a coffee.

It wasn’t long before we were approaching Ceuta. I returned to our spot on the upper deck to record the event. One of the French caravanners we had joined in convoy to Algeciras prompted me to wait a moment before I took my first photo. His English was very good and he seemed keen to talk. He explained that the coastal mountains seen from a certain angle resembled a woman lying down, in fact these mountains were named ‘The Dead Woman’. I took his advice and very slowly the mountains took the shape of a large bosomed woman lying on her back. We chatted for some time, he was interested in our ‘mission’ and told me to be careful in Morocco as there had been violent flash flood lately but hoped our French car would be good to us. He gave me advice on driving in the country and wished me luck.

The vessel docked quickly and I was surprised at how efficiently the deck stewards began disembarking passengers, it was so different from the time, three years ago, I had sailed from Tangiers to Tarifa on the return journey from a smaller rally to Casablanca. The car spluttered as it started and the starter-motor crunched and complained, then the engine cut out. Tony, driving once more tried again. The engine started but the starter-motor sounded in bad shape, another worry. We disembarked, cramped but happy to be away from mainland Spain.

After topping with diesel and taking the long route to find the border we joined a massive line of traffic waiting to enter Morocco. We waited in line for over an hour before we approached the enclosure just before the Moroccan checkpoint. As soon as we were in sight of the customs kiosks we were pounced upon by a fixer. He said he could get us through quickly. I expected this as last time I had come this way a very cheerful Moroccan, Manchester United supporter had done the same for me and Andy Briggs. He showed me where to get the passports stamped and the car forms checked and logged and charged me for the privilege. In retrospect it was simple and had we not been desperate to save time I would have attempted it myself. In fact for anyone reading this who ever has to do the same as I did today it is very simple:

  1. Take the pre-filled in, signed Moroccan immigration/access forms to the first kiosk and hand them over. They will then be signed and stamped with an access number and a Moroccan stamp.

  2. Take the drivers passport and vehicle V5 together with the D16 (three copies) you should have completed on line prior to leaving home. You will then receive two copies of the D16 with the appropriate details appended.

  3. Show the D16 to the first customs official who stops you

  4. Show your passports to the second customs official and declare any goods.

  5. Show your passports to the final policeman as you leave


This will save you up to sixty or seventy Euros for four people, it will also save you no time as you just have to know where to go, the traffic moves at the same pace regardless.

I bumped into my French friend during this two hour process he also had paid a fixer who had taken his money and done nothing. Well you live and learn.

It was beginning to get dark as we finally left the border compound, passed the manic roundabout just outside and drove off up the steep mountain roads on our way to Rabat. It became evident very soon however that reaching Rabat tonight was very ambitious. The bad weather returned, worse than ever and landslides from previous downpours blocked the right-hand carriage for a great deal of the mountain passage. After Port Med de Tanger, a separate port but with a very similar name, the roads improved but the weather deteriorated. We decided to stop for a comfort break and to swap drivers.

There was an ATM at the service station, one of the new additions to this route since my last visit. The other was a road, last time we had drive through a construction site for roughly twenty kilometres, now we encountered a very professionally built two lane highway. After a quick discussion we decided to aim for Larache, a small town a third of the way between Tangiers and Rabat. The weather was slowing us down to a snails pace as we turned off for the chosen town. The roads were completely unnoticeable beneath the standing water and heavy rain, we stopped at the first hotel we found. Hotel Choumis is a very Moroccan establishment with a guarded car park and a tea room full of exclusively male clientele. Sara felt uncomfortable as she waked through the room to reception to present the manager with the passports from Filip and herself. I managed to dredge up some French to book the room and ask where we could eat. We were summarily booked in and informed where we could dine.

The room were basic but dry and warm, maybe not clean but we have sleeping bags and insect repellent. The suggested café was full of dozens of Moroccan men all watching an apparently captivating football match. There were no women present. Rather than offend local sensibilities we carried on until we discovered ‘Centre Ville’ and a more cosmopolitan eatery, a cheap fast food joint. As we arrived, predictably, so did the rain. We sat and ate as the water fell. The less said about the food the better really, I just hope there are no repercussions.

The walk back to the hotel was dry up until the final few hundred metres, once again all four of got drenched. Sara and Filip retired to bed. Tony and I retrieved some essentials from the car, water for us both and a well earned beer for Tony. Blog writing time and also time to sort through clothes etc to weed out the remaining clean stuff.

The plan tomorrow is to leave around with the aim to reach Rabat by eleven. We will submit the visa applications then carry on to Marrakech where we will find a hostel for one night then Tony and I will check into our hotel over Christmas. Boxing Day will see us heading for the coast once more where we probably camp for the first time for one night. We will then be waiting for the Mauritanian embassy when they open on Monday to collect our passports and visas. Just wondered what we are going to do in order to get accommodation if the embassy keep our passports over the weekend.

More later.

Day 8 – Thursday 23rd December

The first night for a while that I wasn’t awoken during the night by thunder and lightning. Instead shouting Moroccans and inconsiderate hotel guests made up for it by ensuring that it was after one AM before I dozed off properly.

Larache, unremarkable Larache was not missed as we packed the car and headed off for Rabat at just before eight this morning. We intended to reach the Mauritanian embassy before ten so that Tony and I would have ample time to submit our visas and possibly collect them the same day. How wrong we were, more of that later. On the way to Rabat Filip and Sara, after a protracted discussion in Finnish/Swedish (I have no idea which is which when they talk) decided to leave us in Rabat and continue to Casablanca. They had been good travelling companions and Tony and I both agreed that we would be sorry to see them go.

The journey was quick and easy, that is compared to the previous days travel. The motorway exits to Rabat were clogged with the victims of minor accidents which slowed the flow traffic down to M25 proportions. The sat-nav seemed to be taking us a sensible route so we stuck to it and lo and behold the lord Tom-Tom delivered. We struggled through a narrow residential street, double parked cars and vans blocked our view of building entrances so when we spotted a parking place opposite a doorway with a long line of likely looking travellers and dodgy types we thought our luck was in. As soon as we pulled up a sly looking black guy, the doorman to whatever embassy we had pulled up opposite, became extremely vocal and animated, waving us on telling us that the embassy we wanted was further down the street. We apologised and complied. After a few hundred yards we saw another guard, more officially dressed, outside the Portuguese embassy. He spoke English and French and managed to tell us we had been at the right place before. We pulled up again in the same parking spot and realised that we were not showing diplomatic plates and as such could not park there. No problem we parked a hundred yards towards the main road and blocked a driveway.

Filip and Sara said their goodbyes and Tony and I plunged into the chaos of the queue for visa applications. There were two other English guys there, very impatient and attempting to optimise their applications. I politely asked them if we could copy what they had, they weren’t very friendly but agreed. The queue had no form or, seemingly, no purpose and twice the official receiving the applications shut the door. After a discussion with a young French student we discovered that applications started at eight to eight-thirty and finished when the official decided, after eleven, it was now nearly noon. The visas and passports are returned in the afternoon after one, BUT, and I mentioned this last night, they need to retain the passports for twenty-four hours. Tomorrow was Friday and as such no applications would be accepted. This meant that if we hung around and managed to apply we would have no passports until the visas were completed, this would leave us no means of identification to check into a hotel. It also meant that if we hung on any longer our chance of getting to Marrakech today would be reduced. We made the decision to leave it until Monday and head onto Marrakech immediately.

Discussing our options en-route to the old Imperial capital of Morocco, we realised that if we submitted out applications on Monday and received them as expected on Tuesday at around two PM that would give us eighteen hours, driving through the night, to reach the Mauritanian border on the morning of the twenty-ninth to rendezvous with the other teams and the arranged escort. Not very likely, especially as we would then have to carry on to Nouakchott (another four hundred kilometres). We texted one of the other teams, almost immediately they replied.

It transpires that, as they are having such a good time in Morocco, they would like to extend their stay and wait until another day before crossing the border to Mauritania. This still leaves it tight for us but we may be able to catch up. Relieved we carried on to Marrakech.

Our room in Marrakech was booked for two nights only, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I hoped that we would be able to take an extra night. The road to Marrakech (not the Bing and Bob movie) is spectacular, passing through the Atlas Mountains, but quiet and a pleasure to drive. The traffic in Marrakech is not as bad as Casablanca or Tangiers but difficult in its own way with bikes and mopeds appearing from all directions and angles continuously. We checked the maps and parked at the first likely car-park, incidentally full of French caravanners (will we never be free?). We paid the guard some money, not much but worth it for peace of find, loaded ourselves up and set out to find the Riad.

We predictably got very lost in the massive Souk that surrounded our hotel It was only by enlisting the aid of a friendly yet poor local that we managed to find it. We checked in, yes room was available, and set out to find a respectable restaurant that served alcohol. We walked around the Souk yet again, unburdened and hungry. Tony was dead set on a beer and some food so we returned to the restaurant adjacent to our lodgings to see what they offered. Very good Moroccan fare and wine, result. Afterwards we took a walk through the Medina and checked out the stalls and temporary restaurants, the price we had just paid was unsustainable for the remainder of our stay so we were relived to find very good food for a few pounds. That was the plan for the next few days nailed.

We retrieved our cuddly badger, Weebls-Stuff tees and our standby bottle of wine, which I am now drinking as I write this.

The first un-hurried morning of the trip tomorrow so I’ll have time to upload photos and videos.

More later.

Day 9 – Friday 24th December, Christmas Eve

At last! A fantastic night’s sleep. I was awoken by the call to prayer at just after six this morning. A first I was slightly disoriented and thought that Reg, the dog, was singing Muslim Christmas carols but very soon discounted that theory.

The room was comfortable and coupled with the layout of the Riad, an airy central courtyard open to the elements. Proved to be very pleasant. We arrived at breakfast just before nine and were served with coffee, two types of Moroccan bread with preserves, and fruit juice. It was filling but not quite a full English.

Our first mission this morning, we decided, was to but some presents for a few special people ;-) As we looked for a promising area of the Souk we were accosted by a seemingly friendly local who gave us directions to a special market. Suspicious we walked off in the opposite direction and took another wrong turn ending up deep in the residential area of Marrakech. We carried on until we could go no further, a dead end. Retracing our steps we were engaged in a conversation with a local who reminded us that the Riad areas were for locals and residents only, ‘You’re welcome, he finished. He directed back to the main thoroughfare and grabbed a passing friend who worked at the large tannery, ‘Last day of big festival you’ll see, many Berber and Toureg peoples.’ I understood what the last guy had told us. We followed our guide through gradually thinning streets until there was no traffic at all. We spoke in English, his broken, mine simple, and established he was yet another Manchester United supported; it appears the bandwagon has many international stops.

After a few hundred yards of winding streets, the traffic; pedestrian, motorised and equestrian increased until we were in another souk. This market was purely Berber and there were few tourists. We passed number of small tanneries until we reached a foul smelling area surrounded my modern construction works. We were introduced to an ‘expert’ and our guide left us with no more than a shake of the hand. Our new friend gave us the guided tour of the biggest and most ancient tannery in Marrakech, his words but I believed him.

The tanning process involves three main procedures; the first is to soak the hides in lime and water, this removes the fat and residual flesh. The second requires piles and piles of shit, pigeon shit in this case, to provide the ammonia to cure the hides. The final stage sees the hides stored in flour, to dry out the previous disgusting processes. Afterwards the hides are dyed with saffron, henna etc and dried for a day. End to end the whole tanning process takes forty-five days. We thanked our host but he was adamant that we follow him to the artisans. Artisans turned out to be a Berber shop selling the output of the tannery. We agreed as both Tony and I had decided yesterday to buy some leather goods from Morocco and it seemed appropriate to end our tour in this fashion.

We were served minted, sweet tea; ‘Moroccan Whisky’ the salesman called it, and were bombarded with a plethora of leather goods. Camel, sheep, goat and cow leather were displayed before us, their individual attributes extolled and exaggerated. I took this as a cue to enter haggle mode. Between us we managed to leave with an unforgettable haggling process, the goods we wanted and no loss of face. In fact I was told I was an English Berber and his family would go hungry tonight (he says that to all the boys I know).

We were directed back to the main souk but once again became hopelessly lost. I took the cowards way out and hailed a taxi. We were dropped off at the very Western, new, Carrefour dominated shopping mall on the edge of the city. Our shopping list here was infinitely more selfish and basic. Wine and cheesy wotsits. We managed to get wine. Coincidentally whilst there we bumped into Beatrice, the proprietress of the Riad we are staying in, she is a very cheerful and happy person and we joked in Franglais before she carried on with her shopping. Laden with wine we negotiated a taxi and returned to the Riad.

On the way back I received a text from the Danish team, with the Ambulance. They had experienced problems at the border and had waited a day or so until the import of their ‘commercial’ vehicle could be verified. They suggested that we meet up at Laayouane a day before the border crossing, whenever that may be. That or Dakhla suits us fine as we won’t be pushed to reach the border on a long drive. I texted them back to agree and ask what day would suit. Nothing yet.

It seemed rude not to try out the local wine, plonk from Languadoc hardly constitutes local but we drank a bottle none the less. Another call to prayer and Beatrice appeared, surreally with a caged chipmunk, to inform us that although drinking alcohol is fine in Morocco, it should be done in full view. As we were on the roof terrace but still benath the level of the walls it was fine but something to bear in mind.

Fortified with wine and full of confidence after our recent haggling encounter, we hit the main souk and attempted to reduce the families of the salesman to emaciated paupers. We bought half of what we aimed to get and spent about what we expected, no paupers on either side. We’ll finish this shopping list tonight after a few glasses of wine.

Changing some Euros and poking around the souk once more we decided that a blogging update, uploading photos and drinking wine was more important. Also, as the Medina does not ignite with excitement until after dark we went back to the Riad. We drank some wine and blogged away.

More later.

It is later.

Tony and I spent a great deal of time adding captions to photos and text to the website, but when the call came to attend the proprietors party downstairs we could not refuse.

We were invited to join their Christmas dinner, which we declined on the grounds that they had prepared and invited the exact number, they were fine with that and made sure we had enough wine. At that point the other guests joined us; an elderly French couple who sat and talked for a while, and also a German pair of brothers who lived in Austria and Manchester. We talked for some time, they were both charming and intelligent, then the dancing started.

The base music was Moroccan drums, Beatrice and her duo of young Moroccan girls gyrated and danced to this beat. We were all transfixed. Before long it was all over and Serge, the proprietor was beside us talking Franglais about plans and thoughts. We politely answered and went to bed.

Where we are now.

More later.

Day 10 – Saturday 25th December, Christmas Day

After last night’s escapades Tony and I awoke feeling surprisingly well. Once again the call to prayer shook us from our slumber and the cockerel on the roof made sure neither of us managed to get back to sleep properly.

We decided to have breakfast before opening our presents and we both rang home before descending to the breakfast area. It didn’t feel like Christmas at all, breakfast was once again simple yet satisfying.

Opening the presents really brought home the gulf between the world within which we currently operate and that of our normal comfort zone. Today, we realised, is just another day in Morocco.

Comfortable that we knew what we had to do we left the Riad, initially to visit the cheesy wotsit and wine shop (Carrefour) to replenish our supply of consumables we had managed to deplete last night, but we also decided to finish our present shopping.

The hangovers were not massive and with a few stops for mint tea we soldiered on.At one point an orange juice was called for and as we homed in on our chosen stall, ‘I give best price for you my friend’, we heard a shout behind us. Filip and Sara, against all feasibility in a city this size, had found us. We caught up on their adventures and encounters in Casablanca then parted company promising to look out for each other tonight amongst the food stalls and side shows.

The presents still needed buying, which we managed in short shrift; I am getting sick of haggling, in fact my method seems to confuse the salesmen here. They start at their high price and so do I, if they don’t take it then I reduce my offer, it works (after explaining to them how and why I’m doing it).

Back to the Riad for planning and wine. The visa applications are finished and checked by Serge (the proprietor of our Riad) so I think we have a good shout of getting them accepted quickly on Monday/Tuesday. Our intention is to travel to a beach camping area South of Rabat tomorrow, fly kites and eat corned beef, then leave very early in the morning to get to the embassy as the first in the queue. If we manage to get them to process our applications the same day we will push on as far as we can. If we have to wait a day then we’ll return to the camping area and fly kites again, pick up the applications then push on. We can do no more.

After playing poker dice, without money, it was time for more phone calls, blogging and then out for dinner.

More later.

It is later. I received a text from fillip to meet him and Sara for a tea at the Café De France. We were about to leave anyway so we agreed and met them on the first floor terrace. The mint tea in Morocco is very sweet and very hot but never the less refreshing.

As Tony and I had not eaten since breakfast we were keen to get to the main square and buy some more brochettes and similar. What a mistake. Filip and Sara joined us the meal. Filip and I ordered tagines of vegetables and meat respectively, Tony had brochettes and Sara had cous-cous. All I can say is ‘kin disgusting, I left feeling hungry, cheated and very annoyed. I still had one present to buy but could not be arsed to haggle. The stall-keeper tried it on but I just gave him a price and shoved the money in his hand, it worked. To be honest at that point if I’d bought a Fanta and the price had been twelve quid, I’d have paid. Just could not be arsed, Marrakeshed out!!

Back to the Riad where we thanked Serge and Beatrice for everything, they thanked us for the wine we had left them and it was time to retire. It’s still only just after seven PM and I’ve had it for today. We’re aiming to get to Tamara beach tomorrow to camp as early as we can.

More later.

Day 11 – Sunday 26th December, Boxing Day

I honestly thought that my blog today would be short and full of good news. I’m afraid it is neither. The intention today was to leave the Riad early, before ten, and drive to an identified camp-site just South of Rabat. The first part of the plan went well, Serge and Beatrice were sorry to see us go and even promised to keep an eye on our website.

We managed to get all of our luggage to the car in one haul, not good for my knee but very good for a quick getaway. The roads were quiet and easy to negotiate as was the trip to our primary destination, Temara Plage.

En-route we noticed that the service stations had a peculiar symbol on their motorway sign, we figured out that it denoted a mosque. Tony and I were busting for a piss, some of the locals may be busting for a pray! Imagine:

‘Dad can I have a prayer?’

‘Do you really need one, you said you didn’t need one when we left.’

‘I didn’t but I do now.’

‘Can you hang on?’

‘No, I need to go now.’

‘Look, you can’t just pull over on the hard shoulder and have one, can you do it in a bottle?’

And so on…..

The maps and Lord Tom-Tom were quite accurate, we found Temara Plage relatively quickly, but could we find the campsite I read about extensively last night? No. We ended up asking the ubiquitous Moroccan policeman at a series of roundabouts and eventually we found the area of the campsite. There was a large dodgy looking motel, ‘Le Kasbah avec dancing!!’ but when we asked it transpired that the camping was closed, for good as far as I could tell.

Stuck on the Atlantic coast of Morocco with nowhere to sleep or stay forced a decision. Let’s look for another campsite, genius. I knew of one north of Rabat in the town of Sale, we had no address but knew it was on the beach. We put in the name of the town into Tom and went through the most deprived section of Rabat, although at this point some of the doorways began to look comfortable. Taking the coast road we soon ran out of tarmac, after passing through the old walled town and cemetery. Connecting the laptop I searched for a map of the campsite; Success!!

Our elation soon turned into annoyance as we approached our destination and realised that the Bouregreg Marina construction now sits on the calm and demure ex-site of Sale camping de la plage…shit.

The next brilliant idea was to retrace our steps to the embassy and find a hotel nearby. That failed. We succeeded in alerting the security guard of a walled complex when we stopped to search online for a hotel. All was not well.

I did however manage to get an address of a reasonably priced hotel not too far away, just inside the city walls. At this point I did what I should have done all along; I rang Emma. She searched and found a number of suitable hotels. At this point the hotel I had found turned to be a Mosque, we drove away quickly followed by many harsh stares. Emma’s suggestions began to arrive via email as we found the Sofitel. I rang her and enquired how much this would cost us, many hundreds of pounds each was not the answer I’d hoped for.

Dejected and depressed and the sun very quickly packing off to bed, we opted for the only other hotel we had seen, ‘The Golden Badger Tulip’. Emma managed to book this before we arrived, we rolled in the same time as two bus loads of Germans and French but we successfully checked in and dumped our bags in a surprisingly good room.

We made a couple of phone calls home and I checked my credit cards, all still fine, phew. The restaurant was serving only a buffet service, due to the large numbers of coach parties, but Tony and I were the first there. A quick basic meal and a bottle of wine later we asked for the bill. All of my credit cards were refused. I wasted the next twenty minutes calling my card companies only find out they were fine. Very arsed off now with this ‘Five Star Hotel’ I ranted a bit and stormed off, I can only assume they’ll charge it to the room.

Oh and my nouveau sac stinks of piss. And the campsite that was shut means we can’t get our laundry done. Arse!!

More later.

Day 12 – Monday 27th December

For once things went according to plan. We checked out of the Golden Tulip Hotel this morning at six thirty, there were no problems with my credit card.

The first thing I noticed was the utter lack of traffic on the streets of Rabat. We saw a couple of cars but for a capital city to be this quiet at approaching seven AM spoke more about the differences of culture than anything else I have yet witnessed. Even thi traffic lights were not switched on, that’s how little traffic there was.

We found the embassy easily, well let’s face it we’ve been there a few times now, and all was quiet. We sat in the car, dozing for half an hour or so until I noticed a group of black guys hanging around the embassy entrance. We decided that it would probably be best if we joined them in the growing queue. A few other individuals loitered, obviously waiting for the visa application window to open. Tony and I stayed put and waited. Finally the official appeared, handed out the appropriate forms to those that needed them, everyone but us, and disappeared behind the solid metal portal once more. Ten minutes later he emerged and began barking orders at the assembled throng. What was he saying? Form a queue behind this monsieur, indicating me. Result!

We still had to wait until the official start time of nine and when we did somehow one Moroccan lady managed to catch the official’s eye and jump the queue in front of me, I have no idea how this happened. We submitted our applications, which were correct bar the duration of the visa, he amended this to one month, gave us our receipt and we were finished. ‘A demain.’ he shouted as we left, fourteen hundred hours tomorrow was the time to pick up our passports and Mauritanian visa.

Once again Tony and I had time to kill. We had decided last night to head for Moulay Boussalem, a small coastal town with a quiet lagoon and definite, DEFINITE, campsites. This required us to backtrack up the coast towards Larache. Two hours later saw us pulling up at a large faded sign advertising the International Camping and Caravanning campsite of Moulay Boussalem. I may have been quite a grand spectacle many years ago but now the crumbling recreation buildings and peeling paintwork gave the impression of the final drops of milk being squeezed from a dying cash cow. We paid very little but the plethora of motor-homes, those Frenchies once again, paid a great deal more.

After a quick lunch, our first pot-mess of the trip cooked outdoors, we tramped off into town to but water and bread. The small town reminded me very much of Tarifa, an off season seaside town, quiet and sleepy. The locals were friendly and greeted us frequently on our trek down to the beach. The powerful Atlantic waves broke noisily on large submerged rocks a hundred yards or so from the waters edge. The current was so obviously strong and treacherous that any swimming here would be folly. We sat and watched the waves for a time amongst the mounds of rubbish and flotsam that lay strewn on the sand. The Lonely Planet guide speaks of this town as a major Moroccan tourist attraction in the summer, the population swelling from 1000 to 65000 in July and August. I just hope that they clean the beach first.

On the way back we found a small shop and bought some bread water and coca-cola for 170 Dirhams, around one pound fifty and plodded back to the campsite to kill time.

We repacked the car and cooked dinner as the sun set over the still lagoon. I did manage to explore the site and reaffirmed my initial assumptions, none of the buildings had been maintained and flocks of sheep roamed the grounds freely.

We cleaned up after dinner and sat watching the darkness deepen. It’s now only just after six and our day is over. We will pick up the visas tomorrow at around two PM then we’ll have to drive to rendezvous with the others before crossing the border on the thirtieth. It’s two thousand kilometres from here so it’s a bit of a challenge. I may not be able to post the blogs until we reach Nouakchott.

Wish us luck.

More later.

Day 13 – Tuesday 28th December

A late decision last night saw us sleeping in the car. The tent was cramped, cold and exposed. I managed to doze, but when Tony suggested we reorganise the car I quickly agreed. I ended up in the reclined passenger seat and Tony lying flat in the back. The decider had occurred when a large truck passed the tent, we have an army contingent on the campsite as guards, and as our tent lay just off the main track it was feasible that they could run right over us.

It was still cramped and cold but we both slept reasonably well, awoken occasionally by the boys in green listening to their radios, operating their walkie-talkies or laughing and talking around their very attractive camp fire.

When sunrise rolled around I was stiff and cold but felt as though I had slept quite well. As we no longer need the tent I packed it up and left it standing against the decrepit club house for someone to find later. Breakfast was quickly over and the car repacked. The excess toilet rolls I’d left in the grotty toilet block were suddenly half gone when I returned to use the loo. The tight-fisted Frenchies in their expensive motor-homes had helped themselves, toilet roll must be very expensive in France.

Time to leave. Tony wanted to drive at least to Rabat and we’ll maybe swap after that. Looking at the time remaining and the distance we have to cover it is obvious that, if we want to make it to Timbuktu, then we’ll have to drive all of the daylight hours PLUS a couple of extra before sunrise in order to make it to our goal. There are a lot of assumptions included in that statement but we need to get to the Mauritanian border by the end of driving tomorrow at the moment that’s around 2000km, possible but hard going.

More later.

Took a short cut to get the embassy after sitting in traffic for hours and found a shopping centre with wi-fi. Opted to get the blog out now just in case I can’t later.

The traffic hold up turned out to be a shed load of logs, nasty. Then after turning off for Rabat we saw a local moped drivers wiped out, surrounded by other locals, bleeding in the middle of the road. It’s all happening today. Off to get the visas then driving, driving, driving.

More later.

We parked in our usual place outside the embassy, I can say that as we have been there three times now, to wait for the grand issuing of visas. There cars double parked all the way down the road with bodies loitering and in fact lurking, waiting for their passports. Many on those that were present yesterday when we applied were there, including an extremely self-assured American who was planning to burn his motorcycle (currently secured inside his ancient van) around the sand-dunes of Mauritania, on his own. I’ll be watching the news for further developments on that. There were many nationalities, most transiting Mauritania for leisure purposes to continue to the upcoming Festival De Desert in Timbuktu, starting after we leave thankfully, or to continue to other nations further South, I heard Burkina-Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana mentioned.

When the appointed hour came the crown gathered near the solid metal portal and jostled for position. When the door opened pandemonium began. There was no way other than to get physical. I made it in to the small ante-room fifth and was quickly handed back the passports, both with shiny Mauritanian visas. It was still only five to two, five minutes early. The engine was running when I sat back in the passenger seat. We were off to Mauritania. Two-thousand kilometres and a little over a day and a half to do it. We have already topped up with fuel and filled one of the jerry-cans for the first time, this gives us a range of approximately nine-hundred miles at a pinch.

We are currently about fifty kilometres from Marrakesh about to turn off towards Agadir and many. Many more hours to go before we reach the border. We’ve also noticed a huge police presence on the North-bound road this afternoon. They’ve been escorting single unmarked white vans (three), a convoy of expensive sports cars (once) and what looked like royalty, oh and a bus. I’ve no idea, maybe police escorts are easy to come by in Morocco.

Our current plan is to stop for some food very shortly, before it gets dark, then push on till either we can physically go no further or we reach Tan-Tan. I hope the latter is how we end the day. That then leaves us a fifteen hour day tomorrow to reach the border; we will sleep in the car and push on before dawn, probably about six-thirty. This will give us a fighting chance of reaching the proposed border campsite at a reasonable hour, even with the checkpoints. Fingers crossed, once again.

More later.

Day 14 – Wednesday 29th December

We stopped for dinner at a very quiet service stop just short of Agadir, then pushed on. It became evident very quickly that our intention to reach Tan-Tan was too ambitious. We finally stopped at Tiznit, some two-hundred kilometres short of our initial goal.

The Lonely Planet guide spoke very highly of a hotel on the main street which was, predictably, full. Our second choice was very third rate, our room had not been used in quite some time, we used our sleeping bags to minimise the flea, tick and lice potential. Tiznit is a major crossroads in Morocco which saw both Tony and I awoken many times by very loud trucks. We did. However manage to sleep.

The alarm woke us at six and after collecting our stuff we were on the road. Not much to tell, we drove, the roads were choked with sand, the high desert winds adding to this problem as time went on.

At one point I rounded a bend and hit a wall of sand, the car came to a standstill but we were both OK. The car started first time, we had to reverse slowly to free the wheels, then we were on our way once more.

After a cold lunch we continued South, the temperature was gradually increasing making the car work harder and keeping our maximum speed low, sixty miles an hour was lucky.

The major event of our epic drive so far was our first speeding fine, which resulted in Tony realising he couldn’t find his wallet and thus his driving licence and me discovering that I had lost the V5 vehicle registration documents. Tony’s wallet was an issue but we could continue without it, the V5 however was a different matter, without it we could not enter Mauritania. Panic. The bemused police officer settled for an eighty Euro fine, which I paid just to get away to review our predicament

I suddenly remembered that I had been wearing my coat when we crossed the border from Ceuta into Morocco, thankfully that’s where I’d left the V5, major panic over. The other issue we will address when we stop tonight, Tony’s wallet must be in one of the bags somewhere.

We texted Scott from one of the teams ahead of us and he happily replied that they were at the border first in line for when it opens tomorrow at nine AM.

At this time we are travelling the final 300km to the border in the dark.

More later.

Day 15 – Thursday 30th December

We covered the last 300km and arrived very tired and feeling quite sick. At one point the road completely disappeared with very little warning, a single, small road-sign and then the tarmac disintegrated. We did managed to slow sufficiently to avoid any damage.

The bright lights and parked traffic at the border was an extremely welcoming sight after the eighteen hours drive we had undertaken. I will go back and fill in the blanks from yesterday when I have time, probably when I get back home.

We were greeted by the Australian contingent who were sleeping on the tarmac by their car. They were very pleased to see us and filled us in on the other teams who were waiting at the front of the line for the border to open tomorrow morning. All were asleep. We did notice, however, that the Danish boys in their ambulance were not present. We ate another cold ration pack meal, emptied the car, covering the boxes we left outside with a tarpaulin and slept in the back of the car.

At around two AM we were awoken by headlights pulling up behind us. The Danes had arrived. We went back to sleep. At five-thirty we were both woken by increasing raised voices outside, one Australian, one African. After ten minutes or so I was sufficiently annoyed to throw my oar in. Some ignorant Mauritanian had decided that when he arrived at five AM he would just edge his car into the middle of the waiting traffic, he did not realise that we were all sleeping in or around the cars. I lent my measured argument to the dialogue and under the combined weight of our respective verbal assault he relented and buggered off. Tony and I repacked the car in the dark and sat and waited for the dawn, dozing fitfully.

When daylight broke I realised that the border was not quite what I had expected. There was a very basic hotel, a service station and a rudimentary eatery, not quite sure what was on offer. We opted for a bread and tea (in the Sahara) and reacquainted ourselves with the other teams. All had stories to tell and all we spoke to were impressed that we travelled so far in such a short period of time, especially after the problems we had faced.

We filled in the appropriate forms and waited in line. When the border opened everything slowed down. To get out of Morocco you need to have an exit number stamped on your passport (with your yellow exit certificate), you then need your car import document endorsed and stamped and the car checked by customs. Customs were, we noticed, being quite strict with some of the cars in front of us in the queue but when they opened the boot and saw the Pirate Badgers Tee-Shirts they were delighted;

‘For us?’

Of course they were. On we went

You can then leave the entrance compound. After that it’s a simple matter of having the official in the final enclosure enter your passport and vehicle documentation information in an exit journal and you’re free to go. Of course you have to show a string of police, army and whoever stops you, whatever documents they wish, they will also ask for a present.

There then stands four or five kilometres of no-mans land between the Moroccan and Mauritanian borders. This consists of a sand bowl, containing the old Spanish roads and many real and false sand pistes. The complication is that the whole area is still mined, both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Every year twenty or so mines are set off in this region either by straying animals or Bedouin nomads who still insist on roaming the area too.

We reached the Mauritanian side with some truly inspired decisions on the right track from Tony without incident. Another team took a wrong time and ended up stuck in the sand, they dug themselves out with the assistance of a few hundred Dirhams paid to the ubiquitous fixers. After this we opted to share out the walkie-talkies for the rest of the convoy to Nouakchott.

We all assembled at the entrance compound where we met our ‘official escort’ he held a short meeting announcing his intentions. The Bozos team took the initiative, they are French, and facilitated a very swift and efficient exit to the next compound where we waited for two hours until the car import documents and Mauritanian car insurance were sorted. They we were really on our way.

Well not really. The escort stopped shortly after the border and held another short meeting to hand out the insurance papers and collect five ‘fiche’ from each of us. He then asked for some money to cover the border crossing and the insurance. Some paid, we did, and some did not as there was some uncertainty as to whether we should or not. I had a few words with him before we set off again but Lizzie, a voice of reason, suggested that this discussion was for later. Then, we were realy, really on our way.

Not really! A coupe of kilometres down the road we all stopped again. This time for Lizie and our escort to sort out who needed to pay him how much, if at all. Ten minutes later it was evident he did need paying, after our speeding ticket yesterday we really didn’t want to lose and more money unnecessarily, we were relieved. Then we were, eventually, finally on our way.

No we weren’t. Two kilometres later we encountered the first police checkpoint. Our escort was supposed to smooth these checkpoints over with the fiche we had given him in advance. No such luck, every car and every person had their papers checked. Then we were off. Thanks to the efficient, organised escort we had spent a mere six hours crossing the border.

We stopped and started, it seemed that every chance our escort got we would stop for a few minutes, which due to the size of the convoy, meant at least half an hour each time. We had another cash collection, a fuel and money changing stop and another one which no-one stopped for.

After speaking with the other Bamako runners the intention is to continue on to Mali tomorrow, reaching Bamako as soon as feasibly possible. We still want to get to Timbuktu, one way or another.

It’s now dark and we are still over a hundred kilometres short of our goal. The Danes in the ambulance have just started using their blue lights to clear a path for the convoy. Not sure about that but we’ll see.

So far all we’ve seen of Nouakchott is a poor, sparsely inhabited country with very few brick buildings. The desert dominates, stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. The single road, of variable quality, continues almost arrow straight all the way to the Senegalese border. Our path to Kiffa is an uncertainty, tomorrow will tell. There is no sense of danger, the high police presence has only shown an efficient and friendly side to the Mauritanian authorities, I only hope that this is the case for the entire population. The one road that we were categorically told not to travel upon under any circumstances at night lies dark and uncertain before us. Nouakchott awaits, hopefully.

More later.

Day 16 – Friday 31st December, New Years Eve

I am writing this from the top of a mountain in Mauritania at a security checkpoint, we are here for the night, more of that later.

We continued to follow our guide through the darkness, finally arriving at Nouakchott just before nine PM. We then split into two groups; those destined for Mali were to follow our guide to one camp site and those continuing to Senegal were to follow his colleague to another. Initially I was a bit irritated that he had assumed that we wanted to camp and/or stay at a budget hostel, but as time wore on I realised that I didn’t really care.

When the time came to split we did so in a disorganised melee at the side of the road. The problem was that he was not prepared to wait to ensure that we were all successfully following him and it wasn’t long before the party was split. Us and two other teams ended up hopelessly lost. I rand Lizzie who was trying to follow him but she was none the wiser than us. Fortunately I had the guides number, back in Tarifa I had agreed to organise the border crossing but events overtook this and it was carried out by Lizzie, presumably. I rang the guide, Idamo, and told him of our predicament, he was not very helpful but did give us the name of the auberge. It was in the Lonely Planet guide so we decided that we would have a stab at navigating ourselves. Half an hour later we gave up. I rang Idamo once more. Again he was left than helpful initially suggesting that we het a taxi. I pointed out very calmly (well maybe not) that this was not an option for three teams and all of their equipment. After hammering home my point he relented and agreed to meet us a nearby landmark, another very plush looking hotel. He turned up and we followed him the three hundred yards to the auberge where the other teams were waiting.

Having spent some time looking at the Lonely Planet guide I knew that there was a Chinese restaurant nearby and that they served beer. After a false start looking for the restaurant with Olaf and Deano from team Safe Tony and I their chosen eatery to persevere in our search for the Chinese. We immediately bumped into Dan and Doug, they joined us in our search. After asking directions a couple of times we found the object of our quest.

The meal was actually very pleasant and so were the beers that accompanied it. Then the bill appeared. Three thousand six-hundred Oogies, I only had just over three-thousand, that was a hundred Euros worth, thankfully Dan had some cash, we paid and left.

Back to the auberge and bed. Dan and I were first asked to provide the passport information for our respective teams and pay the fee. Dan also insisted that he pay his half of the bill for the Chinese, I reluctantly accepted ;-)

After a shower, my first in a few days I went to bed and fell asleep immediately despite the fact that four of us; Tony, I, Dan and Doug, all shared a very small room.

The early start proposed the previous evening didn’t happen. After we had all packed, prepared the cars re-fuelled and changed money it was nine-thirty. Leaving Nouakchott was peculiar, followed as we were by an armed guard to the city limits. Moving in a convoy has good points and bad points. The bad points include moving at the speed of:

The slowest car

The weakest bladder

The shortest attention span

The least prepared

The one with the least French language

And so on

We crawled along stopping occasionally for a number of reasons even losing two teams at one point in a very run-down town who decided to stop to photocopy personal details. We and a few others managed to eat on the march but some others found it necessary to stop for all team members to eat at the same time. This is slightly unfair but I am speaking with twenty-twenty hindsight and as such can vindicate this view.

By two in the afternoon we were not even halfway to Kiffa. Our target was Ayoun or even Nioro in Mali. At this time we realised that Kiffa was our only option, luckily Lizzie had the address and GPS waypoint of a local auberge. As sunset approached we neared yet another security checkpoint. This one seemed a bit larger and more official than all the others we had experienced today. The first few cars began to peel off to park in a rubbish strewn, rocky desert area to the side of the main road. As the guard approached I felt my stomach sink, we were going to have to spend the night here. The guard confirmed this thought. He told me that for our security we were not allowed to travel the road to Kiffa after six PM as we would end up travelling in the dark. It was now six-fifteen. I pointed out that Kiffa was a mere ninety-five kilometres away. This cut no ice, he was under strict instructions from his chief that our security was paramount and that we were to remain here until dawn.

Shit, another set-back. I asked Dan if we pushed tomorrow could we make Timbuktu and back to Bamako by the fifth of January. No chance. Dejected and depressed Tony reviewed our options as we prepared to camp and cooked dinner.

It’s actually not too bad. The first thing to do is to leave the convoy. The second is to take onboard that we are only ninety-five kilometres behind schedule. With those in mind if we leave tomorrow and drive form dawn until dusk and repeat every day, stopping at the closest town when it gets dark and don’t stop, we should make it.

We had our dinner and Tea in The Sahara. The desert is not such a bad place to spend the night even on New Years Day. We are literally on our own by a single story security building with all of the teams from two rallies, us and the Irish rally to Bamako, roughly twelve teams in all. Tony and I have three cans of beer, which we will drink now.

Happy New Year

More later.

Day 17 – Saturday 1st January 2011, New Years Day

The night pretty much ended there. We climbed into the car and fell asleep and were awoken by the call to prayer at six AM. No, wait, we were woken at three AM by a goat head-butting the car, annoyed that we had parked on his usual route to the munching fields. Satisfyingly he continued to do the same for all of the other cars.

We did actually get up and doing by just after six, no brew, no breakfast just a firm determination to push on. The sun was starting to glow when we pulled away from the landfill/checkpoint at just before seven AM with the intention of reaching Ayoun by lunch-time and the border by one. Unfortunately after we had resolved our route in Kiffa, a minor detour resulting in a locked gate, the road disappeared. That’s not really true, the road was still there but just as a sand and dust track marked as a detour beside the route designated for the real highway.

The three hour trip to Ayoun we had expected became a five hour trail to hell. I cannot describe how bad this route was, so I won’t bother, videos to follow.

After reaching Ayoun we pushed on to the border. The road was still shocking but not as bad as before.

Leaving Mauritania was a real disappointment; just another checkpoint and security barrier turned out to be the border and we were stopped at the Mali barrier before we knew it. What a difference. The Malians were cheerful, helpful and quick. Our visas, customs and car insurance were completed in half an hour, then we were on our way.

The Mali countryside is unremarkable scrub and bush but the animals that hide in it and stray into the road make it all the more captivating.

It’s late and I need to post the missing days. I will update tomorrow.

More later.

I’m writing this a day late on the road to Douentza.

We cleared the Mali border just after three PM with five hundred kilometres to cover before reaching Bamako. The roads are all peage and in reasonably good condition so we made pretty good time until the sun set.

On these single track African roads the trucks, mainly, and other road users have a good system to help overtaking vehicles. They use their indicators to let you know if the road ahead is clear or not. This has helped us a lot.

A pretty mundane drive to Bamako, the only two things of note were the closure of some villages by placing oil drums across the road. I have no idea what that was all about, we just drove through the gaps and continued, there were, however many trucks parked up by campfires. The other thing of not happened just outside Bamako. I had been waiting for this all night but when it came I was still startled; a donkey blundered onto the road from the high scrub and grass and plodded across both carriageways oblivious to the danger. It was bound to happen sooner or later.

Bamako is a sprawling mess of humaity, it took us an hour or so to find a main road and from that a decent hotel where we managed to buy some beer, have a shower and a decent nights sleep.

More later.

Day 18 – Sunday 2nd January 2011

Thought for the day – A country can be judged by the state of its public toilets (John Gledson 2/1/2011)

The alarm went off at seven AM and as usual I didn’t really know where I was, this time, unusually it lasted for more than a few minutes. Then the call to prayer sounded from somewhere nearby and I remembered where I was, unfortunately the four large beers we finished at two AM had given me a bit of a bad head, not used to it now you see. Bear in mind that we had driven across two countries and got lost in Bamako the previous day so a few beers were more than deserved and, indeed, warranted.

My memory returned and I realised that we had yet another long days driving ahead, this time from Bamako from Douentza. Here the good asphalt road surface ends for us and the hard slog on the soft sand piste of the road to Timbuktu begins.

Once again the desk monkey at a hotel in which I’m staying did not know how to operate the credit card machine. I stood there for twenty minutes entering my PIN several times before the machine spewed out a receipt and the monkey seemed happy.

Time to go. Tony was in the hotel car park standing by Captain Flint looking annoyed. Two local lads stood with large beaming smiles nearby. Tony started the car and we left. It transpired that last night the car park attendant took the initiative to wash our car the moment we had disappeared into reception, soaking my laptop case in the process (and it does not stink of camel piss Tony). Tony was furious, he pointed out that we had driven four thousand miles in that car and the dirt and dust was testament to our effort. To make matters worse the attendant had taken it upon himself to seek forgiveness for soaking my laptop by getting up early and polishing the car with a wax finish. This explained Tony’s fury.

A hundred kilometres later we stopped for fuel, one of my wallets was missing! The one with the Euros in it, bit of a panic but not the end of the world as I had enough local currency to pay for the fuel but as the other wallet also contained my driving license it did prey on my mind somewhat.

We found our way to Bamako airport and from there the correct road to Segou on the way to Douentza. The road was long, dusty and dull. We decided to take a detour in Segou in an attempt to get some more cash, after my loss of Euros we realised that we had very little to see us through. My card crashed the ATM and as it was Sunday the bank was shut ans as such we could not change any money, complete failure. Returning to the car Tony revealed that he had in fact packed my wallet this morning in his rucksack, excellent. Unfortunately it also revealed that there was only thirty or so Euros left, not enough for our fuel to return from Timbuktu. Time for a rethink. I checked the Lonely Planet guide and was relieved to find that we could change money in Timbuktu.

Onwards once more.

We pushed on for the remainder of the day to Mopti and then to Douentza. Fifty kilometres short of our goal darkness descended. At the same time the road deteriorated to a mess of tarmac patches and potholes. My concentration was shot by now so Tony took over driving once more. At one point we thought that we had missed the town and that we would end up on the very dodgy road to Gao (where a Brit was kidnapped and subsequently beheaded by the Maghreb Al Qaida), all at once Douentza loomed into view and a whole host of new problems emerged.

The small town described in the Lonely Planet guide was a complex maze of sandy streets and market places. In the dark we had little or no chance of finding the auberge listed in the guide. Then from out of the dark a voice challenged us. It came from a pair of locals on a small motorcycle keeping pace with our car. I explained our predicament in broken French, they answered in broken English that the auberge we sought was closed and that we should use the one across the road. Desperate we agreed.

The price of the room was more than the twelve quids worth of local currency I had left so I asked our benevolent guide if there was somewhere I could change some Euros, Enthusiastically he beckoned for me to follow him. Horrified I realised that he wanted me to climb on the back of his motorbike, I did so and he immediately took off through the back streets of the town where he first bought a wine bottle full of fuel for his bike then took me to a general store in a backstreet market. Everyone was calm and friendly and I exchanged fifty Euros for West African Francs. My initial concern at being alone and exposed disappeared very quickly when I realised that my guide wanted to sell his services. Initially he wanted to sell the expert services of a friend to show me and my friends around Dogon country, then he told me that Captain Flint (a very capable Peugeot 405 I feel I must point out) was not up to the task of transporting me and Tony to Timbuktu. When I returned to the auberge and told Tony this he pointed out that the guide mentioned that everywhere offering accommodation also offered 4 x 4 hire. Almost on queue, as Tony prepared dinner and I started writing this the guide appeared to offer my the opportunity to hire a 4 x 4. I explained that the whole point of our expedition was that a four wheel drive car is cheating and that if we could achieve our goal with Captain Flint then it meant more. He failed to see the point but left anyway.

Tony, still disgusted at the needless washing of Captain Flint, decided to reinstate a used look on the vehicle. He added a small amount of water and a large amount of African red sand, it looked better.

Dinner eaten and beer delivered by our hosts and drank by us, it’s time for bed. The doubts expressed by certain other Bamako runners that Pirate Badgers could reach Timbuktu and return to Bamako for our flights, on schedule, will be tested and either proved or discounted tomorrow.

More later.

Day 19 – Monday 3rd January 2011

Where to start? It’s been the most memorable day of the trip so far.

Hogon Camping in Douentza was very comfortable but the blacked out windows robbed us of our early start. We still arose early, just after seven, but the extra early kick-off we had promised ourselves did not happen.

We washed and dressed and began to pack the car when Tony noticed that the gate was still padlocked (A pathetic little lock but locked none the less). We scanned the premises but could find no-one available to help us out, time for a brew. After a very nice cup of tea miraculously, from the tents hidden under a lean-to in the corner of the courtyard people began to emerge. I recognised one as our beer delivering friend from the previous night, I hailed him and asked him to open the gate which he duly did. We finished packing and quickly left. I may have told my money-changing friend that I would like him to arrange a Dogon guide for many people today (in order to allow a favourable exchange rate) so I felt it was best to leave immediately. Not quick enough, he appeared at the gate as we backed out. With cries of ‘demain, demain’ we set off with my new business partner alongside. He pointed the route to Timbuktu and disappeared in a puff of cheap fuel, which is exactly what we needed. The first garage seemed a little high so we left to try a second; exactly the same price. A little miffed we still filled a single jerry-can and set off with still half a tank full of diesel.

The road to Timbuktu has received many reviews and as all were bad both Tony and I were a little apprehensive. The first hundred kilometres proved to be easy, easy that is in comparison to the roads travelled so far, but then it all changed. For the first half of the journey we marvelled at the stunning mountainous scenery and picturesque surroundings, everyone we passed was friendly but worryingly either driving a 4 x 4 or riding a camel. The lack of two wheel drive vehicles should have rang some alarm bells.

The corrugations and sand traps increased in frequency until it was only Tony’s super fast reactions and experience that kept us going. We passed two trucks stuck in sand traps and breezed through at least a dozen ‘car-killers’ purely because of my brother’s instinctive control. The road steadily deteriorated, until the oscillations caused by the corrugations began to shake the interior apart. This was all difficult, but bearable, until after two hundred kilometres the road ran into a lake. Shit!

We stopped just in front of the water and realised we did not have enough fuel to return to Douentza. Timbuktu was our only hope. I hailed a young local, standing watching us with mild bemusement, and in my rubbish French asked him where the road had gone. He replied that it was broken and we had to find an alternative deviation to the ferry. At that point a truck peeled off from the main road behind us and disappeared into the bush, we quickly followed it. We caught up with the truck just as it managed to get stuck in a sand trap, again we had to find an alternative. Cutting through trees and attempting to keep to harder areas, finally the car emerged onto the original road, we would have to remember this for our return journey.

Following the road we eventually emerged onto a narrow causeway which ended at a small, basic village of mud huts and judging by the number of vehicles waiting was the ferry crossing.

As the first ferry pulled in a Toyota van full of Western tourists muscled into the front of the queue and after the ferry had unloaded drove on. The two trucks who had been waiting before either we or the van had arrived erupted with annoyed locals. Tony did manage to back the car onto the ferry but the arguments were getting heated. All of the cars were forced to exit the ferry and the first truck drove on, then the ferry departed.

Waiting for the next ferry Tony and I brewed a tea and played with the local kids, a good bunch considering their limited surroundings. All had better French than I and all were happy.

When the alternate ferry pulled up and unloaded we simply took the initiative and drove on first, no arguments. There was then a rather long pause when a waiting truck, at least forty years old, stalled as it drove up the ramp. It took half an hour to get it restarted before we left the causeway.

During the crossing I spoke with a local who changed some money, a major relief as we had no fuel, and told me about his auberge which I promised to patronise later and try his world famous goat dish. He then introduced me to his Dutch friend who was in Timbukti for the festival.

The crossing lasted and hour and as we approached the opposite side I suggested that I leap off first and film the vehicles as they drove off through the mirror image of the village where we had embarked. Great idea, however the big old truck failed to start. The driver, after failing to push start the monster vehicle with his meagre squad, ran off into the village screaming and yelling. Ten minutes later he returned with a large mob, which I joined, and we successfully pushed the truck until it started.

This behemoth departed the remaining cars, vans and trucks drove off. Tony, after posing for video, parked up and gave out tee-shirts away; this will look good if the kids are wearing them when the other teams turn up.

The run into Timbuktu was spoiled only by someone whistling at us when we crashed some sort of checkpoint, neither of us considered this important. Ten minutes later, after buying some diesel, we were pulled by the police. Apparently we had failed to stop at a very important security point. I pleaded ignorance and produced my insurance documents and V5, all seemed well but we had attracted a dozen or so locals. One such, a self professed guide, was eager to help, I was suspicious. He did however seem to smooth things over and we left soon after, then got lost.

Miraculously the guide appeared and asked us what we were looking for. I admitted a cash-point (ATM) and a place to stay. He immediately took us to an ATM, where I retrieved some much needed funds and offered to take us to a hotel. I explained that as it was getting late we needed to take some photos by somewhere that proved we were in Timbuktu. He took us to a large shelter with, ‘ Bienvenue a Tomboctou’ written above it. He took many photos but we did seem to attract attention. The first attention we attracted was from the adjacent army barracks who insisted we move the car forward, we did very quickly (he had a gun). More attention came from the relatives of our guide (Mohammed, or, call me Bebe). I sold our gas hob and gas cylinders as well as the two camping chairs before we decided to leave, Tony managed to offload the remainder of our tee-shrts.

Bebe took us to a hotel, it was listed in the Lonely Planet guide as a very good option so I used the money I had just made to get the room. Bebe asked what we wanted to do here, I mentioned that we wanted to buy some jewellery and eat some food. He offered to come back in a hour to give us a tour, a truncated tour, for a very good price, then left. Time for a beer.

Three beers later Bebe turned up with Ibrahim, an indigo clad Toureg who wished to sell us his wares. After an unconvincing haggle Tony and I bought some very attractive jewellery. Then as we needed to offload more equipment from the car we offered Ibrahim first choice, he took everything; food, blankets, containers, tea, coffee, the first aid kit, everything. Bebe managed to claim the tool kit and the jump leads. We thought nothing of it, but Ibrahim did, he invited us to his tent for dinner later.

There then followed a surreal discussion with Bebe about us bringing cars to Timbuktu next year for his village, we intend to do this. Bebe then left to help his friend take his newly acquired goods home, I honestly did not expect to see him again.

Fifteen minutes later Bebe appeared ready to take us to the cyber-café so I could upload photos and share the knowledge about our new guide. The French keyboard and slow connection prevented this but Bebe still wanted to take us on the promised tour.

The tour lasted an hour and we saw the three mosques, the houses of the explorers and more importantly the well which gives the town its name. Many photos were taken and I must say I really like Timbuktu.

Bebe then took us to the Toureg house, a tent in a courtyard on the fringe of Timbuktu. I needed the loo so was directed to a door in the corner of the courtyard. I managed to wrench the flimsy wooden door from its hinges, a fine guest I turned out to be. Bebe yelled not to worry. Afterwards Tony and I removed our shoes and sat cross legged in the comfortable tent. Bebe and Ibrahim played the guitar until the food arrived. We were served a large platter of cous-cous with meat and gravy, freshly baked bread and a plate of camel meat. It was all delicious and when washed down with Toureg tea, perfect.

Then Ibrahim laid out his jewellery to repay us for our equipment, Tony and I chose some bracelets, drank more tea then said our goodbyes. We have been invited, due to our kindness and friendship, to join the caravan when we return. To ride a camel and see things tourists do not, I will do this.

Bebe escorted us to our hotel, gave us directions for the morning and left. Tony and I reflected on the day over a couple of beers, then blog and bed.

A tough day for us tomorrow, the road back to Douentza is now a known and feared entity, I know Tony can do this.

More later.

Day 20 – Tuesday 4th January 2011

I awoke this morning knowing, for the first time this trip, exactly where I was and why I was there. The downside was that another negative thought immediately sprang to mind, we have no cash for the ferry nor, as Tony pointed out, any cash for the peage. Shit! (again).

As a real concern it spurred me out of my bed, leaving a red dust stain on the pillow, and off to the ATM. Thankfully it was open and I managed to withdraw enough for the day, or so I thought at the time (tonight will tell). Returning to the hotel we had a very basic breakfast and loaded the car, it was still before seven AM.

The road to the ferry was quiet and easy, we took a slight deviation but we were the first vehicle to arrive at the landing. Immediately a group of desperate pedestrians attempted to book passage on our fantastic car to Douentza, it was difficult (and very sweary) to dissuade them, eventually they got the message and departed. One persistent guy, however, remained. I engaged him in conversation an sold him our spare jerrry-cans, nice.

We waited, and waited but there seemed no opportunity to ask anyone or tae the initiative and just drive the car onto the ferry. Eventually I identified the head man at the crossing and asked him if we could board, computer (or fat ugly bald ignorant bloke) said no. He suggested we wait another forty minutes, at that moment the ferry that had been present since we arrived took on passengers and began to leave., I was a bit miffed.

At the last moment he returned to shore and allowed us to board, finally we were progressing. Half-way across the river a small chimp-like fellow began asking me for money, ten thousand local monies, very bad man!! I explained that yesterday we paid five thousand, he said this was because there were many vehicles and it was cheap. I pretended to not understand him for a while but eventually paid him. The ferry rolled onwards.

After disembarking the hard road to Douentza awaited. Tony had obviously been thinking his way forward since we left the hotel, we managed to get to the main east-west road in three hours, not bad for a two-wheel drive vehicle.

The road to Mopti was dull and inconsequential, apart from a major item of road-kill. Tony was still driving when we approached a large herd of cattle, calves mainly. As we pushed through, the back marker panicked and ran in front of the car, we hit it, hard. Looking behind us I saw the poor animal dying in the road, we had smashed its head and broken at least one leg, our damage was a smashed indicator lens, shit happens.

We arrived in Mopti and found our hotel ,chosen from the Lonely Planet guide, and checked in. Captain Flint is pretty well buggered; electrics are gone, all doors are shot and there is dust everywhere, but Emily loved him (email me if you get this).

We have done little else but relax since we arrived in Mopti but tomorrow is the final push to Bamako and the farewell to our car.

More may happen tonight, many annoying Americans are here for onward travel to the festival so we may get annoyed and cause an incident, or just go to bed.

More later.

Sitting here listening to the tourists travelling to Timbuktu I feel a slight aura of smug pride. They all talk of the method of travel to this legendary city and not one of them mentions a car, they all say;

‘We are taking a four by four!!’

Comfort zones extended to and including their transport. The world is a smaller place, made so by the small minds that refuse to embrace the history and culture that has existed for far longer than the email and MTV generation that pervades the backpack trails and middle-class mentality that most of the people we have met bring with them. This is my opinion and as such is probably wrong.

More later, conclusions much later.

Day 21 – Wednesday 5th January 2011

After leaving the bar last night we returned to the mixed dormitory where another fellow traveller was getting ready to sleep. She was young Korean girl who had left home in April and made her way to Mali by way of China, Tibet, India and many other countries. She didn’t rate Mali very highly and was disappointed with the ‘in your face’ attitude of many of the locals. Tony and I had not experienced much of this but as we have been told we don’t look like the normal tourist there is probably a very good reason for this. The Korean girl was moving on to Cameroon next but didn’t have the essential Lonely Planet guide, as we were leaving the following day we donated our copy of the Western Africa guide, if you’re reading this, good luck.

After the several beers we had managed to get through sleeping was easy, in fact the bar ran our at around ten PM so it was still a bit of an early night.

I awoke before the alarm and disabled it, the Korean girl was leaving, she wished us luck and departed. There was an odd looking local guy sleeping in the bed next to Tony, I have no idea where he came from or when. We packed up our stuff and left. I honestly cannot remember if I paid or not, never mind.

The road from Mopti to Bamako has the same agriculture countryside, fields or livestock grazing so there’s very little to report. In a small village about one-hundred and thirty kilometres from Bamako we bumped into team Safe. They were heading to Mopti so we relayed our experiences of that and issues further up country and recommended our new friend Bebe. They handed back the radios and inverter that they had borrowed and disappeared in a cloud of red dust. A local girl was selling watermelons and it seemed a good point to refresh ourselves, very nice.

Once again we set off and were travelling a steady pace when suddenly the car lost all power, the accelerator fell to the floor and we stopped. The most recent sign indicated we were only just over a hundred kilometres from Bamako. All manner of negative thoughts ran through my mind, the first being; ‘It’s all over’.

We checked out the problem and discovered that the accelerator cable had snapped about six inches from the throttle valve. We had given away all of our tools and most of the equipment that could have given us any chance of repairing this problem. The old cable and protective sleeve was removed and a combination of shoelaces and a bit of nylon string lying by the roadside were fashioned into a makeshift means for the person in the passenger seat to open the throttle. The next problem was that if we closed the bonnet it trapped the shoelaces, even just clipping it down still made it impossible to operate, the solution? A rock under the rim of the bonnet, we tried it and it worked once again we were off.

No we weren’t, a kilometre later the string snapped. I suddenly remembered that I had two kites in the back. The nylon cable was strong, this couple with the padded steering straps made it perfect for the job. Now we WERE off!!

It took us a few kilometres to get the hang of it but as long as I voiced my gear changes before I applied the clutch then Tony could dip and reapply the throttle. It worked a treat, in fact in this fashion I honestly think my driving improved.

We finished the final one-hundred kilometres to Bamako and found the Colibris hotel fully expecting to be on our own. How wrong could we be, both Dan/Doug (Papu goes back) and the Austrian Stefans were still at the hotel. They were very happy to see us and congratulated us on our insane achievement in reaching Timbuktu in our Peugeot 405 estate in the ridiculous time frame we set ourselves. After a quick beer we sorted through the luggage, repacking to leave unwanted clothes and equipment and also to ensure that there was no illicit goods in our hand-luggage. Dan donated the use of his room for us to freshen up, a quick wash only scratched the surface of the hard caked red African dust that encrusted my head, arms and neck but it would have to do.

Returning to the bar and sinking a coke each the Stefans suggested that we grab some food before Sunny, from the Rotary club, turned up for the vehicle hand over. We found a street café serving brochettes (twice in one trip) and ordered. Tony and I had very little money so we kept our order small. The food was good and we returned to the hotel satisfied.

The streets of Bamako are absolutely manic with hustlers and beggars all trying to earn a quick Franc. Young children, no more than six or seven, beg for scraps of food from restaurant to restaurant and phone-card salesmen pester all they encounter, tourist or local. The ubiquitous mopeds and small motorcycles choke the streets with fumes and dart in and out of the traffic avoiding the cars which spew black smoke from their old inefficient and thoroughly knackered engines. Back to the hotel garden where fruit bats swooped and turned in the dimly illuminated central courtyard.

Sunny arrived and we introduced ourselves. He is a very well though of and highly ranked member of the Rotary club in Bamako, his favourite place though is The Lake District in England. We handed over the keys and the V5, he was very happy that we had brought a Peugeot diesel. He also provided us with an official document explaining why we were leaving the country without the car we arrived with.

We had a couple of more drinks, I stuck to water as the incident by the roadside fixing the accelerator cable had seen us run out of our supply of bottled water and I had dehydrated badly, then decided that we had better get to the airport. Sunny had already ordered us a taxi and arranged that the hotel pay for it, we weren’t even staying there.

Checking in was straight forward but when I attempted to pass security the policeman asked me where my car was. I produced the letter Sunny had very thoughtfully provided, the officer accepted this then asked me for money so he could have a drink. I stupidly opened my wallet, the only note I had was a ten thousand Franc bill, I dropped it in the open drawer and was bade a good evening. Tony followed and was told he had no visa, when he pointed out where it was in his wallet he was begrudgingly allowed to proceed. Bloody crooks!

We are now in the departure lounge, nothing here to keep us refreshed or entertained but what the hell we just want to go home. We leave for Casablanca just after two AM and then on to Gatwick.

More later.

Day 22 – Thursday 6th January 2011

Flying at night always irritates me, the ten hour flight from Paris to Cayenne was a particularly bad example of this and I was extremely glad when I quit that job. If I had to write a recipe for the worst flight ever then all the ingredients were present on the plane leaving Bamako; the flight was running late, the seats were closer together than a Ryan-air aeroplane, the woman in front insisted on reclining her seat fully, the small boy behind be insisted on kicking my seat for over an hour, I was in the middle seat, etc and so on, you get the picture.

We landed in Casablanca, queued for ages to clear security in the transfer area then waited for the gate staff to stop nattering and let us on. Thankfully the plane was half empty and we both managed to doze lightly and fitfully.

Gatwick was quiet so we managed to get our train tickets, collect our luggage and catch the first train to Fareham. We’ve both been up since seven AM yesterday and it’s beginning to tell. Now I’ve to complete reams of paperwork in order to have a job to go back to, that’s rubbish!

More later.