Plymouth Dakar challenge

Plymouth-Dakar/Banjul
Old-Bangers Challenge

Lawrence Bransby

The Basic Premise:
·	Take a car worth no more than £100.00
·	Spend no more than £15.00 preparing it
·	Drive it unsupported from Plymouth to Dakar
Rules:
·	The car has to be left-hand drive
·	Rules are meant to be broken

The rally, according to its "un-organiser" Julian Nowill, is a poor man's response to the Pari-Dakar
Rally, held each year, which costs competitors hundreds of thousands of pounds to enter, where most
vehicles and bikes are fully supported by experienced crews who are able to rebuild a car or bike at the
end of each day (and do) if need be and where helicopters fly any injured competitor out immediately to
hospital in the nearest city.

Day 1: Paignton - France

Left Portsmouth at midnight in a howling force 7 gale after Charlie (my co-driver) had overshot our
meeting place by 40ks and had to turn back - an auspicious start, I thought. Don't think I'll rely on
him for navigation! Our little Ford Fiesta is loaded to the roof and all around our feet - too much, I
feel. The old traveller's dictum of doubling your money and halving your luggage still holds true, I
feel. I have a horrible feeling that the little car will be overloaded in the desert, especially when we
add the extra weight of fuel and water.
	Met three other P/D cars in the ferry queue - all painted and stickered like graffitied walls.
	We greeted each other with excited smiles like small boys on the verge of an adventure - which I
	suppose it is and we are. The fact that we have old cars we can paint all over any how we like
	and it doesn't really matter because (a) they are pretty worthless and (b) they are going to be
	given away is somehow liberating. Even the team names suggest a bunch of little boys off to have
	fun and escape the rat-race for a while: "Pint-Pullers"; "Havan-a-Go"; "Les Medecins Sans Front-
	Tyre" and so on!
	Onto the ferry but after a very short 4 hours of sleep we were rudely awoken, started up the
	car, groggy with lack of sleep, and set off on a 12-hour drive in bitter cold and uninterrupted
	driving rain. The Fiesta is going beautifully except for a disturbing grinding/shrieking noise
	when one selects reverse gear. Charlie comments, "Don't think about it and it'll probably go
	away," and we keep on driving. I assume that's the engineer in him speaking, trying to confuse
	me with technical jargon. Well, I suppose we won't be going backwards much on this trip.
	At 7.30 we finally reached Bayonne, exhausted and dirty. Booked into a cheap hotel, lovely hot
	shower and a drive into town to eat fresh salad with olive oil, a delicious pizza and red wine -
	alive again!

Day 2: France to Sotogrande, Spain

Late start because we didn't wake up until 9! Constant rain, just enclosed in the car trying to make
progress across the vast expanse of Spain in one day. It's a strange experience sharing the intimate
confines of a car for so many hours with a virtual stranger - like being trapped in a lift for 12 hours)
feeling your way and being sensitive about potential areas of conflict. We have not known each other
long enough to establish a bond of friendship and still sufficiently wary to keep clear of conflict. And
so we sound each other out, establishing routines but not pecking order, both of us, I hope, old enough
not to need or want dominance or to score points, both sufficiently comfortable in our ages (me 53 and
he 55) to enjoy ourselves and share and allow each other space. So much needs to be negotiated - who
drives when and for how long? How do we split our finances, what is joint expenditure and what personal?
For example, who pays if one of us gets a traffic fine (we agreed to split any fines). But so far we
both seem similar in many ways: both married with grown-up children (boy and girl), similar ages, both
enjoy cars and driving, conscious of being on the downhill side of life, but we don't share a spiritual
belief. I doubt that we will become friends - I am sufficiently a loner not to depend on the
company of friends - so, hopefully, we will rub along sufficiently to make this an enjoyable trip.
	Charlie has thrown himself into the preparation of the Fiesta with loving attention to detail;
	as an ex rally driver, he knows what to do and I have full confidence in his ability to get the
	car to the end in one piece.
	Back to the trip: we finally got away and headed South towards Madrid. The motorway was good and
	we averaged 120-130 kph through driving rain and blustery wind which buffeted the little car
	about. At one time we stopped for a quick cup of coffee when with a cheeky melodic toot from an
	air horn, in turned 2 cars - obviously P/D, painted and over-laden! They drew up alongside us -
	it was Teams 5144 "Hafan-a-Go" from Wales, a very heavily laden and very small Trabant (a little
	2-cylinder, 600cc 2-stroke pile of junk from East Germany). They had flashing Christmas trees in
	the window and flashing valve caps on their tyres in keeping with the Christmas spirit. Their
	mates David and Juan, young lads from the Isle of Wight in a Renault 19. Juan has only had his
	driving licence for 3 weeks! (Interesting that it was these 4 whom we got to know most well on
	the trip and who became part of our small group who crossed the desert together.) I walked past
	the front of David and Juan's car and promptly broke their number plate in half when it hooked
	on my trousers! Good omen. We shrugged our shoulders - so what, this is the P/D and things are
	meant to break! Anyway, he'd attached the number plate protruding half out the side of his
	mudguard to make room for 4 massive spot lights so it was his fault for bad planning and showing
	off with his lights!
	Then on, heading South for Sotogrande near Gibraltar - only another 650 ks to do this afternoon.
	Delicious salami and cheese sandwiches for lunch, made on the dusty roof of the car - our only
	table. I'm glad Charlie didn't say, "Ooh, it's dirty!" so I think we will get on well together!
	15 hours' drive through increasingly barren countryside. Arrived finally, pretty exhausted, at
	1.30 am, to find the hotel locked. Eventually Charlie and I found an open side door and slept a
	cold and uncomfortable night on the floor of a corridor still under construction. We were rudely
	awoken at 8 am by Spanish workers. They muttered good-humouredly at us and motioned for us to
	stay lying down which we gratefully did. Roused ourselves finally just before 9 to a miserable
	blustery day to meet red-eyed and dazed P/D'ists, many emerging from the front seats of cars
	where they had spent uncomfortable nights. The hotel was still not open, even for those who had
	slept in a proper room. Foreigners!
	Outside was a blue VW buggie which had dropped a pushrod and was running "like a bucket of
	bolts". The driver had pulled the tappet covers off in Calais and found the pushrod; after a
	quick roadside repair it was now going "sweet as a nut" - said with love in his eyes. However,
	shortly later it packed up again and they completed the remaining 1300ks on 3 cylinders, a long,
	slow drive. Another VW had blown his engine travelling through France but it just so happened
	that a French VW enthusiast lived in a little village down the road and this man not only
	swapped the shot engine for one of his own reconditioned ones, but assisted with the job.
	Another car had a damaged alternator and had to travel the whole way through France and Spain
	swapping batteries every 150ks with a fellow P/d'er they met on the road as it discharged. Now
	looking for a spare alternator.
I think these are the first of many such stories that will emerge from this trip.



Day 3: Rest day - Gibraltar

Rest day before crossing into Morocco. My camera has packed up so we drove into Gibraltar to buy
another. A claustrophobic experience - only 3 miles of roads and a 1000 people trying to get past surly
and uncooperative Spanish border guards. Then into the enclave. It was great to see the red post boxes,
British bobbies and hear English again! Had bangers and mash for lunch just to prove a point!
	The afternoon, back at the hotel, was spent fulfilling every little boy's dream: groups of men
	(there ARE one or two women, let's be honest) beers in hand, stand around staring into engine
	compartments while someone covered in oil fiddles with an obscure engine bit; others look on
	intelligently and give advice; sharing anecdotes; kicking the occasional tyre. Everyone has
	entered into the spirit of the trip, treating the whole challenge (it has now been listed on the
	"100 things to do before you die" and the "50 greatest sporting challenges" websites somewhere,
	so I'm told) with a blasé casualness, a "we're men and we're tough and can handle it", we'll do
	it in the great British way of very little preparation, face impossible hardships with a shrug
	and a joke and finally snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a nonchalant smile and a
	dismissive comment - I love it! The cars are covered with deliberate anti-heroic slogans and
	cute girlie mascots implying we are so sure of ourselves that we don't need to be macho; in fact
	we can be as silly as we like because we don't need to prove anything to anyone!
Some offerings painted on cars: "Fat people are hard to kidnap!"  and my favourite: "Operating on the
naïve and obviously flawed premise that everything will turn out alright."; fluffy pink dice dangling
from a rear-view mirror; cute dog stuck on one bonnet, an orange rubber duck on another; snowmen and
kitsch Christmas trees; 20-ft flagpoles with the cross of St George flying defiantly; banks of
spotlights so powerful and numerous they just have to be ironic.
	Teams come from all over the place - most British, but others from South Africa, Holland,
	Switzerland, Germany, Isle of Wight and Ireland. The cars are very special, lovingly prepared
	and each one with its own story - a Land Rover found in a field with a tree growing through it
	and saved for the trip; an 8-litre V8 Mercedes; the little 2-cylinder Trabant; 3 VWs, a VERY low
	Citroen CX with a ground clearance of a few inches; a Merc camper van supporting a 125cc Yamaha
	trail bike; a Chev Camero V8 automatic rather bent from an accident and sold off cheap; the old
	Series 2 Land Rover fire engine with pumps and hoses, everything in full working order to be
	donated to the Gambian Fire Department (it blew up its rear diff near Bordeaux, drove on with
	one diff until a replacement

could be found on the way); a Swiss team with pink fluffy dash and door panels, leopard skin seat-covers
and bright pink duvet covering the back seat, snow board strapped on the roof next to the spare wheels
and spade for dune boarding in the desert. The Swiss drivers wear matching orange racing overalls and
dark glasses. Most vehicles are heavily overloaded - spare wheels (some with 4!), spades, sand mats,
food, spares, jerry cans; some roof racks are very well built, bolted right onto the roof and body of
the car whilst others seem as if they are just waiting for the first corrugations and pot holes to
vibrate them off. But we must all learn from experience and our own mistakes, I suppose. A maroon Merc
23D. The owner told me that it had been left unused for a year in a field. "People leave them but don't
want to throw them away. It was a bit rough at first - junk in the fuel tank - but it smoothed up after
a while -" said with obvious affection. I just know there's going to be some great reluctance giving
these cars away in The Gambia.
	Later we had a team briefing and detailed instructions as follows: "Cross on the ferry to Ceuta,
	which is still Spanish territory, fill up your jerry cans then look for signs to Morocco.then go
	straight on to The Gambia - any questions?" - a shrug and a wry smile.
Some questions: "What do you do if you don't have insurance for Senegal or Mauritania?" Answer: "Just
write 'Senegal' and 'Mauritania' at the bottom of your car insurance document - they can't read
anyway."! Wise words of warning: "In the desert, 15 seconds of wheel spin when you're stuck = one hour
of digging!" Also told us that we have to drive through the mine-field on our own and then pick up a
desert guide AFTER the minefield. At least they know what they are doing, I suppose!
	Phonecall in the middle of the meeting from a team struggling along somewhere in the middle of
	Spain: "Anyone got any good ideas about how to get from X to Sotogrande?" (where we are now).
	Calls from the assembled group: "DRIVE!" Frankie's (our mentor) loving answer: "Look at the man
	and make sure you get here by 8 tomorrow for the ferry."
	Again, a clear indication that, although we are all together here, now, we are really on our own
	and must nurse our cars through because it will only be by the good-hearted kindness of others
	if it all goes pear-shaped.
	The spirit of the trip is elegantly captured in the "Route Instructions" each participant was
	given prior to the trip. The term "Instructions" is perhaps misleading. A few quotes will
	suffice, beginning with:

"DISCLAIMER:
There is no requirement to follow what you read below. In fact, the information is incomplete and cannot
be relied upon. It is a compilation of rumours, hearsay, personal opinions and one-time experiences
faded by the passage of time. It is only offered to help you avoid some of the inconveniences involved
in driving from England to The Gambia and should not be relied upon for the safety of yourself or your
vehicle. You are travelling independently and unsupported on an inherently dangerous venture."

"GROUP LEADERS:
The term "leader" is used very loosely. Most of these guys are simply people who have done the P-D
Challenge before. So hard luck if your "leader" slept through his last run."

After the briefing we grouped up to discuss routes; the mountain route through Morocco from Fez to
Marrakech is, I feel, really too simple and straight forward. I am looking for something more remote,
smaller roads deeper into the desert. Found a small group with similar intentions - two young Dutch
lads, a guy in a Land Cruiser and us. General feeling: You only do this sort of thing once in a lifetime
so make the most of it - YES!

Day 4: Morocco

The old Land Rover fire engine arrived in the early hours, oooh-aah siren and blue lights flashing, much
to the annoyance of the locals. Beautifully turned out. The smashed diff story is, I think, typical of
what is going to happen on this trip - they limped in front wheel drive to the first fire station they
came to in France and there they met a Land Rover enthusiast who took them home to his store of spare
Land Rover parts and they fitted another rear diff. he just happened to have and they were on their way
again in a couple of hours!
	The atmosphere this morning in the before-dawn dark was fantastic, all up in the dark and cold,
	making final adjustments and packing, cars starting up, hooting, laughter, one with rock music
	playing loudly, fire engine siren going and its blue light flashing. We finally set off in
	convoy - 46 vehicles - towards the ferry port, Charlie near the front and promptly missing the
	first turn-off, thereby leading 44 vehicles down the wrong road then with 44 vehicles u-turning
	and heading back while the tail-enders dutifully followed the car in front down the wrong road
	passing us coming back! Seems right!
The Swiss team with their vehicle labelled in official-looking lettering Les Medicines Sans Frontyres
are wearing white lab coats with Dr Robinson and Dr Smith stencilled above the pocket. (They will, of
course, nominate themselves "Brain Surgeons" at every border crossing and petty official who demands to
know their occupation. It would not surprise me to see them in days to come administering pills and
advice to sick Africans along the way!) Another large participant of Greek appearance wears a fez and a
white shirt, black trousers, jacket and tie - "It makes me look important," he assured me, "and they let
me through the borders more quickly!".
	Mark and George, Charlie's friends, who will probably be travelling with us, slept on the floor
	of our room to avoid the hotel charge and Charlie made off with one of the hotel towels - he's a
	very "Stuff you, I'm British, we won the war!" kind of guy, not averse to driving to the front
	of a long queue of patient, law-abiding citizens and shoving his way into the line, quite
	unfazed by the hoots and cries of outrage and shock coming from behind. I just sink low in my
	seat and hope no one can see me! He also added Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia in pen to
	the bottom of our car insurance - which I suppose is OK because we are told that if we have an
	accident in any of these countries the insurance means nothing and we'll never get a penny
	anyway. In the car, he puts this insurance document next to the photocopy of the car's V5 papers
	and the colour photocopy of our tax disk (the original having been sent back for a refund the
	day he got it!).
	And so, back onto African soil, into Ceuta, the Spanish enclave, and onto the Moroccan border.
	It was, as expected, chaotic but as not as bad as we had been led to expect. It took us an hour
	to get through, filling in random and meaningless forms, being sent to the back of the queue
	because we hadn't written the car make and registration number on the BACK of one form and being
	pestered for money from the officials on duty. And Charlie and I got ripped off for £10.00
	within five minutes of arriving at the border. A "helper" latched onto us with a sheaf of
	official forms in his hand, demanded £20.00, Charlie gave him £10.00 and the tout took the money
	and then started a long argument because he wanted £10.00 EACH but we stood our ground. We
	filled in the small form as directed to in broken English, he took them and our passports away
	for 2 minutes, brought them back and then followed another ten-minute argument because he wanted
	more money. Only when we became aggressive and abusive and he realised he wasn't going to get
	any more out of us did he ungraciously hand over the forms and our passports. He had made £10.00
	in ten minutes and we still had to negotiate the chaos of customs and immigration, where the
	forms were freely available anyway. (Always a sucker!) I thought he, like the "facilitators" at
	the Zimbabwe border, was going to "facilitate" us all the way through. Twenty minutes into
	Africa and we'd already been ripped off and I wasn't happy. The customs officers were slovenly,
	walls paint-spattered, torn cloth on the tables, dirty and chaotic. While we watched, an
	official's stamp fell apart as a screw came loose; no queues, just pushing crowds at tiny
	windows. Cries of, "He's putting his jacket on, he's going off for lunch!" and "Empty the car!"
	from crowds of laughing P-D participants revelling in each others' misfortunes.
	We finally got through and headed along the coast together with Frank and George, the day clear
	and crisp, the sky a deep blue above the pale rocky coastal mountains. I had managed to persuade
	the group to take the inland route over the High Atlas and into the desert on the other side
	which continues unbroken to the Algerian border. It turns out, though, that I badly
	underestimated the distances involved. Mark has done a similar trip two years ago in a truck and
	they took seven days to complete what we were proposing to do in two. It is just not possible
	without killing ourselves and the cars - 840 ks over very rough, narrow mountainous roads with
	suicide trucks and bush taxis on every corner. But we only decided that later.
	As we left the coast road and headed inland into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains from
	Tetouan to Chefchaouen the road climbed and switch backed up and up, seeming to go back in time
	as we climbed: men ploughing the land with wooden ploughs pulled by donkeys and emaciated
	horses; sowing wheat by hand like in Biblical times; ridiculously overloaded hay trucks
	overtaking slowly up hills; cacti with ripe prickly pears and dark-leaved trees laden with
	oranges; olive groves dark and cool; strangely plastered hay-stacks like little cottages on the
	sides of the road; ropes of onions and beautiful ceramic plates and jars for sale.
	From Chefchaouen we travelled across a wide, fertile plain before again climbing; then another
	plain and then another climb, the sun beginning to set and the mountains and plains softening
	and turning purple. We were making slow time and my vision of the desert road was fading. We
	decided, instead, to make for Meknes and camp there for the night and then push on to Marrkech
	tomorrow - a mere 467 kms.
	Thirty-five kilometres before Meknes we stopped to look at a beautifully preserved 2nd Century
	Roman town, Volubilis, with arches and columns still standing, an olive press with channels for
	the oil to run, incredibly beautiful mosaics in a perfect state of preservation, channels and
	flues for under-floor heating - we could have stayed hours but the sun was setting and we had to
	find the camp site.
	We reached the sprawling, mad, bustling city of Meknes just after dark and it took us a
	frustrating hour to find the camp site. We quickly set up the tents and cooked supper, sitting
	around and drinking red wine and reminiscing over a long and eventful day. And as so often
	happens on these long journeys, half an hour later another three P/D cars arrived and set up
	camp next to us. They had been going well but one had burst a radiator hose and they had had to
	stop to make emergency repairs. The other car, a Citroen, was making unpleasant noises from the
	half-shafts but still going.
	At nine we all decided to visit the city centre and explore the medina, the commercial hub of an
	old Arab city. Meknes was once the foremost city in Morocco and has 25 kms of high, thick
	crenulated mud walls surrounding it; the souk is a rabbit warren of a place with narrow cobbled
	alleys winding through arched gaps between high walls with hundreds of small shops making and
	selling everything on either side, including camel heads staring dolefully from butchers' tables
	and mounds of beautifully polished and arranged oranges and black and brown olives. Although we
	had eaten, others in our group hadn't and we were lured by a Moroccan man into a small, low
	doorway which, once we entered, opened out into the most amazing Moorish restaurant, high
	ceiling, ornate mosaics up the walls all decorated in black, red and gold. We spent until nearly
	midnight there, eating local dishes and chatting - sharing anecdotes about the trip so far,
	previous travel experiences and generally getting to know each other.
On our way out we came across another P/D group of about twelve, eating kebabs at a small street
restaurant. Then back to the tents for a late crawl into sleeping bags.

Day 5: Marrakech

A long, hard day. We are tired now but still need to do 1350 kms during the next 3 days before a
scheduled rest day in Dakhla, southern Morocco, and our next group meeting.
	I awoke at 6.45, cold, tired and uncomfortable. Thoughts of "Why am I doing this when I could be
	snug and warm and comfortable in my bed at home?" crept in but I dismissed them by turning on
	the gas stove, which warmed the tent nicely, and making a cup of tea.
	We got away by 9 and paused briefly to look at the old city walls with their beautiful ornately-
	coloured doorways, and the Great Mosque.
	Except for petrol stops, a lunch stop and two friendly police stops, we drove steadily until
	4.30 through a landscape which grew increasingly dry as we descended from the Middle Atlas, with
	their clear cold air and stark isolation, to the low coastal plains. As the mountains fell
	behind us, we encountered more people, more filth and more typical African attitude to bits of
	machinery and abandoned cars left on the side of the road, falling-down walls and general decay
	in the towns and villages - so much so that at times it felt like we were passing through a
	bombed-out Beirut, except that the buildings were like that by design and neglect rather than
	war. In these places the air smells of rotting garbage and smoke and the stench of burned diesel
	from the many decrepit trucks that wallow about the roads belching fumes. Often it is only the
	front of buildings that are painted, plastered or decorated in any way, a façade to hide the
	crumbling side and back walls. Buildings are constructed by making up pillars and cross-members
	of reinforced concrete (the bits of reinforcing iron protruding above the flat roofs are just
	left there and not trimmed away) and then the gaps between are filled with badly-laid
	breezeblocks. When scaffolding needs to be put up, a pole-shaped hole is knocked into one (or
	both) sides of a breezeblock and the scaffolding pole thrust through. Mostly unpainted, and
	fronted by dirt pavements and garbage and broken-down vehicles, it is often an unpleasant but
	strangely exhilarating sight because it is so obviously foreign, so African. The streets seethe
	with pedestrians and cyclists and cars all working on the logical principle that someone will
	get out of the way before a collision occurs and (most of the time) it works because everyone is
	looking out for everyone else. Crossroads are negotiated by edging forwards until a gap can be
	pushed through; and, because everyone is polite and accommodating, the system functions very
	well. Without exception, drivers are polite, considerate and friendly.
	Outside the towns and villages, the roads are flanked on either side by rows of blue-gum trees
	and, behind these, the gnarled trunks and dark leaves of olive trees. The ground is stony and
	reminds me of the mountains of Lesotho and, in places, the dry thorn-veld of the Western
	Transvaal.
	On the way we met the little Trabant and three other P/D cars, all of whom, with minor niggling
	exceptions - leaking radiator and overheating - are going well.
As we reached the outskirts of Marrakech, the gums and olives gave way to date palms; these, with the
sandy ground and sparse vegetation, goat herders on the sides of the roads and men riding donkeys, give
one a feeling of being in an Arab country and drawing near to the desert. I was looking forward to a hot
shower, meeting up with the other participants, who have taken various routes from Ceuta to Marrakech
and who will mostly be getting in later tonight, visiting the Djemaa el-Fna, the large market square in
the old city with its open-air food stalls and centuries-old traditional entertainments that occur in
the heart of the city each night.

Day 6: Marrakech - Agadir

Marrakech is known as the "Red City" because so many of the buildings are plastered with a slurry of
local mud which has a deep red colour especially in the late evening light. Last night, after setting up
camp, we took a taxi into the famous centre of Marrakech, the Djemaa el-Fna, to absorb the ambiance and
sample local food. This huge open space in the heart of the city is transformed at night into a hive of
activity - mostly men selling and serving food from plastic-covered stalls with wooden benches all
round, where people sit and eat. Each has its smoky charcoal fire in the centre with food on offer
displayed around the sides. Touts encourage passers-by to partake of their food with good-natured
insistence, one repeating "Bloody good food -!" at us in a desperate attempt to encourage us to stay.
We chose a place that looked fairly clean, ordered and ate a little bit of this and a little bit of
that, aromatic and piquant local dishes in a chaotic bustle of humanity. Unfortunately the atmosphere
was ruined when we came to pay and the owner attempted to rip us off. Despite prices clearly displayed
he demanded about double; after much argument we thrust what we had calculated was the correct price and
walked off, ignoring his shouts and threats.
And then we went looking for some gifts and got properly ripped off - all of us - by sophisticated
bargainers who wooed, flattered, plied us with tea, brow-beat, intimidated and carved us up with a smile
on their faces. We stood no chance but at least we all bought some gifts for those left at home. Trying
to cover the huge distances we need to cover each day makes it very difficult to look for suitable
gifts; also, the endless drawn-out process of bargaining and the fact that nothing is priced (things
seem to be sold on the principle of: the price of anything is whatever-the-stupid-tourist-can-be-duped-
into-paying).
	Despite the annoyances of last night, today has been the best day of the trip so far. Even
	though we all feel tired, the four of us now travelling together are getting on well as a group
	and feeling as if we are really on our way now. We have driven steadily for 8-9 hours each day
	for five of the past six days with another 1100 kms to complete in the next two days before our
	rest day in Dakhla. We are, I suppose, trying to pack

too much in and I hope our bodies will take it. We spent our first rest day in Gibraltar, lost the
second because we decided to travel instead into the Middle Atlas mountains and so haven't really had a
break at all. But at least the cars are going well - just reverse gear in ours and, at the end of today,
a knocking sound from the engine when under load but Charlie is sure that it is just poor fuel.
And so, to today:  It took us an hour to get out of Marrakech because so few roads are sign posted, but
we learned to stop in the middle of intersections and ask the policemen on duty. They, despite the line
of cars that piled up behind us, didn't seem to mind (and nor did the drivers who waited patiently until
we had got instructions). We then began the long drive up into the Atlas mountains on our way to Agadir.
Charlie started driving this morning but, unfortunately, once he is in the driver's seat, it is very
difficult to get him out. He is, to say the least, thick-skinned and subtle hints from me rebound
without penetrating. He also seems to have only one aim: to drive. He will not stop to absorb the
atmosphere of a place and seems totally uninterested in the people, the culture - anything but getting
there!
	As we wound further and further into the mountains, the road became smaller, rougher and
	narrower. In the distance we could see peaks covered with snow and the mountain slopes became
	steeper and more barren. I finally managed to get Charlie to stop at a small mountain village so
	we could have a cup of coffee. Outside was freezing and an icy wind cut through our clothes. I
	took a walk up the street trying to get a feel of the place; at a street corner, a man stood in
	front of a brazier cooking small pieces of meat, a skinned goat thigh in one hand and the still-
	wet skin in the other, aromatic smoke perfuming the air. Next door was a small, dark blacksmith
	shop, grinder driven by an old washing-machine motor. The Arab blacksmith was making wrought-
	iron gates and other things using the most rudimentary of implements, fashioned from whatever
	comes to hand - in the African way. Amazing, in fact, how the people in these remote and poor
	places just make do. Mark and George happened by just then and we called in to a cold, windy
	café and drank a delicious cup of strong coffee. Then on, driving together, we wound up and up
	into the mountains, the soil red on bare mountain slopes with the snow-covered peaks beckoning
	in the distance. Still cold and windy, we passed small villages lined with dark-leaved gum
	trees, square mud-walled houses with tiny windows against the cold, perched on rocky slopes,
	some four-stories high; old terraced mountainsides seemingly cut out of the rock itself on one
	side of the road, a sheer drop into the valleys on the other. Charlie now in his element, the
	old rally-driver glint coming into his eyes, talking about under-steer and using the hand brake
	to "get the back out" as we negotiate hairpin bends with sheer drops on the right hand sides.
	And I don't think he's joking!
	Finally we reached the snow, the roads completely iced up and very slippery. Mark and George
	rather worried because they have tyres with very little tread and are afraid they might lose
	control. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in the snow and, like little children, had snow
	fights. Finally we had to leave the mountains as the road began to descend towards Ifni and a
	welcome hotel for the night. On the way, we passed another three P/D cars - a Datsun Skyline,
	Ford Orion and a Saab.
	At breakfast the next morning, Charlie smiled (a rare occurrence!) and cried, "Can we drive like
	idiots in the dessert?! Rally-mode - either in total control or out of control!" - and I don't
	think he was asking permission!

Day 7 - Ifni - Laayoune

Got away by 9.20 after a restful night and pleasant breakfast. In the morning light, the land was
clearly more desert-like: red, stony soil with stunted bushes and prickly pears and we saw our first
herd of camels. The Moroccan towns are interesting because nearly all buildings are square in shape, 2-3
stories high and without the distinctive Arab horseshoe arch. But what makes them unusual is that most
buildings are painted with the same reddish-pink wash so that, in a certain light, they blend in with
the surrounding countryside. In some towns, the ugliness of the concrete buildings is softened by trees
planted on either side of the main street.
	Within an hour of setting off we were finally into desert - low stony hills with occasional sage
	and tamarisk bushes. The road is fairly narrow and bumpy but good - no potholes yet. Our little
	car is still going well - cruising at 120 kph across this level coastal plain and passing the
	occasional P/D car travelling more slowly along the same - and only - road south towards our
	rendezvous at Dakhla tomorrow night.

Finally arrived at Laayoune at 5pm after a long drive. Very tired indeed now. The road from Sidi-Isni
wound inland through low rocky coastal hills and increasingly dry desert landscape until, suddenly and
unexpectedly, we came upon the sea, deep blue with large Atlantic swells crashing against a 30ft high
cliff alongside of which the road ran, following the coast. We passed about five interesting shipwrecks
along this stretch of coast, many herds of camels and some beautiful wide river estuaries. Then, in the
distance, a band of real Sahara sand dunes appeared, soft-looking and sculptured by the wind. We passed
quite quickly through them and then the road curved away inland but they were still visible in the
distance for about an hour.
	We stopped for lunch, heading off the main road towards the sea cliff. Three men were fishing,
	perched right on the cliff-edge, casting their lines into the water. On either side, the cliffs
	continued until they disappeared into sea haze, the sea and sky still a startling blue and the
	large waves crashing and sending up spray which, when the wind blew, reached us standing near
	the edge. On either side huge chunks of the cliff had collapsed in to the sea and, as there was
	no beach at all, just a wall of red disappearing straight into the sea, if anyone had fallen
	there would be no rescuing them.
	On the way here our trusty little Fiesta finally started showing signs of tiredness: first the
	exhaust sheared just below the manifold (so we rode along sounding like a V8 tractor for the
	entire day) and then, at one of many police checkpoints, our top radiator hose burst. Charlie
	taped it up and we headed on, meeting familiar faces in other P/D cars on the way until four of
	us were travelling together: Charlie and I, Mark and George in the Renault, the little Trabant
	and David and Juan from the Isle of Man. We finally reached Laayoune at 4.30 and, while we
	checked into a cheap hotel, Charlie found a side-street workshop and had our exhaust welded.
	George, Mark and I took a long walk about the town and, as we made our way through the narrow
	side streets, we bumped into P/D friends all over the place. The big Mercedes delivery van was
	on the side of the road with water pouring from its water pump, the young Swiss Yamaha 125 rider
	looking exhausted, drinking tea at a pavement cafe. He has been setting out at 6 am each morning
	just to keep up because he can only make 90 kph top speed.
	They very quickly managed to find another street workshop and had the water pump repaired within
	an hour - in this part of Africa Mercedes and Renault spare parts are reasonable easy to obtain.
	That night we all went to a restaurant for supper and, as we sat, more and more P/D participants
	arrived, having seen the cars parked outside. In the end there were 18 of us, all sharing wildly
	exaggerated stories! Cars and people are starting to take strain now, all of us very tired. One
	car that we know of has dropped out, one had a gearbox replaced in France, the VW is now running
	on all 4 cylinders after travelling for days on 3; another's suspension has collapsed and had
	rubbers fitted to raise it.
	At 11.30 a group of us took a taxi to try to find a church which was supposed to be having a
	midnight mass but it was closed so off to bed by 12.
It's now 12.15 and it's Christmas day!


Day 8 Laayoune - Dakhla

This morning George got up and opened his little stash of presents from home, including: a book to read
and an elastic fly-killing catapult! Then he and George donned Father Christmas outfits complete with
fake white beards and drove off through town, much to the amusement and confusion of the locals.
Heading South now with a vengeance, although the trip continues to take its toll on the cars. More and
more dusty and travel-stained participants and their vehicles are to be seen on the long drive to our
next and last meeting at Dakhla and often we ride together in groups of 4 or 5 cars who travel at the
same speed. The day is glorious - pale blue sky filled with cumulus clouds, pale turquoise sea turning
deep blue as the clouds pass overhead. In the car the sun is hot but outside a chilly breeze makes the
day comfortable. We continue to drive along a long, fairly straight road with the sea on our right,
separated from us by between 100 metres and a few miles of desert, still with the 30-40 ft cliff
plunging straight down and every now and then an interesting shipwreck.
	Just outside Laayune we came across a military Land Rover graveyard - over 150 wrecked Land
	Rovers in various states of decomposition, some Willys Jeeps, all neatly lined up for
	cannibalising but, by the looks of things, little is touched. Many had just 5000 kms on the
	clock and the average was 11-12,000. Mark and George, Land Rover enthusiasts both, spent a happy
	hour there like little boys in a sweet shop.
	Two hours into the day we saw a group of cars and people on the side of the road ahead. It was a
	number of the P/D group clustered around one of the VW beetles which, sadly, seemed to have
	broken a timing chain - the fuel pump wasn't working, there was no compression and horrible
	clanking noises were coming from inside the engine. One of the cars attached a rope and towed
	them.
(After we had arrived in The Gambia we heard the full story. The timing chain had broken and all sorts
of damage done to the engine. A street garage in Laayune pulled it apart, managed to locate spares a few
hundred kilometres away, fetched them and completed the job only to find the spares were wrong; located
more spares from Marrakech and completed the job. The two drivers were delayed ten days before they
could get going again but they were happy in a warm daze of cheap kif - a strong local marijuana - and
finally finished the rally.)
But at the time, standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere while various men peered into
the engine compartment of the little VW made me realise again just how vulnerable we are - yes, we have
fellow competitors who stop and offer advice and assistance, but when it comes down to it, if the car
packs up completely, you are on your own and have to find your own way back - the idea of another
vehicle fitting you and your luggage in and completing the trip all in one vehicle is pretty remote;
every car is pretty overloaded as it is and there is little spare  room, except in some of the larger
4X4s. Even for less serious breakdowns, while repairs are being effected, the rest just carry on and you
have to catch up as best you can.
I felt very sorry for the VW guys as we drove away; I do hope they can get the car fixed. They seemed so
lost and vulnerable - neither seemed to have any mechanical knowledge at all.
We stopped for lunch again on the cliff-top with the Trabant and the David and Juan in the Ford Orion
and Matt Fletcher in the Renault 4; Matt works as a sound technician with BBC radio and is making an
audio diary of the trip. Charlie made a cook-up of pot noodles, his staple diet on the trip, and I ate a
Christmas lunch of tuna salad from the tin, stale bread roll and an apple - delicious! I wouldn't swap
it for the world!
As we headed back to the road over rocks and sand, the Ford ripped its exhaust apart but with the Isle
of Man flag flying and the Welsh flag fluttering above the Trabant, we continued, quite far behind
schedule - 340 kms to go this afternoon.
Finally, though, we reached Dakhla without incident and set up camp. P/D cars coming in steadily, each
with a tale to tell - stuck in the snow in the High Atlas, having to push and manoeuvre various trucks
and buses out of the way to get through; another found all main routes blocked by snow but decided to
follow a small road marked on the map and made it through remote and beautiful mountain passes to the
lowlands; the South African pair in a Subaru 4X4 who bought a leg of lamb in Laayune and plan to braai
it tonight (or dig a hole and make a bush oven!) and who got ice from a fish factory to keep their beers
cold (typical South Africans!). The fire engine is here and still going steadily (although the umpteen
crates of beer they brought along are weighing the thing down); the Nissan 4X4 has had to have a new
alternator fitted and evidently the Ford Camero is planning to do 90 mph on a flat stretch of desert
outside town tomorrow and set a new Moroccan record!
Dakhla itself is situated at the end of a 40 km sand spit which protrudes from the coast of Southern
Morocco and our camp site is just outside town. The drive along the spit was beautiful with the sea very
close and the road raised in places above what seem to be sandy tidal flats. I was so tempted to try a
little off-roading but Charlie wasn't interested and it did look very soft. The South Africans are
interested in trying tomorrow so perhaps a few of us will venture forth!
We need, over the next two days, to form into groups of 5 cars for the desert crossing.
Rest day tomorrow.

Day 9: Sunday 26th December - Rest Day - Dakhla

A welcome day of rest - listening to music, reading, flying kites, organising a game of football
(British vs the foreigners!), tinkering with the cars and doing last-minute preparations, repacking,
filling up with fuel and water, finalising the groups of 5 cars. Charlie raised our sump guard a little
to give a cm more ground clearance and removed the thermostat to help keep the engine cool. The VW
Beetle was towed away to a garage in Dakhla where I hope it can be repaired; unlikely because there are
just no VW spares around here. If it can't be repaired they will have to abandon it. There is such a
lovely sense of camaraderie here with people strolling about, chatting, asking how things are going,
borrowing this and that - a spanner, a globe, a piece of wire - sharing tactics for desert driving.
	I'm so looking forward to the desert crossing. Our group of 5 has now been settled: Charlie and
	me in the little Fiesta, Mark and George in the Citroen, the little Trabant (how on earth did
	THAT happen?), Matt Fletcher (the BBC guy) and his girlfriend and David and Juan from the Isle
	of Wight.
This afternoon by 4 pm I was bored with resting all day and, while Charlie was having a sleep, I took
the car for a drive out into the desert. I loaded the sand mats in the back and was very careful to keep
on fairly firm sand - wonderful! The solitude and the vast emptiness of the desert create a very special
emotion and, although it is good to be travelling as part of a group, I find it important to spend some
time alone.
	I enjoyed this so much that I felt I had to share the experience so drove back to camp, woke
	Charlie and let him drive off-road - he was like a dog with two tails! We headed further along
	the peninsular and came across another three P/D groups who had been playing in some very soft
	sand - two 4X4s and a small Renault. Of course, we had to follow suit and headed off the road,
	down a steep bank of deep soft sand and onto the plain. Within 100m we were stuck! We got the
	sand mats out, dug the sand from in front of the wheels and, with me pushing, we got going but
	were stuck again with 25m. Every time Charlie tried to turn, even ever so slightly, to get back
	to the road and firm sand, the front wheels acted like plough shares and dug in. The car didn't
	have sufficient power to get into 2nd gear and first gear was too low to get the car riding on
	the sand instead of ploughing through it and digging in. In the end we let the tyres down and,
	with a final push, Charlie got going again and made it back to the road.
	Evidently the fire engine is joining our group - interesting. One of the Citroen drivers
	discovered late this evening that their clutch cable was hanging from about 4 strands; they had
	no spare so removed it, got a taxi into Dakhla and a small back street workshop with no lights,
	made up another one in half an hour for £15.00!
	Briefing over and ready for bed. It's only 9 pm but a howling wind has been blowing for two days
	now and we are sick of it. Inside the tent it's cosy and warm; we have located BBC World on the
	radio and I'm listening to the reports of a huge earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the havoc it
	has created. Evidently a large tsunami has devastated large areas of land.

Day 10: Into Mauritania and the Desert

Some more extracts from the "Route Instructions":

"ABOUT GUIDES:
There is one minefield guide, the desert guide and the customs escort. Just be aware that there are good
ones and bad ones. Our desert guide was pretty useless or possibly devious. He will take your car
logbook for the duration (so take a duplicate and give him that!) Ours got lost and wouldn't listen when
told."

"ABOUT SAND
When you get stuck (and you will).you will need a piece of wood for your car jack.best to let your tyres
down.drive too slow and you get stuck, too fast and you do unspeakable things to your suspension and
exhaust. Just remember not to ride your clutch but do rev the balls off the engine as you need power to
get through soft sand."

"ABOUT INSURANCE:
.do not expect to be able to claim on any African insurance policy."

"ABOUT FUEL AND WATER:
It is advisable to buy petrol whenever it is available. It is not unusual for petrol stations to be
completely out.Worse than running out of fuel is running out of water, so carry at least twice what you
think you will need at any point in time. Better not waste drinking water on washing up in the more
remote places."

	Last day in Morocco. The slower vehicles - like the fire engine - left last night on the 350 km
	drive to the Mauritanian border. Others left at about 6.30 in the dark. Because we are
	reasonably fast, we got away by 7.45 and will catch the rest of our group on the road.
	Endless miles of nothing - vast tracts of flat stony desert stretch in front, behind and on
	either side of us with occasional glimpses of the sea on our right. The land is barren but for
	the occasional small bush struggling for life. We see no birds and no animals except for camels,
	scrawny dogs in the cities, the occasional friendly cat and 2 or 3 little brown mice that ran
	across the road. Not even the ubiquitous donkeys or goats seem to be able to survive out here.
	As we drove along, a brief glimpse of England came to mind: the greenness, the quaint little
	villages and winding roads, the variety of countryside compared to what we have become used to:
	hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of straight, level road with nothing but stony desert and
	the occasional settlement or town, police and army checkpoints every 100 kms or so who,
	fortunately, are very friendly and shake our hands and ask for our fiches - photocopied sheets
	of paper with all our details on which saves us the hassle of dictating all our personal
	information to every policeman or soldier who deigns to stop us. They glance at these, usually
	ask our profession and then wave us on. They must have piles of these which I'm sure they don't
	look at in any detail. One wag in the group filled in on his fiche: Father's Name: Daddy;
	Mother's Name: Mummy!

	I am now writing this on the other side of the Mauritanian border. It is 6 pm and we have driven
	round in circles for 5 hours, getting stuck (not us - yet!), crawling along the most atrocious
	roads imaginable in first gear.
	The 320 kms to the Mauritanian border were fine, just kilometre after kilometre of desolation,
	the wind howling (as it has done now for the past 3 days) sand being blown across the road so
	that at times it is completely hidden as if under a swirling mist. Even the sky is white with
	dust and sand. What this place must be like in mid summer does not bear thinking about. I have
	travelled quite a bit in Africa and yet I have never been in a place so desolate, so far from
	anywhere, so empty of anything - people, animals, birds, vegetation or water. If we were not
	travelling as part of a group, this place would be very scary; I would hate to travel it alone.
	We passed through the Moroccan border before midday and immediately the tar road ceased to be.
	The track towards Mauritania through the minefield was rocky and potholed with sneaky stretches
	of soft sand and soon the unwary and inexperienced began to get stuck. We came to a 3-way fork
	and Mark, who was leading and who did this route a

few years ago, insisted we take the right fork. Bad move! We struggled along for about 7 kms at just
over walking pace, scraping over rocks and carefully choosing the best track.
	More from the "Route Instructions:

"INTO MAURITANIA:
This is the end of your holiday. Things get serious now. Leave your ego here. It's time to break into
groups of five vehicles and (despite the idiosyncrasies) co-operate with the other crews. Try to share
the teams with satellite phones and GPS so each group has one in case of emergencies. This is the last
day our mobiles will work. Beware of landmines that are unmarked and can kill."

	Then, ahead of us, the road suddenly stopped. It had been deliberately blocked by a 7 ft high
	wall of bulldozed earth which stretched away on both sides of the road for about 30 metres.
	There was no way round because of very soft sand.
	By now we were sixteen vehicles and agitated consultation took place. Mark was adamant that this
	was the right track; some wanted to turn back; others suggested digging partly through the
	barrier and making a ramp, using all our combined sand mats and ladders and manpower to
	manoeuvre the vehicles over.
	And this we did!
Great spirit and camaraderie, spades out and everyone digging. In about half an hour we had dug about
half way through the barrier and spread the sand into ramps on both sides. Then, one by one, we drove,
ramped, stuck, pushed, tried again, pulled with the 4X4 until all cars were through. We then all waited
while the Trabant's exhaust system, which had been ripped off, was repaired.
	Just as we were finishing the job, over the horizon appeared a number of soldiers, shouting and
	waving their hands. Quick debate: shall we make a run for it? Saner minds prevailed and, with
	much gesturing, bad French and sign language we realised that the border between Morocco and
	Mauritania had been moved, a number of months ago, to one of the other tracks from the 3-way
	fork we passed about 7 kms back, and this abandoned road had been blocked by bull-dozing the
	wall of sand across it. We had, therefore, entered Mauritania without getting our passports
	stamped so we had no option but to turn round, ramp, pull, push, drag the vehicles over the half
	dug down wall again, bounce and bump our way back to the 3-way fork and then, after milling
	about and not really knowing where we were going (and all of this in a mine field - although we
	scrupulously stayed on the track at all times!) and the wind howled and filled every exposed
	orifice and our hair with sand, we finally reached the border.
	We have hired a guide who will lead through the Mauritanian desert over the next 3 - 4 days.

Day 11 - Rest Day - Nouadhibou

From the "Route Instructions:
"Nouadhibo is rumoured to be an outlaw town run by criminals."

Awoke to a gale blowing yet again with blown sand turning the sky milky and making walking about quite
unpleasant. 4th day of high winds and flailing sand - the dreaded Harmittan of the Sahara doing its
thing. Made coffee and then went for a long walk through Nouadhibou and onto the beach opposite the
harbour.
	Nouadhibou is a fascinating town reflecting the extreme poverty of this part of Africa. Every
	street seems to reflect poverty and the local people's struggle for mere survival. Men - it's
	mostly men and very few women are to be seen - crouch on street corners in aimless lassitude;
	hundreds of tiny shops, some just a few feet square, some just consisting of one or two items
	placed on a small piece of cloth spread out on the pavement, sell anything and everything, the
	desperate seller sitting all day hoping that his packet of cigarettes or his few hats or small
	pile of biscuits or whatever will be sold so he can eat. A dead dog is left to rot and stink on
	the pavement; men stand about, holding out cheap mobile phones and scratch cards to passers by;
	unspeakably wrecked cars drive about, so wrecked that not even scrap yards in England would take
	one. I found it very emotional and reflected again, as I have done so often on this trip, on the
	sick richness of the West and the abject poverty to be found in Africa. But I am also aware that
	charity and handouts, UN aid and relief organisations are not the answer and tend merely to
	breed a philosophy of apathy, a "give-me" attitude to life which stifles initiative and weakens
	the vital natural law of survival of the fittest. I don't know the answer and just thank God I
	was born where I was and am who I am. This town is the antithesis of the quaint orderliness of
	an English country town in every way but I have yet to witness an incident of anger or road
	rage, I have yet to see a bored yob or a single incident of drunkenness. For drunken yobs to
	flourish, perhaps, requires the apparent sophistication of a society which allows people the
	money, freedom from want and handouts which make these excesses possible.
	The coast around Nouadhibou is a surreal landscape littered with wrecked ships; there are lines
	of them both on the beach and with their superstructures protruding from the water further out
	in the bay. I walked for about two miles along the coast - feeling rather alone and vulnerable,
	I must admit - and then came back to our campsite, on the way stopping to buy bread and
	delicious onion bargees and some eggs for supper. The entire purchase was conducted by gestures
	from both of us without a word being uttered and we got by perfectly! I was rather taken aback,
	though, when the shopkeeper refused to accept a very grubby Ouguiya note, paper thin and stuck
	together with sticky tape! Most of the other notes are in this shockingly poor condition but the
	one I tendered in good faith was obviously beyond the pale!
	Mauritania seems to be a joining of the Arab north and the West African south; the Arabs seem to
	be generally more wealthy, their clothes are rich and colourful, while the Negroid people seem
	to be generally poor and given the menial jobs.
	What I have most enjoyed about this city/town (other than its colours and smells and
	dilapidation so foreign to us) is the fact that, because it is most definitely not on the
	tourist route, life goes on about one as if one is not there. There are almost no touts selling
	souvenirs, no shops catering for tourists; other than potential guides to lead us across the
	desert and two people selling things in the campsite, I have not been approached by a single
	person to try to sell me something. I have gone out of my way to walk all over the town, along
	the beach, into a fascinating area of open-air ships chandlery covering hundreds of square
	metres where one can purchase anything new but mostly second hand (salvaged from the hundreds of
	sunken and beached ships along the coastline), watched the fishermen on the beach with their
	beautiful long, slender, brightly-painted boats offload fish and octopus on the shore, pulled up
	by little donkeys drawing rudimentary carts - and in all this walking, although I have felt very
	exposed and vulnerable being a lone European in a city full of very poor people, I have not once
	been approached or solicited other than for the exchange of a friendly greeting or a smile and
	an opening conversation in French. A most memorable stay in a fascinating city and perhaps the
	most special day of the while trip so far.
	Tried to make a delicious omelette for supper tonight until I realised too late that the eggs I
	had bought earlier were hard-boiled!

Day 12: Into the Desert

From the "Route Instructions:
"The going is firm but sandy. Desert Camp 1 is next to a tall dune. there is a hut and a rusty Merc. the
locals may kill a goat for you but the flies are epic."

It is difficult to find words to describe the sheer joy of today! Again and again throughout this day's
journey both Charlie and I exclaimed to each other with a delirious sense of wonder - we are in the
Sahara! We are crossing the desert, hour after hour of nothing but sand and rocks, mostly trackless, for
about 200 kms without seeing a person, a goat, a camel - anything!
	This is what we came for; this is what we've dreamed about for so many months - in fact, what I
	have dreamed about ever since I was 20 and Glynis and I met our first trans-Africa overlanders
	in a Series 2 Land Rover in Durban and the adventure travel bug bit deeply. I'm just so sad that
	Glynis has not been able to share it with me.
	The morning started inauspiciously with two cars getting stuck in the soft sand of the camp
	site(!), one car not starting because sand had got into his distributor and worn the cam flat
	effectively closing his points! Then another car discovered a leak in its petrol tank. We got
	everyone ship-shape, filled up with fuel, bought bread for 3 days and headed out on a newly-
	constructed road towards Nouakchott. After a frustrating hour, we finally turned off into the
	desert following a rough track which alternated between very stony and very soft. Cars were
	getting stuck regularly but with 10 of us in our 5-car group, many willing hands, tyres let down
	to about 0.7 bar, we could always extricate ourselves.
	Then, finally, there were no tracks! We were driving across the desert proper, 5 little old
	cars, in one of the most remote places in Africa. The Western Sahara! The Sahara desert! The
	surface was infinitely changing, stony, rocky, pebbly, very soft fine sand, long stretches of
	very black nuggets of iron ore covering the ground, the occasional acacia tree, stark and
	thorny, clinging to life, tufts of dry, yellow grass, each with its own little sand dune
	trailing off behind. These were dreadful to drive through because each was the height of a brick
	and, when hit at anything above a brisk walking pace, felt like hitting a pavement at speed. At
	first we shuddered and grimaced at each other each time we hit one, feeling as if we had ripped
	the suspension apart and checking in the rear-view mirror for bits of car left in the desert,
	but after an hour or so we became quite blasé about it and the poor little Fiesta pounded its
	way along at a jolly pace. How its suspension survived and wasn't ripped apart I just don't
	know. At one stage, though, we noticed that Mark's car was no longer behind us so, after waiting
	a long time for them to catch op or find us, a few cars drove back to look for them. It turned
	out that the car had broken an engine mounting which, with ingenuity and Marks "happy box" - his
	box of miscellaneous spares, bits and pieces to cope with any eventuality -  they managed to
	strap up. Fortunately, although broken, the engine still rested on a cup-shaped depression in
	the mounting. We slowed down somewhat after that.
	While we were waiting, I walked away from the car into the desert towards a low range of rocky
	hills alongside of which we had been driving. It was so beautiful, austere and pure and clean,
	just nature in all her harsh beauty - a very special moment.
	At other times the desert surface was smooth and firm and we made our own tracks, at times
	driving at 80 kph in line abreast across the featureless, endless desert plain. It was then that
	we were most happy, sliding a little, making doughnuts in the sand, passing cameras from car to
	car while driving, racing each other, cutting each other off, sitting outside the door and
	hanging onto the roof, ramping up the sides of small dunes. A glorious, delicious time!
	We were supposed to be driving not more than about 80 ks into the desert on this first day and
	then, hopefully, meeting up with other groups to camp the night alongside a large dune. But our
	guide (whom we nicknamed 'Yoda' because of his small stature and unusual looks) decided on his
	own to take us where he wanted and, after about 280 ks we realised there was a problem. It was
	getting late and Yoda suggested leading us to the beach and camping there. We were not
	particularly happy but what could we do? I think he then got completely lost because we drove
	about, this way and that about the desert, up and down dunes and dry water-courses for another
	hour, getting stuck in the very soft places and generally going round in circles. Finally, as it
	was starting to get dark, Yoda led us to the base of a beautifully shaped barchan dune about 25
	ft high and indicated that we would be camping here. One of the lads had a GPS and discovered we
	are still 15 kms from the coast and a very long way away from Nouakchott, only about one third
	of the way, in fact.
	This camp site is absolutely delightful, pure and untouched. George, usually so introverted and
	serious, rushed up to the top of the dune and leaped and rolled down like a little boy! We got
	our sand mats out and tried to sand-surf but they dug in and flung us off, rolling and flailing
	down the steep dune sides. We then put up our tents and made a fire with very dry wood we had
	collected throughout the day. I have decided to sleep under the stars.
	While I write this, the wind has finally died down (it's been blowing and filling the air with
	sand for the past 5 days now); we are sitting around the crackling fire chatting, nibbling
	olives and sipping whiskey from a bottle passed round the group; above us the sky is black and
	clear showing millions upon millions of stars so close you feel you could reach out and touch
	them.

Day 13: 2nd desert day

From the "Route Instructions":
"This is a hard, hard day with lots of pushing and digging. Cars may die and be abandoned. Cars will die
from smashed radiators, stuffed clutches and blown cambelts. you will be knackered."

My decision to sleep under the stars last night was, in retrospect, unwise. Soon after bedding down, the
wind came up again and sand blew into my face and hair no matter how I tried to cover up, rattling on my
groundsheet like thousands of little insects crawling all over me. I did eventually get to sleep and
woke just before dawn. The night was perfectly still, the moon very bright, casting a pale sheen over
the desert. I could see a lightening in the East so, feeling rather cold and uncomfortable, I got up and
made myself a cup of tea. Seeing I was already up and dawn was clearly imminent, I decided to set off
over the sand dune behind us and towards the rose tint where the sun would rise. Just over the dune I
noticed a number of tracks in the sand, obviously made during the night: birds, beetles and, most
exciting, the paw prints of a 4-legged animal about the size of a dog, probably a desert fox. Amazing
how, even in this featureless and apparently waterless desert, life is abundant.
	The desert landscape in the pre-dawn dark was beautiful and completely silent. I walked on for
	about two miles, crossing another two long dunes and a high ridge of rock. I kept on looking
	back to maintain my orientation and made sure my footprints were always clear in the sand. Every
	time I reached the top of a dune or ridge, there was another just ahead luring me on and which I
	just had to explore. Then, finally, the sun rose and I sat on the knife-edge of a dune crest and
	watched it, feeling the earth roll under me and tip.
	Reluctantly I headed back, following my trail over the dunes and back to camp where life was
	beginning to stir and coffee was being made.
	Today was a delightful repetition of yesterday. We left late after necessary vehicle maintenance
	and then drove on through the desert for about another 100 kms. At one stage Yoda stopped and
	let our tyres down even more because the land between the desert proper and the coast is made up
	of very soft sand and some quite high soft ridges. At times the tracks we were following were so
	soft and impassable that we branched off and headed through a low scrubby underbrush which had
	appeared as we neared the coast. Although the sand was very soft, the small bushes provided some
	traction for the tyres and this, with speed and momentum, kept the cars moving forward. We had
	to drive as fast as the terrain and soft sand permitted because, if any car bogged down, we all
	had to stop and it took at least 6 of us pushing and shoving to get the bogged car moving again.
	Although we are all now getting more confident in driving in soft sand, cars were regularly
	getting stuck and progress was slow.
	Finally, at about 1 pm, we reached the coast. The tide was fairly low exposing a firm, wide
	beach so we set off just above the water line. The wet sand just after a wave has sucked back
	was most firm and we flew along, soon becoming more confident and spraying through the waves as
	they swirled up the beach and becoming more and more daring. People hung out of windows, clung
	to roof racks, skimmed their feet in the water as we flew along.
	Finally, just after 4, we lugged our way up the soft sand above the high tide line and made
	camp. Some of us stripped off and had a welcome though icy bath in the sea while Mark and George
	headed back along the beach to a fishing village we had passed about 20 minutes before and
	returned just before dark with 10 fresh sea salmon and a dorado which we gutted and char-grilled
	over a driftwood fire. The dusty bottle of whiskey miraculously emerged again, a bottle of red
	wine was dug from the depths of some car, I contributed a pot full of new potatoes, some one
	else donated a plate of couscous, another tomato and onion, another chapattis and we all sat
	around the fire, peeling back the charred skin of the fish and eating the delicious white flesh
	with our fingers, with baked potatoes and tomato and onion chapattis on the side.
	A wonderful still evening with good food and a very close and friendly 10 people who have gelled
	into a very special and united group.

Day 14: Friday 31 to New Year's Day

I write this in a little hotel in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania. A mixed group of us have just
wandered about this dilapidated town, visited the market and then had a delicious schwarma. I've been
suffering from a bad headache for a number of hours which pills just don't seem to cure. The schwarma
helped somewhat although I still feel as if I am walking about in a daze. We are all very tired but
clean at last from a hotel shower. We have become used to sleeping, living and eating in sand. In the
desert we would clean our pots and plates with dry sand and then wipe plates and eating utensils free of
sand before eating. Any fastidiousness one had before the trip has gone. We eat bits of stale bread, eat
out of the same tin together and share spoons. Our clothes are dusty and we smell of fire.
	As the groups come in and share war stories, it seems that much damage has been sustained
	through the desert run: the beautifully painted Escourt has been abandoned in the desert with an
	incurable electrical fault, sadly, and one car has been a little bent in the middle;  David and
	Juan's car has burned out its clutch and this is hopefully being repaired in town today. They
	will follow on either later today or tomorrow. Even though there is no real need for groups of 5
	to stay together any more after the desert section, our group wants to. The trip just wouldn't
	seem the same without them in front and behind us. We have all grown very close.
	New year's celebrations were a rather muted affair. A group of us walked into town, had a Coke
	and a pizza and then walked to the taxi rank to marvel at the unbelievable decrepitude of the
	town's working taxis. Imagine the worst example of a Renault 4 demolition-derby car on its last
	legs after having been rescued from total write-off and a prolonged stay on a scrap heap, raced
	until it is no longer fruitfully holding together and then dumped. Now picture a Mauritanian
	taxi driver finding it in a ditch and, joy, oh, joy! resurrecting it as a taxi in the town. No
	lights, panels rusting and rattling, bald tyres, doors hanging lopsidedly, boot held closed with
	a chain locked through punched holes, suspension propped up with bits of wood - a Mauritanian
	taxi, ready for service! And yet they are all so very polite, making way for others at
	intersections, none of which have traffic signals, stop or yield signs, even in the middle of
	town. As there are no rules, everyone just keeps out of everyone else's way, very politely with
	just the occasional toot to let you know they are there. Not a single example of road rage at
	all - we can certainly learn something from this gentle chaotic society.
	At 11 I returned to my room, my bed and a good book. Colin had to usher a dusky lady of the
	night, protesting vehemently, out of his room before he could get to bed, much to his
	indignation.
	2005 tomorrow and into Senegal.

Day 15: 1 January 2005 Nouakchott - Senegal

I am sitting on my folding chair at the Senegalese border writing this. Some if the group have already
been here for 6 hours and there seems to be no end in sight yet. This is rip-off Africa at its very
worst. To get out of Mauritania, which was fairly simple, we had to visit 3 offices and pay at each one,
the last quite openly asking for 2000 Ouguiya for each vehicle and 1000 for a "petit cadaux" because
it's new year. He didn't ask, he

demanded quite aggressively in his smug little way, leaning back fatly in his chair knowing he held all
the cards in his fat little hands. A receipt for only one of the four payments was given.
	Then across a barrage (£10.00 to cross) and to the Senegalese border where a large group of P/D
	vehicles were parked up with participants milling about, sitting around on deck chairs, brewing
	cups of tea. Clearly they have been here for a long period of time and are attempting to psych
	the greedy Senegalese officials out. They are demanding 120 Euros per car in groups of 5 with 3
	guides per group - fully paid for by us - for every 5 cars. Silly money. We are digging in our
	heels...
	The day started late as usual. We hoped to be away by 9 but got going in the end just before 12.
	Our exhaust broke off at the manifold again and needed to be welded. (it broke off again on the
	road here today.)
	The road from Nouakchott to Senegal is interesting, tar which varies in quality but has HUGE
	potholes every now and then which catch the unwary. (It would take so little effort to fill them
	but then, this is Africa!) As it was, we hit a few but escaped unscathed except for the exhaust
	breaking and our windscreen cracking from top to bottom. (In another group, two cars hit the
	same pothole one after the other and smashed 4 wheels within one minute.)
	The landscape has changed from very dry, semi-desert to coastal estuary as we reached the
	Senegal River. It was blowing a howling gale (again) and the sky and ground were white with dust
	- so white, in fact, that at times it looked as if it had been snowing. Visibility was only a
	few hundred yards. We passed over a number of established and a few new sand dunes, some with
	deep red sand like in the Kalahari and others with pale, almost white sand. Increasingly acacia
	trees appeared as the land turned to semi-desert and then to a dry savannah.
	Finally, after 200 kms, we reached Russo and found the little track which wound on and off the
	flood defence dyke which runs the length of the Senegal River from the barrage on the coast to
	Russo. This road, too, was a death trap for vehicles: dirt with numerous deep and wide drainage
	ditches which just appeared on either side of the dirt track. We hit a number of them, each time
	extending the cracks which are running around our windscreen with gay abandon.
It's now 6.30 pm and little has happened at the Senegalese border. P/D cars are still straggling in,
some being towed. Charlie is attempting to repair one and get it started as I write this. Many cars have
lost their exhausts. People are beginning to prepare suppers next to the cars and brewing up endless
cups of tea - settling in for a long wait while Frankie negotiates/argues with the officials.
	It's now 8 pm and we're still here. A price of 60 Euro per car has been agreed and I think we
	are waiting for some stragglers to arrive. Six more have just turned up as I write this,
	including the fire engine. They have just told me that Colin in the Trabant was last seen on the
	side of the road in the delta, on the shockingly bad dyke road. The car was on its side having
	broken a rear suspension strut and they had rolled it over to try to bodge a repair. We are the
	only one of our 5-car group to reach the border so far.

Day 16: Rest Day - Zebrabar Camp

It's 7 pm. I'm clean, rested, just had an ice cold beer, surrounded by P/D participants sharing
anecdotes about the desert and beach crossings; a large fire is crackling, settling down for an evening
braai and life is good!
	The Trabant and the rest of our group arrived just before midnight last night, having bodged the
	rear suspension with a bolt taken from another car's roof rack and a ratchet strap. Colin and
	Charlie spent the whole of today restructuring the rear suspension after turning the Trabant on
	its side for easy access. Fortunately this campsite has a welding machine and lots of bits of
	scrap. They welded in a shock absorber from a Toyota and straightened and bolted it all back
	together. I think, with prayer and some careful driving, it's going to make it.
	Another lucky escape story: the Mercedes van got bogged down to its axles on the beach with the
	tide coming in. They couldn't budge it, even with all 9 pushing. It was down to the chassis in
	the sand, water all round it and getting higher when, luckily, another group happened along the
	beach with a Land Rover. By then the water was so high that the Merc was starting to floating,
	the engine was off because the water was too high and the guide was screaming for everyone to
	get going because they were going to be trapped on the beach with a rising tide. With 18 people
	now pushing and the Land Rover pulling they finally managed to get it free and then they all
	made a dash for the low land before the tide caught them.
	Today I have rested, socialised, gone for a walk along the estuary looking at the birds, washed
	clothes, had a sleep, read my book and generally chilled out.



Day 17 - Rest Day, Zebrabar Camp

After a lazy morning and a late rise, a group of us took a local boat on the hour-long trip to St Louis,
founded in 1659 by the French as the base for their colonial expansion into West Africa. The town,
established on an island in the delta of the Senegal River thereby controlling access to the interior
and providing an easy waterway inland, is now mouldering away despite being declared a world heritage
site a number of years ago. Walking down its streets one could be in the heart of an old French or
Spanish town, with crumbling pastel walls and overhanging wrought-iron balconies.
I headed away into the bustling centre of St Louis, crossing the cast-iron bridge, originally designed
by Gustav Ifel to cross the Danube, but it was decided to build it in St Louis in 1897. The centre
seethed with humanity: pavement sellers, horse-drawn carts, pedestrians and tooting cars. I bought some
peanuts and fruit for my lunch and absorbed the frenetic atmosphere of an African town then returned
over the bridge (making way for a herd of goats passing the other way!). This time I avoided the main
centre and made my way through a maze of little alleys through the local residential area where tens of
thousands of people live in little breezeblock or mud houses opening onto small, sandy courtyards where
tethered goats stand forlornly and children play. At times the alleys were no more than shoulder wide
and, although I was deep inside the area where the local poor lived, I felt little fear. At one point, a
number of small children ran up to me and held my hand, gabbling away to me and walking with me all the
way to the beach. Emerging from the maze of buildings onto the beach was quite breathtaking: pure white
sand with azure Atlantic waves breaking, blue sky studded with cumulus clouds and, above the tide line,
a seething mass of humanity. The contrast was amazing and shocking: beautiful when close to the water,
pure and clean, but between the packed shacks of the island and the tide line was a seething mass of
people and ten million flies. Gaily-coloured fishing boats had been drawn up onto the beach and the
fishermen were doing their thing; children played football on the sand wearing odd pieces of European
football strip; women sat in groups pulling the heads off distinctly rotten fish and dumping the bodies
into an egregious boiling soup of mud-coloured water in open 44-gallon drums under which fires burned.
When par-boiled, the women scooped the fish bodies out, layered them in large baskets, sprinkling each
layer with course salt; these will later be sold on the streets. When the "soup" became too obnoxious,
they would pour it out on the sand next to the pulled-off heads - intestines, fins, tails, bones, scales
- a disgusting pile which was immediately covered by millions of flies. It was strangely surreal - the
white sand and azure water contrasting with the buzz of life and detritus of humanity further up the
beach.

Day 18: Southern Senegal

Having been told to be ready to leave by 9 because we have to travel in convoy under guard (Senegal has
a law which only permits cars under 5 years old to enter the country. Older cars may enter but have to
be escorted the entire way by a customs official - at the owner's cost - and out the border on the other
side.) But despite close on 50 cars ready and waiting in line with drivers getting increasingly
impatient, our customs official (who looked disturbingly like Idi Amin) turned up late and proceeded to
partake of a leisurely breakfast while we fumed, and hooted and passed comments which he ignores with
infuriating sang-froid.
	Away finally in a long line by 10.40. We have been instructed to stop at the entrance to three
	towns on the way to be counted. I can tell it's going to be a long day.
	And so we made our slow way across Senegal, with lots of stops to check and count the convoy. On
	the way one of the Mercs packed up with a drive-shaft problem. We left it in the hands of a
	roadside mechanic and pressed on. It's getting hotter and hotter even though we are still a long
	way from the equator. Heaven knows what these places must be like in mid summer! Saw our first
	baobabs as well as vultures, starlings, lilac-breasted rollers and doves. No 4-footed wildlife
	to be seen, though, except the ubiquitous goats, the odd horse and camels. As we make our way
	south, though, more cattle are to be seen and the villages are cleaner and less poverty-
	stricken. School children wave to us as we pass. (I am still looking for a small rural school to
	give all our gifts to, collected by our pupils at Hayes.)
	It's 10.15 at night and we are finally in the Gambia - another 13-hour day of horrendous roads
	but, as usual, as the sun went down, the harsh African bush seemed to soften and quieten, the
	smells of cooking fires and silhouetted thorn and baobab trees all about. Our guide/guard
	insisted we press on for the border but most of the group rebelled and turned off unnoticed at a
	small town 20 kms from the border where there was a campsite. We didn't know they had done this
	because we were near the front of the convoy and when we reached the Senegalese border only 5
	vehicles in the whole group were left, much to the anger and annoyance of our customs
	official/guard! Three of us decided to press on through the border thereby beating the rush and
	the other two vehicles turned back, afraid of the crowds of very pushy and in-your-face people
	who were surrounding us.
	Because we had done what our official had asked, he went out of his way to smooth our passage
	through the various stages of an African border. As a result of this, we were done and dusted in
	about fifteen minutes and, before we knew it, we realised we were at the Gambian border and the
	officials were speaking in English! Hallelujah!
	Just the ferry to cross and then to look for a place to sleep. We have done it! Our little
	Fiesta has simply purred the last 50 kms in Senegal, as tight and healthy-sounding as when we
	left - a marvellous, reliable little thing!

Day 19: Senegal to The Gambia

Slept the night under the stars on the side of the road because the last ferry had already left hours
before we reached the river. We were woken at 5.30 by a group of local ferry "facilitators" so we could
buy our ticket and be on the first ferry at 7 am. Finally drove onto the rust-bucket of a boat on which
they managed to cram 3 trucks, 5 cars and 10 000 squashed people, sitting on the cars, on stairs,
anywhere there was enough space for a body. Evidently, so we were told, a while ago when making the
crossing during a howling gale, the ferry gave signs of imminent sinking so the passengers took matters
into their own hands and pushed a truck overboard to lighten the load! Anything can happen in Africa!
	Alighted eventually and made our way through Banjoul and into the suburbs to the Safari Gardens
	Hotel, a wonderful place run by an ex-pat English couple who one day decided to "do something
	different". They welcomed us - smelly, dirty and bleary-eyed - sat us down on cane chairs at a
	clean table (there were even flowers in a pretty vase) and served us copious cups of coffee and
	a large English breakfast called, justifiably, "The Morning Glory"!
	Their hotel was fully booked by other more-organised P/D participants so they sent us off round
	the corner to an equivalent hotel run by local Gambians. It was, you may say, adequate.
	Sorry to sound slightly racist and South African, but having just driven through 3000 miles of
	Africa after 1000 miles of Europe, we have discovered  some significantly obvious areas where
	European and African hotels differ: (This is a collective list, mind you, put together by a
	group of us P/D members and not my bigoted opinion alone, may it be said!)

	European hotels:
·	Have lights which come with light shades
·	Have light-switch covers not painted over with wall paint
·	Have toilets whose seats are attached to the bowl and bowls which are attached to the floor
·	Are clean
·	Have water emerging from both taps (preferably at the same time)
·	Have clean cutlery and enough plates for the number of people sitting at the table
·	Are able to find change when one pays one's bill
·	Don't allow prostitutes or touts to wander the corridors at will
·	Have pictures which hang straight on the walls
·	Have tiles which are not cracked
·	Have showers with roses
·	Have all four screws in the door handles

I could go on for pages but - point made. Not a single one of the above would normally cost much to
do/fix and yet it never is. It's the African way. If it breaks, so what? - leave it. If there's a
pothole in the road which regularly breaks car suspensions, so what? - drive around it. It would take
half an hour to patch it, but it is just left, month after month, getting bigger and bigger, breaking
cars' suspensions until a well-marked track has been made where cars leave the road to miss it. If water
comes from one of the 2 taps in the basin - what's the problem, you got water haven't you? If only one
light works in the room, you've got light, so what's the problem? If change can't be given, shrug your
shoulders and keep the difference (them, not us). If you live far away from your work and the transport
is poor so you can only get to work by 10 or 11 am, that's just how it is. It's not your fault that the
transport is bad. You would get to work at 9 if you could but you can't, so. And it's all OK. You don't
work the extra hour you missed after 5 or by working through your lunch hour to make up. Instead you
probably leave an hour early because the transport is bad and you need to get home and it's not your
fault, it's the fault of the transport, so.
	No, I must stop. It's why I simply can't live in Africa any more.
	Spent a gloriously lazy day, clean and refreshed, drinking ice-cold Cokes at little tables under
	the cool foliage in the courtyard of the Safari Gardens, waiting for the other vehicles to
	straggle in. They finally started arriving after 3. Juan and Matt, 2 of our desert group, had to
	be towed the last 30 kms by the Trabant after their clutch finally gave way again just before
	the Gambian border. Four other cars were also towed in during the night. Then followed a lovely
	evening relaxing and chatting, eating and drinking with all the participants we have got to know
	so well over the past 2 weeks. (Charlie has managed to get an early flight and has flown home,
	leaving me with the car.)
	It's good to be here at last. Finally managed to phone home after being incommunicado for 8
	days.

Day 20: Banjoul

The day of the big parade! I was so sick of the African "service" at our hotel that I packed up this
morning and left for a campsite run by a German couple I have found. I write this in my own little
thatched rondavel, cool and shady, with mosquito net over my bed and a paraffin lamp for light and bird
sounds all about. Rustic and special.
	We met for the parade outside the town stadium, cars all clean and smart, ready to show off to
	the town and attract potential buyers for the charity auction. Led by the police, we wound our
	way into town, lights on, horns blaring and with many a wave and encouraging shouts from the
	locals. We paraded for an hour, even stopping to have our hands shaken by the local mayor.
	The rest of the day I rested, relaxing quietly outside my little rondavel, then I drove to the
	coast for a delicious swim. There were even some waves for body surfing. What was, for me, sad,
	though, was right along the tourist beach where overweight pale whites toasted their flesh, many
	of the women topless, there were Gambian guards in uniform every 50 metres or so keeping the
	locals away. I can understand why - the tourist touts (youths in their late teens and early 20s
	with a glib patter and false bonhomie, far too ready to want to shake your hand and know your
	name before asking for money for a service not requested) are an absolute pain in the neck but
	it seemed a sad reflection on both our cultures that sunbathing Europeans in a state of socially
	unacceptable undress have to be guarded by local police while locals are prevented from enjoying
	their own beaches. Sex tourism, too, is an unfortunate blight in this area and a sad comment on
	our moral values.
	Back to my ronadvel and, over supper, I was invited to join a Dutch couple. The husband had just
	completed a desert crossing of 1200 kms in a Toyota Land Cruiser from Morocco to Mauritania,
	deep in the desert following the Algerian border. The Dutch couple and I shared our experiences
	over a glass or two of cheap red wine. They, too, are heading east soon and, despite warnings
	about the shocking state of the roads, I will head off on Sunday to explore central Gambia and,
	hopefully, I might see them on the road.
Day 21: Eastern Gambia, following the Gambia River

I am sitting at a small plastic table outside my little room in the compound of a local guest house in
Mansa Konko; the diesel generator has just kicked in, giving me some light; I am relaxing with plastic
cup of red wine, mosquitoes are probing my repellent defences (which so far have proved strong but I
don't know how long they'll last!) and I am clean from a cold-water shower.
	Today I drove for 8 hours solid, covering a mere 180 kms over the most appalling pot-holed roads
	I have ever driven on. For most of the way cars and trucks have abandoned the road for the edge
	which necessitates a fairly dangerous drop and then driving with the car at a horrific angle,
	one wheel almost touching the road edge, a sharp tyre-cutting edge which can be up to 9 inches
	high, and the other brushing the trees, grass and nasty drops on the other edge! Very tiring,
	sometimes reduced to a mere walking pace, but the day has been worth it. I have seen something
	of the real Gambia, not the coastal zone clogged with humanity and tourist touts with their glib
	patter of insincere familiarity and middle-aged white women clinging with lascivious zeal to the
	arms of handsome local youths. Out here there is very little at all and the road snakes and
	bumps through groves of palm trees, mangrove forest, occasional villages and small fields of
	rice and groundnuts. I am still looking for a needy school.
	This road follows the meanderings of the Gambia River but about 1-2 kms South so. Becoming bored
	and looking to explore even more remote parts of the country, I took a small dirt track heading
	north, away from the "main road". After about 5 kms of winding dirt track, I eventually emerged
	from the thick trees and there, in front of me, was the river. It was about 400m across, muddy
	and fairly slow-flowing. Because of the flatness of Gambia, the river is tidal for about 300 kms
	inland, the banks muddy and covered with mangrove trees. Occasionally massive trees with
	magnificent buttress roots are to be seen.
	By 6 I was exhausted and managed to stumble upon this place - catering for local Gambians,
	cheap, clean and typical of rest houses throughout Africa. As soon as I arrived I was shown my
	room (with shower and toilet) a cold Coke was produced and a supper of omelettes (universal fare
	in Africa) offered. (Where there is an African village there are chickens, and where there are
	chickens there are eggs - hence Omlettes!)
	Tomorrow, I have decided, I am going to leave the car here and take a bush taxi up river to
	Georgetown, stay the night there and return by bush taxi the next day. It will save the car and
	give me a feel of local transport.


Day 22: Georgetown

I write this sitting at a plastic table in the courtyard of a small local rest house on the island of
Georgetown, in the middle of the Gambia River. I am exhausted after a 7-hour struggle to cover a mere
120 kms; a group of enthusiastic but unskilled local drummers are beating the life out of bongo drums
with more enthusiasm than rhythm just across the courtyard from where I am sitting. (I think they are
hoping for some money from a young Australian back-packer whom I met on the ferry. She has been back-
packing for the past 3 years and has taken 6 months to cover the same distance we did in 18 days!)
Georgetown is/was quite an historical place, built on a large island in the centre of the Gambia river;
it functioned as the centre of British administration of the interior during the period when slavery was
being abolished and many slaves were freed here.
	Why it took so long for me to get here today? - I somewhat unwisely decided to cover this
	distance from where I spent last night, to spare the poor little Fiesta which is being battered
	unmercifully by these shockingly bad roads. I left the car this morning outside a friendly
	police station and dutifully made my way to the local taxi rank - where I sat for an hour with a
	growing crowd of Gambians all waiting for a bush taxi east. Finally one arrived and we all
	scrambled on (the Australian girl had waited 6 hours yesterday to get on a taxi because usually
	there are more people wanting a seat than there are seats available and the strongest or
	quickest gets one! - and she showed me a long scratch on her arm which she got while fighting
	for her seat. Squashed in the taxi, we then waited half an hour before we set off whilst the
	driver made sure every available space was filled with a body before he would even think of
	leaving. We managed to fit 24 into the taxi but then the battery was flat. A quick shout to
	those milling around outside, a push and we bump-started our way down the main street. I was
	surrounded by (squashed into) a friendly group of people - one was a Nigerian man who was
	setting off on a 2-year sabbatical, paid for by the Nigerian government, to share his expertise
	as a nurse with rural Gambian government hospitals. We shared peeled oranges and peanuts along
	the way, bumping and grating and thumping along. At one point we were stopped by the police who
	pointed to 4 of us (me included), marched us off to the police station and conducted a full
	search of all of us.
	And then, after hitting one of the atrocious pot-holes, the taxi broke its right rear spring.
	All piled out to peer underneath at the damage. Instead of being convex, the springs were
	concave, every one broken. Piled back in and drove slowly along the road until we came across a
	handy roadside al fresco workshop for repairs. Everybody out again to sit under the shade of a
	tree. In no time at all, the taxi was jacked up, springs detached from body and back axle
	dropped to the ground. EVERY spring leaf was broken, including a massive piece of truck spring
	holding everything together underneath. What ensued made the entire frustrating trip worthwhile!
	I observed the roadside mechanics go to their large scrap pile and select another thick piece of
	truck spring and then, using a 20lb hammer and an engine block as an anvil, bash the broken
	springs straight, find a bolt which would go through the centre holes and then reassemble all
	the broken pieces together, alternating so that each piece of broken spring was held in the
	middle by the centre bolt. They then attached the piece of truck spring onto the bottom, tied
	all the pieces together with lengths of car tube and then reassembled the whole back on the
	taxi! There was only one unbroken spring leaf on the whole vehicle!
	To be brief, we limped on. I changed taxis at a town where the road forks to Georgetown,
	squashed 28 into this taxi, over the ferry to the island and another taxi ride (10p) into the
	centre of Georgetown. It was, unfortunately, more of a dump than I had anticipated with one
	dirty rutted road down the centre with a few crumbling relics of the British occupation, a so-
	called "slave-house" where a local (self-appointed as the  "curator") gave me his spiel and
	showed me a set of modern scaffolding clamps which he tried to pass off as ancient slave
	manacles. I pointed this out to him and he had the grace to look embarrassed. I asked him, if he
	was the "curator", why was the place so filthy and run-down; he replied, without a blush of
	shame, that he had only taken over a short while ago. How long ago? I asked him. - 2 years!
	A pleasant evening was spent at the rest house, sipping a beer, eating "omelette" and sharing
	travel anecdotes with the Australian. Not being prepared to face another uncertain day in a bush
	taxi, I organised a lift back to Mansa Konko tomorrow, where I left the Fiesta.
	Late last night, not being able to sleep because of the heat and the excitement of being again
	in Africa, I went for a walk, following dark sandy roads into town, listening to the sleepy
	sounds of people and animals and smelling the smoky African atmosphere. The generator which
	supplies the town with electricity had been shut down so that I could only make my way by the
	slightly paler road surface in front of me. Somewhere in the maze of small side streets I became
	aware of a flickering light illuminating someone hunched over a table in a large empty community
	hall. I decided to investigate and came upon an old man, crouched over a foot-treadle Singer
	sewing machine, busy making brightly-coloured print dresses by the pale light of a candle. We
	spoke a little and he told me that he buys pieces of material in bulk and makes them up into
	dresses during the night and then his daughter takes them and sells them in town. And I was
	profoundly moved: here was an old man, sitting up late into the night, labouring in dim
	candlelight so that he could feed his family; and, what is more, he was happy! He smiled a great
	deal when he talked to me and never complained about the lack of electricity or light or the
	burden of working long hours or the struggle to survive. To him it was natural: you work so you
	can live. You don't work, you don't live. And again, the shocking contrast between our cosseted
	world and the world of Africa was apparent to me and left me profoundly moved.

 Day 23: Return to Banjul

My penultimate day in The Gambia. I am sitting on a most pleasant deck built out over the river, the
only person in the camp, cold Coke consumed, chicken and rice ordered for supper (they will buy it from
the local village which is just behind some massive baobab trees on the water's edge). I can hear
people's voices, goats bleating, roosters crowing. The sun is setting and the river has taken on a smoky
calmness so that the distant mangroves have faded away into white. On baobab branches above me are about
20 vultures; fork-tailed kites chase each other, mewling plaintively above me and, at the water's edge,
a reed heron is dabbing away in the mud. On the river in front of me a local man poles his dugout canoe
silently down the river. It is idyllic - just how the evening after a long day's travelling ought to be.
I have washed (the shower is broken, of course, but a bucket of clean cold water and a mug was
provided), have put on reasonably clean clothes, taken a long walk following the water's edge and am now
sitting writing this as the sun goes down. In a way I have the best of both worlds: the comfort of a
rustic bed (hand made from logs), a candle for light, cold water to bathe in, cold drinks, a chair to
sit on and, in front of me, the most beautiful scene of raw Africa as it must have been when the
explorers first came here. Not another tourist or white face anywhere about, locals who have not been
tainted by the tourist disease - perfect. This is my second-to-last day. Tomorrow I drive the last 100
kms to Banjoul, hand the dear old Fiesta over for auction and get ready for my flight back home.
	I want to pause a little and absorb the sights and sounds and smells that surround me, absorb it
	so I can bring it back to mind when the frustration of life presses in upon me. Africa:
	frustrating, exhausting, dirty, chaotic but, in moments like these, with the wonderful, wild,
	happy rural people about and far from the corruption of the cities, the real Africa, which is so
	very special, emerges. I know Glynis would love this moment and am so sad she has not been able
	to share it with me.
	And so, I drive back to Banjoul, see a small sandy road heading off into the bush with a sign
	pointing to a school. I take it and find a small primary school with dirt field and bare-foot
	children playing during their lunch-break. I drive in and introduce myself to the headmaster and
	staff then, while they send a runner to call the head boy and girl, I pull out the box of
	goodies our school children have collected. The joy and wonder of it can be seen in the faces of
	the children as they crowd around. I leave them after swapping addresses and make my way home.

And so "Operating on the naïve and obviously flawed premise that everything will turn out alright." -
well, it has. The Plymouth-
	Dakar/Banjoul rally is over and all I have left are memories. On the dining-room wall at the
	German-run camp where I stayed in
	Banjoul was written: "The true yearning of every man is to mould his dreams with reality. Never
	let reality stifle your dreams."
	These are wise words and true.