Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Scores on the Doors

Spain - 9/10 (Alastair) for the motorways and the fuel stations and the tyre change in Bilbao - that's all I saw!
WOULD GO BACK? Yep, but I wouldn't drive so far in one day.

Morroco - 8/10 (Alastair), 7/10 (Ana) - fantastic scenery in the Atlas, characterful old towns and pretty villages, tasty food, tourist-friendly snakes. Fun and games agreeing a price for anything.

Western Sahara - 7/10 (Alastair), 7/10 (Ana) - very welcoming and fewer tourists, beautiful coastline, plenty of police around so feels very safe!
WOULD GO BACK? Yes, although there's not a lot more to see.

Mauritania - 5/10 (Alastair), 6/10 (Ana) - uninspiring towns and a feeling of severe poverty makes it hard for Mauri to excel - however the people are very friendly. The "Crossing-the-Desert-in-a-fleet-of-crap-cars" part gets 10/10 from both of us.
WOULD GO BACK? Yes, but only for the driving.

Mali - 5/10 (Alastair), 7/10 (Ana) - a bit disappointing, plenty to see but feels too "Touristed" and it's surprisingly expensive compared to its neighbours. Locals are very friendly unless they work in the tourist industry, in which case you'd better check the bill carefully.
WOULD GO BACK? No, it feels as if there are more rewarding places to spend your time (and I can't technically immigrate again until I renew my passport).

Goodbye to Bamako

We'd clocked up 4992 miles from the UK when we said goodbye to the Patrol last night - it was quite a wrench to leave her in the parking at CRES after the last month's travels!

Unsurprisingly the guy in charge of receiving the vehicles wasn't there when we arrived from Mopti at 10pm, so we left the logbook and keys (and my £2.99 cafetiere) with the cook instead. Forty minutes of packing and we stuck everything we wanted to keep into the back of a Merc taxi and headed for the airport, where the fun began.

When we'd arrived in Mali, we had crossed overland at some random point between two villages and had presented ourselves to the Gendarmes at Aourou. What we didn't do (and the Gendarmes didn't mention to us) was THEN go to the police in Kayes to get our immigration visas (the stamps in our passports from Aourou turned out only to be entry stamps and not visas after all, as I had suspected). So, when we turned up at the airport at around midnight, the police wouldn't even let us into the building to check in for our 3am flight, demanding instead that we go to our embassies the following day to sort the situation out! How helpful - fair enough, we'd made a mistake by not correctly immigrating, but let's just say that the police at Bamako Segou airport made us feel far from welcome. For a while it really did seem that we'd be heading back to Bamako!

During this late-night comedy show, I bumped into a Canadian chap called Tim and his girlfriend, who were having a similar problem, and in the end we offered the police 20,000 CAFs to "expedite the visa process" for all four of us. In return for our money we got a dedicated policeman to lead us through the departure formalities and make sure that everything went smoothly when our passports were required to be presented. It even seems a bit of a bargain - we didn't pay anything else for visa issuance, and I later spoke to some of the other teams who were on our flights, who had all paid 20,000 CAFs each (rather than between 4) to get their visas on arrival in Mali, so all in all I think things turned out well. We definitely didn't get bored waiting for our flight to be called!

We're now in the airport in Casablanca waiting for the second leg of our flight back to London... I spent a bit of time hunting for fresh orange juice, but I've given up now in favour of sleeping instead!

A few more miles to Mopti and Djenné

We spent our last three days driving to Mopti (650km, not including Ana's 50km detour towards the border with Ivory Coast), visiting Djenné (120km backwards to see the largest mud mosque in the world), and driving back to Bamako again. A nice chance to play "tourist" for a couple of days, though still a lot of time in the car.

We were a few hundred km from Timbuktu at our closest point - another day would have seen us there! The guys who did make it say that it was a bit of a disappointment, though, so I'm happy not visiting and just continuing to imagine instead...

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Lo bueno se acaba....

A medio camino de Bamako y Timbuktu se encuentra Mopti. Ahi estamos en estos momentos, aprovechando de nuestros ultimos dias de vacaciones antes de volvernos a Europa.

No hemos podido llegar a Timbuktu por falta de tiempo que no de ganas.

Estos dias nos comportaremos como verdaderos turistas, haremos el gandul, quizas algunas compras y disfrutaremos de nuestro tiempo.

Mali es muy turistico. Despues de tantos dias de polvo y carretera, se agradece un descanso.


Having covered nearly 4000 miles from home by road, we reached the finish of the Plymouth-Timbuktu challenge at the Centre Regionale d'Energie Solaire in Bamako late on the evening of 13th. It was pretty hard to find CRES (no directions in the roadbook, and the locals don't know the place) and it took us an hour of touring Bamako to locate. There wasn't much of a welcoming committee, but we were glad to arrive!

We then complicated matters further by trying to find the other five or six teams who'd made it and were staying in Hotel les Colibris round the corner - we had a map, but it wasn't much use! Another hour of pulling u-turns and diving down side streets, and we eventually found the hotel after Ana fortuitously saw a broken sign on the ground pointing to the place. It had cold beer and beef brochettes, Noel had found some vodka and Nelson had broken out his cognac store, so all was good.

Although the rally officially ends in Bamako, some teams are pressing on to Timbuktu. Sadly we won't be able to - we burnt our spare days earlier in the trip by crossing offroad from Mauritania, which was a lot of fun but took longer than we expected. Apparently there's not a lot to see in Tim' anyway - we're off to Segou, Mopti and Djenné for a few days R&R before flying back to the UK via Casablanca.

3600, 3700, 3800, 3900 miles - Kayes to Bamako

Breakfast at the hotel; a failed attempt to exchange money (on a Sunday); a swift change of a rear bulb that had failed; a stop to fuel up, and then a tarmac road (with péage and potholes) to Bamako. Not the most exciting day!

We heard that the Renault had finally died on the road to Bamako (failed piston rings) and that the Nomad'ers had towed it 130km to Diema, where Nelson had put his bargaining skills to good use and flogged it for incredibly good money given its lack of engine! Apparently the sound system was the main selling point...

3500 miles - Aourou to Kayes

The locals had warned us that the route to Kayes took 4h in normal conditions (and four days in the rainy season!) even though it was only 115km - in fact the surface was a bit better than the road to Aourou, and easier to drive in the daylight, but it was still pretty bumpy. So bumpy, in fact, that more things broke - our centre speaker fell off the dash and (disaster!) our external hard disk stopped working whilst playing Def Leppard, so we lost all our holiday photos to date. Let's hope that OnTrack can help recover them when we're home.

There wasn't much sand on the road but there was still a lot of dust (evidenced when we shook the air filter out upon arrival and nearly suffocated in the ensuing cloud!) About 5km before we reached the tarmac road to Kayes, we heard a new exciting rattling noise. The front offside shock had finally given up - after all the abuse it had taken, we were amazed it had lasted so long, and grateful that it waited until the end of our off-roading to fail. Now we had a rattly bouncy Patrol with no brakes and no music and no rear window and a dent in the front wing and a bonnet that wouldn't open properly and so much dust inside that you couldn't read the instruments!

By a stroke of luck, we quickly found a mechanic in Kayes who took on the job of repairing the brakes for us. Nick the Nomad had already found the source of the fluid leak, in front of the rear axle, and the master mechanic at the Institute of Agriculture (!) set to work fixing it. It turned out that the rear flexi-hose was blocked and that had caused one of the solid brake pipes to burst - it took him four hours to find replacement parts and fit them, for which we paid 130 Euros. While we were waiting, the Portuguese and Nomads headed off towards Bamako (Jose had to catch a flight in just a few days), and we crossed the road to the nearest hotel, ordered beer, and chilled out on the hotel terrace on the South bank of the river Senegal.

After the car repair was finished, we went on a hunt for chicken and chips, on the advice of the Nomad'ers. We didn't find the place they'd eaten but we eventually did stumble upon a Malian restaurant (basically, someone's house) where the chicken was excellent and the company friendly. Since we hadn't had any chance to exchange currency, we had a bit of fun trying to pay with Euros before one of the locals stepped into help. We then went back to the hotel and drank some more beer, whilst discussing whether or not we'd make it to Timbuktu with the time we had remaining.

3400 miles - into Mali

More hammering along off-road - the cars are suffering now. The Transit has a noisy front shock top mounting and the clutch pedal is juddery, the Renault is producing its own smokescreen, and even the Patrol is starting to come apart. Our front shock is a bit more rattly than it was, but most importantly we've lost the brakes! It seems that the "parking brake warning light" that came on two days back is actually the "brake warning light"... we've got a fluid leak. The temporary solution is to top up the fluid (thanks for the spare brake fluid, Stuart) and use the gearbox for braking (1st is particularly effective) but this only works off-road and we will have to get it looked at before we do any distance on the tarmac.

Lots of stopping to ask directions (often three times in the same village, to be sure), lots of turning around, lots of wondering where-the-hell-are-we. Directions often consist of "go through the meal fields, and you'll find the big road over the hill", and then we get stuck when we can't find the meal fields (or the hill, or the big road, which is never actually big). We got completely entrenched in one village which is apparently built on the softest sand in Mauritania - the Patrol was the only one bouncing around without too many problems, and we scrabbled up a huge sand dune on the advice of the local school teacher to look for the road to Hamoud and the border. We had the car completely sideways and at a nice angle to the horizon by the top fo the dune, I really wish someone had videod it!

During our explorations we came across an abandoned Fiat Panda 4x4 from a previous P-B group - it had clearly died on the journey. I considered nicking the roof-mounted spotlights off it for the Patrol but decided against it in the end, in case the true owner was indeed on the way back to collect it. Later that night I would really regret not doing so.

Eventually we did find the "big road" (which wasn't) and at some point we crossed into Mali. There was no exit control from Mauri and no immigration to Mali at this point becuase we just drove across a dry riverbed in the middle of nowhere, not even the goats noticed us. The road from then on was better-defined but very hard going - the Transit was having problems being wide and not as high as we'd remembered, and the Renault guys were solving everything by thrashing their engine to bits. There were big holes, deep sand, and sharp rocks, often all together!

We didn't have a lot of choice other than to continue on towards Aourou, the first village in Mali on our route. It was about 80km away and we were only averaging 20kmh or so! We eventually hit the police checkpoint in the dusk at about 7pm, relieved that the day was over - until we found that we weren't in Aourou but a smaller village, with Aourou still 50km down the road! We got back in the cars and drove on into the night.

We had to spread the vehicles out over a long track, because the dust was so bad (particularly in the headlights) that it was impossible to see anything for a minute or two after the previous car had passed. A word to those attempting this in the future - one radio per car should be an essential! By the time we rolled into Aourou at 10:30, everyone was exhausted. Fortunately the police were very welcoming and completed the immigration formalities with a minimum of hassle - we weren't asked for any money (which does make me question the validity of my visa, which is supposed to cost 30 Euros) and they all had a good laugh when we asked if there was a hotel (another slight innaccuracy in the Roadbook, the Hotel Logo is in Kayes, 4h away, not in Aourou). They wouldn't let us camp in case we caused trouble by our presence, and we were delighted when they suggested we sleep in the schoolhouse. One of the gendarmes got hold of the principal and he opened up the building for us - we bedded down between the wooden desks, and I went to sleep pretty much instantly.

We were all woken up at about 3 by a donkey braying its head off outside! Turns out it had been rifling through the trash and had tried eating the Transit boys' diesel. It won't try that again!

By 8am the next day, Nick was already working on fixing the Transit to run from the fuel tank again (they'd had to fuel the engine from jerrycans in the cockpit since the previous day) and Ana and I breakfasted on Pot Noodles and more birthday cake. The school principal returned again, and Nick and Noel gave him a bundle of books and pens that they'd brought over from the UK (good idea, that!) He then showed us where we could get petrol for the Renault (a five-minute drive away through alleyways and past a beautiful mud mosque) but there was no diesel in town - so we fuelled from our one remaining jerrycan and started to pray that we'd have enough to make the 4h off-road journey to Kayes! We also took the opportunity to add "No Brakes!" to the "No Money, No Sense, No Worries!" slogan on the side of the car, which might not increase its retail value but amused us greatly.

3300 miles - offroad towards Mali

An early start after a good night's sleep (and a hot shower!) - the Lavvies and Stoat's Escape joined the other teams as planned, and we fuelled up with our remaining Dingbats and set out on the "Hard Route" to Mali. This is supposed to be passable by 4wds and "maybe" 2wds, and let's just say that they weren't joking when they named it!

In fact, there wasn't much of a road - sometimes there was a track, broken by deep sand and a need to get out and push the Transit and Renault, but mainly it was a matter of picking the best route from hilltop to hilltop, with occasional help from the GPS in Nelson's car and frequent stops to ask the locals which way to go. The terrain changed as we travelled from dusty desert to open savannah, with trees starting to appear (and along with them, tree stumps and tree roots!) During the morning, things were basically good - after a quick stop for lunch, things changed for the worse.

First of all, we lost the two lead vehicles when we were crossing a small ravine - each vehicle picked its own route down into the valley, we came up the other side, and the others were gone! After a bit of driving around aimlessly sounding the dixie tunes horns, we sent back to the last place we'd seen the others, turned the engine off, and waited... for about fifteen minutes until the Renault turned up again, having come back to look for us. How I wish that the other guys had brought radios with them!

Almost immediately after that, the Renault got a front puncture, so we put the spare wheel on. Then, incredibly improbably, they got another one 500m later, with no remaining spare to use. We tried to fix the punctured tyres with tyre-weld and rubber patches, but both the sidewalls had big rips in them so that failed dismally. In the end we put a flat tyre on the rear of the Renault and two good tyres on the front, and the Portuguese had to drive on with a flat.

We were headed to Kankossa, the final sizeable village in Mauritania before Mali and the only one with a Michelin guy to sort the Renault out. We stopped and asked directions a few times more, and one of the locals explained that we were actually retracing the ancient Bamako, before the highway was built. Ancient road or not, it was incredibly hard to follow, often disppearing completely and leaving us stuck in the middle of a group of rocks or field of sand or cluster of trees with little clue which way to turn! GPS (and the map, and the sun, and more often, the locals) to the rescue.

We eventually made Kankossa before dark, but not before a Mauritanian palm tree had reversed into our Patrol and destroyed the rear screen and part of the rear cab. We lost the group again as we had to stop to pick up the damage and press the gaffer tape into service once more - in the end we bodged a repair using a survival bag to replace the rear glass, stopping all of our stuff from flying out of the back window. Kankossa was easy enough to find and we asked for the Michelin Man, where we found the Transit boys and the Portuguese watching a one-legged fitter change the tyres on the Renault. The rim that had been driven flat had fortunately survived with little damage, and we passed the time chatting with the Gendarmes ("Are you really going to Timbuktu?") and the local kids who knew everything about the Spanish football league.

We realised that there was no way we could make the border before sunset, so we left Kankossa and headed out into the bush to set up camp out of sight behind a hill. On the way out of the village the Renault spat out a particularly big cloud of oil - it had been threatening to do so all day, with the occasional wisp when its measly 1.2 litre 4-cyl was being pushed particularly hard, but this was enough to make us all stop and check things over! The Transit was also suffering, cutting out when it was put under too much load. Both engines still ran evenly enough, so we resolved to fix them in the daylight and set up camp a few km further on. The Nomad'ers handed round some carefully-hidden beers - well needed after one of our hardest days yet - and we chatted for a bit before heading off to sleep.

Everyone was up with the sun the next day to crack on with the repairs. We made a more permanent bodge of our rear screen, and found a way to make good out of bad by converting the screen hinge into a go-faster roof spoiler. The Portuguese checked the levels on the Renault and declined my kind offer of a compression tester, and the Nomad'ers changed their fuel filter. We wished they hadn't, because the Transit didn't run at all afterwards! It took three hours of everyone troubleshooting the problem (checking the pipes to and from the tank, checking the diesel pump, filling the filter up with fuel, towing the Transit around the hilltop with the Patrol to try to bleed any air through the fuel system) to work out that the replacement fuel filter in fact had slightly different fittings to the old one. Noel and Nick spent the afternoon kicking themselves over that one - the situation was made slightly better when Nick handed round some birthday cake!

We got underway around noon, after I'd made a present of my frisbee to a guy called Baramak (not sure of the spelling). He wore it round his neck and walked back to his village with it when we'd finished playing!

3100, 3200 miles - Aleg to Kiffa

Apart from stopping at many, many police checkpoints and handing out fiche after fiche, the afternoon was quite dull!

We arrived at Kiffa around 7ish, opting for the hotel El Emel where Nelson immediately went into bat over the prices of the rooms (and got us all a good deal). We used the Bank of Cheryl to exchange Euros for Ougiyas as we were saving the last few notes of local currency for a splash of diesel the following morning. Ana cooked a version of penne alla arrabiata and I tried to fix the sticky clutch pedal on the Patrol - while we were eating, the other teams arrived from Nouakchott having repaired their Sierra and driven through the evening.

After dinner we decided to split our group of five cars for the trip to Mali. Three of us (the Portuguese, the Nomad'ers, and ourselves) wanted to take the off-road route across the border, whereas the teams in the Escort and Hyundai were just keen to keep their cars running as far as Bamako! They linked up with some other Group 4 cars and we made plans to leave early the next morning for Mali.

3000 miles - the road to Aleg

We left the Auberge at about 9, fuelled up at the BP garage, and reinflated everyone's tyres at the Michelin place across the street. This was followed by an entertaining discussion in which the Michelin guy demanded 6 Euros for filling the tyres with air and Nelson refused to give him more than 3. That resolved, we headed to the supermarket and bought bread and tinned mushrooms and doggy apples. The Nomad'ers went off to find a print shop (!) as they had run out of fiches to hand out at the checkpoints, while the rest of us lazed around in the parking lot. We finally left Nouakchott at about 10, headed for Kiffa via Aleg.

Almost immediately we ran into some other Plymouth-Bamako cars by the roadside. They'd stopped because a wheel bearing had failed on their Sierra XR4ii - and we didn't have a socket big enough to helhp them out, so we continued onwards while they went back to Nouakchott for repairs.

About an hour out of town, we got a red light on the dash - the parking brake warning light. We pulled over, checked the parking brake wasn't binding, and drove on with thoughts of disconnecting the warning bulb or perhaps colouring the dashboard in with black pen to hide it. We found out two days later that we should have paid a bit more attention to the poor car at this point!

The road was tarmac-ed, boring and long, broken only by Donkey Crossings (a bit like Zebra Crossings but with less warning). Aleg turned out to be dusty and busy and not a great place to stop except for the requisite (and expensive) fuel. We rolled a few km out of town and stopped for a bite for lunch next to a police checkpoint, mindful of the events of Christmas Eve that had seen four French tourists shot in a robbery while they picnicked by the roadside. We ate quite quickly!

PS.- Gracias Mum por el embutido que compraste para nosotros. Todavia estamos viviendo del chorizo. Nos salva la pausa del mediodia y esta buenisimo.

2900 miles - Nouakchott

The track turned into asphalt and eventually we rejoined a real road, picking up the N1 highway towards the capital. I hope I get a copy of the photo of Nick kissing the tarmac! The run into Nouakchott was uneventful other than for a few checkpoints which Bamba handled for us.

We headed to the Auberge Alkawa, where we were mauled by the owner's small dog and rejoiced at the idea of a hot shower (which didn't materialise; maybe ten grubby tourists had overloaded the hot water system). We paid Bamba and I wrote him a recommendation at his request, explaining to future travellers that he hadn't abandoned us in the desert or stolen our food. I then spent most of the rest of the day asleep (I'd done pretty much all of the offroad driving in the desert and was knackered); we met up with the group again in the evening and went for dinner.

We're now on the road towards Aleg, travelling in close convoy with the other four cars from our desert group, using the radios between the front (Portuguese) and rear (us) vehicles to keep together and help with the overtaking. The Patrol is drinking fuel 'cos we're shoeing along at about 70mph, but other than that (and the locals thinking that it's OK to park on the road on the crest of a hill) everything is good. We've got into a drill for checkpoints now (slow down, hide the radio, hide the laptop - don't know why they are suspicious about it, but it causes trouble - put the camera away, turn the music off, find passports and fiches, and smile) and the police around here seem to be a bit more chilled out than further north. We're on our guard though and we plan to rush through this bit of Mauritania and get into Mali as soon as we can.

2800 miles - continued

Typing this on the road so please excuse any typos (I've already seen a few in previous entries!) I'll continue from where I was before.

A big argument is not what you want in the middle of the desert. Although Bamba only had issues with the Portuguese team, it was basically my problem to resolve - since I was the one to agree the journey, rough route, and price with him, he sees me as the group lead and so it was down to me to solve the dispute. Since the desert isn't a good place to fall out with each other, I put everything "on hold" until we reached town, and I took the GPS from the Portuguese team, turned it off, and carried it in the Patrol to partially placate the guide. We moved off after wasting the best part of an hour on that little discussion.

Frankly I can't remember a lot about the rest of the afternoon - the terrain was better with only some faffing about tyre pressures (all our pumps and compressors are now broken bar the one carried by the Nomad'ers, which now has to inflate 20 tyres instead of just 4). We came to a group of four dunes which had to be crossed - we'd had deep / soft sand on the flat before, but not on hills, and everyone got stuck several times, bar the Patrol and the Transit. Eventually we crested the last dune and saw the sea glimmering in the sunshine - a very welcome sight indeed.

Finally we hit a dirt track which felt nearly as good as a paved road by this point, and pelted along that for half an hour or more. We paid our fees for the National Park at the warden's office by the park exit, and marvelled at the huge whale skeleton there, before we got swamped by kids asking for stuff. Their mothers even came along to supervise them hassling us! Wynn turned up with a bag of sweets and made thirty young friends, he had a great time trying to keep track of the new faces vs. those who were coming back for a second attempt!

Unfortunately despite our best efforts we'd missed the afternoon tide and had to set up camp for the evening. Bamba took us to a community campsite on the sea-side of town, where the women set about preparing one of the big tents for us. Trouble was, no-one had asked us, and we wanted to camp somewhere a big more isolated down the coast! There was clearly an incentive for the guide / park to put is in the community campsite, and they made it quite difficult for us to leave. In the end I drove back to the park warden's office with Nelson (one of the Portuguese) to ask for permission to camp outside the official campsite. After some friendly banter we were told that we could camp so long as we were more than 7km outside the village, and we went back to collect the others and head south.

I suspect that Bamba was not happy with the decision we made, and he took us to a flat space just outside the town which was pretty grotty, surrounded by local houses and their trash, and definitely not 7km away! We had a debate about moving further along the coast - he told us that it was not possible without 4x4s. As we were discussing, the park warden showed up in his Landcruiser and told us that we were not 7km away and that we would have to move further down the coast! Very amusing indeed.

Anyway, he drove us another 2km out of town and then told us to set up camp, before asking for "cadeaux"... we ignored him and went for a swim!

The sea was lovely, cold without being freezing, and a great opportunity to get rid of all that sand. We watched the sun set over the water as we floated around. Our sand-free state didn't last long, however, because on the way back to the tents the Renault boys took the wrong route and got stuck in the sand, followed immediately by the Transit. We were bouncing along nicely and passed them, but made the mistake of stopping to help dig them out, and got ourselves in deep as well. The Renault came out pretty easily but the Transit was in down to the rear axle and had to be dug / towed out by the warden's Toyota (at a cost of 10 Euros...) The Patrol was also in down to the leaf springs and differentials, so we spent a long time digging it out. Eventually we freed her with a few guys pushing, and headed back to our campsite, covered in sand again.

Dinner - rice with tomatoes - and lots of fun trying to reinflate everyone's tyres with the single remaining compressor. Time for a quick look at the stars and then bedtime in prep for our 0430 start the next day!

0430 was indeed painful, but not as bad as it could have been. We picked Bamba up outside the village about half-five (he'd spent the night up there) and headed for the beach - the plan being to drive along the firm sand near the water towards Nouakchott. Trouble was, there was no track to get onto the beach over the dunes, so Bamba picked a route and marked it out with water bottles for us to blast through. Surprise surprise, we then the first hour of the trip digging the lower cars out of the sand, again... only this time in the dark, which didn't make it any more exciting!

With the delay, w were in danger of being trapped between the dunes and the rising tide. We drove as close to the sea as we dared in the dark, disturbing huge flocks of sleeping seagulls and trying to avoid the waves. We were porbably too close on occasion, with a couple of waves breaking over the side of the car (our wipers truly are rubbish). On the other hand, the Lavvies were too far up on the soft sand near the dunes and in danger of getting bogged down - in the end we overtook them and they followed our tracks at the back of the group as we drove along between 30 and 50mph with the beach getting ever-narrower. After about an hour, with the rising sun and barely five metres of driveable beach remaining, Bamba guided us off the beach into a small village from where we could pick up a track back towards the tarmac. The Escort got stuck, again, but after some more digging and pushing we all made it onto the track where we stopped to clear the car windows, fuel up from jerry cans, repair another Escort tyre, and make tea and coffee. The cafetiere was pressed into service for the first time of the trip and we used about a third of a packet of ground coffee making up for our early start!

During our stop I took the opportunity to speak with Bamba and try to resolve our "GPS issue". He had previously offered three choices - we could pay him 5 times the regular guiding fee as a kind of precaution against future loss of earnings, the Portuguese could go with him to the Gendarmerie on arrival in Nouakchott to agree a resolution (we suspected that this would not go well for Nelson and Jose), or they could leave our group then and there (and by extension, die somewhere in the Sahara). Now everyone had cooled off a bit and Nelson had taken the time to make an apology, we were in a better bargaining position. We confirmed that his problem was not with the English (or Spaniard) in the group, whom he said were polite and worked hard and "did what they were told"! He told us that he had been to the small Gendarmerie in the village last night and the officer there had discussed the issue by radio with the Nouakchott station, concluding that they would send two officers to our campsite when we arrived in Nouakchott to collect the Portuguese and accompany them to the station. Not what we were hoping for! Fortunately we talked him round, and in the end he agreed to let the matter drop. What can I say, it was a good opportunity to practice my French!

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


Neither of my phones work in Mauritania by the way - maybe will be reachable again in a few days when we hit Mali?...

2800 miles - yes, by now, we all love sand!

We were driving at 8am this morning, and set off at a fast pace. We had to reach the beach before 4pm to catch the tide and get to Nouakchott, so we were tearing along. In my enthusiasm to make up time I tailed the Renault too closely and smacked into the back of it - my first two-car accident and what a place for it!

The Portuguese had been driving the 19 with such vigour that we'd got used to them flying through the sand. When they did get stuck, we were too close behind and couldn't bounce out of the sand ruts - of course braking was out of the question - so the bull bars on our Patrol smacked into their rear quarter. They lost their rear light cluster and suffered "a fair bit" of bodywork damage. The bars on the Patrol bent back a bit and dented the wing. Neither cars had any mechanical issues and he sadly refused my dodgy Mauritanian insurance details, so we set off again.

Almost immediately we stopped again for the Escort - BOTH front tyres were punctured! One we fixed with the spare but the other was truly buggered. As it happened they had a second spare tyre (but no rim), so we swapped it onto the old rim with three screwdrivers, some fairy liquid, a big rope, and a touch petrol and a match (yes, really). Then we had a puncture on the Hyundai front nearside - fortunately they had a spare as well. During all the bouncing around we lost the weatherstrip off our rear window, but we're making do with gaffer tape for now.

We made fairly good time with fewer stops than the day before, but we had a long stop for a big barney between the guide and the Portuguese. Unfortunately the Portuguese let on that they were running a GPS; the guide accused them of stealing his route, and was understandably touchy about losing his livelihood! Apparently GPSes are prohibited by the Federation des Guides, but were weren't told that at any point, so a standoff ensued with the guide refusing to continue and the Portuguese being argumentative.

** Too tired to write any more, will continue this whenever I find another Internet connx. Obviously we got out of the desert, we're now in Nouakchott. We're heading off towards Bamako tomorrow, will probably make it 2/3rds of the way, should be able to post from Bamako in 2 days or so. Goodbye until then! **

2700 miles - more breakdowns

Given the pounding that our cars are getting, it's no surprise that they keep breaking down. The desert changes almost instantly between soft sand (soft tyre pressures required, go fast and don't stop), hard rock (the opposite strategy; hard tyres, go slowly and carefully), with nasty corrugations thrown in to smash the suspension and occupants around for minutes upon end.

The Transit is holding up well since it's propshaft incident in Morocco, and the Renault is going stong (largely due to the drivers revving the nuts off it and refusing to stop for anything) though it is using a suspicious amount of coolant. The Hyundai and Escort are having a hard time of it, getting battered by high rocks and stuck in almost every sandy stretch (I'm bored of digging and pushing). Meanwhile the Patrol just goes on and on. We've used 4wd twice, to get out of sand when we stopped to help the other teams. She's absolutely the right car for this, and we're feeling so much better for suffering 2500 miles of slow driving and rattly diesel noises on better roads.

Towards the end of the day the Escort threw its arch liner out of the front wheelarch, and stopped dead. When we inspected it we found that it had thrown a driveshaft. Thirty minutes of swearing and it's back on the piste, though without the protective gaiter to stop the sand getting in to the bearing (that got ripped up when it broke). Another ten minutes and the Hyundai had a puncture, so we fixed that and set up camp for the night behind another dune before it got dark.

Unfortunately, the breakdowns have meant that we are taking much more time to complete the desert leg of our trip than anticipated. It's frustrating in a way, because the Patrol, Transit, and Renault are flying along and the other two are breaking and getting stuck all the time. I keep reminding myself that it's a team effort - and everyone gets out to dig and push no matter whos car is stuck. In any case, we have to pay the guide for an extra day already, and I hope that it's only the one.

We'll make faster progress tomorrow by using our radios - one front and one rear, to let the guide know when people get stuck. The convoy can stretch out for a km or so because of the varying terrain and necessary distances between the cars, so it's a good plan...

I took advantage of our extra desert-camping night by launching the rocket that I'd brought along - I'd built it a few years back at home and never got round to flying it. I was worried about getting it into Mauritania, and didn't want to chance it to Mali - and the desert sunset was the perfect setting. We launched it three times and didn't bother to look for it after the third (all good deserts have bits of space hardware lying in them, this one is no different!)

We made tuna pasta under the stars and were surprised by a family of three camels! It looked like they were saying "what are you doing camping our back yard?" They had a good nose around and left, we turned in in preparation for an early start.

Breakdown #1 - not us though!

We set off for Nouakchott (2 days drive away) at 9ish. Almost immediately the Hyundai broke down in a big way!

Our group is rolling in the Transit (2wd but with good clearance and plenty of weight over the weels, drivers are ex-mechanics), a Hyundai Accent (2wd and with no power and no ground-clearance to speak of, novice drivers), the Escort (ditto but with a bit more oomph, drivers did the Dakar run last year), a Renault 19 with snorkel and fat tyres (well-equipped, lots of spares, drivers know what they are doing), and the Patrol (no worries, ever!) Bamba is riding up front in the Transit (three seats across...) and we're at the back in case one of the lesser vehicles comes a cropper.

The Hyundai owners had had their doubts about the clutch before coming on the trip but were apparently assured that all was OK. What can I say, it lasted about fifteen minutes in the desert. Fortunately they had a spare with them (!) so the Nomad'ers set about changing it under the Saharan sunshine - quite glad they took ownership of that problem, I barely had to get my hands dirty helping! 3h to change and the Hyundai was back on the road. Ana and I used our time to dismantle the compressor and fix our musical horns - to find that they in fact play "La Cucaracha" and not the Dixie tune we were expecting! Either way round, they add hilarity to the journey.

So, onwards. Even though we have just started into the desert, the lower cars are getting stuck every 5 minutes. We help them out by digging and pushing the cars... but the clutches, exhaust and suspension suffer awfully. We'll see how it goes.

2600 miles - Nouadihbou

Nouadhibou, it turns out, is not next to our dune, but rather 60km down the road! A good half an hour in the super-Patrol. On the way we saw what is apparently the longest train in the world - 1.6km of iron-ore wagons. We kept driving behind dunes and looking back at the tracks to see the train still there! Mad.

The town itself is the second in Mauritania after the capital, and I wouldn't recommend a visit if you can avoid it. Fairly intimidating (even more so given that I was travelling alone with our guide and everyone's passports, E600, and the vehicle registration documents) - lots of people standing around in crowds, crazy driving, exceptionally poor housing, and darkness gathering. A couple of kids threw stones at the car when I refused to give them "cadeaux" - a first for our trip, though probably not the last. However it all turned out well - three hours to get car insurance and change money for the group, pick up supplies and fuel, and get back to the camp. The sand back to the dune was fun in the dark - music blaring, lights on full, jumping over mini-dunes with all four wheels in the air and our guide laughing his head off. Magic!

The stars were stunning as well, since the nearest streetlight was 50km away...

2500 miles - Last stop in Morocco

We stopped 50km before the border at a service station to get the tank filled up and buy lots of bread for the desert. We were joined by Nelson and Jose, the Portuguese team, in their Renault 19 dune-basher, making our group 5-strong.

Since our quite-wonderful and to-date always-reliable Patrol is not as fast as the other cars (because if we go over 70mph we really start guzzling diesel), we decided to leave the station a bit before the other teams. The Lavvies overtook us 2km before the border and the rest of the group appeared as we arrived - perfect timing.

We arrived at the Moroccan side of the border at 11am. The timing was just right - in principle - to make it to the Mauritanian side before their lunch break and avoid getting stuck in no-man's land (the partially-cleared minefield between both countries). What we did not reckon on was the number of tourists that we already queuing there... amongst others, we saw a group of eight battered Austrian-German Mercs from our previous campsite, a convoy similar to ours, four British blokes in two Landcruisers who had done the Banjul run last year, and a fancy French family of three (all women) from the Cote d'Azur, driving a rather posh Mercedes ML320 and an expensive caravan.

It seems that we can run from the Riviera, but we cannot hide! Our French friends seemed to be taken straight from a postcard from the Caribbean. Dressed like they were going to beach, with posh sunglasses and very "proud" attitude. Just to exemplify: they arrived last at the Moroccan border control before lunch, and the passed it first (we suspect after handing the Officer a nice amount of money...)

It appears, however, that bribery is not always the fastest route through. By the time we had finished our bureaucratic-yet-friendly procedures (it took a while), these French ladies were still on the border waving their hands and pouting. The Moroccan police had decided to give their cars a thorough going-over...

Between Morocco and Mauritania, the minefield starts. At this point we met the guide that we had lined-up two days ago (not a bad idea eh). He goes by the name of "Bamba", because his real name is incredibly long. He is the head of the guides in Mauritania and was been in charge of guiding the 2006 Amsterdam-Dakar rally. He explained that we were would be best to wait for one hour, until 3pm, for the Mauritanian border to open after lunch. So we had a picnic in the minefield, and waited.

There is a strong contrast between Morocco and Mauritania - Mauritania looks extremenly poor by comparison. Despite the obvious lack of cash, the Mauritanian policemen were working very professionally and being so helpful (to the point of filling out our forms for us if we couldn't do it ourselves) that it was almost embarassing. Ana had her visa in advance from Spain, I had to get one on the border; in fact, Ana had more problems as one of the officers read her paperwork wrongly, and thought that she had it bought in the black-market. After an apology and some jokes about her name, plus Jose Maria Aznar and Zapatero (they are pretty aware of Spanish politics), he let us go with a wave. Pas de problemes!

After clearing ]the border (the complete process took 5 hours) we headed towards the junction to Nouadhibou and onwards into the desert to set up camp. The Transit excelled by being the first to get stuck in the sand, a whole 10 metres from the asphalt - fortunately it turned out to be the perfect shape to push (although I still think a Volvo estate would be a good alternative - maybe next year!)

The group set up camp behind a dune, a mile from the road, and I went into town in the Patrol with Bamba to change money, get Mauritanian car insurance, and fill up with diesel!

2400 miles - dark, fog

The day started pretty early today - we woke up at 5am to hit the road at 6. We arranged to pass the Mauritanian border with three other groups, and after a well-deserved (but Instant) coffee we started our trip with Team Lavvies (Hyundai Accent 1.3) and Stoats' Escape (Ford Escort 1.6). Team Nomad'ers (the "Transit Boys") caught up after an hour, having left half an hour late and taken a wrong turn in the darkness.

2300 miles - Dakhla town

We're in Dakhla, ready to ship out tomorrow morning at 6am for Mauritania.

We arrived last night to find that the campsite owner was expecting us! We were the first, and we found out that everyone else is at least a day behind us. A bit of a surprise as we have been chilling out on the route today, and quite frustrating as it might mean an extra day sitting around waiting to form a convoy for Mauritania.

Heard that Fat Blokes have killed their Landy again, this time the fanbelt tensioner. They expect a replacement part to take 2 days. They don't seem to be having much luck.

Dakhla is a fairly nondescript place, huge army presence, big airstrip for the Hercs that fly in and out, and a surprisingly nice seafront.

We met up with a number of other teams that arrived in town today - Nomad'ers, Saharan Stokies, Lavvies, Cazekiel, Fundeles, In Dust We Trust, and a couple of others. Most of us are heading for the border tomorrow, there are a few more teams behind us and some in another campsite. We'll be in a convoy of min 4 cars for the desert crossing.

We heard the news about the Paris-Dakar rally being cancelled; thanks to Lois and Martin for providing news updates from the BBC, FCO, and French FO. We've reviewed all the recent information carefully and decided to continue south. We have a reliable local guide lined up - thanks to Group 3 for the recommendation - which is another big plus.

2200 miles - The Shadows!

There's no shade for hundreds of miles around, so we are driving listening to The Shadows :-)

The Skeleton Coast is delightful, no place to swim on this stretch because you can't get down from the cliffs, but the views are spectacular. There are shipwrecks every few km whih make for good photos (not so good for the sailors on the ships, but hey).

Strangely, you still see people walking on the road here, even though there are absolutely no settlements around for maybe a hundred km. Maybe they are hitching and between rides, but given it's a dead straight road with no turnings and no villages, you wonder what they did to get kicked out part-way!

The vehicle of choice around here seems to be the Defender 110 in classic "desert off-white" finish, nearly always nursed along at a stately 50km/h by their Touareg drivers. We've seen one well-equipped overlander convoy of two Toyotas, but other than that it's trucks or Landys, or the ever-present Mercs.

What's not working: not a lot, actually. We're not using the handbrake (it doesn't use the rear brake shoes anyway, so my earlier diagnosis of the vibration problem was wrong, but we don't need it) and the cold-start choke isn't needed any more either. The stereo is good, though one of the speakers is held onto the dash with string for that rugged look (we'll try to araldite it tonight). All the dodgy vibrations have stopped, even the one from the passenger's feet. The dixie horns are still not working - I have an idea there as well, but I'll save it for Mauritania.

Onwards! :-)

2100 miles - the road to Dakhla

Three more roadblocks so far, both very courteous and passed without trouble. Pre-filled fiches eased the pain. Apparently the roadblocks are in place to limit the movement of the "terrorist" / independence fighters - Western Sahara is rich in phosphates, and the north of the region has quite a few factories and refineries, so you can see why it is being fought over.

Every town here is fortified and has a miltary presence - the larger places have huge barracks, and the smallest have at least a compound with walls and razor wire, in addition to the eight-foot walls around the town itself. You get a roadblock on the way into town and one on the way out, at the minimum, now staffed by a mixture of police and army.

We've been driving along the coast, basically on a clifftop, for the last few hundred miles. The roads are good, 100 limit though we're only doing about 90 to save fuel. Every now and then we get a breathtaking view out over the coastline, down about 50 metres to the sea. Dakhla - our destination today - is stuck out on a big headland, so hopefully the view there will be great.

Heard by SMS that Team Fat Blokes in a Car are one day behind us, setting out from Agadir this morning for Laayoune. They were going quite a lot quicker originally, but their alternator failed and had to be rebuilt in Asni (at a cost of £21, bargain!) Team Nomader also killed their Transit but it was repaired at the roadside. We're still travelling alone but expect to hook up with the front runners (if there are indeed any ahead of us!) in Dakhla tonight.

Dad, the car needs a wash, and I think that the sand has taken most of your polish off already :-) Scotty, your stickers are still looking as good as they were the day we left (under all the dust!)

2000 miles - camels!

Yep, it's camel country! We've seen six or seven sizeable herds (if that's the correct collective noun) browsing amongst the rocks with no obvious herders. They look even more chilled out than the donkeys. Terrain is now more rock and sand than scrubland, it's been thinning out for the last few hundred miles. Temperature is about 20 deg at the time of writing (11am).

I'd love to post a photo of them but I daren't risk my luck with the really flaky Internet connection... it's asking for trouble...!

1900 miles - more checkpoints and a new noise!

The latter being the more concerning! So we'll talk about it first.

We pulled off the road to take a photo of the emerging sand dunes, and, of course, sank into soft sand. No problem, we have 4wd. Engage 4wd and out of the sand, "pas de probleme". Except that there WAS a probleme, in the form of a new grinding vibrating kind of noise between 45 and 60mph.

I wondered if this might be the results of Ana's handbrake experiment earlier in the day, but neither rear wheel seemed to be bound, although one hub was hotter than the other. So we drove on, wondering if this simple bit of off-roading had caused the centre diff to eat itself, or one of the automatic hubs to lock up permanently, or something equally tragic. However after another 60 miles we turned the stereo down and noticed that the noise was gone. So that has to be a good thing.

We stopped for diesel at possibly the nastiest fuel station in the world (and found, in the process, that the last service station guy hadn't replaced the fuel filler cap properly, so we had a minor diesel leak...) and pulled straight out into another police roadblock. No problem, we're used to them by now - except this one didn't wave us past but wanted to "chat". Apparently we'd passed a well-concealed stop sign without stopping, in the 150 yards between the fuel station and the checkpoint. The policeman explained that this was a very serious offence, and I passed him my international driving licence, hoping to preserve my British one in case things went completely pear-shaped. We went into his little police hut at the roadside (I didn't feel that it was the moment to take any photos of it to share with you) to discuss the matter while Ana stayed in the car and tried not to cause trouble.

Using my mostly excellent but also somewhat broken French, I explained how lovely Morroco was and how lucky we were to be tourists there, while in turn he explained the magnitude of the offence I'd committed by running the Virtual Stop Sign. A 400Dh fine was looming (about thirty quid) which we could do without! When the time came to produce the money, I made a bit of a pantomime looking for the notes, 100 in this pocket, 100 in that, 50 in another... all the time explaining about our charity rally and the wonderful welcome we'd received in his fantastic country. After a bit of smiling and pocket-stirring, he suggested that maybe he could help me out by forgetting the Invisible Stop Sign offence and creating a new, lesser but equally-imaginary offence in which I would not have been wearing my seatbelt. This would only cost me 100Dh, and I agreed that it was a great idea. :-)

He filled out all the paperwork, called his mate into the hut to countersign a single sheet of the (duplicate) form (ahem), and gave me my copy ("Here's your souvenir from Morroco!"). I was expecting him to pitch for another 100Dh for "helping us out" and frankly I would have given it to him, but we'd crossed some invisible barrier by that point and he was more interested in stopping the next vehicle on the road. So we left.

By contrast, the UN and then the police on the outskirts of Laayoune were very polite and we had no problems - but we are getting stopped at EVERY checkpoint now, no more smiles and waving through.

We just arrived in Laayoune city centre, which is overrun with UN patrols, so we feel quite safe! Departing for Dakhla tomorrow morning (the 3rd). Maybe we'll only be able to upload this post tomorrow anyway as the mobile connectivity here is pretty poor, and getting worse the further south we head.

Oh, and the best news: THE STEREO IS NOW WORKING!!! Ana turned it up so much to drown out the grinding noise, we found that all three speakers actually do work but only at full volume...

** UPDATE ** have only just been able to upload this, mobile comms dropped out just North of Laayoune! Using an Internet terminal at a campsite in Nouakchott, Mauritania, for this and subsequent posts dated today **

Thursday, 3 January 2008

1800 miles - first checkpoint

We were stopped for the first time at (police) checkpoint - normal questions (where are you from, where are you coming from / going to, is this your wife, what is your job, are you really going to Timbuktu, do you have anything for me?)  He told me that I looked like some Commandante or other (must be the haircut), smiles all round and we're on our way.
What's not working:  we probably said goodbye to what little remains of the handbrake, after driving with it on for a few miles... oops.  Ana blames her short arms.  And we have another chip in the windscreen, nothing major.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

1700 miles - into Western Sahara

Scrubland turning to desert - the roadside sand has started...
Paradoxically there are occasional big pools of water by the road as well, so maybe it has rained here recently. Temperatures increasing, currently around 22ish.  The Patrol is coping well.

1600 miles - getting lost around Guelmim

Guelmim wins the title of "Most Confusing Town of the Trip (So Far)" - beating Meknes into second place and Marrakech into a dismal third...
The main issue: there are no roadsigns, and so you basically have to guess where you are going.  We confidently took the wrong road out of town for 25km, before we realised that we were headed for the hills again and turned round at the town of Fask.  Back into Guelmim and after cruising around for ten minutes we stopped to ask directions from an army gate guard who was pretty useless but very polite.  Then, heaven, we actually did find a sign for Tan Tan (the next town on our route).  Sadly it turned out to be pointing completely the wrong way, so we stopped to ask for directions again at a petrol station.  This guy was more helpful (or maybe we were just closer) and a little more opportunistic ("20 dirhams?") and we eventually picked up the right road (the only one we hadn't tried).  Wasted an hour and a half with that litle escapade, but hey, it's holiday :-)

1400, 1500 miles - the road to Agadir, and beyond

We left Marrakech quite late in the day and headed west on the National route towards Agadir.  Didn't see any of the other teams en-route, which wasn't so surprising - we DID see (and get stuck behind) a massive tailback of 20+ vehicles headed by a couple of lorries.  Took us an hour of driving at 40km/h to get past, in very hilly country.
I think that the rest of the teams spent the night in (reputedly very plastic) Agadir - we headed an extra 80km further south to Mirleft, which is a one-street village on the coast reputedly popular with surfer types.  We arrived at night again, but this time the driving was a completely different story - minimal traffic, no donkeys, excellent road surface, reliable road signs. 
Hotel Atlas was very welcoming, and good value and clean to boot.  They even let me start to repair our stereo on the breakfast table, hopefully that will be working properly by the end of the day...

Riad Ajmal

In Marrakech - very friendly hosts, and highly recommended!  :-)