On a dark desert highway... Part 2 London to Timbuktu January 2011
A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of year for a journey, and such a long journey...
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, and the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters, and the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly and the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches...
The Journey of the Magi by TS Elliot
By the time I arrived back from the Mauritanian Embassy Cherry our car was "fixed" and we headed for Casablanca where upon reaching the outskirts of the city the car lost all power and we were enveloped in a cloud of thick black smoke. A pattern was emerging…
Things looked a bit more serious this time; but again luck was on our side. A tow truck stopped and minutes later we were at a garage. Diagnosis: a blown cylinder head gasket. Cherry had given up the fight. We were inconsolable as we unpacked the car and prepared to say our farewells to the rest of the group who were continuing the trip, taking Liz with them.
But once again fortune was smiling on us; the garage called and Cherry could be back on the road in 24 hours.
To catch up with the rest of the group in southern Morocco Nick and I would have to condense two days driving into one. We finally made it to Dakhla at 1.30 the next morning after 17 hours driving and 710 miles covered.
The border between the disputed region of Western Sahara and Mauritania is notorious. No one country has complete control of the border area and the United Nations are stationed there to supervise a buffer zone in the 4km strip of sand known as "no man's land".
This lawless zone is inhabited by smugglers, illegal moneychangers, blown up vehicles of all descriptions, cars abandoned in insurance scams, piles of rubbish…and landmines.
After clearing customs on the Moroccan side we inched our way over the landmine-strewn sand being careful to follow exactly in the tracks of the vehicle in front, and after a tense fifteen minutes the Mauritanian border post came into view.
One last push up a steep slope and we reached the safety of the check-point where tall Mauritanian soldiers guided us down to get the cars checked in and our passports stamped.
Our next deadline was to meet up with the participants of the Budapest to Bamako rally. They were holding their legendary B2B beach party that night and we were all invited. We knew it would be tremendously hard going to get there in time but decided to push on and as the day turned into night it appeared as if the sky was closing in around us. It was like driving through a forest and was rather unnerving to realise we were still in middle of the desert. Just south of the Tropic of Cancer the stars were so low they seemed to decorate the road in front of us.
We left the main road and immediately ran into trouble - Cherry had to be pushed over the dunes and onto the beach. By this time the tide was rising and within minutes water was alternately lashing against the car and sucking the sand from under our wheels.
Water crashed over the car filling the foot well on Liz's side. We screamed with childish exhilaration. Our excitement was short-lived, however. Cherry's four-wheel-drive had broken and we had to suffer the indignity of being towed up the beach above the high water mark where we decided to forgo the B2B party and pitch camp.
After a wonderful dawn the next morning we headed inland from the beach down to Noaukchott, Mauritania's capital city, where we decided Cherry needed some serious TLC.
A friendly mechanic with grease-covered hands guided us to his garage - basically a yard covered with the debris of previous jobs and where a grounded and crushed Isuzu jeep had found a new life as a tool shed.
While the mechanic set to work his young son used a blue and white tiled brick to break up ash covered charcoal for a pot of tea, not once taking his eyes off his father toiling away under Cherry's bonnet.
I sat in the shade of an Acacia tree while the lad attempted to get the fire started and reflected how there is nothing more satisfying than watching someone take things apart: unscrewing nuts, struggling with stubborn bolts, and knowing exactly how to put it all back together again. Nick, who is a surgeon, likens it to surgery.
Mauritania, twice as large as France with a population equalling Paris is an enormous empty desert with just a single iron ore quarry to provide the country's wealth.
The next morning we left Noaukchott to drive to the border with Senegal. Border crossings in Africa do have a certain edge to them and the Mauritanian / Senegalese border was no exception. Just entering the customs yard entails receiving permission to the area, which is guarded by enormous metal doors. But once through we joined the other cars, trucks, and vans lined up for the ferry across the Senegal River.
Whilst waiting we were besieged by hustlers and beggars, it was all quite alarming: "Hey mister you want to change money? Do you want a Senegalese SIM card? Do you want to buy a world map? Just give me your money." The strange thing was that if you got out of your car and stood by the railings no one bothered you. I did just that and bought a kilo of juicy tangerines - I didn't know what to do with the peelings though.
Our next task was getting the passports stamped and the cars checked out of Mauritania. It seems that custom officials just don't seem to get paid enough and an additional "donation" is often required from those crossing the border - and we were no exception. After much arguing back and forth, brandishing of receipts stating that we had already paid the exit fees we were free to leave.
Unfortunately the ferry across to Senegal was broken and while we waited for it to be repaired we were subjected to yet more harassment: "You sell Morrocan money, Mauritanian money, buy tinned peaches?"
The ferry across the Senegal River only took fifteen minutes, but when we reached the other side we found out that the Head of Immigration was on his lunch break. Whilst waiting for him to return we received several offers for a "hand car wash" - um, no thank you.
Cherry was now overheating on an hourly basis, it was late, and imperative that we found somewhere to rest up for the night.
We arrived in Podor, found a garage that was just about to close, managed to buy some coolant for Cherry; and found some rooms in the local Catholic mission hostel.
The courtyard of the hostel was just big enough to stable the cars for the night, which put our minds at rest.
The hostel had a bar, garden furniture for tables and chairs, a TV up in the corner of the room and a large movie poster from Hotel Rwanda. We all felt secure, but the poster was a vivid reminder of the tragedy that parts of Africa has had to endure.
Dinner that night was a good change from the ubiquitous Pot Noodles: bones with a few tendons of meat, and far too much beer.
After a rare, great night's sleep we filled Cherry with coolant, and set off to reach the border. Another long days driving over, we overnighted in Kayes then pushed onwards to Bamako, the capital of Mali, at first light.
The crossing, from Senegal to Mali although long and tedious, was relieved by the diplomatic and negotiation skills of two other members of our team: John & Barbara; honed to perfection by numerous other frontier crossings, we got across without too much difficulty. The smell of rotting fish emanating from the trucks driving to Mali will stay with me for a very long time.
We reached Bamako and on the banks of the River Niger we partook of the pleasures of the Hotel Mande: a restaurant, a bar, a swimming pool, oh'…and best of all, air-conditioned rooms.
After a night of celebration at reaching Bamako, it was decided that nine of the crew would return to the UK that night; three the next day; and seven would go on to Timbuktu.
I had smashed my knee against the car door which left me unable to walk, and rather than going straight home to the UK, I volunteered to stay in Bamako until the rest returned from Timbuktu.
At breakfast Gerry used a Marlboro Lights cigarette carton for a lunch box, which I thought showed great resourcefulness and was also very funny.
Just before first light the crew left in three cars to drive to Mopti and ultimately on to Timbuktu. On the way one of the car's drive shaft broke and it had to be left in the middle of the desert - I later found out that the keys were given to the first guy who passed by.
The guys then doubled up in the two remaining cars and Mopti was reached by mid-afternoon. The next morning they left the tarmac road behind and drove the last corrugated, bone shattering, potholed 90 miles to the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Unlike Major Laing I did not make it to Timbuktu, but I had experienced some of the hardship and ordeals that he had endured: soaring temperatures, difficult travel conditions and injury. But unlike Laing I had lived to tell the tale, and what a tale it is.