Showing posts with label Driving. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Driving. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Budapest to Bamako: Driving the Sahara

The route from France to Freetown

Driving across the Sahara Desert may appear to be an odd thing to do, and perhaps it is. However, in the same way that remote places seem less isolated when visited, driving from Morocco to Sierra Leone seems quite normal as one motors south in the company of other like-minded folks.

Except, of course, in Guinea, but that is another story.

I am not at all sure how this journey really happened; it started, as all good adventures do, in a wine bar. This time, in Tbilisi with my friend Ia Tabagari. She, the most indefatigable woman I have possibly ever met, was itching to go on a long drive, and had found the Budapest to Bamako rally somewhere in the ether. It was, we agreed, a fine idea, and fortified by the fine local wine decided that we should enroll. We didn’t, mostly because the security situation in Mali deteriorated; however, like so many ideas that burrow their way into one’s brain, the idea of the B2B rally refused to budge.



Fast forward a couple of years, and an Australian friend, Alan Wallish, the owner of a fabulous Cairns-based reef operation, Passions of Paradise, and a colleague and friend these thirty years, visited Winnipeg to relieve the boredom of Canada’s West Coast for a few days last summer. The idea was pitched, agreement concluded, toasts drunk and the entry completed. Our participation in the 2020 Budapest to Bamako rally was secure.

Panda and the Ambulance
Adding three additional friends and a 4WD Fiat Panda from the Orkney Islands the package was completed and the countdown was underway. We had purchased an ambulance for the journey, basically on a whim, but with the thought that it would be donated it to a local medical facility in Sierra Leone upon arrival. At this point, observant readers will have noted that Bamako is not actually located in Sierra Leone; this is, of course, true, but due to the security situation in Mali, a new (and considerably harder as it turned out) route to Sierra Leone had been drawn to avoid potential bloodshed.

Spurning the actual start, our idea was to meet in Malaga, as heading from France to Budapest for the start of the rally only to turn around and retrace the 1500 kms seemed a bit daft (even by our standards), so we agreed that the ambulance would be driven to Malaga to await the two Australians and we would continue from there, meeting our Orcadian cohorts in Ceuta. The Orcadians, it should be noted, had decided to drive from those distant, northern isles to Budapest and then on to the south of Spain, arriving in a state of semi-chock. So far so good.

And so the journey started. 

The pace was undeniably hard. The premise of B2B is, of course, a rally, but the inclusion of a “Touring” category, not to mention the “Spirit” category lulled many of us into thinking that there
Breakdown in Tan Tan
would be a slightly gentler route, with some time to enjoy and learn about the countries through which we passed. Alas, this was not to be. The tempo was sprightly, and although the Spirit route did not incorporate many of the rather more rutted and inhospitable terrain the racing 4WDs were challenging, our statelier vehicles still needed to reach camp at nightfall, and time to sightsee, explore of even photograph was very limited. Frankly, some of the roads would be better suited by a convoy of Mars Rovers.

The roads unfurled with the topography. From the smooth and perfectly cambered highways of Morocco passing first through intense agri-business then the High Atlas Mountains and then, as the mountains flattened into craggy plains and desert the roads became straighter and dustier, and finished in accordance with the country’s road-paving budget.

 The Moroccan roads started well, and grew into the mountains; here it Panda 
climbing a steep  run deep in the High Atlas Mountains.

This budgetary disparity was brought sharply into focus some 2,800 kms south of Ceuta at the Moroccan/Mauritanian border. Between the two customs posts, placed some seven kilometres apart, lies the most desolate no-mans-land that I have seen to date. The first two kilometres, presumably Moroccan and finishing at the actual border were paved, the subsequent five, lying now in Mauritania were not, and the way forward simply a vague channel of adventurous rock strewn with a dystopian collection of burned-out cars, trucks abandoned in the pursuit of some insurance swindle or other, and a warning that beyond an unidentified boundary there are land mines.

The Mauritanian border; burned out cars and landmines

We ventured no further than the identified boundary, and following a brief concern that one of our party who was suffering from a hangover, would be identified as a Coronavirus or Ebola carrier due to his elevated temperature, we passed through the gates, passed the border and entered the start, dry and harsh landscape of Mauritania. 

The Sahara is a stark and unforgiving place; its brutality is reflected in the harsh housing, the scrubby animals, the layers of clothing protecting against the ever-blowing sand and the unforgiving sun. It has a beauty, a raw grandeur that embraces the horizon and everything within it; it is a land of strict rules and strict traditions, without which life in this environment would be impossible. 

The desert eventually gave way to Savannah as we approached the Senegalese border, and as we drove farther south, the vegetation grew, the water supplies became more obvious and hints of the
approaching Tropical zone became more apparent.

To see these changes in landscapes was remarkable; to see how the people living throughout the region adapted to their particular circumstances was fascinating; the drive, all 7,150 kilometers of it, was endlessly absorbing and now, as I sit in Freetown trying to collect my thoughts, I look back on the images of the journey with a degree of smugness. 


Driving across the desert was cool! 











Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Budapest to Bamako

The journey so far

West Africa is not the most visited region of the world, and for those who are frustrated by the phenomenon of “overtourism”, it could be an ideal destination. It is a land of geographic and societal contrast, overwhelming space, vast deserts and high, craggy mountain ranges. It is a region with thousands of miles of raw Atlantic seaboard punctuated only by isolated military lookout posts, ever vigilant for the stream of refugees fleeing the poverty of the sub-Sahara.

It is a land of stark contrast, extreme beauty and a harsh living environment that is so alien to those who have the fortune to live in “The West”.

And the Budapest / Bamako rally, started some fifteen years ago by the Hungarian adventurer Andrew Szabo, draws a line through the region, and attracts some 600 folks to give up their comfortable lives for a two-week run through six countries, to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Bamako part of the trip having been abandoned (at least for this year) for security reasons, but the brand lives on.



It is first and foremost a car rally. There is an objective among the racing group of our number to reach way points, speed on to the next and cover the distance, and detours satisfying only to off-road drivers (in off-road vehicles of which an ambulance is decidedly not), and reach Freetown with the highest, or possibly lowest - I have no idea how they count, score.

It is most certainly not a tour.

While I knew the nature of the event before we started, I had made an assumption that those of us not participating in the competitive part of the journey would have more time to explore a little along the way. This, however, has not proven to be the case so far. We have driven long and hard, hard enough to require two new rear shocks and the rejoining of the chassis and the sub-frame that had come apart in Tan Tan, and from early in the morning to dark. Not, I hasten to add, a hardship, because I like driving, but a very different way to experience Africa.

Panda climbing in Morocco
A major advantage is that driving consistently through thousands of kilometres of highway, it is possible to see landscapes unfolding and evolving in front of one’s eyes. The subtle changes of scenery that create the boundaries between topographical systems become obvious, and the different lives of those who are adapting to their environments become alive and immediately noticeable.

To date the journey has taken The Ambulance from Esperaza to Perpignan, where I had to turn around and return because I had left the insurance document on my kitchen table, and then back to Perpignan and south to Gibraltar.

This early start was necessitated by a major computer malfunction, and the thought that if I needed a new one, in Gibraltar I could at least find one with an English keyboard. AS it turned out, the issue was “dirt in a connection to the BIOS battery”, which meant absolutely nothing to me other than the fact that the bill was only £65.

And so, a week later when my two Australian colleagues joined me, we headed across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta lying on the Moroccan coast. There we waited another day for our final colleagues to arrive after driving their Fiat Panda from The Orkney Islands to Budapest and then on to Ceuta.

Then we headed south, crossed the border into Morocco and headed 2,800 kilometres south to the Mauritanian border. Morocco is a very big country indeed, but more of that next time.

Now, it is time for breakfast and onward …



Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Canadian Prairies; Driving the Yellowhead Highway to Yellowknife

How remiss and idle I have been.

I have, in accordance with the Way of Life, been wandering this summer, and notably through Canada. Having left Newfoundland and its unusual dancing, whizzed around the Cabot Trail, and I must say left that iconic drive completely underwhelmed, it was time to head west, and drive to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories

Now the drive from Winnipeg to Yellowknife, some 3,000 kms of deeply predictably highway, can appear to be monotonous. This would be and unfortunate and slightly unkind observation as my friend, the CBC notable Laurie Hoogstraten pointed out. “Meditative is the word you are looking for, Max”, she intoned, “not dull at all”.

The meditative Prairies

She may have a point. The landscapes between here and there is not Alpine; it does, however offer some broad and extraordinary landscapes coloured by the changing sky, the crops and the periodic, brightly coloured farm building. Yellows, Blues, reds and the heavy and dominating black skies of a Prairie storm were all about, and with the wide open plains, visible in a 360° arc that completely encased our car.

The Yellowhead Highway is the main artery to the northwest, and it was on this wonderfully named road that we spent some 1,500 kms passing through the rolling fields of western Manitoba, the agricultural heartland of Saskatchewan (“easy to draw, hard to spell”), and the transitioning landscapes of Alberta.

Farm implements for sale in such numbers; massive, insect-like machines with purposes city-dwellers could only presume lined the side of the highways as we passed through the Prairie farming towns. Endless fields of brightly coloured canola, herds of sunflowers and the rising tide of wheat that would eventually be taken in the early fall. All of this agriculture was quite overwhelming, and visually delightful.

While at first glance, the road was long, straight and scarcely undulating, it was impossible not to feel the overwhelming sense of community that imbues life on the sharp end of production. It is, after all, these men and women living their lives in a thousand  Dog Rivers that feed us all. Trains, three kilometres long, as they passed by one at a level crossing, gave ample time to ponder their cargoes, destinations and the extraordinary process by which seed, water and sun can create billions of tons of produce to be shipped to every corner of the earth.


And once free, and ready to move on, we reached Saskatoon, the slightly quirky and rather pretty city that houses the University of Saskatchewan and straddles the South Saskatchewan River in the centre of the prairie. It is a welcome break, although it was raining so much its charms were mostly washed away, but there are several very good restaurants in town, and the opportunity was taken to celebrate my cousin Jude’s Marker Birthday in some style.

She, my cousin, was it must be said, quite overwhelmed with the available space of the prairie, the relative emptiness of the roads, the sheer quantity of farmland, the mysterious stick-insect-machines that seemed to be so popular, the proliferation of pick-up trucks, the rather unappealing urban-planning represented to us as we drove, grain elevators, and Corner Gas (to which we inevitably introduced her).



 And so the first day passed; the second (1,074kms to Peace River) was not notably different other than the irritating road works, punctuating the meditation, presented by Edmonton clearly trying to sharpen itself up. We turned north; the first real junction of the journey and a good opportunity to test the car’s steering mechanism, and slowly but surely, in the sort of progression that is only visible to those in a car, or perhaps a train, the landscape changed, and on the third day, (945kms - Peace River to Fort Providence) we passed the border into the Northwest Territories, and as we burst across the 60th parallel, so did the sunshine and our introduction to the north was complete as the park rangers immediately offered us a cup of coffee.

The Sunny (and crowded) border

Coffee is the fuel of the north; barely an hour goes by without someone “putting on another pot”, “topping one up”, “reaching for an empty cup” and bemoaning the black liquid’s viscosity. “A bit thick, this coffee” is a common refrain, but there it is, the primary food group of Canada’s territories.

Fort Providence, a community that lies along the Mighty Mackenzie, and until recently was where all land traffic in the summer had to cross by ferry, is compact, slightly buggy, friendly and a fine place to stay overnight before the final 350kms on to Yellowknife.

The Mackenzie River at Fort Providence

 I am, as many well know, an immigrant from the United Kingdom; London is my Home Town and the transition from Britain to Canada interesting. There are, it seems two English people living in Fort Prov (as it is so charmingly diminutised); appearing in the community one day, and declaring that it offered all that was unavailable in Great Britain, they moved. I didn’t meet them, but would love to find out more. Perhaps it was the curious drinking requirements:

The imposing regulations of Ft. Providence

The Last Leg into Yellowknife
And so to Yellowknife, the buzzy, sunny, captivating capital of the Northwest Territories, formerly the North Western Territory (1859), then the North-West Territories (1871) and finally, in a moment of grammatical defiance, the hyphen was dropped in 1912 and the Northwest Territories became the territory that it is not today.



Having been split into two parts in 1999, the eastern Arctic became the Nunavut Territory, and presumably tired of the etymological disturbances of the past centuries, and being underwhelmed by the new names offered as an alternative (“Denedeh”, an Athabaskan word meaning “Our Land” was a strong contender, as was the choice to rename the territory “Bob” according to polls at the time), the title of The Northwest Territories stuck, and the NWT it remains.


A very fine place, and only 3,020 kms from my house in Winnipeg.