Lower Egypt

In 1952, over the oasis town of Siwa, it rained for three hours. In this unprecedented deluge, the entire mud-brick town dissolved back into the desert. Surprised but unperturbed, the inhabitants, using the technique of their grandfathers, re-built the town as it stands today.

Egypt (38)c

Our stay in the super-city of Cairo was drawing to a close. This conurbation of old and current capitals from passing empires, sprawling across the populous delta, holds 20 million people. It is growing at around one million a year, consuming the fertile topsoil for bricks and covering over the farmland. The Nile, which has always defined Egypt’s fate is being driven harder, like an uncomplaining pack-mule.

The big, bleak picture aside, the inhabitants make Cairo as pleasant as it could be. Between the great flyovers and bridges, an easy-going attitude prevails over day-to-day life. This was quite surprising considering the great turmoil that was unfolding on the news. We were welcomed and included into the slow traipse of hawking, haggling, tea-drinking and sitting around. The continuous stock ‘civil disorder’ snapshots had been very effective and we were alone as travellers in a country that depends heavily on tourism. Dejected Nile cruise-boats moored up along the banks, Hotel staff sat, hopeful in bowties and waistcoats and the empty halls of Egyptian museum echoed with the sounds of protest outside.

For me Egypt proved bigger, poorer and heartier than the troubled new Arab-republic I had imagined. Of course, in areas such as the pyramids, we were seen only as a source of cash. We hit these gauntlets headlong, within a defensive bubble, closed to the touts’ cunning gambits. Away from these magnificent tourist traps however, we found the Egyptians had an incorrigible welcoming streak which the troubled times and the abandonment of outsiders had amplified. The lines between business and friendship were completely blurred and the uncertain mixture of hospitality and sales-ploy took a great deal of getting used to. However to remain closed and untrusting is to remain an outsider. Although our friends occasionally lead us into a perfume shop or offered us desert trips, local crafts or hash in convoluted adventures, the majority were happy to sit and share ideas. The one golden rule is not to trust any directions. The people we met were so genuinely keen to help that to admit they didn’t know the way was out of the question. Whilst looking for a hostel, we were confidently pointed in every direction around Cairo for two hours before returning to where we had parked to find the hotel by chance, next to the car.

One night, we found ourselves hopelessly lost amongst dust roads and block houses, searching for the pyramids of Saqara, where we naively hoped to camp. Whilst dithering around a locked gate we were picked up by Mohammed, on holiday to visit his family. He worked as a horse-boy in Sharm-el-Sheik, taking wealthy Russians riding around the dunes. We were tired and suspicious of his enthusiastic offer to take us in, but he persevered. It was the right decision to follow him. That night, after a meal with his family, we sat around a fire on top of a rocky mound of tombs. In the dark, the shadows of the Saqaran pyramids hunched to our South with the otherworldly suggestion of the great pyramids of Giza far to our North.  Six men in heavy robes and casually slung guns, guardians of the ancient site, approached us with foreboding. The leader, distinguished as such by the richest and curliest moustache, stepped forward to investigate. He was at ease by the local boy and after a discussion with the second most magnificent moustache, allowed his troop to join the camp. Our unlikely group sat in a circle far above the encroaching houses drinking tea, swapping cigarettes and comparing facial hair into the small hours.

Egypt (32)

The legacy of millennia, casually evident among the muddle, is all the more impressive considering how Egypt consumes the past. What the all-swallowing desert spared of the overlapping palaces, pillars and towering deities, was exposed to the population, creeping, and tearing like vines; inhabiting and borrowing from the mysterious rubble. Then came the iconoclasts, the chisels of jealous pharaohs and the purge of the new religions. Eventually however, the Christian plaster and Arabic paint peel and crack to reveal the sharp hieroglyphs. Fearful armies and even Napoleon’s cannon have yet failed to tear down the pyramids. Each new captor forces their fleeting mark and is assimilated into the great organic permanency of the Nile people.

In the pleasant suburb of Ma’adi we met a man who would open up the desert for us: Sam, a British ex-pat who among other things, drove a defender and wrote for Land Rover Owner International. As luck would have it, he was planning a weekend expedition into the Western Desert and needed a second vehicle. Among the proposed objectives, Sam proposed descending an escarpment, crossing the Gebel Guhannim dunes toward the al Faiyum Oasis. En route and driving out to the Whale Bone Valley, Sam had offered the Regimental Society of Great Britain to build a memorial cairn for the 1st demolition brigade (known as Popski’s private army after their Belgian commander), who had trained on the challenging terrain with the SAS before engaging Rommel. This plan was explained to us in front of a wall size aviator’s map over several beers. We tried to remain collected and disguise our excitement.

There are two borders that define the nation of Egypt: The political; unbending concepts far out beyond the horizon; and the actual; the distinct point where the narrow, Nile-fed band of living jade suddenly stops. From here you walk out a hundred paces onto a landscape where civilisation is impossible and sustained life a masterpiece of centuries. From here you could be in Libya, the Sudan or 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. You have already crossed the border to where the only distance that really matters is determined by your water and fuel supply.

Having departed Cairo at crack of dawn our convoy joined the clear desert road. Hours of flat gravel were interspersed with the occasional flame of an oil refinery. At a point where the map seemed blank of features, we turned off the road. This experience in itself was liberating; the sudden realisation that one is not confined to the road but can drive freely across the infinite landscape. We followed our lead vehicle for the morning, navigating over soft sand drifts and an increasingly rocky terrain. Our car buried itself in a sand drift to the axel and span hopelessly. Sam advised us to drop the tire pressures and we were amazed to watch our car float off over the sand. Eventually we reached the escarpment.

The patchy, clouds cast a net of silver shafts, scanning over the near and distant layers of rock. The land sunk down to the oasis depression twenty miles away and then chased off into the vanishing Sahara. We found a spot that surveyed this great vista to build the cairn. The two dusty Landrovers, perched on the edge and tiny under the sky, easily evoked the great era of desert exploration. We spared a moment to remember the men who had fought across this landscape, hostile and huge.  By midday our efforts were completed and it was time to descend.

The escarpment was formed of five flat strata with sheer slopes of sand and scree. To drop to the next level, we had to scout out a suitable slope before lining up and plunging down. The edge would disappear under the bonnet and for a lengthy second only the sky and the far horizon would fill the windscreen before the car would tilt and lurch forward. As long as the line was straight, the drifts of sand would slow the momentum. Then we would strafe along the face searching for another drop point.

Egypt (38)a

After descending the final level, we drove for hours across the dudes to a flat expanse covered in fossilised disks, smooth and glaring in the afternoon sun. Throughout the Cretaceous and Eocene eras, the Sahara was a great shallow sea, rich in life. We were headed for a valley where the soft chalk was gradually revealing its secrets. Hundreds of skeletons of ancient sharks, sea cows and pre-historic whales are meticulously brushed free by the winds. We walked the course of petrified mangroves, ladders of vertebra contorted into spirals, serrated jaws and hind legs on their ancestral road to becoming fins. The bones lay in piles on the sand or gradually emerged from the rock face. The sun set as we left the valley silent and still.

Egypt (41)

The Struggle Back to Square One

I am squinting into the midday sun, clinging to the side railings of our Landrover. Crystallized salt burns in the criss-cross cuts in my hands and my eyes no longer focus with exhaustion  I am caked in drying clay that hinders all movement and dexterity  Our car is tilting to roughly thirty five degrees, the maximum point, beyond which it will roll. We have been dragged twenty metres, sliding laterally across an embankment by a tow truck. Despite the contributions of our supposed rescuer, our position is more perilous then ever. The body of our car lurches off the rear left suspension, front right wheel deeply embedded in the sucking clay. In fact all the wheels are axle deep in the cursed mud. If my hands tire and I slip off the railing it may mark the tipping point.

This is the second of the three abysmal low points of our journey so far. They all happened within 24 hours of each other. This is our account. We had spent many hours planning for crime, mechanical failures and natural disasters and but overlooked arguably the greatest threat to our adventure: Ourselves.

Rural Turkey

Rural Turkey

We had left Istanbul as a trio. Having recently been seven, the car seemed quiet and strangely empty. Spirits were high however: We had our ferry tickets to Africa and eight days to enjoy the rest of Turkey. The weather forecast for the central plateau predicted sunny days of 10 degrees with clear nights of -1. Up on the high bridge, in slow traffic, we crossed the obsidian Bosporus into Asia minor. The lights from both sides of the city merged and scattered in the cold water beneath. Istanbul is huge beyond understanding; over eighteen million people sprawling across two continents.

Two hours later we were still among the high-rise suburbs, navigating our vessel through five lanes of undisciplined and unscrupulous competition. Driving in Istanbul is by no means for the faint-hearted. “Lanes” is a word far more generous then the system deserves. Fortunately some belligerent driving from the helm of our hulking, bull barred vehicle* meant we were usually left a wide berth.

Out in the countryside we found a late night roadside diner that not only sold good, hot food but also long-johns, we stripped in the car park and donned layers more fitting for the coming cold. We then completely unpacked and re-packed the car to the inevitable large audience (we are becoming used a life of constant observation and performance). The proprietor, who must have warmed to this industrious farce offered us a wooden pallet. I doubt we would have survived the following nights without the long-johns and the pallet to use as firewood.

Under the midnight moon, we turned off and vanished into the hills. We slept on the platforms inside the car, in a forested hill, underneath radio masts. It took two sleeping bags and fleeces each, to keep out the cold until dawn. The next morning we drove on through the Anatolian plateau of central Turkey. The landscape changed from pine forest into sandy red scrubland. Minarets marked out villages embedded between hill and escarpment. We could now say that, beyond rational doubt, this was no longer England.

Due to a ‘misunderstanding’ with the automated toll barriers we were now unable/not allowed to use the Turkish motorways. However the old road was empty and just as fast when your top speed is sixty. The day drew to a close in the hills to the east of the city. We wound our way through villages where tired, low beamed houses bow under the weight of their tiles and the old men sit and watch. From a distance the whispering grass was interrupted by the roar of our engine and people who went to bed with the sun were brought out of slumber as their baying dogs chased a roaring, diesel monster from their village.

The frigid hills were now dressed sparse with rocky grassland. At one town we found lights in a tea-house and sent Dan to ask for directions. Rich and I neglected to remind him he still wore a head torch and a novelty Fez. After he had marched back, brow furrowed with embarrassment to return his costume, the villagers provided us with a hand-drawn map that showed where we were (which we knew) and where we wanted to go (which we also knew) connected by a straight line. We opted to continue using our own map and pressed on.

The full moon illuminated a winding shepherds’ track up into the hills. Our car scrambled up the dirt until we reached a rounded summit. We cut the engine to ringing silence and turned our headlights off to reveal that it was not night, nor day but timeless in a still and monochrome plane, rolling out to distant horizons. We climbed out of our capsule.

The Chef at Work

The Chef at Work

Bubbles and swirls of jet black twist through the perfect pure-white crust around our wheels. We’re sinking. I jump down off the bonnet into half a foot of clear salt water. Dan’s face is still cheerful. He has just asked me if I want to drive. I garble my realisation, profanities filling every available space. Keep driving. Keep driving. He understands instantly from my blood-drained face and jumps in the car. The engine roars, four wheels fly into a mad spin, the inky blackness spreads out further across what before was a mirror. The car sinks further as Turks yell and gesture fıfty metres away on the shore…

We rose with dawn to see a great swathe of Turkey beneath us, layered horizons fading into the haze. An eagle had began its days work. Its screech and the distant goat bells were the only feature in an expanse of silence. We made breakfast and congratulated ourselves on yet another excellent camp. This hubris proved too much for the fates to leave unpunished…

As we begun our daily inspection, disaster struck. Since a lubricant change in Greece, our rear differential had started slowly dripping oil. Lying on the dusty track I undid the inspection plug, checked the level, which was fine, re-tightened the plug with our breaker bar. I became worried when, after continued turning the plug was still loose in its thread. Confident in the knowledge that the piece fitted, I decided to give one further turn. As I eased the final turn there was a horrifying click and the plug slipped through the cast iron casing into the Diff.

I knew this was bad. A loose component among the complex gearing would blow the differential unit as soon as we tried to drive it, rendering our car immobile. I waited a moment before gathering the courage to inform the group. The load shared, we analysed the problem: Any attempts to move would destroy the drive chain to our rear wheels. The only way we could move would be to remove the half shafts (wheels), drive shaft and limp on to Ankara for help (at great expense and expertise. We needed to get that plug out. Our parts manual revealed a removable inspection panel, hidden on our car by the rust. If we could break the ten ancient and accustomed bolts, drain the lubricant and free the panel then we would be able to move off the mountain.

We took our turns lying flat on our backs with a wrench, heaving the stubborn bolt-heads. Each person would expend their energy and retire blinking out the dirt and rust to allow a fresh attempt. Silently, the doubt grew as to whether the panel was movable at all under the amorphous crust. The bolts were moving however and one by one, with the patience of those with no alternative, the ten holes we had pushed into cardboard to house the bolts were filled.

The three of us lay flat carefully inspected the casing, caressing the seam. We then struck it with a lump hammer. The panel split off like a flake of desert rock. Inside the oiled mechanics we revealed. Sitting among the gears was our culprit. We designed a new gasket from the card cover of our now obsolete Europe road map and began to put everything back together. It was afternoon, on a day which we had needed to put a solid eight hours driving in, when we eventually trundled off the mountain. However we drove a working car. Never had it felt so good to be back to square one.

The next destination on our long map was the salt lake of Tuz Golu. We made excellent time and our spirits rose and we held steady on the long, straight road. Our arrival at the lake was announced by the disappearance of the visible horizon. All we could see was the pink sky and the setting sun in double. Giddy and disorientated we steered our car toward the first possible slipway. We scouted the path down onto the perfectly smooth salt flat and were anxious about what we found. There was a moat of boggy clay about twenty metres wide separating us from the salt, that underfoot, felt like asphalt. The shimmering mirages beckoned, we threw our caution to the breeze. The last thing Dan said as he gathered the revs was,

“Are we all on board with this?”

The last thing I said was,

“Just hit it really fast.”

We gouged about twelve metres of axle-deep trenches before our momentum ceased and the wheels span us down to rest our chassis evenly on its earthy bed.

Thus began our great struggle. Looking back at the first hours, I realise how much we learnt about getting a car unstuck. Whilst there was still some light to work by, we tenuously picked our way through the salty mud, trying not to get our trousers muddy, gathering and placing rocks behind each wheel. I don’t think we realised how severe our situation was. The strange clay was the consistency of plasticine and stuck in great cakes to everything. A brick dropped into the sharp-scented bog needed a great heave to release it from the suction. Each thrust of the shovel strained our backs before the ground gave up its load with a reluctant, inward belch. The all-terrain tyres were slicked smooth and oily.

Stuck Again!

Stuck Again!

It took us an hour to discover that the rubble we were filling the tracks with was only hindering the tiny progress we had made back to Terra Firma by chocking the wheels. By now were caked in the mud, our hands fat and slippery on the shovel handle.  At this point we employed our sand ladders and wood planks. With continued digging and pushing under head torches we gradually clawed our way back to within a few feet of the slipway. Always, there would be one troublesome wheel spinning away our power *2.

The narrow earth slipway entered the mire at an angle to the car. We knew that we had to turn the car, in the next big push to hit the safe ground for on the other side was a deeper and soggier expanse to envelope us if we overshot. Sand ladders in position, Dan, who had remained the driver throughout engaged the wheels with measured throttle. The wheels caught and we hauled ourselves from our binding. Things happened quickly then. The momentum continued, the downhill wheels span and the bank collapsed. Tired beyond emotion we watched as we smeared a track down into the other side.

We could only press on. Dan, the least muddy, walked off towards civilization for food to raise spirits. In a nearby service station, the occupants gasped as a muddy, bearded man, wrapped in a blanket and a furry hat strode toward the bread rolls. With angry shouts the drove the vagabond out. It took a lot of explaining and convincing before he was allowed to buy food. With increased skill but empty energy reserves we continued edging our way across to mud-flat.

It was around midnight when I was roused from a world of digging by strange men shining torches in my eyes. We dropped our shovels to see Dan, standing behind three uniformed men with sub-machine guns. Dan had managed not only to source food but to persuade the reluctant police chief of a nearby town to come and help.

The car was rigged up with cable as our attempts to help were sidelined. We watched as their truck screamed and the cable tightened. One back wheel came over the slipway’s edge. They hit full power and our two ton red box lurched sideways, front wheels spinning huge ditches in the bog. Unperturbed, they dragged us in this awkward position for twenty meters before their tow-bar snapped. We were now leaning, stuck with one wheel high up on the slipway’s side and the others deep in mud. Our position was worse than ever as the police, shuffling and looking at their feet, muttered apologies and left. Totally drained we gave up and pitched camp. That night, the world span with fatigue. I dreamed that I was sinking in a swamp, being enclosed in the moist ground.

We were awoken by the sun and climbed out to be reminded that we had chosen a beautiful place to get stuck. The lake was shimmered the morning light. We had breakfast and got back to work. Rich was able to fix our previously broken high lift jack as I dug a deep pit for the hand winch to anchor. It was nearing midday when Dan arrived with a confident looking man and, more importantly, a tow truck.

Again, without any heed to our advice or help they pressed on rigging up the car. Again the car was dragged sideways as the angle reached tipping point. We started to hang off the side as it began to look critical. The driver’s response was only to rev harder. Furious and desperate, we shouted him to stop and think. He looked upset but stopped, studied the situation then sulkily re-rigged at a more favourable angle.

With four people hanging off the side, the car gave a final lurch, teetered on the brink and then began to slowly tilt back towards the flat as a second wheel cleared the edge. We were free.

After we had washed in the salt-saturated lake, we then had an important discussion. We had located a clay free route down to the water’s edge. So far, we had been defeated by this lake. Rich was reluctant. We had no food, no money and no energy were we to get stuck again. However,  there was no mud to be found. We decided to go for it, with Dan still at the wheel. We edged down to the lake and into the water, the ground was firm beneath us as we gained confidence slicing through the shallow water.

It was only when we stopped, far out from the coast did I spot our deepening tracks and it dawned on me that we had cracked the thin layer of salt and were sinking. It was too late however. The first flurry of activity ended with four wheels pressed through the sharp edges of four black holes. The soft clay beneath the crust, like the chocolate of a melted smartie, wasn’t holding our weight and we continued to sink. There was no towing from this far out. Dan, on the brink of despair whispered apologies to Rich. This despair only lasted a long moment.

With any badly stuck car, one’s chances of getting out tend to decrease with every attempt of escape. We had the added problem of what was essentially, quicksand. If we had any chance at all, we had to get it right first time. Had we not gathered the experience we had during catastrophe number two, I doubt we would managed. We would have had to salvage what we could and the dark silhouette of our wrecked car would have become a tourist attraction.

I scrambled up onto the roof and handed the newly-repaired high-lift jack down to Rich, who was able to lift each wheel out of its hole high enough to be filled with a sand ladder or a wooden plank. Everything now rested with Dan.

“Showtime mate,” said Rich as our driver gingerly climbed behind the wheel.

All I remember of the next few minutes was pushing desperately whilst I was sprayed with brine. The wheels span, caught, span and caught. At full-throttle our car lifted out of the abyss like an angered beast and jumped forward. It smashed fresh holes in the salt with a splash but the momentum carried it through. Then I was standing by Rich. Dan did not take his foot off the accelerator until he was on solid concrete. When we eventually caught up with him, we had to prize his white knuckles off the steering wheel.

We silently packed up and drove off on solid tarmac to Cappadocia.

Salt Lake Serenity

Salt Lake Serenity

* 1. I imagine that, to the original designers of the Defender, the concept of ‘crumple zones’ was as inconcevable as the internet or a smoking ban in pubs

*2. For those not familiar with the world of off-roading, drive (power) is like electrical charge and follows the least resistance, so a wheel spinning takes all the drive out of a car. ‘Differential lock’ partially solves this but power still escapes if two wheels are spinning.

Bosnia, into Croatia and a new recruit (part one)

If there is such a thing as simplicity in life, I have yet to find it. I had lamented over how previous life was filled to bursting with work, emails, social commitments, an over-stretched fleet of interests and ambitious future plans.

“On this great journey we can live day to day, we can read books and write and develop new skills” we excitedly echoed to each other.

We packed a large bag of fact and fiction. We armed ourselves with pens, pencils paper and cameras to record our experiences. We moved and rested through Europe, developing a routine. Despite the efficiency we learned as we went, each clean white day became blotted out by tasks, jobs and unforeseen obstacles. Waking, packing, securing three meals, fixing, apprehending, experiencing, befriending and finding/making a new home; our allocated units of time were quickly spent. Any other spare time tended to be spent firefighting, be it fixing a mechanical fault, replacing stolen equipment or putting out the cooking fire. For the time being, our book bag remains largely untouched. Hopefully the large expanses of Africa will find space for our grand objectives.

It was getting dark as we passed through rural Serbia en route to the Bosnian border, memories of the warm hospitality and beautiful women of Belgrade still fresh in our minds. The radio blared out back-to-back 80s power ballads (as Serbian stations invariably do) giving us an edgy sense of purpose. Squat, functional houses lined the village streets. There were few people about. The border appeared around the bend as a bright, strip-lit gate, beaming out across the unremarkable lowland. Silhouettes of border police paced, stamping out the cold and awaiting the occasional vehicle. We in turn were stamped out of Serbia with a smile and a stare that we have become accustomed to. We drove the two kilometers of no-man’s-land to Bosnia, wondering with interest how the people who live on this stretch get their post.

There was tense atmosphere as our passports were examined. We were given an incomprehensible command from the (admittedly cordial) official. This eventually clarified into ‘green card’, an insurance document. Back in Britain Rich had been assured by our insurance company’s call centre, a lady who had the rushed air of somebody who just wanted to make a simple sale and get him off the phone, that green cards had been phased out and were not needed. This is not the case in former Yugoslavia, or indeed much of distant Europe.

When confronted with such a border problem, one has a few options: 1. Smile on whilst ruffling through papers and files, producing other unhelpful documents 2. Furrow your brows and ask the same questions again in different forms in the vain hope the answer will change with the phrasing 3. Stare blankly and don’t say anything. The hope is that eventually they’ll realise you are some kind of moron rather than an enemy of the state, get bored and let you through. Stuck as we were in no-man’s-land, unable to go forward or back, these were our only real options.

After a period of blank staring the policeman sighed and pointed to the police station where we could arrange a temporary document. All it cost was 40 euros.

“Ah. yes. Do you happen to take cards?” we hazarded. Obviously not.

“All of you are travelling without cash?” they asked, flabbergasted.

“Ummm, Yes?” we sheepishly explained

We had just blown all our Serbian currency at the last petrol station. We tried to explain this as we were passed up the hierarchy of border guards. We returned to the car and rummaged together some pounds, a few euros and even received a donation from a kindly businessman driving through. It wasn’t nearly enough. After about an hour, in a quiet office one of the disparing chiefs took our grubby notes and handed us the papers, looking the other way. We drove into Bosnia.

Sarajevo was still a long way off, hiding in the hills. After an hour the drab, straight streets of the eastern lowlands wound into wooded hills, the temperature dropped and the hours passed. “This would have been a great drive to do in the day” Rich noted as the hot diesel engine chewed its way up another mountainside. Sarajevo opened up beneath us all of a sudden. The valley was carpeted by a thousand orange glows, like a cooling lava flow. We engaged the rushing traffic, used a bad map to good effect and found a hostel in the centre.

A typically refined gentleman in Sarajevo, enjoying a coffee in the sun. Pigeons scatter the square and a war graveyard, one of many, lies beyond in the rising hills.

A well-dressed, refined old man and his kindly wife welcomed Guy and I in as the others fended off the enraged taxi drivers from the rank we had straddled. The place was an amazing three storey Austro-Hungarian town house, adorned with paintings and wood furniture. I ran my hands along the keys of a walnut, Viennese Grand piano. It was badly out of tune.

“Four years of winter’s freezing damp without fuel to heat the house. A lot of nice things were lost in the siege” the old man sighed.

He cheerfully changed the subject, showing me his old skis used in the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and some Edwardian tennis rackets.

In the light of day, the city’s harrowing recent history was revealed. For almost four years the city was cut off by the Bosnian Serbs. Relentlessly shelled, rocketed and stalked by snipers, its populous were trapped with sparse food and water, no electricity or fuel. Nearly 12,000 killed, 56,000 wounded and a city virtually leveled. Despite the rebuilding efforts many of the buildings, especially in the suburbs, remain in ruins or are scarred with bullet and shell holes. Amongst it all, life carries on: The Bosniaks and other residents of the city are cheerful, charismatic and warm. Shops ply their trade, mosques announce the call to prayer, mothers play with children, and old men sit out in the sun with coffee.

I was totally enchanted by the place. The cultural influences of Austro-Hungarian refinement mixed with Ottoman luxury and religion makes the Bosniaks totally unique. We spent hours in tea shops and coffee terraces talking with the locals. The war is still fresh in everyone’s memory, there is still a huge burden of displaced and damaged people but there are also new worries about Bosnia’s floundering economy. They talk about it all in slightly sing-song fatalistic tones, sipping delicious Turkish coffee.

We went out that night. Beers were swilled with exaggerated gestures of friendship all round. We went to a nightclub, which had once been a dance hall. The crowd was friendly and the music good. We noticed the curious tendency, upon starting-up conversation with a girl or group of girls, that a large man would soon be looming around nearby. It appeared they all had minders. When we had met half the nightclub and shown of the latest and best dance moves from the UK we were ready for a Kebab, something the people of Sarajevo have mastered.

During our third night the four of us wandered the empty sunday streets to clear our heads before bed. We stopped on  a street corner by one of the bridges. we watched the water and talked for a time. As we were heading of we read a plaque on the corner building. We had been standing on the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assasinated almost a century ago: ‘The shot that echoed around the world’ and triggered the web of international alliences to activate, beggining the great war.

When our days in the city were done we drove out along the infamous ‘sniper alley’, past the airport made famous by war journalism in the 90s, and out through the southern suburbs. The tower blocks we pock marked with holes, some bricked up, some still with open wounds spreading across the plaster like splattered paint. There were many abandoned villages in the nearby countryside.

We wound south all day through the hills and mountain passes that funneled the wind to such a force as to almost bring our heavily laden land-ship to a stand still. We arrived at the famous Ottoman bridge of Mostar for lunch and pressed on into another pass.

The journey to Croatia was relatively unmemorable. The land became more arid. It was dark and suddenly the land plunged away to the sea. The thin strip of land that is southern Croatia is separated from Bosnia by a towering and acute wall of rock. It was this escarpment that we were now descending. We reached split and engaged the usual hostel-unpacking-posing-locking-food-beer sequence. It would be here that we would pick up our new recruit…

To be continued…

Serb Your Enthusiasm

‘You’ll pretty much just need your flip flops and board shorts Guy’… This was the advice given to me from my brother, Sebastian, prior to joining the three intrepid doctors for the first several months of the trip through Europe and Turkey. For some reason these words have echoed in my mind, in between the shivers and teeth jitters, during some of the coldest journeys of our trip. Aside from some sub-temperature camping in German and Czech woodland, the two most notable occasions have been, firstly, the southward ascent from Graz, Austria, into snowy Slovenia and secondly the long trip from Ljubljana, Slovenia, via Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia.

The Land Rover, which at 20 years of age stands at only two years my junior, is undoubtedly a fine vehicle, one which leaves strong impressions – turning heads and leaving mouths agape in our wake nearly everywhere we drive. However, with the smooth comes the rough. One of the quirks includes the capriciously precarious doors, adorned with rust and a matrix of holes that provide ample breathing (influx of freezing air) and excellent water provision (streams of icy water flowing onto ill-prepared footwear). These features came into their most pronounced state during the coldest and wettest of the journeys.

In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, we spent two nights. The trip into the city had allowed us to experience the shock of snow, we had taken turns in one of our seats, the back passenger seat rearward of the driver, which has been branded the ‘sarcophagus’. This punishing abomination is the clear short straw of the car. It is unable to be opened, at mercy to the elements and with about as much space as a hamster cage, the icy air and cramped conditions leave you with borderline hypothermia. This is not to mention the remaining shards of glass from the previous break ins that crop up from time to time to remind you of your misery. However, now that we have entered Turkey and reached the warmth of Mesopotamia, having basked in Greek sun for quite a while previously, these issues have been of little further concern.

In Ljubljana I had managed to send off some couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing .org) requests for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and our next destination. Luckily enough for us, one of my couch requests was successful. Two very kind Serbian girls, Andrijana and Marija, had agreed to accept us for the night. This was a fairly mammoth request, especially for their parents, given that we were four British men whom they had never met, and that they had already hosted 17 people that month.

The author overlooking the Sava in Belgrade.

With a rendez-vous arranged in Belgrade for 8pm, we set off at 11am giving us what we saw as a wide-berth time allowance for unforeseen delays (which are largely considered as inevitable, the Google Maps estimate times by 2 usually does the trick). The long drive went into the evening with temperatures dropping to considerable lows. Subsequently, starting with the poor ‘sarcougphigated’ one (this trip has coined considerable new terminology and grammar), we all one by one started to adorn ourselves with hats, blankets and anything with any vague heat retaining ability. As we bumbled along the headlights ominously started to flicker… out they went. This led to a long delay as we endeavoured to fix the electronics at a run-down mountain petrol station, after much effort and the clock worryingly ticking over, Rich had secured some lights, but with the full beam only. We got back on the road met with angry flashes from every vehicle we passed.

Crossing the Croatian border into Serbia was an on-edge affair to say the least, with no indicators and only full beam, wrapped up in strange hats (I, sporting a bright fluorescent beanie we had acquired, and Dan a fury Russian hat), covered in blankets, we somehow managed some nervous smiles and murmured some poorly formed serbo-croatian hellos to the surly border guards. We successfully entered Serbia with great relief.

Considerably behind schedule, we met the lovely Marija and Andrijana, who had been waiting for us at the central station in Belgrade. We proceeded to their house, which was in neighbourhood called Kumotaz, a 20 min bus ride out of the centre. On arrival their mother, who supplied us with some well-needed nourishment, welcomed us. It was at this point that we were informed that the father of the house was in the automotive repair profession – our hearts jumped and eyes widened, we were all thinking the same. What a stroke of luck.

We stayed there for the longest we had stayed anywhere up until that point. This had been due to us usually getting itchy feet after staying somewhere for a couple of days, because of time constraints and accounting for car problems. The longer stay here allowed us to gain a deeper feeling for the place –at the home, the neighbourhood and into the city.

The hospitality in the household was superb. Serbian culture dictates that the chores of the household, such as helping in the kitchen, are no place for a man, and neither are such activities suitable for a guest. Unfortunately, the double whammy of our being both male and guest was not conducive to the manner in which we lived up to our stereotypes as bumbling English gents. Our persistent attempts to help out were met with fierce reprisals and subsequent cowering retreats back to a sedentary state, this cyclical affair occurred frequently, to the detriment of both parties, until we finally got the point. A similar issue occurred with portions and meals, with a typically British attitude we found it hard to say firmly that we had had enough; this led to back-to-back hefty and delicious meals, most often rendering us both satisfied and incapacitated.

Overall, Belgrade left us with lasting impressions. The city itself was both energetic and stunning – walking up to the Belgrade Fortress and the Kalemegdan Park which overlook both the city and the conflation of the Danube and the Sava rivers, at sunset, and experiencing one of our bests nights out of the trip, at the nightclub ‘Plastic’ – which looks dilapidated and slightly war-torn on the outside but has an impressive interior and world-leading sound system inside – were just some of the highlights. Having the delightful Bogunovic family home as our base enhanced these experiences ten-fold and gave us an insight to Serbian life.

We set off from the family home to hugs, kisses and fond farewells, into the night and onward to another Serbian city, Novi Sad, in high spirits and with working indicators and headlights, a mind-blowing novelty that meant we no longer had to lean out the window and wave vigorously whenever we needed to turn anywhere.

Novi Sad took us somewhat by surprise. Arriving quite late, tired and hungry, at around 11:30pm, we were greeted with Saturday’s thumping bars and a slightly wild-west overflowing nightlife on all visible areas of the streets. We parked up after some complex navigation and a surly looking stocky man with a shaved head and a black trench coat immediately accosted us. He assured us protection for our vehicle if he were paid sufficiently, we were unsure as to whether this was a threat or a guarantee. With only two hostels in our guidebook (which had clearly been written only for summer visitors), we parked up with the surly man ominously lingering around our vehicle getting worryingly frustrated with us. Dan and I set off to find the evasive/non-existent hostels, leaving Bass and Rich to deal with the Serbian mafia. After having little success with one of the elusive addresses, which led us down endless back alley drinking holes, up 6 flights of stairs, and into the home of a bewildered family, we eventually found the second one, ‘Downtown’.

Downtown was without a doubt the strangest hostel I have ever been, run by the comic duo of ‘The Manger’ and his brother. Although at first it is hard to gage, this interactive pair are indeed very friendly, if you’ve come to hostel for some peace and quiet, however, you will be greatly disappointed. With our now well-practiced division of labour, Rich and Dan set off to park the car securely, with the break-ins of Prague and Bratislava etched into our minds, whilst Bass and I started cooking. The long-haired Manager, a forty-something ex-serviceman-turned-hippy, is present 24/7 except when he naps leaving his brother, a bald chap who refers to The Manager in nearly every sentence he utters, takes over. This meant he was present in the kitchen/foyer/reception/Manager’s bedroom area during the cooking of our Thai curry. ‘Eeeh! Jamie Oliver’ he smirked at us as he put his arm on my shoulder and started to take charge of the cooking, I glanced at Bass uneasily as he proceeded to pour a cup of water in what we were trying to lightly fry. Bass had a look of despair. ‘I’m not your mother eh, in the army I cooked for 4000 people’ The Manager reiterated as he continued to take charge, assuming that he was saving our meal – neither of us dare intervene.

I realised Bass, who is extremely averse to having people intervene with his cooking, had reached breaking point when, after the Manager had briefly subsided, I commented that at least the flavour would be OK, it was just the texture we had wanted that would be compromised. ‘NO Guy, the flavour is exactly what is ruined, forget the bloody texture. We might just get some nutrients, maybe, out of this’ he snapped.

Fortunately the meal turned out to be delicious, much beer was drank and we abruptly realised it was now 1am, despite the necessity to wake up early we decided we had to utilise the thriving party vibe of the city and went out to ‘The London Underground’ bar/club, somewhere it felt quite strange asking for directions to, and a few other venues.

The next day we went to see the Novi Sad Castle, location of the famous Exit festival, and then set off for Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Guy Wallace

Austria: hospitality, sarcasm and the dangers of group psychology

We left Bratislava across the Danube. I was excited to cross this great river that has always formed one of history’s most significant borders. Looking across the misty banks, I could picture anxious  roman legionnaires at the limits of civilisation, surveying the dark, endless unknown  from their walls. As we crossed over the space-age soviet bridge, I imagined we were spies being traded by the superpowers  like chess pieces, across the iron curtain.

Our impressions were immediately set on a positive course as we stopped for coffee in a fortified town where a kind bystander furnished us with a landrover part dealer’s details . As we drove the surprisingly short hour to Vienna the sun came out, the warm air flooded through our recently smashed window and we were soon distracted by a picturesque riverbank. After an impromptu picnic, we basked, threw a ball around and took photos before realising we were now drastically late to meet our friends in Vienna.

This is a good opportunity to  write about our travelling ‘fiascos’ and how they occur.  Dan, Rich, my brother Guy and I would like to think of ourselves as functioning, relatively efficient adults, capable of solving problems and making autonomous decisions. We have all individually travelled in Europe and Africa before. However, as a group, we repeatedly seemed to run late, drive off with equipment unattached, forget key times or overlook important requirements for borders. Admittedly, the speed we were travelling, the complicated transfer of our equipment from car to tent to hostel as well as the huge amount we tried to fit into each day left us exposed to mistakes. However, every mistake seemed to follow a similar pattern. Analysis of each fiasco revealed that each group member had  assumed that someone else was on top of it. Often we had discussed the emerging problem beforehand but had not quite reached the point of preventative action. Furthermore the group had a tendency to exaggerate the prevailing mood. For example, when the mood was jovial everyone would read from the other that there was nothing to worry about, even as the car was towed, we became lost etc.
I can candidly criticise in the past tense because I feel there is a story in how we have become a functioning team, fit (hopefully) for Africa. From Bratislavan break ins to being stranded on the Serbian/Bosnian border without any currency, Europe has been a much needed teacher.

The four of us are all Generals. We are quick to take charge and delegate rolls. However none of us mind being absolved from decision making and simply given orders. The group member with the most vision or energy at the time tends to become team leader. We realised that one person with a set task such as shopping, works far more effectively then the four of us standing around debating the choice of cheese or passionately arguing the ingredients of a carbonara. We developed a dynamic whereby each person volunteers or is quickly assigned a role or responsibility. Arrival and departure have become particularly slick. The car pulls into a new destination and almost without a single word one person will stride off to negotiate a hostel (or pitch the tent) one person will climb onto the roof, one person will unload the inside luggage and then one person  will cook supper whilst the others securely park and lock the car. The golden rule being that if you mention an idea or spot a developing problem it is your responsibility to act on it until you delegate it to a specific person.

Friends we have met have been surprised by the blunt, businesslike way we behave toward each other when on the move. There is indeed a military feel to our economy of words and lack of pleasantries. We talk in a staccato series of orders, ‘affirmatives’ or ‘negatives’. In actuality there have been very few arguments and the level of trust runs high. The famous cry of ‘eyes’ when pulling into the outside lane, for example, confers responsibility to check for overtaking cars to the navigator.

We had been put in contact with Tanja, a medical student, via a friend from Cornwall. She kindly offered to put us up in her room in the centre of Vienna where she lived with three other students. We arrived in a blur of frantic activity. I can only imagine the first impression we made. Our vast mass of luggage was hauled out of our insecure vehicle into Tanja’s room. We then divided into cooks and mechanics. Guy and Dan somehow, through continuous bickering and infighting produced a masterpiece in the kitchen, whilst Rich and I splayed our tools out across the pavement, donned head torches and busied ourselves creating a new Perspex window. Unfortunately Tanja had to leave for the weekend but left us in the excellent company of her housemates Ruth and Shiva (? Spelling). I can only imagine what they thought about our sudden invasion but they certainly did a good job as hosts. Soon the beer and wine were flowing and we were well prepared for the rigors of a Viennese night out.

The Viennese  were  friendly, laid-back and witty. Our British tendencies for ironic insincerity, self-deprecation and plummy wordplay were all matched. Their English was embarrassingly good compared to our rough collection of broken languages.

We stayed for three brilliant days, the second being a large national holiday. Vienna is an impressive sprawl of grand baroque and neo-classicist buildings. Marble columns rise up and deities gaze down on every street. Palaces and universities dominate orderly squares. This imperial city  was fittingly adorned by the large scale military parades that were taking place.

The addition of four chaps and a car full of luggage was clearly demanding on the house, especially the plumbing. Despite our best amateur plumbing efforts, first the kitchen sink,  then the bathroom and finally the shower became blocked (this is probably due to a central fault rather then any misuse of the facilities). Matters reached a head one morning as Dan was showering, plunger in hand, in order to force the water down a reluctant plug hole. Guy was brushing his teeth the other side of the curtain when the washing machine began to empty. This regurgitated water up into the bathroom sink which began to brim. Guy grabbed a small paper cup, sounded the alarm and began to bail. Poor Ruth, who came to investigated was greeted by the sight of my brother frantically sloshing dirty water into the shower, all over a desperately plunging and naked Dan. A flood was narrowly avoided.

The following night, Shiva took us to a party to which he himself had a tenuous invitation. We were early to arrive and were greeted at the door by the host. After we explained that we weren’t the band and that we were actually temporary lodgers of a friend of a friend, we were asked to take our shoes off, add our beers to the communal stash and come in. It was an intimate party and we were quite conspicuous and awkward. However, we soon got to know some of the partygoers. We met Natascha, a curator from the Viennese MuseumsQuarter. Despite the late night, she kindly promised to show us around the following day before we set off. We were only slightly late.

We had our own expert guided tour of the modern art exhibitions and installations, meeting some of the artists themselves. The museum offers the opportunity for international artists to live for free within the complex for up to three months whilst they work on a project. For more than a moment I considered taking up a post and living the exciting life of an artist in Vienna. As I currently have relatively few ideas for a large scale modern art project that the world is ready for, I decided to continue on our journey.
The weather was changing for the worse. We planned to head for the city of Graz that evening. Ruth worked hard phoning around the people she knew in order to find us a place to stay. We we’re to be the guests of Melissa and Karin, two sisters studying at the university. Our tour of Vienna’s art had made us a little late. We drove on to Graz in the dark being battered by a tremendous storm. Water flooded into out leaky vehicle as we shivered onward. Our electrics continued to misbehave with the the indicators failing and the headlights having sporadic tantrums. Having studied the wiring diagrams and checked throughout for short circuits it appeared there was no easy explanation for the problems and that they were either multi-factorial or due to a malevolent evil spirit that now possessed our vehicle. Having the car exorcised remains on the to do list.

Our hosts had patiently waited up for us to cook for them. We arrived cold and damp to a welcome of warmth and hospitality. After a hearty meal, we were given the option of a nearby house party. It was Saturday night and despite the lingering fatigue Vienna had induced, we headed out. The party was friendly, buzzing and crowded. At one point there was a power cut and to fill the silence we all began to sing the shanty, ‘South Australia’. This seemed to go down well apart from the fact that everyone now thought we were from Australia and had decided to sing some kind of alternative national anthem.

The following day was crisp and autumnal as we walked up to a viewpoint to gaze over the beautiful, small city and the mountains behind. It began to snow.
After a goulash, we packed, said a fond goodbye to our hostesses and departed. Ahead of us across the mountains and the oncoming blizzard awaited Slovenia.

Czechsas Chainsaw Massacre (Dan’s Adjective-Saturated Masterpiece)

Well what is there to say about Prague? I suppose most of what went on in Prague must inevitably stay in Prague. There was our first burglary, brilliant Belgians, pedunk-a-dunk, free beer and two midgets in a cage. The rest is unutterable.

Weary, bleary eyed and slightly sheepish we left the capital of Czech and struck out towards Bratislava in Slovakia. We made it deep into sparsely inhabited Czech countryside before the sky began to darken forcing us to search for a camp. Among the indistinct pixels of our SatNav we noted a big blue splodge nearby and set a bearing for it. As the roads narrowed and tarmac gave way to root and mud we found our small car symbol within touching distance of the blue splodge but could see nothing resembling water and our way was blocked by padlocked barriers, fire pits and recently hewn trees. It was apparent that this area was actively being logged and strictly “verboten”. With the sniff of adventure in our noses we cut off the track into the woodland and with some careful driving we managed to pick a path through the tree stumps and thicket down to the edge of our target.

Brushing aside some low foliage we at last burst out onto a spellbinding scene. The lake we had found stretched out before us silver and endless in the mist. The cold sun shone off its surface and rose in a polished haze to veil the distant highlands. We made camp quickly and furnished our roof platform with chairs and table.

From our lofty perch, Czech beer in hand, we sat to soak up the dying light. Then in the subsequent gloom we cooked and ate by the light of our fire. Fed in ambitious style with an excellent lentil curry masterminded by Bass we decided to scout the area to see if the tiny town we had driven through held a pub. We bundled into the landie, the sleeping platform was erected in the back forcing Bass and I to travel into town like a couple of stiffs in the back of a jolly red hearse. After a little maneuvering out of the woods we soon found just the place. Heads turned as we entered. The sleepy spot clearly had not entertained tourists for some time.

Despite its being Wednesday night the pub was buzzing with conversation, grand gesticulation and bawdy laughter. I made my way to the bar. I ordered four beers from the barmaid, a thick set, weathered woman with the surly Slavic affect we had come to expect from the Czech service industry.  All French and German words useless here, I did so using the traditional method of jabbing one finger at the tap whilst holding up and waving four more fingers from my other hand. This appeared to work.

 I waited for my drinks but was waved away with an irritable gesture. Apparently our barmaid prefers to bring our beers to the table. This she did by deftly dancing her way through a gauntlet of ribald shouts and hearty slaps that shook her stalwart behind. She responded to her friendly hazing with smiles, winks and wiggles. Next time I order a round in Czech I must remember to accompany it with a firm clout across the rear, as this local custom seemed to be received far better than my attempted politeness.

Around us was a range of professions; mechanic, postman, farmer, all in their uniforms, straight from work. The farmer, a boxy man with hands of wood, took to investigating our presence in his pub. At least I imagine that is what he was doing as the conversation consisted simply of a smiling patter back and forth of Czech and English statements equally mysterious to one party as to the other. Despite the cheapest beer of the trip so far we soon ran out of Czech crowns and headed back to our glass lake for sleep.

At 8 the following morning we were awoken all at once by the distant sound of diesel engines. All four of us leapt from our sleeping bags and stood in silence trying to determine from which direction the sound came. Rich quickly noted, “it is getting louder, they are coming towards us”. We paused a moment longer; he was right. We set about frantically packing up the camp, table chairs, tools, stove.  Half finishing jobs and changing to another, we weren’t going to make it, the rattling of engines was upon us, less than 30 yards away and it stopped. Silence followed. We too stopped, Czech voices barked from the other side of the thicket and the groan of engines was replaced with the whir and buzz of chainsaws. We quietly but quickly put out the fire and packed the remains of our camp then sat in the car to plan our escape. It would be necessary to drive out past the lumberjacks. These were big Czech men with chainsaws and we were trespassers. We had to plan our escape to the finest detail to avoid death or mortal injury at the hands of these crazed woodsmen.

We waited through several pauses in the whine of blade on bark before starting our engine and making a frenzied break for it. We crashed though the thicket, bumping and rolling over the stumps and bracken. The Czechs shouted furiously as we passed and we yelled incoherently back at them. We skidded back onto the dirt track and made off as fast as the road would allow. We breathed a sigh of relief as we hit the first stretch of tarmac road and sped towards the Slovakian border, the whirr of steel still ringing in our ears.

Daniel Nuth

Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany

“It was the best of times, it was the würst of times” Daniel Nuth

That day we arrived in the city of Brugge in time for lunch and a wander around. The weather was melancholy, the indicators still didn’t work and the wobble we had noticed since replacing our transfer box was worryingly present.  On the plus side, the architecture was mind-blowing. We pushed on to Brussels and checked into a nice warm hostel to raise morale.

Brussels is a fun and laid-back city. I am continually amazed at how late people go out on the continent, and stay up all night. The locals only start heading out at midnight and everywhere seems open until dawn. What seemed like a reasonable check out time the evening before arrived seemed draconian when it arrived. Nevertheless we drove on to the city of Maastricht.   Here we were to experience the splendid hospitality of an old travelling friend of Rich’s.
Andrea and her boyfriend put us up in their living room. The four of us took up a huge amount space. Like a napoleonic army, we decamped over their living room with luggage, damp towels, tools and bedding. Fortunately, the house was warm and there was no need to make  a fire. We spent the evening and following day in  this  charming city with good food and company. With spirits high and the weather clearing we decided to camp in the Eiffel national park in Germany, famous for its sweeping wooded hills and unexploded minefields. It seemed like the perfect place to disappear.
Car preparations had taken on the feel akin to a ship in port, bound for the new world. Songs were sung as men climbed up onto the frame, bedding was flung from the balcony and boxes and bags were ratcheted down. We left our maastricht camp more or less as we found it save for a pair of boxer shorts left in the bathroom.
We drove all day. The sky was beginning to bruise and the temperature drop as we drove up into dense wooded hills. We chose an arbitrary small road and then a track. We drove a long way down this logging track until we arrived at what can only be described as a large stone watchtower. A quick scout around revealed there was nobody around save for two walkers that we spied through binoculars a long way down a track and a lot of deer. We didn’t deviate too far into the thick woodland. This was largely because of the large tracts of unmarked WWII minefields, most of which were the sinister glass mines: Impossible to detect and very effective at wounding unsuspecting walkers.
We made camp. Despite the damp, a fire was soon roaring and we made a mean spaghetti bolognaise and dined around the table with wine. The illuminated pine trees closed in on us and the stars came out directly above. We sat around the fire with some ale and stories before retiring to bed. Two people in the sleeping platform of the car and two in the tent.
We had inadvertently chosen the best time of year for camping in the vast tracts of forest which cover southern Germany. We camped the following two nights in the forests of Bavaria. Autumn was in full swing and the whole country swept by under a canopy of auburns, golds and greens . The area of Germany we transected seemed fabulously preserved. Every town we stopped for supplies had a gingerbread arrangement of eaved houses, clocks and painted gothic churches. The clean streets and friendly people were jealously contrasted with our own dowdy isle. We refrained from using the word ‘utopia’ as this word has inexplicably fallen out of fashion.
There was a sleepy feel to the towns. One particular night, well fed and beered, four figures emerged from the forest onto an alarmingly suburban street. They had merrily strode down from the camp, head torches shining and smelling of wood smoke. They were confident that to find the fun all they had to do was follow the sound of the umpa band. However not a light was on in any house and the only bar was very much closed. The four crept back along their pre-marked path to the hidden camp without beer, song or fräulein.
A further problem had developed. Not only were we without indicators but now our headlights did not work. This limited us to only driving during  the shortening daylight hours. We made camp in a forest and began to try and fix our car. In our mossy garage we fixed a door, replaced the oil and changed the oil filter, however we dramatically exacerbated the electrical fault. We suspected that one of the relays was faulty and we set about replacing it. Unfortunately we had acquired the incorrect relay. This sent a huge charge down through the headlight circuit. There was a hissing sound and the car filled with acrid smoke. Dan managed to dive in and tear the relay out but not before the earth wire had fried itself.
Disheartened and with no lights of any description we drove to the stunning cathedral city of Limburg. It was here, whilst looking for parts  in an industrial estate car park, that we were to meet a guardian angel. This particular manifestation of a guardian angel had a shaved head, pierced ears and long plaited beard. His name was Eric and he was a landrover expert. Eric lead us in his own landrover to his house in a nearby village. After showing us around his farm house and giving us beer he helped us fix the problem. Not only did we drive off with functioning headlights, he also gave us a whole crate of Bavarian cider in return for a bottle of Betty Stoggs.
The following day we drove the ‘romantic road’ to Munich. The day was sunny as we engaged in an ambitious, efficient 400km of back to back site seeing. Not a single site was left unseen, not a single view Un-photographed and not a single box on our checklist un-ticked as we drove from one breathtaking town to the next. Würzberg, the extravagant seat of the prince-bishops and the fortified town of Rottenbach were particularly impressive.
We were meeting a friend for a drink in Munich so we had to push on.  We arrived in Munich late from traffic, wrong turns on the autobahn   and some less efficient seeing of sites than I had earlier lead you to believe. We did a rapid turn around before heading out. We met Feli an hour late at Robinson’s bar. It became quickly apparent that our lateness didn’t matter. Everyone in the crowded bar knew each other and the atmosphere was excellent. It was like a house party. Curiously no money ever seemed to be exchanged for the drinks flying across the bar.
That night during the revelry I managed to use ‘eurowallet’. Eurowallet is our collective and only source of money. This hard line communist system quickly developed upon leaving England partly because we opened a joint account with good exchange rates and partly because we all seem need feeding, resting and watering at similar times. Eurowallet has removed all idevidual decisions, as to remain equal and fair, the whole group must share your desires. For example : if one wants a coffee, they must say,
“Do we want coffee?”
If a positive answer is gained the next question  is,
“Who has Eurowallet?”
Before we all shuffle of to have team coffee, beer, food etc. It is still working well, to the point that we all had a clothes budget to spend in Munich.
The following day was hot and clear. We checked out late again. As we loafed around the city, we began to realise that perhaps Robinson’s bar wasn’t so unique. Everyone appeared healthy, well dressed, cheerful and friendly as if we were visiting a small town which rarely received outsiders.
As we prepared for departure to Prague, basking in the afternoon sun, we were approached by a film crew who made a short documentary about us. We spent a bleary-eyed hour or so posing over African maps, changing unnecessary wheels and fielding questions before we left, wanting to stay longer in this wonderful place.

Trying hard to depart…

Our journey to Dover had two key stops: my parents’ house in Somerset and Dan’s father’s house in Maidenhead.  Dan and I took our cars up to Somerset and waited for Rich who would drive up once the landy had passed its MOT.

  We had been frantically dashing around for the past week trying to get everything ready. We still hadn’t managed to sell our old set of wheels, which were taking up space in our friend Sheona’s garden and the car needed an MOT to validate our European insurance. Dan and I were sitting in my parents kitchen when we received a forlorn phonecall from Rich informing us that the car had failed due to holes in the bulkhead. It needed welding. Poor Rich was stuck in cornwall for another day, forced to surf the clean, crisp surf and spend another night with friends in the pub. After this gruelling ordeal, the car was ready and Rich came and joined us in Somerset.
  Rich and I drove on to maidenhead. We stopped in a service station to say goodbye to my dad, pick up my brother and meet an old friend of ours. The reason all these people happened to be at this particular service station near Andover was a result of the complicated, frantic logistics of the day (the details of which are best left out). The rainy KFC forecourt, although surreal did not detract from the poignance of the goodbyes.
 A new problem had arisen on the drive from Cornwall. The torrential rain we had been fleeing had shorted out our indicators and hazard lights. The series of roundabouts and lanes on route to Maidenhead even more of a challenge, as we waved our arms out of the windows cutting across lanes. We also detected a new and rather worring wobble at speed. There was a much needed drink waiting for us at the Nuth residence which happened to be a bottle of champagne.
  We awoke after an excellent evening of food and wine for a final day of admin. We opened our joint account, had the wheels balanced and packed the car. The latter task was the moment of truth: whether all the equipment, luggage and provisions were going to fit in the car. After many hours of carefully tessellating, pushing, stamping, strapping and bolting luggage we were ready.  We were to tired to do a last check to make sure we had everything and drove off in a hurry.
  Our last experience of the UK was sitting in the crowded booth of a port-side pub, waiting for our midnight ferry. A lone singer/guitarist rattled through pop songs to an increasingly enthusiastic Friday night crowd. We were then briefly reprimanded by the police for throwing a rugby ball around the ferry queue.
  We dosed on the floor of the ferry for the duration of our voyage and were groggily awoken to Normandy; drizzly and cold in the small hours. We drove on though northern France. I only have vague memories as to how far we drove or in what direction. Tired and cold, we were looking for a remote forest or wilderness to put the tent up. These however proved sparse as our diesel engine roared through one sleeping French town after the next.    In a village called Tetigan we gave up and pitched camp as hidden as we could, in a park hedge. All four of us slept for a good eight hours top and tail in that three man tent. When we awoke the rain had stopped and the world seemed a lot brighter. We pushed on East.

Having Left

So, it has been a week and a half since we left Cornwall. This statement in itself seems incredible. When immersed in routine and familiarity, each week can fly by, dropping us surprised into the next month or season. For us now the opposite in the case. I am sitting in Prague and a lot has happened. However, before any new stories, I feel I need to pay tribute to our staring point. Cornwall.

Our leaving party was charged with emotion. The excitement of the waiting world, a limitlessness adventure, has only begun to grow as we move across Europe. Our last days in Cornwall had the autumnal feel that something great had come to an end. Really, for us, one adventure has drifted into the next. Goodbyes were said, loose ends tied off and we were sent off with a warmth that reflected sincere and lasting friendships. Above all, this is what makes a place of residence a home.

Driving east toward Somerset we were reminded how good the West Country has been to us. Since arriving seven years ago as fresh faced medical students, it seems we have furnished every tor, beach and street with a story; be it a rainy Sunday walk, a perfect sunset surf or an endless night. This has been our adventure.

 Swallows line the telegraph wires, ready for their their long journey south, beyond the Sahara. Today, we are chasing their tails. Like them we will remember and return.
NB: post written by Bass with augmentation of Czech beer, pinch of salt required!

The Path We Follow…

So to the route! Our great meander through Europe to Turkey, landing in Egypt and plunging south to the source of the Blue Nile and beyond…

We head off from Perranporth, Cornwall on Monday the 8th of October, crossing at Dover a few days later. Form there we drive through France, Belgium, Germany, The Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. Then we thrust down through the Balkans to Athens, Greece. Our first month is now behind us as we move on to Istanbul and the gateway to Asia minor.

In the last days of November we will aim to catch a ferry from Mersin, Turkey to Port Said, Egypt. Setting foot on African soil we will make our way through the ancient Kingdoms of Lower then Upper Egypt before chasing the Nile into Sudan. Where this great river divides at Khartoum we will give a presentation to the Haggar foundation. From here we will follow the curve of the Blue Nile into the highlands of Ethiopia. In the northern highlands we will visit the city of Gondar the focus for one of our charities G.E.E.S., Gondar Ethiopia Eye Surgery.

In the far west of Ethiopia we will start work on the project for late January/February: delivering blood pressure monitors, investigating the prevalence of Pre-Eclampsia, and assessing the feasibility of a screening programme for the CRADLE project. We then cross through the wilderness of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya and dog leg back into Uganda where we hope to work for a few weeks in Iganda Hospital.

Back in southern Kenya we will have a bit of rest and relaxation before heading down to Tanzania, where there is the option to do further work for the CRADLE project. We then drive through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Finally South Africa. In Cape Town, when we have recovered, we will work for a final month in Trauma and A&E before heading home. We may sell the car to some a charity or some travellers heading back the other way or ship it back home.