The Dawn of A New (Puncture Prone) Age

 We had developed a bad habit of Samosas. These little bundles of food poisoning sit for an unknown length of time in shops, quietly incubating before a hungry traveller, looking for instant gratification decides to take a chance. Rich had taken ill. After a long, draining day of Timkat festivities, Rich was put to bed in the tent whilst Dan and I hit the town. We met our Swiss overland companions then picked up Bob. He had managed not only to cycle the long, mountainous journey from Khartoum, recover from the exhaustion, heat-stroke, injuries and illness but also to befriend half the Rastafarian community of Gondar.

The streets of the city were alive and merry. We had found a local place, which sold beer at a negligible price and a popular dance bar. Ethiopia has opted out of the cultural influences of Europe and America that so much of Africa aspires to. Instead they have their own music, films and dances.* We made the bad decision of ordering food at the dance bar. During our two-hour wait for food, what had been a peaceful, sit-down restaurant erupted into a heaving nightclub. A live band blared out the ubiquitous rocksteady beat with wandering Casio trumpets and vocals that leapt across scales. The room filled with a blur of flamboyant uniforms and traditional dresses straight from the festival. All around, shoulders bobbed at a speed we were unable to replicate. The Ethiopian dance style represents courting birds of paradise, with men bouncing and puffing around women who shake their hair and shoulders. Through the maelstrom came a determined waiter with bowls of pasta held high. Squatting low on stools, we ate what we could beneath a thrusting canopy of dancers before a man dressed as a lime-green silk matador drunkenly flung himself across our table, scattering what was left. We abandoned our supper and entered the fray.

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The following morning, Rich awoke fully recovered from the grip of the Samosa bug. However Dan was now suffering the combined onslaught of food poisoning and a fiendish hangover. He wouldn’t leave the tent for several days. I was somewhere in between, hungover and tired from having spent most of the small hours explaining to a girl that a dance, regardless of its talented execution, does not mean marriage is inevitable. I was not exempt from driving to pick up our friend Megan, bright and early, from Gondar airport.

Megan is so far the only person to brave the African leg of the expedition. An old school friend, Cornish resident and fellow Perraner, not only was she coming out to Africa but enduring two weeks with the expedition. I was a little worried at what she would find.

She would be a new species in an ecosystem that had taken a long time to evolve and equilibrate. The three core members of the expedition had been on the road since the beginning of October. We were into our twentieth country, un-separated from our vehicle or each other. Those clean cut, Cornish doctors had become a tangle of uncut hair, moustaches, running jokes and complex systems. Every position and aspect of the car had evolved a name; we practically spoke a different language when driving or packing. We were probably a little too comfortable with crowded, dusty streets, the intensity of arriving in every village as a celebrity and day after day of bush camping.

I had time to down a couple of superbly strong Ethiopian coffees before we drove to the airport. I managed to fit a dramatic passport loosing-finding fiasco into the hour we had to wait for the internal flight. Megan arrived. During the excited greeting, she disguised her reaction to the state of Tess and us expertly. She was able to catch the last big day of processions and celebrations.

The following days were spent preparing for our onward journey and waiting for Megan’s bags to arrive. They had probably gone through more countries then the expedition. In her luggage however was an Aladdin’s trove of marmalade, marmite, letters from loved ones and single malt without which the expedition would have certainly ground to a demoralised halt.

The city returned to relative normality, Dan stayed in his tent in a shady spot in the garden, exhausted by his malady. He would only whisper faint acknowledgments of our presence during the day. By night, he would babble, laugh or cry-out in primal terror at whatever fever-fueled illusion taunted him. Meanwhile, I had by the skin of my teeth avoided betrothal to a daughter of a powerful Gondar family. Just as the situation was really escalating – having met the mother, brother, sisters and stern, three-piece-suit wearing father – I was dumped, apparently due to my unpredictable future plans and non-committal behaviour. It was time to leave.

As I have said before, the Great Rift Valley, that runs the spine of east Africa, has some pretty serious geography going on. The Simien Mountains are where the Rift Valley is at its riftiest/most-rifted/riftigenous; the bigger brothers of all the other Ethiopian mountains; ‘The Playground of The Gods’. Most amazing is how the land here plunges in great folds down to bellow sea level in the volcanic Danakil depression.

Our venture into this lofty playground had a few ill-fated turns. As we had our own car, we thought we could keep costs down and only hire a scout, without taking a guide. All of the scouts are old war veterans who fought against the Derg and were allowed to keep their guns. The scout we picked up was an ancient, arthritic soldier who spoke no English.

We spent a chilly night in Debark, the last town, before setting off early the next day. Our car was a modest six with the scout, Megan and Bob, whose bike we strapped to the roof. A few miles out of town we took a steep track that fell off the edge of the range. Although we had started above 3000m, we all had a nagging feeling about heading down several monumental cliffs, rather than up into mountains. However there didn’t seem to be another road and our scout sat peacefully in the front, as one would expect from a man going along his usual route.

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After four hours winding down rocky paths only really fit for mules, we had a puncture. As the countless, would-be assistants melted out of the landscape to stare at us changing the wheel, I craned my head up at the wall we had dropped down. I thought I’d better just check with our guide. He tried to escape the conversation when I asked for the name of our destination but I noticed him flinch in realisation at ‘Sambikir’ the name of the first camp. He shrugged his shoulders and made an elaborate show of shooing away the locals with a pointed AK47, as if to highlight that he was a guard, not a guide. This façade of ignorance was fooling no one. He caved under further interrogation to reveal that despite being only a few miles as the crow flies from our ultimate destination, a couple of those miles were vertical. We would have to go back to the beginning. This marked the start of a time I would like to call ‘the flat tyre era’. The rest of the day was spent with the five of us (plus gloomy scout) crammed inside Tess, climbing back up to the start.

It was dark when we limped into camp. We had salvaged some of the day by finding and following a thousand strong troop of Gadella baboons, the largest and most peaceful of their kind. We had also endured a further puncture, using up our second spare. We found the Swiss camped in a grassy clearing overlooking a sheer valley. Over supper they told us that they wanted to leave their car hidden in the mountains in order to trek away from the road. They asked us whether we could find it and drive it on to the third campsite, where they would pick it up a day later. We readily agreed. The plan seemed flawless.

The following morning we awoke to find golden sunlight kissing the peaks and Tess listing over a third flat. Our Toyo all terrains that we had bought second hand on e-bay had held up well until now, but seemed to be failing on the rough mountain roads. Rich decided to attempt fixing the tyres in the bush and look after Dan. Meanwhile I would take a trekking party of Megan, Bob our confused scout to see the waterfalls. We would try and locate the Swiss’ car (a day’s walk ahead) then await the Landie before heading in convoy deeper into the range. Over breakfast, as if to mark an omen, a Black Kite circled, then dive-bombed Megan as she prepared breakfast, making off in a hiss of feathers with a doughnut in its talons.

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The morning’s trekking was deifying; worthy of a power ballad. We walked along the edge of oblivion, tumbles of highland, tiny farms, houses and soaring eagles all miles beneath us. By lunchtime we were at the waterfall, a great granite cleft, disappearing into the shadows of the mountain it had hewn. Tiny, we peered into empty air. The sun caught the backs of rising vultures. Neither sight nor sound could be glimpsed of the bottom. We trekked on to the road to wait for the support vehicle and eat a modest lunch of Samosa roulette.

By three, we were faced with difficult decision. The car had not arrived and was probably back at first camp. The Swiss-mobile was hopefully a few hours up the road. Our bag only had a few jumpers and a coup of water bottles. We decided to take a gamble on the support being close behind and to push on and up to find the car. As long as we stayed on the road, we couldn’t miss Dan and Rich.

We trudged for a further two hours along a high plateaux and past a village, gaining altitude all the way. There was still no sign of the car. Our guide, who seemed to be suffering, was becoming very anxious as the shadows grew longer and a sparse mountain chill began to bite our sunburnt cheeks. It wasn’t really possible to explain our complicated plan to the scout, only keep repeating the name of the point Dario had hopefully left the car. Worryingly, his directions kept changing. We had to keep going.

By six, we were tired and hungry. I was silent with worry. Over each horizon we would scan with binoculars for the silver of a hidden vehicle before heading to the next viewpoint. There was no sign or word from Rich, Dan and Tess. Finally, as the temperature was really dropping, we spied the car.

The group of locals who had been paid to watch it were alarmed when a trio of farangis marched across their field and fell upon the car, ravenously ransacking the vehicle for food and warm clothes. We had no choice but to drive the final ten miles to Debark (the third camp). The road was extremely treacherous and it was my first time in a left hand drive car. Our poor scout wisely did not release his white-knuckled grip of the handrail for the whole journey.

After navigating several precipices we rolled into the final camp. The low light was electric pink. Ravens and vast Lamergiers swooped and crowed around the cluster of buildings. Otherwise the thin air was silent. We watched sunset with an eagles’-nest panorama. The high mountain moors were wild and cold above us. The song of the Simien wolves drifted just beyond recognition. That night we spent our meagre funds on a hot meal. We had no warm clothes and no sleeping bags. The car had a roof tent, a towel and a thin blanket. Temperature dropped to around minus five as we huddled together for scraps of sleep.

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Meanwhile, Rich had been thwarted by a series of cheap Chinese pumps, which broke in quick succession. He was forced to hitchhike back to the town, rolling two wheels to be repaired. He salvaged his situation somewhat by infiltrating the dinner of a Belgian tour group and charming their daughters. Dan spent the night alone in the wilderness with just his delirious nightmares for company.

Our delivery complete Bob, Megan and our broken scout were forced to hike back until we could flag down a vehicle. We eventually jumped into a road builder’s truck filled with the mountain’s commuters. In the trailer we held on to wherever we could as the driver accelerated around sheer-sided corners with complete disregard for potholes or his suspension. Megan, Bob and the scout kept their heads wisely inside the trailer bed. We had all seen the skeletons of trucks and holes in the barriers that mark out the Ethiopian roads like milestones. Bob had even witnessed the last expressions of a mini-van full of passengers as they left the mountainside on two wheels. I remained standing and planned how to jump out and roll, were we to go over.

Today the driver had prayed sufficiently and we arrived back at Tess to be reunited with the complete team. We headed back to Gondar to recover.

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Return to Abbysinia

Bulletin: We have finally decided upon a name for our Land Rover. Tess, short for Temeraire. Named after the Turner painting of the old warship being dragged in for scrap at the end of its days, temeraire (where we get the word temerarious) is French for foolhardy bravery. We felt all these things summed the expedition up.

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Like each city before us, the map of Khartoum gradually gained meaning. We painted the birds-eye roads and rivers with minds-eye pictures, adding personal landmarks. The GPS stayed locked in our central console now, as we instinctively navigated to the best coffee in the leafy diplomatic quarter or to the reliable mechanic in the ramshackle industrial district (dust being the operative syllable).

Moving on left a nagging question as to the futility of all this knowledge, should I never return to this particularly welcoming of cities. We had a grounding not only in the geography but in the language, the mannerisms and customs; all essential for turning survival into enjoyment. We had friends here. Was all this now to be reduced down to a few choice anecdotes or an occasional feeling evoked by a mood or smell? This is a question that has, for a long time, harassed me. We accumulate so much experience that we will probably never have the chance to use. However, in an uncertain future, you can never appraise the key piece of information you will need. Also, it’s amazing what comes in unexpectedly useful. So for the meantime I will continue to assimilate everything memorable enough to remember. And – as if to affirm this decision – here I was, returning to Ethiopia after two years, equipped with little useful knowledge remaining, but with a constant sense of Déjà-vu.

At Khartoum, The Blue and White Nile meet (although the two great waters travel onward for several miles in the same bed, coyly eyeing each-other up before finally merging). The team had decided that for continuing upstream, the smart money was on Blue. The source of our chosen river lay far away (and up) in the mountainous enigma that is Ethiopia. Incidentally, the team was now down to the original three. Our Swiss support car had driven on ahead, Bob had cycled off into the desert with 500ml of water and a bag of dried pasta and our French hostesses had chosen continued employment over the romantic life of an African Overlander.

Light and efficient, the expedition struck South-East. Each day’s drive saw the Sahara gradually change into scrubland, then savannah. The land filled up with huts, tracks and people.

The grassy bush was far overhead as we steered off for our final camp in the remote borderland. The dense vegetation was thick with nature and the suggestion of human activity. We hid in a dry river bed. As the sun set, I snuck off alone, using the riverbed as a path through the imposing grass and vicious thorns. I left the safety of the riverbed to photograph a pair of Hornbills, buoyant in the cooling air. Keeping a vague eye on the route I climbed up a hill to watch the sun-set.

As I sat under a flat-topped tree, the hills reddened with the scything clouds. A flash of improbable cyan caught my eye. An Abyssinian roller glided between trees. I followed it in the tunnel vision of my binoculars, followed it across a smudge of dark trees and past the wide-eyed shock of a human face. I was being watched with a transfixed but unsure grin. Nearby, there were other dark figures in the gathering shadows. No stranger to trespassing in the English countryside, the sensible, mature thing to do at this point would have been to casually wave, acknowledging discovery and then begin an exaggerated act of looking for a footpath or disobedient spaniel. However in my short spell of African solitude, I had lost perspective. I legged it over the brow of the hill. Diving into a beastly thorn-thicket, I hid, scanning the horizon. I was not obviously followed.

Back at camp, Dan and Rich were sitting on the roof serenely sipping coffee, trying to ignore the frequent kamikaze cricket face-strikes. I rolled out of the bush, wide eyed and grazed, much to their mirth. If we were watched that night, we were blissfully unaware. I like to think that back in a village in a forgotten corner of Sudan, a similar story is being told about our brief encounter.

Stamping the chassis  (Photo: RWH)

Stamping the chassis (Photo: RWH)

The following morning, still hidden below ground level, Rich became acquainted with the dark and delicate art of chassis stamping. Not having a chassis number in Africa is not an option as our time in Egyptian captivity had demonstrated. Nobody in Khartoum was prepared to stamp us without a letter from the police, who would certainly confiscate our contraband car, so we were forced to take matters into our own hands.

Many African borders are arbitrary, difficult to define lines, representing a gradual merging of cultures or a post-colonial carve-up, dividing kinsfolk. This is not the case for Sudan-Ethiopia. The tapering straight road was covered with people, carts and livestock. In the distance the border stood like the finish-line to a chaotic race. Beyond it rose the highlands. As usual, crossing it involved a convoluted precession of customs checks, stamps and above all, waiting. Our new chassis number was inspected, passed without a second glance and we were through to Ethiopia.

In an instant, we had traded semi-desert for fiercely undulating stacks of fertile earth, the long straight asphalt for a road that climbed and wound for hours before shearing away, and a sparse and easy Islam for a teeming and ancient Christianity. The last time I had visited the country, studying in a remote hospital, it had been in rainy season when all the mountains were butcher’s-grass-green and heavy with clouds. Now the fields that covered all the available flat ground were bare and flaxen, the mountains were naked and striped in blood reds, volcanic blacks and sandy yellows.

The switchback turns slithered under escarpments and over passes. Villages were frequent, wooden houses and thatched huts that lined a road used more as a common space for people and livestock than a conduit for vehicles. Rural Ethiopians (95% of the 90,000,000 population) have little to no concept of road safety or even how traffic functions. We braced ourselves for each village, donkeys, cattle and goats lurched across the road, docile until realising the car was behind them, then stood rigid in terror or bolted unpredictably. The people behaved in a similar way. Watched by the entire town with neutral stares, the innumerable children chased us with the cries of ‘You! You!’, ‘Faranji!’ (a slightly derogatory cross between foreigner and stranger) or just threw stones. Women, a species we dimly remembered from before Egypt and Sudan, were as confident as the men. Each time we stopped the car, a crowd would grow and the windows would be darkened by staring faces and touching hands. Each interaction was a blank canvas, smiles and frowns being quickly reciprocated. One theme was consistent, everyone expected a handout of money.

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That night we tried to camp in a hillside forest. Driving off a troop of unwelcoming monkeys, we sat on the roof of the car, gazing over the evening vista and had a beer, an actual, legal beer. However our the peaceful solitude we had become accustomed to in the Sahara was soon interrupted by people emerging out of the forest. We mistook one man who was particularly keen to meet us as the owner of the land. In a drawn out misunderstanding we fed and watered this hermit who slept by our fire before wandering off in the morning, taking my towel with him.

To gain some understanding of the people who inhabit these highlands, they need to be put n historical context. Civilisation may well have begun here, tracking up the Nile. Judaism and then Christianity took root here before most of the world. Islam surrounded, but never significantly penetrated the mountain plateau. Cut-off and surrounded by enemies, the kingdom of Ethiopia forgot the world and in turn was forgotten. The outside was denied a story of centuries of holy emperors and warring dynasties. When they were rediscovered, a feudal system of Nobles, priests and endless peasants was still fully intact.

In fact the Empire remained un-colonised and resistant to change until events overtook it with the Italian invasion of 1936. Liberation followed soon after with the enthralling Emperor Haile Selassie returning from exile in Jamaica (where he had inadvertently founded Rastafarianism).  Despite his international appeal he failed to spot the need for reform and was unceremoniously ousted by the sinister ‘Derg’. This communist military council was highly oppressive, mismanaged the economy and diverting the much of the international aid Ethiopia is famous for receiving, into the military.

The bloody civil war that removed the Derg created a crudely democratic federation of states who struggle to see eye-to-eye. Throughout this time Ethiopia has been at the sharp end of international aid: large short-sighted projects doomed to fail, food handouts, and money which disappeared into the beurocratic ether. As a result of this complicated history, the Ethiopians are themselves complicated. Much of the country remains ‘feudal’, the educated classes and the clergy sit atop an expanse of semi-subsistence farmers living as their ancestors did. Probably a hangover from the Derg, there are layers of government officials, entitled and stifling change. Fiercely proud of their isolated history, they are prone to xenophobia and anger over the wealth discrepancy between them and the ‘Farangi’. The malignant effects of last century’s blind aid are all too apparent. Tourists, who no doubt have contributed to the problem, are expectantly mobbed in every village. Cyclists, as our friend Bob found out, are stoned.

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All this said, when befriended, Ethiopians are sharp, subtly humorous and take hospitality very seriously. This depth of character takes time to break through to, a big problem for our fast moving expedition. This is why the city of Gondar, where we would spend over a week, was a nice break from our constant migration.

Gondar is the old capital and holy city of emperor Tewodros. Centred round a grand castle, its cobbled hillside streets link the countless churches. We had arrived here in time for the greatest show in Ethiopia: the festival of the Epithany, or Timkat. Here, during four days of celebration the tablets bearing the commandments from each church are baptised in the pool and moved in an enormous procession back to their churches. Here we were also expecting to do two other things: visit the Gondar (Ethiopia) Eye Surgery (GEES) project to which we have been donating half our sponsorship money and to join up with Megan, a good friend who was bravely coming to visit from Cornwall.

We set up camp in the shady, lush gardens of the grand but decaying Terrana hotel. Before the festivities began we were able to meet up with Dr Asamere, consultant eye surgeon. Over lunch we talked at length about the state and aspirations of the project but also about history, culture and football. He offered not only to take us around the eye hospital but also to show us the highlights of Timkat.

GEES was set up by a British eye surgeon, Sandy Holt Wilson, who identified the need for the project whilst working in the region. Starting small, GEES has supported a new eye hospital, providing a consultant ophthalmologist and equipment. It is also now training ophthalmologists and specialist eye nurses setting up a new teaching facility and library. The burden of disease (largely blindness from cataracts, infection, deficiency, injury and diabetes) and the area covered is huge. However the project is growing slowly but realistically toward making Gondar a centre of excellence for eye care. There is a real feeling of progress at the hospital.

The excitement had been building like a thunderstorm when the first parade broke. In the main square, hundreds of pilgrims clad in pure white shawls followed a blaring procession of music, archaic guns, swords, jangling umbrellas, cracking whips, intricate hairstyles and harlequin uniforms of outrageous silk. Every village, church or civic institution seemed to be putting on a show.

The following morning, we met Dr Asamare down at the Fasilidas baths, a fascinating, fortified swimming pool like structure build in the 1600s. The first tablets had been baptised and the waters blessed. The sun-dappled waters writhed with hundreds of bronzed bodies, merrily splashing in this holiest of leisure facilities. We followed in the path of the tablets in a procession of thousands that dwarfed the day before. Carnival floats, co-ordinated dances and bearded holy men carrying staffs and ornate crosses were now added to the mix. Unfortunately, Megan’s plane was grounded in snow back in Bristol, a concept that was difficult to fathom as we sought refuge in all available shade. However, she was touching down the next morning for another big day of festivities.

Been through the desert in a car with no name…

We decided to drive the Oasis road, looping for 800 miles west, away from the Nile, rejoining it at ancient Luxor. Diesel was a big problem. The country was virtually dry due to the conflict inhibiting trade. To avoid the day-long queues of lorries, one had to turn to the black market. Fortunately, Sam had a contact, Badri, a local Bedouin, in the oasis of Baharia, who would arrange for onward fuel. The fact that diesel was three times the price on the black market vexed us little as this brought it up to 33p a litre.

Before we left Cairo we were able to have lunch with Enrique, a Spanish journalist fresh from the pre-referendum interviews. The country was poised to vote on a new constitution. Essentially it would decide if the country’s laws would be based on the Holy Qur’an and whether the judiciary would be able to overrule the president. Divisions were running deep in a country fresh to democracy and there seemed no question of compromise. More organised and with the mosques as a platform, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood looked poised for a successful ‘yes’ vote.

Thus began our days driving the dot-to-dot of oases. We crossed the sharp border away from the dense, living Nile. We crossed over to where the only sign that anything lives, or has ever lived, is the shimmering asphalt. That evening we killed the engine to make camp. Our ears rang with silence.

The Western (Libyan) desert is impossibly dry but deep beneath lies a fossil sea, ‘the aquifer’. Water can be tapped where the land recedes below sea level. Today diesel-powered pumps provide ‘unlimited’ water for the networks of villages and farms in each basin. Nobody knows the origin or limits of this mysterious underground sea and the oasis people are not the only ones pumping. A thousand miles west in Libya, ‘Gadaffi’s Underground River’ pipes untold gallons away to the coastal settlements, on a much larger scale. It is no surprise that many believe the future wars of Africa, will be fought over water.

A night’s camp and a day’s drive on a good road brought us down into the flat basin of Baharia. Here we met Badri, friendly and serene, for a late lunch. Sure enough he had arranged for 100 litres of diesel. We filtered it into our car and jerry cans to remove the water, which is often added by Egypt’s ‘businessmen’, to bulk out the sale. This time, we found it to be of excellent quality. Pressing on, we made it out, over the lip of the depression and were once more alone to watch the sun set. That night’s camp was a particularly jovial one as we sat around a roaring fire under an appropriate crescent moon drinking Saqara lager and singing.

The next day we reached the White Desert, miles of wind-cut, blinding chalk. Stacks of rock had been preened by a titanic topagiarist into mushrooms, rabbits and other shapes that, were we all not so pure of thought, could be interpreted in a suggestive manner. We left the car and wandered like liliputians in a madman’s garden until the heat drove us back.

The White Desert

The White Desert

The Oasis of Farafra, where we headed next, is the remotest bead on the bracelet, perched on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Here another friendly face awaited our arrival. Juan, a friend of my uncle, had moved from Spain a few years ago to set up a hotel on the peaceful frontier. The mud-brick hotel was not yet ready and the situation back in Cairo meant few people were passing through. We pulled up at the gateway and were warmly received.

The hotel was the last building before the great sea. We had lunch in a shady, blooming garden. Supply lines were unpredictable and Juan received most of his food freshly grown and local from the Bedouin. We talked about the easy, interdependent community he had been welcomed into, of water pumps and of the summer when everyone lives and works at night to avoid the deadly heat. Our voices were pure in the silence, the void behind us absorbing all sound. Beyond the tended garden we walked out, barefoot in the late afternoon sun. The Oasis seemed like a raft, temporarily granted life on a calm ocean, serenely bobbing near an unfathomable shelf.

The Great Sand Sea

The Great Sand Sea

We spent a further two days in the desert, driving, climbing to vantage points and charging down the dunes. Other cars or people were rare enough to warrant comment whenever they occurred. We finished each other’s sentences, chuckled over long-running jokes and argued bitterly over which way north was or how best to divide the remaining jam. I feel sorry for the next people to travel with us.

Our struggle with the Egyptian institutions continued as we drove through overstaffed, isolated checkpoints. As early as the Old Kingdom, Egypt had developed a centrally organised system that could accurately forecast crop yields, co-ordinate labour and calculate taxation. In short, the Egyptians invented bureaucracy. The hundreds of lavish tombs of scribes with titles such as ‘overseer of the harvest’ or ‘commissioner of art’ implied that taking advantage of an official position was not a new concept. Even now an entire section of society still depends on checking, stamping and low-level backsheesh. This, coupled with the ‘Inshalla’ mentality (literally “if Allah wills it” but actually meaning anything from “possibly” to “yeah right”) means that everything in Egypt tends to take a long time.

Another two jerry cans of backstreet diesel brought us late one night into Luxor. We blinked, wide-eyed and dusty at the lights. Accustomed to the peace of the desert, we were overwhelmed by the milling street crowds in long robes and the stampeding traffic. We escaped into a hotel for a much needed shower.

Running away with it!

Running away with it!

Luxor is a whirling rush of living streets, merging under the great temples of the New Kingdom (relatively new, this cluster of dynasties is still over three thousand years old). A parade of markets and vendors vied for our custom as we walked to the centre. Here we were granted a glimpse of Ancient Egypt at its height. Again, there were almost no tourists. Before we left for Aswan, we crossed over the river to spend the day in the Valley of the Kings, once hidden, high in the escarpment. The tumbling necropolis and network of deep, painted tombs was preserved to the point of defying time completely.

The weekly ferry for Sudan was pressing us on. We left Luxor and headed on up the Nile for Aswan and the old Kingdom of Nubia.

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.

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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