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.

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.

The Making of Mechanics?

So, we had proven that we could drive long distances, under the pressures of time and inclement weather. But that would only get us so far…

We found out exactly how far two days later.

The village of Perranporth can be quite a honey pot when the weather is beneficent, with the center being a hub of activity. So it was that in the height of the midday pasty rush, and with a mechanical clatter worthy of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, our car suddenly lost power. After a few sheepish minutes of tyre-kicking and bonnet-lifting, we found that the rear prop-shaft had shorn through, leaving the longer half flailing against the cars underbelly.

I would like to take a brief interlude at this point to discuss mechanical vocabulary. As we hope some Landrover enthusiasts will read this, we will not shirk on technical talk. However we cannot continue without reference to the enormous capacity that mechanics  holds for innuendo. We have no intention in following the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do we want to write the script for ‘Carry on Africa’. We can only assume that the discipline needed to discuss sockets, rods, grub-nuts and grease nipples without a ribald smirk or bawdy nudge comes to a professional mechanic with years of training. We simply don’t have the time or the maturity.

So We were stranded in a beachside lay-by with little chance of recovery.

We were quick to analyse the situation:

Pros: this could have happened in the Scottish Borders when we had no breakdown cover.

Cons: We were causing what was a significant hold-up by Cornish standards with no hope of a quick fix.

It was at this point that we were to find that in a Land Rover, help is often near at hand. A few minutes later a friendly man in an old 90 drove by and offered assistance. He was able not only to tow us to safety but provide the part from one of his several Land Rovers.

We had our first repair job. We tackled the problem the only way men of our generation know how: a key-word search of Google. It seemed like a simple matter of unbolting the broken bit and bolting the new bit on. However we hadn’t realised that these parts had been bolted on with thick steel when we had been about six and left to rust fast in the Scottish highland. Dan spent the best part of a week on his back, locked in a duel with each stubborn and accustomed bolt. He eventually emerged, oily, eyes raw with rust, the mad grin of a man who has tunneled to freedom with a teaspoon on his sooty face, brandishing the broken part. Rusty nuts would be a problem that would continue to trouble us.

Rich chanced upon a chap called Dave, an ex-sapper who lived up near Exmoor and ran a casual bush mechanics course. Well-schooled in Land Rovers from a young age, he was a keen expert and seemed excited to have new vehicle, complete with new problems to solve. Over two weekends, we visited his eccentric converted church and work-barn arrangement and set about getting to grips with our machine.

A modern car is a magical automaton synapsed  with wires and computers that know better than you do. If angered in some way it will devise a fault only fixable with a laptop and part so specialist that there needs to be a company to make the tools, for a company to make the tools to make it (at a price necessarily high to keep all these companies afloat). At first this is how our Land Rover seemed. However after two rainy weekends and quite a lot of studying before and after, it all started to make sense. The whole process of how the timed cycles of a piston generate force, this force being handed from gear to gear to shaft to wheel began to lock together. We saw first hand as we removed each part, how the forces of explosions in quick unison are harnessed by a clever arrangement of oiled metal moving parts. We learned about breaking, cooling, suspension and exhaust; tools, jacks, oils, wheels and lubricants.

Dave’s style of teaching certainly nurtured the initiative essential for a bush mechanic (these days defined as a mechanic without Google). He would happily watch us discuss how best to gain access to the transmission or lever the tyre off a wheel. This cemented the procedure into our memory. As well as teaching the correct approach to repair and maintenance procedures, he encouraged the improvisation needed to fix a problem with limited resources. One crowning moment was fixing our recently busted differential lock. We stripped away the casing and used a parts manual to narrow down which part was broken. We meticulously removed each fitted lever and cog and found the culprit (a sheared grub screw if you must know). Of course taking things apart is easy; it is the putting back together that is the challenge. Our Landy is simple enough that, by and large, as long as long as you put it back as you found it, you haven’t made things worse. This of course is a simple theory with a frustratingly complex practice. On attempt number three, the Diff-lock lever slid firmly and smoothly in, to engage the engines full power, with manly roars of satisfaction all round.

We were on our way to becoming bush mechanics.

Wonderful Charitable Fun!

So distracted have we been by the last few weeks that only now have we managed to tot up our collection from the charity fundraiser held on the 27th July! We raised a fabulous £229.33, which is a great step in the right direction, and had a great evening doing it, so our thanks to everyone that attended and made it what it was. Special thanks go out to our donors, who were remarkably generous in their prises for the charity raffle, which included coasteering, surfing lessons, romantic restaurant meals and cream teas. Thanks also to the Treliske Doctor’s Mess which endorsed our social as an official hospital ‘PayDay’. We hope to do it all again soon before our departure!

The Components of Adventure

“So, when do you guys head of on this trip of yours?”

I’m standing in the hallway of a house party, having failed to penetrate any further. Still holding my coat and without a drink in hand, I reel off what is becoming a well rehearsed explanation.

“We hope to drive off at the beginning of October, our main problem at the moment is getting into Egypt from Europe. The Arab spring has made both Libya and Syria no-go areas but a new ferry has opened up. We’re looking for medical placements in Kenya and Cape Town, gathering a bit of data for the London School of Tropical Medicine and raising money for some African charities. We hope to be in Cape Town by April/May time.”

My eyes drift past the friendly chap making small talk and survey the scene. The Community surrounding the Royal Cornwall Hospital where we work is an interesting mix of staff and students. Far out west, there is a cut-off and intimate feel to the place. Pick up the telephone to make a referral and the odds are you’ll speak with somebody you recently saw in the pub or out surfing. A walk down a corridor usually entails a series of meetings and greetings. Everyone knows each others business. Rich, Dan and I are known as the boys planning ‘that huge trip to Africa’. This has been reinforced by the fact we’ve been bouncing around Cornwall for the past month in an intimidating long wheel-based 110 Land Rover Defender with raised suspension and a custom roof rack. It looks like it eats other cars.

“ Wow, it sounds amazing. I’m so jealous.”

Responses to my now reflexive explanation can be broadly classified into anxiety and envy. People either say we’re mad or express their wish to do a similar thing. Cornwall probably has a higher proportion of the adventuring sort.

“You should take guns!”

This unusual response is a new one for me and doesn’t fit neatly into my above classification…

“Um, I think firearms might cause more problems than they solve,” I suggest.

I edge further into the party.

This enthusiastic envy gets me thinking. What is it specifically about this project that catches people’s imagination? The journey seems fraught with back to back problems or ‘challenges’ as the optimistic call them. There is certainty of discomfort, boredom, disagreement, mechanical failures, crippling beaurocracy, risks to our personal safety and a thousand other ‘challenges’ we have yet to identify. A cynic would say that an adventure is a holiday with a series of problems. Surely a year long holiday should earn greater envy? I think it boils down to human nature and the way we are wired. Adventure gives purpose. Becoming totally immersed in overcoming these daily challenges, adapting and changing the plans, gaining new experiences and stories along the way, all the while with a cause in sight, is the fundamental appeal.

I’m sure Dan, Rich and I have varying reasons why we have chosen to embark on such an adventure, at this time in our lives. We have all separately travelled before, in a variety of places for our medical electives as students. I certainly look back at the three months I spent working in Tanzania and Ethiopia as a very challenging but life-affirming time. I think a common reason is that, in medicine, with its clear hierarchal progression, one can see where you will be in a few years. None of us have yet entered training programmes, the ladders to the specialities. If we want to do something like this, now is the time. We had been living together in a house on Perranporth beach on the north coast of Cornwall. We were renting a rather nice holiday home for the off season months (far beyond our combined means). Through the winter, as the westerly winds lashed at the walls, we spent many an hour at the kitchen table, drinking tea or whiskey, and talking. Cut off from the rest of the world our ideas tended to spiral…

Dan pranced downstairs one evening, fiery-eyed (as he can be, whether he’s raging against life’s deep injustices or denouncing cheap tea). I think he had just finished Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and it had clearly made an impression, as many a book does.

“I think we should all go through Africa together,” he pronounced, gesturing to a convenient map on the wall.

Our adventure began sooner than expected…

Of all the chance journeys an e-Bay purchase could have taken us upon, I cannot envisage a stranger encounter. On that particular day we decided to look for a Land Rover, we found one that we knew we had to have. It was a fine red 20 year-old, fully kitted out Defender that we believed would withstand the ravages of Africa. There were two snags: 1. It was far up on Rannoch moor in the Highlands of Scotland. 2. It was already sold.

A phone call solved the second problem. The owner on the other end of the line was a man a talkative man called Malcolm. One of his sons had put the car on e-Bay but it had sold for far below what he wanted for it. We’re unsure as to how he got out of the deal but he was keen to sell to us. We established a good rapport with this enthusiastic Cornishman who, for some reason was residing up in a vast Scottish wilderness.  His asking price seemed reasonable so we arranged to fly up and ‘have a look at the car’.

Dan, Rich, Guy and I flew up on one weekend in early spring in a small aircraft from Newquay to Glasgow. Arriving on Saturday afternoon, the plan was to hire a car and drive into the Scottish wilderness, get the car and drive it back to Cornwall in time for work on Monday. This was almost scuppered by a hire car administration error, leaving us stranded in the airport. Fortunately we were rescued by a kindly sole from another company, who arranged for us to borrow one of their cars.

We drove through Scotland in the golden evening light, racing past castle and loch, making good time. Eventually we turned off the main road and began to wind our way into the highland. As the light faded and the deer to human ratio shifted strongly in the favour of the latter, we began to appreciate how isolated our destination was.

Over a rocky mountain pass, along a dark loch and at the end of a long dead end road we arrived. In the last phone call before we lost signal, Malcolm had said,

“Just head for the castle,”

And this we did…

It was a starry dark as we reached the end of the drive. Although we could no longer see the snow-tipped horizon, there was a feeling of vast and blackened highland above us. We looked up at a turreted castle. After a period of staring at this lofty clan stronghold, we knocked on the door. Behind a threshold that had probably withstood a clan feud or two, a bearded face with a cautious smile appeared. Hands were shaken and we ushered through into a panelled hallway, festooned with hunting trophies. Monarchic antlers interspersed the heads of big African game looking down in anger or surprise.

In the grand living room, under more trophies, we were offered a whiskey. We hadn’t eaten for most of the day but there was a sharp chill in the air that our mild Cornish blood wasn’t used to. Malcolm was a Cornish man who had made his fortuned in ‘speculating’’ as he called it. He was living up on Rannoch moor with his wife and eight children and had a very ‘opt out’ approach to society. When he had bought the place several years ago, it had been a school.

We stayed that night in one of the old teacher’s houses and awoke at crack of dawn to a cloudless spring morning. There were deer on the lawn and the air was thick with birdsong, running water and nothing else. The plan had been to set off bright and early after the purchase as we all had work the following morning at the other end of the country. However we were unable to resist the surroundings and spent the day exploring by foot and Landrover as well as having a celebratory bottle of champagne in the sun.

It was half seven when we finally returned our rental car to Glasgow and crossed the border. The weather was closing in and the sky was bruising. The following Nine ours stand out as a surreal and desperate string of service station stops and driving shifts in non-stop driving rain.

From Abstract to Reality

An overland trip to South Africa has been a pipe dream for us for quite some time; with an career break* on the horizon, what better time to give it a go before family, a mortgage, and “real life” take over?

We quickly realised that a big dream becomes a Sisyphean task; something which it would be easy to put off indefinitely. We needed something to cement the concept, to force us to invest in the project. We needed a vehicle.

Many animated conversations ensued over pints of Betty Stoggs, but in the end there was only one conclusion. It had to be a Land Rover.

As it turns out, you actually pay quite a lot for an old Landie. We quickly found that our budget limited us to a minimum age of 15 years, a high likelihood of some holey bodywork, and an engine with at least 100,000 miles under its belt (‘just worn in’ is how most Land Rover boffins describe this land mark – we’re not convinced).

After weeks of looking we found a 20 year old Defender which looked like it would do the job. The only hitch was it was in Scotland…

*career break = conscious avoidance of any serious career-shaping decisions