Entering Zimbabwe

Wild camping in the North (Photo: RWH)

Wild camping in the North (Photo: RWH)

Across Mozambique, we had shifted back into a feral state. Almost every night had been spent hidden in the dense woodland or on deserted beaches. Both our cookers had simultaneously expired meaning wood fires were how we now prepared our meals. When our head-torch batteries failed, we were surprised by how we could set up camp, start a fire, move around the car and prepare a meal by memory alone; reading the familiar contents like brail. Our threshold rose markedly for things that scuttled and crawled over us as we lay in the tall elephant grass.

We reached the town of Manica, near the Zimbabwean border. Our car was still without a working clutch, although drivable. Every traffic light became a spectacle of pushing and grinding until Tess jumped into gear. Every hill became a tense ordeal, teasing the gearstick to engage as we lost momentum. To make matters worse, our diesel tank was leaking when filled to over 20 litres. This meant we had to climb onto the roof and retrieve another Jerry can for the tank every 140 miles. One particular incident brought untold mirth to the town onlookers when Dan and I, having pushed Tess along the busy high street, ran to jump into the accelerating vehicle. Perfectly in time, I tripped over my flip-flops and Dan leapt for the door, bouncing his head off the top doorframe. We both tumbled into the dusty street as our car sped off.

Mozambique is not a Land Rover friendly country and we were advised to try our luck over the border in Zimbabwe. The problem was that the border was atop a steep hill with a perpetual traffic queue leading up to it. We had to have momentum to change gear. If we stopped on a hill, we would have to roll back down to the flat and try again. Such antics were unlikely to amuse the border officials.

We tried to learn more about the road ahead. The currency of information in Africa is traded differently. Back home, knowledge is cheap and available. The location of an amenity, the state of a road or the situation in a region are all a button click, or at least a phone call, away. Across Africa, we had learned to appraise and amalgamate the spectrum of conflicting opinions on any one question. Everyone is an ‘expert’, each has their version of the truth and many have an interest in skewing the reality. Zimbabwe appeared to be enigmatic even to those a few miles from the border.

“The elections are coming and the trouble is building,” our hostess at the flamboyantly named ‘Pink Papaya Hostel’ told us.

“We’re advising our guests not to go in. A Spanish couple came through a few weeks ago. They had been arrested there and were fed up with the place.”

“Its calmed down a bit since the power sharing with the MDC.” Another reported. “but everyone is waiting for something to happen to break the gridlock. ZANU PF are going nowhere without a big fight.”

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Zim was one place for which we certainly held preconceptions. The last decade had provided ample images of the infamous land reforms, the hyperinflation and the seemingly runaway violence to all opposition. My dad had visited during the closing stages of the war of independence, during the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. The stories had captured my imagination. He had helped his friend campus for the Bishop Muzorewa in the 1981 election that bought Mugabe to power. He would reminisce on how beautiful the country was.

We had met scattered Zimbabweans along our journey: displaced white farmers, economic refugees and former soldiers, all with their stories. The more we found out, the stranger and sadder the history became. We picked up an old guidebook for Zimbabwe published in 1998, before the country had seemingly imploded. It cautiously praised Mugabe for developing the county’s economy and for his moderate treatment of the white minority. Although it was certainly a one-party state and rumours of well concealed brutality were beginning to filter through, it seemed Zimbabwe was (by African standards) on an even keel. What had gone so wrong?

We heard theories: How Mugabe had been challenged in his role as ‘benevolent dictator’, how ZANU PF were losing influence and lashing out, or simply how a party with a sense of entitlement and ‘history’, having fought for independence had degenerated into a disorganised kleptocracy.

Unlike the opportunism and banditry, which we had singed our hands on so far, the danger ahead seemed more targeted and sinister; less easy to prepare for. The spectacle we caused, pushing our rickety car through the streets of Mozambique could draw unnecessary attention from an authority with a particular dislike toward the British. All these fears were checked however, by our lack of an alternative. We had to push on.

On a quiet, sunny afternoon we found ourselves beneath the border-post. We regarded the line of freight queuing up and spotted the distant barrier at the top. We had one chance. We rolled the car forward and she lurched into gear. There was no stopping as we weaved through the beeping lorries. Up ahead, a gap was closing. We snuck through just in time and pulled up on the flat, inches from the barrier.

The usual crowd of touts, pretending to be officials, gathered around to force their help upon us. They were scattered by an armed guard. He looked the car up and down with a neutral expression before breaking into a smile. Dan and Rich went to arrange Visas and I stayed with he guard. I offered him a couple of our European Marlborough Reds which he smoked with relish. Conversation sparked up as the touts re-formed. There was no menace and our story was met with a measured consideration. These men seemed smart, educated and comfortable with discussing the world outside. They were also quick to joke, with a fatalistic sarcasm and a sense of the ridiculous that reminded me of home. Their English was rich in outdated words and aphorisms.

“The supervisor is having lunch, so I suggest you make hay whilst the sun is shining,” the security guard beamed.

The people behind the glass were equally as friendly and insincere. Apart from having to pay an extra-expensive Visa for being British we were through with no problems.

Team communication!?  (Photo: RWH)

Team communication!? (Photo: RWH)

Nestled in the eastern hills, under pink granite mountains, lies the city of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s most beautiful city. Unfortunately much of the scenery was lost on us as we pushed our car through a frustratingly western system of traffic lights. The streets looked faded but functioning. Shops were open and cars lined the streets. The cities had been protected from the worst of the economic turmoil and violence that had raked the countryside. Furthermore there was now a large wealth divide. There was still money to be had and some people had found it. A large part of the new elite were associated with the ruling party. During the hyperinflation crisis many Zanu PF men had actually made fortunes by buying dollars at falsely low government rates and selling them on the black market for their actual price. Then there was the diamond rush.

We heard about this a few days later. We had settled in Mutare for a week to sort out our car. We had caused a predictable spectacle and most people seemed to know of us.

“How is the Defender?” two sharply-dressed, unfamiliar men enquired from their table.

We had just walked into a cafe for lunch and sat with them whilst we ate. They were -or rather, had been- diamond traders. They told the story of how a British company had been sitting on the place for decades before the government seized it. They were unable to control the resource however and soon an entire black economy had sprung up. All the shady characters from across Africa arrived in town. The army had been forcing locals to dig, with the extracted wealth dispersing up the ranks. The desperate locals would also break in to dig the fields at night, selling their findings for tiny fractions of their value. Young opportunists from the town became rich as middle men. Mutare had its boom when the rest of Zimbabwe was sinking. When the party found out its response (operation ‘No Return’) was typically brutal. Our new friends wouldn’t talk much on that. They were much keener to reminisce on the glory days. We found out later from a white petrol station owner who we befriended, that helicopter gunships had been called in to clear all the land of people. The myths of the death count vary wildly and in Zimbabwe, where so much is kept secret, myths are all they become.

As it turned out, Mutare was a haven for a Land Rover in need of some TLC. We were referred to ‘Quests’ an old and respected garage who clearly knew their way around a Landy. We frantically waved our way through a barrier, unable to stop and pulled up onto the large forecourt. A great bear of a man named Joseph greeted us with a smiling team. He was quick to learn our first names and had a playful air of authority. We spent many an hour in his office talking on the state of the country, life in the UK and the nuances of Mashona culture (his tribe and the current dominant tribe of Zanu PF).

“This place,” he orated, “used to have a reputation, before Zanu PF went and made such a mess of things.”

He patted a sheepish mechanic on the back. “Now we have to employ people like Jason. Ha!” -Jason was, in reality very capable.

They fixed our mangled clutch, finding and negotiating cheap spare parts. Nearby was a breaker’s yard that Dan and I went to investigate. What we found took our breath away. It was like walking into some sacred Landrover Graveyard. They were piled high in various states of decay. We had everything we could need. All those days scouring the cities of north and east Africa for spare parts seemed so barren and arduous. We decided to replace all of our remaining original doors. For this we selected one Zimbabwe Police (Birchenough post) door and one Zimbabwe Electrical Company door. This would give our ramshackle steed its signature appearance.

Serious business  (Photo: RWH)

Serious business (Photo: RWH)

On the day we left Mutare, I was walking down the high-street when I noticed that there was police officer stationed at each corner. A crowd gathered on the pavement as the first cavalcade of motorbikes in slow formation passed us by. ‘His Excellency’, Robert Mugabe was arriving. Next to follow was a troop pickup with six gold-helmeted gunmen, then two ambulances, a firengine, a further twenty of so motorbikes and more gold-headed troopers. In the middle were a cluster of black SUVs and one garish, gold Range Rover. We later found out that the president was in town to announce the date of the national elections; July 31st 2013.

There was much anticipation for this oncoming event. We made a habit of not asking people about their political affiliations but there seemed to be a strong trend amongst the people we talked to that the country was tired of the regime. They were also dreading a repeat of the unspeakable and unspoken violence of 2008.

The hills above Mutare were lit with a golden sunlight as we left. It was a light never seen nearer the equator where the sun is either ‘bright’ or ‘off’. We were moving out of the tropics again. The reasonable roads were surrounded by bush and ramshackle smallholdings; apparently once productive, commercial farms.

Before our journey to Harare we had one last call. As the sun drew low we turned off the main road to Drifter’s, once a well-known backpacker retreat and the scene of one of Zimbabwe’s greatest recent stories. We drove up the dirt drive, through houses nestled in the trees. We we’re greeted by an old man who introduced himself as John Muranda. I didn’t tell him that I had read all about him.

Back in Ethiopia Claire, our solo, overland motorcyclist friend, had given me a tattered copy of ‘The Last Resort, a Memoir of Zimbabwe’ by Douglas Rogers. The patient and humanistic story of how the Rogers, their employees and lodgers had survived the chaotic events of the last decade had captured my imagination. It was amazing to visit the place and meet the people I had read about. Lyn and Ros Rogers were still on their land having evaded, negotiated and adapted under constant threat and turmoil. The were at home and came down to have a drink with in the hostel bar. We watched the sun set through the dense hillside trees and talked about the South West UK, The various over-landers who had come before us and the coming elections.

“In a mad way, I feel slightly sorry for the poor old man,” remarked Lyn to my surprise. We were talking about Mugabe.

“He tried to resign last election but the Generals and party leaders weren’t having it. It was essentially a coup.”

“There are too many crimes to be held to account and if he goes down, they all do.”

After all ZANU PF had done, both to the country and to the Rogers, it was surprising to hear these understanding tones. Of course, Zimbabwe’s decline was more complicated then the actions and mistakes of one man.

We left under darkness to begin our long journey to Harare, driving through the night to avoid the police road blocks.

The Road to Botswana (Photo DN)

The Road to Botswana (Photo DN)

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Choosing Your Overlanding Vehicle

Vehicle selection for overlanding is the biggest decision you will make, bar your route, as it will affect your life every day of your trip. The options are described below.

Toyota Land Cruiser

Hugely widespread in every European/African country, a Toyota 4×4 will be strong, reliable and good value. Expertise and spares are widely available, even in the back of beyond. Go for the 70 series, they’re the offroad workhorses, although can be difficult to find in the UK.

Land Rover

Former King of Africa, Land Rovers are still mighty beasts, with a strong cult following. In general, in the UK expect to pay between about 120-150% of the price of an equivalent age Land Cruiser, and to get less features (no air con, basic interior, no CD player etc).  Realistic options are the Defender or Discovery. If you’re overlanding in a Series III or older, I want to hear from you!

Defender

Land Rover’s replacements for the Series III were the 90 and 110 models, which they rebranded as Defenders in 1991. The 90 and 110 refer to the length of the chassis in inches, so 90 is the short wheel base and 110 the long wheel base (130 also available, collectors items!). I would recommend the 110 for overlanding, as there’s much more space and you sleep in the back stretched out if you’re 6’2” or less!

For overlanding, look for the 200TDi or 300TDi engines (1990-1997ish). These are 2.5L four cylinder engine blocks, with a reputation as the best engines LR ever made. They’re simple, will run off poor quality fuel, and have minimal electrics – all positives in developing countries. The turbo and intercooler give them more power than the earlier diesel engines. I would avoid the TD5 or later, as they have too many electronics on board.

Discovery

Out of my area of expertise; buy a diesel (simpler and a more widely available fuel), aim for the 200TDi or 300TDi engines.

Other 4×4

Nissan Patrol, Toyota Hilux, Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Shogun are all options, but less common. As such expertise and spares are less available. Mercedes UniMogs are for the well endowed/family overlanders.

Novelty

Many people overland in weird and wonderful vehicles. Do it! It’s very possible, so long as you have time on your side and infinite patience to wait for spare parts/tows! Possibilities include tuk tuks, Citroen 2CVs, VW Beetles…

 

Other considerations

Location of Purchase

If planning a one-way overland expedition, there’s always the option of starting at the far end and driving back home. Bear in mind that this may require you to spend a long while at the far end organising purchase of vehicle, tools, spares, and documents!

Diesel vs Petrol?

Buy a diesel if you’re going off the beaten track. Diesel is more widely available, the engines are simpler and easier to fix, and they’re often more economical. Diesel is also much safer to handle/transport.

Alloy Wheels

These look great, but once bent they are good for nothing. Better to opt for steel wheels, which can be bashed back into shape! Consider 6.5’ Land Rover steel rims rather than the standard 5.5’, they will let you mount 245 width tyres and above.

Wheel Spacers

Often fitted in tandem with alloy wheels, these allow bigger tyres but also put greater strain on the wheel barings and steering mechanism. Your call.

 

(Essential) Add Ons

Roof rack – a must have. The bigger the better in my opinion, as it gives you the flexibility to chuck everything on the roof. Expensive to buy separately, so aim for a car with one already fitted.

Roof tent – expensive, luxurious, convenient. Depends upon your budget. Allows safe and quick assembly of camp, but takes up a lot of roof rack space. A cheap alternative is to line a roof rack with plywood and pitch a bog standard tent on top.

Spare wheels x2 – punctures are common off the beaten track!

Snorkel – ideal for the wet seasons, and for the desert (reduced dust)

Split charge relay and second battery – great to run a 240v inverter, for charging phones, cameras, laptops etc

Winch – electric winches are expensive and require the correct bumpers. It depends how extreme the offroading you’re planning is, but most people use their winches infrequently if at all on overland trips. A decent hand winch is a good compromise. Alternatively, a slightly more labour intensive winch can be rigged using your hi lift jack.

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…

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.

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