The Paris - Dakar Rally; the most dangerous race in the world. It costs £18,000 just to enter and with 48 deaths recorded and only a 40% success rate there's a good chance you won't make it. If you don't like the odds, don't have the cash but don't want to miss out, why not try the Plymouth - Banjul Challenge?
It follows a similar route to the original Paris - Dakar but the entry fee is a mere £250. A few guidelines ensure costs don't escalate to 'Paris - Dakar' proportions; cars should cost less than £100 with a preparation budget of £15 and all cars must be left hand drive as they will remain in the country to be auctioned for charity. But what car bought for £100 could hope to make it 4200 miles to West Africa? That's what Claire and I asked when we decided to take up the challenge.
A VW chat forum led us to our car of choice; a 1972 VW Beetle named Poldi. Tony at Lust for Rust got him running, spent days welding and replaced the rusty wing. Then, he undid all his good work by handing the car over to two girls, with no mechanical skills whatsoever, to drive through mountains, deserts and the odd minefield! Some people didn't think we'd make it; some people said we wouldn't make it out of the UK!
"Who's your friend?" said a fellow rally entrant when we arrived at the Brittany Ferries terminal. They were referring to the brightly coloured recovery van following us. Embarrassingly we had to admit our first breakdown had been 20 minutes from home. The Beetle was escorted, coughing and spluttering, the rest of the way to Portsmouth unable to go over 60kph. A fault eventually traced by French VW enthusiasts to rust inside the petrol tank blocking the fuel lines. They fed us, put us up for the night and by morning had replaced the tank.
A day behind schedule our sight-seeing list went out the window. We had some serious catching up to do! We drove for 18 hours straight through the night. Sunrise illuminated fields of Spanish oranges and an ominous knocking noise beneath our feet grew louder. We jacked the car up in a bleak industrial estate, deserted but for a group of Honduran welders. Welding wasn't required, what we needed was a new wheel bearing. The problem was it was New Years Eve so nowhere would be open for two days. Enter Pedro, the tow truck driver; he found a new bearing, fitted it for us and sent us on our way with two bottles of champagne to see in the new year.
New Years Eve was spent in a dreary roadside hotel near Valencia. The real celebration came the next night when we caught up with the rest of the rally group in Tarifa. By the time we surfaced next morning only three cars were left in the car park; Poldi, a Fiat Uno and a Renault 19. Everyone else had caught the early ferry to Morocco. We were playing catch up again but at least we weren't alone as we drove on to African soil.
After the breakdowns in Europe, Morocco was a breeze, the Beetle ran faultlessly. We even caught up with other teams who had been lost and a BMW that broke down every 20 minutes; in the absence of a local Halfords they improvised, replacing the fuel lines with a garden hosepipe. When that didn't fix the problem the Fiat Uno helped by pushing it up hills.
Don't bother asking for directions in the Riff Mountains, the answer will be "You want hash?" This could explain why so many people walk in the road at night. Add to that the goats, cows, bikes and cars with no headlights and night driving frays the nerves more than a little.
Leaving Marrakech the horizon is a barrier of mountains, white peaks vanishing into the clouds. A group of Land Rovers pulled into the petrol station. "You need a 4 wheel drive to get over the Atlas Mountains" they said, sneering at our little convoy. "You haven't got a prayer in that!" They were pointing at our Beetle. We had been debating whether or not to attempt the high mountain passes but that swung it. He may be old, he may be rusty but no one tells us 'Poldi' can't make it up a hill! We made it through the Riff Mountains, how much worse could the Atlas Mountains be?
Crumbling roads clung precariously to the hillsides, coaches and lorries hurtled around blind corners, barely wide enough for two cars. On some of the sharpest bends attempts had been made to erect crash barriers, all of these were scarred or missing large sections, evidence of those who didn't make it.
We arrived at the café on the Tizi n Test pass, the highest point, in time for lunch. As we were finishing our Berber omelettes a Trabant pulled up - who said you need a 4x4 to cross the Atlas Mountains? Descending from the mountains the road straightens out, green gives way to gold. The desert took over as we travelled across the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Crossing the Mauritanian border means driving through 3km of minefield, not the best place to dig a stranded Uno out of soft sand and certainly not recommended in the guidebook. The book does advise crossing in daylight but as the little Fiat chose this as the location for its one and only breakdown, that didn't happen. Hazard lights pierced the darkness as Chris replaced the faulty distributor, all the while swearing about Italian electrics.
Back on tarmac roads our confidence was short lived; who knew what dangers lived in the night-darkened desert just a few feet away? The camels blended into the shadows and were running fast when they appeared in the road, they weren't about to stop for a few old bangers. Somehow a collision was avoided with both cars and camels continuing unscathed.
The little convoy moved slower after that, partly from nerves, partly because the Beetle had cracked a shock absorber. It was leaking fluid, leaving us wobbling along at 70kph, not the best condition for driving through the desert but where do you buy shocks for a '72 Beetle in Africa? "No! The car is ancient!" was the response from every garage we tried. Then we met Ottman, the hotel mechanic. His solution to the problem was to leave us in the bar while he took care of Poldi. Several beers later he returned the car with a clean bill of health, ready for our off road desert experience.
The Sahara Desert is almost as large as the whole of the United States. It has one of the harshest climates on Earth with temperatures soaring as high as 58 Celsius. Rainfall occurs, on average, one day every two years; our timing was impeccable!
Dust devils on the horizon hinted at worse things than rain to come. Now travelling in a seven car convoy we experienced the worst sandstorm to hit the region in over 7 years.
"Floor it when you hit soft sand and put your hazards on so the car behind knows." was the advice from our guide. Looking in the rear view mirror a very surreal scene met my eyes; a Welsh ambulance slalomed through the sand, blue lights flashing. We passed a pink, flowery Suzuki Samurai towing a surfer behind and a Peugeot whose wheel fell off.
The desert played Russian roulette with all of us. The Peugeot was the first of its victims, left behind with the camels for the want of a wheel bearing. A mystery ailment claimed the Fiat Cromer, which refused to start after the sandstorm, and a cracked cylinder head sealed the fate of the rusty Renault 19. Luckily the Welsh ambulance was on hand to rescue the stranded occupants.
When I entered the Plymouth - Banjul Challenge I never imagined it would involve people smuggling but importing cars into Mauritania is illegal and the three cars left in the desert had effectively been imported! The customs official would not permit the cars' owners to continue to Senegal without them, but recovering the cars was not an option. The police were a little more understanding; they arranged for the owners of the three cars to be taken across the border, under cover of darkness, in a small wooden fishing boat
The Senegalese authorities take greater precautions against tourists dumping cars. A customs officer escorts the entire rally group to the Gambian border, that is, if you can keep up. The Beetle was suffering again, worn track rod ends meant severe juddering if we went over 60kph. We arrived at the border at 1am with the other stragglers, a black Volvo 240 whose lights had failed and an ex-army Land Rover.
After our arrival in Banjul all the cars were auctioned with the proceeds going to Gambian charities. An Iranian Princess is now riding around Gambia in a bright orange Beetle named Poldi. Although the cheapest car sold that day he still fetched 14,000 Dalhasi, around £300.
A viable alternative to the Paris - Dakar? Well, thankfully the desert section is much shorter, or we could have lost all the cars in our group. It's totally unsupported; if you get into trouble you're on your own. That said, teams look out for each other and the locals are very helpful. The risk of death is minimal and it's affordable; move over Mark Thatcher, trans-continental rallying is no longer the exclusive domain of the super-rich!