Hazel and Ron Postma leaving Holland with their 1990 Mazda 323 Dec. 18, 2006
Hazel and Ron Postma leaving Holland with their 1990 Mazda 323 Dec. 18, 2006. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Hazel and Ron Postma

Photo Gallery: Plymouth to Banjul Challenge

There’s something liberating about being so dirty that wiping a peanut-butter covered knife on your pants is of no consequence.

Keeping clean was the only part of the Plymouth to Banjul Challenge we failed. The rest was simply a matter of learning to wait. We waited for ferries, and at borders, we waited to be fleeced by customs officials and police; we waited to set off each morning; we waited through scores of “bodges” (English slang for creative repairs) and dozens of sand rescues. We waited even when it wasn’t necessary to wait because by then we had got into the habit of it.

Apart from waiting, the Plymouth to Banjul Challenge involves driving 6,500 kilometres across Europe through the Sahara Desert to West Africa in a left-hand drive car that costs less than $500. If you arrive your car is sold to raise money for charity.

Since 2003, when a Devon stockbroker started the Challenge in protest at the high cost of the famous Paris to Dakar Rally, more than $230,000 has been raised for Gambian hospitals and schools.

Ron and I are the first Canadians to take on the Challenge. We spent $490 on our car, a 1990 Mazda 323 hatchback. It required no work apart the addition of skid plates to protect the fuel tank and engine, and a roof-rack with spotlights attached.

Cars in the sand
Cars in the sand. Click image to enlarge

We left from Holland where we had bought our car and raced through Belgium, France and Spain in order to catch up with the other 43 vehicles in Group 1 of the 06/07 Challenge at Tarifa in southern Spain three days later.

It wasn’t hard to miss the gathering place – outside the Hotel Meson de Sancho were a motley collection of vehicles, most of them with hoods up and legs sticking out from underneath. There was a Mercedes-Benz hearse, a Union Jack disguised as a Mini, a Ford Bronco, an orange Peugeot driven by three female Dutch helicopter pilots, a pink Trabant, and numerous Peugeots, VWs, and Renaults. We squeezed in beside the least disreputable vehicle and joined everyone for a night of socializing.

Our first mistake was in opting for the 11 a.m. ferry to Tangiers when everyone else decided to catch the 9 a.m. (Sheer laziness – we fancied an extra hour in bed and the buffet breakfast.) We woke to find our fellow challengers had emptied the hot water tanks and the dining room was closed.

We were not the only ones waiting to catch the ferry. Ten hours later, after police were summoned to quell potential riots and we had been sequestered in the overflow parking lot without refreshments or washrooms, we boarded the ferry.

Mazda parked next to a Camel crossing sign in Western Sahara
Mazda parked next to a Camel crossing sign in Western Sahara. Click image to enlarge

Upon arrival in Tangiers a man approached and said for a small present – the first time we heard the dreaded word “cadeau” – he would smooth our way. He suggested five Euros and Ron handed it over. I was for offering a Canada pin, courtesy of our MP, but Ron felt five Euros to be a fair price given our somewhat unorthodox paperwork. Several hours and two additional “cadeaux” later, we were permitted to enter Morocco.

Speeding past fields fenced by cacti, forests of cork trees, donkey-drawn carts and herds of goats we headed south to Marrakech where all teams were spending Christmas. Once there, we discovered that most people had already organized themselves into convoys of five or six vehicles for the desert section and we started to stress about finding a group.

We left Marrakech without resolving the issue, opting to take the Tizi n’Test pass through the High Atlas then down to Taroundant, a beautiful red-walled city in the fertile Souss valley, before heading to Laayoune and a campsite where most teams planned to rendezvous.

Hiring guides at a campsite in Dakhla Western Sahara
Hiring guides at a campsite in Dakhla Western Sahara. Click image to enlarge

We were now in Western Sahara where the inhabitants, mainly Berbers and Saharawis, want their independence from Morocco and police and military checkpoints abound. We missed the campsite after being directed south of town instead of north and it wasn’t until the following day, after 600 kilometres of monotonous rocky scrubland that we pulled into the final rendezvous at Dakhla. By evening we were hiring a guide as part of a seven vehicle convoy that included a 1988 VW Golf, a 1987 Chevy Blazer, a 1986 Renault 5 GT, a 1989 Volvo 360, a 1990 Dodge Caravan and a 1990 Peugeot 205.

Major repairs were deemed necessary and our 3 p.m. departure eventually became 8 p.m. resulting in a 300-kilometre drive at night to the tip of Western Sahara where rumour had it there was a hotel with showers. Alas, other teams had arrived first and we had to pitch our tents at the gas station.

Clearing the Moroccan border took hours and numerous payments but our guide was there to steer us through a moonscape of no man’s land littered with car wrecks and unexploded landmines. Two ramshackle huts marked the entrance to Mauritania where a series of fees were levied and our cars searched for illegal alcohol. Most Challengers had decanted their supplies into water bottles so this was not a problem.

We spent the night in Nouadhibou, described by the Challenge Roadbook as an outlaw town run by criminals. Given that we arrived the day Saddam Hussein was executed we stayed close to the campsite. The next morning it became clear that our trip through the Sahara would involve as much bodging as it would getting stuck in sand. It took half-an-hour just to start the Blazer – it had transmission problems and was reduced to first and second gear plus one of its two fuel injectors had packed up – and the Volvo’s radiator had sprung a leak.

The Mazda stuck in the sand in Sahara in Mauritania
The Mazda stuck in the sand in Sahara in Mauritania. Click image to enlarge

We were off-road at noon and by 12.03 stuck in the sand. All 15 of us – 10 men and four women plus the guide – piled out to push, pull and tow. The Renault had sand ladders – treads from an industrial staircase – which were repeatedly pressed into service. A fierce wind blew sand into our eyes and mouths and we regretted ignoring advice to pack ski goggles. Pretty soon we had all taken on a peculiar orange hue and were winding scarves and T-shirts over our heads and faces.

The land was flat and barren with only an occasional bush or tree and the Lawrence of Arabia-style sand dunes I had naively expected were few and far between. Happily, one appeared towards dusk and we opted to spend New Year’s Eve beside it.

Sitting around a campfire enjoying couscous and pasta washed down with champagne, it was clear we had bonded as a team despite being strangers days before. Mutual respect and trust were evident through countless breakdowns and route changes, border delays and missed meals while laughter was a constant backdrop.

Chevy Blazer just prior to its final breakdown
Chevy Blazer just prior to its final breakdown. Click image to enlarge

Over the next few days our driving improved but mechanical problems took their toll. The Blazer’s engine finally died and the decision was made to abandon it. The Volvo had done a great job of towing but was itself now overheating and requiring copious amounts of water for its radiator. (The fact that one refill was actually Sambucca did not seem to have a detrimental effect.)

Blazer owners Kate and Rod sadly distributed their possessions among the rest of us before leaving it behind a dune from whence our guide would rescue it and take care of the paperwork needed to record its (mythical) exit from Mauritania.

Lying in our tent that night, Ron and I realized we were losing our battle with cleanliness. Each breeze wafted another layer of fine sand through the tent screen and onto our hair and faces. Our baby-wipes were running out, we had no water for washing and changing our clothes was an obvious wasted effort.

The next morning it was time to make good on our offer to prepare a Canadian breakfast for the group. The pancakes and maple syrup would have tasted a lot better had they not fallen in the sand but our teammates rose to the occasion, picked them up, brushed them off and crunched away.

After close to four days of desert we were happy to leave it behind for the 100-kilometre stretch of beach road that would take us to Nouakchott. With salt water on one side, dunes the other and rocks in the middle, it was like being in a particularly challenging video game. Hugh, the intrepid driver of the Volvo, aimed straight into flocks of gulls that wheeled up in their hundreds. This soon overheated the Volvo’s engine and it had to be jump-started before it could continue scaring more wildlife.

Repairs and more repairs
Repairs and more repairs. Click image to enlarge

Roads in Mauritania were more potholes than paths and despite the exhilaration of flying over gullies and around gaping holes, they exacted a high price. By the time we reached the Senegalese border we were fixing the Golf’s exhaust, the Renault’s suspension and the Volvo’s alternator belts.

Senegal prohibits the import of vehicles older than five years so it was a tad embarrassing to be towing the Peugeot across the border but having levied ridiculous fees for visas, insurance, a bridge crossing and an escort through the country to make sure you took your vehicle with you, customs officials didn’t seem to care.

We rejoined other groups at a campsite near St. Louis, in the north of Senegal. It was a verdant oasis after the desert and the perfect place to rest up before the escorted drive across Senegal to the Gambian border.

Breaking down opposite a very smelly dead donkey
Breaking down opposite a very smelly dead donkey. Click image to enlarge

With 19 vehicles, the convoy was doomed from the start. The first stop was for gas where the poor pump jockey hand-pumped close to 500 litres, the second was to fix the Renault which had broken down opposite an extremely smelly dead donkey. An hour later, the escort had vanished, we had misplaced the Peugeot, gained two Jeeps and were towing the Renault which had blown its head gasket. By evening we had covered only 260 kilometres and still had double that to reach Gambia. Deeming it too dangerous to tow in the dark we pulled off the road and pitched our tents in a field. Every nasty little burr in Senegal was in that field and soon on us.

The next day we continued on what the map euphemistically described as a highway but was little more than a dirt track around potholes and it was afternoon before we arrived at the Gambian customs and began to celebrate. Little did we know that hours of purgatory awaited.

Gambia is a sliver of a country carved out of Senegal. It runs north and south of the Gambia River that has to be crossed to get to Banjul, our final destination. We spent seven ghastly hours in the ferry lineup, hedged in by hordes of aggressive locals demanding presents. We sat in our cars with the windows up until we almost suffocated – it was about 30 C – then stood outside subjected to even more intense hassling. Miraculously we made it onto the last ferry, preceded by a herd of goats, with the Volvo still towing the Renault, and by midnight Jan. 7 had indeed completed the Challenge.

Hazel & Ron Postma were supported by RP Diagnostic Service Centre, Lordco Auto Parts, Buzzards Restaurant, Calgary and Vonk Garage, Holland. Their car cost $490 and raised $1,100 for health and educational projects in Gambia.

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