I arrived in London on a Monday morning, 19th August 1996. I had arranged to stay with a family friend, whom I had never met. I woke Simon up at 6am when I arrived at his flat in Osterley. I had the days to myself, going out and exploring London and buying last minute things. On the Thursday before the trip began, our pre-departure meeting was held at the head office of Encounter Overland, in Earls Court. We all gathered in the offices, discussed general things, checked each other out and then headed over to the pub across the road for a few beers. I had to catch the train back out to Osterley that night, but had planned to spend the night before the tour departed at a hotel near the Encounter offices.
SATURDAY 24TH AUGUST
Early on Saturday morning we gathered again in Earls Court. After a hearty breakfast in a local pub we boarded a bus, which was to take us to the ferry terminal at Dover. English law prevented us from sitting in the expedition truck, as there were not sufficient seat belts for all the passengers. We prepared a quick lunch in the ferry terminal car park, and already the ‘organisers’ of the group were becoming apparent.
On board the ferry a few of us headed straight to the bar for a few beers. This same group was to maintain the same behavior throughout the tour. We all bought a bottle of duty free alcohol. Mine was Absolut vodka. It lasted two nights……
I was not at all impressed by Calais. Having been back a few times since, my first impressions remain. It is a dull, industrial town. Its saving grace is the French supermarkets – some respite from English ‘cuisine’. We found our campground, which was at Boulougne, just out of Calais. We were shown how to set up our tents and camp beds, how the truck was set up, where everything ‘lived’. We also had a meeting to establish some ground rules. At first I would be forgiven for thinking I had stumbled into a Stalag 13 themed holiday. There were rules for EVERYTHING. However, over time these rules became a part of our routine and helped to ensure the smooth running of 21 people’s lives for the next 6 months.
We established a rota for cooking, cooks helpers, security of the truck and baggage packers (our bags were stored in a trailer which had to be unpacked and then repacked twice a day). The duties were organised as such:
* 4 people would work in teams of two for truck security. So when we were stopped somewhere for the night, or stopped in a town, or anywhere for that matter, there was always someone on the truck guarding our gear.
* two people to cook lunch, evening meal and breakfast. The cooking rota started with lunch, with the plan being to do the day’s shopping in the morning. We had approximately US$50.00 per day to provide 3 meals for 21 people. I do not ever remember going hungry and we all ate very well. Sometimes food buying had to be planned ahead to account for times when we would not be stopped near a town or village. The cooks got to sleep in the truck on the night they had to cook.
* two cooks helpers. These people had to erect the cook tent, set up the cooking equipment, assist with shopping and help with cooking and serving of the food. The consolation of being a cook’s helper was that you could sleep in the cook tent that night, and not have to put up your own tent.
The rota changed daily, so you had to cook once every 9 or 10 days. The organisation would be refined as we went along, with all of us learning to compromise and cooperate with each other in how we ran our lives. I cannot deny though, the benefit of having a good organisation of the truck. With everything that can go wrong on such a trip, it pays to try and eliminate as many factors as possible through good organisation.
So to conclude the first night, it was freezing cold and raining. I also managed to drop my spare contact lens case down the toilet.
Night 1. Camping in a field in France
SUNDAY 25TH AUGUST
We packed up camp, had breakfast and left at 9am (what would soon become known as a ‘late’ start to the day). We drove south towards Rouen. We were in the Normandy region of France, with field upon field of corn and lovely old farmhouses. It was still raining, and after manipulating some very narrow streets in Rouen we continued south. After finding a largish wayside stop we had our lunch break. It was a typical French meal of baguette, ham, cheese and salad.
I seem to have developed a bit of a sinus problem, maybe from the fields, and I am sneezing constantly. The further south we went the weather improved more and more. We found a campground near Le Mans and managed to set up camp in good weather. It was warm enough for me to wear a t-shirt for a few hours. We had a bit of a party this night. We ended up with the dangerous mix of Chilean red wine and whiskey. It was too much for some of the group and my tent companion managed to puke all over me in our tent. I was running around at 1am getting buckets of fresh water and contemplating whether to force her to sleep outside or not. Fatigue won over and after cleaning up my sleeping gear I fell asleep without too many problems.
Roadside lunch stop – France
MONDAY 26TH AUGUST TO FRIDAY 30TH AUGUST
Left the Le Mans area and continued south. The days have been fairly long – covering long distances in the truck. Everyone manages to keep him or herself busy, and occasionally have a sleep whilst we are driving along. We are heading towards Bordeaux. It is here that we will meet up with a guy who works for Encounter Overland. We gave him our passports just after we entered France, and he has spent the last day or so in Paris getting our Mali and Niger visas.
Stopped at a huge supermarket ‘warehouse’ and began to stock the ‘bar’. I am sharing the responsibility of running the bar for the group. We all put in an initial investment, then sell the drinks to the rest of the group. The small mark up earns us a profit that will be used for a dinner at the end of the trip. it saves people fighting over whose drinks are what and other people just drinking everyone else’s beer and wine.
We camped in a field tonight. There was a graveyard and church at the top of the hill and we were camped down the bottom. It was ‘free camping’ so there were no facilities. I got a nice collection of scratches from the blackberry bushes when I had to sneak off to go to the toilet.
Next day we drove into Bordeaux and spent half a day looking around and trying to find a bank to change some traveler’s cheques. We eventually found a place that had opened (12-2pm is lunchtime and everything is closed). Those who could changed money there and then we went back to the truck. It was a long drive for the rest of the day and we crossed the border into Spain that evening.
Up into the Pyrenees we drove, looking for somewhere to camp. It was late by the time we pulled off into a parking area. There were some nice fields to set up our tents, but whilst trying to get the truck as far off the road as we could, it got bogged. I had heard about the perils of getting bogged in Africa, but had no idea it was so easy to get bogged even in Spain! The field happened to be for growing grass for the cows, and the angry landowners quickly found us, talking away in Spanish, which no one in the group could speak. After churning up their field a bit more we got the truck back to solid ground and managed to get the tents up at about 11pm. I was exhausted and slept really well. Bruce found a large cement pipe and slept in there. Couldn’t be bothered to put up his tent I guess.
We woke up at 6am and rushed through our packing up and breakfast. The mountains were beautiful, all green and well watered. There were a few sheep around and lots of nice stone farmhouses with colorful window boxes. We stopped for a short time at a lovely town called Vittoria. Went into a Tapas bar and had a glass of red wine and some pickled octopus, all great value at about 50 cents a serve. I am convinced that Spanish coffee is the best I have had anywhere in the world. As we drive towards Madrid the weather is cloudy and breezy with occasional breaks of blue sky.
View – on the road
SATURDAY 31ST AUGUST
We are continuing south towards Granada. Our 2nd night in Spain was at Madrid – Camping Osuna. We were there for 2 nights so everyone made the most of it and did some clothes washing. The campsite was in a fairly grungy part of town – there were shanty houses nearby and evidence of people sleeping rough under bridges and so on.
We had a whole day in Madrid, where we had to get our Mauritanian visas underway. We all first went off to our respective embassies to get the compulsory letter of introduction. It states that I am a good citizen and worthy of entry into all countries of the world. The Australian Embassy was way out of town in the suburbs so we had to work out how to use the Metro to get there. Like all Metros it is easy as long as you know where you are going to in the first place. The subway and the trains themselves were very clean and the fare was only 130 Pt for as long as you wanted to ride on the trains, the only catch being that you cannot leave the station. The Australian Embassy happened to be located on the second floor of a building, above a girlie bar. The staff were very helpful and did a letter for free.
After the visas were lodged we had a free afternoon to explore Madrid. We found a bar and had lunch – tortilla (potato pancake) and a few glasses of red wine. After that we wandered around a lovely park. Pat and I went back early because we were cooks helpers that night.
After dinner we all got really drunk and I didn’t get to sleep until 3am. At one stage, when it began to rain, we had everyone piled into the cook tent, around the esky (cooler). Luckily we could sleep in that morning.
We did leave Madrid later that day, after collecting our Mauritanian visas. We stopped for the night at a remote area a few kilometers off the main road. We set up camp in an area of flat rock on a rise making it the highest point in the area. This didn’t help our tent-erecting activities that night, due to the gale force wind that swept across the plains and through our campsite. More tents blew down than stayed up, and Pat and I were glad to be in the truck that night – the privilege of being cooks.
We made Paella with chicken, squid and prawns. We had gone shopping that morning in Madrid – wandering around the local market buying up fruit and veggies, bread and meat. The local bread is like a baguette but smaller and cost only 30 cents each. I bought the squid whole and had to clean them that night. It was a novelty, especially the Europeans in the group who were not accustomed to seeing fresh seafood. We cooked the rice in chicken stock and white wine and the meal tasted really good.
This morning we stopped at a big shopping mall. I bought a pair of sandals as my other pair were making the soles of my feet blister. Hopefully these won’t fall apart before Cairo. I haven’t taken many photos yet. The countryside is very dry and barren. They do grow these little bushy trees everywhere but I can’t work out what they are. Maybe olives. It reminds me a bit of home – lots of open space, and the heat. Although it is in the low 30 degress celsius, the sun doesn’t seem as harsh as it is at home – maybe the hole in the ozone layer is smaller over Spain. There is hardly a cloud in the sky and it is a hazy blue colour, not dark bright blue at home. Last night there was a spectacular sunset – deep red – but I didn’t get a photo as I was cooking.
SUNDAY 1ST SEPTEMBER
Well, we are finally on our way – Africa is on the horizon. At present we are on the ferry from Algiceras to Ceuta, which is on the African mainland. It is a Spanish-held enclave – a bit of an administrative area before the onslaught of Africa and it’s total lack of administration and organisation. The ferry is a big old rust bucket. I am amazed that it makes it across the Straits of Gibraltar every day. At least it is not full, so though it may look like a sardine can, we don’t feel like sardines packed in there.
It was a bit overcast this morning but still warm. We had a nice curry last night for dinner then sat around drinking a Spanish liquer which tasted like oranges. Went to bed at midnight and was up at 6am. I am amazed at how well I am sleeping – I guess the long days outdoors just tire me out. But I am not exhausted, so even 6 hours sleep seems to be enough to recharge for the next day. There were a few cats hanging around the tents. We fed them and played with them – they were really skinny.
So far I have managed to avoid any gut problems but I have had a cold, a mouth ulcer and a swollen cheekbone.So far the trip doesn’t seem much like the adventure I thought it would be. But I suppose that with the stark change in culture from Spain to Morocco – Europe to Africa, it will begin to get a bit more exciting.