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Around The Sun: Driving To South Africa

Steve Harrison sets out to drive from England to South Africa in a van which should not have been used for a journey to the local supermarket.

Some people complain that they never get to go anywhere, I tell them that every year they go round thye sun - and that's a long way by anyone’s standards.

Every two months or so I would take off on a journey. Each trip took me further, and lasted longer. First it was to the south of France, returning to England via Italy and Germany. Then it was the south of France, and on to Spain and Portugal.

Then I got the idea of driving all the way to South Africa. When I told Dad my plan he was his usual nonchalant self. "Don’t forget to send your mother a postcard,” was his advice.

No one told me the journey was unfeasable. In those days there were no Lonely Planet guides, and even if there had been I probably wouldn't have consulted them.

So off I went to my shady car dealer friend, Gordon. I asked if he could let me have a reliable car for £100, something to take me to South Africa. He sold me a Morris Minor van. Great! I could put an inflatable mattress in the back, along with a sleeping bag, a pillow, food, water and a spare can of petrol. On examining a map I had noticed a nasty looking desert. I thought I would need some extra supplies, and luck, to cross it.

Down the M1 motorway I went, on to Dover and the ferry to Calais. I was flying along. At this rate I would be in South Africa in next to no time. I was confident about driving in France. I headed for Paris, then down the highway to Lyon and Marseilles. When I felt tired I slept in the back of the van.

At Marseilles I turned right, following the coast through to Perpignan and the Spanish border. My Readers Digest road maps of the world enabled me to navigate. Problems emerged. It became increasingly difficult to close the van's rear doors. It was even harder to pump petrol into the tank, which somehow had slipped out of its proper alignment.

Undeterred, I sped on. I was determined to make it into Spain before settling downfor the night. To my astonishment, I found myself being chased by military police. They brandished guns and made threatening gestures indicating that I should pull over.

I did as they indicated. Apparently I had crossed the border without stopping. They wanted to see my papers. I showed them my passport and the vehicle's documents, signed some forms, then drove on.

I was in Spain!

Next day I reached Barcelona. By this time I had to take extreme measures to fill the petrol tank, and the rear doors had to be held together with an elasticated strap. Something was drastically wrong.

I travelled on to Almeria in southern Spain. There the landscape was dry and barren. The back end of the car was getting closer and closer to the road with each mile that went by. I was intending to reach Algeciras, then go from there on a ferry to Morocco, but the back end of the car was now dragging on the road. Sparks flew in all directions. People were coming out of buildings to see me pass by.

Some 20 miles from Torremolenos I ran out of petrol. There was no hope of filling the tank. It was rubbing on the ground. And the vehicle's back doors yawned wide apart.

I cursed Gordon for selling me a dud car. Looking back on it he probably thought my story of driving to South Africa was just a mad invention, that I would merely use the car to chug around town. Anyway, there I was in the south of Spain, and the van was a goner. I left it in a ditch, collected as much stuff as I could carry, and caught a bus into Torremolenos, intending to find a place to stay that night.

On the bus a young guy who spoke pretty good English asked if the vehicle abandoned at the side of the road was mine. He warned that the local police arrested people for that sort of thing. Something else to worry about.

I found a good cheap place to stay in Torremolenos. I also found an English pub called The Red Lion and had a few beers there. Then I headed back up the road to collect the rest of my stuff from the van.

Trouble lay in wait. There was a police van parked by my van. I loitered around, wondering what to do. By this time it was dark. Eventually I decided to take a risk. I dived into the ditch, and crawled along on my belly to my van. I climbed inside and started stuffing my things into a big. Suddenly the inside of the van was lit up. A flashlight was shining through the windscreen.

The Police didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Spanish. Someone we communicated in fragments of French. I managed to convince them that on the following day the van would be towed to a garage. They inspected my passport. Then I caught the bus back into town.

Phew, thought I. That was a close call. Goodbye little van!

I hung around for several days in Torremolenos, having a good time in all the bars, enjoying the cheap Sangria. Then I bumped into another person who told me that dumping vehicles was a criminal offence in Spain, so off I went, heading for Morocco as quickly as possible.

I met some travelers who said they were on their way to France. “Hey! are you going to Algeria? We can change some money for you.''

They did. I was handed a bundle of Algerian whatever’s.

And I was on my way to North Africa.

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