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Driving the Plymouth to Banjul Challenge

At first glance it might not seem like such a great adventure. “Three weeks of sitting on your backside in a rubbish car,” was one dismissive comment that I heard during the build up to the Plymouth to Banjul Challenge. But not every travel adventure has to involve strapping on boots or wringing cold water out of your socks. The Plymouth to Banjul Challenge (or PBC to its friends) delivers a quite different set of challenges, and packs them all together in an intense headlong dash across Europe and the Sahara.

The route down Africa

They call it the world’s craziest rally. I wouldn’t disagree. To begin with, it is a rally, so you need to provide a car, but here’s the catch: the car must cost less than £100. For readers outside Britain let me translate. We are talking here about a car worth no more than $200 (or less than €180). Wherever you find this car, it will inevitably be a hopeless banger. And that is the first part of the challenge – finding the car. It has to be Left Hand Drive, which means that you may end up, as we did, scouring scrap yards in France. We found a 1987 Renault 5 of indeterminate mileage (the odometer didn’t work). It spluttered unsteadily out of a junk yard in Brittany, and then we drove it home to Walsall in England’s West Midlands – around 900 kilometres. We christened it ‘Kermit’. Then we set about getting it ready for the challenge. But here is the second catch: you can only spend £15 on repairs and renovations. That rather stumped us. So instead we concentrated on getting sponsors so that we could look like a real rally car with logos emblazoned on the bonnet. For a couple of hopeless non-mechanics, that was much more fun.

When Julian Nowill and Drew Heavey started the PBC in 2003, it was a reaction to the growing popularity of the Paris-Dakkar Rally. They figured that participants in the Paris-Dakkar were becoming too cosseted, with a growing army of support vehicles and helicopters, to say nothing of the world’s media, all in pursuit of vehicles that cost one small fortune to prepare, and another just to enter the event.

Breakdown en route to Dakhla, day 11

The PBC was to be nothing like this. The entrance fee would be nominal, cars would be virtually worthless, and there would be no support. The starting point could be Plymouth – but hey, who really cares. The end point would be Banjul in the Gambia – a day’s drive south of Dakkar. And the only real rule, apart from the ones we just mentioned, is to offer support, and if needed a lift, to any other team who need it.

Around 200 teams tackle the challenge every year, with fifty cars in various states of rust and disrepair starting at more or less the same time in four separate groups. We set off, me and my co-driver Mike, on a cold February evening; two rather out-of-condition (and past our prime) IT consultants, feeling hopelessly under-prepared. It was to emerge a day or so later that the only tools we had remembered to pack were a Swiss Army Knife and some scissors. Never mind. We had more than enough music, stacks of food, and mounds of camping gear. We were team ‘Reservoir Frogs’, raising money for Kid’s Action, to support an orphanage project in Sierra Leone. We felt super cool turning onto the M6 in our rusty banger decorated with logos and signed names and goodwill wishes, and with our Jerry Cans on the roof. On the back door we had written, ‘Can this Old Banger Defeat the Mighty Sahara?’  The way we felt, we had no doubt at all. By the time we reached the M1 we were up to top speed.

The route of the PBC, like everything else about this rally, is a little vague. The first of two pre-arranged venues is a hotel near Gibraltar, three days driving, any route you choose, from the channel ports. For most of us, this is the first time we meet with other participants.

Kermit in the sea, day 15

The bar fills up with excited travellers all anxious to share stories about the journey down through Europe. The car-park is blocked with old bangers, and the local scrap yard is doing brisk business in spare tyres and jerry cans.

A ferry ride and a difficult border crossing later and we’re in Morocco, battling the traffic in Casablanca, and chilling out in Marrakech. Then come the Atlas Mountains – not for the faint hearted and certainly not for Kermit. We took one look at the roads and chose instead to go the long way around. We had discovered on France’s Massif-Central that Kermit’s little 1000cc engine wasn’t very good on the hills and we wanted to keep it going as far as the desert. The decision meant that we missed some awesome scenery by all accounts. But no route avoids hills altogether, and the road from Southern Morocco to Western Sahara twists and climbs until it finally levels out into a long straight ribbon of tarmac heading due south down the Skeleton Coast.

By now we had coalesced into a convoy of half a dozen cars, and we were learning the rules of convoy driving. Rule One should be,  ‘keep a look out for the car behind you.’ It’s a valuable rule. On wide open roads our convoy could hurtle full-tilt, but the days were getting hot, and cars were starting to develop problems. Every time this happened the whole convoy would stop. It was an opportunity for running repairs, for a comfort break, for photographs, or even for one team, to brew a cup of tea.

Kermit on the road to Nouadhibou, day 13

And then off again. This is the hard part of the rally, the tough slog south. The landscape slowly morphs from rocky plains to sandy desert. The roads are empty of vehicles. Almost two weeks after leaving England, we reach the Mauritanian Border, negotiating a five mile minefield with a guide. All talk now is of the desert. We have had a steel sump guard fitted to Kermit by a backstreet mechanic in Dakhla. It gives us extra confidence. The four-star fuel we’ve been buying seems to improve our performance too. Two full cans are strapped to the roof. We feel ready.

But is anyone ever really ready for the desert? Our Mauritanian guide seemed to be. We let air out of our tyres and he gave us some instructions. Drive as fast as you can, speed up if you see deep sand and keep your wheels straight. We tried it and it seemed to work. We would fly towards a basin of soft sand and try to keep the momentum going to the other side. Sometimes, of course, it didn’t work. Then the whole convoy would stop and we’d dig and push until the car at fault was released and off we’d go. This was how we’d have to do it for the next 350 miles.

The PBC is not, you see, a package holiday. While most of the cars that make it as far as Gibraltar do eventually get to Banjul, many fall along the way. In our group of fifty, one team lost their way in the desert, got stuck in sand, and waited three days for a rescue. Another spent ten days in detention in Senegal. Another team of eight driving a yellow American school-bus cracked a cam shaft in Western Sahara and had to fly home. One team wrote off their car when they hit a donkey. And yet another never made it off the ferry from Dover when their car failed to start. These are some of the hazards of the Plymouth to Banjul Rally.  But there is more than enough adventure to compensate for the hazards. A hundred mile beach drive along soft sand at low tide is awesome. A bone-shaking journey along an eighty-mile dam is another. As the landscape changes again from desert to scrub to semi-forest, the roads take a turn for the worse. Our final day was a sixteen hour ordeal over tracks that may once have been roads but were now little more than a collection of potholes.  At 2am we were in Banjul. Our car was bent and battered, with only two good gears remaining and doors that no longer properly closed. We had been travelling for nineteen days, and had driven 3,600 miles.

So would we do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? If you have a spirit of adventure, and don’t care too much if things go wrong, then go for it. It is an adventure you’ll never forget.

Mike and John in the desert

‘What became of Kermit?’ people ask. Well, the final rule of the PBC is that all cars and spare equipment should be donated to an auction for local Gambian charities. So a month after it left England our little Renault 5 was sold for £520.

About the Author
Dr John Ironmonger is an IT Consultant and Zoologist. He is the author of ‘The Good Zoo Guide’ a comprehensive guide to British Zoos and Safari Parks, and a novel ‘Daughters of Artemis’. He climbed Kilimanjaro twice before he was sixteen and then gave up adventuring for three decades. Now he’s looking for the next adventure.

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