Adventures from a Banger Rally in which our Editor falls down a hole
As you know, we’ve been quite deeply involved in the RatRod 2011 here at AROnline. What with supporting a couple of teams driving cars from the ARG stable, and me joining the event at the end to bring back one of the cars, it’s certainly generated some interesting stories over the past couple of weeks. Steven Ward’s tale of Team FTW makes great reading, and and I’m hoping we can get Alex Sebbinger’s story from inside Team Now We’re Motoring to complement it…
My team, which comprised of Andrew Elphick and myself didn’t look quite so healthy. Mainly because I couldn’t go in the end. So poor old Andrew hitched with Alex and Rhydian Edwards in their Montego 1.6L, with the promise that we’d drive back Team FTW’s Rover 216GTI. Although the event ended in Brasov, Team FTW was flying back to the UK from Bucharest – and it would be here that they’d hand over the Rover to Andrew and me, where we’d dutifully bring it back to the UK following an uneventful drive back. It seemed like a great plan.
I should have realised from the outset that the trip was going to be jinxed. The evening before I was due to fly out to Bucharest, I checked online to see why my bus transfer e-ticket had never arrived. Then I saw the date: 17 September! I was supposed to be leaving on the 10th! Knowing that late tickets cost a fortune I wasn’t looking forward to the implications of this blunder. And the blood returned to my face, I set about changing my booking, hoping that it wouldn’t bankrupt me. As it happened, it didn’t (a £50 admin fee meant the entire flight was to cost £130), and I set about sleeping fitfully.
The flight by WizzAir was actually pretty good. For a budget carrier, it’s certainly better than Ryanair (I’d rather walk) and Easyjet – and it was no surprise that the ‘plane was absolutely jam packed. Three hours later and I was disembarking for the Bucharest airport shuttlebus, and heading for the terminal. The bus broke down on the way – naturally – so we ended up walking, and once I arrived at the airport, it didn’t take long to realise that Romania is most definitely stuck in the EU’s slow lane. The terminal itself is about the size of Blackpool airport’s, and it’s ramshackle beyond belief. As for the toilets – why steal the seats? And the locks? And is it necessary to miss the pan so spectacularly? Sheesh.
I waited outside the sheds and hoped my ride wouldn’t be long. Which turned up almost immediately. Steven Ward was at the wheel, and the car was full. Passengering through Bucharest to our hotel was interesting and, like all Eastern European cities, it’s clear there’s considerable wealth there… just that it’s far from evenly distributed. The city was wide and spacious (we’ll come back to that) and but there was a hint of chaos that set my pulse racing a little. As it rightly should. When we arrived at the hotel, it’s clear that Team FTW and Andrew have had a great few days on the RatRod (and their slideshow was one to behold), but I just wanted to check in, get changed and have an explore.
An hour or so later, we were wandering through Bucharest, and skipping around broken paving, keeping our eyes out for stray dogs, and making sure we didn’t jump too far in the road for fear of being mowed down by a crazed Dacia driver. Before heading into the old town for a beer and a meal, we had a little wander towards the Palace of the Parliament – which is something I absolutely promised myself to see.
It’s difficult to describe the sheer scale of Ceaucescu’s architectural monstrosity – but walking along the building’s outer wall, it was almost impossible to take it all in. And most cameras on standard lenses wouldn’t capture it at this distance. The questions from the chaps came quickly, but when they were told it’s the world’s second largest building (after the Pentagon), and they only started building it in 1984, you can see they were impressed. But the sheer scale of destruction upon the old city in order to house the ‘palace’ and its surrounding boulevards by Romania’s insane dictator is impossible to accept and left us all in a very thoughtful mood. It’s thought that three entire districts were razed to the ground in the process, and that included 19 Orthodox Christian churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches, and 30,000 homes.
It was food for thought for what proved to be an excellent night out in the city’s cafe area. They haven’t quite finished the redevelopment – or it has stalled – and the sheer number of open manholes and shoddy temporary repairs could be a fatal distraction for the care-free drinker. Maybe I should have noted this a little more than I did…
The following day, after the obligatory hand-over of the car at the hotel, Andrew and I set about driving Team FTW’s Rover 216GTI home. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and was already warming up. The traffic appeared light, and I couldn’t help but feel excited for what promised to be an exciting two or three days’ drive ahead. I’d never been to Romania before, and knew that there would be some interesting challenges along the way. Driving out of Bucharest wasn’t that difficult, though. I think I managed to miss only one turning, entering in to what can only be described as a dishevelled commercial area in the process… and I reckon it’s the rough road here that began our exhaust’s terminal decline. Well, I know so, seeing as I saw part of it bouncing down the road in my mirror, after one particularly unpleasant pothole. Ah well.
The outskirts of the city seemed to take for ever to clear. Again the wide three-laners, and numerous Soviet-era concrete blocks flattered to deceive. But look closer, and you can see the poverty behind the façade.
As I explained in my travel blog, instead of heading home directly west, I decided it would be fun to head north for Ukraine (more adventure for Andrew), travel through it, and come home via Poland and Germany. It wouldn’t add a huge amount of distance to our journey, but it would definitely increase the interest quotient. Besides, I knew that going off the beaten track would allow us to see the ‘real’ Romania – a beautiful and proud country, in many ways still rooted in the past.
But we didn’t quite find this on Route 2 (the Greece-Lithuania E85 in UNECE-speak), which certainly for the first few hours felt very much like a French Route Nationale. Traffic was light, driving is good, the road is open, and the weather is on the right side of glorious. Although our Rover far from stood out on this road, we were playing safe and pretty much sticking to the posted speed limits, because we certainly didn’t want to attract any attention from the law. Yes, we were insured, yes the car is taxed and MoT’d, but it’s not in my name, and explaining that to an officious traffic cop might be difficult. But even at the leisurely pace (50-60mph, single carriageway), the roads rolled by agreeably.
The only town we’d consider major on the northern route, Roman, seemed to sport more UK-registered cars than Romanian ones in its rocky side-roads. Wonder what’s going on there? Speaking of cars, the further north we headed, the more interesting the mix gets – gone were the BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes, and in their place were far more Dacias of varying parentage. The old R12-based 1310 is incredibly popular, expecially in LWB crew-cab form. Pretty it’s not, unlike our Rover, which rolled on noisily, without missing a beat.
We’d decided that had the drive been difficult we’d stop in Suceava before pressing on into Ukraine. It was the final substantial town before the border, with a population of round 100,000 and at least one McDonalds. More importantly, there were hotels. Instead, though, we drove on, heading another 30 miles to the Ukrainian border. The roads from here on were fantastic and the scenery changed as we entered expansive, rolling countryside – and, as the sun set, we rolled into the final Romanian village of Siret. We were flashed by countless cars as we drive through, which gets both Andrew and I nervous, and none more so when a police car flashed, overtook and carried on. Oh well. Maybe they’re warning us of something.
You know the rest about the border. About getting in. Then being turned around on account of not having a car in the driver’s or passenger’s name (schoolboy error on my part) and our nocturnal drive back to Suceava, punctuated by Elphick’s near-wild dog attack in the wilderness. A midnight Big Tasty steadied the nerves before we checked in at the charming (and very Communist-era) Hotel Albert. It might have only been two-star, and the suite I checked-in to cost €30, but it was incredibly comfortable. And brown.
Still, we weren’t going to have any further set-backs…
The next morning also seemed a cracker. Elphick and I set down for breakfast in the restaurant (we were the only people there, and it was made especially for us), and wondered about the day ahead. According to the map, the roads between Suceava and the Hungarian border looked pretty substantial. But maps can deceive, and there were an awful lot of mountains and green stuff between us and Budapest, our ideal stop-off point. Still nothing for it – we needed to press on.
We jumped in the car, and drat, no Sat nav! I jumped back out again to head for the boot, when, DONK! A manhole cover gave way and I’m falling. And falling. And falling. Instinctively, my arms must have gone out to stop me, leaving me hanging in the hole. Winded and shocked, I gathered my thoughts, wondering what the hell happened. Elphick, meanwhile came round the car, clocked me, and started laughing and what must have been the hilarious sight of me flailing around in the hole. I pulled myself out, limped to a nearby seat, and had a little rest before pushing on. Whatever I’d done to myself was pretty painful…
It could have been worse, as Elphick later said. The hole was at least seven feet deep, and I’d hit a nasty piece of metal going down. Had it not been for my Doc Martens, it could have been a lot, lot worse. Still, no point feeling sorry for myself – we had a lot of ground to cover.
Heading west, the initial feeling was the road out of Suceava, while scenic and well-developed, it felt like more of the same. But we needn’t have worried too much. All the new roads, petrol stations and road-side cafes soon gave way once we came off the main road and headed into the mountains. The roads became slower and more potholed; the people more grizzled; and the houses more rural, less developed, somehow very 18th century. Initially we thought our brilliant Garmin nuvi had made an error taking us on an old road that bypassed all this – and that we’d be back on smooth black-top in no time – but, as the miles rolled by, the road became rougher and the scenery more beautiful, we knew this was the only way.
Now we were climbing. Heading for Borsa along the Prislop Pass in the Eastern Carpathian Mountains, and well on our way to Transylvania. And we felt a long way from home. And at times poor Elphick was down to 10mph, avoiding holes that looked big enough to swallow our Rover whole. There was a considerable whining coming from the car by this time, too – not from its mechanical components, you understand, but from me. I was no longer able to use my right arm, or put any weight on my left foot. More than anything else, it was a shame because we were exactly where I wanted to be, and now I couldn’t hold a camera to capture it. Luckily, Andrew could.
The road was something else. By now, were deep into lush woodland and, more often than not, the only other vehicles we encountered were logging trucks. The Armco barrier protecting us from the huge drop to the left was in many places missing – no doubt stolen for scrap – and great chunks of it were missing, taken by subsidence. Had we fallen in one of these inadequately signed craters, we’d have fallen into the forest hundreds of meters below. A thought that we kept returning to…
Still, we made Borsa, rolling through somewhere with a real frontier town feel to it. Again, the mix of cars was simply surreal – UK-registered Fronteras fought for space with more Alfa Romeos than I’d seen this side of Turin. Oh, and the sheep and cows, of course. However, despite all this and my mounting and near indescribable pain, I was absolutely transfixed by the place.
The slow going continued throughout Romania and it seemed as if our northern adventure wasn’t going to end. We continued along the Ukrainian border (enjoying the Cyrillic town signs) and, as we began our descent out of the mountain woodlands towards Baia Mare and the Hungarian plans beyond, the road once again went crazy on us. Our problems weren’t so much the potholes, but the exposed cobbled stretches where the tarmac had worn away. We tried not to imagine it in the rain or snow.
We ploughed on for Budapest in Hungary – and the plains towards the border presented new challenges, but less interest. Trucks overtaking trucks were fun, as was the livestock in the roads, and the sheer pace of it. When we drove through the unmanned border post into Hungary, I was both relieved and sad to be leaving this interesting country. Night fell as we hit the motorway bound for Budapest, and the miles just rolled on now…
Luckily our satnav diverted us into Budapest, rather than round it because, as we wandered into the city centre, the ignition failed and we rolled to a halt within walking (or shuffling in my case) distance. It was clear the distributor had packed up, and we’d need another one to get home. Or end up dumping the car and flying home. Personally, in the pain I was in, I was up for the latter… and once in the hotel, my fears were confirmed after a quick look in the mirror: I’d dislocated my shoulder and seriously damaged my foot. Bugger.
While I slept, Elphick Googled an MG Rover specialist, ROVER ALKATRÉSZ, and set about cooking up a plan. The next day, we got up early, paid the parking for 216GTI, grabbed a taxi, and headed for the place, which was a mere seven miles away. It was a gamble – what if the place were closed? Or not there? But it was our only shot. Do or die, as they say. We arrived at around 8am, and banged on the door – initially it didn’t look good, but soon someone who I thought was the owner (and later realised was actually the owner’s father), came to the door and, after repeated gesticulation, let us in.
Communication was a real problem though. So in the end, I pulled out my laptop (painful I know), fired up Google Translate, and started telling him our dilema. Elphick had also been rather clever in photographing the car, the street sign we were located on, and the part that we suspected was kaput. That was enough… and soon, the owner arrived (who spoke excellent English), and rolled up his sleeves to help. Within moments (enough time for me to blog all this), we were on our way in a low-loader in order to bring the car back to base.
And as you can read in Elphick’s blog, we were on away again by midday – remarkable considering we had rolled into Budapest less than 14 hours previously. God bless the Internet… and the amazing hospitality of our new Hungarian friends.
But we still had an awfully long slog ahead of us now. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to make it very far and, in the 35 degree, heat my foot and shoulder were seriously throbbing. But we carried on – if I was going to stop for a hospital, it was going to be in Austria or, preferably, Germany. Don’t ask me why, I was just feeling irrational at the time.
As we pressed on towards the Austrian border (with me now thanking the EU with all my heart that it had funded a great Hungarian motorway network) we received a ‘phone call that truly turned around our journey. Team Now We’re Motoring’s Montego was stuck in Nuremburg with a broken fuel pump and they were considering what to do with the car. My first thoughts were simple – get them to park it up, and take over the driving of the 216GTI… we could help them deal with that car later. Elphick agreed, and pushed the idea, after trying to palm off the car onto AROnline‘s German resident Deputy Editor, Alexander Boucke.
Shortly after we received another call – they’d disposed of the car and were waiting for us. We were about five hours behind them and, all being well, would be with them by 10pm. Elphick was by now knackered (his knee injury was really playing on him now), and I was pretty much finished, but we pressed on… our saviours ahead!
And you know the rest… Alex and Rhyds drove through the night and got us to our early morning P&O (who were really helpful to this injured passenger), and by mid-morning I was at Elphick’s waiting for a lift back to my place.
I know I didn’t speak much about the 216GTI in the story, but it has to be said that the distributor failure (which I really had anticipated and failed to act upon) aside, it was a great car. It lapped up everything we threw at it, managed more than 120mph, didn’t use that much fuel and, according to Steven Ward and his team, handled the sinuous 2034m high Transfăgărășan Pass with aplomb. I wish I’d been there for that. But we knew it would… years of Staples2Naples experience told us that this car would be perfect – and so it proved. Team FTW, I’m jealous of you, boys.
Oh yes, and as for me… I was driven straight to Kettering General Hospital, where they saw me immediately and soon had me admitted. The arm was relocated there and then in A&E (with me heavily sedated) and they operated on my foot the following day. The damage? Three fractured toes and two broken metatarsal bones, which needed wiring and screwing. None of the hospital staff believed we drove back from Romania like this. Neither can I.
Do I want to go back? Hell, yes!