Plymouth-Dakar has gained a cult following in the few short years it has been taking place. The idea, put simply, is to take a £100 banger and deliver it to Africa.
This is Karl Parsons’ account of what it meant for him…
THE Plymouth-Dakar Challenge is a kind of wacky races-meets-scrapheap challenge. The object of the exercise, simply put, is for a bunch of lunatics take clapped out cars and vans nearly 4,000 miles across harsh and sometimes downright dangerous terrain, with no backup and very little money. Just the sort of thing I managed to persuade my wife Nicola to undertake with me as a winter “holiday”.
A place secured, now was time to find a car. It had to be old, with simple mechanicals, cheap, and slightly “bizarre” (ie unsuitable for off roading). With 2003 being the 30th Anniversary of the launch of the Allegro, well, our choice was made for us! The E-series engine had been dismissed (both my Vanden Plas have overheated much too easily) and the 1.0/1.1 wouldn’t have enough power, so a 1275cc car was decided upon. It didn’t take us long to find a suitable car: EEU 603 W, a 1981 Allegro 1.3L which had covered about 80,000 miles with 2 lady owners in Weston-Super-Mare.
The car was soon christened Vera (the brand of one of the tyres) and the team name became “Ice Cold in Dakar”, in reference to the classic film ‘Ice Cold in Alex’. Preparation included a service and new clutch, bizarre square Hella spot lights, matt black bonnet and painted number plate, bonnet mounted spare tyre, Vanden Plas seats for comfort, a roofrack modified to hold Jerry cans, sand ladder and second spare, and a second cooling fan. Our garage advised against a sump guard, as the gearbox casting is pretty tough on the A Series, and they also recommended that we leave the Hydragas well alone (despite a poor ride height). We were later glad for this advice.
Boxing Day 2003 saw us heading for Millbay Docks in Plymouth, to board what turned out to be a very rough overnight crossing to Roscoff. After a barely held down breakfast we docked, and in the company of three other teams, began our journey. Driving through France and Spain with a Mazda and Skoda we found that out the three 1300cc cars the Allegro was fastest both in terms of acceleration and top speed, perhaps proving finally that Allegro has the Vroom to spare?
Little problems livened up the journey, a window winder sheared off, and just after clearing a snowstorm the windscreen wipers gave up. They sulked for most of the trip. We arrived at a hotel near Gibraltar just after midnight, after covering 1261 miles in two days, to the amazing sight of over thirty challenge entrants parked up, some already needing running repairs. Here was our first sight of the Princess, Series 2a Land Rover, four Montegos, and Sherpa van that represented the British Leyland empire.
All enjoyed a rest day, stocking up with alcohol and cigarettes (for African bribes) in Gibraltar. The team briefing that night made us all apprehensive about what was to follow. So we steadied our nerves with certain fermented, brewed and distilled products. The next morning the entire group headed off for the fast ferry to Ceuta. Ceuta is essentially the Spanish version of Gibraltar, a tax haven tacked onto the Moroccan coast. And no, they aren’t giving it back. A tax free fuel stop preceded the chaos of the Moroccan border, where a horde of men in different uniforms shouted instructions at us in French. Much queuing and form filling followed, before finally we entered Morocco.
North Africa was a real culture shock, but we soon settled in to the African driving style. After seeing Casablanca and spending a night in Rabat we managed to arrive in Marrakech in rush hour, and disaster struck. On a busy city road Vera’s clutch jammed (Haynes call it clutch spin). Unable to change gear or idle, we stopped at the roadside and quietly panicked. Once the car cooled a bit the clutch was fine. This problem plagued us for the whole trip, making passage through towns very stressful.
Vera had her 20th birthday, New Years Day, in a carpark surrounded by horse manure. As we headed south the scenery became dryer, the towns further apart, and the one and only paved road became emptier. Sand began to drift across the tarmac in small eddies. We had entered Western Sahara, a disputed territory. Terrorist fears mean checkpoints every so often, where a Policeman in a run down hut enters your details into a ledger. Our experiences of Moroccan police were positive, perhaps helped by our “hapless Brits on tour” personae, and attempts at O-Level French.
At the end of Western Sahara comes the border with The Islamic Republic of Mauritania. As you leave Western Sahara, the tarmac road literally stops, and desert driving begins. This section would be challenging in our decrepit two-wheel-drive cars, but extra spice is added by the knowledge that if you stray off the unmarked and often barely visible track there is a risk of driving over a landmine. We had to set a fairly hard pace, as sunset was approaching, and the Allegro took a hammering.
The flange at the end of the exhaust manifold sheared off at this point, making Vera sound more like a V8 race car! In the unappealing town of Nouadibou, mechanics attempted to weld the manifold while we rested. They praised the quality of the steel used in the Allegro, and assumed it was German. Yes, really.
The streets were full of elderly Renaults, often without interiors or lights, held together by local welding and prayers to Allah. We saw one literally driving sideways, its body at a 20-degree angle to the direction of travel! After our rest and re-supply day, we woke with some nervousness to head out of town, and into the desert.
Our first day in the desert gave us experience of the variety of terrain to be encountered, with rocky stages, sections of soft sand, and harder packed areas where it is possible to get a good speed up. Our first night in the desert would be spent in the lee of a huge and solitary dune. After some fun driving up it and getting dug-in (the only time we needed a tow) we set up camp.
By this time, we had travelled 2991 miles from Plymouth, and then, the heavens opened! Rain in the Sahara. Only British travellers could manage that.
The next day however was perfect. We headed off, a bizarre collection of thoroughly unsuitable off-roaders, with groups stopping regularly for those once in a lifetime photo opportunities. The shot of “Allegro and Princess in Sahara” will surely never be repeated. Due to the rain, there were small plants all around, moths, and locusts, many of which ended up head-first in radiator grilles. As the day progressed we had real fun with the cars, experiencing the sort of freedom you just don’t get anywhere other than a desert. Your route is anywhere you choose to drive, just as long as the car can get through it.
Without the benefit of 4x4s or big engines, our group took the “lets do it as fast as we can” approach. Vera sailed over the desert, and we were told later that we had been airborne at one point. The cheap roofrack collapsed in the middle under this punishment, and dented the roof of the car, though thankfully it remained attached. But as the day was near to ending, there was an extended section of soft sand to cross. The route took us over shallow sandy hills, and the fine sand was clogging up the SU’s throttle mechanism at times, causing us some difficulties.
While attacking this soft section, the throttle jammed on full and the clutch jammed, leaving us in second gear. We couldn’t stop to check what was wrong though, due the very real worry of getting stuck in the soft sand. So on we went, until we eventually ground to a halt in a cloud of what looked like smoke, but was only steam. The car boiled for 10 minutes, but following some cooling modifications, Vera managed to keep going until our destination for the day.
When the Princess arrived, we heard that disaster had struck. One of her displacers had blown. Before departure it had received a suspension pump-up, and the hammering the old girl had received proved too much. We were right to leave ours alone before we left! Thankfully, bodges and hard work ensured that the Princess reached the Gambia more or less intact.
While setting up camp that night all were treated to a display of Montegos flying over a sand dune at high speed. It’s inadvisable to drive through desert in the dark, but that’s what we did at something-past-four the next morning, with clouds of dust severely limiting our visibility as we drove towards the Atlantic. It was worth it, as dawn saw us driving at 50mph along a beach, with waves just to the right, and the sun was rising over the dunes to the left.
However, all good things come to an end, and by lunchtime we had entered the Mauritanian capital, a real come-down after the beauty of the desert. Nouakchott has a good Pizzeria which serves alcohol, so naturally this formed the focus of our stay. While in the city we were able to examine some of the drop-out vehicles from the Paris-Dakar. The next day we drove south out of the Mauritanian capital, towards the border with Senegal. The route took us past villages which seemed to be threatened by the desert, with trees being swallowed by the encroaching dunes. Dead animals were seen everywhere, and what live cattle was left, appeared starved. overhead, Vultures circled…
The day was livened by being required to assist the Police in getting an upturned Mercedes-Benz minibus, which had crashed on the main road, upright again. By evening we were away and approaching the border. The border town of Rosso is well known for its threatening atmosphere, and our experience of just trying to find the the way out to Diama was unpleasant enough. We reached the border finally, and had to pay to leave Mauritania. We crossed the short bridge over the Senegal River, and paid substantially more money to enter Senegal.
Due to a new law prohibiting the import of older cars we had to pay Customs Officers to escort us through the country, but managed to arrange a two day rest at Zebrabar, a wonderful campsite near St Louis. A day’s driving then took us to a village in the south of the country, where many of us stayed in a plush lodge style hotel, where the famous Hillman Hunter from the 2003 Plymouth-Dakar now resides.
A short drive to the border the next day saw one of the customs officers (christened “Mugabe”) in the back of Vera, banging his head when we hit bumps. His apparent hangover prevented him from complaining too much. The necessity of the customs convoy and the intractability of our two “guards” did spoil our impression of the country, and we were glad to reach the border with the Gambia.
At the border, our convoy attracted many local children, and teams gave away small gifts, toys, pens and much prized empty mineral water bottles. Following our long and often fraught trip, this happy relaxed atmosphere was a real contrast. After crossing into the Gambia, we waited for the ferry to take us across the Gambia River into the capital, Banjul. A triumphal convoy through the city followed, with the cars being allowed through the Presidential Arch (an honour usually reserved for gentlemen who have successfully pulled off a military coup and made themselves President).
Local media had publicised our arrival, and we felt like a heroic football team returning from a major victory. The teams settled into various local hotels and all began the process of winding down after our hectic and exhausting trek. At a photo session on the Senegmbia beach, much fun was had driving on sand for the last time and explaining to bemused British tourists what we had just done.
Vera went for one last spin, and managed to become spectacularly airborne. Sadly no photographic evidence exists, but it proves that you can replicate the famous “Arthur Fowler” launch advert if you want! Just don’t try it with a cheap roofrack fitted, this final jolly was too much and it totally collapsed. I think the simplicity of the Allegro and the durability of the mechanicals helped its survival, although I didn’t anticipate the incredible hammering the underside and suspension would endure.
All that remained to us was the auction in the Gambian National Stadium. The cars were auctioned off in aid of local charities. Vera made a respectable £240, not bad for an “Aggro which had just crossed a desert! After 3 weeks it was strange and unnerving to not have the comforting and homely surroundings of our car, as we tried to reintegrate into tourist society and stop being minor celebrities.
We had covered almost 3750 miles, including challenging terrain, in a car most “normal” people wouldn’t trust to get them to the shops! We also raised approximately £2000 for the BBC Radio Devon Chestnut Appeal (which is raising money for a prostate cancer treatment centre for the south west), and we are very grateful to all our sponsors.