Tuesday, December 09, 2003
You call that a race? Now, this is a race
"[T]o Julian Nowill [driving across seven countries in 20 days in a banger that costs less than £100] provides the perfect recipe for adventure.
Last year he set up the first Plymouth-Dakar rally, in which a convoy of seriously old bangers, mostly held together with gaffer tape and superglue, have to cross 3,700 miles and two continents. The rules are simple: the car must cost less than £100, pre-event preparation expenses are limited to £15, and once the rally is underway no outside support, mechanics or back-up trucks are allowed.
The organisers emphasise that “participants are on their own”. There are no official helpers to ease the way across tricky west African border posts, and the pre-rally publicity warns drivers there are no arrangements for medical emergencies or even to repatriate bodies should things go awry.
However, it seems the public’s thirst for something genuinely eccentric and adventurous is stronger than ever and the event is blossoming. In 12 days the second and much bigger rally will leave Britain. Last year 45 cars took part, this year there will be 141 and 500 people have already signed up for next year.
At the end of the three-week adventure the only other rule is that all the cars must be donated to charity, thus benefiting about 100 charities across Gambia, where they end up. The idea is that unlike the real rally which, according to Nowill, “rips through these countries and gives nothing back to them”, the country gets something in return.
The line-up for this year’s Plymouth-Dakar rally reads like the graveyard section of the small ads. Alongside the aforementioned 28-year-old Bedford ice-cream van is a 1982 Ford Cortina, a London taxi, a 1962 Ford Corsair, an A-Team replica van, an FSO Caro complete with rusty caravan and a shaky-sounding eastern bloc Moskvich 408.
Plucky contestants get their trusty heaps from a variety of imaginative sources, from scrapyards to hedgerows, as in the case of Nowill’s Lada Riva, which was abandoned in Devon but ran perfectly after a good cleaning.
The race route starts in Plymouth (because of its convenience for Nowill’s Devon home), traverses France, Spain and Gibraltar, and heads down to Morocco, the Sahara, Senegal and Gambia. Despite the larky atmosphere, the route is dangerous by any standards....
Then there are the miles of ground littered with landmines to negotiate, a stretch of the rally that has to be accompanied by an experienced guide.
Only five cars failed to make it to the finishing line last year — they were abandoned in the desert and their keys left to local guides. The winner was Paul Osbourne, a 32-year-old director of a management consultancy. He found his winning 1974 Hillman Hunter 1.8 languishing in a back garden, being used as a greenhouse with mushrooms growing out of it. However, somehow it completed the 4,000-mile journey without even stuttering.
“Most of the people along the way cheer and seem really supportive and curious about what we’re doing,” says Osbourne. “On reflection I suppose it was a bit dangerous but only in certain later sections, and anyway the exhilaration is priceless. You just have to relax, be quite chilled out, and you’ll enjoy it.”
The entry list for this year’s race is now closed, but for details of how to take part next year, see www.plymouth-dakar.co.uk"