Timbuktu and Bust

Journalist, Eugene Costello and I are driving from the UK (North Shields…) to Bamako, Mali, a distance of over 4,100 miles, departing 26th December. Our planned route traverses Europe, taking a ferry from Spain into Morocco, then heads south, across the deserts of Western Sahara and Mauritania, into Senegal and finally crosses into Mali around a month later.

Desert 4x4
Desert not Dessert…

Our vehicle, a former British Transport Police 4×4 – my trusty family transport for a number of years – is destined for donation to the Rotary Club Control Committee in Mali.  Funds from vehicle and parts sales support the important, on-going work of the Eden Medical Centre in Dinfara, where medical provision, though basic, is crucial.

Eugene’s story
In early August 2018, I was on holiday at my brother’s house in a tiny village high in the Pyrenées when I began to experience severe, extremely painful chest pains that caused me to break out in a cold, clammy sweat. They went from three or so per day at the start of the week to as many as ten by its end.

After landing at London Stansted, I toyed with the idea of going home, but on balance took myself straight to Whipps Cross Hospital in east London.

It’s just as well that I did. After an immediate ECG, I was taken straight to the front of the queue of about 50 people, put into an ambulance and “blue-lighted” to Bart’s Hospital in central London.

I was already having a heart attack when I had turned up at Whipps Cross; it seems the chest pains were likely to have been a series of minor heart attacks. And I was having another heart attack when we arrived at Bart’s. I was taken straight to the operating theatre, where they attempted and failed to insert stents. I then had a massive coronary, leaving them no option but to carry out open-heart surgery, using a vein from ankle to thigh to graft triple bypasses.

During surgery, I suffered a stroke and they found a blood clot on my brain. There were serious complications with my lungs and kidneys.

My body shut down and I stopped breathing; I was on life-support for about ten days, unresponsive.

The surgeon later described the events as “catastrophic” and said they would not have been “survivable” had I not been at a hospital – given I was in a tiny village in the Pyrenees 12 hours earlier, it is a miracle I am here.

Those who know me won’t be surprised to know that during a bout of “delirium” (basically, hallucinations) I shouted at nurses, called the head of press to complain about a dirty tricks campaign by the hospital’s “managing editor” (I have since apologised profusely) and had a huge row with my ex-wife and daughter for not taking my account of having been shot in New York seriously or being mugged the next day in Rajasthan. I also insisted that my friend, whom I told I had terminal cancer, find a bookshop to buy me a copy of The Time Traveller by EJ Thribb. Needless to say, he was unsuccessful.

Three weeks later at time of writing (October 1 2018), I am in recovery.

Three days after my own attack (hereditary and lifestyle-related coronary heart disease, CHD) my poor brother, only 48, suffered a wholly unrelated sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). He remains gravely ill and unresponsive six weeks later. We don’t know what will happen next. To have two of three sons on life-support with both cases looking unrelentingly bleak was a cruel trick of fate for my elderly parents; I came round eventually and now I want to put something back.

Since I am freelance and have been told not to work for 12 weeks minimum, money would have been a problem. A closed Facebook group for freelance journalists (A Few Good Hacks) read of my plight and created a fund-raising page that topped £2,500, largely from people whom I have never met, an incredible display of solidarity.

The journalists’ charities, The Press Fund and NUJ Extra have also been remarkable, giving me financial assistance in this life-changing scenario.

Thanks for reading!

Best,
Eugene

Nick’s story

This journey wasn’t initially conceived as a fundraising charity event.

I am 52, fit and healthy.  An occasionally sore knee doesn’t point to any particularly worthy cause.

I certainly can’t claim a motivation any higher than the fact an independent overland journey across north and west Africa still carries a sense of adventure, and I like that.

The last ‘long drive’ I attempted, in November 2011, started in North Shields and ended in Amman, taking in Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut along the way.  In Aleppo I slept in Lawrence’s room at the Baron’s Hotel – they were understandably quiet and offered a ‘special’ rate.  Despite having given the barman ‘a holiday’ the hotel still managed a couple of tins of beer, and boiled eggs for breakfast.  I was probably one of its last guests.

When I first mentioned the possibility of this Timbuktu Challenge, Eugene was immediately enthused.  His proceeding, in-depth exploration of NHS emergency services was not part of the plan.  It changed everything.  Far from looking for a new co-driver as I’d expected, I was now presented with a newly energised Eugene determined to give something back.

This journey will have its travails.  If Eugene shares just some of his obviously immense reserve of resilience, any difficulties surrounding mechanical failures, digestive uncertainty, bribery, bandits and minefields will be as nought.

Look out for postcards from Bamako.

Best,
Nick

We wish to raise funds for three charities:

The British Heart Foundation (especially to fund more research into Sudden Cardiac Arrest, SCA, because of Eugene’s brother’s terrible situation)

The Newspaper Press Fund, now known as the Journalists’ Charity

NUJ Extra

(Any revenue to be split three ways, though we will need some money to cover rent, bills and on-the-road expenses in the month that we are away.)

Individual sponsorship
Any little helps… whether it is the price of a latte, a sandwich, an after-work bottle of wine, dinner out, we would be hugely grateful for your help. You know what to do…

Support the UK to Bamako overland challenge via this link https://uk.gofundme.com/uk-to-timbuktu-by-road-challenge

 

Corporate sponsorship
We are seeking one overall sponsor whose name and logo will be prominently displayed on the side of our vehicle. We will also put together reports, podcasts a video for YouTube and so on, all of which can be used on your website. Please get in touch if you think your company might help or if you know someone else who might be able to!

Existing business sponsors offering support are:

Bradt Travel Guides (pioneering guides to exceptional places since 1974)

Kamageo (the leading marketing and representation agency for African tourism)

• Undiscovered Destinations (an award winning, groundbreaking adventure travel company dedicated to providing truly authentic experiences in some of the world’s most exciting regions.)

The Narrow Nick (Nick’s preferred waterhole in Rothbury, Northumberland)

We are now seeking a headline sponsor to act “in association with” to help fund this huge challenge!

Driving to Aleppo

Team Desert Bradts
After a full two hours of exhaustive preparation we were off...

In November 2011 as part of the Petra Challenge I drove from Newcastle to Jordan, crossing from Turkey into Syria and staying in Aleppo. Later, continuing onwards via Beirut and Damascus to Amman.

Driving a British car across Syria’s land border is at the best of times potentially problematic. In the middle of a period of domestic unrest when foreigners are viewed with increased suspicion it’s a process many would consider foolhardy. However, despite this myself and co-driver Chris Tweddle, found our way through ebullient traffic to Syria’s most historic, if well-worn, hotel.  Since then events have rather overtaken the humour of my recollection, but anyhow here’s what happened…

Jostling in an unruly queue, I wait. Laughing, untidily uniformed immigration officers contemptuously process passports, consult lists, and draw hard on their cigarettes. ‘What is your job?’, ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ – I answer truthfully if not completely. Even so, the laughing stalls, replaced by uncomfortable stares. My heart shifts a gear. Bang. ‘Welcome to Syria.’ I’m in.

If only it was that simple. The bureaucratic paper chase of vehicle insurance, carnet, and painstaking columns in venerable double-width ledgers that close with a thump, never to see the light of day again, has only just begun. Two hours later we ease away from border control. Aleppo, Syria’s second city, lies 40km south through the darkness.

Foreigners generally conclude that Arab drivers have instinctive knowledge of horn etiquette and the subtle skills necessary to squeeze five cars into two lanes. Indeed, though Syrians are friendly and welcoming, once behind the wheel the genie is out of the bottle and their three wishes are that you hurry up, move over and get out of the way. Foreign plates and a steering wheel on the wrong side confer no special status.

I have a broad idea where to find Aleppo’s historic Baron’s Hotel. That said, upon the second circuit of a now-familiar traffic–choked square it’s time to seek assistance. Stepping into the night, I ask the way in basic Arabic. A wide-eyed, bearded youth engages with me. He rubs his finger and thumb together hopefully and I offer a two Euro coin, and then another… ‘I drive, you follow,’ he says. I jump back in the car and describe what’s afoot to my colleague, Chris. ‘See that poxy white van, the one that sounds like a chainsaw?’, he nods, ‘Well, don’t lose it.’

Thaks you Fuji Heavy Industries
End of the line...

An adrenaline-fuelled, heart-stopping rollercoaster ride ensues, complete with honking horns, belching exhausts, near collisions and a catalogue of Highway Code contraventions. Then, the van pulls over. The driver jumps out, stretches out his arms and in a grand gesture and swings around towards Aleppo’s magnificent mediaeval citadel – precisely not where we want to be. A passer-by asks in English if he can help. He speaks quickly to the white van driver, there are nods of understanding, and we’re off again, helter-skelter through the seething maelstrom. I strain to recognise streets as we drive, but can’t pin anything down. ‘There it is,’ cries Chris in disbelief. Our dragoman stops, dismounts and beaming broadly kisses me on both cheeks – he’s delighted, as we are.

Inside, the Baron’s feels like a cantankerous elderly uncle’s townhouse. A décor of dignified decline is characterised by a yellowing BOAC route map on one wall, an original pastel-coloured Orient Express poster on another, along with a tattered map of ancient Syria. The hotel’s similarly authentic manager welcomes us in carefully enunciated unhurried English. ‘I’m the manager, Armen. We’re rather quiet at the moment so I’m able to offer you a very special rate on Lawrence of Arabia’s room.’ I recount having a beer in the hotel bar a couple of years ago. ‘Yes,’ he looks at me resignedly, ‘I think you would have found us a little busier then.’ I fill in the register and ask if the bar is still open. ‘Well,’ says Armen, obviously embarrassed, ‘As it’s been so quiet we have given the barman a holiday, but I’m sure we can find someone to serve you satisfactorily.’

Armen disappears into a back room. A lady in her 70s hands over a heavy key fob. She looks worried. ‘I’ve grown old with this hotel you know. Even during the war it wasn’t like this. This is a cold war. Some people they say by Christmas it will all be good. Alhamdulillah – By the grace of God’