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!

Benghazi by Bus

Power to the people...
Power to the people - on the road to Benghazi - May - 2011

Last month I travelled to Benghazi, the de facto capital of ‘Free Libya’, in a manner that would make Simon Calder proud. Over two days, a succession of coaches, buses, minibuses, share taxis and otherwise incentivised hotel porters helped me cover the 791 miles (according to the RAC’s trip planner…) from Cairo to Benghazi. En route, even by the high standards of Arab hospitality, I met some of the kindest, most generous and most helpful people I’ve come across for some time. An experience that made me think such a journey should be a mandatory refresher for politicians, lawyers and policemen the world over, highlighting the essential goodness of humanity.

Pasted below are a couple of short reportage pieces I wrote in Benghazi and filed by satellite link on the dates indicated. Both were then silently sat upon by the commissioning paper until well past their sell-by-dates. Some tosh regarding Ryan Giggs apparently took presidence.

Though Libya’s situation has certainly evolved I thought there may remain some vestigial non-monetary value in posting the copy here. I suppose that’s for you to judge…

Benghazi 12th May

Benghazi - May - 2011
Benghazi – May – 2011

‘Here in Benghazi people are dying every day but this news is not given out. I hear it on the street, from the families, but I do not hear it on the radio.’ Mohammed’s father had given me a bed for my first night in an outer suburb of the city. Last night he’d told a story of fear, for the present and for the future – one that we in the West probably don’t want to hear. ‘Even in one house, half with Gaddafi, half with the revolution. Not just the old against the young – it’s a mix, both, you can’t say. When Gaddafi forces entered Benghazi everyone waved the green flag. Now if you ask on the street everyone is with the revolution. People are not free to express their opinions – there is fear. I see Libya as a new Iraq.’

On the Benghazi corniche Mohammed’s bleak outlook is at odds with the new day. Looking out over the Mediterranean, blue sky melds seamlessly with the sea, waves roll in, and canvas tents are driven to wild flapping by the freshening sea breeze. Between the tents two well-used tanks are parked – one careful owner, M Gaddafi. For them the war is over. Children clamber over turrets and gun barrels. Elsewhere, parts of missiles, aircraft, heavy machine guns and RPGs are corralled into an enclosure – weapons used by Gaddafi’s forces to kill Libyans, I’m told. Covering the walls of the buildings opposite, and studied by a reflective crowd, are hundreds of photographs. For the most part young men without fatigues or weapons whose expressions do not foretell death as sombre hand-coloured images of WW1 seemed to – but annotated dates reveal the brutal truth.

Benghazi corniche - May - 2011
Corniche – Benghazi – May – 2011

Following a trail of heady odours through the covered souk I make my way to the bright sunshine and fresh air of the corniche, and Benghazi’s revolutionary encampment – if you’ve seen Al Jazeera’s shots you’d recognise the scene. Beyond moneychangers, glittering jewellery shops and stalls of revolutionary flags, banners and badges a scene of semi-normality is fractured by the uncompromising crack of a nearby gunshot – its reverberations sending shopkeepers and customers into a crouch. Three youths loiter at the end of an alley, one in the process of shouldering an assault rifle – the smell or cordite wafts towards me.

‘How are you?’ Bashir, a former flight engineer with Libyan Arab Airlines, smiles across the crowd. ’42 years, can you believe it? Look at this place, the broken streets, the rubbish. You are asking us to be in good shape after just three months – it’s too much.’ I ask whether enough is being done to assist the Libyan people. Bashir is quick to respond, ‘Some people here they think we don’t like the foreigners, they’ll invade our country. They’re thinking like this because Colonel Gaddafi is saying it to them. We need advice on how to run this country, and the British they are already doing it – it’s not a shame to ask. I have no problem at all to ask British or Americans “Can you help me?” because one day, God knows, maybe we will help them – this is life.’ Bashir continues in a hopeful vein: ‘Now people are free to say what they like – this is freedom. I remember one American guy, I never forget it, he said if you want to say you are Libyan and live in a free country you must have the courage to shout: “Fuck you Colonel Gaddafi! Only then you are right.” Now we are achieving this.’


Benghazi 13th May

Najib - Benghazi - May - 2011
Najib – Benghazi – May – 2011

The volley of shots ended, traders relaxed into a relieved collective chuckle. A prospective customer was trying before buying, letting fly a few rounds over waste ground in front of the burned out Internal Security headquarters – he seemed satisfied. ‘Hey’ it’s like Harlem. You can buy anything here’, offered a smiling young man. Certainly automatic pistols, revolvers, AK47s and M16s, bayonets and bullets were on display, juxtaposed with mobile phones and copy CDs. He was surprised when I suggested that Harlem had changed a little in recent times.

Ears still ringing, I needed a coffee and fortunately in Benghazi’s old city, crumbling though it may be, echoes of Italy are never far away. Espresso, macchiato and brioche start the day, along with that inseparable Libyan male appendage – a cigarette. ‘ “mangeria”, “cucina”, “via” we use all these words from Italian’ says Najib, a 58 year old former soldier, ‘and if someone talks too much we say “musica maestro”’ His friend Fatti, joins in the conversation outside the Bou Ashreen (Father of Twenty!) café. ‘You know I wasn’t surprised that Italy wasn’t the first to help us because they have good relations with Gaddafi, many economic links. What has surprised me is how quickly they changed to the opposite side.’

Fatti continues, ‘But it was the UN Mandate and the British after the war that shaped Libya and we were very grateful for this – it was amazing, I remember it. The UN wanted to make a showcase of Libya. People came from all over the Arab world, everybody expressed themselves, it was free.’ I ask why, if it was so good did Gaddafi’s revolution succeed? ‘That’s a good question’ says Fatti. ‘Many reasons. King Idris was a very old man and the prince was not qualified to take over. There were other factors, other families trying to exert influence and there was the charisma of Nasser in Egypt. I think Gaddafi took advantage of these others forces and the atmosphere using them for his own purposes – he was the wrong man at the right time.’

‘Gadaffi ruined my life’ complains Najib. ‘I was conscripted into the army, at first he said for three years – I was there for 25 years. Can you believe it? Three times I ran away, once staying in a house in Chad for two years, but there were many Chadians in the Libyan army and most of them were spies, so I was caught.’ Najib takes a sip of his machiato and a draw on his cigarette. ‘I wish Israelis and Palestinians would stop fighting, you live here you live here, it would solve so many problems. You see this area, it was Jewish, there was the synagogue – no problem. Then after the Israel Egypt war the Jewish they go out. Now it’s Egyptian Christian church – I know the priest, a friend, very nice man.’

What about the future I ask? Fatti responds quickly, ‘It’s true there are still “Taboor Hamsa” Fifth Columnists in the city, so we must be careful but Gaddafi cannot come back, he is finished here. Today this is, how the Americans call it… our Independence Day.’