PHOTO: This is my Ford Transit Mk1, built in 1973. The car had only 12,000 kilometers on the clock. It was previously owned by a fire fighting station in the Austrian province of Styria where it served as an environmental protection vehicle. I guess they only used it as a teaser at their annual fundraisers: It was completely corrosion-free when I bought it. Under the guidance of my friends Alexander Stracker and Zoltan, who run a car workshop in Lassee, Austria, the Ford was given a complete overhaul. We took the engine apart, renewed all seals and fittings and replaced all parts that may have become faulty from standing in a garage for nearly 33 years. Don’t ask about the cost; I stopped counting long ago. To say so much: I could have bought a well equipped Land Rover instead. But they don’t come with twin rear wheels and this friendly looks…
It is a bit hard to find the thread after nearly a year of absence from regular blogging. To start it up again I hope you enjoy this post about my journey towards West Africa.
Preparing for the Big Journey
It has been more than a year that I came up with the idea to travel to Africa. Had I initially intended to do it backpacker’s style - as I have done before in Europe, Latin America, North Africa and South East Asia - I changed my mind when I saw this car - and immediately fell in love with it. Isn't it the dream of everybody; jumping into a van and taking off to discover those parts of the world one only knows from books or the TV screen?
Starting preparations in March 2006 I had to overcome lots of obstacles before the car could be registered again. Austrian authorities dictated me a long list of things to change to make it a civilian car. For understandable reasons I do not disclose how we circumvented it all. But had I followed their demands, the Transit would never have become the kind of car I saw fit for my adventure to come. Who needs a heater in Africa?
And, yes, contrary to all regulations I was able to keep the blue rotating lights on the roof and the fire fighter’s siren! I kicked out the 20 kg fire extinguisher and two gas masks though…
I chose the car mainly for its simplicity and its almost total lack of electrics and electronics - that was before we fitted a 2000 watt stereo and several boxes of gadgets I will list at a later point of time.
The Transit has a 1,7 liter V4 engine whose 65 HP are commissioned to pull a total load of 3 tons (while consuming anywhere between 14 and 20 liters gasoline per 100 kilometers.) Don’t honk if you drive behind me on a mountain road at a cool 30 kph, my stereo will reliably black out your sounds of impatience…
Having skippered two boats before I know one is never “ready” for the journey. As boats may only become seaworthy, cars may only become roadworthy.
I found out as soon as I was on the road. My Becker Traffic Pro GPS which was installed in my other car before failed as soon as I left Austria due to a faulty CD player. And every time I want to recline my ventilated Recaro seats the fuse burns through. I am still working on this problem as it is quite a nuisance. Whereas the GPS radio will be of no use once I leave the old continent anyway. At least it functions as a bridge between my iPod and the countless AudioDynamics and Kicx woofers, tweeters and coax speakers spread in the interior, powered by 3 Sinfoni amplifiers.
Before we started working on the car - that is, Alex and Zoltan did all the real work while I was given such tasks like degreasing the engine, cleaning the underbody before rust-proofing it, changing tires, painting and mounting the rooftop-gallery - a friend had said it would take at least two weeks of intense work to get the car Africa-worthy.
That was in early April. I finally left the garage on December 1 after hundreds of manhours needed for overhauling the engine, replacing everything from rear breaks to shock absorbers and installing such gadgets as flat screens in the sun shields and a rear view camera after I broke a rear light at my first attempt to drive in reverse gear.
On December 3 I finally adjusted my seat and left Vienna. The joy of being on the road again was only overshadowed by the sadness that I will not be able to see my beloved daughter Fiona in the coming months/years as frequently as I would like to.
Heading straight towards Italy with the intention to get to the southern tip of Spain where I will catch a ferry to Morocco I drove for almost 18 hours in one go before taking a rest on highway gas station somewhere west of Milan. Please note that I drive not more than 80 kph as this is the speed where the engine sounds and feels best.
Instead of taking the shortest route via Genova I diverted to Torino and crossed into France on a small mountain pass. To that impatient driver in his shiny BMW 645: If you have got so much money; buy yourself some time!
I drove onto the French highway again just east of Nice. Having been behind the steering wheel another 12 hours again I was looking for a calm place where I could take an extended nap in the rear of the Transit which is fitted with a platform that divides the van horizontally. I sleep on top of 100 liters of spare gasoline, a 64 kg second 300 Ah battery and all the stuff I think I will need in Africa.
I remember falling asleep with a broad smile on my face, directing my last thoughts to the happiness that has overcome me since I started out.
Six hours later, at 2 AM I woke up to some noise.
When I turned my head I thought I could not believe my eyes: Somebody had entered my locked car. I jumped up to give chase but the culprit was faster and escaped in a car with East European number plates. With him went two daypacks containing the following - much missed - items:
- My new MacBookPro,
- a spare hard disk with my 60 GB music collection,
- a bag full of electronic accessories like chargers, USB sticks, batteries, cables etc.
- My drivers license, the car registration and my Austrian press ID (invalid since 2003.)
- All bank, credit, debit and other plastic cards (health and car insurance, frequent flyer cards.)
- All codes for these cards plus the transaction codes for my online banking.
- About 550 US dollars in cash and some Swiss, English, Scottish, Croatian, Indian currency amounting to another 200 Euros which I had kept in my second wallet
- Pictures showing Fiona when she was 4; 5; 7; 8; 9; 11 and 12 years old.
- Sunglasses and some other things I cannot remember and therefore are probably not needed for my journey.
Forced Break In Cannes
After recomposing myself I went to the gas station attendant who told me, "it happens almost everyday here" (how reassuring) and gave me directions for the next police station.
Driving into Cannes I saw a sign "Police Municipal," only to find out it was not their business. For a theft report I had to go to "Police National."
Arriving there at 4:45 AM I was told to wait for the change of guard at 6 AM.
At 6 AM I was told I had to wait until 8 AM until their colleague who speaks English would come in on duty.
At 8 AM I was told he would be a bit late. He finally showed up at 9 AM (so much about work ethics of French government employees who enjoy a 35-hour workweek.)
After giving my name and the reason for my "visit" it took another 45 minutes until I was able to file a theft report which took about 7 minutes.
As the thieves had not gotten my cash I enjoyed a first espresso double in the first rays of the morning sun before driving to the Croisette, the famous beach promenade of Cannes. Sorry, no topless beauties there at this time of the year.
Watched by countless police on flashy motor cycles busy riding up and down the Croisette and issuing parking tickets (where is the police on highways?) I parked my red van amidst several Ferraris and Bentleys in a tow-away zone and went to the "Office de Tourisme" where I was supplied with a booklet listing all Cannes hotels.
Although I felt like I deserved a place like the 550 Euro a night Ritz-Carlton I thought it more wise to choose something with a few stars less as I did not know then how long I would need to stay in Cannes.
PHOTO: Cannes seaside.I walked to cozy looking Hotel America and made my next mistake: I started the request for a room with the words, "I was just robbed on the highway and all my credit cards were stolen…" Before I could even place my question for a single room for 3 or 4 nights and offer a cash deposit the woman at the reception (ladies behave otherwise) interrupted me, saying "we are fully booked. I cannot help you," making me feel like a bum who had asked for spare change.
I was too tired to go into a rage that I only wanted a room and no help. So I can only take revenge here: Please spread the word that Hotel America is not the kind of place that is willing to comfort travellers that do not fall into the norm of tie-wearing suits on business trip.
I got smarter from this experience and called another hotel. Things improved from here: Hotel Embassy, a nice 3-star place 3 blocks away from the Croisette in, welcomed me warmly and I thoroughly enjoyed 4 nights there, with the staff assisting in all my needs like finding a place where to buy a new Apple laptop (13" Mac Book.)
Modifying the Transit Into A Fortress
After a day of rest and a first princely dinner consisting of goose liver pate, lobster and mousse au chocolat, washed down with a bottle of Bordeaux I had a good night's sleep and scouted the yellow pages for a car mechanic that would install lock bars on all doors of the Transit. The thieves had forcefully entered the Transit by violently picking the lock on the right front door making it unlockable
My eyes fell onto an ad for a garage that specialised in vintage cars. My 1973 Transit would certainly qualify for that, I thought.
When driving into monsieur Bernard Excoffiers “P3” garage I first was not sure if this was the right place. Nestled amidst several serious-size yachts was a gigantic shed that resembled more a motor museum than a workplace, filled with Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Aston Martins and of course Bentleys - which are as commonplace in Cannes as Volkswagens are in Germany.
Lucky me; he instantly took a liking to my charming red van. One day later the Transit was fitted with lock bars on all doors. At a very fair 125 Euros this is probably the most important improvement to the Transit for the regions I am about to go to. Thanks again monsieur Coffier. If I will ever own a Lamborghini I am sure to visit you again for a cruise and a café on the Croisette.
Now one can enter the car only with a handful of keys - or by smashing a window. But beware! I now carry pepper spray and a 650.000 volt taser at all times and keep two Rambo-style knives within reach!
I don't want to bore you with all the bureaucratic paperwork, phone calls and faxes necessary to get new documents and bank cards. First I was quite worried because the thieves had not only stolen my plastic cards but also the codes needed to transfer money out of my accounts. With the help of my dad (big THANK YOU!) - all emergency phone numbers were in the stolen daypacks too - I was able to have everything blocked within 30 minutes after the burglary. The thieves were still able to use my cards for a few small change items until 4 days after the theft.
The Journey Continues
Several sea food platters and bottles of Bordeaux later I felt fit to continue my journey. Had I originally intended to drive to the ferry from Spain to Morocco as quick as possible my taste for the fabuluos things the French cuisine has to offer changed that.
Papal Competition in Avignon
From Cannes I drove to Avignon, the city where Catholic renegades established a papacy in competition to the Vatican in the 14th century, protecting themselves in the biggest gothic cathedral in the world. The centre of Avignon is still almost entirely surrounded by its old city walls.
While eating almost always costs you a fortune in France unless you resort to a - uaaggh - McDonalds or can survive on (mostly delicious) sandwiches one can make up for it by staying in cheap but still comfortable hotels featuring everything a traveller really needs. That is: A secure room (and parking), a comfortable mattress, WiFi internet access and a private bathroom. Etap hotels, rated with 2 stars, offer all this for 32 to 45 Euros a night, depending on the location of their hotels.
I have stayed in countless 5 star places while still on big company expenses but when it comes to my own money I was never able to tell the difference between a 50 or a 500 Euro room as soon as I close my eyes for sleeping.
And about internet: In France you can buy a WiFi pass from orange that gives you 24 hour highspeed airtime for 20 Euros. With 17,000 hotspots in the grande nation I have never run into trouble finding a hotspot immediately. In many cases my Mac found open networks where I could catch a virtual free-ride.
On the Tracks of Vincent van Gogh
Studying the map I was destined to learn more lessons about the French "savoir vivre" (knowing how to live well.) Arles, the city where Vincent van Gogh roamed around for 444 days 118 years ago (local papers then reported on a foreigner whose drinking habits made him a nuisance for the town and a danger for women and children especially,) seemed the right place to enjoy another lovely small French town. I set myself a strict schedule: Not more than 4 days; because Vincent was thrown into a mental ward when the Arlesiennes had finally enough of his coma-drinking bouts. So I adhered to a rule once advertised broadly in France in the 1970s: Not more than one bottle of wine per day. It is a tough rule when you eat out twice a day.
Eating out in France means at least a 3-course meal with a bottle of wine, coffee and cognac.
Arles, home to a Roman arena seating 25,000 and an amphitheatre for 10,000 spectators, won me over immediately. I stayed at the lovely Hotel Calendal. From my cozily decorated room for 69 Euros I overlooked both the arena and the amphitheatre - and had the Transit in permanent view. Staff there was the friendliest I encountered anywhere in France; and that’s not only because they spoke English in a country where people sometimes can be quite arrogant when you have no sufficient command of their language.
I cannot remember all the restaurants I have been to. But this place 200 metres from my hotel was an outstanding experience. Duck’s liver with plum sauce was just the perfect starter before an entrée of Cassoulet, a local stew made from white beans, duck’s legs, Lyon sausages and pork.
From Arles I took a train to Marseille in order to get the last paperwork done that I needed in order to regain all my documents without returning to Austria. Again a thank you to the friendly lady at the Austrian consulate who also directed me to Marseille’s best Bouillabaisse restaurant.
Restaurant Rhul at the eastern end of the Croisette, Marseille's beach promenade, was definitively worth the hour-long walk from the old port of Marseille. I feasted on several kilos of fish in this wonderful fish broth and enjoyed a unique view of the Mediterreanean coast and the island where Chateau d’If is located, the fictional place where Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Christo was incarcerated for 24 years. All fictions have a true core. In this case the place really served as prison for several decades.
On the way to Spain I decide to drive via Carcassonne, probably Europes's biggest medieval fortress with an outer and an inner defence wall. Again I sleep in an Etap Hotel - for only 35 Euros and a secure parking place.
Early in the morning I walk up to the fortress. As tourists are still at breakfast downtown and souvenir shops are still closed I indulge in feeling like a knight in the old times. Kevin Costner shot Robin Hood here - and it is easy to understand why. At every corner you expect a group sword-carrying wildhearts to emerge from a pub of low reputation.
Aaah, nice to write something different. And now I am ready for the coming market gyrations where the Fed could raise rates as early as this month, depending on inflation data later this week.