2 girls, one (very ancient) Land Rover and a very very long journey to Georgia

  

It all started in Oxford on a sunny day last week! The sad outcome of all the troubles in Georgia means there’s a increase in work for organisations like mine.

We needed vehicles and supplies out there and quickly. With ports closed the quickest way was by road. And that needed drivers…cue me and my co-driver Ankles!

 With the cars picked up from the Oxford depot we made a dash down the motorway to scoop up Ankles from Heathrow and we were off.

An easy run over to Dover for a breezy boat ride over the channel and by mid afternoon we were already in country 2…FRANCE.

France was…well…brief! and before we knew it we were passing the road sign for Belgium. The thing with these open EU borders is blink and you miss them…this is all you get:

Country 3 – BELGIUM…having worked here last year for a few months it brought back happy memories as we skirted around Brussels and arrived in Gent to bed down for the night.

Up first thing the next morning we feasted on the buffet breakfast. Why is it that bacon, chocolate muffins, cheese and fruit seem to go so well together for breakfast only when you stay in a hotel!

Over to country 4…the NETHERLANDS – another ‘blink and you miss it’ border and a brief stint across a very flat landscape. By lunchtime we were already in country 5….GERMANY…what can I say about our race across Germany…?

Clean, fast, quiet roads. The autobahn is everything a motorway should be. Although we were slightly confused for the first 30 miles or so when we saw signs for the same place over and over again at every turnoff. I had never even heard of Ausfarht before… but what a rubbish place name!

It wasn’t until we conceeded defeat wondering whether we were in fact just driving in circles and radioed to vehicle 2. Unbeknownst to us vehicle 2 had a German speaker in it and the 2 (male) drivers took great delight in informing us – in between raucous laughter – that Ausfahrt actually means ‘Exit’ in German!!

We soon hit country 6 – AUSTRIA and the awesome landscapes and dramatic scenery started. I vaguely remember seeing a Top Gear show with Clarkson and his buddies searching for the best driving road in Europe – I’m pretty sure it was Austria they eventually settled on.

Winding roads and mist covered mountains made for a beautiful drive….as well as being the place to rest our weary bodies. It’s surprising how shattering it is sitting down all day in a car!

Another early start and pretty much straight over another border into country 7 – SLOVENIA. I visited Slovenia a few years back just before it became part of the EU. And what a different place it was then. This time round the roads were impeccable and every few miles was yet another motorway service station with a Shell petrol station or Burger King restaurant.

By now we were well and truly heading South and today lunch was in….CROATIA, country 8.

Not visiting for long, by early afternoon we were approaching what I though would be one of our most interesting places en route….SERBIA.

On reaching Serbia, country 9, we encountered our first proper border crossing with proper border crossing officials, roadside checkpoints and passport control!

First you leave Croatia…easily…head a mile through no-mans-land and arrive at the Serbian border checkpoint. Papers were requested and we confidently handed over vehicle registrations and passports.

Then it started to get interesting – apparently we needed car passports! Have you ever heard of a car passport before? Well neither had we but apparently we needed one to drive across the country!

Funnily enough (!) it was possible to buy said ‘passport’ at the border! So with a significantly lighter wallet but with the required precious piece of rather flimsy paper we re-approached the border guards. This time they wanted to know where we were going…’camping’ Ankles tells them.

That sounds good enough – no? Well thank goodness they didn’t ask to check our car…we wouldn’t have looked like such great campers if they’d asked to check our car because we sure as heck didn’t have a tent in there!!

   

Anyhow – safely through the border we head through Belgrade…quite the desolate city. We’re still not sure where all the people were but the roads were empty and the houses all looked deserted! Still, what a facinating place it would be to explore, certainly worth a re-visit at some point!

Approaching the end of the day we decided to bed down in Serbia for the night and the closest town Nis seemed as good a place as any. Nis had a real Eastern Bloc feel to it. What must have been a very beautiful town in its heyday was now slighty rough around the edges – shabby but…shabby chic. But cheap as chips accommodation and tasty kebabs for dinner so we were happy.

   

The next morning we headed off in the direction of country number 10 – BULGARIA along our best road yet! Winding roads and tunnels galore – what awesome fun!

Well – if it was hard to get INTO Serbia, they sure as hell weren’t going to make it any easier to get OUT! Luckily getting into Bulgaria proved much easier…and remarkably progressive in its….’information processing techniques’.

You basically drive up to window 1, hand over your papers and get them back along with a memory stick!! Then you drive to window 2, hand over your memory stick (no papers required) and repeat the process for an astonishing 6 windows in total! Each time simply handing over your stick, waiting for a minute then getting your stick back and an arm pointing you in the direction of the next window.

At the final window you hand in your stick, the barrier lifts and off you trot into Bulgaria!

Bulgaria was an easy country to drive through with smooth tarmac toll roads and before we knew it we were nearly at the Turkish border!

The process of entering into country 11 was anyone’s guess. We had no idea how hard or easy it would be, if we had the right papers we needed, and just how long the queue might be but we prepared ourselves for a fairly long wait! 

In all honesty we were quite surprised. Yes, so it all took the expected long time, yes it was bureaucratic and involved a strange experience of ‘haggling’ (for yet another car passport – although I’m still not totally convinced car passports ACTUALLY exist!).

We were out the cars for visas, back in the car, drive to the next window. Back out the car for baggage checks, in the car to the next window and on it went but although it was a slow drawn out process we made it through relatively unscathed!

And so into TURKEY we drove!

We just managed to make it to Istanbul by dark and had a fun old time in a hair raising drive round in circles in this HUGE city (20 million people live here….20 million!! That’s a lot of people) before eventually just paying a taxi driver to escort us to the nearest decent hotel. A quick bite to eat then off to bed.

From what we saw of the city though – a highly recommended place to explore if the chance arises! That city has some buzz about it!

The journey across Turkey was always going to be our monster drive. That country is massive! It also happened to be one of our most amazing. Because the place is so enormous you drive from mountains to desert, lush greenery and eventually out onto an awesome coast road.

        

Stopping part way to get our heads down for the night in a truly horrible flea ridden roadside motel (through necessity rather than choice!), day 2 in Turkey was an obscenely early start to try to make it to the Georgian border by afternoon.

Unfortunately mid afternoon the rains decided to arrive and it was at that point we realised we had a rather leaky sunroof. No matter – a bit of a Blue Peter sticky back plastic job later and we were on our way again with our very own homemade in-car umbrella system!

So, here came the biggie! We had come all this way and made it safely to the Georgian border. This was what it was all for – but could we get ourselves and our vehicles into the place?

With a translator by our sides, lots of smiling, paper shuffling, stamps galore, much MUCH waiting around and fairly grumpy officials we slowly mastered the necessary steps in the most bureaucratic  4 hours of our lives!

Country 12….GEORGIA!!

As we emerged out of the customs yard late afternoon we had huge grins on our faces. Our ‘escort’ was there to meet us and we were soon on the road for the last dash across Georgia (making a quick stop at an amazing Ukranian restaurant for the biggest and tastiest feast you can imagine), eventually pulling into Tbilisi in the early hours. Tired and bleary eyed we had made it.

3000 miles, 12 countries in 5 and a half days….what a road trip!

Sleep deprivation and gin for breakfast

Sometimes in life you have a surreal moment, sometimes you have a surreal day…I’ve just emerged from a surreal 48 hours.

After 3 months training it was time for our assessment day – a test of our ability to ‘survive in the wild’ shall we say. We were about to be split up and posted out to our various new locations…the question was…were we tough enough….??

We had been given no briefing on what to expect other than ‘expect the unexpected’ and know how many paces you have in 100 metres!!

4am – early morning wake up call telling us we had 20 mins to get out kit together. I mean 4am for pete’s sake…that’s just antisocial!

Off we set under the cover of darkness with a mute driver heading to where, we didn’t know. We were blindfolded, bundled into separate vehicles and our journeys continued. By the time we were hauled out of our vehicles the sun was rising.

I were given a vague brief I had to get myself round a 20km route stopping to complete various ‘challenges’ along the way, that everyone else was getting exactly the same brief and that it was a race.

I managed to catch snatches of crackled radio comms as I listened to my briefing, it sounded like there were 6 or so stop offs and one of the guys had already set off. I grabbed my backpack, threw in a few bottles of water and set off. There was no way I was coming last!

For the next 12 hours I beasted myself round what turned out to be a half marathon circuit, up to my knees in soggy rice paddy fields, stopping every 2 miles or so to fix a landrover, draw a map or resuscitate an ‘injured deminer’! All in 30 degree sun with an occassional 5 minute tropical downpour!

One of the more surreal moments of the day – arriving at a river crossing to find the bridge completely collapased I raced along the bank until I randomly found a tree trunk some enterprising soul had chopped down as a makeshift bridge.

I ‘dirty danced’ my way across (that will mean nothing to you unless you’ve watched the scene in Dirty Dancing where Baby and Swayze practice dance steps on a tree trunk across a river!) just as 5 very lost Swedish girls turned up on bikes with a look of bewilderment on their faces wondering how on earth they could cross with their bikes!

Much balancing and wobbling later we managed to somehow get all 5 + bikes across. Later, retelling the story to the boys they just couldn’t believe it was me who bumped into 5 Swedish girls and not them!

The day (of course) had plenty of those either laugh or cry moments…? Picture this…

The boss turns up at one of my challenges to see how I’m doing…hmm, well…I’ve been better!

I’m in a baking hot landrover, dripping sweat all over the steering wheel trying to manuveur the damn thing round an obstacle, as I back up I hear a worryingly loud bang.

Why or why do these things always happen just as the boss shows up!!??

Panicking that I’ve just backed his landrover into a wall I jump out of the car just as (for absolutely no reason whatsoever!) the lenses falls out my sunglasses…

So I’m stood there, feet squelching in my boots, bright red sunburnt face, exhausted beyond belief and sweating like a pig with no lenses in my sunnies making me look like a badly styled 80’s school teacher!!

And what did the do…? He laughed, rolled his eyes, turned on his heels and walked off!

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry…luckily for the poor Cambodian guy anxiously looking at me probably knowing I was on the verge of doing one or the other…I laughed!

We were then back into the vehicles and to the office compund for written and verbal testing…no easy feat in sopping wet clothes! I certainly never thought I’d ever feel chilly in Cambodia.

Before we knew it our 12 hours was up, we had all passed and that was it…3 months done and dusted and we were leaving Cambodia.

So with stinking kit bags and grubby faces we sank into our seats on the plane, pulled the old ‘aid worker straight from the field’ card to wangle some free champagne and spent the long flight watching endless movies, having gins with our breakfast and generally annoying our poor fellow passengers as we flipped between utter exhaustion and giddy euphoria!

Delayed flights, lost bags and 4 hours in Heathrow T5 (what a truly awful place!) I emerged in Manchester arrivals halls a slightly ‘broken’ figure of my former self…some uncomfortable chaffing from my half marathon (!), bed bug bitten and with a truly glowing rudolph red nose…but wearing an incredibly wide grin on my face!

People say life is tough…really??

Whoever these ‘people’ are obviously don’t get what life is all about!!