The long drive north

.                               Look at these beautiful eyebrows!!!

I’m just back from the big smoke capital…where they have normal life necessities like proper shampoo, restaurants and beauticians who will  pluck and twease eyebrows so I no longer look like I have been living in the wilderness for 6 months!

As Jaffna is still rather ‘developing’ we often buy equipment and the like down in the capital then drive it north. Normally the ‘drive north’ part is the job of our drivers, last week I decided I needed to escape the peninsula for a few days so offered to do one of the long drives north.

From start to finish it is quite the adventure!

First you have to go north to south. The quickest way to do that is by plane but as there is no domestic airline right now (and as we have a few friends in the military) the way we go is with the Sri Lankan Air Force!

It’s all terribly exciting as you are piled onto a bus (in the old war-stricken days they used to take your mobile phone off you and make you close curtains over the bus windows!). Then you are driven across the tarmac to your waiting military plane – one of these two bad boys…a Ukrainian transporter or a Chinese twin engine 15 seater….!

I prefer the big one – the seats are low benches running down either side of this big ‘ole beast and it has a huge ramp back door which (just like in the movies) does indeed start to open when you come in to land…before you hit the tarmac!

It’s always full of soldiers, sailors and pilots all looking very smart in their uniforms and there are no windows so it feels rather daunting as this big gun metal bird hurtles down a bumpy runway to take to the skies.

Actually it feels like it will never make it off the ground!

The baby brother plane is a whole different experience…you are handed huge headphones when you squeeze in through the back door because it’s so darn noisy sitting literally on top of the engines. You spend the flight in isolation from your fellow passengers with big black ‘cans’ on your ears!

You certainly keep your fingers crossed on this plane if there is even the slightest breeze in the air – this wee thing bumps and bounces through even the smallest of clouds!

This time round we got the little plane, safely made it down south then it was straight to the office to collect my car only to be told someone had crashed it the day before so there was no driver side mirror, oh and by the way the boot doesn’t shut so it’s kept from flying open with some string. Talk about a Blue Peter effort of a car, this was going to be an interesting journey.

After a unexpectedly luxurious night in a hotel (a last minute booking meant I was upgraded to a suite!) I gorged on the hotel breakfast the next morning as I have been reliably informed by my brother-in-law on many an occasion that calories don’t count when it’s a hotel breakfast!  Then it was time to hit the road.

Now bearing in mind this drive was a fairly last minute plan and also bearing in mind that I don’t actually live in the capital city I figured a helpful (local) soul in the hotel could tell me how to actually get out of the city.

It would appear I had figured wrong.

After much um-ing and ah-ing and several times being asked ‘Was I SURE I was driving all the way to Jaffna’ and ‘Was I really driving there on my own’ I established that in fact no-one could give me directions! They handed me a tourist map and I knew I had a compass in the car – I figured how hard can it be. Set the compass to north and off you go…

This was my map. Not exactly a Tom-Tom is it!

Off I set. After a while my compass arrow was pointing decidedly north EAST rather than north. I stopped at a local petrol station and asked if I was heading to Jaffna. Again much um-ing, ah-ing and questionning and then several shakes of several heads. Apparently I was on the road to Kandy – definitely NOT the right road for Jaffna.

A swift u-turn and following their vague instructions to “turn right after 100m up a dirt track, turn left when the road ends and you will eventually join up with the Jaffna road”, lo and behold with a wing and a prayer it worked and before too long I was happily popping out of a slightly dodgy looking neighbourhood onto the Jaffna road.

Now this is a long old journey to do solo so I had decided some i-pod action was in order.

Pops – you will be pleased to know my choice of travel audio was in fact the omnibus Archers from last Sunday. Along with a spot of Weekend Wogan and some Desert Island Discs I was set.

I now am fully up to speed with what the British deputy-Prime Minister would take to a desert island as his luxury item!

After a full day on the road I got to Jaffna at sunset and was led home by the light of a very big and very bright full moon! Beautiful.

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!