Surrey Off-Road Specialists Limited

A wonderful drive. I was a participant in the London Cape town Rally. 36 days and nights with Olpha and a borrowed Jeep experiencing incredible places, people, challenges, mystery, history and friendship. Events that would be difficult to equal any where in the world.

A circuit or two of Spa in the rain, without shunts, and an encore on the Nurburgring (must be a first for a Wrangler). Snow and ice on the Grossglockner Pass, buffets in the evenings and the opportunity to check out the other participants and their cars! Are they together? Is that her father? What is he wearing? Will they last the trip together? Are they speaking Dutch or Croat? Undoubtedly, this soap opera was unfolding and we were in it!

Onwards swiftly eastwards to Slovenia - breathtaking scenery and at last the opportunity to "test" our cars and our skills. The dirtier the car got, the better it looked. Through Croatia and into Hungary.... a policeman stopped us and asked for autographs - this must be a dream!

Then, into a time warp as we entered Arad, Romania at dusk. We were suddenly in a scene from an early 1930's film of life in a futuristic broken industrial society. Sad grey people shuffling aimlessly - clanking trams and a few lights all enveloped in a menacing, acrid atmosphere. Thank God for the Tulips! We sped on to Timosuara and the Continental Hotel. Some participants rated it 36th out of 36. Alas, we only placed it a number 35 - the 36th slot had already been taken by the Britannia at Canary Wharf.

The next day produced a fast and fabulous off-road section and I was unable to get Olpha out of the driver's seat. Then out of Romania via Bucharest to the border. Through the disinfection pit, with a little bit of extortion thrown in for good measure. A brief run through Bulgaria to Turkey, finally approaching the Conrad, Istanbul from the Asian side amongst 70,000 Besiktas football fans.

Then, more dreamlike sequences. Wasn't Syria meant to be the centre for International terrorism? Weren't the people meant to be a little reluctant to embrace the West? Unbelievable welcome - for over 300 kilometers. Wonderful people, stunning hospitality. We will return.

Jordan and fantastic Petra... the sights get more stunning. Car still running well as we tackle the first desert runs. Wadi Rum was brilliant, as was the Sinai until we sank in soft sand to be rescued by a Cathay Pacific 747 pilot and his trusty attendant (driving a Land Rover). All too quickly through Egypt but we wished the rest period at Hurghada had been shorter. The airlift to Uganda was eagerly awaited.

Then, into Africa. Kampala at dawn said it all. Tremendous colour and people everywhere. We drove out of the city and soon were on the red dirt roads featured in every brochure on Africa. It was an amazing experience to be driving our own car through the Kenya highlands and on into Tanzania and the toughest roads yet to get to Ngorongoro. The first view of the massive crater was of another world, a lost world. The next 24 hours was unforgettable as we descended from the magnificent Sopa Lodge to the base of the crater to drive amongst the wildlife. Peter Bates, another competitor, was not well and had to leave his car at one point. We saw the lion behind him, he didn't! He survived!

The next day's Tulips wanted us to go back to Ngorongoro but, we soon realised that heading west would not take us to Dar-es-Salaam. However, the swim in the Indian Ocean when we arrived was better than any bath so far.

We'd rather forget Mbeya as even the advice of Dr Mark Human couldn't prevent the biological problems associated with a mature chicken(?) curry. A delicate couple of days followed. Flat coke and water is not that bad. Then we had a great drive up the mountain into another time warp, Livingstonia. The friendliness of the Malawi people was unforgettable.

Then on across the potholes of Zambia to a great welcome in Lusaka, before catching our first glimpse of the Zambesi as we approached Victoria Falls. Breathtaking sights and the definitive afternoon tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel. The barbecue that night brought with an exercise in confusion as we were both challenged and discouraged to cross the Chobe National Park. As it transpired, the drive through Chobe Game Reserve was one of the highlights of the rally.

On through Botswana to Namibia and the first signs of trouble on the car... partial brake failure and a wheel bearing nearly finished. Nearest parts were in Johannesburg so we had them flown to Windhoek and made a 1 day detour to get the problems sorted. Then a fast section back to join the others at the Municipal Rest Camp at Swakopmund... Butlins eat your heart out! This camp had a 2 metre high electric fence around it... to keep us in or muggers out? Special evening as John Brown the organiser, shared some of his malt whisky with... participants! Singing was not deemed one of the strong points of the follow up crews.

Fast gravel to Sesriem and the incredible dunes of Sossusvlei. Camping was a challenge in the night wind, as was breakfast the next morning... sand with everything. Then followed some of the most stunning scenery as we crossed Namibian Deserts, Fish River Canyon (like a private visit to the Grand Canyon), and the Namib plateau.

As we crossed into South Africa, we had the great feeling of being nearly there, but also not wanting the rally to end. More great scenery at the Aurgabies Falls, much wine and a couple of unintentional detours in the Cederberge mountains!

A final night on the road at Pine Forest then on to Cape Town. The first view of the ocean as we approached Cape Point was phenomenal... for us it could have been the finishing line. Lunch at Cape Point then the convoy into Cape Town, across the finishing line to the hotel. It was over. It was billed as the drive of a lifetime and it surely was. We had four days to rest in Cape Town before flying back to England followed by the Wrangler... returning steerage! Chris Bashall awaits to see how the car fared!

The Wrangler was phenomenal for a trip like this. It had everything and more as it was the only convertible 4x4. You can get very attached to a car that has carried you through tough situations... we're getting the car ready for the next one... probably South America.

From: 'The Drive of a Lifetime' by Mark & Olpha Gibbon. Words & Pictures: Mark Gibbon, © Copyright 1998.