A Story of Two Fat Ladies as the Return 2 Timbuktu Departs

Betsy and Maud climb through an English village. Photo ©Michael Meredith

All photos © Michael Meredith

This is Betsy and Maud.

They have got me into a bit of trouble at the southernmost point of Europe and the northernmost point of Africa. From here I can see Morocco, Spain and a piece of Britain. But to reach my goal and achieve my aim I know i can no longer do this alone, I now need to garner support.
So I must tell our story. Over the next few weeks I will be telling the story of Return 2 Timbuktu: a Caravan of Courage and Hope. Here’s the first installment:

Ceuta, Spain in Africa.

I rarely write publicly as I travel because I don’t like revealing my whereabouts. But I am cornered now on this journey of all my journeys I am making from UK along the familiar route to Mali and my way out and my mission depends now on openness.

My mission is to cross the Sahara and reach Burkina Faso with vehicle capacity and a camera to take an old Tuareg chief and his family back home to Timbuktu.

Security is not my concern. In Africa security lies in the community and this i am never without, and here I at least found Mohammed who is central to the Moroccoan comunity in Ceuta so I am with Africans and they are looking after me well.

Nor do I envisage security to be a problem further on if we get through and finally make it into Mali, nor do I think it is the number one issue for the refugees returning, which is what this journey is about. If I felt security was an issue at any stage I wouldn’t be going forwards.

No my problem is not security. My problem right now is Betsy and Maud. They are the reason this journey has been so cumbersome and expensive, they are the reason we had to take a mechanic with us so he could look after their vintage needs; they are the reason the mechanic has abandonned me and they are now the reason I am cornered in Spanish Ceuta on continental Africa, unable to pass into Morocco; they are the reason I now have to change direction, change plan and come up with a new idea of a way forward so I can get myself and my remaining companion, a film maker, George, to Burkina Faso to take Radwan Ag Ayouba, to his ancestral lands. These two large ladies!

I’m being unfair. Its not really all their fault. They are victims of heritageism!

For the journey from UK to the southern tip of Spain they had been waved at and photographed, pointed out to children and respected for their considerable age. Then suddenly, crossing into Morocco, chiefs of customs in smart uniforms were speechless, slick dudes in shades tutted and photographed and a guy straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the tash, the stick, the white hat and big belly ran his fingers across Betsy’s curves and barked “military aspect!” Poor old Betsy and Maud blushed and my heart sank.

I’d better go back to the beginning of this journey to explain Betsy and Maud.
We met… wow only a few weeks ago, seems like a lifetime… in York where I went with George to look at a 1957 Bedford army truck and her sister, a 1964 Bedford Towing truck, for our upcoming trip to Burkina Faso.

The 1957 was fit for the purpose of carrying a lot of people and, I was assured by the charity I was buying from, solid as a rock, simple petrol engine and geared for their own aborted journey to Africa.

I was in unchartered territory with such a big and old truck but bit the bullet and bought her. She promptly conked out a mile down the road. So George and I left York in our hire car with the promise that the charity we were buying from would sort the vehicle out in a week’s time.

Back home in Bristol I said to George l that I was going to abandon the idea unless we took the two trucks, one as security for the other and a mechanic.

A week later we returned to York with a new deal with the charity – we take the two trucks, one on credit – and George had roped in his Finnish friend Joe who was an uber-mechanic who specialised in classic cars and was up for the journey if he could bring his wife, Emma, who wanted to come down to Mauritania with us and there she would leave and he would continue onto the camps with us. Perfect.

Again our departure from York was delayed by a night as the trucks hadn’t been moved for months and the work we assumed was being done to prepare them for us after our first aborted attempt clearly hadn’t been done.

But eventually we got going: the big bird “Betsy”, a towing truck who became “Maud”, a solid trailer sadly without name, me knowing the way and the why and driving George to film, and Joe our mechanic and the other driver with Emma to just enjoy the madness of it all had arrived. We were a strong enough team thrown together at the last minute as we left northern England to go back to Bristol, and then the following day onto Portsmouth for the ferry to Bilbao and …. the Sahara.

Early signs on the journey were worrying. Joe and Emma arrived with colds and were anxious to get to the sun and I was pressured to rush which I hate when travelling as it gets you nowhere more quickly and usually the opposite with something left undone or behind. Emma’s high heeled shoes when we left Bristol caused an eyebrow lift from Mum as she waved us off. I was getting messages that unless we got to Morocco quickly Joe might jump ship.

Portsmouth to Bilbao and across Spain.
Luckily I delayed our departure from Bristol as it gave me time to buy jump leads which were promptly used 12 miles into our journey to Portsmouth. Tinkered a little with the trucks for a drizzling afternoon in Bilbao and then the next day set off across the mountains of the Basque country. The sun was out as we climbed and descended and George took advantage of the light, got into his harness and tied himself onto the back of Maud the tow truck to film me driving. Awesome day.

The journey across Spain to Algeciras where we would get the ferry to Morocco was surprisingly without incident with the trucks but Joe was appalled at their mechanical maintenance. But after a hesitant start my two old girls were great. Betsy didn’t start one morning, Maud was a bit of a carbon monoxide chamber, Betsy “back fired”, as she calls it, like a trooper, but what to expect from 50 year old ladies? And everyone loved them.

We pulled into Algeciras in the evening of our third day in Spain. The first leg was over, we had made it across Europe, though we had done nothing to sort out Betsy and Maud’s outrageous drinking problem so I was burning money in a race to get Joe and Emma to the sun of Morocco where we would stop for a few days to have a good look over the trucks and try to curb their crazy consumption.

I suggested we take the ferry straight onto Tangier that night and we could be in Rabat by the next afternoon, but Jarmo wanted to stay the night in Algeciras. I was getting a bit tired – the trip had become all about Joe and Emma, the purpose of getting to Burkina was getting lost.

 Something was clearly up too the next day as 2 ferrys went by the next morning before Joe and Emma came to tell me they had decided they were going to continue with us only to Rabat.

Bombshell and pissed off. This meant the whole Sahara in two old trucks without a mechanic. Great. I had agreed to do this journey with these old Bedford trucks only because we had an expert mechanic all the way to Mali. We had just raced across Spain without really looking at the trucks, at extra expense to me, just to get Joe and Emma to Morocco so that Joe would stick with us to Bamako.

That night I couldn’t sleep. My head was spinning with the possible consequences of Joe leaving. Also someone had alerted me to a problem I may have with the trucks getting into Morocco at Tangier – I may have to pay transit charges as they could be seen as utilitarian vehicles.

With my mind racing I decided at the last minute that we couldn’t take the 6am ferry as planned as I needed to check out this Tangier issue. Understandably having got up early Joe was furious, but I had no option. When I feel like I’m heading for trouble and I don’t know what to do, I have to stop and do nothing until I see the right solution.

I spent the morning rushing round checking this Tangier issue. Nobody could give me a firm answer. Spanish customs and even Moroccan police couldn’t say. Eventually the best advice, I thought, was rather than cross to Tangier to go to Ceuta instead as this was a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, a bit like Gibralter, so if there was a problem on the border I wouldn’t have to pay for the vehicles to return to Spain by ferry.

I remembered Ceuta from my first time crossing the Sahara. It can be a problematic border because Morocco don’t like Spain having a rock of theirs. Sounds like Spain about Gibralter no? 

I was ready. That was the plan, we’d go to Ceuta. We could catch the 1200 ferry. Word came back that Joe was stalling. We missed the 1200. At 1330 George, Joe and Emma came over to me at the truck yard.
Second bombshell: Joe announced that he and Emma were leaving that night for Sevilla and flying from there back to Finland. They weren’t even coming to Rabat so the trucks wouldnt even get Joe’s advice to the mechanic.

We were a week into their trip. All had been focussed on getting them out of the cold of UK and northern Spain to Morocco and just as we are ready to go across the Med to the sun, the Sahara, and Africa… Joe and Emma left George and me and Betsy and Maud as they disappeared in their hire car.

Its going to be tough and once we get to Rabat I need to rethink things. Let’s just get to Rabat. I get 19.30 tickets to Ceuta. We cause a stir getting Betsy to back the trailer onto the ferry. And gradually I realised it was for the best that they left. Joe and Emma were not up for the rigours of the trip.

Now the journey is what it is, with no pressure or agenda that isnt to do with the project ahead. Now it was my journey. Not having the extra driver was going to be difficult and George had enough on his plate.

In Ceuta we decide to stop off to get cheap last minute wine and something to eat from the last European supermarket we’d see before hitting the border. Neither of us were tired and we could sleep the other side.

Ceuta is about 3 kms long then there’s a wall snaking up the mountain and a border post by the sea. We all rolled up to the border. Africa at last, from here… I know where I am. Here goes!

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Photograph: Michael Meredith

Photograph Michael Meredith