Betsy towed 500km across the Sahara to find a messenger had arrived in Nouakchott

My attempts to find a tow in the freight lorries’ park where the truks await for their escort across Mauritania to Senegal came to nothing – too loaded up or foreign trucks that could not take the chance – so that night Betsy and I were pushed across the final frontier. I decided to hang with her rather than return to Nouadibou with Cheick who would look for a local truck going to Nouakchott.

I eat chicken and chips and salad that was about an hour and a half late, slept in my tent in the back of Betsy 10 meters on from the gate which consisted of a chain across the road, to be awoken at dawn by the morning’s border traffic lining up to go to Morocco.

I got up and decided to record myself so went to a rise in the sand to set up my tripod and camera. I was dressed in my prize Algerian camel wool djellaba which doubles up as perfect cold desert night gear and my alternative sleeping bag which was stolen in Rabat by Rabatian probably hooded scallies!

Emerging with my djellaba hood up, and Rachel’s sheep skin slippers that keep my tootsies warm at night on for the morning chill I looked like something between Obi-Wan Kanobi and an oversized chipmonk.The spot I chose was a rise on a rocky sandy ridge overlooking Betsy being lit by the rising sun against the background of the border and the wasteland of no man’s land. Technically not done to photograph at borders but by now the border staff were all fully amused by L’Anglais’ predicament, so I wasn’t too concerned they’d mind. 

I did my stuff, wandered about taking photos of grafitti and rubbish and went over to the only cafe had some bad coffee – good coffee ends after Morocco – sat inside and did some writing on my computer waiting for Cheick to come back with a solution for Nouakchott. At about 10 he came in.

“There you are. I thought you had been stolen! I tapped your tent, banged on the truck but nothing. I walked all the way to the gendarerie, no one has seen you.”

I was the only real white boy in town, sleeping in a union jack tent flapping about on top of a broken down truck painted as a hippy wagon which all helped push across the border, flashing a camera meters from a sensitive border post looking like something from Star Wars. I think I’ve perfected the art of blending in.

Cheick had good news. A truck was leaving Nouadibou at 3pm and would tow me to Nouakchott for €300. With Betsy’s old petrol engine it would have cost me that in fuel.

“Let’s go”

€50 later a mercedes car was pulling Betsy and I to the Nouadibou-Nouakchott turn off, and Cheick and I went back into Nouadibou to have lunch, email off to family and meet up with Mohammed and Aly and their old green 40 ton Mercedes Truck carrying waste metal to Noauckchott.

Twenty meters after take off this very big bird ran out of diesel from the main tank. This was going to be a long ‘un. Memories of early day’s travels, trucking from Zimbabwe to Kenya, cooking steak on the gearbox slowly over the course of the day’s travel. I’m back to trucking with the boys! Slow, methodical, every mile an achievement, the journey the thing, not the destination.

It took us 2 hours to get the 60kms to Betsy who looked so small being tied up behind the Mercedes. Then we rolled.

We rumbled along through dusk and into a Saharan starlit night, Aly making tea and cooking dinner as we drove, me in Betsy staring at a back end of a truck and lining my steering up with a precise line on this green screen until about 11pm, when we stopped to eat good desert food of pasta and meat and to sleep, Mohammed on a mat on the ground sheltering from the wind behind a wheel, Aly in the cabin of the Mercedes and me in my tent in the back of Betsy.

I forgot to tell you. Without her canvas on – taken off to reduce “military aspect” – at a standstill Betsy sings, but only seemingly at night. In a wind her poles and holes hum and whistle. In her working life she did India, testified by her badges of honour. In her song I hear elephants, sitars and perhaps a past that she is singing to re-join. We’re nearing the tropics old girl – well a couple of thousand kilometers away but closer than you’ve been for decades.

I think she might be enjoying the heat – and she’s got it easy now, stubborn bitch!


Dawn and up.

Back to the rolling, back to the line on the screen, back to the rumble of Betsy all day, rescuing another truck stuck in the sands at one point, so Mercedes pulling Betsy pulling stuck truck. All ropes snapped! Sand plates did it in the end. And on till finally rolling into Nouakchott at 6pm and Auberge Awkar and my old friend Oulibou who OWES ME LOTS OF MONEY and has promised to sort me out with a solution to get to Bamako. Hurrah for Oulibou not being able to settle his debt all year!

As Mohammed pulled Betsy into place outside the side entrance to Auberge Awkar where Ibrahim, the ever-sleeping guardian could keep a watchful eye, a European man leaning on the wall smoking cast an amused and wistful eye on my arrival.

After finding out from him that Oulibou was not around and would be back soon so Mohammed would have to hold 5 (an African 5 of course) for the balance payment for the tow, the smoking stranger ushered me into the auberge with a starnge urgency. He clearly wanted to chat.

Turned out he saw in my arrival with a multi coloured truck being towed by a bohemouth a madman in his own image. He was a Saharan/African/West African traveller of the 70s and 80s, revisiting this part of the world on a recent fleeting whi to get out of cold France. We saw ourselves in each other. He was also a mechanic.
I told him about my project and my problem and showed him round Betsy.

“You are mad” Hervé said appreciating Betsy’s build. “She’s in good shape for 57”. Slapping his hand on her cabin nose: “Change the engine, put in an old Mercedes diesel one here in Nouakchott, it’s a port, the engines are here, the mechanics are good. You’ll have a strong truck with value.”

Through the haze of the past few days, from the piston blowing, the rush to get out of Morocco by Christmas eve to avoid the fine, the difficulties at the border getting in, then planning for getting towed across Mauritania in 7 days and onto Bamako to pick up her parts sent out from England and finding a mechanic in Bamako who I could trust to get her fixed up right, i hadn’t thought of what was staring me in the face. The reason I regret going for Betsy is her petrol engine. A Bedford petrol engine that Francophone Africa doesn’t know. With a mechanic with me this was not a problem, but now I needed a truck that anyone could fix.

Fixing her old up was a gamble in itself. Another wrong carburetor setting or wrong oil change could blow her piston again, without Joe to monitor the mechanics of this delicate engine I was pissing in the wind. With a diesel I had a continent of Joe’s. I’d almost given up on the idea of her being used for the return, just hoping to get her to Bamako and fix her there while I go on to the camps and do returns with my landcruisers. But I could be towing her all the way there for another mechanic to make another mistake and she’s out again.

If I change to diesel she is more robust, cheaper to run – perhaps 3 times more efficient on cheaper fuel – better suited to the climate, easier to maintain out here, she has sale on value. I’ve got to spend on her anyway, if I do this now I’m salvaging Betsy for the future AND she’s ready to go again from here and onto the return. It was the only all round solution.

The man’s name was Hervé. He was in his late 60s, French, in his words “a peasant” from the Massif Centrale, flying out of Nouakchott that night. Hervé had had the urge to leave the cold in France 10 days ago, as I was leaving Marrakech for Agadir. He drove an old banger he had stashed in a garage down and sold it to pay his journey and was going back home.

Our paths crossed at the right moment for me, as I was considering my next move to Bamako. An old weary traveller giving me my answer for the next push forwards.

Later that evening Hervé and I discussed. Our generations and nationalities clashed horns. We argued, saw things differently, he nostalgic for the generation past, me for just a few years ago, he seeing the problems coming from within and on the ground, in “Arabisation” and Islam, me blaming outside pressures, and suggesting a perversion, mythology and foreignness to any “islamism” the region supposedly has but that I have never heard defended.

I was up late that night and bumped into Hervé as he was leaving the auberge for the airport at 3am.

“Bon voyage” I said to his back as he walked to his taxi and I climbed into Betsy.

He did a theatrical wave without turning back, slid into the taxi and disappeared into the silent morning. Another messenger.

This trip has been burdened with bad luck and big problems, but blessed with messengers with clues to the way forward when I’ve needed them. Mohammed in Ceuta, Abdullai in Agadir, Cheick in Nouadibou and now Hervé.

And here I am, New Year’s day, Nouakchott, catching up on the end of the year. Last night a friend from the camp’s cousin called me. I ended up at possibly the only Tuareg gig in town, a large auditorium with not enough refugees to really make it fire. My first guitar, first Tuareg, first refugees of this journey, seeing out that difficult year and hoping to see Timbuktu very soon with Radwan and his family and my friends.

Today Betsy has been towed off again, this time to the mechanic’s to have her new engine put in. German Mercedes 11 13 diesel is marrying an old British war elephant. She’s learning the key to success in Africa: adapting to the environment.

So an African hybrid of ancient European models will emerge, a sign of the times behind in Europe and for her future in Africa. Fitted for new purpose, forwards efficiency and durability for her new climate. This is no time for tears for tradition or protocol or nostalgia. All that matters now are the 3000kms she needs to do to get us to Timbuktu.

Happy New Year from us both.

Goodbye to the old, bring on the new.

Come on 2014 – take us all back to Timbuktu in peace.

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