Dakar or rust

Here's your mission: buy an old banger for less than £100 and then drive it all the way from Plymouth to Africa. Competitor Liz Scarff, aka the Lada Lady, reveals the highs and lows of the oddest rally on the planet
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If Dastardly and Mutley were to take a holiday, this would be it: attempting to cross the Sahara in a car that is so appalling you wouldn't even try driving it to the scrap heap. The rules (such as they are) of the Plymouth to Dakar rally are simple: buy an old banger for no more than £100, fix it up for under £15 and then drive - with your fingers crossed - nearly 4,000 miles from Plymouth, down the west coast of Africa to Dakar, in less than three weeks.

If Dastardly and Mutley were to take a holiday, this would be it: attempting to cross the Sahara in a car that is so appalling you wouldn't even try driving it to the scrap heap. The rules (such as they are) of the Plymouth to Dakar rally are simple: buy an old banger for no more than £100, fix it up for under £15 and then drive - with your fingers crossed - nearly 4,000 miles from Plymouth, down the west coast of Africa to Dakar, in less than three weeks.

Last year, the rally, in aid of a variety of African charities, began on Boxing Day. The dubious vehicles that disembarked the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre, France, included an ice-cream van complete with working freezer; a replica A-Team van with an oil leak; an Austin Princess; a £20 Fiat Panda and perhaps the worst British car ever made, the Austin Allegro.

Alongside this roll-call of rust buckets is The Lady, a 1994 red Lada Riva saloon driven by Rachel Palmer, 29, and myself, Liz Scarff, 28, aka the Lada Ladies. With steering as heavy as a tank and gears like treacle, driving The Lady is a truly awful experience. Being mechanically inept, we're not entirely sure our equipment will cater for everything the desert throws at us.

Unlike the Paris to Dakar rally, this wacky race is unsupported. If we break down in the Sahara, we'll be hitching our way out. Rally drivers are aged between 19 and 65 (only seven are female) and from a variety of backgrounds. Nicola and Karl Parsons are driving the 22-year-old Austin Allegro, named Vera. Karl, a nurse, says, "Before we left the UK, we had a letter from the AA requesting we stop calling them out." Nicola, an accountant from Plymouth, adds: "It's been Karl's dream to drive in a rally and we'd never be able to afford the real Paris to Dakar."

The rally is organised by Julian Nowill, a stockbroker from Exeter with a penchant for Ladas. Having driven a £25 Lada to St Petersburg in 2001, he dreamt up the rally to satisfy a mid-life crisis. This will be his brainchild's third year, and the entrants have jumped from 50 to over 200. "If you have lots of money and a sense of adventure," says Julian, "then the Paris to Dakar could be your cup of tea. If you have a sense of adventure but little cash, then the Plymouth to Dakar might be more up your street."

This unique event boasts the slogan, "No money, no worries, no sense." No sense comes into play in France, when one team's homemade roof-rack slips forward, pinning all the doors shut with occupants inside. Later, two cars crash in the Pyrenees. No worries? You must be joking.

Neil Scudder, 36, and Chip Wilson, 37, anticipated problems crossing the Sahara in their Bedford ice-cream van, but not on day one, just 100 road miles into the trip. Dejectedly, they tuck into strawberry cornets before the van is taken to a scrapyard. Unable to let them go so early, we rearrange our equipment to create more space. Chip hitches a ride with Team Vantastic while we make Neil an honorary Lada Lad and head for the icy Pyrenees. *

The Lady roars up the mountains leaving other rally cars for dust - and it is here our love affair with the Lada begins, even though the bracing snow and gale-force winds exaggerate the slack in her steering, making her impossible to drive in a straight line. With 2,499 miles of potholed roads ahead, for the first time it crosses our minds that the Lada is completely unsuitable for the terrain. But for the moment, our main concern is getting past the Moroccan border control. It takes most of the day, but eventually all 34 cars make it through safely.

Our second day in Africa brings the first serious problem - a gearbox that won't stay in gear. Luckily, we are travelling in convoy with a mechanic, Mike Rogers, of Team Vantastic. "Keep heading for Marrakech until you conk out and then we'll tow you," is his advice. Rogers owns a garage and co-driver John Ward works for an oil company. They are both from Southampton. "I read about the rally in a car magazine," explains Mike, "we both own classic cars and go driving together at the weekends. This rally seemed like a real challenge and I'm just itching to drive across the desert."

"We're hoping to still be friends after three weeks in a car together," John adds, laughing.

Driving our Lada soon becomes a two- person job; one pair of hands to hold the car in gear while the other wrestles with the steering. Most visitors to Marrakech wander the souks, we scour the scrapyards looking for a second-hand gearbox. Without it, we'll be on the next plane home. Tension mounts as Ahmed, our local mechanic, goes from one scrap dealer to another. Our hearts sink as time after time he emerges shaking his head. Finally, after an hour and a half, our man in Marrakech comes up trumps with a four-speed gearbox to replace our previous five-speed. We must be the only people to have ever paid £100 to downgrade a Lada.

The gearbox takes two days to fit, leaving us two days' drive behind the rest of the convoy. We cover 600 miles in one day to catch up, and although the Moroccan police constantly stop us for speeding, being an all-girl team suddenly becomes an advantage as an amiable chat secures our bribe-free passage across the country.

By now, improvisation has become the norm for everyone. Starter motors have been removed in favour of push starts, fuel tanks bypassed with plastic tubing; and a baked bean can is patching up the Allegro's exhaust.

The fast-paced driving is exhausting. We only have time for one meal a day and rarely reach our destination in daylight. By now the group has split into smaller mini convoys. We stick together for safety - if one car stops we all stop, be it for a toilet break or puncture. Most evenings we meet at a designated campsite. From civil servants to solicitors and engineers, we are a mixed bunch. Beers, spare parts and tales of the day are enthusiastically shared while everybody mucks in with repairs.

Crossing the Morocco-Mauritania border involves negotiating with men in two shacks in the middle of nowhere. Not only is this stretch of land unmarked, it is also a live minefield. This Western Sahara territory is the subject of a long-running dispute between Morocco and the Polisano, a movement that wants independence for Western Sahara. Although there has been a ceasefire since 1991, the mines remain. The route through is not clearly marked and we are instructed to follow the tracks of previous cars.

We pick up the statuesque Ahmed Salim, our desert guide, let some air out from our tyres to prevent punctures, and push on in our mini convoy for the windswept town of Nouâdhibou, Mauritania - our gateway to the desert. Our exhaust, however, is causing problems: the middle is melting through the handbrake cable and the end is falling off. We pull the end away, tie it to the roof rack and keep going.

Ahmed guides us through the flat, desolate landscape with a complicated series of frenzied taps, hand wiggles and screams (we can only assume this is delight at our driving). " Allez, allez," he shouts, bashing furiously on the dashboard as he anticipates a thick wedge of sand approaching. We drop down into second, rev the engine and fly across the sand as the back skids out. We drive in groups of five, sometimes in line, sometimes racing each other, sometimes bumping into other mini convoys. Desert etiquette dictates that if another car becomes stuck in the sand, you keep driving until the ground is firmer and then walk back to help push.

Sand suffocates the air, penetrating everything: clothes, hair, car engine, boot - even our food is a little gritty. A group of camels strolls past as we pull up to a sand dune for the second night of desert camping before heading for Senegal the next morning. Senegalese law states that no cars more than five years old can enter the country. We are begrudgingly given an armed escort to ensure we don't attempt to sell our cars while in the country and instructed to reach the Gambia within two days.

Our group started out as a convoy of 35 vehicles, and 30 make it to the Gambia (we actually go a little bit further than Dakar, but Plymouth to Dakar has a better ring to it than Plymouth to Banjul). We have crossed six countries and 3,699 miles in 19 days. Our Lada may have a melting handbrake cable, a downgraded gearbox, a bodged fan, vibrating propshaft, a slow puncture and no rear-exhaust - but she and her mechanically incompetent drivers make it.

At the end, an auction is arranged for all the cars to add to the £25,000 raised for charity. The Allegro makes £220. Over the course of our journey we have fallen in love with the Lada's quirks and, even though a local man has bid a staggering £840, we can't stop ourselves from wondering... would she survive a drive back to the UK?

This year's Plymouth to Dakar rally is fully subscribed and leaves the UK on 17 December. Booking will begin for the 2006 event early next year. Go to www.plymouth-dakar.co.uk for information

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