OUCC Proceedings 11 (1983)

Expedition transport:
Hic Transit Glorius Mundi

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Steve Roberts, Iestyn Walters and John Singleton

You will probably have read in the Introduction that our Ford Transit van gave as a wee bit of trouble in 1983. The gory details are given below by Steve Roberts, who helped drive it out, Iestyn Walters, who was carried back in it in a strait jacket, and the Editor, who was unfortunate enough to have to get it back to England...

The third aged Spaniard in succession shakes his head sadly, probably as much at the ragged, smelly, scruffy cavers as the ragged, smelly, etc, van. I have learned a new word of Spanish. It is "parabrisa", which means windscreen. Just one of the things the van doesn't have any more. Other things it doesn't have include:

  1. Much of a front and, right hand side or door. Well, the metal's all there, it's just not quite where it started out. The garage near Bordeaux let as drive off, but only after I'd signed a piece of paper absolving them from all responsibility for our future fate.
  2. Headlights that light anything useful. A midnight session by the road just off the ferry got main beam, if the passengers played games with banana plugs. However, as one pointed right and low, and one left and up, all we got was a fine view of some tarmac and an occasional tree top.
  3. Two drivers. One had his knee put back together by a hospital in Bordeaux. The other - well, I don't think Phil wants to drive again.

Mind you, it was a fine crash. "Five pints" bottles in all directions, cries of "Turn off the ignition! Turn off the ignition!" as we lay at 45 degrees in the ditch with Graham's "ghetto blaster" still playing, having shot through the hole where there had been a windscreen. Moral: find out where the light switch is before you want to use it. Or stop. Or something.

Anyhow, a day later we were blasting through a rainstorm, the front three respectively wearing Petzl suits, full walking waterproofs, and (the driver) battered old Belstaff and specs against the blasting gale and torrential rain. When the sun came out we had great fun waving at pedestrians and drivers aghast at the blue and white battered horror rumbling past. We'd lost the starter motor by now. The border guard was a bit dubious... he let us through, though, after seeing the inside; but I don't think he expected us to leap out and push it ... not to mention the traffic jam we were stuck in on a one in six hill, where we were thoroughly alarmed by Graham bump starting the stalled deathmobile in reverse.

But back to the vendor of parabrisas, Santander -

Some of the biggest Ford stock in Spain, but no windscreen for weeks, even with Rose junior giving the receptionist the full force of his Patagonian patios. Despair yielded to "Oh, sod it, we'll drive off anyway". Outside, and there were all the aged Spanish mechanics pounding the new windscreen into place with mighty slams of their fists. Lighter in heart (and wallet), we continued our journey.

At last, Graham was ceremoniously handed the controls, as we set off up the twisty foggy nasty 10 km final approach. At the last stage, with "Riot in cell block No. 9" at full volume, we roared into the Lagos car park. And no-one, but one sleeping member of Her Majesty's soldiery, was there. But what were the party of a dozen or so nuns doing having a picnic by the road, surrounded by sheep and mist?

We now move on four weeks, and the Editor enters the scene...

The contingent who had bought the bus out tittered nervously as a troop of squaddies pushed it round and round the Los Lagos car park frantically. "What's up with it?" I ask innocently, not having driven or taken much notice of the machine for the previous two weeks in which I'd been out. "Starter motor doesn't work," someone said; they failed to mention the non-dipping headlights, the fading brakes, the slapping transmission - etc., etc. After the journey down the 22 kilometres of one in four hills necessary to reach the teeming metropolis of Cangas de Onis, I could see why... much relieved that the van was now Someone Else's Problem, the journey-out team ran giggling from the vehicle to the relative security (!) of the Spanish railways. The rest of the day was spent mending the starter motor with bed springs, adjusting the timing five times to try to cure a misfire and then finding out that it was due to the exhaust manifold having fallen off... curing the misfire allowed us to hear the transmission going bang-a-bang-a-bang all the way up and down the hill and for some reason reverse gear failed that evening.

Two weeks of scaring ourselves and several hitch hikers to death (literally, almost) on the hill road passed in a flash... Iestyn describes what happened next.

Hey you! Don't read that, read this! So you think the sharp end of the expedition came in pushing 500+ m pots? Not so...

It is the end of the expedition and I am to travel (feeble manic laughter) if not home, at least to England by "El Sod". This Ford Transit mongrel has already had a go at me on the journey out. Six weeks, however, have honed it to a new peak of malice. We are leaving a day early (Ed. - for a ferry which Graham had convinced us went at midnight on Saturday) to ease El Sod over its teething problems -5° dead zone in the steering, buckled roof struts which do not make contact with the bodywork anyway, two utterly knackered universal joints... my diary reads: "funeral minus 1 day and counting."

The four haggard remnants of the '83 expedition boldly go from Cangas with the bus, 1500 m of rope, rucksacks, forebodings, etc. Jan Huning takes an absent-minded handful of anti-crap pills to replace lost mass. Phil Rose contemplates the earlier drive out to Spain, his shock of forcing the steering wheel to the left as the van veers right into le ditch. John Singleton's hunched form over the steering wheel defies the bus to attempt any indiscretion. Iestyn Walters: "El Sod, a van barely alive. But we can't rebuild it. We can't fix the two knackered universal joints. Yea, though we drive the vehicle of death we shall not fear the fading of the brakes, nor the cracks in the steering column, nor the..." Chorus: "Shut up, Iestyn!"

The Spanish/French border. Dusk. Headlights on, but where on earth is the light? As the night deepens, the left lamp shows the worn tyre under it up nicely while the right one beautifully highlights the open mouths of the oncoming motorists. Still, what is the point in seeing the road when the steering does not work? (Good point, well brought out!)

There are difficulties at a service station as the way on is gently uphill with a stalled engine. Yes, the starter motor (relic of the Great Exhibition) has been fixed, but the battery has only enough "voom" for one relaxed start per day.

It rains. The left windscreen wiper is convinced the windscreen is under the bonnet and proceeds to hammer the bus to bits. Still, at least this time we have a windscreen.

Whew! Friday lunchtime in some village 100 km south of Chartres. A day to rest and have a look round and ... "Aaargh..." (fading into the distance). John disappears in the direction of the parked van. Reappearing a little later, paler and thinner. "The ferry leaves on Friday August 12/13th which is tonight and not tomorrow night!"

Chorus: "AAARGH!"

55 mph. The ghetto-blaster blasts out Handel's Messiah but cannot compete with the clattering U.J.s. (A sudden stop now and the rope would burst the (non--existent) bulkhead - spaghetti Bolognaise garnished with caving wellies. It's a good job the brakes are duff.)

Mais le force est avec nous. Boulogne ferry terminal. Forty minutes to harass a poor French official with "Mais non, il ne reverse pas", a time to let the adrenalin drain (or in Jan's case, time to test the French drains).

And thus we made it. The advice:

  1. Tape of Bach organ sonatas for the awkward moments, and the Messiah for all the desperate ones.
  2. If you knacker a van, for God's sake do it properly and don't spend the rest of the expedition driving its ghost around.
  3. Take John Singleton with you.

Editor's postscript

It is 7.30 am and miraculously we are somewhere in London, after having spent a night trying to find a downhill-facing lay-by on the A20 to crash out, whoops, sleep in. I try to pull out to overtake a lorry and with a flash of sparks and a blaring of the horn, the indicator stalk falls off, to be fielded neatly by Jan. The overtaking procedure becomes more interesting every time a slow lorry looms. I shout "Right!" and Jan shoves the stalk into the steering column, to the accompaniment of the horn, vast, improbable electrical discharges and manic laughter from the passengers. "Lord, what if the police stop us?" asks Jan. I shudder to think. I have been suffering from Amador's bowel ever since Spain, an ailment which periodically involves stopping the van in a shower of rust and headlight trim, grabbing a loo roll, vaulting hedges into the nearest field and then ripping my trousers off. In one such field south of Bordeaux, in addition to the obvious, I unwittingly left my driving licence, wallet, cheque-card and all identifying documents except my passport. My passport of course shows a clear-eyed, clean-shaven long-haired lad. I am now short-haired (my carbide set it on fire), unshaven, bespectacled and dirty. Shuddering, I imagine the scene:

Officer: "Hello, hello, hello. What's all this then? Let's see your licence."

Me: "Well, you see, officer, I was having a crap in a field near Bordeaux and I lost my wallet, honest, and this is my passport and this isn't my van."

But the right sort of Force is still with us and we finally grind to a halt in Oxford, to be met by Steve Roberts, who says "Cor, you take your time! Fancy going in the van to the Fairport Convention concert this afternoon?"

The three of us (Phil had insisted on getting out in London) run off down the road, screaming, while Steve wonders what is wrong. He would soon find out.


The man who bought and towed "El Sod" away was arrested for towing an uninsured and un-roadworthy vehicle... The curse of "El Sod" strikes again!