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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Renegade Road Rally Spans from England to Gambia

Milwaukee guys have an adventure of a lifetime

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Here’s a great getaway idea: Buy a 20-year-old $400 Volkswagen with 98,000 miles on eBay from a guy in England, get a good friend to fly with you to pick it up and then drive it through France and Spain, ferry to Morocco and drive through Mauritania and Senegal to Gambia. Then donate the car to a charity.

That, in a nutshell, was the wild monthlong adventure that University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates and Rufus King High School friends Ryan Heckel (26) and Alex Jones (27) completed when they arrived safe and sound in Milwaukee on Jan. 25.

“The Aristocrats”—the name they chose for their rally team entry in the Plymouth-Banjul Rally—had no real love for car racing, not much experience under the hood and no prior experience in road rallies. Their 1987 VW Polo came with a spare tire, which they discovered about 2,000 miles later was flat. Neither had ever driven the route before, Alex spoke just a bit of French and they relied heavily on travel and route information they picked up in a Yahoo! chat group.

A Rally with a Reason
The adventure started when Jones was casually surfing the Internet for information on the Dakar Rally. That annual run from Europe to Africa is best known for attracting well-financed, high-profile factory teams fueled with megamillion Euro budgets and supported with dozens of backup cars, repair crews and publicists. That rally attracts international attention and offers stark images of the super-rich racing past the ultra-poor.

But Jones’ Google search turned up information for a road rally that espoused quite different values. The Plymouth-Banjul Rally, initiated six years ago by Brit Julian Nowill, came with just a few rules: Teams could spend no more than “about” 100 British pounds on their vehicles, they have to drive them from Plymouth to Gambia and, if they complete the trip, they donate the car for auction, with the proceeds going to support Gambian charities. The trip is an adventure in support of a worthy cause. And that appealed to Jones and Heckel.

“I did this rally for the adventure of it,” Jones said. “I used to love the first day of summer vacation when I was a kid. The opportunities for adventure seemed limitless and I don’t think that feeling should go away just because I’m an adult.”

Through contacts they found on the Web site, they learned more about the alternate rally and decided that it was just the kind of adventure they needed. Not at all certain their application would be accepted, they sent in the $600 entry fee and were surprised to be selected. They found the 1987 VW Polo on eBay and purchased it for about $450, a price that included storage in Suffolk, England, “and a cup of coffee” when they picked it up on Dec. 26, 2007.

And They’re Off
On Dec. 27 they left England and became one of 39 teams making a dash for Banjul, Gambia. “The teams were surprisingly diverse,” Heckel said. “They came from Wales, England, Australia, Scotland, Norway, Germany, Latvia and Portugal.”

The vehicles were a runaway used-car lot of VWs, Ladas, Audis, Fords, Nissans, Opals, Jeeps and other junk heap refugees. The ages of the entrants varied from 18 into the 60s. Occupations and personalities were just as mixed. Some brought their friends, their wives, their girlfriends, and one team brought their mother.

“It was really a free-for-all driving through Europe,” Heckel said. “Most of the teams met in Tarifa, Spain, to celebrate New Year’s Eve and have a rest day. Then it was a free-for-all through Morocco until we reached the southern edge.

Before entering Mauritania we formed teams of 4-6 cars to hire guides and drive through the desert. After Mauritania it became a free-for-all through Senegal, but we chose to stay with the same group and took a more scenic route.” The team agreed that the trip had lots of once-in-a-lifetime sites and experiences. For Heckel it was “interaction with the members of the other teams and with the people living in the areas we traveled through. There were so many beautiful sites, such as crossing the mountains or camping by the ocean, and incredible situations like racing the car over sand dunes. Getting to know the other teams was priceless.”

Jones said his favorite part was crossing the spectacular Atlas Mountains, along with desert and beach driving in Mauritania.

An Element of Danger
Adding an element of danger was the Dec. 24 murder of four French tourists in Mauritania. Three gunmen reportedly linked to Al Qaeda and Islamic Maghreb were being sought. Specific threats were made against the Dakar Rally and the French government recommended that French citizens avoid the area. In a controversial decision, organizers called off the high-profile run.

“We found out about the killings while we were in Spain,” Jones said. “We started getting e-mails from home suggesting we not go through Mauritania. It did play into the group’s discussion while we were in Western Sahara and thinking about how to go forward. Ultimately, we talked to locals and to the guide, and everyone suggested there was no problem. The rally control group suggested we stick together in large groups and stay on the main roads. We crossed into Mauritania and left the road within 30 minutes. We hardly saw anyone else out in the desert, then didn’t get back on the road until almost at Nouakchott. We did use duct tape to make our [French] license plates look like they were about to fall off, thus covering the part of the plate identifying it as French.”

The most frustrating part of the trip for Heckel was having to learn how to drive a stick shift, while Jones said it was dealing with corrupt customs officials in Senegal. They were stopped by police and then fined $25 for “failure to signal” as they pulled over.

The roads were also a challenge, Jones noted. “In backcountry Senegal we had terrible roads, occasional sand tracks, no guide and a map of questionable use. Sometimes, the roads were stretches of broken asphalt, more pothole than road. We had to weave between the larger potholes, and sometimes leave the road entirely because it was of no use.”

“Some of the potholes were so large and deep that if we did drive into one we would have needed to have the car lifted out,” Heckel said.

Worth Every Penny
The total expenses included: $600 for rally entry fees; $450 for car and storage; $700 for gas; $200 for shots; $100 for a Gambian visa; about $1,000 each for food, lodging, ferries and souvenirs; and about $1,100 each for airfare. The car was donated for a charity auction in Gambia and will be sold later this spring.

Would they do it again? “Maybe not this same rally,” Jones said. “But there’s one that goes to Timbuktu, and another to Mongolia. I might do one of those.” “Yes, I’d go again, but not too soon.” Heckel says. “I’d have a hard time using the ‘experience of a lifetime’ excuse to miss a month of work two years in a row.”