SHIFTING SANDS EXPEDITION UPDATE: Two women return from Series IIA Land Rover journey through North Africa and the Middle East
In March we left England to drive our Series IIA Land Rover around the Mediterranean to experience and document everyday life in North Africa and the Middle East. We wanted to tell a positive story from the Arab world to balance the general negativity that we see in the mainstream media, a personal tale interweaving the stories of the people we met with our own.
We had a fight on our hands before we’d even left. Planning our expedition had pretty much taken over our lives, but we had no money and no car and it seemed that nobody was interested in backing two women to make this journey.
So we worked and saved, dedicating our evenings and weekends to planning our trip and applying for every grant under the sun. We still failed to find sponsorship but continued to battle through the highs and lows, rejoicing when a friend lent us his beloved Landy and gritting our teeth when she subsequently failed her MOT to the tune of £600.
We eventually realised we could talk about our trip forever but that nobody was going to take us seriously until we actually started doing it. So we fixed a leaving date, started organising visas and accommodation, and quit our jobs.
Just before setting off a chance phone call to Duncan at Britcar yielded useful advice and the fantastic offer of cost price Land Rover parts. David at All Wheel Drive next door helped us out with some last minute mechanics.
To save us travelling with a load of heavy and expensive spares, Britcar suggested we use their international shipping service to obtain parts as required along our journey. It wasn’t long before we had need of this…
We’d got as far as France when we heard (and felt) a monumental clunk, which was Landy’s rear differential breaking into pieces. We’d massively underestimated how long it would take to drive through Europe so – bodging a temporary repair – we drove for 26 hours without stopping, crossing over the snowy Pyrenees at midnight.
By the time we reached Marrakech – where Britcar had sent our new diff – we’d identified a whole new problem: the noise from the engine bouncing around Landy’s sheet metal interior had become unbearable. Our ears were ringing day and night – even on non-driving days – and we knew we’d be deaf by the end of the trip if we continued. We faced the embarrassing prospect of coming up with a solution or giving up entirely.
Some Moroccan artisans came to our rescue, so – on the only day it rained in Morocco – we found ourselves sitting in an icy puddle installing a new diff while they lined the whole of Landy’s interior with thick slabs of soundproofing cork – and gorgeous brass detailing.
It looked incredible, worked a treat and gave us an idea.
At the age of 43 Landy was a thing of beauty but pretty basic so we decided to adapt her to meet the needs of the expedition. Having left England as a classic British car Landy would pick up a flavour of every country we travelled through.
How Landy looks today tells the story of our trip in a way that nothing else does:
Now we could hear we wanted a sound system…and Tunisia was the place to do it.
Our friend Sihem embroidered beautiful seat backs in Algeria.
Our plywood bed was ripping our sleeping bags so Abu Deraa painted it – Bedouin style – in Wadi Musa, Jordan.
Libyan curtains were stitched by Moussa in Tripoli old town.
We installed a super loud horn to fight off trucks in Egypt.
We upgraded our gear stick – Tunisia again – paying homage to the home of Star Wars.
In Lebanon we were told we looked military – so adapted our spare wheel cover in response.
Finally Landy was decorated by ‘Leo Lunatic’ the most famous graffiti artist in Istanbul.
Despite the attention she was getting Landy continued to cause mechanical havoc for most of the trip often testing our strength, tolerance and creativity to the extreme. We got to know her pretty well…and learnt quite a lot about ourselves at the same time.
We learnt how to drive with no brakes…no clutch…no handbrake…and a sticky accelerator. And we learnt that it’s OK, so long at is doesn’t all happen at the same time.
We replaced the brake master cylinder three times in Lebanon (all the local spares we found were faulty in different ways), had the front brake pads relined by a garage in Jordan, reattached our accelerator cable in Algeria and a dangling exhaust pipe in Jerusalem. We changed the oil and filters in Jordan, replaced two brake cylinders and carried out a basic service. Our fuel pump was reconditioned in Cyprus by local Land Rover mechanic Socrates.
We learnt to never trust anyone else to direct the car and that the term ‘mechanic’ is to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.
We discovered that it’s more terrifying to be driven around by an overexcited Tunisian friend than to lose our own brakes on a mountain pass in Lebanon, but that the scariest part of our project bar none was leaving our jobs in the first place.
We found a side to life in the Arab world that is barely touched in the mainstream media as we made friends and experienced generosity like never before.
Arriving in Algeria we were greeted off the ferry with ‘Hello Mrs Land Rover!’ from a beaming customs officer. Two old women argued in the street over who would give us coffee. We only had to wander into any shop (whatever it sold) to come out bearing more cakes than we could comfortably consume without being sick, and a random serviceman in a service station presented us with 350 litres of free diesel coupons.
A family in Baalbek took us in for the night when they found us replacing the brake master cylinder in the dark – and gave us a sensational Lebanese breakfast. And when we got stranded overnight in a Land Rover workshop on the outskirts of Amman the owner went home, returning an hour later with a steaming lamb mensaf dish made by his mum.
We realised that being two women in an old car was by far the safest way to travel and our vulnerability was our biggest strength. Everywhere we went people just wanted to help us.
But few understood this.
People in each country warned us against neighbouring countries and frequently enough we were warned by our new friends against the people in the next town – where we would arrive and be met by equally friendly people who could hardly believe we had passed through the last place unscathed.
We discovered that people everywhere have an innate fear of the unknown and that the biggest problems we’ve encountered both at home and on the road – the stereotyping of race, gender, religion and nationality – are direct consequences of this fear.
And we found more than generosity. Everywhere we went we met people setting up book clubs, exhibitions, websites, festivals: cultural activism was rife. Social media has got people from different backgrounds engaging with one another on a grassroots level like never before. The creativity and initiative we encountered was inspiring and it was amazing to see the fear of the unknown being broken down in this way.
People in every place bought into our project and told us time and time again how important it is to them that people back here don’t think they’re all gun toting extremists.
We came home at the end of August having driven through every country bordering the Med with the exception of Syria. After two years of planning, 22 countries, 174 days on the road, hundreds of new friends and thousands of miles we were back in one piece and – with a bit more help from All Wheel Drive and Britcar – Landy even passed her MOT.
We would like say a huge thank you to Britcar for supporting our project and for their help and advice along the way.
Our next challenge is to bring the tales of our journey alive in a mobile exhibition with our beautiful Landy at the centre. Starting in London we plan to drive our exhibition around the UK and then back to Morocco in 2016. Please see our website, Facebook and Twitter for further information and updates: