Saturday, 20 December 2014

Continuing the story ......

Tom just stood there motionless, clothed ready for travelling his bag packed and hanging over his shoulder. His face had that grey pained expression once more and his eyes and mouth looked red as though he had been sick and his tongue protruded slightly from the center of his mouth, he looked a mess. I said to him, 'we have been waiting for you what’s the problem? 'I want to go home' he said.

I stared at him for a moment, then through gritted teeth I said 'What do you mean you want to go home, you're in the middle of Kazakhstan!! The nearest major airport is at Novosibirsk and we will be there in 5 days as you know. Looking at the state you are in, you should stay with us so we can look after you'. Tom remained motionless for a moment then repeated that he wanted to go home. By this point I had had enough. 'Look' I said, 'I have had it up to here with you' raising my out stretched fingers across my throat. 'I’m fed up with your day to day hot and cold Jekyll and Hyde attitude. I asked you when we spoke for the first time if there was anything I should know. You said no nothing, but you failed to tell me that you were suffering from depression and needed daily medication. I have bent over backwards to accommodate your problems so now pull yourself together put your gear back in your room and I will meet you downstairs in 5 minutes. Mariusz and I are waiting to eat'.

Tom eventually joined us in the hotel restaurant, but by the time he turned up we had lost our appetite, we paid for our beers and decided to find a family run bistro somewhere less formal. A few minutes chat with the hall porter revealed that what we were looking for was a 10 minute walk along the road. Tom seemed to have got himself back together but to be on the safe side I didn’t say anything likely to antagonise him. We managed to get a meal and a couple of local beers and we discussed some of the details of the route the following morning then decided to get as much sleep as we could.

Saturday 4th May day 35. We met for breakfast at 7.30, we had a long way to go so we ate as much as we could just in case we weren’t able to get anything on the road. Ahead of us was a 308 mile 8 hour journey mainly through open country passing Ekibastuz at about 2pm that afternoon then arriving at Pavlodar our destination at around 4.30pm. The weather was overcast as we filled our tanks with fuel and pointed ourselves in the direction we wanted to go. The road surface was as expected plenty of holes and cracks to dodge once we left the modern capital Astana. We were soon driving through the old rundown suburbs amongst horse drawn carts and the old way of life. As I drove I couldn’t help thinking how far we had driven, at a rough guess by the end of the day it would be something like 2,600 miles. We were in the middle of Kazakhstan, 300 miles to the north is the Russian city of Omsk, to the south west the Caspian Sea. If we carried on in an easterly direction for another 400 miles we would reach the Chinese border at Tacheng. Thinking about where you are like that gives you an eerie feeling of isolation. The weather remained overcast and a strong wind persisted throughout the day as we travelled along mile after mile of bumpy roads, passing huge wheat farms on either side. Although the landscape in that area was mainly flat it facilitated large scale farming although we did pass some scenic areas of lakes and rivers. During the afternoon I heard and felt a knocking sound coming from somewhere around the foot well of the driving position. I called 03 using the hand held radio to let them know I was stopping. The examination revealed that the front right bottom suspension bolt had come loose and dropped off at some point, although still safe to drive I needed to get a replacement. We continued until we found a petrol station and asked if there was anywhere we could get a replacement bolt and was directed to a village back the way we had come. We located the workshop, the door was open but nobody was there. We waited for a while and eventually a well-dressed man appeared, Mariusz explained what the problem was and the man in his immaculate suit wriggled his way between the wheel and the car body to get a better look, then indicated for us to wait while he went inside the workshop. He returned with two boxes of assorted nuts and bolts and tipped one of them onto a patch of concrete and started to sift through. Finding what he was looking for and still in his clean suit he dived under the front of 02 to replace the missing bolt. Within a few minutes the job was done although I felt uneasy about the man getting his clothes messed but up humbled and privileged to have an opportunity to meet someone so helpful but also concerned when Mariusz asked about payment. He refusing anything. I stood there watching the kind man collecting the scattered nuts and bolts and when he wasn’t looking I placed a $20 bill on his work bench just before we left. The remainder of the journey was thankfully uneventful arriving at Pavlodar at 5.00pm. The city was a contrast to Astana, Pavlodar is an industrial city with the surrounding area comprising of flat country, the city itself is sited on the bank of the River Irtysh and was originally a Russian military outpost dating back to the early 1700’s and has grown from there. The limited time we had for sightseeing quickly revealed Pavlodar to have a lingering Russian influence yet the old traditions of Kazakhstan seemed to embrace the contrasting modern parts of the city’s commercial westernised look.

Sunday 5th May day 36. Another day, another journey. Driving alone you have to think before deciding what day it is. Of course I can look in my diary to see but it doesn’t happen automatically when you say to yourself, what day is it? Every day seems to be the same. We were getting closer to the Russian border and our aim was to reach Semey (Semipalatinsk) our stopover by nightfall, a 216 mile 7 hour journey, not far as distances go but the roads have been getting progressively worse the farther east we travelled so I allowed more time. My over-loaded 02 is feeling the strain, the rear left shock absorber bolt that sheared and had to be welded now seems OK. Replacing the lost bolt on the front right shock absorber has caused no problems either but I did worry about anything happening in Mongolia, if it did would I be able to get it fixed. To make sure that 02 and 03 were in tip top condition to take on Mongolia I had arranged to visit the Suzuki dealership at Novosibirsk to thoroughly check and service both vehicles ready for that stage. I assumed when 02 was up on the ramp I would have an opportunity to have a look underneath myself to see what was happening. Although I had given some thought about the possibility of breaking down or have some sort of problem, deep down I was confident that we would make it to the Russian border.
It was a pity we had to keep to a strict time schedule, I would have liked more time to visit some of the places of interest recommended to me and to meet and talk to the people more than we did. The people were friendly and helpful and didn’t pass an opportunity to have a close look at the vehicles and converse with us. Unfortunately come what may I had to be at Novosibirsk, Russia no later than the following Wednesday (the 8th) in two days time, to meet Graham Higgins and Mike Bailey arriving from the UK on Thursday the 9th.

Monday 6th day 37. We managed to find decent accommodation and a sort of bistro close by, not feeling energetic enough to walk around the town we decided have an extra beer or two and get to bed early. Tom managed to get himself sorted out and contributed to the evening conversation. I thought at the time, I hoped he could keep on top of his predicament until we got to Novosibirsk and boarded his flight home on the 10th. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep and a wholesome breakfast we took to the road once more facing a 272 mile 9 hour journey to Barnaul in Russia. On the way we expected to pass through Rubtsovsk the Kazakhstan Russian border crossing at mid-day. When we arrived at the border we were kept waiting for some time. While we were waiting different groups of Kazakhstan border guards marched from the office to inspect us until eventually we were called forward to go through the documentation process and the vehicle checked then handed over to the Russians. They didn’t seem too interested but went through the motions that lasted 30 minutes, finally we were let loose on Russian soil for the second time. We arrived at the town of Barnaul at 6pm as predicted and checked into a small hotel in the town centre. I put my kit into mine and Tom’s room then went to the car park to have another look at the running gear of 02 as during the day there was a knocking sound and a slight vibration coming up the steering. I wanted to have a look to see if I could spot anything. I had a poke around underneath and noticed that the torsion bar had a little movement in it but safe enough to get me to the dealer at Novosibirsk the following day.

Tuesday 7th day 38. We started later than usual as a result of the journey being fairly short but relieved to be at Novosibirsk to meet the guys as planned. It would be a 170 mile 6 hour drive allowing for the bad road conditions. 02 and 03 were refuelled and checked the previous night, so on this occasion we could sit back and enjoy the ride. The Sun was shining and the sky cloudless, it was a perfect day. We had been driving for best part of 2 hours, Mariusz and Tom in 03 were leading the way as we came to a small town. Slowing so as not to get stopped for speeding, the road led us through the centre. On the left hand side there was a large service area and positioned at either side of the entrance to the cafeteria building was what I called bigboy Lada cars. These vehicles were huge, you know the sort of thing 4 feet high wheels V8 engines, they were massive. As we drove past I expected Tom to call on the hand held to say to stop so that he can take some film of our little Suzuki Jimny’s dwarfed by the Lada’s but nothing happened. It was an opportunity not to be missed so I called Tom, but Mariusz answered. 'Can I speak to Tom' I said. 'He’s asleep' Mariusz replied. I then asked if he could turn around and go back to the service area. 'Did you see those Lada cars?' I asked. We were able to position 02 and 03 either side of the Ladas and to film the little Jimnys over shadowed by the monsters. We got the film we wanted so I was happy but annoyed with Tom for missing the filming opportunity. Not wanting to rock the boat so close to him finishing his part of the journey I decided not to raise the issue. We arrived at Novosibirsk at about 3.30pm driving along the main three lane highway that lead to the city centre, the traffic was horrendous. As luck would have it after driving a few miles I saw the Suzuki dealership on the opposite side of the road. Being a duel carriageway we had to drive some way before we could turn and go in the opposite direction but we made it in the end. We parked in front of the car showroom and immediately created interest, sales people were milling around as I went to the reception and asked to see the Manager. The pretty girls behind the counter just stared at me, nobody including the manager spoke English. We had to wait until they produced someone to act as interpreter, eventually everyone was sat around a table and in full discussion through the interpreter. We were warmly welcomed by the Manager and given the VIP treatment. They were expecting us and suggested we leave the vehicles with them so they could check and repair, if necessary, the running gear service and clean both cars to be ready for collection 12pm the next morning. They did ask however, that when we arrive the next day would we make ourselves available to meet the press.

Merry Xmas everyone ......  till next time, Les

Monday, 27 October 2014

A simple overtaking manoeuvre that went seriously wrong

Hi guys, I'm back again, though a bit later than anticipated. It’s rather like riding two horses, one being the book I'm writing, the other, the episodes for the blog relating to the journey. The book being spicy and full of detail requires a lot of my time to get it onto paper so to speak, any spare time I have, I write the articles for the blog and deal with any other business I need to attend to, so please bear with me. To continue .........

 During that day I received an email from Vi to tell me that the guys at home were concerned they hadn't heard from me. I didn't understand what the problem was, at meetings we had before departure day it was agreed that I would meet Graham and Mike at Novosibirsk Airport on the 9th May, day 40.  All they had to do was monitor my progress on our web site through the Yellow Brick tracking page.  Provided my blip on the screen didn’t suddenly disappear, they hop on a plane as planned and I would be waiting for them when they arrive at Novosibirsk on the 9th.  As for me, dicing with death every day driving through Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan, to make sure that I was there when they emerged from arrivals, was something I was doing as part of my normal daily routine. They needn't have worried though, I was there waiting when they arrived. I was lucky to have Vi working with me, being my eyes and ears at home, keeping me informed of what was going on so that I could focus on what I was doing.

Wednesday 1st May day 32. We were blessed with another sunny day, the short 157 mile 4 hour drive to Slatoust took us through the southernmost tip of the Ural Mountains, presenting us with a panoramic view of the countryside and stunning scenery. As we made our way along tree lined, but  bumpy roads, I remember that afternoon very well. I had started the day feeling run down, partly due to the continuous driving for long hours and the lack of proper sleep, causing me to feel a bit lethargic . It was midday when we came across a sort of road side café, so we stopped for a bite to eat. I ate something that didn't quite agree with me and my stomach couldn't decide whether the food was going down or coming back up again. When I left the café I wasn't feeling too good. We got rolling again and I settled down into my comfortable driving seat not too interested what was going on around me as I was leading the way along a narrow twisting, one lane each way, mountainous road that eventually straightened out for quite a long way. I closed up to a lorry ahead of me but decided not to overtake, I was content to stay behind it and be sucked along at 55 mph. I checked my mirror to see where 03 was and saw that they were some way back behind two other cars. I eventually got fed up sitting behind the lorry and decided to overtake. I eased off the power to let the lorry move forward then inched over to the left so that I could have a look down the outside of the lorry to see if I could overtake. Looking ahead I could see in the distance a slow on-coming white van allowing me sufficient time to overtake. Already travelling at 55 mph, I changed down to 4th gear, hit the floor with the peddle squeezing more power from the little 1328cc engine and slowly clawed my way along the side of the lorry. As I looked ahead to check on the white van I saw for the first time that it was not one but two lorries nose to tail! Starting to feel uneasy, I still thought that I could make it so I continued to overtake. Sweat had formed on my forehead and my tongue had turned into a coarse file that attached itself to the roof of my mouth making swallowing difficult. The van was closer now.  Make a decision, I said to myself, but as I looked in the rear-view mirror I was shocked to see a car close up behind me blocking my retreat.

 At the same time, I noticed I was no longer overtaking the lorry, simply maintaining a speed that kept me level with the lorry cab. That’s when I panicked. Scanning the instruments to find out why, with the pedal to the floor, that I was not overtaking. I suddenly realised it wasn't the engine losing power, I was going up an incline. Changing down to 3rd gear the little engine was screaming, but I started to inch forward once more. I looked to see where the white van was and received a second gut wrenching shock. It wasn't a white van, it was a fast moving white Toyota truck, lights flashing and horn blaring as it raced towards me. 

The seconds passed as I stared at the oncoming vehicle. There was nowhere to go and nothing I could do other than brace myself ready for impact. The driver of the lorry high up in his cab watched the incident unfold as I looked up momentarily and made eye contact.  He applied his brakes to create a gap between his lorry and the one in front and I heard the lorry tyres skidding and saw the gap appear, not knowing if I would make it or not, I yanked the wheel to the right somehow missing both lorries, as the Toyota flashed past horn still blaring.  I carried on through the gap and out the other side coming to a stop on a strip of rough ground at the side of the road marginally wider than 02. I switched off the engine and just sat there thinking what a bloody fool I was. It was a simple overtaking manoeuvre that went seriously wrong, no one’s fault but my own. The guys in 03 stopped beside me to ask if I was OK. I said I was, but to be truthful it frightened the life out of me. We continued our journey to Slatoust, our overnight stop and border crossing the following day.

Thursday 2nd May day 33. It was a short journey to Troitsk the Russian border town and crossing into Kazakhstan. The crossing itself took an hour and a half, it was pretty straight forward apart from the usual paperwork queries then we were driving on Kazakhstan roads by 10 o'clock. I felt much better after my near miss the day before. After the incident I had given considerable thought as to what happened and gave myself a serious telling off and decided not to be too clever in future and pay more attention to my driving. The roads were pitted with potholes and cracks, but the sun was shining. The target we had for set ourselves for that day was to reach Qostanay a 256 mile 8 hour drive. Around 11 o'clock that morning I was expecting a phone call from Julian Clegg, BBC Radio Solent, for our weekly radio interview and update for the folks at home who were following our progress. The interview was on time and went without a hitch. The rest of that day was uneventful but there seemed to be police everywhere. We rolled into the outskirts of Qostanay at 6.30pm and booked ourselves into a small clean family hotel. It had been another long day and we were feeling tired after the journey so we decided to eat at the small restaurant attached to the hotel and maybe have a beer or two, then bed, so we were properly rested for an early start the following morning.

Friday 3rd May day 34. I met Mariusz for breakfast at 7am and Tom our cameraman joined us a few minutes later. We had a long way to go that day, the 420 mile 10 hour journey to Astana would be demanding and  take us all day, so we needed to get rolling as soon as possible. Over breakfast I mentioned to Mariusz that I had heard the traffic police had been stopping foreign drivers for speeding and asking for cash payments at the roadside, I had also been told that what usually happens is the traffic police lay in wait at cross roads at the top of a hill. When the unsuspecting driver approaches the hill top he is confronted with a 70, 50, and 30 kilometre speed limit signs all within a distance of 100 metres, making it difficult to slow down in time. As you approach the hilltop your forward line of sight focuses on an oversized wide brimmed hat with a radar speed camera underneath it, pointing at you. As you progress to the top the policeman becomes visible, by that time it's too late, so please be careful. We ate as much as we could, loaded and checked the vehicles and we were on our way by 7.30am. We drove for a while using the remaining fuel in the tanks, filling up when we stopped for a break later that morning. The weather was overcast and windy, rain was expected throughout the day. During the morning Mariusz and Tom in 03 led the way and I followed in 02, being forewarned about the police and before we left the hotel, I decided to hide the money I was carrying, but I put $75 in my right hand top pocket and $50 in my left hand top pocket, just as a precaution in case one of us was stopped for speeding. An hour or so into the journey the police signalled for Mariusz to stop, I slipped past undetected, grinning like a Cheshire cat while Mariusz was in conversation with one of the policeman. I carried on further along the road then stopped and waited. A few minutes later 03 stopped alongside, I asked what happened and Mariusz said that they wanted to check our papers. You were lucky I replied, be careful that you don't get caught speeding, I will lead the way. We drove for another hour, I sat comfortably driving along thinking about everything other than what I should be thinking about, not noticing that I was driving up a hill with a cross road at the top and before I realized it I had already passed the 70 and was sliding past the 50 sign when I applied the brakes, looking forward hoping that I had got away with it. No such luck. The large brimmed hat and speed camera was there. Oooh s**t, I thought to myself as I was directed to stop. I did so as Mariusz and Tom cruised by in 03 laughing their heads off.

The policeman was a bit on the short side but he had a huge backside. He indicated to me to get out of 02 and go to the police Lada where there was a second policeman who must have been 6’6’’ tall, sitting bent double in the back of the Lada. He beckoned me to sit beside him in the back. I opened the back door of the Lada, dropped onto the unoccupied seat that was still warm and closed the door. Sitting in silence our shoulders touching we occupied the whole of the back seat waiting for something to happen. The door I had just closed, opened and short legs positioned himself to reverse his elephant size bum through the rear door cavity one cheek at a time. Remembering the warm seat and that he had managed this manoeuvre many times, the thought of him dropping onto my lap was too much. I jumped up and lent over the front seats as he slid past and relocated to the seat he had previously occupied.The policeman then turned sideways and pulled me back onto the space created. The big man spoke to me and the only word I recognised was speeding, he re-ran the video to show me but as I went to look he switched it off. He indicated that I had to pay a fine, I asked how much by sign language and he wrote on paper something like 23000 Tenge, I nearly wet myself when I saw all those zeros!  When I said I could pay by card at the police station they just looked at me then said with a look that could kill, you have Dollars? With my mouth as dry as sandpaper, I said, no, I have no Dollars. I repeated this, while at the same time patting my pockets from the bottom up until I reached the top right. Looking surprised, I patted it again then withdrew its contents of assorted bits of paper. As I turned the papers over the $75 appeared and it was immediately snatched up by the big guy. You have more dollars he asked, no I said shaking my head from side to side. They conversed between themselves then turned to me and said I could go. The big guy looked me in the eye and said in a menacing tone, you say nothing, holding his finger on his lips.

Those two frightened the hell out of me when I was sitting in the back of that Lada. I was really glad to get away from them and relieved to be driving east once more. The guys in 03 were waiting for me, they were still laughing when I stopped. I could see the funny side of it and couldn't help laughing and talking at the same time, reminding them once again to be careful. I led as we drove towards Astana, unconcerned about speed cameras as the road was flat as far as I could see.

Cruising along at 55 mph I cautiously approached a cross road, I couldn't see any police so I accelerated. As I did, a policeman with an extra wide brimmed hat and camera pointing in my direction stepped out from behind a parked lorry indicating to me to stop, I felt sick. The procedure was the same except that this time they only got $50 and I was on my way again within 15 minutes. I guess the police who stopped me the first time told their pals down the road we were coming and that I had the money in my top left-hand pocket. When I caught up with 03 nobody said a word, I really wasn't having a good day. 

Feeling p***ed off I called Mariusz to say that we would stop for a short break at the next opportunity and at the same time I wanted to investigate a rattle coming from somewhere at the front of 02. When we stopped at the service area I noticed that 02 had lost a bolt from the front, right hand side suspension bracket. We had a sandwich, coffee and a short break then drove to a small workshop we passed before arriving at the service area. The owner couldn't have been more helpful, a real nice man. He sorted through his stock of bolts until he found what he wanted then he fitted it and we were back on the road in next to no time. We finally arrived at our destination totally drained and exhausted after such an eventful day, but surprised to find Astana such a vibrant and modern city. The road to the city centre was three lanes each way and a smooth as a snooker table. Being a bit reluctant to spend a long time looking for reasonably priced accommodation, we stopped at the first hotel we saw. The whole place was clad on the outside with gold panels and red paintwork and chandeliers throughout. I sighed, thinking it had an expensive look about it, but when I asked for three single rooms and the receptionist told me the price it brought a smile to my face. We arranged to meet in 30 minutes at the hotel Restaurant.  Mariusz and I arrived together and ordered a beer, while we were waiting for Tom to join us, I asked Mariusz if Tom had managed to film my encounters with the police, he replied, I'm not sure but I think he did. Did he seem OK to you, I continued, I don't know, he was awake when you were stopped by the police but the rest of the time he was asleep, he replied. I looked at my watch and saw that we had been waiting for another 30 minutes for Tom to appear. I said I had better go to his room, he has probably fallen asleep. I knocked on the door and getting no response, I knocked again. Still no response, I turned to walk away, then I heard a slight sound coming from within, I banged on the door much harder and waited for a response, a few moments later the door opened, Tom just stood there motionless clothed ready for traveling, his bag packed and hanging on his shoulder, his face had that grey pained expression once more, his eyes and mouth looked red as though he had been sick, and his tongue protruded slightly from the centre of his mouth. He looked a mess. I said “we've been waiting for you what’s the problem?” “I want to go home” he said. I stared at him for a moment then said, gritting my teeth “what do you mean you want to go home?”

More soon Les

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Continuing the journey around the world

Hi everybody, a thousand apologies for my absence. My reasons, or excuses if you like, are many and will probably continue until the book and film relating to the journey have been completed. The prostate crisis is now behind me, apart from the shouting, so I am hopeful that I can set aside some time to continue to write about what happened as we journeyed around the world. I won’t drag it out but I think that I should review briefly what happened up to the last entry at 26-01-14. If you need to refresh your memory you can read the details on earlier blog entries.

Early in the journey we visited Bruxells and the European Parliament and when driving away we realised we had left our camera equipment case behind.  We completed our drive around the Nurburgring, attended a photo-shoot at the Suzuki dealership at Brenshiem and received a cheque on behalf of Save the Children.  We then drove north 770 miles to Gdansk Poland to meet and talk with Mr Lech Walesa retired president of Poland (that was something special, a great man).  Driving south to Budapest, Hungary, we visited Auschwitz to pay our respects, descended underground at the Zarbrze coal mine at the town of Gliwice and squeezed in a day of sightseeing in Vienna before arriving at our destination, Thursday 11th April day 12 . The following day we received the V.I.P treatment with escorted tour of the Suzuki European car manufacturing plant at Esztergom, 40 miles outside Budapest. We had had a problem involving our cameraman Tom, if you have been following our progress you would have read about the unpredictable and unstable Jekyll and Hyde situation that developed with Tom, well there’s a lot more of that to come!

To recap when I was trying to get the crew together and at short notice I was notified that the stage one crew couldn’t make it. I was well and truly in the Poo!! at that point. Thankfully Roland Spencer and Keith Twyford saved the day by stepping in at short notice and drove with me from Southampton on March 31st, the start of stage one through to Budapest Friday 12th April. As part of the arrangement they had organised for their wives Jill and Chris to join them at Budapest when they arrived. What I didn’t know was that Vi my wife had also decided to join them, a real nice surprise for me. While at Budapest we got Tom our cameraman sorted out. Tom failed to mention when being interviewed for the job that he had not worked for 8 months and that he was taking medication for depression. Tom also failed to mention that a few days before arriving at Budapest he had run out of the pills that kept the depression under control. Tom was examined by the hotel doctor who supplied a prescription so we were able to purchase medication that would last him until he returned home. In the meantime, he had agreed to drive 03 from Budapest to Warszawa and stay with me until we met up with Mariusz, a Polish friend, who would drive 03 during stage two.  The start now to be from Warszawa leaving Tuesday 23rd April and finishing at Novosibirsk Russia 9th May.

Saying our goodbyes, especially to Vi, was a sad moment for us both as we would not see each other for some time.  Tom and I left Budapest on 16th April heading for Warszawa Poland. We met Mariusz on the 23rd April as arranged, and drove that afternoon to the border town of Chelm, ready to cross the border the following morning into Ukraine. Once across, we drove to Kyiv, passing close to Chenobyl  the site of the Nuclear reactor disaster.  Staying overnight, not at the reactor, but at Kyiv, we arrived at Luhans’k and Donetsk Ukraine- Russian border at around 5pm the following day 26th April day 27. With no accommodation available at Donetsk we had to drive a further 50 miles to Kamensk- Shachtinskiy. Next morning we were on the road again, a 222 mile 7 hour journey to Volgograd to complete, better known as Stalingrad, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of WW2. While at Volgograd I found out why the camera batteries didn’t seem to last long. Taking an opportunity to have a close look at the battery charging kit, I noticed that we had been charging the camera batteries with the wrong charger.  It was under powered so would only charge to half capacity.  I asked Tom why we were not using the correct charger. Looking embarrassed he said it was in the bag we lost at Bruxells.  We not only lost the main camera charger that day, we also lost whole lot of equipment that he didn’t tell me about! Luckily I was able to replace the lost equipment which was brought out to me by the guys who were to join me at Novosibirsk for stage 3.   Sunday 28th we were on the road once more leaving Volgograd mid-morning, heading east to Saratov, a 232 mile 7 hour journey. I remember Sunday 28th very well, the standard of driving was so bad I started to drive the way they do, particularly when overtaking and tailgating occasionally. I got a bit too cocky for my own good and during the afternoon there was a line of cars driving to close to one and other. I guess I was thinking about everything other than my driving and suddenly there was a bang ahead somewhere, tyres screeching, vehicles hitting each other and I came to my senses instinctively turning to the right just missing the truck in front ending up on a bit of rough ground and stopped. I turned the engine off and just sat there for a moment looking at the mayhem that somehow I managed to avoid. I continued to drive along the rough ground until I was clear of the carnage then re-joined the road once more. You were lucky that time, I said to myself, let that be a warning. The dressing down I gave myself about the standard of my driving that day was one of far too many I had to give myself before the journey’s end. Arriving late at Saratov we managed to find a sort of lodge that served food and had a few cool beers, can’t be bad. Here is where we pick up from where I left it last time.
Monday 29th April, day 30, On our way to Samara, a 257 mile 8 hour drive, the road was real bad. Potholes and deep cracks everywhere, trying our best to miss the potholes, but by avoiding one you ended up driving head first into another. I mentioned previously that 02 carried about 120 kilos more than it should have but seemed to handle it fine. At some point during the morning one of the potholes claimed 02 as another victim. We stopped at a rundown roadside service area for a coffee break. Tom noticed that the rear left shock absorber on 02 was hanging down, the bottom bolt had sheared. Not surprised at what had happened, I had to make a decision as to whether to carry on to Samara and fix it there or get it welded where we were. There was a small workshop attached to the petrol station and Mariusz explained what had happened to the young lad who ran the workshop, pointing to the dangling shock absorber. He said he could weld it together but it would take an hour, indicating that we should and wait in the rundown building they called a café. To check the damage I crawled around under 02 to get a closer look, making myself a bit grubby. I indicated to the lad, by rubbing my hands together, that I wanted to wash my hands. Laughing, he pointed towards the café. It was getting near lunch time so Mariuzs, Tom and I sauntered over to the café. It was a bit of a dump but the coffee and pies looked safe. There were a few people sitting at a table and indicating with my hands that I wanted to wash them, they started laughing. A young guy with black teeth, still laughing, pointed to a door at the far end of the room. Turning the grime encrusted door knob I entered a passage with three or four doors leading off  each side and a partially opened door at the far end.  The whole place was painted fire engine red and smelt of stale sweat. There was no indication as to which door was the washroom so I went to the end of the corridor and pushed the door open a little and looked in. Instead of a washroom it was a small room with an iron framed bed and mattress that had seen better days. Sitting on the bed was a plump round faced lady clad only in bra and knickers looking strong enough to pull your head off if you tried to pay her with a credit card.  At that point it dawned on me, it was a Brothel! Realising I had spent too much time in the room I held out my hands to indicate I wanted the washroom, but she must have thought I was going to grab something. Startled, she stood up ready to start throwing a few punches but seeing my hands were dirty she realised I wasn’t a customer. She gave me a cheeky wink and pointed to a door along the corridor. I cleaned myself up and passed more scantily clad ladies on the way out. Everyone in the café was laughing as I said to Mariuzs ‘that’s one hell of a washroom’.

The young lad welded the shock absorber back into place. The job looked a bit amateurish, so with fingers crossed, we headed to Samara, finally arriving around 5pm that evening.  I’ve already mentioned the potholes as we drove to Samara, well the city of Samara was something else. The roads are in such bad condition you couldn't drive in a straight line, even though there are two lanes each way. To go forward you join a single line of traffic that resembles a snake as it twists and turns across two lanes avoiding unbelievably huge potholes. We checked into a small hotel in the centre of the city and I contacted Ksenia Grebenkina the Suzuki PR Manager who had been awaiting our arrival.  She told me the arrangements for the Press conference and photo-shoot for the following day at the Suzuki dealership.

Tuesday 30th, April day 31. As the press conference wasn’t until late in the morning we had a leisurely breakfast, checked the vehicles and gave them a clean for the benefit of the cameras. A courtesy car arrived and the driver asked if we would follow him to the venue. On arrival we were manoeuvred into a position in front of the show room, then the press and photographers went to work, the session lasting a little over an hour. After lunch we visited a local orphanage to hand over the presents given to us by the Suzuki Management at the production facility at Magyar Hungary. I was a bit apprehensive about visiting the orphanage but I was glad I made the effort. The children I met didn’t want for anything materially, the presents we brought were of momentary interest as they had lots of toys. I could see in their faces what they wanted more than anything was the love of a mum and dad, I felt real sad when I said goodbye.

I thanked the Suzuki team on behalf of Mariusz, Tom and myself for their kind hospitality, then we turned east once more for the 72 mile 2 hour drive to Sukodi and the Russia- Kazakhstan border crossing.  From here on events really start to liven up.  Until the next time ........ Les

Thursday, 3 April 2014

31st March 2014 - twelve months have passed!!

Where has the time gone? It’s hard to believe it was 12 months ago, on 31st March 2013, that we set off on our journey around the world. I first thought of taking on 'the journey' about the beginning of September 2010. After all the hard work getting organised, and the journey itself, we finally arrived back home about the same time, three years later. I suppose I was lucky, it all worked out fine in the end, although, I have to say, it made me a bit more of an old man in the process. I had my prostate removed when I got back, now on the road to recovery, apart from potty training ie teaching myself to use the toilet, instead of weeing myself!!!!!!

It just goes to show what you can do if you have the energy and determination to succeed. It’s what I wanted to do and although I upset the family a bit at the time, which saddened me, they got over it.

Think about yourself for a moment, doing nothing and inactivity, is not an option as you get older by the day. There are challenges out there for everybody, you will be surprised by what you can do if you put your mind to it! 

That reminds me, for those who are a bit ambitious and would like to follow in my footsteps, one of our Suzuki Jimnys is for sale.


The Ultimate Challenge 2013, Suzuki Jimny kitted out and ready to go. 

First registered 17-4-2012 mileage 22,000 (around the world!!)

Basically a standard vehicle apart from:
  • Steel rims and Cooper All Terrain tyres
  • Up-rated spring and shocks
  • Front free running hubs
  • S\S braided hydraulic brake fluid lines to front
  • Engine sump guard
  • Heavy duty steel bumpers, front bull bar, spare wheel gate rear
  • Aluminium roof tray, with secure fuel storage
  • 4x10ltr fuel cans
  • 2 spare wheels complete and unused, additional two new tyres
  • Fitted out for two people, storage compartment fitted, some camping and road equipment
The brave little Jimny is in very good condition and will take you anywhere. We're looking for £8,500 and that will be added to the charitable fund. 

If you're interested, email me at

Sunday, 2 March 2014

I survived the prostate op .... a light hearted insight into what happened

Hi guys, I'm relieved to be back with you, and trust you are all well. I guess by now, and as you haven’t heard to the contrary, I survived the prostate operation, and I am on the road to recovery. I'm looking forward to being my grumpy old self soon. I would like to thank you all for the get well cards, phone calls and emails, they were a great comfort. As usual, I treated the whole thing too lightly and didn’t take much notice of what they were telling me. I thought that I would be in and out, up and running again in no time, of course, I overlooked what happens in-between.

I have always had a grip on things, as far as what happens to me. Made my own decisions, master in charge, you know that sort of thing. This time though, I had come up against something so horrible, so frightening, not encountered before and against which I had no defence. My lovely wife Vi and daughter Carole had, for once in their lives, found that they had possession of my body and mind, and that I was no longer capable of thinking or doing anything for myself, heaven help me!!!

It's like one chick being shared between two hens and each wanting a bit of the action. A day or so before the op, my bag was packed, anyone would have thought I was going away for a month, all the things I might need. Ladies panty liners and extra pairs of pants in case I dribble or pee myself!!! The rest I would rather not mention. I had to be at the hospital at seven in the morning and it was a two hour drive, so we were up, and on the road at four thirty. It’s going to be a long day.

Carole drove. You warm enough Dad?, you need to stop for the toilet? Yes and no, I said, I just sat there thinking about what is going to happen to me in a few hours’ time.

During the periods of silence, and with Vi and Carole together there were not many, I could sense their concern for me and understood their desire to be with me when they took me down, and be there six hours later, when I arrived back, and hopefully, came round.

Operation over, I was moved into recovery, with a nurse whispering sweet nothings into my ear to bring me around. My brain started to work, but I was still not fully awake. After a while I was released to my room at the far end of the hospital. I felt awful, I sensed that I was travelling but didn’t know where. The surrounding noises, bumps, and crashing of the trolley were confusing. As we moved along the corridors I thought, momentarily, that I was driving, but could not see any road.

The motion of the trolley stopped, I could vaguely hear people talking to me when I recognised Vi’s voice and turned to where it was coming from. My clouded vision was clearing and peering down at me with her come to bed eyes, was Vi. With Carole looking over her shoulder, both looked relieved, that I was still in the land of the living. Happy that the operation was a success Vi and Carole left me to sleep, and went home. Through that evening and night, until five in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. Someone visiting, doing, or checking, something or other, every hour, no serious pain, but just felt lousy.

Later in the morning, feeling a bit better, but with continuous hiccups, I knew that there was something attached to my leg, but wasn’t sure, how or where it was connected to my body and thought no more about it.

The nurse in charge came to see me, South African, a lovely lady, I want you up and walking today, she said, at the same time, turning the bed covers back, lifting and turning me into the sitting position on the side of the bed. The nurse left me alone for a few minutes, an opportunity for me to have a look to see what had been done to me. Shock horror, I looked like a badly wrapped parcel. There were five holes across my belly, already stitched up, a sixth, was still active with a pipe protruding and capped with a bag to drain fluid from somewhere. There was another pipe attached to a bag on my leg, which I traced via the pipe back to my oversized underpants. Cautiously, opening the waist band of my pants, I peeped in.

I nearly fainted when I saw the state, of my manhood. Aubergine purple in colour, it looked like a kilo of raw mincemeat, rolled neatly into a ball. I then saw what happened to the other end of the pipe. What a mess I'm in. On top of all this I wanted to pass wind, but couldn’t. I wondered if by mistake they had sewn up my rear end!! They got me up and walking and generally sorted me out. The consultant came to see me that morning. I could see that there was some concern about the continuous hiccups! He said normally I would go home the next day, but before I go, they would like to investigate the hiccup problem, and keep me under observation for another day. I had more tests and a CT Scan to make sure all the pipes were connected correctly. They couldn’t see anything wrong, but suggested that it might rectify, itself. Still hiccuping, Vi and Carole arrived and spent a few hours with me. I had tried to do big jobs on and off during the day but no luck. You know what it's like, you really want to go, but the rear end was not having any of it. Vi and Carole left once more for home, and would return to collect me the following day.

I decided to walk the corridor a few times to get some exercise. I put on my dressing gowned, tucked the pipes and bags in, to look a bit tidy, then set off hiccuping down the corridor. After a couple of circuits and at the very far end of the corridor, I felt my stomach rumble, followed by a very urgent desire to reach my room. Have you ever tried to run with the cheeks of your bum clenched tight, very difficult. My stomach noises and the pressure from the wind trying to escape, increased as I walked along the corridor holding onto my pipes and bags, cheeks clenched. I could feel the battle being lost, the highly compressed air on the inside was now getting to the outside and became a huge fart. With every step I took the noise increased, for some reason the normally quiet corridor, was packed with people. I avoided eye contact and shuffled past sounding like a badly tuned set of Bagpipes with bad breath. I reached the security of my room while rapidly releasing the remainder of the compressed air, while at the same time diving for the toilet. Sitting comfortably, enjoying the relief, I noticed that the hiccups had stopped. A bit later everybody seemed to be happy with my progress so I was given my marching orders.

I always try to make light about situations like this, I find it helps, so I hope I haven’t offended anyone. Joking aside, I was in hospital for three days, I couldn’t have received better treatment, the staff at all levels were courteous, respectful, and above all very professional. I knew I was in good hands. I was one of many men having their prostate sorted out. The word is, if you have to choose what cancer you have in your life, you choose prostate cancer. Why, because if you catch it early enough, you can be treated and cured. I did a silly thing, I knew that there was something wrong with my prostate before I left on the journey, but I kept it to myself until I got back. So far, I have got away with it. All you guys should take note, prostate cancer is as common as Breast cancer is to women. Do yourself a favour, pick up the phone, book an appointment, and have your prostate checked. Cheer up, speak to you soon Les

A passing note, I forgot to mention, when they sent me home, I still had the bag attached to my leg, and connected to my, YOU KNOW WHAT. It’s quite handy sitting typing and having a pee at the same time. They are taking it out next week HOPE I REMEMBER!!!!!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Back to Les taking us around the world in his own words Part 4

Driving around the Nurburgring was a day and an experience I will never forget. But now it's Wednesday April 3rd and we're on our way to Brenshiem, Suzuki European Headquarters. We'll receive a cheque on behalf of Save the Children, from the European Marketing Manager. We'll also do our bit for their P.R team to take some pictures. The guys at Suzuki really made us welcome. Formalities completed and lunch at the company restaurant, we were on the road again at about 3.00pm, we had a 770 mile drive to Gdansk. 

I had arranged to meet the retired President of Poland, Lech Walesa, on the 5th at 11am at his office in the centre of the city. The journey to Gdansk seemed to go on for ever, we were short on time so had to drive long hours to get there on time. We arrived at Leipzigat around 9.00pm for our overnight stop and were ready for food and sleep. The following morning, Thursday 4th, we were up and on the road at 7.30am and expected to reach Gdansk by 8pm. Everything was going fine, cars were running nicely, Roland and Keith were driving LC03 and I was driving LC02 with Tom in the left hand seat. 

Being together in the car for long periods of time, I tried to get into discussion with Tom and talk about various topics but found it difficult to get a sensible conversation going, resulting in long periods of silence. I would look across at him from time to time, he had a sort of blank look as though he was away with the fairies! 

During the course of the morning, travelling along a new four lane motorway, suddenly we came to a maze of a road junction, roads going in all directions. I saw Roland and Keith drive off on a road to my right, but I was committed to the road I was taking. Both roads went to Gdansk, but it turned out that Roland and Keith ended up on the new road and I was on the old road. We spoke over the radio and decided to continue and would meet at the Hotel later. Being split up is not an ideal situation from a safety point of view but we decided to go with it. We had TomTom G.P.S in both cars but to be on the safe side, I had asked Tom the cameraman to help me when he was not filming, by reading the map to make sure that we kept on the right road, this arrangement didn’t work out too well as it turns out he wasn’t any good at map reading!

The old road turned out to be mainly a wide single lane in each direction for 450 miles. That day we experienced freezing rain, ice, snow, and fog. There were holes and cracks everywhere. The standard of driving from the other road users was atrocious. To get ahead, drivers would overtake a line of bumper to bumper moving traffic going in the same direction, when vehicles came from the other direction they would just turn into the cars being overtaken to create a space, who in turn would be pushed on to the hard shoulder. This sort of driving made the traffic slow and our eventual late arrival at Gdansk. That day went down in my diary as one of the worst driving experiences of the journey. I had driven 12 hours that day, and towards the end of the journey struggling to keep my eyes open, the man next to me was snoring his head off. It didn’t help me when I was fighting to keep my eyes open. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived at Gdansk.

The next day, Friday 5th March day 6, was an important day for me. For the past year I had been trying to make contact with the offices of Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia and Lech Walesa of Poland, so that I could arrange to meet them as we travelled. I can hear you saying, you told us about this in an earlier article, and that would be right, but please bear with me, I won’t dwell on it too long. I kept beavering away with emails trying to find out where these people were located, so I could correspond, very difficult when you never get any response. Many times I felt like giving up, but I’m pleased I persevered, because the reward was fantastic, and proved the people who said I would never do it, wrong. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but I was so determined to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, I talked Vi in to having a long weekend in Moscow to meet up with a Russian interpreter who I was trying to talk into joining us when we drive through Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. I also thought I would have an opportunity to have a look around while there, and if I got lucky and found Gorbachev’s house I would knock on the door and see what happens.

As it happened I found out where the man lived but the security wouldn’t allow me anywhere near the place, so that was that. It turned out that he was in Berlin at the time anyway, perhaps that’s where we should have gone.

I never did get anywhere with meeting Mikhail Gorbachev, but we had more luck with retired Polish President Lech Walesa’s office. They agreed to a meeting 10.30am 5th April, and here we were standing outside the building that housed his top floor office, I just had to stand there for a while to take it all in, and compose myself ready for the meeting. At this point I had a discussion with Tom the cameraman to explain how important it is to get best from the filming, and in particular I need a still picture of Roland , Keith and myself shaking hands with Lech Walesa. When the time came to take the picture, and in the confusion, I didn’t notice that Tom had passed my camera to someone else to take it, so he could be in the picture. The only picture we have for the book of Roland Keith and myself with Lech Walesa has our cameraman in it. We can probably put it right with some picture wizardry, but I was then thinking that from now on I will have to keep a serious eye on the cameraman and the filming......... to be continued

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Life after Prostate

Hi everybody, a Happy New Year to you all. I think 2014 will be a better year, so think straight and be positive. As for me, I am beavering away writing the book about the Journey, and we start putting the film together over the next few weeks, so I will be fairly busy for a while. I would like to apologise in advance if I type the odd naughty word, no offence intended.

On Christmas Eve, Vi and I had an appointment at the Southampton General to meet Santa Claus, well a Consultant really, to hear the result of some tests I had recently. It’s when Santa Claus starts the conversation with the words, I have some bad news for you, that your mouth goes dry. You take in a deep breath, and give a sigh that seems to go on forever. I suppose they like to get that part over with quick, so they can talk to you about what they are going to do about it.

The bad news is, he said, you have Prostate cancer. The good news is, although it is an aggressive form it is curable with an operation. We’ll keep an eye on it and if it reappears, we worry about it then. It looks like I will have an operation in about four weeks, but before then, I had to have a bone scan to see if nothing else is lurking that will aggravate the situation. The result of the scan was OK, so all I have to worry about is the prostate. I'm 73 yrs old and I haven’t done badly so far, so I can’t complain. At my age bits are bound to drop off, or go bad, it’s all part of the ageing process.

It appears that I am having my prostate removed, and various tubes and bits and pieces reconnected. My willy will be as good as useless for a while, apart from peeing out of, and there is a chance that I will be speaking with a high pitched voice. I can’t wait. On a serious note though I think I’m lucky, it could be a lot worse. When I have the operation followed by a couple of months to settle down, I should be up and running as usual.

I am a positive thinking person and as part of the preparation for the journey, I went see my doctor to have a medical to make sure that I was healthy enough to take on the demanding task of driving around the world. Pretty well everything checked out OK, until he checked my prostate. He had a poke around, said my prostate is enlarged, and needed some poo, wee, and blood, samples for analysis. A week later I went back. He said there is something there, which needs further investigation. He had another poke around and said the decision was mine. I pondered the situation.

If my situation becomes public, I wouldn’t be able to go, VI would see to that. I decided to keep it to myself, and deal with it when I arrived back. It was one of the many things on my mind, as I was driving. I guess, bouncing up and down on my manhood for 18,600 miles, hasn’t helped either. I will keep you posted, speak to you soon. Les