It happened at the tail end of a long Saharan trip. I’d taken my Land Rover Defender from my home in York in the north of England across France and Spain to North Africa, intent on tracking down some prehistoric rock art in southern Morocco and Algeria. With me were two friends from the U.K., Abbie and Baz, neither of whom had seen the Sahara before. It had been an eventful trip, starting with the severe military-looking face that popped through the open driver’s window of the Defender at Tangiers port, our entry to Morocco, and scowlingly demanded “Do you have any hashish or automatic weapons?” – upon our negative answer, the head grinned broadly and said “Would you like some?”.
The trip headed south, and led to encounters with Islamic fundamentalist gun runners in Algeria, severe heat exhaustion for some travelers who came with us into the desert, the subsequent recovery and towing of their Nissan Navara for several days to remove it from the deep Sahara, and the overheating and malfunctioning of our GPS on the edge of a border minefield. So you can imagine we thought all our adventures behind us when the Land Rover finally wound its way back north through the autoroutes of Europe to the French ferry port of Calais, and eventually the ferry back across the English Channel to the white cliffs of Dover.
On the ferry we had met a pair of young British lads who had just taken their first steps along the path of overland dreams. They had bought an ex-army reserve Land Rover Series II ambulance, converted it to run on LPG (military green and with two huge LPG tanks strapped fisheye-like to the roof it looked like a macho Kermit the Frog) and driven it across France. We bade them farewell as we drove off the ferry, and the Land Rover growled onto British soil for the first time in eight weeks. It was 4 a.m. and the streets of the harbour town of Dover were quiet, so you can imagine our surprise when we arrived at a roundabout in the centre of town and found a Peugeot sedan beached in the middle of the low gravel dome in the middle of the island, with all four wheels off the ground. Wandering around the car were two Rastafarians in a state of some puzzlement.
It had been the Notting Hill Carnival in London the previous weekend. This celebration of Caribbean culture draws revelers from all over Europe, and it turned out that this Peugeot had been driven from Belgium by the two guys who were intent on attending. I parked up the Defender and wandered over to offer help, being greeted as I did so by a cloud of marijuana smoke which burst out of the car like a tsunami. The third carnivaler, a girl, inside the vehicle, was quite ‘chilled out’, despite the events around her.
Traffic was non-existent in the port town at that hour, so, donning hi-vis vests from the emergency gear in the truck, Baz, Abbie and I set to work. Initially it seemed as if we could simply put the sand ladders under the Peugeot’s tires and let it drive out under its own power. This proved unworkable as too much of the sedan’s mass was resting on its belly, which was beached on the center of the roundabout. Breaking out all my desert recovery gear I tried to dig out the gravel surface on which the car lay, and get some traction to the wheels using a shovel, but what seemed to be loose gravel was in fact concreted in place – no manually-operated shovel would make an impression on it.
I did have tow strops on board, but they were buried under our gear in the back of the truck and at four in the morning I couldn’t be bothered going mining for them. So it came down to the winch. Elsa, my long-suffering Defender 110 (now 130) was, back then, fitted with a Superwinch X9+, a hybrid electric winch made up from parts of several winches in the Superwinch line-up, and mounted on the truck’s nose. It could easily haul a fully-laden Land Rover out of deep mud, so a light French sedan should come out like a cork from a bottle. The trouble was, we needed space to run the cable out and for the Land Rover to stand to do the pulling. We had no option but to construct two roadblocks and close off Snargate Street, the main A20 trunk road out of Dover. We did this with sand ladders and jerrycans. “Obstructing the Queen’s Highway” is a criminal offence in the U.K. but we decided to take the risk, given the lack of any passing vehicles. As it turned out we could actually divert any vehicles up one feeder lane to the traffic circle and down another so that they could rejoin the A20, so we weren’t technically blocking what, for most of the daytime, is an extremely busy road, but we trusted to luck that Her Majesty’s Constabulary wouldn’t have any police patrols in the area at that ungodly hour.
So I ran out the winch cable and attached it to the recovery point on the Peugeot, setting Elsa up for a quick haul. Abbie stood on the A20 behind us, ready to divert cars onto the southern off-ramp. Baz was at the end of the off-ramp, hoping to show arriving cars how they could rejoin the carriageway using the next on-ramp. Fate chose this moment to intervene however, for unbeknownst to us another cross-Channel ferry had just disgorged its cargo in the Port of Dover a couple of miles back – what had been a quiet predawn street now filled with a rushing wall of westbound cars and trucks as tired travelers were intent on the final leg of their journeys into Britain, and they charged straight for us. They were nonplussed to see Abbie and Baz sheepishly directing them round the traffic island – but, amazingly, nobody complained. Luckily the car-driving passengers on the ferry were few in number and so after this initial wave died away we were left in relative peace. Phew. Sighs of relief all round, let’s get on with it.
However Fate hadn’t finished with the slapstick humour yet. A low V12 snarl behind us, and we all turned to see the ominous sharklike white shape of a Kent Constabulary Jaguar police cruiser approach the roadblock – a roadblock which, I suddenly realized, looked to police eyes like it was made of jerrycans of flammable gasoline (it wasn’t, in fact, they were for diesel, and they were empty). Abbie and Baz’ eyes boggled, and we all stared transfixed at this approaching Nemesis (I dread to think what the stoned Belgians in the Peugeot were thinking). I smiled weakly at the police officers and pointed at the Peugeot and the winch cable. The cops gave me that expressionless Cop Stare, common the world over, that says “We can see you. Now we’re waiting to see what you’re going to do that’s wrong”. The cop cruiser slowed down, it’s V12 engine sounding even more predatory all of a sudden.
They didn’t stop. They just didn’t. They went along with our impromptu roadblocks, carefully drove round the situation, working out what was going on, and giving us all The Eyeball as they did so. Sod it, I thought, and flashed them a wave and a grin as they drove off. Cop Two responded with a measured nod.
After all this you’d expect the recovery of the Peugeot to be easy – and it was. With a metallic graunching noise the 9,500 lb of force from Elsa’s winch took no prisoners and unceremoniously dragged the French car off the gravel trap. The two Rastas mooched over to us in a cloud of ganja smoke, and with lots of complicated handshakes and maximum respect we laughed off the whole crazy episode. Making unhealthy rheumatic grinding noises, the Peugeot then made for the ferry terminal and the next boat to Europe, whilst we packed away the recovery gear and comtemplated the long slog from Dover to Bristol (Abbie’s house), Bristol to Lancaster (Baz’ place) and thence to my home in York – a drive covering the width and most of the length of England. I was so tired by all this that I hadn’t properly strapped the sand ladders in place after the Dover Incident, and almost sliced a BMW in half with one when it fell off whilst bouncing over a speed bump in York… another lesson learned!