Sixty Ghosts to the Balkans

There follows a account of a overland trip from the UK to Albania from 2017 🙂

            It’s a simple enough idea – nip down the road to a mate’s house to pick up some kit. The mate in question was Darrell Hardman, a Canadian Defender and desert lover who I’ve travelled thousands of Saharan miles with on some memorable trips, and with whom I’ve enjoyed some pretty mad adventures and crazy scrapes.

            What makes it complicated is that he lived in Tirane, the capital of Albania, and I was home in York. We’d each moved away from Cairo in Egypt at the same time, and for the same reason – the closure of the desert for security reasons. I’d moved to Arabia, and Darrell to Albania. I had some stuff that needed to go back to the UK from Cairo, and Darrell and his wife Sue had kindly fitted my junk into their shipping container that was headed from Cairo to Albania. That meant I had to ‘nip down the road’ 1700 miles to collect the kit. There was quite a bit – an Oztent, an awning, four full Wolf boxes, carpets and other bits. More than that, however, I wanted to catch up with two close friends I hadn’t seen for over a year. It was a two-way arrangement as well – Canadian Darrell and American Sue have a love for Centurion’s Ghost beer from York Brewery, which they fell in love with when we did the UK Coast-to-Coast green lane run. So I’d packed sixty bottles of Ghost to take with me to the Balkans…!

A casket of Ghosts

            My old faithful Overland truck, Elsa the 1991 Defender 110, was at the vet’s at that moment for a fairly major refit and rebuild after 400,000 reliable miles, but Tusker, the 300 tdi Discovery 2 had just finished a full overlanding fit-out and I’d been itching to take her on a long trip. Albania. Perfect.

            So a run from York to Dover started things off. I’m enough of a romantic to prefer the ferry to the Chunnel – its the sight of the White Cliffs leaving and returning that does it – and P&O whisked me across the sea to Calais with pretty empty fuel tanks. The plan was to fill Tusker’s long range tank plus a couple of jerry cans with tax-free fuel in Luxembourg – and that saves a pile of cash. Then – on. Long motorway miles. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, the Czech Republic and then a turn south into Austria. For the sake of speed I was sleeping in roadside service areas, popping the roof tent up and getting the bare minimum before cracking on. From Austria I slowed down and pottered about a bit on rural roads, before dropping over the border into Slovenia. Trundling south through the Julian Alps the mile-hungry Discovery swept along limestone passes. Tusker was running extremely well – Ben Stowe at Black Paw 4×4 has tweaked her Tdi until she has the same performance as a good Td5, but with less electronics and more tolerance for poor fuel – a win-win.

Croatia – offroad exploring

            Then it was south to Croatia, somewhere I hadn’t been since the ruinous Balkan wars of the 90s. I’d renewed my GPS maps to include the latest European map data, and the Garmin Nuvi carried me happily through rural areas as I pottered about, exploring off the beaten track. In one village however I misread the GPS and merrily bounced down a steep and scrabbly track and into a vineyard….. which had a shop. Well – it would be rude not to buy some of the local plonk, wouldn’t it? Then – crack on south. Up to that point I’d been enjoying the benefits of driving in the EU with an EU passport – wafting straight through borders with no visas or faff – but the next country south, Bosnia-Herzegovina, isn’t yet a member of the EU and the border is closed when I roll up at 11pm. No option but to once again pop the tent up and have a kip. The Croatian wine becomes welcome at this point!

At the Bosnian border

            I was woken the next morning by the rattling putt-putt of a Soviet-era tractor which seems about the size of a large dog, piloted by a wizened farmer with a face like an amiable walnut. He almost drove his faithful steed into the ditch as he stared at the roof tent, trying to work out what sort of idiot has a tent on the roof of his fancy foreign car. The Customs officer for the border post arrived too, in a souped-up Fiat with a screech of tyres, and hastily opened up the border in time for Tractor Man to putt-putt through it with a friendly wave. Then it’s the turn of the mad foreigner, and it struck me at that moment that I wasn’t not sure of the legality of carrying sixty bottles of British real ale through a non-EU border. However Mr Customs Bod was very friendly and a lover of Land Rovers so waved me through with a cheery line in banter, and my sixty Ghosts wafted spectrally through another frontier.

            Bosnia is just as scenic and friendly as Croatia, but was perhaps a little more war-torn and a little less well-off. I drove sadly along one long stretch of road near Mostar south of Sarajevo, where every third house was lived in – the others were still burned out or pocked with shell and cannon fire from the war thirty years ago. On the outskirts of ancient and beautiful Sarajevo I exchanged friendly waves with a battered red Defender Ninety pickup, and at the next junction a passer-by pedestrian flags me down for a chat – “Land Rover! A beautiful car and very strong! We love Land Rover in Bosnia!” In our conversation I remarked that I had seen very few – why was that? My friend looked sad. “Land Rover is very good for war – and we have too much war”- enough said. The trip stopped there for a bit as my new friend, Josip, insisted he buy me a drink. This “drink” turned out to be slivovitz – a local plum brandy which should be banned under strategic weapons treaties. I have vague memories of that evening – swapping stories and jokes and howling with laughter in the company of a pub-full of mad, jovial and very friendly Bosnians who all seemed to have weapons-grade beards and bottomless capacities for alcohol.

            The next day began blearily in a room over the pub, as clarity returned through a fog of slivovitz, but my new friends weren’t finished with me yet and with much back-slapping I was dragged downstairs to a huge breakfast of local hams, thick homemade bread, local honey and strong cheese. After a time, sadly and with promises to return I took my leave of my new friends and flopped into the Disco. I’m sure there was a trace of a reproachful snigger in the start-up rumble of her Tdi as we trundled on south.


            Next came Serbia, and the demeanour of the border guards seems to change – no smiles at all. The Ghosts however escaped detection and we rumbled on into Kosovo. This was a lot more awkward – Kosovo was trying to break away from Serbia, and the ‘border’ crossing was very jumpy. Most cars were being turned away. Hmm. Didn’t look good. However an armed Serb militiaman spotted me, and after a hard stare waved me through the frontier with a salute! What?

            Then I realised. My Discovery is white, with British and EU flags on the front bull bar. I passed a line of white UN observer vehicles as I drove into Kosovo and the penny dropped – I’d been mistaken for a UN military observer. Well. Yes. Um. Good show, carry on chaps. Nice, er, guns. Yes. Good, shiny boots. Yes. Good shiny boots. Yes. Exit Watson, at speed.

            Montenegro followed, at another tiny, rural border – but I hadn’t got the right insurance for Montenegro. My UK insurer had goofed. Long debate with the border guards. I have a working ability with Russian so luckily we could chat reasonably well, and the junior border guard appealed to his boss – “On Britanskii – kak bratya” – “He’s British – like a brother”.  Eventually they settled on me subbing them the cost of a coffee each, and waved me through. That’s one of the joys of overlanding – making new friends in the most bizarre of circumstances!

            Montenegro was a revelation. Absolutely beautiful. Big lakes scattered amongst untouched forests punctuated by low hills, chock-full of places to vanish for a few days in a Landy. After a couple of days in the wilds I decided however stay at the only hotel of the trip, the Konoba ”Krivokapic” on the way into Niksic. Such a great place – low key, friendly and welcoming, a comfy room and terrific food.

Beautiful Montenegro

            And finally to Albania. Border formalities proved a lot easier here, although three police roadblocks within the first five miles showed that they were on the ball for smuggling. Smuggling what, I wondered? Once more the Ghosts slipped through unobserved however. The hills of eastern Albania proved too much of a draw and I had to divert offroad and explore – almost coming a cropper at one stage. Heading up a long rough track along a whaleback hill covered in thick undergrowth, the track emerged into a large clearing full of bright green vegetation. I realised it was marijuana just as I saw two burly blokes emerge from a low building and run towards me, shouting and gesticulating angrily. Oops. Time for a sharp exit. Then it’s on to the capital, Tirana, and Darrell and Sue’s villa, where they laughingly told me of the drug plantations in the hills owned by the Russian mafia!

Albanian hill country

So I’d made it. Albania. The 15 year old Discovery had greedily sucked up the 1700 miles without a blip, and the sixty Yorkshire Ghosts were delivered amidst great excitement. After a few days of offroading and touring Tirana with Darrell and Sue, however, I had to sadly turn north again and leave – this time via the ferry to Italy. Diesel and dust followed, and the tarmac wound from Ancona port in northern Italy to San Marino for cheap diesel, and then back to York through Switzerland and France. It had been a great trip and I was very pleased with the Land Rover’s abilities both on and off road -as I knew I would be. Overlanding through Europe is also a welcome change from the often-hassly borders I more usually cross in the Middle East and Africa. Equally pleasing were the Balkan states- welcoming, friendly and beautiful. Well worth a look! 

Queuing for the Albania to Italy ferry

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