Burning rubber through the Sahara

Two photographers join a bohemian road rally for charity

What's crazier than driving across the West African desert? Driving across the West African desert in a Citroen 2CV - a car with scarcely more kick than a lawnmower. To San Francisco photographer Jon Hope, the two-cylinder Citroen seemed perfect.

"The wheels are not much wider than a bicycle, the engine doesn't have much power, it has a top speed of about 55 miles per hour.... But it's easy to push out of the sand."

Mr. Hope and fellow photographer John Alfatt spent much of January encased in their tin can of a car purchased for 150 pounds ($273). They drove close to 4,000 miles, from the southern tip of England to the west coast of Africa, all in the name of charity. More than 75 other scrappy vehicles also made the trip for charities, with the last cars shuddering into Gambia this past weekend.

Dubbed the Plymouth-Dakar Challenge, it is a bohemian version of the Paris-Dakar road rally, the multimillion-dollar extravaganza with an average entry fee of $27,000. But in the Plymouth-Dakar, no car is meant to cost much more than $180. At the end of the event, the sandy cars are auctioned off to benefit African charities. Many teams also raised money for a charity of their choice. Hope raised money for the Mines Advisory Group, the Nobel Prize-winning organization that clears unexploded bombs.

No stranger to adventure, Hope has spent the past 16 years photographing everyone from Margaret Thatcher to smoke jumpers parachuting into Montana forest fires.

For 22 days, he and Mr. Alfatt lived in their sky-blue clunker. They scaled the Atlas Mountains, burned rubber through the Sahara desert, and drove more than 185 miles through Mauritania in an area without roads - all in a vehicle most people wouldn't dare take to the corner store.

The car, named Daphne by a previous owner, got off to a shaky start. "Our first day driving, we filled up at a station and I accidentally put diesel in the car," Hope says. "I filled the whole car up with diesel and we had to have the entire thing pumped out. That was Day 1."

The Citroen also survived a broken alternator, a dead battery, and four flats. "At all the border crossings we had to leave the engine running because if we turned it off, we had to get out of the car and push start it," Hope recalls.

Daphne was in good company. A wheezing collection of aging Fiats, tottering Triumphs, and plenty of Ladas - the Russian equivalent of the Yugo - also made the trek.

With few mechanics in the desert and the age of many cars outpacing the age of many participants, part of the fun was brainstorming at breakdowns, Hope says.

Engines were sometimes reassembled on the fly. One team removed their clutch and gear box and rebuilt it in nine hours. Another group jacked up the suspension on their Ford Capri so that it would stop belly-flopping through the sand.

But some wrinkles were political rather than mechanical. In Senegal, unbeknown to rally organizers, the import rules had changed.

"You couldn't bring in a car older than five years," Hope says, "And all our cars were ancient, between 10 and 30 years old. We showed up at the border and had to pay a small fortune per car, and then have a police escort from one end of the country to the other, to make sure we weren't leaving the cars there."

Along the journey, Hope says they camped out, bought food in villages along the side of the road, and cooked "a lot of fryups" (fried eggs and beans). There was no stereo in their Citroen, so Hope passed the drive time listening to music on his iPod.

Three weeks and seven countries later, Hope's team crossed the border into Gambia.

Most of the cars made it, he says proudly, although, he admits, "At least one had to be towed the last few miles." On the auction block, Daphne pulled in 16,500 dalasi ($562).

Hope is exhausted, but he says he has no regrets. "In two years' time they'll have a road in Mauritania. You won't need to get a former camel trader who knows all the routes to guide you through the desert. It will be very different. And it won't be nearly as exciting."

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