KEBEMER, SENEGAL — "Just make sure your life insurance policy is up to date," was the reaction Jeff Domzalski got when he told his wife he was planning to drive an aging jeep from the south coast of England across the Sahara Desert to the west coast of Africa.
Not unreasonable when you consider that his nearly 3,000-mile trek, to a continent he'd never stepped foot on before, would be over potholed roads and through sand dunes in a beat-up car. "I have an elevated sense of adventure," jokes the white-bearded accountant from Cleveland.
While competitors in the famous Paris-Dakar Rally (an annual off-road race from France to Senegal, which this year actually started in Lisbon and ends this weekend) can have scores of support trucks, planes, and helicopters screeching to their aid, Mr. Domzalski and his fellow drivers in the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge had to rely on their wits.
Although the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge follows a very similar route through Europe and Africa, it is less about who can clock the fastest time and more about camraderie, resourcefulness, and cultural exchanges. Participants must use old cars that cost less than £100 (about US$200).
The rally's founder, Julian Nowill, a Briton who describes his day job as "frustrated stockbroker," points out that once the rally is under way, no outside support, mechanics, or backup trucks are allowed. The drivers are on their own. "I set up this rally in 2003 to take the mickey out of the 'Big One'... to prove you can do it in a [junky] car with no experience or special skills," he explained.
Rookies are welcome but only those with stamina, deep reserves of resourcefulness, and nerves of steel need apply to complete the journey down through Europe, across the Strait of Gibraltar, into northern and western Africa.
Surprisingly, it was not crossing the Sahara Desert nor picking his way through a minefield that proved toughest for Domzalski. No, his worst moment came in Spain, driving his old Ford Bronco through the snowy mountains after dark.
"Suddenly, BOOM! The left rear tire blew. Fortunately I was able to control it without flipping or going off the road," the father of two recalled. "We ended up driving over 200 miles in the dark on a spare tire that had a leak, and with an overfuelling problem until 5 a.m. when the spare was flat, the trucked stalled, and we were stuck. It was one of the most stressful nights of my life."
Once repaired, though, the Bronco came into its own in the desert, its four-wheel drive helping to rescue tiny MINI Coopers and Ford Escorts from the dunes. The sands did claim one car, however, that was swiftly stripped of useful parts and then abandoned. Fortunately its crew were spared that fate and managed to hitch rides in rival cars.
For most drivers, the trek is all about camraderie. "We did fight, we did argue... but in the end we always stuck together," Domzalski says.
By the time the cars began their penultimate stage in northern Senegal, many bore testament to imaginative repair jobs. One had pipes held together with duct tape. Another team had been forced to rig up a gravity-fed fuel system using a hose pipe and roof-mounted jerry can. Their wheels were still rolling, at least for 50 kilometers (30 miles) at a time, after which they had to keep stopping to fill up the can.
Some 400 cars applied for the 200 spots in this year's race, which is done in staggered starts and takes about three weeks to complete. Entrants come from as far afield as Bulgaria, New Zealand, Canada, and Latvia.
One driver was spurred to do something wacky and carefree after a health scare last year, unlike the majority who seem to have decided to enter on the spur of the moment. One couple is even planning to get married when they make it to the end.
Although the race starts in England, where the steering wheel is on the right, the rally vehicles must be left-hand drive so they can be sold in a charity auction on arrival in the Gambian capital, Banjul. Finding such a car with a $200 price limit proved to be one of the biggest challenges for many competitors, with some forced to break the rule.
"It took 104 e-mails to complete the transaction. It was quite an ordeal," says Domzalski, who bought his car on eBay for $1,200. The upside for rule-breakers like Domzalski is that they should be able to raise more money for Gambian charities when the cars are auctioned.
The organizers are keen to point out that a lot of cash is also pumped into local communities, because drivers use local accommodations, restaurants, and fuel suppliers. Some also give away soccer shirts or sweets to the hordes of children that surround the convoy when it stops in dusty towns like here in Kebemer, Senegal. Domzalski's codriver, Keith, discovered that a bit of candy had another use – getting Africa's notoriously bureaucratic border guards off their backs.
Competitors also get a chance to see another way of life. After making it to The Gambia in one piece, Keith and Jeff, both musicians, ended up jamming with a local band one night and were invited to the keyboard player's home, a two-room shack.
"They had no electricity or running water in their house ... yet as soon as we arrived our host disappeared and returned with a bucket of water and some soap and began to wash our filthy Bronco that had not been cleaned since England," Domzalski recounted.
"Afterwards we sat ... in the shade of a papaya tree, singing songs and talking," he said. "Needless to say, this was probably the most interesting day of our whole journey."
Back in Ohio, wife Kathy will be pleased he's made it safe and sound, and she doesn't have to cash in that insurance policy just yet. "This has been a great experience and I'm not one bit sorry that I've done it," Domzalski says with a smile, "but I can't wait to get back home."