Most people count themselves lucky if they never see the inside of an ambulance; I chose to spend four weeks inside one over Christmas last year.

My partner, his best friend and I decided to do something completely different last Christmas. We bought an ambulance and drove it to Africa – Dakar in Senegal to be exact – and donated it to Hopital Principal. This was part of the ”Plymouth to Banjul Rally” which is, in short, an alternative for people with less cash to do something similar to Lisboa – Dakar Rally (former Paris – Dakar)

My partner, Mark Whitfield, works for the London Ambulance Service and heard about a couple of ambulances being decommissioned. He spoke with his bosses and was allowed to buy one and to keep the blue lights and sirens working, the stretcher still in there and also most of the stickers saying ”emergency ambulance” still on the outside. Normally when a vehicle like an Ambulance is decommissioned it is – for obvious reasons! – completely stripped and all emergency lights and sirens taken off.

The whole trip cost us around £7000 and out of that we raised around £1500 in donations from friends and family. It was a lot of preparations before the trip as it was a fairly tough drive to get there. We had to plan the cold of the Pyrenees, the heat of Sahara desert, the sandstorms, the snowstorms, the bandits and border guards, the begging children and the extreme poverty we would see. We had to plan our water supply, our food supply, our fuel supply, tools in case of breakdown of the engine and spare wheels in case of flat tyres. The ambulance went through a complete engine check up and under the chassi we built a compartment to carry extra jerry cans – we weren’t too keen on running out of fuel in the middle of Sahara and with a thirsty 3.5 litre V8 extra jerry cans was a necessity. We also had to work out sleeping arrangements as we didn’t want the extra load of carrying a tent when we could sleep in the back of the ambulance. It was fairly tight with space and the three of us certainly became very good friends during this trip!

We set off the 23rd December and drove through France, the Pyrenees and through to Spain. France on 24th December was absolutely stunning. The frost was covering all the trees and the whole country felt frozen. It was quiet, still and almost a magical feel over it. It was like it was asleep under this thin film of frost, absolutely amazing.

We spent the night of the 24th sleeping rough on the roadside of a motorway to save money. We had stopped at a picnic area so we at least had toilets the following morning. It was minus 2 in the ambulance when we woke up and there was frost on the inside of the windows. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning, by far the best Christmas Day I’ve ever woken up to. Bright, clear blue sky and a view for miles. We had managed to park high up in the mountains without realising it as it was pitch black when we finally stopped the previous night. (After running out of fuel and no petrol stations being open, it was Christmas Eve after all! I will never forget re-fuelling from a jerry can in -10 degree having no idea where I am more than somewhere in the middle of France in the pitch darkness!)

The Pyrenees was also incredibly beautiful. We were so sad that we couldn’t stop longer. We were short of time as we had to make it down to the meeting point in Tarifa, southern Spain, but we have vowed to come back when we have more time. Either summer or winter, it is breathtaking either way.

The night was spent in a camping where the owner let us stay for free. We were so grateful to her as money was an issue throughout the trip. We woke up again to minus degrees inside the ambulance and icy cakes on the windows. I had woken several times during the night feeling cold despite being dressed in woolly socks, tracksuit bottoms, a t-shirt, a fleece jacket, sleeping on a fleece blanket and under three hospital blankets, a duvet and two fleece blankets. Oh, and I was wearing a fleece hat. The following night in Madrid we stayed in a cheap hotel as we couldn’t face another night in minus degrees!

We arrived in Tarifa to loud cheers as other participants had already arrived. We flashed the blue lights and a bit of sirens to say hi to the others.

It was great fun to get to know the others and look at their cars. Everyone had made real efforts and it was such a good atmosphere.

From Tarifa onwards we were strongly advised by the ”organisers” to travel in convoy due to the dangers of being on your own in Africa. I use the word ”organisers” lightly; in effect, you are on your own when out there. The organisers do not take any responsibility for you and there are no checkpoints throughout the journey to ensure everyone’s there. Each night you camp wherever you like and each day you take whichever route you fancy. It’s completely up to you what you do and you cannot rely on anyone to look after or take care of you.

Our first hurdle was getting into Morocco. We had taken an early ferry which I am very glad we did. The border guards took one look at the ambulance and asked:

”Is this an ambulance?” Rather amused at this somewhat silly question considering it was a big, white truck with “EMERGENCY AMBULANCE” written all over the front, side and back I answered happily:

”Yes!”

Wrong answer. He sent us to another queue and to cut a long story short, they wouldn’t let us in. They refused blankly to even discuss the matter with us.

”Big boss arrives Tuesday, he decides.” was all they offered. This was Saturday the 30th December. We did not looking forward to spending three days, including New Years Eve, impounded in Tanger port. Especially as all the others carried on and we were completely on our own.

The fact that they only spoke French and that my language skills are somewhat limited didn’t help matters. That day I became very good in French and quickly learnt a lot of useful words for the rest of the trip such as “Would you like a present?” “We’re only travelling through Morocco, we’re not staying.” “This is not an ambulance, it is a campervan.” “We have no medical equipment onboard.” Haaa! Biggest lie ever! The whole ambulance was brimming with medical supplies, a defibrillator, entonox, oxygen and all sorts of plasters, bandages, syringes etc.

In the end it took a fake fax from my dad pretending to be from the hospital in Dakar and a performance worth an Oscar from me, crying my eyes out, to get us through. I knew those drama lessons would come in handy one day!

I rang my dad asking him to google the hospital to find a logo, make up a letter headed paper, put together some kind of wording saying we would not stop in Morocco and then translate it all into French and sign it as the Hospital Director. Dad had to run over to the neighbours who emailed it to a friend who finally could translate it. We wandered into the town of Tanger to find a company who would allow us to receive a fax as the port administration was closed on Saturdays. Note to self, if driving into Morocco, don’t arrive on a Saturday.

It was a very frightening few hours in the port before the fax came through. We witnessed a complete chaos as all the cars from the ferries tried to get through, people being kicked and beaten up, border guards screaming and shouting and it was very unsettling not knowing when and if we would be let out.

Eventually I had, as mentioned “broken down crying” and was quickly ushered into the office of the border guards. I felt my phone vibrate and at the same time as I was “crying” and tried to explain – in French! – to the border guards why I was crying and that we had to be let through I tried to check what the text said. It was from Dad saying the fax was on its way! I then had to text Mark as he had wandered off to see if he could find someone else to get us out, to ask him to run over to the office where Dad’s fax would turn up. All this and still keeping my phone in the pocket and crying my eyes out! It certainly was not an easy act!

I cannot explain in words the relief when I saw Mark coming running waving a piece of paper being the fax from my dad. Or the feeling when they finally after more than 5 hours opened the gates for us…! Drive Mark! Drive!! Go go go!!

The first campsite in Morocco was a far cry from the campsites in Europe. There were no water in the showers, most toilets were broken and the few that did work were in an appalling state. Little did we know that it would only get worse!

However, despite the somewhat lacking in facilities the spirits were high! Most teams got on very well and we all had a very good time. We shared our food, shared our tea, sat around telling stories and just generally had a very good time.

We spent New Years Eve in Marrakech and 2nd January we set off to cross the Atlas Mountains. We travelled in a convoy with about 6 other vehicles and we were all kitted out with walkie talkies. The roads were very narrow and winding and we worked out a very good teamwork looking after each other by communicating on the walkie talkies every time a car either approached or overtook us. It was a fantastic team spirit and I think one of the better days of the whole trip. We always made sure we knew which vehicle was last and each car would keep track of the one behind them to make sure we didn’t lose anyone.

This proved very important as when we came back we heard about an elderly couple in Group 4 who had been left behind in the Sahara desert between two sand dunes. The other teams had to get money together and hire a helicopter to go looking for them. This could have been avoided by everyone keeping track of each other. The elderly couple had been there for a couple of days and were about to run out of fresh water, not a situation you’d like to find yourself in when you’re in the Sahara desert!

As the roads up to the High Atlas were very narrow and winding and I was incredibly happy that Mark has driven this type of vehicle on blue lights through rush hour London. I asked him how well he knew where his corners were and he responded that down to 2 inch he’s very sure and if pushed he can get through with just 1 inch either side, although if so he’d probably lift his foot from the accelerator for a second.

The only worry came when we approached a low hanging cliff and the car behind us called on the walkie talkie saying “were you aware that you had about three inch clearance there?!” Well, we got through!!

The view from the top of Atlas Mountains, Tizi-n-test is beyond words. We all fell silent as we came round one cliff and the whole plains spread out beneath us. Absolutely amazing. Neither of us said a word for about five minutes, just staring out of the window, stunned by the beauty.

Southern Morocco is very beautiful and we enjoyed the coastline around Agadir, staying at a beach camping in Sidi Ifni. That’s also where we decided to test the ambulance on the sand, to see if she could do the desert. There is a tarmac road from Nouâdhibou to Nouakchott, but most teams go off road through the sand. We knew that our ambulance was too valuable to risk through the sand as a lot of vehicles got stuck and couldn’t do it and therefore we probably had to do the tarmac road. Mark was very keen on the desert route though and as said, we decided to try her out on the beach. There were a lot of cars that could help pull us free if we got stuck. Which we did…

We attracted a lot of attention from the locals and I have on video one local man staring at the ambulance shaking his head and making the symbol for “idiot” by circling his index finger by the side of his head… I can understand they thought we were mad as they didn’t know our reasons for driving her on the beach.

We had loads of people helping us digging her out and pushing her onto the spinal boards that we used as sand-ladders. She got unstuck and by this time it was almost dark and Mark drove towards the seafront with blue lights and sirens and everyone cheered! It was a great moment!

Once back by the camping most of the other teams came up to us and shook our hands thanking us for the best entertainment that night!

We spent the night in Laayoune sleeping rough on the roadside. The rest of the teams took in at a hotel but we were by now running very low on cash and had to think carefully before spending any. We were pleased we could use the bathrooms of the other teams as showers had become very scarce and body odours were masked by deodorant and perfume by this stage. We normally stashed all our suitcases in the front of the cab in the ambulance whilst sleeping, but here we didn’t dare do that here in case anyone walked past and didn’t realise we were in there and decided to break in. We had people banging on the side of the ambulance during the night and every time a car went by the whole ambulance shook. By 6am the next morning we got up and set off around 7am so we’d reach Dahkla in Western Sahara before dusk.

Western Sahara is a territory occupied by Morocco. Normally I feel safe if I see the police around, but here it was the other way around for some reason. The town we stayed in, Dahkla, is occupied and we stayed pretty much in the campsite all the time as we didn’t want to accidentally step on a landmine.

Talk about landmines, driving through no-mans-land between Morocco and Mauritania was rather unnerving. It took us just over 5 hours to get through customs in Morocco and ensure they’d let us out. After that you drive on a very bad dirt track filled with potholes and rocks, winding through no mans land with landmines either side and the edges are littered with burnt out flipped over cars.

Once you get to Mauritania there’s another 3 – 4 hours of customs bureaucracy before you are let through. Fingers crossed they DO let you in as otherwise you’re sort of stuck…

At Mauritania border you have to buy various insurances, visas and other documents. If you at a later stage is found in one of the hundreds of police checks without any of these papers you will be fined. Unless you have a little present for the police of course… Daylight robbery, with a smile! The only problem is that you usually have to find a ”present” for the police anyway, so personally I don’t see any point in paying for it at the border! We decided not to buy car insurance and we were fine, apart from the little gifts of course.

One policeman asked for clothes to his children. I gave him one of my tops but he threw it back in saying he had a boy. I then dug out one of Mark’s t-shirts, but with Mark being a broad-chested man it was too big and he chucked it back in. He then asked for a torch so we found a medical torch that we gave him. I was a bit annoyed with him; I don’t mind giving the odd can of coke or chocolate bar away, but to give medical items to a non medical person didn’t feel right.

Apart from that, I actually enjoyed Mauritania. It was very different from anything I’ve ever seen before and most people we met were very friendly and helpful. Both Nouâdhibou and Nouakchott had ”interesting” traffic and I must admit I was glad not to drive! Mark and Jules were more than happy to join the African driving and I guess once you had cracked the code it was quite easy; don’t hit anyone in front of you, beep when you get close to something, being it a donkey, car, chicken, human, goat or tourist, and everything will be fine!

We crossed the desert together with just one other vehicle, a stretched Lincoln Towncar. As mentioned earlier, there is a tarmac road built recently and our the ambulance and limo would probably not have made the off road part of the desert so we opted for the safer route. It turned out almost worse than being with the group though as a minor communications error between us meant they sped ahead and we were on our own, in a sandstorm trying to refuel from jerry cans ensuring we didn’t get any sand in the tank in 100 degrees heat. I must admit that at that point I was rather worried. We were about 200 miles into the desert and had at least another 200 – 300 miles ahead of us. All we could see was sand sand sand. We had passed a small Bedouin camp, but that was at least 30 miles ago, not a distance you’d like to walk in that heat.

We also came across a French guy who came running out of the dunes. He’d gotten his 4×4 stuck some 10 miles into the desert and asked if we could take him to the nearest Bedouin camp, which was about another 10 miles. No idea what he would have done if we hadn’t turned up; walking 20 miles in that heat? Let’s hope his friend and dog who he had left in the car was still ok in the heat. Some people are mad! J

After Mauritania we arrived in Senegal and as we had some time to kill we spent a week at Zebrabar. They are just outside St Louis in the north and situated on the beach. We sunbathed, canoed, windsurfed, ate good food, chilled out, relaxed. After the journey so far it was well needed! Just being able to have a shower, wash my hair, use a toilet whenever I wanted was just paradise!

We arrived in Dakar on the 10th January after the drive from St Louis. It’s not very far, however, there are roadworks on the one and only way into Dakar which creates a congestion that makes M25 morning traffic look like a quiet country lane in Wales. There’s lots of dust, as the road you are driving on is just one big lane of sand, it’s about 2 lanes wide but at least 4 cars are fighting for the space, lorries with exhaust fumes pumping right into your window (I complained to Mark and Jules that they had not fixed the air conditioning at this point!) about 98 degrees heat, lots of children begging and teenagers trying to sell you anything from oranges to pay as you go mobile phone cards to warning triangles for your boot. And then the odd herd of goats squeezing past just in front of you!

Coming in to the bustling town of Dakar, finding the hospital and then seeing the Union Jack of the British Embassy waving slowly in the Dakar breeze was incredible. The cup of tea – proper English Earl Grey – in queens bone china that the ambassador served us tasted like heaven! We couldn’t help giggle at the lovely Ambassador who after having sat us down on his cool porch to go and make tea for us (his kitchen staff had left for the day) came back to ask;

-I am so sorry to burden you with this decision, but would you care for Earl Grey or PG Tips?

To have a cup of normal tea after our three weeks living in an ambulance eating not much else but rice, pasta and anything that comes in a can from Lidl was truly amazing!

We had throughout the trip been torn between the eagerness of trying local food to being worried about getting a dodgy tummy. As most days consisted of being stuck in the Ambulance from 8am to 7pm driving in a convoy where you had to signal to all the other cars if you wanted to stop for a comfort break having a runny tummy would be the last thing we wanted. Once we arrived in Dakar we tried a bit more of the local delicacies which was great!

We spent two nights in the embassy and the contrast from the sand, dirt, dust, filthy toilets and lack of showers to the fluffy towels and waiting staff cutting up the papaya for my breakfast was quite something.

We stayed two nights in the embassy. The first day was spent cleaning the ambulance, sorting out what was going to which hospital and making sure it was completely cleaned. The whole truck was given a wash and hoover from top to bottom. We put all our kitchen stuff, pillows and duvets to one side and the ambassador’s wife and I went through what to give to who. She is involved in several charities in Senegal and some of the non medical stuff was given to them or auctioned off and the money raised was given to people in need.

The official handover of the ambulance to the hospital is something I will always remember. We spent the morning at the hospital going through the ambulance with the doctor’s and driver’s who will work on it and they just looked at it in awe saying it was the best ambulance they’d ever seen! I nearly started crying and we were all so pleased to see that it was so well received.

Mark had bought a lot of spares like new oilfilters, airfilters and various other bits and bobs so that they would be able to keep her well maintained. We also donated all our tools which was a huge toolbox, a jack and lots of other things. We were more or less a mobile garage and their head mechanic was very grateful. He said the tools will come to great use not only on our Ambulance but also to maintain the other vehicles they have in the Hospital.

They recently emailed us a picture of it with the new Dakar number plates and new stickers of the hospital’s symbol on the bonnet. They had put in very large letters ”Don de Mark Whitfield” on the side.

We were in Dakar at the same time as the big Lisboa – Dakar rally came in and it was incredibly exciting to stand at the Meridien Hotel watching the riders come in. The Ambassador had given us the numbers of the British and Swedish riders and I ran up to one of the British riders when he came in to say hi. He was very nice and I had my photo taken with him. After having done what we did I have come to realise exactly how gruelling the Lisboa – Dakar rally is. We were tired and extremely exhausted, but what we just had done is NOTHING compared to what those riders do. Yes, they may have back up teams and mechanics around them but at the end of the day they actually race and they must have such stamina to just keep going no matter what. Impressive beyond words.

We truly enjoyed the trip, even if it was hard, frightening and tough at times. I definitely recommend anyone to do it if you have spare cash and an appetite for travelling.

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