The Great Balkan Ride

After more than two decades on and off-road Ursula was in bad shape. Her speedometer did not work, nor did her fuel gauge. Ursula’s odometer was stuck on 147,467.8km and nobody knew when it stopped counting. No one was even really sure who christened her Ursula. Her gear-stick felt loose, like the leg of an overcooked chicken; the rubber around her steering wheel was malleable and disintegrating. When we stopped for the drinks, the extreme heat of the day had loosened a seal around a rear door so much that it dropped down like a snake from a tree. This thing, a Nissan Terrano II, wouldn’t have passed a MOT this side of the millennium.

“What is the word in English for a dead body when it is falling apart?” Asked Dirk Lenaerts. Dirk is from Belgium and was riding in Ursula with myself and my co-driver, Iain Ross, for a particularly challenging section of the Great Balkan Ride in Albania’s excellently named Accursed Mountains. 

“Decomposing,” I offered.

“Ja. This car is decomposing.”

Iain and I didn’t disagree. We’d been living with Ursula’s idiosyncrasies since we began this inaugural rally in Bosnia four days ago. The idea is that you take a second-hand vehicle on a route planned by the Travel Scientists, an adventure-tour company based in Budapest. They offer different packages on their rallies, including one in which you can hire a (very) used car for the duration. There’s no rule specifically stating you can’t bring a brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser on the trip, but it wouldn’t really be in keeping with the rag-tag, masochistic spirit of the event. For his part, Dirk had brought a modified VW estate, but opted not to bring it on this off-road section.

The Travel Scientists had their initial success in India where they pioneered the Rickshaw Challenge. That was over a decade ago, and while they still offer five of those manic three-wheel adventures each year, their business has grown to include a handful of new routes in Europe. The Great Balkan Ride was the newest of these, starting in Sarajevo, travelling through Montenegro, then Kosovo, followed by four days in Albania, culminating with a quick blast through Greece to Thessaloniki and the finishing line. 

No actual racing takes place – rather the teams are given a roadbook and GPS coordinates of their accommodation each night. How they get there, how long it takes, and whether they choose to go alone or ride in convoy is up to them. There are, in short, few limits.

Thankfully this is also true for upper age limits, which during my journey meant that septuagenarian couple Tony and Beryl Thorndike could face down every challenge the Balkans had to offer. Ursula, Iain and Dirk had to turn back on a mountain pass to help a Danish team whose badly damaged Toyota Corolla was absolutely not ready for the rigours of off-roading. So that they could attempt the rescue, I jumped in with the Thorndikes. 

As I came to learn in the Accursed Mountains, their enthusiasm was infectious, as was their delight in the scenery. “My God! Look at that Beryl!” cried Tony from behind the wheel.

“I know! Amazing!” Beryl shouted in reply “Now please watch the road.” 

My new driver was 75 years old and had decided five years ago to restructure his retirement plans when he read an article about the inaugural Central Asia Rally, another of the Travel Scientists’ lunatic adventures. He’d since completed that epic journey to Kyrgyzstan twice and didn’t want to miss this new route. I got the impression Beryl may have preferred her twilight years to be a little more sedate, but she kept finding herself on these daft adventures with her husband.

We’d just started discussing this, and the impressive fridge they had on the back seat of their Nissan X-Trail, when the entire world lurched violently to the right. There was a heroic amount of swearing from all of us, and then, after a couple of seconds of assessing the scene, the realisation that we were teetering, Italian Job-style, on a cliff-edge. 

We were stricken, but by blind chance a kind Belgian family driving in the opposite direction happened upon us and quite literally pulled us back from the brink, towing us onto the path with their Land Rover Discovery. Never had it seemed more important to have a close relationship with Europe.

When we finally arrived at our accommodation that night, bodies and nerves frazzled, we’d been driving for around 11 hours, 10 of which did not feature tarmac.

Four days earlier things were a good deal more civilised in Sarajevo. Needless to say, it was not ever thus in this city. When I’ve visited places such as Japan, or Vietnam and seen elderly people on the street, I’ve found myself wondering: what did they see in their nation’s wars? What did they do in them? In Sarajevo, I found myself pondering the same about people my own age. 

If the city’s name is associated with the rank hideousness of siege warfare, it doesn’t translate to street level these days. On the night the rally launched, it was hard to find free tables in most of the al fresco bars and restaurants. All the while, my mind kept wandering and wondering: who saw what? How can these people be so jovial? 

A clinking glass brought me back to the table. Huba Kozma, the lead Travel Scientist on this trip spoke: “You will visit countries where few people dare to come, on roads where locals aren’t brave enough to drive.” There was nervous laughter in reply.

Among the other drivers I met were Jonny Baumann and Anne-Mette Jørgensen from Denmark who were to attempt the route in the soon-to-be-doomed Lola the Toyota Corolla. The next morning it was decided that Anne-Mette was to drive that day, a call that was made by the roll of some furry dice. Most of the Danes’ fate was decided this way: who’s driving, what to order in restaurants, whether to turn left or right… The fluffy, dirty dice decided it all.

From Bosnia we travelled to the impossible beauty of the Montenegrin highlands, snaking up sheer gorges above deep blue reservoirs. Much is made of the coastline in this little country, but the interior is just as beautiful, if still a little imperfect. Between potholes, I scribbled that it was one of the most sensational drives I have ever taken anywhere. When I tried to underline ‘sensational’, the violence of the road made my pen tear a hole in my notebook.

The next day Iain and I accidentally drove Ursula off-road for two hours when our sat-nav misinterpreted what constitutes a road. The only other horsepower we came across in that time belonged to actual horses. Back on asphalt, we eventually climbed to the mountain border with Kosovo, then plunged down towards Pec for almost an hour, the acrid reek of our burning brakes drifting in the window while the city lights twinkled below. 

Almost half the week was spent in Albania, a country about which most rally participants knew virtually nothing before arriving. It turned out to be a country of surprises: surprisingly bad food, surprisingly great scenery. The Accursed Mountains, despite the name, provided perhaps the most dramatic landscape of the whole trip, an endless, wild network of valleys carved by glaciers and diamond-clear rivers, all uninterrupted by humanity.

The Scientists’ route had been carefully planned to avoid Tirana, the modern, traffic-choked capital, but it did suggest detours to other Albanian cities. Of these, the most remarkable was the UNESCO World Heritage site of Berat, the ‘City of a Thousand Windows.’ Primarily developed during the Byzantine era, today it’s a scenic maze of protected buildings hugging the banks of the Osum River.

Arguably the star attraction was the mighty Berat Castle which has looked out over the city in one form or another for over 2,000 years. Iain and I decided to leave Ursula at the bottom of the hill and stretch our legs along the uneven stone road to get up to its ancient walls.

Alas that wasn’t our final stop for the evening, so after we’d taken just a few snaps out across an enormous U-shaped valley in the setting sun, we had to head back down the hill, collect our strange zombie car and drive a final couple of hours to the unlovely town of Vlorë on the Adriatic Coast.

By the time we got to Thessaloniki and the finishing line, there was a sense between the teams that we’d all bonded, like victims in some support group, interdependent having shared trauma together. As we had our wrap party, a round of ouzo was ordered from the bar and Tony Thorndike made his way along the table to me.

Between mouthfuls of irresistible Greek salad – which were all the more delicious having put up with so much mediocre fare in Albania – I made a point of noting down what he said. He may have nearly killed me, but nonetheless it sounded awfully like the truth: “You know, it’s not just about the endurance, physical and mental,” proclaimed my friend, slapping me on the shoulder. “Or the ability to persevere, to sit on your arse all that time. Really, it’s about the people.”

A version of this piece was published in the Financial Times in late 2018.

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