Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Both Cro and the Broad have recounted stories about long and arduous journeys, and that put me in mind of the longest non-stop one I have ever made whilst actually driving.
I say 'actually driving', because I had a longer one many years ago, when I hitch-hiked to the Scottish Highlands with a girlfriend. We started out from Surrey early one morning, and 12 hours later we had made it to a vast roundabout somewhere in Lancashire. We stuck our thumbs out for another 5 hours, only managing to stop vehicles for elderly northerners who had strategically positioned themselves 100 yards ahead of us, so we pitched a tent in a nearby field, then continued hitching the following morning. Another 12 hours later, we arrived at Glasgow and were escorted out of town at midnight by the police, who dumped us on a lonely country road. Another 6 hours later, we made it to the hills.
When I worked for the theatre company (now based in Solingen, Germany), I went to nearby Bristol to pick up a Mercedes box-van, and - once loaded with props, etc. - we set off for Sheerness to catch an overnight ferry.
We disembarked at around 6 the following morning, and set off for Switzerland. I was the only driver.
As we approached the Alps, we began looking at the map and saw that there was a pass over them which was closed during the winter but open during the summer and autumn months. It being June, we headed for it, and began climbing the mountain in the van, never getting out of second gear whilst negotiating all the hairpin bends which made the ascent possible.
It was a beautiful drive, and we saw eagles flying between the peaks. A few thousand feet up, I began wondering why there were no other vehicles on the road. A little later, great walls of snow blocked our view both sides of the pass, and I began to fear the worst.
At last, we arrived at a small deserted village and a solid wall of snow under which lay the road ahead. In front of it was a sign saying, 'Pass Closed'.
Now, I really don't know why the last person to leave the village could not have placed the sign at the bottom of the pass on his way down, rather than right at the top, or even go to the little added expense of having two signs, both top and bottom, just in case.
The blocked road was so tight, that I had to reverse the truck onto a flat and narrow patch of snow and bring the back wheels to about 10 feet away from a sheer drop of about 1000 feet. The two actors wanted to get out of the van whilst I made this manoeuvre, but I insisted they stayed inside - I needed their weight for traction. I was extremely light on the brakes, I can tell you.
About an hour later, we were down in the warm valley and about to take a route which went right around the mountains and added about 4 hours onto out trip, so we called into a restaurant and had something to eat. They guy who ran the restaurant told us that - if we hurried - we could just catch the last train to go through a tunnel in the mountain, but we said that we had to take the van as well.
"No problem. You drive the van onto the train!"
We dropped what we were eating, raced to the van and drove to a strange sort of station and found a sort of goods train waiting there. There was a wagon which had a flat bed which was level with the platform, and I simply drove straight onto it, put the handbrake on and switched off the engine.
Switching off the engine was essential whilst going through the tunnel, but the cool air inside it made the windows steam up so that we could see absolutely nothing in the darkness. It is a very strange experience to be sitting in the driver's seat of a large truck, in the dark and moving as if on the road, and this lasted for about three-quarters of an hour.
Eventually, we popped out in Switzerland and I drove off the train and began another 4 hour drive to a town which we had never visited before. I was feeling rather tired by this point.
When driving in the dark up the steep mountain roads, my technique was to latch onto a vehicle which was doing the same sort of speed as us, all the while staring at it's red tail-lights as if in a trance. I would lose it on an uphill stretch, then race downhill to catch up with it again, then fall back into the trance as I stared at the red lights. If it had gone over the cliff, I would have followed it.
At gone 2 o'clock in the morning - over 20 hours of almost uninterrupted and treacherous driving later - we arrived at our destination.
Our host had prepared a fondue for us - my first and last - and I eventually got to bed with an unyielding ball of hard, alcoholic cheese pressing against my ribcage.
We had to have our photos taken for security passes early the next morning - I wish I had kept mine. The journey was etched onto my haggard features.