Russian Spies and Fireflies

Originally Published: October 2010
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It was a strange mixture of bullet-holed Eastern Bloc buildings and close encounters with nature that met us on our journey through Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Bulgaria on the Roof of the World Rally. And this was just a small portion of a fundraising adventure on which Charity Road Trips took a Discovery all the way from London to Tajikistan

Five pairs of eyes stared wearily out of the windows of a jam-packed Land Rover Discovery – and a hungry looking Alsatian stared back. We were at the dead end of a Croatian track, having reached our long-awaited final destination: a couple of abandoned houses – and a territorial, barking, hairy mutt.

The helpful voice emitting from the sat nav had proved herself to be wholly unhelpful, while the Croatian voice at the other end of the phone describing the location of our campsite proved wholly uninterpretable. Bewildered about why we were being advised to head for Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, instead of somewhere in Lucko, Croatia, we sat for a few moments in collective frustrated silence, the only sound being the angry barks of the Alsatian defending his undesirable property.

It had been a long day of driving for team leader Ashley Platen-Mills, co-driver David Hayward and mother and daughter team members Kerry and Abby Howard. They’d travelled from Vienna to collect me from Budapest airport, cursing the Hungarian traffic all the way and witnessing some of the least inspiring examples of ugly Eastern Bloc architecture to boot. Happily, though, we were actually not too far from our Croatian campsite near Zagreb, and it wasn’t long before the tents were up and the bottles of Dorset Piddle were out.

The Charity Road Trips team had departed from London on 2 July in a LHD Land Rover Discovery 3.5 V8i, loaded up with camping gear and Voltz high-energy drinks (my sponsors, so I’ll be mentioning them a few times). Bright eyed and bushy tailed, they had set off with great expectations for their 10,000km trip across Europe to Tajikistan, where they would donate the Landy to the Children’s School run by Sworde Teppa. Through individual and corporate fundraising and sponsorship, they had also raised a whopping £12,000, to date, for their chosen charities, Sworde Teppa and the Make-A-Wish Foundation in the UK.

Total Off Road had been lucky enough to get an invitation to fill the spare seat for the leg from Hungary to Bulgaria, taking in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia along the way. And so I found myself on a plane to Budapest, wearing a T-shirt advertising Voltz (very tasty and very enlivening, especially when combined with Haribos) and hoping that it would be a friendly group of people who came to collect me and take me across Eastern Europe.

Luckily for me, they were. All hailing from Bournemouth, the team were motivated by a mixture of fervent fundraising and excitable wanderlust when they signed up for the Roof of the World Rally, and were particularly looking forward to visiting Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Ash’s background as a successful businessman helped in the run up to the rally, as he took the view that if they were going to do it, they may as well do it properly – this wasn’t going to be some well-meaning self-indulgent hippie ramble, it was an extremely well-organised way to raise an enormous amount of money for their chosen charities, with a good helping of adventure on top.

With this in mind, sponsors such as Ahmad Teas, OKO and Small Luxury Hotels of the World came on board, with sections of the route, displayed on the team’s website (www.charityroadtrips.org), being sponsored by different companies and spaces on the car’s bodywork being taken up by company logos and artwork. The team was kitted out in personalised uniform – Craghopper trousers, Merrell footwear, Nite watches, Bloc sunglasses and Regatta jackets, along with Snugpak camping gear, so all together we looked like a group of people who meant business. Admittedly, for my section of the journey the business in hand was largely drinking Voltz, eating Haribos and taking photos of the passing landscape, but by God I looked like I was ready for anything. The Land Rover, too, was well prepared for the trip, with rock sliders from Bryn Charles, Toyo tyres and OKO sealant from Mike Stokes Motorsports, expedition-prepping from Marcus and the ‘Major’ at Douglass Motors in Wimborne and a full service by Mark at Malmesbury Park Garage in conjunction with Forte Lubricants – plus plenty of help from the Garmin Handheld GPS…

While our section of the trip was largely along main roads due to time constraints, the Landy would come into its own later in the journey through desert and mountain roads and along the Afghan border. In the meantime, the Disco provided ample room for five fidgety team members and loads of equipment, clocking up thousands of motorway miles as well as the dusty tracks we encountered in place of fallen-down bridges and the slippery grass of a hilly campsite.

After my first night at the hard-to-find but easy-to-forget Croatian campsite, we loaded up the Disco and headed into Zagreb, where we were to due to visit Saint Theresa’s Orphanage. A false start meant we found ourselves lost, doing that internationally recognised ‘rocking baby’ motion with our arms to confounded nuns in a religious bookshop, but soon we arrived at Saint Theresa’s and were ushered into an austere waiting room.

My preconceptions of Eastern European orphanages consisted of pretty harrowing footage from documentaries, so there was a certain amount of nervous tension as we sat around the lacquered dining table with its pristine starched doilies, surrounded by images of saints and a strict-looking display cabinet full of mugs adorned with the beatific face of the Pope. All of his faces seemed to look down upon us with dismay. The idea of us being here was to drop off a donation of nappies and other supplies to the sisters, as a nod towards the end destination of the rally, and to support the work they do there.

Finally the anticipation was over and we were welcomed by two very friendly nuns who, when Ash explained the idea behind our visit, began to cry at our kindness. I hoped that they wouldn’t be too disappointed by the packet of Pampers that was coming their way. Happily, we had some mugs and samples from Ahmed Teas to bulk out the donation, and it turned out that one of them was quite the tea-drinker, on the strict understanding that it didn’t originate from Russia.

The orphanage itself was a revelation. I’m sure you’re not reading TOR for information about Croatian orphanages, but nevertheless, you might as well know that actually, we all went away convinced that the home, full of the usual bright cheerful things you’d find in a normal messy classroom or kid’s bedroom, was a lovely place and the nuns’ devotion to the children was incredible. There was some silence in the car afterwards as Kerry and I both contemplated becoming nuns and being wholeheartedly good for the rest of our lives, but soon our focus shifted back to cheese pie and wine and inevitably enough the appeal of lifelong selflessness waned somewhat.

To keep us occupied, the Land Rover was well equipped with phrasebooks for each of the different countries the team would be visiting, although we did notice that everyone we met was a) happy to take Euros even when it wasn’t their currency, and b) not at all grumpy if we tried to communicate in gestures and apologetic English. However, the communication in Turkey looked set to go down a storm, as the phrasebook contained such invaluable gems as ‘she can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery’ and ‘when you enter the sea, you make it dry up’.

When we weren’t learning these little ice-breakers, we listened to some locally-purchased entertainment in the form of a crazed yodelling CD the team had picked up in Austria, followed by a doleful Bosnian man who sounded like he could be singing about his long lost love who’d been savaged by a bear.

Onwards then to one of the foremost tourist attractions in Croatia, the Plitvice Lakes. Covering 294 square kilometres, this national park is well known for its cascades and spectacular forests, rocks and variety of wildlife. Only upon reading the leaflet I picked up at the time have I noticed that the Plitvice forests are also well known for their brown bears. The campsite near the lakes was beautiful, and I took the opportunity to go for an evening swim, along with some French families, who obviously know a good holiday destination when they find one.

We got surprisingly close to nature while exploring the post-Communist countries, and here at the Croatian lakes we saw some amazing sights. As if the lakes weren’t enough in themselves, when David and I went down there at dusk to film a video for the blog (www.charityroadtrips.org), the air was so loud with the sound of croaking bullfrogs we could hardly hear ourselves think. Then, and this is the most exciting bit, on the way back up to camp we suddenly realised that the darkness of the brush surrounding our path was lit up with hundreds of tiny fireflies! I’d never seen them before, and thought it was all very exciting and magical – and it wasn’t entirely ruined by David spilling his mug of red wine down his leg, meaning that I had to share mine.

Back at the camp, the team was still wonderfully at one with nature as we watched a strange crow sunbathing on molehills beside our tent and we all had a jolly good time being feasted on by mosquitoes. Ash, in particular, seemed to be scratching as though he’d been bitten in some pretty sensitive areas – presumably they’d managed to sneak up before he put his special mozzie-proof trousers on.

The following morning it was time to set off for Bosnia. We left the more typically European scenery behind us and drove through small towns and villages, the buildings sometimes riddled with holes from bullets and shells and sometimes patchily replastered. It was hard to imagine how different it would have been – there seemed to be few buildings that revealed no evidence of fighting and war, but now, as we drove along, we were passing through some of the most peaceful, beautiful countryside I’d ever seen. It was almost like Switzerland, but without the smugness and cuckoo clocks.

The beauty of the Bosnian landscape came as a surprise to most of us – we were all impressed by the endless greenery of the wooded hillsides and valleys, crop-filled fields and scenic farmland, tended to by men and women with rudimentary-looking picks and hoes. For much of the day we were driving along a river and were treated to the sight of bright blue water running at the bottom of rocky drops, alongside pretty rustic villages and bright white Orthodox-style churches standing out amid the greenery. This was definitely one of the main things I’d take away from the trip, with the firm intention to return one day, with or without a Land Rover.

Soon we stopped for an idyllic lunch at a picnic spot next to the river, where the Bosnian locals dunked themselves in what felt like glacial currents and were keen to chat about the Land Rover and what we were up to. They even invited us all to go and eat with them, but we had to plough on as we were, excitingly, headed to Sarajevo for the night.

Entering the centre of Sarajevo some time later, we saw examples of the ravaged war-torn tenements which had been left up as a reminder of recent history, or point of pride, standing in stark contrast to the ultra-modern blue glass of the high rise banks and swish hotels that surrounded them. Finding a campsite in the middle of the city centre looked like it might be a bit tricky, and we were all even more excited about Sarajevo when Ash decided to check us into a hotel. Goodbye canvas, hello proper beds! Kerry, Abby and I went and luxuriated in air-conditioning and noted that the bog-standard glass sink in our bathroom seemed like the poshest thing in the whole wide world. Even though we’d been staying at very nice campsites.

Heading into Sarajevo, where we were celebrating my 30th birthday (in advance), we were struck by what a cool city it was. Aside from the obvious history of the place, it had everything that a European city would have, with the added extras of Moroccan and Arabic influences. The centre has a great atmosphere, with its lively bars and stalls, illuminated churches and busy cobbled streets.

On my last day with the team, we were driving to Sofia in Bulgaria. It was a mammoth day for poor old Ash, who’d taken on the task of being the sole driver for most, if not all, of the trip. I think we left around ten in the morning and arrived at Hostel Mostel, a cracking place to stay, at around nine in the evening, having spent plenty of time queuing at borders next to Serbians in string vests pushing their Ladas. I nearly forgot to mention that we drove through Serbia – we passed Belgrade anyway. I don’t want to seem uncharitable, given the nature of the trip, but from the motorway, it looked pretty depressing and I was very glad we were headed for Bulgaria.

Anyway, outside our hostel in Sofia, located next to the neon signs of Caesar’s Casino and a pensive, strutting transsexual prostitute, we were slightly nervous as to the standard of the accommodation. However, David had chosen very well and we stayed in a friendly, bohemian-feeling hostel in a mixed dorm with bunk beds – cue much schoolgirl-like giggling at lights out when David began to snore like a little piglet. Suddenly it seemed as though Ash, who’d been cosied up to David thus far on the trip, must have phenomenal endurance powers! That night we had enjoyed what turned into a cheese feast at a local traditional Bulgarian restaurant, which could only be described as simply great.

The next day I had to wave the team off as they headed for Turkey and I flew back to Burton-on-Trent, which seemed like a raw deal really. After a quick walking tour around Sofia, taking in the Bania Bashi Mosque and Alexander Nevski cathedral, I was off. It had been a whirlwind of a drive through Eastern Europe for me, and the team still had a lot of adventure to come. You can see the story of their trip on the website at www.charityroadtrips.org. I’d like to thank Voltz for making it possible for me to join the team on the Budapest to Sofia leg, thanks to the team for making me so welcome and well done for raising so much money. And of course, congratulations to the guys at Sworde Teppa, who have just become Land Rover owners in very fine style indeed.

Words and pictures Emily Gravenor

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