It is a long way from England to Gambia; 7,245km (4,500 miles) to be precise or 3 weeks of blood, sweat, and tears if you choose to do the journey the hard way—in an old car with an engine half as powerful as your average lawnmower and absolutely no A/C. The journey involves crossing roadless deserts for 3 days with no stops for water or gas. The 90°F (32°C) temperatures are made worse by the fact that you must drive with the windows closed because of the sand storm and with the heating on to cool down the overheating engine. Lethal sand pits that would ground a powerful 4WD, never mind an old, yellow Fiat rescued from a scrapyard, are just some of the surprises along the way. High roads wind over the epic Atlas mountains and through lush valleys. You pass through deserted towns, desolate plains, and chaotic cities where gangs of impoverished children mount the hood begging for change. There is an 81km (50-mile) coastal strip in Mauritania that must be traversed except it can only be done at low tide, which lasts 3 hours every day. Get stuck, and the sea will wash you away, and there is no coast guard to pick you up. French traffic police, Spanish drivers, and monster Moroccan trucks are just some of the obstacles on this epic 3-week race across Europe and Africa. And it must be all done in a car you would not trust to take you as far as the corner store.
The rules are simple in this race, formally known as the Plymouth-Banjal Challenge, but more popularly referred to as the Banger Rally. All participating cars must have a value of less than £100 ($170) and repairs and preparations cannot exceed £15 ($26). The race was thought up by a determined motor-head called Julian Nowill who wished to counteract the expense of entering famous off-road races such as the Dakar Rally. Multi-million-dollar cars and support teams, as well as a $10,000 entrance fee, means that this famous trans-African rally is now only open to the mega-rich. The Bangar Rally is an antidote with a philosophy of the cheaper, the better and also the crazier, the better.
Two hundred tarted up Volkswagens, Peugeots, and Mazdas tear out of Plymouth town every December and January. They take the ferry across to France and then travel south over the Pyrenees and across the Iberian peninsula to Gibraltar for the final African leg to Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Vehicles include old camper trucks and even an ice cream van that was converted into an ambulance at its final destination. Amazingly, many cars survive to be sold off as taxis in Gambia with the entire proceeds going to a local charity. Cars abandoned along the way are usually swiftly stripped by the locals. Team names include the Cone Dodgers and the Badger Racing Boys. There is zero support from the organizing body and participants are expected to negotiate their own entrance into each country and use their own initiative to get out of any sticky spots. There is no prize money to speak of, but just the achievement of finishing is enough to attract 800 applicants every year. Amazingly, most drivers manage to finish the race, with much cooperation and camaraderie along the way. They rally together, so to speak. —CO’M
When to Go: Dec–Jan.