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Some years ago I had a big old dog, a mastiff, with which I went everywhere. He moved slowly and seemed to make an unnecessary amount of noise whilst not really doing very much, had a ‘distinctive’ smell and used to break things if he got excited.
To my lasting regret the dog has now gone but I do have a 300Tdi which has managed to fill in all the gaps for me. We too are great friends, despite and because of the 300’s obvious lack of manners and uncanny knack of embarrassing me just when I need it least. We go to all sorts of places together and the kids seem to get on with the thing just fine, which leaves me with one eye ever open to new opportunities for larks on the road.
So naturally, when I saw an advert for a ‘Pyrenean 4x4 Treasure Hunt’ I thought “Hey ho, that’s the very thing for us “ and with the start date being late August, it meant I could have my twelve year old son Sam sat next to me as navigating co-pilot. Two phone calls and a short e-mail later, we were booked up with Freespirit 4x4 Adventures and the home-wrecking search for passports got underway in earnest. A couple of weeks on and we were up and grouchy at an undignified hour and ready for the off. The 300 had been treated to a full service, new brake pads, uj joints and a quick once over with the sponge; which practically constitutes a birthday. With a hearty farewell to the girls yelled through the open window and a single blast of the horn (it should have been three blasts but the Landy blew a fuse at that point due to all the excitement, which I felt was forgivable) we were off, with 500 miles or so between us and our starting point.
We managed to keep the drama level set to ‘low’ for the journey through France, with Tom Tom providing the laughs as it confidently told us to “turn left now” into farm yards or reservoirs and the complete melt down of our 12v system providing plenty of opportunities for Dad to practice his French. An over-night on the edge of a crop field provided the perfect shake down for the forthcoming week of camping and another long days driving saw us chug happily into the pre-event camp site in a cloud of black smoke and inappropriate engine noise. We were just outside Lourdes here and already the mountains were providing a beautiful jagged backdrop and a suggestion of what we might expect from the forthcoming week.
Moments after our arrival at camp we had introduced both ourselves and the vehicle and I was quietly delighted as James, one of the event organisers and a few of the other participants, fell on the motor armed with tools and an enthusiastic desire to help and quickly got everything sounding a lot healthier within a few short minutes and even pointed out the problem with our split-charge system; a faulty but easily replaced relay, although this was not going to be repaired on this trip. Neither was the loose-bearing turbo but a tightening of hoses was soothing enough for our tired engine for now. After a round of hand-shakes and a few rounds of small beers we turned in for the night, feeling very comfortable about the trip before us.
On the morning of our first day proper, Kieran (the other event organiser) gathered us around to hand out the off-road directional instructions, about which he casually remarked that ‘we would all be familiar with the format’ and the group nodded sagely, myself and the boy included.
We feel it would be churlish to point out to everybody gathered that we had never seen anything like it before but it didn’t look all that complicated and I guessed we would pick it up, which turned out to be the case. As I am entirely new to these things I was yet to discover that everybody gets lost at various points during the routes and that is simply what was collectively termed as ’bimbling’ and was actively encouraged, though sadly no points were awarded for it or we would have romped into an unassailable lead within a couple of days. It turned out that the guys had sensibly arranged for us all to travel in convoy for the duration of the first day to, ahem, ‘refresh’ our working knowledge of this type of road map. It also gave everybody an opportunity to start thinking about our first days challenges; discover this particular fact, find these particular landmarks and most entertaining of all, plant a Freespirit sticker on the most original position and take a photo of it. This particular challenge was to be a feature of the week and saw stickers appearing on road signs, livestock and slow moving Spaniards.
We covered quite a distance on the first day and climbed the mountains that form part of the Tour de France route, on some of the most beautiful roads I have ever seen. In the height of the day, the mountains were peppered with cyclists scaling the peaks and I still have no idea how or why they do it, aside from the obvious attraction of being sweaty in brightly coloured Spandex. Some of these guys (and girls) were even over-taking the convoy on the downhill stretches, which brought about a frantic waving of out-stretched limbs from the 4x4s as team members tried to get a sticker on them as they shot past. We all crossed the border into Spain, gawping at the road signs that display bear and wolf and later some nasally-challenged braves even bought cheese from the road side vendors, before we headed into the off-road trails for the afternoon where we started about the business of crawling, bouncing and peering over the rim of precipitous trail edges that became the signature environment for the rest of the week. We were ready for the campsite at the end of the day but that didn’t mean that the river that alongside the site didn’t see some energetic frolics.
Surprisingly cold, those Pyrenean rivers...........