Monday, 15 August 2022

Sandstorms and armed guards on African rally

AN amateur rally driver has broken the world record for driving from London to Cape Town.

AN amateur rally driver has broken the world record for driving from London to Cape Town.

Businessman Robert Belcher, from Bix, completed the 10,000-mile journey across 13 countries in 10 days, three hours and 16 minutes, beating the previous record by more than 10 hours.

Mr Belcher, 58, travelled in a Land Rover Discovery with his friend and co-driver Stephen Cooper, 53.

The pair set off from the RAC Club on Pall Mall at 5am on October 4 and drove to France via the Eurotunnel. They crossed the Alps to Italy and caught a ferry from Naples to Tunisia. They arrived in Africa just over 24 hours after leaving London. They passed through Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana before reaching South Africa.

Their eight-year-old vehicle was modified with a fortified undercarriage, chunkier tyres and four high-powered headlights. It also had a satellite tracker, enabling Mr Belcher’s wife Annette and daughters, Jessica, 18, and Katie, 20, to follow the men’s progress.

Mr Belcher, who owns a food packaging firm in Cambridgeshire, and Mr Cooper, who comes from East Sussex, would drive for almost 24 hours a day. One would be at the wheel for several hours at a time while the other rested or slept.

The men did not know whether the journey would be possible until a few days before leaving as there was political unrest in Libya caused by the arrest of a terror suspect by American soldiers, meaning they might not be able to get visas. When they crossed the country, they had to be escorted by an armed security guard.

There were fuel shortages and rationing in Egypt and Sudan, meaning they had to carry enough spare diesel to travel at least 500 miles.

Mr Belcher said: “At one garage we pulled into in Sudan, they had this massive armoured personnel carrier and two machine gun nests with sandbags. That’s how serious it was.

“Crossing into Egypt was a bit like something out of Black Hawk Down. We were having our passport stamped with all these machine guns everywhere. It all kicked off soon after that because one of their diplomats was kidnapped in Gaza. They subsequently shut their borders so it was fortunate that we timed it when we did.”

The men also encountered sandstorms that reduced visibility to as little as 10 yards.

Mr Belcher said: “Not being able to see is a major problem, to put it mildly. It’s very scary stuff — it’s like driving in really thick fog. We had to stop and wait for them to pass because we would often have steep mountain drops on either side of us.

“Fortunately, they only lasted about 10 or 15 minutes, although that feels like a lifetime when you’re caught in the middle of one.”

Their vehicle only developed one fault during the trip when its brake warning alarm was triggered by a bump in the road. It stopped sounding after the vehicle hit another bump a few hours later.

When the pair arrived in Cape Town, they were greeted by Mr Belcher’s wife and several family friends. The Mount Nelson Hotel gave them a free breakfast and a letter confirming their finishing time. They stayed for four days before flying home.

The Land Rover, which Mr Belcher owns, will be shipped back to Britain next month and he will drive it in future rallies.

Mr Belcher said: “I was exhausted when I finished as the final night had been very difficult. We were only driving one hour each because we were so tired from the combined impact of the previous nights.

“When you aren’t driving on a road, the surface underneath you is so bumpy that you can’t sleep.”

Mr Belcher has been driving in rallies as a hobby since 2001. He took part in his first race, the World Cup Rally in Africa, with Henley pub landlord Jeremy Buckler.

He takes part in at least one rally a year and decided to tackle London to Cape Town after attending a talk by the previous record holders.

Philip Young and Paul Brace completed the journey in the other direction in 10 days, 13 hours and 28 minutes in February.

Mr Belcher and Mr Cooper, who met through the rally scene in 2005, looked at the team’s itinerary and believed they could plan it better.

“I saw what they’d done and realised there were some gaps where they could have reduced their time,” said Mr Belcher.

“You have to time your border crossings carefully because some countries only open their borders at particular times. If you miss your chance, you have to wait overnight and you can easily lose 12 hours.

“We had done most of our route before on previous rallies, so we knew how all the different borders operated. I think we averaged 41 miles an hour. That may not sound a lot but when you consider it’s throughout 10 days of continuous driving it’s not bad.

“My family are all girls so they don’t necessarily understand my hobby. For the first time, though, my girls were chuffed to bits that we actually completed it. They had followed my progress and sent me a few text messages along the way.”

The drive was sponsored by Warranty Direct, whose owner Duncan McClure Fisher lives in Harpsden Road, Henley, and is a friend of Mr Belcher. The men raised £400 for Farm Africa, which helps farmers in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan.

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