It could have easily gone so wrong...
Even if we did have details about the ferry and a timetable for the sailings to Sudan, we still had to drive the route. From London to Jeddah is 3,800 miles, passing through 14 countries, of which 6 of them had quite lengthy and complex border crossing procedures. Knowing when to leave from London was critical to our planning. It's not like selecting a finish point on your Garmin sat nav, they don't take into account the border delays or refuelling. We had to drive the whole way there and log our route and then turn around and log it all the way back. Only then would we know when to leave London. Get it wrong and we would either arrive too early at the port and spend unnecessary time waiting for the ferry, or worse still, arrive too late and miss the ferry altogether. This would add a minimum of 24 hours to our overall time to Cape Town.
Jim and I set off on New Years Eve 2008 and after 4 days of driving both day and night, arrived at the Saudi border.
'Sorry Sir, your visas are only valid for air travel, you can't cross by land in a car from Jordan!' We couldn't believe it. I presented the Immigration officials with copies of our original application form which clearly stated the land border of Halat Ammar. After an hour or two of discussions and calls to their head office, we were allowed to proceed to the next desk - Customs. There stood 6 officials, arms crossed and shaking their heads.
'You can't come in, steering wheel on the wrong side!'
Surely this was a wind up? But it wasn't and no matter how much we tried to explain that International Carnet law states that 'if the vehicle is legal to be driven in your home country, it can be driven through theirs'. But the Customs guys weren't having any of it.
We finished that reconnaissance drive in a hire car and met with a shipping agent in Jeddah. Jim flew home and I drove home on my own. Returning to the UK, getting a left-hand drive vehicle was relatively easy, it was just a case of looking hard and being patient. The visa situation though was a different matter.
The visa agent Travcour were handling all our other visas, but due to the problems they had had in the past with Saudi Arabia, they wouldn't help us with these applications and so we used Gulf Visa who represent the British Embassy over there. Soufyan from Gulf Visa is a very experienced guy and knows the Saudi authorities in London well. No matter how much he asked, there was no way that they would issue Business Visas that were valid for 'land travel'. Our only option was to apply for 'Transit Visas' that would allow us to drive through the country. Tourist visas don't exist for Saudi Arabia.
For 18 months I tried to get Transit Visas, but every time I complied with their requirements, the goalposts seemed to be moved. By the end of it, I had received letters of support from the British embassy in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, the MD of the entire Land Rover group in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Defence Attache in London and the Head of the Saudi desk at the Foreign Office!
Sudan was also causing us a few headaches and like Saudi Arabia, required that we had a 'sponsor' in country who would take responsibility for our time while we were there. Our 'sponsor' hadn't delivered and so in sheer desperation I asked Travcour to go the Sudanese embassy and see what could be done. This was on a Thursday, just 2 weeks before we were due to leave from London. Other teams had openly told me they were going to have a go at the record, the Endurance Rallying Association were leaving with 40 cars to a fairly 'high-speed' run to Cape Town at the end of the year. With Sudan due to have a referendum in January that might split the country in two, the whole place was being closed down as from December for fear of violent clashed between political and religious groups. November was 'no-go' due to the Haj Pilgrimage to Mecca (right next to Jeddah) when 3 million pilgrims descend on the area, so this only left October as a possible time to attempt the record.
Travcour told us that we had been summoned to the Sudanese embassy in person and so Steve and Chris raced up to London from Devon and Oxford and the 3 of us sat patiently to see the Consul (Head of the Visa Section). We were ushered in to await out fate. Had all my hard work been for nothing, would I let all the sponsors down by not even being granted permission to start? We held our breaths.
The Consul was an absolutely charming man and so excited about our record-attempt.
'You're going by more home town of Kassale', he said. 'You must stop and try the barbecue chicken, best you'll have in Africa!'
We walked out of the embassy on cloud 9, only one visa left to get, Saudi Arabia.
I called Soufyan on his mobile.
'Soufyan, we're in town. Any news on the Saudi visas?'
It wasn't good. They'd moved the goal posts again. Riyadh (the capital) had reported back that for a Transits visa we now needed full medical cover to escort us through the country.
'What does that mean?' I asked inquisitively.
'An ambulance must follow you all the time you are in the country!' Oh, and you need a letter from the British Sports Ministry.'
This was a disaster. Why wouldn't they let us drive through Saudi Arabia? We wouldn't even be there for 24 hours.
'Go the embassy now,' said Soufyan and ask to see the Consul. Ask for Business Visas and just hope on the day they will let you through again. Problem was, cars had been turned back with Business Visas, but it was a chance we had to take and hope on the day the Immigration official was feeling generous.
We managed to get ourselves into the embassy, no invite and no meeting booked. There in front of us was the Consul, much younger than I was expecting. We explained our situation and all the support we had had from both the British government and Saudi Defence Forces. He sighed as he told us about the ambulance, it was out of his hands.
'I can issue you with Business Visas now, he said. 'Just get me another copy of the supporting letter from the Land Rover MD and I will issue them this afternoon.
'Do you need Chris and Steve to be present?' I asked. 'No, they can go home.'
This was the best we were going to get, but at least we could start the record attempt. Whether or not we would return home a week later with our tails between our legs was another matter - God, I hoped not, the sheer embarrassment of it all.
Steve and Chris jumped on the train and headed home, while I raced around London trying to find an internet café that could print off the letters for me. Three hours later and I was sitting back at his desk.
'Do you have the applications forms? he asked.
'No', Soufyan submitted them to you months ago.
'Mmmmm. Do you have passport photos?'
My heart dropped. 'No, you should have those as well.'
This was not good. Chris was racing back to his car and then flying for the next 6 days. There was no way that I could get him back to get some passport photos done. What a bloody cock-up. My heart was in my mouth.
I was ushered into a waiting room and sat there staring at the walls for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, this charming, smiley lady walked in.
'Can you please complete these application forms'. I looked down and realised that I didn't know the answers to some of the questions, most notably was Chris' home address. Surely they would need the exact information before granting the visas.
'Oh, that's all right', she said. 'Just put UK as home address!'
'What about passport photos, I don't have any'
'Don't worry about that either, we'll scan them out of your passport!'
My final question was the most important.
'When we last visited Saudi Arabia, our visas were only valid for air travel and we had problems getting into the country. Will we have the same problems again?'
'That's OK,' she said 'I'll just put down that they are only valid for 'Land Travel!'
I almost fell off my chair. For 18 months, I had tried everything to be given permission to get visas that would allow us to drive into Saudi Arabia and every route I tried was blocked. With only 10 days before we were due to leave, there in my hand were 3 passports with officially approved visas. And do you know what, when we arrived at that border, we didn't have one problem at all. No delays, no phone calls and no ambulances!
So, it just goes to show, you must never give up, because you have no idea at all how close you are to the finish line!