A phone call was all it took to start me wondering what Nepal would be like. Walter called from somewhere in China. He was at least a week away from the border to Nepal and only a few days away from Peking. He wasn’t quite sure what the fault was but he knew it was serious. He had taken his eyes off the road, just for a split second, to look behind him and check where his competitors were. That was when the car hit a boulder, a rather large boulder. The car had jumped into the air on impact and came crashing down with the nearside front and rear brakes jammed on. The rock had also hit the nearside rear wheel square on and moved the rear axle backwards on that side. On inspection Walter had spotted that the paint was flaking off halfway along the left axle tube. His analysis was that the rock had bent the axle backwards which had taken up the slack in the brake cables and therefore pulled the brakes on hard. The rear wheel no longer looked central in the wheel arch, it was definitely pushed back. Walter decided the axle was bent and he knew he wouldn’t be able to carry out the repairs locally because there wouldn’t be any parts available.
That’s when I got the phone call, there was a little desperation in his voice but he was also apologetic because he’d damaged the car. He described the problems to me over a poor satellite phone link. I wasn’t convinced that the axle was bent it was more likely to be chassis damage. If the axle was bent then the chassis or spring would have to move as well, but Walter said that everything looked in order except the axle.
Walter asked me to come out and repair the car. He told me he would keep driving it but at a much slower pace. After I put the phone down I kept thinking about the extent of the damage to the car. It didn’t quite seem right that only the axle tube could be bent. Then I started thinking about how I would get to the far east and carry a load of car parts through customs.
I decided that I would make the journey and meet Walter in Kathmandu, Nepal. I would take a spare axle tube with me, a half-shaft (in case that was bent too), a differential housing and of course as many relevant tools that I could carry. Over the next couple of days my wife made all the travel arrangements and I visited the doctor to have the necessary inoculations. The plan was to fly out on Friday and arrive on Saturday which was the day that all the rally cars should arrive at Kathmandu. Then out of the blue another phone call came in. This time it was from an American, on what can only be described as the worst phone connection ever. After much frustration and repetition, I established that the American was ringing on behalf of Walter. The situation had become worse because the right-hand rear spring mounting had broken off Walter’s car and now the whole vehicle was completely un-drivable.
Walter wasn’t alone in his Bugatti, he had Fritz his co-driver with him. They had decided to organise a truck to haul them to the border but their problems didn’t end there. It was a desperate situation because they were located on top of the Himalayas in an open car with no heater and the prospect of freezing temperatures overnight.
The problems with the car were on a very different level now too, how was I going to repair a broken rear cross member? The rear cross member on a Bugatti T40 is like most other Bugattis, it’s fixed together when the chassis is assembled and cannot simply be removed and replaced. I had to find a way of removing the old damaged cross member and replace it by not using the standard method of shrinking the spring mounting lugs onto the end of the cross tube. I managed to sketch a quick design and my team at work made me a special cross member. We had no stock of spring lugs so two were fabricated from solid lumps of steel, turned, bored, drilled, milled and then welded together. One end would be shrunk on as standard, the other end was made so that it could be welded on. The only problem was that it weighed about 56 lbs. Add that to the weight of the axle spares and I would have to carry around 120lbs on to the plane. There was no way I would get away with this as hand luggage so it all had to go into the hold and I paid the excess charges.
With all the spares wrapped up and still warm from the welding, my bag packed and in possession of my tickets, money and passport, I was off down the motorway to the airport. My thoughts were not as you might think, not about what I might find, but who I had just left behind. There was Tim in the machine shop that had made the parts with nothing more than a few sketches. Tim solves problems as he goes along and at a pace that suits the urgency of the situation. There was also Steve & Tim D who had fitted ‘red hot’ lumps of metal onto tubes that required several tons of pressure on the press to push them on. My wife Pat who had booked me a seat on an almost full aeroplane. She’s also sorted out my visas, hotel bookings and the currency. I’m sure that Walter and Fritz had no idea as to what had been achieved in just a couple of days.
Being a Friday the motorway was as usual jammed solid. Is there ever a time when the M25 isn’t? It was a good thing I had left with plenty of time. I went to the baggage check-in, paid the baggage excess bought a book to read. I made my fond farewells to a worried but confident Pat and gave a hug to my son Steve. As I went through the x-ray machine I wondered what the authorities would have thought if I’d tried to carry the axle tube on to the plane. One of the lads at work said they would arrest me for carrying parts for a super gun but I’ll never know – or will I?
The plane was about half an hour late taking off but the captain assured us that he would make up the time. Our first stop would be Frankfurt, then on to Dubai and finally to Kathmandu. I sat next to a young Gurkha soldier who was returning home on leave. He hadn’t been home for three years and was very pleased to be on his way. He told me quite a lot about Nepal, mainly about the hill country where he lived. He didn’t like the city and never spoke much about it, he said that I wouldn’t like it either.
Frankfurt came and went. It was dark outside and could have been any airport in the world. Once again we were late taking-off, but this time it was the fault of the Gurkhas. Some of them had got lost and had to be found, apparently this is a frequent problem that I would experience later. A very short night later and we arrived at Dubai. All you could see from the plane was sand and more sand. Then there were some white houses with lots of sand around them too. The pilot certainly saved some time with his landing procedure. It seemed that he was free from the constraints of a busy international airport so he literally dropped from 30,000 feet like a dive bomber. I found it quite a thrill, but there were others that thought the plane was going to crash.
After a safe landing, we all shuffled off the plane and walked straight into an inferno. At 7.30am it was over 30 degrees Celsius. The air-conditioned buses were very welcome even after just a few minutes of that heat. During the trip to the terminal I saw lots of construction workers building a massive airport complex. They start work really early here and finish at midday to avoid the worst of the sun. I was delighted I hadn’t arrived in the afternoon, I’m sure the heat then would be unbearable.
I couldn’t see why they needed to build a bigger airport. As far as I could see there was nothing there but sand and a coastline. There were no obvious hotels along the beaches, no major city or ancient buildings. Nothing except sand. It wasn’t until I arrived in the duty-free area that I realised why the airport had to be bigger. It was all to do with gold and there was lots of it. There were lots of people buying it too, they were buying the stuff like there was no tomorrow. There were expensive cars being raffled at $150 a ticket. If you won the car it would be delivered to your door. The gold could be bought as individual items or handfuls by weight. I saw at least three people buying it by weight and paying for it in cash. They simply emptied their money belts on the counter.
The plane was called early because we still had time to make up. While we were waiting in the departure lounge I started chatting to a fire inspector who was also travelling to Kathmandu. He told me that the other magnet of Dubai is cheap fuel which attracts the smaller airlines. Perhaps he was right, when I looked around the airport I didn’t see one major airline. So here we are back on the plane and waiting - you guessed it, the Gurkhas have gone missing again. Half an hour goes by and we are still sitting on the tarmac. At last a police van arrives with the missing passengers and we can finally take-off. Apparently the Gurkhas were trying to get out of the airport after being directed to the transit lounge. The authorities couldn’t make them understand the rules for transit passengers so ultimately the police were called.
For the final part of this journey I managed to get a seat by the window. I swapped places with Yan my Gurkha friend because he wanted to talk to his pals across the aisle. It suited me because I much prefer a window seat. I had never flown over so much uninhabited land before. Mile after a mile of nothing except desert. Occasionally I could make out some barren mountains and empty valleys but there was no sign of life or a trace of habitation. With perfectly clear skies I could see for miles. I saw dried-up river beds, worn down mountain tops and sand dunes that looked as big as mountains. It went on for hours and hours. At long last I did spot a sign of life. I could make out a small track, it was just visible and as we followed it I watched it become a bigger track. Then it became a small road that led to a farm with buildings clustered around a small patch of green. I wondered it if might be an oasis. Ultimately civilisation did arrive, farms became more frequent, then came the villages and small towns. We were travelling across India, the last country to cross before Nepal. It was only then that I started to think about repairing the car.
I hoped that Walter and Fritz would get to Kathmandu with enough time for me to fix the vehicle before the next leg of the rally started. The breakdown would have meant that they’d already picked up some heavy time penalties. Before the clash with the boulder they were one of the leading cars in the rally. My plan was to get them going again with all the repairs done and service the little Bugatti. This would allow the crew to have a rest and give them a new lease of life so they could catch up as much lost time as possible on the next leg.
As my mind drifted I began to realise that India is a very large country to cross. I was thinking it has to end soon but it went on for hours. More roads, houses, the odd city. In the distance I could make out power stations, railway lines, rivers with barges, it was surprising what I see at a height of 30,000 feet. Eventually the pilot told us that we were approaching our destination and I started to scour the horizon for a glimpse of the Himalayas. But it wasn’t to be, when the plane was high enough I was on the wrong side of it see the mountains and when it turned to make its landing it was too low.
My first sight of Nepal was valleys filled with tumbling waterfalls and hills covered in trees. All of the hills were very steep and some of them pushed right through the clouds. Occasionally I could make out clearings on the slopes and a scattering of terraced fields. Each group of fields had a small building or two, they were probably farms, I couldn’t help thinking that the workers must be really fit and tough because the slopes on those hills were nearly vertical.
We were flying in a valley, bumping along the turbulent air as we passed through the clouds. Those first hills I saw must have been at least 5,000 feet because Kathmandu is 4,000 feet above sea level. We veered into a much wider valley and the first building I saw was a tall chimney, then I noticed another and I soon realised there were dozens of them. I found out later that each one is a brick kiln that has their own pile of red bricks beside them in the drying sheds. The whole valley is a rich source of suitable brick clay.
The airport runway must be the shortest ever, as soon as the plane touched down full reverse thrust came on hard. The brakes were fully applied too and I heard the tyres screech over the roar of the Rolls Royce jet engines. Luggage flew everywhere, peoples’ belongings slid along under the seats, the overhead bins popped open and it started to rain hand luggage. As the reverse thrust came off we started to turn left with the brakes still on hard. As the plane swung round at right angles I could see the end of the runway sloping steeply away dropping 50 feet or more. The plane started to tip as the wing dipped even lower to the ground but it finally straightened up. As it did so I saw crowds of people waving from the spectators’ balcony on the airport buildings. I’m sure they were waiting for the plane to go right off the runway. If it hasn’t already done so I’m sure it will do soon, it’s an accident waiting to happen.
When the plane came to a stop I could see the airport service vehicles approaching, but there seemed to be something not quite normal. The baggage trolleys instead of being pulled by a small tractor had two men struggling to pull three of them. Their struggling turned into a squabble, as one slipped over and his partner still pulling like mad ran him over and he got stuck under the trolley. After a lot of arm waiving they both carried on with no harm done. The truck that supplies the catering arrived but that was also not what you usually see. The first thing I noticed was the smoke billowing from the exhaust, thick and black. It also poured from under the cab, out of the doors, and through where the windscreen should have been. When the truck stopped alongside the plane the doors flew open and at least eight men came rolling out. Before long we were surround by dozens of men, not one of them had any uniform they looked like they’d just come off the streets. I thought there must be someone important on board to generate all this staff. I was wrong, they all had a job, even if it took three men to one suitcase, it kept them all busy doing something.
As I stepped on to the stairs to exit the plane I felt the warm, humid heat of the tropics. It had just been raining and the air smelt like it does after a rain storm on a summer’s day. I walked the short distance to the terminal buildings following all the other passengers into the door marked arrivals. There was a large sign marked nationals and half the passengers disappeared, the rest of us stopped because there were no other signs to direct us. There was a long desk across the other side of the hall with around six people behind it. They didn’t seem to be interested in anybody but each other and they were arguing amongst themselves. I decided to go there because it was the only place left to try. I was spot on, it was the desk for arrivals with no visas. We had filled in forms given to us on the plane so I assumed this was going to be a fairly simple process. I was wrong, the head guy on the end of the desk waved me over and took my form. He started crossing bits out violently with a thick felt tip pen. Every time he ran his pen across the form he moaned. When he got to the end he asked me for a picture to stick on it. I told him I didn’t have one but there was one on my passport. He said he wanted one for the visa form which now looked like a three-year old’s nursery school painting. He continued to strike at it with his felt tip. I protested but he insisted that I came up with a picture. We were getting nowhere, I could see there were no photo machines in the airport and I couldn’t remove my passport picture so I asked him what I could do. He said if I gave him an extra fifty dollars in addition to fifteen dollars visa fee, he would find me a picture to put on the form. This was my first encounter with official corruption and the queue behind me was getting longer. I conceded, gave him the money and moved on to the next position along the desk. I watched as he placed the 15 dollars in one drawer and the 50 dollars in another. I began to wonder what was going to happen next but fortunately all went smoothly along the next six points. Each official stamped or wrote over a stamp. Everything could have been done by one person but it took six. I was to find out that this was the Nepalese way. If there is a job going then it has to be shared by as many people as possible. As I left the end of the desk, I overheard somebody at the other end arguing about a picture. I laughed to myself and moved onto the baggage hall which was in the same hall as arrivals and only separated by the long desk.
The baggage came along very quickly and to my relief I saw my spare parts parcel. After collecting the parts I waited for my suitcase. The carousel must have jammed up at least a dozen times and I waited at least half an hour before my case came around. I was told by a grinning local that if you wanted your bags quickly you simply went behind the conveyer and helped yourself just like he had done. It was too late for me now but I did take a look and I saw all the locals picking up their bags while the operators repaired the carousel. Dozens of passengers were kept waiting for ages not knowing that their bags could be collected from a pile just the other side of the wall.
I wrestled a luggage trolley from a tangled mess of twisted and wheel-less lumps of bent iron piled up in one corner. I loaded my parcel and suitcase and headed off towards the green channel. Half way down the green channel I noticed it was also the red channel. There was no dividing fence between the two signs and there were no customs officers present. It was just a corridor with no doors leading to the main exit. The signs were there only to look good. Later I found out that gold smuggling is a problem in Kathmandu, so rather than have the regular customs officers they have plain clothes men wandering amongst the passengers. When they catch a smuggler, they take his gold and send him home on the next plane. The gold gets dispersed amongst the airport staff who apparently only work there for a maximum of three years. After your three years someone else takes your place to give them a chance of becoming rich.
I walked out of the building with some relief only to be met by, what can only be described as, a mob of hundreds of people all waving and shouting. I looked behind me to see if some sort of celebrity had walked out with me but I was on my own. Everyone was shouting at me. I was glad to see a policeman standing between the mob and me. The policeman stepped towards me and the mob followed close behind him. When he turned around they scurried back, just like the kid’s game of ‘what’s the time mister wolf?’ It was at this point that my luggage trolley gave up, a wheel jammed solidly and my stuff fell off in front of all these people. As I bent down to pick up my suitcase this guy came up and asked if he could help. I told him that the staff of the hotel I was staying in had meant to arrange for somebody to pick me up. He asked me the name of the hotel and I told him it was the Yak and Yeti. With that he pointed to a tiny sign on a stick amongst twenty others all being waved furiously. I beckoned the sign over complete with its pair of hands because that was all I could see amidst all the crowds of people. Suddenly a terrible thought came over me, will all the signs come at once and will I get squashed in the stampede? From behind me came a hand and it grabbed my suitcase, then another grabbed the parts parcel. My suitcase soon disappeared into the crowd but the parts didn’t go anywhere given that it weighed over 200lbs. The carrying strap I’d made jerked tight and a small brown person hit the tarmac. His legs were still running even though he was flat on his face. I realised I had nothing to lose, my suitcase was gone for good but I must hang onto the parts at all costs. I grabbed at the strap and hauled the still wriggling young boy back towards me. He turned to face me and screamed “Yak and Yeti” and we started a tug of war. Of course, he had no chance of winning and just as I was about to grab him by the throat this guy in a suit came over and apologised to me. He was from my hotel and began swiping the kid about the head. Apparently the hotel staff don’t like mixing in the crowd, so they arrange for these ‘helpers’ to do the sign waving and bag carrying for them. They don’t pay the ‘helpers’ it’s left for the passengers to give them any tips. The rule of thumb is that the best hotels have the biggest tippers, so the competition is high to be chosen by them. Over enthusiasm rules and the job must be done at all costs.
I got to the hotel mini-bus which had to wait in the car park for another passenger to arrive before it was able to leave. I’d paid off the porters and I looked around the car park. All the cars were at least twenty years old and mainly Japanese models - Toyotas, Datsuns, Nissans and all of them were small, four-door saloons. There was the odd younger car but not many. We left the car park and get on to the main road. The vehicles we followed were definitely different. There were three-wheeled vans with small diesel engines of perhaps two cylinders, they had canvas rear bodies and inside these were about eight passengers. You might think this is a reasonable description of a lightweight bus until I tell you that the whole thing is no longer than a Mini. The wheels are smaller than the wheels on a bricklayers’ wheel barrow. They all looked to be a million years old and belched out black smoke. It was so bad that when you follow one you have difficulty in seeing where you are going. We proceeded into heavier traffic and the first thing I noticed was the unusual amount of use of the horn. Every time someone came upon another vehicle, be it car, bike, motor bike or bus they sounded their horn. The traffic became thicker as we progressed into the city, it got so bad we were hardly moving. It still didn’t stop the continuous hooting every car and bike just endlessly beeping.
The city roads seemed to be continuously full and with all the fussy, smoky, dusty traffic, it was a relief to pull into the hotel courtyard. A doorman escorted me into reception, insisting that my luggage would be taken care of. I felt that something special was happening at the hotel, the atmosphere was tingling. All of a sudden, a dusty character arrived at the hotel lobby, he was one of the early rally crews to arrive in Kathmandu. He should have gone to the rally conference centre and left his car there but his crew, along with several others, decided to come straight to the hotel. He was greeted by someone waiting for him with great enthusiasm. For someone to cross China in the way he had he deserved every enthusiastic greeting available to him.
The hotel staff where not quite sure what to do with me. There was a special desk for rally crews to sign-in and they thought I was part of a crew. I told them I was there to repair and deliver parts for a broken car. This totally confused the hotel staff but eventually I managed to make them understand and my luggage including the spare parts were escorted to my room. I passed the rally check-in on the way to my room and enquired as to the whereabouts of car number three. The answer was a little vague, they’d heard it had broken down on the other side of the border but had no idea of its location.
So, there I was lying on my hotel bed and relieved that I’d arrived. I had all my luggage, tools and spare parts but now I didn’t know if I had a car to fix or not. I started to work out a plan of action to get to the border and recover the car from China. I would need a truck, a translator and possibly a visa to enter China. All this and more would have to be arranged if indeed the car was still stuck in China. I decided to tackle those problems tomorrow (Sunday) if Walter didn’t turn up tonight.
The hotel was grand, and I couldn’t be more satisfied. My room was air-conditioned and as advertised ‘deluxe’. After showering, I phoned home to Pat to let her know that I’d arrived safely. I was keen to get downstairs to eat something other than aeroplane food. I also wanted to find out if anybody had heard from Walter and Fritz. I decided the bar would be the best place to get information. After all, if I had just travelled across China, only stopping in poor hotels at best, my first stop would be the bar of a civilised hotel. Well I found them all right, there must have been four or five crews all talking amongst themselves or to visitors. I heard one group speaking English so I asked after Walter’s car. They said that it had a broken chassis and the crew were waiting for a truck to bring them to Nepal. Waiting for a truck wasn’t news to me because the American had told me the same thing three days ago. The report about the broken chassis was news and something I wasn’t really prepared for. The crew explained that they were some way ahead of the rest of the cars and their information was a little old. They suggested that I waited for a later car which might have more up-to-date news.
Several cars later and still no more recent news, I started to talk to people about a rescue mission into China. I was just about to start taking the rescue plan seriously when another crew arrived. I questioned them like all the others and this time the news was better. This crew had actually seen the car in China being loaded on to a truck. However, they had also encountered landslides that they doubted trucks would get through for fear of dropping down the mountainside. They also said that there were trucks waiting at the Nepalese boarder to haul any cars to Kathmandu. This gave me some peace of mind and I gave up on the rescue plan there and then. I remembered what Walter had said to me “I’ll see you in Kathmandu”, all I had to do was be patient and wait.
While I waited, I kept thinking about the broken chassis that almost every crew had mentioned. Were they getting mixed up? Or did the car really have a problem that we weren’t t prepared for?
There was a choice of three restaurants in the hotel, one was a buffet, one had waiter service and one served local vegetarian food. I chose the buffet, it was cheaper and if I found something I liked I could go back for more. I ate very well that night and did go back for more, the food was excellent, well prepared and presented. Full up I strolled into the bar and caught up with some new arrivals. Several crews had now confirmed that the little Bugatti was on its way and the best estimated time to arrive was about midnight. I found a very comfortable chair in the hotel foyer where I could keep an eye on the entrance road that led into the hotel car park. With a glass of beer regularly refreshed by some very attentive staff I sat and waited.
It was about nine o’clock and dark when this rather battered old truck pulled up halfway along the entrance road. I thought it can’t be them because the truck didn’t look big enough. Just then a tall figure walked from behind the truck body. I thought to myself that’s no local because all the natives are only about four feet tall. Then I saw a reflection of light from a pair of glasses. I was off my seat in a flash and made for the door because I’d recognised it was Fritz.
He staggered towards me stretching and shaking his legs, then he saw who it was walking towards him. He shouted as loud as he could “our angel” as he grabbed hold of me with both arms, almost breaking my ribs in a vice-like bear hug. A cloud of dust engulfed us both and after a bit more hugging and back patting I looked around for Walter. I watched him climb down from the truck cab. As he walked towards me his familiar grin broke the dust on his face. I don’t think he had smiled for days and I couldn’t think of any reason why he would want to. Their situation was desperate, but they had at least made it to some sort of civilisation.
Walter’s greeting, although just as sincere as that of Fritz, was more sedate. A double handshake vigorously applied and equally dusty. With the welcomes over we started to talk about the problems with the car. Walter was talking about retiring from the rally because he thought the damage was too bad. He described the crack in the chassis and then wondered why I looked a little surprised. I told him that we had made parts to repair the rear cross member but chassis repairs had not been on my agenda.
I decided that whatever problems we had with the car I could fix them. I couldn’t go on a breakdown job like this one without being confident in my own abilities. Walter and Fritz however are not mechanics and after some hours in a beaten-up old truck with a busted car they seemed a little dejected. I told them that actually their problems were really quite simple, it would take some hard work but the job could be done and they would be able to continue the rally on time. All that hot air didn’t do the trick, they said I needed to see the broken chassis before I could say how long it would take to repair.
The first job we had to do was to get the car out of the truck. The truck driver and his mate needed to get home so we moved the truck under some street lights to help us see and come up with a plan to get the car out. Everything we touched on the truck was covered with a thick layer of fine grey dust. It was everywhere, the Nepalese driver eventually got the tailboard undone, it was lashed on with about a mile of old rope. The tailboard dropped down with a crash as yet another huge cloud of dust billowed from the back of the truck’s canvas cover. They had loaded the car into the truck using a gravel bank and some short planks of wood. Now the truck deck was four feet off the ground and the angle for the planks of thin wood be far too steep.
We had already attracted quite a crowd, something that was going to be a regular occurrence. Every time something unusual happens dozens of people arrive to watch and help. Amongst the crowd were the hotel security guards and with the instructions from the hotel deputy manager, they took off to look for some suitable ramps. I clambered up into the truck to see if I could see the damage but it was far too dark. The car was covered with so much dust that it had lost its black colour and now looked totally grey. The guards soon came back with a huge steel channel about twenty feet long, perfect for a ramp. We placed it on the back of the truck and the guards just stood there waiting for something else to happen. Without being too pushy I asked them when they were going to fetch the second ramp. They started to answer me back at the same time with lots of arm waiving and broken English. You have to take charge of these people if you want something done. If you don’t they stand there and argue forever, so I shouted ‘stop’. They stopped and listened, “where is the other ramp?” I asked again. The tallest of the guards answered and said that there wasn’t another one. I then asked if they could find something else that might make a ramp, I explained that anything strong and long will do. At the same time that I was having my chat with the natives, so was Walter and Fritz but with a different group. Both groups seemed to take off in entirely different directions which I thought was a good omen and would improve our chances of getting a ramp of some kind. After about ten minutes a loud grunting and groaning gang of men came shuffling towards us. It was both groups surrounding what looked like a large section of railing fence. It turned out to be a gate made of large steel bars and it was very heavy. There must have been fifteen men struggling with it, the trouble was that it was about eight feet square and far too short. We asked them to place it at the back of the truck to see how short it was. Fritz suggested that if we used all the timber in the truck we might be able to increase its length a little. By this time Walter was getting somewhat frustrated and he decided that the hotel bar was going to be a much better place to be in right now. He gave us a look that said you get the bloody thing out I’m going for a drink, at least that’s what it looked like to me. With that he turned and left us to it. Fritz and I looked a bit uncertain about the way these ramps looked. The gate was still too short even with all the planks on it but we decided to give it a try anyway. I climbed up into the truck again and started the engine. A huge cloud of stinking smoke drifted around me and I thought the car was on fire. I stopped the engine and took a look around, I couldn’t see any flames and the smell was not so strong now. I restarted the engine but the smell came back again. I soon realised that it was the exhaust fumes trapped inside the truck that made the smell so intense. However, it wasn’t a smell that was familiar. Then it dawned on me, it must be the poor quality of fuel that we had been warned about. In this case it smelt like diesel and paraffin probably mixed with petrol. Petrol is very expensive in China and all the other fuels are cheaper so they make the petrol go further by adding anything cheap that burns. All I will say is that it stinks really badly. I started to drive the car off the end of the truck. I couldn’t see much so I relied on Fritz to wave me on. There were also another fifty wavers because everybody now is a helper. As the car moves down the ramp the gate slipped from the truck. I felt it slip and I quickly selected reverse gear to get the car back inside. The gate crashed to the floor and I climbed down from the truck and was pleased to get away from the fumes. My eyes were streaming and my throat was stinging. We decided to tie the gate to the truck so that it wouldn’t slip. I gave it another go but the gate fell away again. This time the car crashed on to the truck floor, resting on its sump guard with its front wheels hanging in the air. Back in the UK I had made the sump guard to withstand a small nuclear explosion, I knew the car was undamaged. The problem now was how to get the car back into the truck. The guards came to the rescue, they crowded around the front of the car and just picked it up and pushed it back in. It was as easy as that. When I checked the rope that was supposed to be holding the gate to the truck I found one end just wound around a hook and not tied at all. Another lesson learnt, never rely on the natives to do anything important. They might be willing but they just don’t take things seriously. With the rope tied up tight we try again. Everything holds up this time but the gate ramp is too short. The car bottomed out on the gearbox guard and wouldn’t move any further down the ramp. Fritz then showed his colours and with a bellow he ordered everybody to stop trying and to leave it until tomorrow. In reality, he didn’t quite say that but it would be wrong of me to put into print his exact words. Everybody, including me, stood to attention. There was silence for the first time in two hours. He ordered the helpers to take the ramps down. We would try again tomorrow. The helpers did as they were asked without any arguing or arm waving, and it was all done in a flash. We took the keys from the truck cab so that the driver and his mate would have to stay the night. We were warned that it would be quite possible for them not to be there in the morning if we didn’t take precautions. So, our first attempt to unload the car was a failure and we would have to get it off some other way tomorrow.
After cleaning up again, I found the Walter and Fritz in the bar chatting to the other drivers and crews. They were all reflecting on their day’s experiences. Some seemed to find it quite tough and others made it sound like they had been on a shopping trip. One lady I spoke to vowed she would never enter China again. She found the country and its people unpleasant and was glad to be out. Some other crews had enjoyed their journey so far, and would willingly cross China again albeit not right at this moment. Walter and Fritz were happy to eat bar food and chat rather than go to the restaurant. Several crews decided to visit a local bar called Tom and Jerry’s, so not to miss out I went along with them. The bar was poor, dirty and smelly, after a few drinks and some more chatting, tiredness started to creep up. Walter, Fritz and a couple of the others felt the same so we found a cab and went back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
Before retiring I had arranged to meet Walter for breakfast at eight, that was when the restaurant would open for the rally competitors. After eating we went in search of the truck and its driver, they were where we left them the night before. They seemed glad to see us and we told them that we were going to look for a place to unload the car. We explained we would be back in about fifteen minutes. We decided to walk around the block and see if we could find a garage or some place that had a ramp. After a while we came upon a house with a very steep driveway down to a garage. I suggested to Walter that we could drive the truck down to the level bottom and this would lessen the angle of our ramps. Walter agreed and walked around the house to try and get somebody to come to the front door. Eventually after constantly ringing the doorbell somebody answered. It seemed that we got this fellow out of bed because he didn’t have many clothes on. With Walter’s excellent English he managed to get permission to try and unload the car.
I had already walked back up the drive to double-check the plan. It all looked good but as I turned around I saw something that I was not expecting to see. I looked up the road and a large elephant was walking towards me. When I say large I mean large. It was the largest elephant I have ever seen. It had a driver and two passengers. The couple taking a ride were tourists going off for a trip to the hills and the elephant seemed to be in a hurry to get there. The road it was walking along was a wide city road, but Jumbo took up one whole side as it zig-zagged along, swishing its tail and trunk from side-to-side. Its tail was under full control even though Jumbo couldn’t actually see it. Every time a motorbike tried to pass, its tail swung out aimed directly at the rider’s head. The riders either had to duck, brake or drive around. Diving around was difficult because oncoming traffic was a problem. One guy had three attempts to get his timing right and each time the tail stopped him. I watched him make his fourth attempt and this time he seemed to have got it. He watched the tail swing from left to right, by the way this tail was about five feet long and a good three inches thick. Furthermore, it had what can only be described as a yard broom at the end of it. You can only imagine what kind of damage it could inflict. Well this poor motorcyclist was about to find out. As the tail moved away to clear the rider’s path the accelerator was opened, but this time the tail only made half a swing. It soon caught up with the bike and with a swing of the hips the tail gained a little extra length and speed. It hit the rider squarely on the back of his helmet. The force knocked his helmet forward covering his eyes which in turn caused him to wobble as he struggled to regain control and lift up his helmet. I immediately saw the next obstacle, the trunk, what further trouble was Jumbo going to cause? The elephant must have had some experience of wayward traffic because he swung his trunk round to protect his flank. The bike passed on by and Jumbo swung his trunk high with a triumphant wave. All this action was missed by its passengers and driver because when they looked down all they could see was more elephant. I would have liked to have followed Jumbo around the city all day, but we still had a car to unload.
A bit further down the road a building site provided a supply of timber planks which would make good ramps. We made our way back to the hotel finding a pathway through the back streets to the hotel garden entrance. It was in these back streets that I saw my first sight of the poverty and filth in Kathmandu. I thought the sight of a woman cooking a meal on an open fire was something people did, an alfresco breakfast seemed like a good idea in that climate. It wasn’t until I noticed the child behind her, under a shelter made from sticks and paper, that I realised this was their home and their kitchen. The source of food, toilet, and everything else was the street. I was to see more of this later but my first sighting was difficult to handle.
We arrived back at the hotel car park only to find that the driver and his mate had gone off somewhere to eat. While we waited for them to return I started to think about the elephant and his game with the motor cycles. I began to chuckle out loud and Walter turned to me and looked worried. I’m not sure if it was me he was worried about or the fact that the truck driver and his mate were absent. A few minutes later the driver and his mate returned and we told them about our driveway and our supply of ramps. Neither of them had a great command of the English language but they both seemed quite concerned about the location of the house. We all climbed into the truck and drove out of the hotel grounds. When we got to the main road we were stopped by a policeman and the truck driver became very agitated. Walter realised there was some kind of problem and climbed out to talk to the policeman. It soon became apparent that trucks can’t drive on certain streets in the city and in particular those in close proximity to the Kings’ palace. Unfortunately, all of the roads leading to our unloading house were ‘palace’ roads as we then called them. There had to be another route to the house but because we had only walked we couldn’t be certain. The policeman made it quite clear that we would have to find another route and by this time the traffic was starting to build up. Now finding your way to a location that you’re not quite sure where it is, with a driver who can hardly speak your language, in difficult traffic conditions, was quite a drama. At times three passengers using a language not familiar to the driver, were telling him which way to go and each one had a different idea as to how to get there. Somehow we eventually found our street and pulled up outside the house. We explained to the driver how we wanted him to position the truck. From then on things soon got out of hand. Walter and I basically lost control. The all too familiar crowd was already present because the house owner had informed his whole family that there was a Peking to Paris rally car coming to his house to unload. In addition to the family it seemed the entire population of Kathmandu was there too. The truck was finally put in place at the bottom of the driveway and we pulled the large steel ramp from the truck. We tried to explain to the crowd that we needed help to get the timber from up the street but we couldn’t make anybody understand so went ourselves. We collected several strong boards and struggled back to the truck, through the crowd and down the driveway. What should have been a calm and steady job seemed to take on an air of desperation. It must have been the presence of all the people, the constant arm waving and the shouting going. It was very off-putting and when you asked for help the people just stood back. They were very friendly and enjoyed giving us their advice but when it actually came to giving us help, well that was a different matter.
Eventually the car did come out of the truck amidst a cloud of dust and smoke. Walter decided that he would head straight back to the hotel in the car and asked me to tidy up. He thanked the house owner and left for the safety of the hotel. All of a sudden I was alone with about fifty natives, with a truck down a hole, a pile of timber and a driver who had not been paid. The driver started waving his hands and babbling on about money. I told him he would get paid once we returned to the hotel but we had to clear up here first. At that point I did get plenty of help and we returned the timber to where it came from in no time. I walked up the drive to stop the traffic to help the truck reverse out into the street. Suddenly two policemen appeared and the locals seemed to be very frightened of the police force. The crowd fell silent and the people moved away to let the policemen pass. The policemen came up to me and asked what was going on. I gave then the whole story but without the presence of the car they didn’t seem to believe me. They certainly weren’t too happy about letting the truck go out onto the street because it was another ‘palace’ road. Despite their fear of the police force the crowd started to get even bigger and people started to block the street. One of the policeman noticed the hazard and growled an order. At least ten people leapt back on the path in an instant. The whole situation was becoming very tense and I just wasn’t able to explain to the policemen what I was trying to do. It was then that a bystander whispered into my ear the word dollars. I looked at him and then looked at the policeman. I remembered my experience with the airport officer and reached for my wallet. It was all very open and I gave the policeman twenty US dollars. That was all that was needed, both policemen sprang into action, the crowd dispersed, the traffic stopped, the truck was waved out and we were on our way with a salute from the police and cheers from the remaining crowd. The truck driver and his mate started to laugh out loud and their laughter seemed to be directed at me. I never did understand why but they were happy and so was I, now that we were out of that muddle.
We got back to the hotel to find Fritz and Walter looking at the car and its contents. I was desperate to see the true extent of the damage to the car. I knew the impact had happened at the rear of the car and on the nearside. I could see that the nearside rear wheel wasn’t central in its wheel arch but I couldn’t see any chassis damage. Walter waved me over to the other side of the car and then it became quite clear. There was a large crack in an area of chassis which is not totally covered by the body. The chassis was almost broken through, and when you pushed down on the back of the car, the crack opened up. I was amazed that the car had travelled the distance it had done in such a condition. Apart from being covered in dust and looking a little battered the rest of the car looked in fairly good order. An attempt to repair the chassis had been made by a Chinese welder somewhere in Tibet. His attempts however had only made matters worse. There was a piece of metal tacked to the inside of the chassis and lots of messy welding on the outside. All of this would all have to be cleaned off before we could repair the chassis. I was still puzzled as to why the chassis had broken where it had done, so I crawled under the back of the car to get a closer look. I could see the paint cracks on the axle tube that Walter had described over the phone. It certainly looked a little bent and I knew that the axle couldn’t bend backwards without the spring failing to keep the axle in place. I then inspected the nearside spring. At first glance, everything looked sound but on closer inspection I soon discovered the root cause of the problem. When the wheel had hit the boulder, it had broken the spring as I had suspected but in a most unusual way. The spring is made up of lots of layers of steel strips, each one being a little longer than the next one. The last one has an eye formed on one end and is attached to the axle. The other ends of all the strips are fixed to the chassis. It is the main leaf that has the eye on its end and this is the most important leaf. If the eye breaks off, the axle is not fixed to the car any longer and this causes all sorts of problems. By sheer luck the eye had only broken partially which had allowed the axle to move backwards a little but still supported the car. This in itself was a miracle because usually what happens when the spring snaps is that it breaks the eye clean off. Then there is nothing to hold the axle on. The axle swings backwards and in doing so applies the brakes on that side of the car. In most cases the brake cables snap and the axle is then free to swing under the car. This in turn normally snaps the prop shaft and depending on what speed the car is travelling and the condition of the road surface determines the extent of the total amount of damage. At best it ends up as a major repair, at worst the car ends up as a total wreck. If the axle had totally broken loose in Walter and Fritz’s case, then the rally would certainly have been over for them and the little Bugatti.
Thankfully, occasionally miracles do happen. The bush in the end of the spring was jammed in the broken eye preventing the axle from falling out. It had allowed the axle to move enough to bend but it couldn’t go any further. This in turn had caused the chassis to flex on the other side of the car and this is what had caused the fracture. A spare spring was part of the spares kit being carried in the little Bugatti. If only Walter had spotted the broken spring earlier he would have been able to replace it and the chassis would have held together. Easy for me to say that now, in reality owing to the nature of the break it was difficult to see. I struggled to see it in the luxurious surroundings of a hotel car park. It would have been almost impossible for someone somewhere on an unmade road, on a mountain at high altitude. In hindsight Walter’s plan to try and drive slowly to Kathmandu was a good decision.
The next task was to get the car repaired and back on the road. A fellow competitor on the rally also had a few repairs to make to his car and had a connection with Mercedes back home. He had made a phone call some days earlier to see if there were any Mercedes dealers in Kathmandu. He had been told that Mercedes had recently appointed a dealership with workshop facilities and there would be enough space to repair up to five cars at a time. We arranged to meet the manager of the dealership in a nearby hotel called the Sherpa at ten o’clock. We waited until ten past ten but there was no sign of the manager. The receptionist at the hotel phoned his home number and relayed our urgent requests. He said he would be there soon. Ten minutes later he eventually he turned up. At the same time, other rally crews turned up and all of them wanted to share the workshop space. Everybody crammed into his small office to get instructions as to how to find the workshop. Another ten minutes passed by and we still had no address. The guy spoke fairly good English but changed the subject every time we mentioned workshop space. Things began to get a little heated and it soon became clear that there was no workshop, no tools and no equipment. We had wasted the whole morning for nothing.
Walter and I left that office feeling a little deflated, on the way out we spoke to the hotel Sherpa’s receptionist because he had been very helpful earlier. It transpired that he knew of a garage where large cars can be repaired. He said it had good facilities but it was the other side of the city. We needed to see it for ourselves and establish exactly what equipment was available. Rather than drive there we decided take a cab. The receptionist booked a cab and marked the location on a map for the driver to follow. The driver seemed to know exactly where to go and we drove deep into the city. This was our first experience of seeing the sights of this odd place. Just like in the UK cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, well at least they should do. Kathmandu has roundabouts, one-way streets, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights and all the normal things you would expect. However, somehow the Nepalese have either forgotten or changed the rules of driving. Everything is confusion. If the right-hand side of the road looks free, then they go down it. Similarly with roundabouts, they went around them clockwise and anticlockwise, they just took the shortest route. Traffic lights meant very little, most of the bulbs were blown no pair ever worked in order. As for the people on foot, well they just took their chances. The accepted way was to simply walk straight out into the traffic. Pedestrians didn’t make eye contact with drivers and literally side-stepped cars and bikes with abandon. Amazingly it did seem to work, the traffic kept moving, albeit slowly at times, but it did keep moving. As a passenger in a taxi all I could do was laugh and hang on. Shortly we entered a dirtier part of the city and the housing was poor. Buildings had collapsed but they still had families living inside them. The shops were less well stocked. I saw a man skinning a goat, he gutted the animal on the side of the road because there was no cleaner place. There was another man working close by, he was cutting up meat and throwing it into a large pot of steaming liquid. I noticed a poor looking dog feeding on the goats’ entrails which lay across the road. I spotted a new breed of vehicle which I hadn’t seen before. It was for agricultural purpose and its original purpose would have been a rotovator. It was the sort of thing that you might see on small vegetable farms anywhere in the world. Something like a two-wheeled tractor with long handles that a worker steers as he walks behind it. In Kathmandu, the rotating digging blades were removed and a draw bar installed. This was attached to a four-wheeled trailer which the driver sits on to steer from. The engine is a small diesel unit which pumped out the same black smoke as everything else, there were now dozens of these little tractors some loaded high with vegetable of all kinds. They were all heading to and coming from the local distribution centre, or at least they transferred the goods onto bicycles or ported by Sherpas.
We drove past several shops that were selling car parts and we thought perhaps we might be getting close to the car repair centre of Kathmandu. We made a turn off the main road as we got closer to the mark on our map. We took another turn and the road got smaller. This seemed to be the case wherever you went. You could drive down a busy broad road, turn off, turn again and then you would find yourself in a tiny dirt road full of rubbish and junk. This road ended in a place for depositing old trucks, with no sign of a garage of any kind. We got out of the cab and asked some men standing nearby if they knew where the garage was. They started the standard arm waving procedure and Walter looked at me for some kind of guidance. I was as helpless as he was and time was running out fast and we still had no garage. We travelled back to our hotel, in the hope that we might find something on the way back or someone that might be able to help. The journey back was just the same as it was coming - busy, smoky, dusty, no garages and not even a sign. I began to wonder what all these people do to fix all their cars.
Back at the hotel we told Fritz our bad news. I stayed outside in the car park with the car while Fritz and Walter went into the lobby to ask for help. They came come out several minutes later with smiles on their faces. The girl on reception had phoned a Toyota dealer that she knew and they told her that they had room for us to repair our car. Apparently, they already had a rally car being repaired there so we knew we had found our workshop.
The next problem was to get the car to the garage at the other side of town, supposedly it was only about four miles away. I was starting not to believe anybody any more. With the crack in the chassis so bad and the poor condition of most of the roads I was certain the car wouldn’t make it. I had to think of a way to solve the problem. Like so many problems the answer is usually simple. I over adjusted the offside rear damper, this effectively locked the damper solid, which then supported the weight of the car instead of the spring holding it up. Walter looked at me in amazement, he didn’t say a word, but I knew what he was thinking - how far could he have gone if he had thought of that? Could he have crossed the high passes over the Himalayas on his own wheels? Could he have made it to Kathmandu without assistance? We will never know the answer to that question but I think Walter had a good idea of what might have happened. I just grinned and got on with things without saying anything.
Fritz and I travelled in a cab and Walter followed in the Bugatti. The suspension held together and we reached the Toyota garage without any drama. We had already lost half a day just to get to this garage. We were greeted at the barrier of the garage yard by the manager, who welcomed us most warmly. We told him that we needed a workshop bay where there were lights so we could work overnight. We needed power to run grinding and welding equipment, and security in case we had to leave the premises at any time. He said yes to every request except the welding equipment. He explained that he usually got their welding done at a place down the road. He suggested that we did the same. We explained that the car would be in pieces and that we wouldn’t possibly be able to drive it, the welder would have to come to us. He said he would arrange it and all seemed well.
Two bays away there was a Morgan +Eight, with its rear suspension pushed through its floor. Its front suspension was all shattered and it had all sorts of other small problems. Its crew had been told in Peking that their car would never make it over the Himalayas. A wooden-framed car with a sports suspension may not have been a good choice for the task, but with determination they had made it, albeit a little battered. I was told that there were more than eight unrepairable cars spread across China, one of which didn’t make it through the first day. So even if our little Bugatti and a sporty Morgan looked a little battered, after a few repairs they would soon be able to continue their journeys.
After a double-check of my first diagnosis I inspected the whole car. Fritz and Walter unloaded the equipment. Apart from the damage I have described earlier the car was in good condition. The brakes would need a little adjustment. The clutch would need its release mechanism cleaned and re- oiled because it had collected plenty of dust which made it a little sticky. I noticed some battle scars on the protection plates that I had fitted. There were four plates altogether, one under the engine, two under the gearboxes, and one wrapped around the rear axle. All of them had a couple of scrapes here and there but they were doing their job well. The best surprise was the lack of oil leaks from the engine, I had taken a great deal of care to make the engine as oil tight as I possibly could. Bugatti’s are notorious for oil leaks, as are many cars of the twenties. This was always going to be a potential problem and we had been warned that oil might be in short supply in some parts of China. Oil consumption of a normal level would not be a problem, but a leaky engine would mean carrying a lot of oil which would take up valuable space. Prior to the rally, every time I tested the car a new oil leak appeared and more work was always needed. You have to stop somewhere because money doesn’t grow on trees. Walter told me that he had only added one litre of oil to the engine during the entire journey across China, so all the hard work and head- scratching had been effective. This achievement was due to the clean air system that I had invented and installed and it was working perfectly.
I soon started working on the rear axle, as the crew started preparing to lift off the body from the chassis. This job sounds more dramatic than it really is. The floors are easily removed, and all the underfloor storage boxes can be lifted out. The bolts holding the body on are fairly accessible although Fritz found removing them difficult and told me so in the best of English swear words. I only needed enough room to weld between the body and the chassis, two inches would be fine. This came as a great relief to Fritz’s because he thought we were going to have to take the whole thing off.
The welder turned up next, the manager had sent a Toyota van down to where he worked and bought him and his equipment to us as they said they would. At last things were happening when people said they would happen. The welder was in his early twenties but his gear was much older. It was an old oil-cooled model that had seen better days, it was the right size and the welder said it worked well. When I asked him for a welding mask he passed me a pair of gas welding goggles. These were wholly inadequate for arc welding and would damage eyes very quickly. He said it was all he had so we asked the manager to send someone out to buy one - Walter would pay.
Fritz is an excellent organiser so I suggested that he might arrange for an extension lead and an angle grinder. We had found a power point not too far away so this he did willingly in preference to laying on a very greasy garage floor. He also organised some cold coke which was delightful and I was beginning to appreciate Fritz more and more by the hour.
By now we had gathered our customary crowd but this time they were all mechanics. They were all trying to help but they were very difficult to avoid. Every time I stepped back I trod on somebody. When I reached for a spanner someone would hand me one, never the right one of course but they were only trying to help. Annoyingly tools started to go missing, they hadn’t taken them they had just moved them. Fortunately, they soon got fed up watching and started doing their own work. I was glad we didn’t let them help us, all they seemed to do was hit things with a big hammer. I soon got the axle fixed and then started removing the rear spring. None of these repairs were particularly difficult but the conditions, being hot, and dirty, didn’t make things easy. The toilet facilities were disgusting to say the least and I avoided them like the plague. You might have worked out that this was a Sunday and wondering why all these people were at work. At the time, the only national day off in Nepal was a Saturday. On the following Tuesday, a vote was about to take place by the local council to possibly pass a two-day weekend break. If we had come a week later this garage might not have been open.I soon had the rear spring off and to replace the damaged main leaf I needed an electric drill to drill out the long rivet that holds the leaves together. One of my many assistants dashed off to find a hand drill and he soon returned clutching a Japanese electric drill and a box of drill bits. I opened the box of bits and realised that they didn’t drill many holes in Kathmandu. The drill bits in this box had been sharpened to drill in the wrong direction. I had taken several tools from my own tool kit when I left home and I also had some from my son’s. Fortunately, I had taken a nine millimetre drill from Stephen’s toolbox which cut through the rivet as if it was butter. If it had been from my kit it would have taken all day to drill it out. The extension lead that our audience provided caused quite a sensation. It was two strands of wire with bare ends stuffed into the socket. At the other end the wires were twisted around each other. There was no tape and nothing to protect you from 240 volts all too easy to step on. I held up the ends of the wire to show Fritz and he quickly took some photographs. The lead for the welder turned out to be the same but we soon found some tape and made the ends reasonably safe.
The spring was almost fitted and half the repairs were almost complete. I asked our welder to find me some strips of metal to reinforce the damaged chassis. He provided a tape measure and proceeded to measure the length and width of material needed. He had a poor command of English but he seemed to know what I wanted. He had obviously made plenty of repairs of this nature. He disappeared to get the metal and by the time he returned the car was back on its wheels. The welder had exceeded my request ten times over, not only had he got the perfect dimensions for the strip of metal, he had formed it into almost the exact shape of the damaged rear chassis. He had done this back at his own workshop without sight of the car. This man had saved me hours of work and the repairs were going to be strong and look good thanks to him. With the new welding mask, taped-up extension leads, jacked-up body and the nicely made reinforcing plates, things were looking up. I was confident that I would get the major jobs finished that day which would just leave re-fitting the body which we could do the next morning. That would just leave the service to carry out and to give the car a good clean. It doesn’t sound much if you say it quickly. The angle grinder that the garage had supplied had only one abrasive cutting disc. It was their only one the discs don’t last long when you grind with them. I made good use of its short life by grinding away the lumpy bits of the Chinese welding on the outside of the chassis. The nasty bracket stuck on the inside I cut out with a sharp chisel I had brought with me. I made two long clean cuts along the route of the crack with a hacksaw, which would allow me to bend the chassis back in position before welding.
I asked the garage welder for something to heat the chassis with because it would be impossible to straighten if it was cold. He dashed off and came back with the biggest blowlamp I had ever seen. It must have held a half gallon of paraffin. The manager and the garage welder sat down and started the lighting-up procedure. Fifteen minutes later they bought me this monster with roaring flames coming out of it over a foot long. I doubted whether it would be hot enough but after all their efforts I had to try. As soon as I pointed it at the chassis it spat out an extra-long flame of half-burnt paraffin. The fuel tank was still installed in the car and it was located only inches away from the repair sight. I took the safe option and put the blow lamp down, pointing it away from the car as it continued to belch out fire like a flame thrower. I attempted to set the bent chassis straight again but failed. I had found a long pole but it just bent under my efforts. I walked away from the car to find another cold coke when the garage worker came over with an oxy- propane welding set. This little gem had been stashed away in some hiding place for some reason I couldn’t think of. Perhaps oxygen or propane is difficult to get hold of in Nepal. Anyway, I soon had the chassis hot enough to bend it back into shape with the help of my bent pole.
As I began to weld the chassis, the two welders sat as close to me as they could. I’m sure they were waiting for me to mess up. I am sure most of the mechanics thought we were totally mad and couldn’t possibly be able to weld as well as repair cars. I reflected on the problems we had experienced earlier that day trying to find a garage. It dawned upon me why we had so much trouble, the skills of these people are individual, one man can weld, another one repairs brakes, another does the cooling system problems, electrics, bodies, oil changes. All of these separate jobs are not only carried out by different people they are carried out at different locations. That’s why we had so many strange looks when we asked for a garage. Apart from the one we had been lucky to find there were none. In Nepal, you have different people doing their own job on a car. When they have finished their job, it moves on to somebody else for their speciality and this carries on until a car is serviced or repaired. It also explains the help we got from our onlookers. If you ask a guy to help you do something that isn’t in his area of expertise then you get bad help. If you ask someone that does have some knowledge of the subject matter then it seems to work well. Now I understood why the welders were waiting for me to start welding. As far as they were concerned I couldn’t be a mechanic and a welder. They were all set to jump in and take over.
They were to be disappointed, as soon as they saw the welding rod stuck to the car they came in like a shot. I made the first stroke of the welding rod across the chassis and a stream of sparks fell to the floor. I turned to look at them both, they were even closer now and squatting down right by my side. I was determined to put on a good show so I chose a long easy weld along the repair plate. Three minutes later I had stopped welding. I knew I had produced an attractive weld. The two welders were waiting for me to chip of the slag to expose the fresh weld and one of them handed me the chipping hammer. I gave the slag a light touch, and it crumbled off the weld which only happens with a neat flat weld. It was a gleaming almost perfect weld and as I turned again towards my inspectors initially I could see that their mouths were wide open, eyes popping out of their heads and then they started muttering something in their local tongue.
They moved back to give me more space to work. At home, I am only a fair welder but to these guys I was good. From then on the garage welder didn’t leave my side, he wanted to make sure that whatever I did he was going to watch and perhaps learn something. Everything went well with the welding, I hadn’t used an arc welder for some years because they are virtually obsolete at home, but it’s like riding a bike and you never forget. The chassis repairs went well as expected. Walter was pleased because he knew he was going to get back into the rally without any further delays. With the welding done and things tidied up at that end of the car, I started to help sort out the kit with Fritz. The lighting which the garage provided was our usual two strands of cable but this time suspended from the ceiling. With a very dim bulb installed it was six feet higher than the car and ten feet to one side, it was practically useless. I said to Walter that we were way ahead of schedule and would have plenty of time tomorrow to finish off. Walter insisted that he carried on to fit one more body bolt. I wandered off to check on who was going to look after things tonight.
Most of the staff had gone home by now and because the local electric supply is a little erratic, nobody works after dark. Homes are very poorly light and there are few street lamps. I stumbled through the garage yard until I came to a group of mechanics with their overalls already off and ready to go home. They pointed out to me the boy who would be keeping watch on the cars that night. He said that he would stay awake all night and make sure that nobody touched anything. I wasn’t too happy about leaving this young lad looking after things. I told Walter of my fears, he had stopped work by now and was cleaning up. As we made our way to the gate Walter stopped at the gatehouse. There he found someone who knew the night watchman and they went off to find him. Walter returned happy, he had paid the watchman a little to make sure that he did a good job.
We asked the gatehouse man if he could get us a cab. He said he would and told us to follow him down the road because taxis didn’t pass by here very often. We all walked along the side of the road, there was no pathway just uneven dirt. The traffic consisted of mostly those rotovator type trailer things, trucks, and buses heading out of town, the dust and smoke made it difficult to see where you were going and the only lights came from the vehicles. We must have walked half a mile following this man and there was still no sign of any taxis. After the day I’d just had, I didn’t need a long walk home. Eventually we came upon a cab, which had pulled over to let its passengers out. There seemed to be a problem over payment because one of the two female passengers ran off in the direction of some houses. Her friend soon followed when she found herself surrounded by foreigners. The first girl returned very promptly and paid the driver. We climbed in. Our guide jumped in too because he needed a lift into town, he squeezed on the back seat with Walter and me.
After dropping off our guide we soon arrived at the hotel and we arranged to meet in the bar. The plan was to have a quick drink first and then go out for something to eat. I was looking forward to some food because I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. as I had not eaten all day. As soon as I got to my room I phoned Pat and told her all of the day’s news. I spoke briefly about Kathmandu and lots about the car and crew. I’m sure she would have liked more detail about where I was and what it was like but she got the car talk as usual. She was delighted that the repair to the car had been successful and I was happy too. Fortunately, Stephen was at home too and I gave him all the news to relay back to the guys back at work. After exchanging goodbyes, I hang up before realising that I’d hardly spoken to Pat. I decided I would make up for that the next time I called.
Following a wonderful shower I dressed and hurried down to the bar. Shortly afterwards I was joined by Fritz and Walter. We chatted with other crews about their problems and ours, about Kathmandu and its traffic, its filth and its smell. Somebody chirped up and said that Delhi was far worse than Kathmandu here, I thought to myself that was glad not to be going to Delhi. After a few beers we went off to eat. With the appetite that we had worked up the buffet restaurant was the perfect venue. After eating we chatted and planned the next day, it was great to relax and have another drink or two before going off to bed.
I woke up at 3.00am with violent stomach pains. I had heard that several of the crews had suffered with severe diarrhoea during their travels across China. I guessed it was something that everybody gets sooner or later when visiting the far east. Well now it was my turn and I spent the rest of the night sitting on the toilet and taking Imodium. By 7.30am things seemed to be improving, the drugs were working but my stomach felt like it was going to explode. At least the urgency had gone out of the condition. I met Walter at 8.00am for breakfast but as I sat at the table watching other people eat it made me feel quite sick. I explained my condition to Walter and excused myself. Walter was in the medical profession and he was concerned about my condition when we met a little later. He advised me to take care, drink plenty of water and keep taking the Imodium. He said that if I got low on supply he had plenty.
Fritz was going to into the city today to take some photographs. We had carried out the serious jobs and he had made a commitment to take photographs. In any case we didn’t really need him today. He said that he would find some interesting places to visit and if we finished the car early enough he could give us a guided tour of the city. Walter and I called a cab and did the same journey that we did yesterday through the city. Already it seemed like we’d done it a hundred times. We passed by the unusual sights and I tried to take some photographs. It wasn’t easy because of the constant obstructions, passing traffic and people dodging cars. We arrived at the garage to be greeted by a huge crowd. All the staff had invited their families to look at the cars. There were mums, dads, sons, daughters, uncles and aunts, all were there and of course they were very welcome. I had to admit that despite my unsettled stomach things seemed pleasantly relaxed today.
Walter put the body back together and I carried out a very straightforward service. We soon had our work done. At 3.30pm all we had to do was clean the car and drive it back to the hotel. The owner of the garage had asked Walter if he would sign a letter that said he had used the facilities and found them satisfactory. Of course, Walter obliged and asked me to sign it too in the absence of Fritz. When Walter went to pay his bill, he was pleasantly surprised because he was only asked to pay for the use of the welder and the equipment, there were no charges for any other services. The garage owner asked if we could pose for a photograph in front of the garage with a few young ladies, well of course we were very happy to do so.
As we left we waved to the mechanics and other garage staff. I was elected to drive the car to the hotel. I was somewhat reluctant to drive through the city with all its traffic but Walter insisted that I did so rather than him. He reasoned that if there was a problem with the car I would be able to detect it. Driving through Kathmandu’s traffic was as bad as I feared. Fortunately, the car was very different to those driven by the locals and by now it wasn’t the first rally car to drive through the city. Word about the rally cars had gone round and so the locals gave me a wide berth. At one time, I had a motorcycle escort with about fifteen bikes and grinning riders milling around the car. There was a point when I wished I’d had an elephants tail attached to the car.
After filling up with what looked and smelt like petrol we made our way to the hotel to meet up with Fritz for our tourist trip. With my work now over and after taking some of Walter’s special high energy drinks that he’d made for me, I felt good enough to take in a few of Kathmandu’s sights. Fritz also had a German driver of another car with him and a very attractive German girl whose father was on a diplomatic visit in the city. We hired two cabs to take us to a temple about two miles away. We were running out of daylight so we asked the drivers drive as quickly as they could. That was a mistake. To ask two young cab drivers to drive fast in Kathmandu was not a good idea. They actually raced each other through the streets, swerving within inches of other cars and pedestrians. We were lucky to arrive safely but we asked them to wait as we made a quick trip around this unusual place. The next place to visit was a bazaar that had hundreds of small shops with small temples dotted about every so often. The bazaar was within walking distance of our hotel so we made our way back through narrow alleyways which were just as crowded as the busy roads.
Our journey took us past a street market where hundreds of traders were selling just about anything. Provided you could carry it in on a bicycle you could buy it. Unfortunately, we did come across a most disturbing sight. There was a pile of rotting waste on the side of the road that had been swept up by the recent rains. Feeding from this refuse were two cows, several skinny dogs, and much to my disgust a woman. She was sifting through the rubbish and when she found something she though was edible she ate it. I made enquiries later and was told that this woman was one of the untouchables. This is a cast of people that are treated with less regard than a dog. Of all the nasty things that I experienced in Kathmandu this was the worst.
We made it back to the hotel and by this time I was exhausted. My legs were buckling and I needed a long sit down. Fritz decided that what we needed was a relaxing sauna so we took advantage of the hotel’s excellent basement gym and sauna. Although the sauna was certainly good for my aching limbs, my digestive system was still upset and the extra heat didn’t help. I arranged to meet my friends for dinner a little later and left to have a rest in my cool, air-conditioned room.
I met Walter and Fritz for dinner as arranged but shortly afterwards returned to my room. I was still very tired and I would have to be up early in the morning to see them off. They were to be the first crew to leave Kathmandu because they had the oldest car left in the rally.
At 6.00am on Tuesday morning the hotel lobby was full of rally crews. Some had to catch buses to take them to the conference centre where the rally would restart. I didn’t need to go to the conference centre so I wished Walter and Fritz a safe journey from the hotel. By 7.00am I had turned down two offers to act as crew or co-driver for the rest of the rally. Drivers who had lost a crew member due to sickness of some kind, or perhaps other problems, were desperate. I had no visas to travel through all the different countries so it was impossible for me but I must admit I was very tempted. With the last goodbyes all done, I staggered back to my hotel room. I had now drunk what felt like ten gallons of bottled water and I just wanted to settle in my cool room and doze off.
I woke sharply to the sound of the phone ringing. It was the hotel reception telling me to stay in my room because there would be a call coming through from my friends. My mind was racing, the call must be coming from Walter who had left some three hours ago. The phone rings fifteen minutes later and it was the hotel switchboard again telling me to hold on for a connection. I waited for a while but nothing happened, the hotel reception told me that they would call back. The phone rang again, and yes it was Walter calling from a village some fifty miles away. He had some kind of electrical fault, the amp meter was reading too high for too long. The engine was misfiring and losing power. They had made several inspections but had found nothing except the fact that the ignition coil was getting too hot. He had decided not to continue any further because might do some damage to the vehicle’s electrical system. Walter wanted to wait for me to find them and attempt to make the repairs.
I dashed to the reception to organise a cab to take me to the address that I had been given. Everything again was now urgent. It would take me the same journey time as it took Walter and Fritz to get to where they were. At best I wouldn’t be with them until about 2.00pm and that could only happen if I left right now. I was told by the reception staff that the local cabs cannot travel outside the city limits and I would have to hire a private car. I asked them to arrange one as quickly as they could and I explained to them how urgently it was needed. Half an hour later the reception assistant returned in a car, he introduced me to its driver and then he asked him if he knew the place I had to travel to. The driver said that he did and then asked if we would be back tonight. I said that I couldn’t promise that because I had no idea as to how long it would take to make the repairs. The three of us stood there haggling over stupid things until it we got to the real crux of the matter - money. I said I would pay any reasonable price and would see him out of pocket. We agreed on one hundred dollars for the day and extra if we had to stay overnight.
At last we were on the road and it was now noon. The usual traffic jams held us up and the drive for the rally was a long one. We travelled down a river valley that dropped approximately two and a half thousand feet into really hot and humid conditions. I had heard that part of the drive would pass through a section of dense jungle where there had been reports of attacks by bandits. I just hoped that Walter wasn’t not broken down anywhere near there. Once we got out of the city and into the country I had a whole new outlook to Nepal. It really is a wonderful place with tall, very steep hills covered with trees, waterfalls, rapids and wonderful views.
We drive at an alarming pace dodging trucks as we wound down the twisting mountain roads. Trucks were climbing up the hills carrying all sorts of supplies from India. This was the only road in from India and most of Nepal’s imports are by road. You can imagine the variety of goods on board all of those trucks. Every truck was exactly the same, they were all old TATAs which are made in India. Most of them were barely able to make it up the hills and there were many that hadn’t. As we swung around one sharp bends we came across a truck that was spewing out clouds of jet black smoke. It was slowly climbing the hill in first gear and when we came along side there was a loud explosion followed by a clang on the side of the car. At first I thought we were being attacked by bandits but when I glanced back I could see a large pool of oil under the now stationary truck. I could see that the rear axle was typically well overloaded and the differential had exploded under the stress of climbing the slope.
We passed several small settlements where the country people seemed to fit. When these same people move into the city, they and their habits don’t mix. There are no toilets in the country but it isn’t crowded. There are also no toilets in the city either but there it is crowded. I will leave the ensuing problems to your imagination but I will tell you that the smell of Kathmandu is unmistakable and you can’t get away from it. The settlements are usually gathered around a source of work. On a certain river we followed, the work was mostly of gravel extraction. Here there was no heavy equipment gouging great lumps from the earth it was being done by manpower. The water level was low after the monsoon season and there were hundreds of men, women and children all shovelling gravel. The gravel had been naturally graded by the different speeds of the river as it meandered down the valley. On a sharp turn of the river there were large boulders, polished smooth and round. These were being carried by two men who placed them in a barrow. The same two men charged at a ramp fitted to the rear of a truck. The rocks were piled as high as the sides of the truck would allow. The next turn of the river was wide and slow and there the people were digging out the finer stones and small pebbles and so on down to fine white sand. The best bends are crowded with workers, the other not so good areas are where the stones are of the wrong size. At home we would use a stone crushing machine but here people sit on the side of the road with hammers smashing stones to the required size. They make a neat pile of perfectly sized stones ready for collection by a passing truck. Their shelter from the sun was a branch cut from a tree and stuck in the ground alongside their pile of stone piles.
I found Walter and Fritz parked outside a roadside restaurant at least that’s what the address said it was. In fact it was a tin shed selling fried goat and coke. The usual crowd had gathered but this time it was more intense. The children seemed to be amazed rather than interested. Walter had made several attempts to correct the fault and had changed the voltage regulator, ignition coil and carried out various other tests but still had the problem. Now I’m not a very good auto electrician but given time and the right test equipment I can sort out most problems. I have to admit that this one had me beat. No matter what I tried it continued to overcharge. Thanks to the comprehensive spare parts stock I was able swap components and check wiring but I couldn’t solve the problem. In the end, I suggested to Walter that Fritz that they would have to disconnect the voltage regulator by reaching under the dash and re-connect it every two hours for about ten minutes. If they needed to use lights or the electric fan they would have to re-connect more frequently but they would be able to travel for days like that. They would almost certainly be able to get to Delhi where there was bound to be an auto electrician available to them. This they agreed to do and after a short road test to check that the plan worked I again said my goodbyes. I felt a little dissatisfied because I hadn’t been able to cure the fault and they had waited all day for me. I had spent quite some time with them and sent them on their way with the instruction to pull off a couple of wires every now and then. It wasn’t satisfactory but I could do no more. I had checked everything I could possibly think of and that was the best I could do. I had a suspicion that the fault was in the dynamo but they didn’t have a spare one of these so I couldn’t swap it over, I could only inspect it.
I travelled back to Kathmandu and chatted with my driver. That three-hour journey with him was where I got most of my facts and details from. He spoke good English and was willing to chat with me all afternoon. We got back to the hotel just before dark and I paid him exactly what we agreed. I was so tired that if he’d demanded more I would probably have given it to him.
Apart from one brief walk around the hotel grounds I stayed in my room to rest and drink bottled water. I still wasn’t able to eat. I constantly ran the electrical fault through my mind trying to think of a solution that I could fax to Walter so he could make the repairs.
The day came to go home and I still had no idea what the fault was. It was time to leave, my flight was early and I had to be at the airport at 6.00am to make the 8.00am flight. My early cab ride through the streets of Kathmandu was the same as usual, dirty, crowded and smelly. I will never forget that smell. I arrived at the airport to be met by two very young boys. I decided that if they could be up at dawn to earn a living carrying bags they deserved my custom. It took the two of them to struggle with my one bag. That was because I still had the differential case and the half shaft to bring home. I thought that it would be easier than having two items to collect on arrival. I was one of the first to arrive at the departure desk. Nobody was in attendance and I couldn’t see any officials anywhere. By 7.30am the desk opened and the personnel started inspecting tickets. An attendant asked to see my departure tax receipt. I had no idea what he was talking about but he soon told me what I had to do. I had to leave the queue I was in and start another one at another desk he pointed to. I protested that there was nobody at that desk but he assured there soon would be. Off I went and before long I had a long queue of people behind me. Most of the people were moaning about the Nepalese and their total lack of organisation. I was used to it by now and had spent most of the week getting nowhere fast. I had already given in to the way these people work. The exit tax official appeared at 7.30am and asked me for twenty thousand rupees which was about twenty pounds sterling. I told him that I had just given the last of my rupees to the two young baggage porters. I offered to pay him in dollars and he made a quick calculation. I paid him what he asked and he gave me a small receipt which I stuffed into my wallet. I then joined the departure queue which by now was miles long. I eventually got to the front of the queue and showed my exit tax receipt. This this time all was well and I passed through to have my bags scanned. A thought suddenly occurred to me, the half shaft will look very peculiar when it passes through the x-ray machine. I remembered what my colleague had said back at work “they’ll think you’re carrying parts for a super gun”. On the first pass the attendant called the bag back and I really thought that was it, I was going to be arrested before the day was out. After three x-ray runs and at least four people inspecting it they let it through. I was never asked what it was and nobody wanted to look inside the bag. After a short wait in the departure lounge we boarded the plane. As I sat and waited for take-off I checked the contents of my pockets and found the exit tax receipt. Its value was only 750 rupees – I’d been had again. The flight home was a re-run of the flight out except this time I was on the right side of the plane to see the Himalayas. It was a brilliant sunny morning and the mountains were gleaming with their white peaks bursting through the billowing clouds. I saw the unmistakable peak of Everest which for me was the icing on the cake after such a memorable adventure. The flight home was long and tiring, I staggered into arrivals at Gatwick and was absolutely delighted to see Pat coming to greet me.
PS – The little Bugatti T40 survived the rally and was the oldest car to finish and won a special prize just for that. The electrical fault was caused by the exhaust heat shield touching the main feed cable to the starter motor. It wasn’t enough to create a total short but it was sufficient to drain the system which caused the generator to charge continuously. The overall winning car of the rally was a 1942 Willis Jeep, driven by Phil Surtees and co-driver John Bayliss. Very well done to them.