Why do the wheels always fall off the bus when you’re nursing the hangover from hell on the hottest day of the year so far?
It all started with an epic night out on Friday with Ellie who had come for a flying visit to Tarifa and some much needed R&R. This happily coincided with my last weekend here in the ‘Reefa before Tiggy and I traverse back home across Spain in The Beast and prepare to embark on the next chapter of our eternity leave adventures.
Prior to coming, Ellie had already advised me that she wasn’t up for a big drinking weekend or having much of a party. Tarifa is just as good for relaxing as it is for going out and tying one on, so I was totally cool with that and just really looking forward to seeing her.
I realised a few weeks ago, when I was starting to get a sort of twiddly thumb and itchy feet feeling, that I’ve really missed my girlfriends since I’ve been here. Tarifa is a great place to make friends easily and everyone here has been super friendly and welcoming…yet my close circle of friends is entirely male. I love them all dearly, I can’t even begin to imagine enjoying Tarifa without them and they are utterly fab beyond words, but it’s just not the same without a girly BFF too.
To illustrate, in planning my upcoming two months trekking in Nepal, I have had to come to terms with the idea of using a Moon Cup as you can’t leave anything behind on the mountain that isn’t bio-degradable and tampons rate about as highly as a nappy on the global pollution crime scene. Every year over 45 billion feminine hygiene products are disposed of globally and, in one day alone, Ocean Conservancy volunteers collected a truly shameful 27,938 used tampons and applicators from our world’s beaches. Girls, save the whales and stop flushing your tampons down the loo!
They say it takes three cycles to get used to a Moon Cup, so I’ve had to order one already which brought, in itself, a myriad of enigmatic issues. First of all they come in different sizes, so you have work out if you are size A or B (at least they’ve wisely avoided calling them small, medium and large); you need to “trim the stem” to get the best fit, yet who knows what the best fit means? And what if you trim too much? To top it all off, they have a troubleshooting section on their website which made my eyes water.
Conundrums such as these require close girlfriends and vast quantities of wine in order to be cogitated, speculated and digested. They are not really something I can drop into conversation with three other blokes talking about kite gear, Tinder dates and the election results, no matter how worldly, metrosexual and lovely they are.
Anyway, back to Friday night, where if I’m being totally truthful I don’t recall everything Ellie and I discussed, but Moon Cups certainly did come up, vats and vats of wine were definitely drunk and we were the first people through the door of Mombassa, one of the local hotspots that doesn’t even open until 2am. It’s a good job Ellie only wanted a quiet weekend, I’m not sure I could have coped if she had really wanted to paint the town red.
So, you can imagine how we felt on Saturday morning. It was a full-fat-coca-cola breakfast kind of day. It was also a belting hot day – 30 degrees by 10am with Tarifa’s notorious winds not even rustling up the very smallest of cooling puffs. It was so hot that there was a unique and stunning cloud formation which sank low and deep over the Mediterranean leaving Jebel Musa, the southern pillar of Hercules (Gibraltar is the northern pillar) in Morocco rising mysteriously and wondrously from the cloudy depths.
The plan was to drive to Cadiz and spend the late morning and afternoon exploring the wonders of one of the oldest cities in Western Europe having been founded by the Phoenicians in 1104 BC. N.B. that’s the Phoenicians not the Venicians, which I rather embarrassingly got terribly confused over for a while – “Founded by the Venetians? Huh? What were the merchants of Venice doing in Cadiz?”.
Anyway, fortified by the twelve secret ingredients of full fat coca-cola, scrambled eggs, jamon de serrano, coffee and two fizzy waters, Ellie, Tiggy and I scrambled and flopped into The Beast and set off, already behind schedule, at about 11.30am.
The Beast’s 1969 air conditioning is a, usually efficient, two mechanical flap open-air mechanism, controlled by two handles underneath the windscreen. Like little windows to the world on the front of the car, they force air through as you drive along. Even when it’s hot, they usually work remarkably well. We’ve often commented that all cars should have them to save on fuel efficiency.
But not today, it was like sitting in front of a fan blowing hot air on you when you’re already sweltering. And because The Beast remains true to his original condition, his black, plastic seats only exacerbated the sauna-esque environment. Black plastic seating is nobody’s friend on a blisteringly hot day, I felt as if we were being bar-be-queued by different heat sources from all angles.
Having already made a two minute detour via the Carrefour garage to stock up on San Pellegrino, iced lollipops and Haribo in a (failing) attempt to keep the hangovers at bay, we left Tarifa behind us and set out on the coastal road up to Cadiz. TomTom said we would get there by 1pm, Cadiz’s not-to-be-missed market closed at 2pm, so I put my foot down and let rip.
I’m sure it was the hangovers, but The Beast felt more jiggly and bouncy than usual, and the TomTom kept falling off the windscreen into my side of the footwell by the handbrake. It was an added irritation I could have done without.
About thirty kilometres out of town I got a little whiff of a oily-burning smell. Three seconds later it was more than a whiff, I thought The Beast was on fire.
Attempting and no doubt failing to remain calm, I looked at Ellie “I smell burning, that’s not us, is it?”
“Yes it is” she replied “we need to pull over”
The stretch of road we were on had no hard shoulder, and cars were hurtling down on us at a terrific rate of knots. So we needed to find a lay by. The Beast has no hazard lights so one has to be extra thoughtful and considerate about doing an emergency stop at any time, but particularly on a busy road.
The burning smell got stronger and stronger and I started to have alarming visions of us bursting into flames and Tiggy, Ellie and I being literally rather than merely metaphorically burnt to a crisp. There was a turn off to a local farm track – I pulled in quickly, I unbuckled Tiggy and I, and we all got out rather sharpish. I was half expecting to have to run, James Bond style, as The Beast spontaneously combusted behind us. But, thankfully, he just sat there.
Ellie, Tiggy and I gingerly returned to the car. I cautiously opened the bonnet, mercifully no flickering flames or anything else looked seemingly untoward. And then, like gourmet chefs inhaling the aroma of their latest pungent, gastronomic creation, we tentatively sniffed The Beast from top to toe. We sniffed his wheels in case it was the brakes. We sniffed the engine from all sides and angles. We sniffed the exhaust. We sniffed in the back. We sniffed in the front. Tiggy, naturally, sniffed along in unison.
Ellie concluded it smelt a bit stronger by the front left wheel. We sniffed in harmony together and agreed. But we still didn’t know WTF had happened and were none the wiser.
It was decreed I would restart the engine. I clambered back in, sweaty legs sliding on the burning hot seat. I turned the key in the ignition and absolutely nothing happened. No starter motor kicking into gear. No coughing or spluttering. Thankfully, no exploding or bursting flames. But it was quite eerie. Like a dodgem car when the ride has run out, no matter what over-ride switches I flicked, there wasn’t a spark of life left in him. “Oh Beastie”, I thought “I hope you haven’t gone and died on us, we need you”.
By this point Ellie and Tiggy were sheltering from the scorching sun in the lee of a bush at the side of the road and I was still poking things randomly, along with a few sensible measures like checking the oil and water under the shelter of a brolly I’d (ahem) borrowed many moons ago from The Dean Street Townhouse. It made for an excellent parasol, I can highly recommend borrowing one too, should you ever have the occasion to go there. Whoever says crime doesn’t pay hasn’t broken down in 35 degrees at mid-day in Southern Spain, in a car with no A/C and only half a bottle of San Pellegrino and some melting Haribo to sustain them.
I called International Roadside Assistance, who, after asking me a mystifyingly large raft of questions for over ten minutes (including did Tiggy have her passport on her, did we have any luggage and what time was the ferry that we were due to depart on) determined that I was covered and they would send someone out to help. Personally I felt that ‘I’ve broken down, I need roadside assistance, it’s very hot, there’s no shade’ would have more than covered it, but, hey, what do I know.
I was told someone would call us within half and hour and tell us when they would be able to get to us. As you can imagine, that didn’t exactly make my heart sing with joy.
Time to call in the cavalry I thought and, thankfully, as we were only half an hour and not an hour and a half out of Tarifa, I called my friend Rowan who is always brilliant in a calamity. I filled him in on what had come to pass.
Even though he’s one of the cleverest people I know, disappointingly, he wasn’t able to diagnose The Beast’s condition from 20k away. I explained that I had called International assistance, but could he please come and pick up Ellie and Tiggy who, by this point, were crouching under the bush as the sun was directly overhead and there was very little shade at all.
Rowan pinged me a couple of things he’d google’d and set out in his modern, air conditioned, 4×4 with a giant bottle of water. His ETA was thirty-ish minutes away.
And then, just because it was one of those days that decides to kick the dirt in your eyes when you’ve already been tripped up, a ginormous tractor trundled round the corner right into the path of The Beast, who was completely blocking the farm track. My bottom lip had a little, involuntary wobble.
The Farmer looked at me – standing there in a sundress under a black umbrella next to a Landy with the bonnet and all doors open – it must have been quite an arresting sight. He hadn’t yet spotted Ellie and Tiggy crouching under the bush.
I looked at him. I attempted a smile and pointed at The Beast and then made the international sign of death by pretending to slice my throat with my finger.
He descended from his huge tractor – it made The Beast look like a minnow, a tiddler of vehicles compared to this monster of a machine with a massive digger on the front and some indiscernible plough or farrow trailer on the back. I thought he was going to shout at me for being in his way.
My Spanish is getting better all the time with practice, but given that I don’t even do ‘car speak’ in my native tongue, I knew it would be a bit of a battle to communicate what had come to pass in a foreign language.
Many charades and made up words later, he got the gist of it all. I turned the key in the engine, I showed him the override switch. He looked at the fuse box and checked the fuses. I showed him the battery – he pulled it out and checked the connections, all good.
We looked under the bonnet together. I sniffed and showed him where the smell was. He looked at the oil and declared it was new, I said it was, he said it was good. He checked the water and said it was cold and that the level was correct, which was also good. I’d already done those checks, but let’s face it, it was helpful to have someone who actually knew what they were talking about corroborate this view.
And then he spotted something I had not. A pipe had come away at it’s joist. Given the bumpy roads and all the shaking and vibrating that’s part and parcel of owning a vintage landy like The Beast, it’s amazing that anything held together by a mere screw would stick. And this was one that had come unstuck.
The Farmer, now totally in the swing of Spanish Charades, put his hands around his neck and made a choking noise and then stuck his tongue out and did a ‘dead’ face’. I deduced this was, therefore, the air intake pipe. So the burning smell made sense, as once it had come away we would have smelt the engine combusting, and even I know that engines make power by burning oxygen (air) with fuel.
The Farmer put the air intake pipe back into its socket. He got out his Swiss Army Knife and started to tighten the brace round the neck of the socket. I told him to wait, that I had a toolkit. I knew I had a ratcheting screwdriver with different shapes and sizes of attachments, given to me in a neon pink bag along with an assortment of other useful tools and some Refresher chews by a kind petrol-head friend who had been to stay previously and was underwhelmed by my lack of appropriate equipment.
It was kept in the locker under the passenger seat – so I took the seat apart and triumphantly handed the pink neon bag to the Farmer who looked speechless and rather aghast as he rifled through it to retrieve said screwdriver and confidently secure the air intake pipe. We both smiled.
But still The Beast would not start. Dead as a dodo. Not a flicker of life. My heart sank. It was impossible not to let my mind run ahead to how on earth I was going to get Tiggy and I home with no wheels. Would I have to buy a new car here in Spain?
I was just beginning to imagine the “I told you that car was a mistake” lecture I was going to get from Daddy Neary when the Farmer, who was ferreting about on the drivers side emerged, proudly holding a large, red, plastic key. It’s the sort of key you have on a boat battery. In The Beast, it lives down on the left, on the driver’s side, in the footwell by the handbrake. In fact, it’s exactly where the TomTom had fallen off into, twice in a row.
It was on the floor, said the Farmer. I immediately clicked that the TomTom must have knocked it and it worked loose and, by sheer coincidence, when we had come to a halt and we’d all made a sharp exit from The Beast I must have knocked it out with my foot.
The red key was reinserted. The immobiliser switch on the dashboard panel was flicked on. The Farmer and I looked at each other, hesitantly and expectantly. He nodded. I turned the ignition key. And, resuscitated by juice in his veins and air in his lungs, The Beast roared and shook back into life.
I jumped down from the driver’s seat and gave the Farmer a huge, huge, huge hug. Ellie said she wished she had taken a picture of his face, that it was quite a sight to behold. A million times thank you, I said. In return he smiled and shook my hand. With hindsight, the hug may have been slightly OTT.
So, that was that. I immediately got on the phone to the Cavalry that was Rowan – he was, by then, only five minutes away – and Cadiz now clearly off the menu, we decided the sensible thing was for him to take Ellie and Tiggy in the air conditioned cool of his modern 4×4 and The Beast and I would follow back to his house to decompress and exhale.
I also called International Roadside assistance to tell them I’d met a Farmer and that he’d fixed us. Oh good, said the lady, because I was having real trouble getting through to anyone to help you. How reassuring to have spent £250 on that then, I thought.
Back at Rowan’s house, Ellie and I revived ourselves by taking it in turns to stand in front of his giant fan and gulp down even more water.
Clambering back into The Beast we were merely one short, sticky legged drive back home. Gosh it was good to be back in one piece.
Via a banana milkshake and yet more water, we headed out for a revitalising swim. The water was refreshingly chilly – the sea breeze had finally kicked in, and meant we swam in the Atlantic Ocean, on the Phoenician port side of Tarifa’s Isle of Doves. The winds and tides have shaped and honed the ancient walls over time – it’s one of the most beautiful tidal pools I’ve ever swum in, even if the Phoenicians didn’t quite intend it for that purpose all those centuries ago.
That night Ellie, Rowan and I jubilantly headed out to Vejer De La Frontera, to my favourite restaurant in the region, Corredera 55 where, perched on the hillside looking over the valley, we enjoyed a delicious, delectable and divine dinner as the sun went down on our day of adventures.
And then, the drive home in the pitch black was a total nightmare, because none of the lights on the Landy would come on. And, yet again, we had to call on the Cavalry that is Rowan to help us once more. I can’t face reliving it by writing about it, but suffice to say we made it back alive and on Monday morning The Beast will be marched straight to the garage to get his fuses fixed.
It will be bittersweet to leave Tarifa. Time has flown by, having made many precious memories and learnt so many new things from kite surfing and playing the guitar to the importance of a little red key.
Even though I really have missed my girl-friends back home, I am fortunate to have forged the strongest bonds of friendship here too. At some point in the coming year we will be scattered across all four corners of the world, each on our own adventure, from Japan to Nepal to Chile and South Africa. And the wonderful thing about friendship is that it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether I return to Tarifa or not. Good friends are the family we choose for ourselves and they are like the sun, the moon and the stars – you may not always see them, but you know they are always there.
Choose happy, cherish your friends.
Love, Sophie, Tiggy and The Beast X