"So what's it all about then, Ralph?"
"It's all about enjoying yourself, Kev."
I pondered that statement as a small group of us sat around drinking tea and coffee one evening, about a week before the start of Raid Australia #3, 1996.
Eighteen months ago, I had bought my first Citroen 2CV, joined the national club of Great Britain (2CVGB) and noticed an advert in the monthly club magazine, looking for anyone interested in joining a "Raid" around Australia. Partly because I'd always wanted to take a look at Australia and partly because I wanted to find out what a "Raid" was, I decided to take the plunge and sent my car (Rosa-Lu) to the land of "No Worries".
I pondered that phrase too, as I sat there recollecting the sacrifices I'd made to get this far. I'd left my girlfriend wanting, taken out a bank overdraft for the flight over and arriving in Perth with ADlrs100 in my pocket not knowing anything or anyone. I'd been given the address of a "safe house" just outside the city, owned by someone known only as "Batman". When I arrived at Batman's place, I was greeted by other visiting "Raiders" and told that Batman was "away on business". I found a space on the floor and assumed refugee status.
At the time, it all seemed very suspicious and to make matters more so, I had arranged to meet an Austrian guy known as "Big Alex" at the start of the Raid at Ayers Rock (some 3000km away). He was to be my co-driver and meal-ticket for a further 6000kms through the inhospitable Australian outback. To add to the confusion, Rosa-Lu was ill prepared for the trip. She was in totally original condition, with no chassis modifications or rough road preparations whatsoever and I was no mechanic. I didn't even own a tool kit. So as I sat there sipping tea that evening in the company of organised, well-balanced (?) people, I felt as if my life was a huge jigsaw puzzle and everyone was holding a piece of it except me. Who was Batman? What was a "Raid"? How was I going to get to the start of the raid with only ADlrs100? Who was Big Alex? Would he be at the start of the Raid as planned? Would the car survive the trip? Would my girlfriend still be there at the end of it all?
I went to bed that night with a head full of jetlag and worry. "Let's face 'it', I thought to myself, 'You're a basket case'.
The following week was a merry-go-round of introductions, car preparations and planning. Unbelievably, with plenty of help from other 'Raiders', I eventually set off - with three other cars - towards the start of the Raid. With nearly 3,000 kilometres to cover, we raced along red dirt roads for four days. Towards the centre of Australia's vast expanse, towards the centre of Big Alex's vast wallet. The adventure had begun and I was feeling confident, especially after travelling with Ron Westwood. Maybe I wasn't such a basket case after all. As we stopped at regular intervals to tend Ron's mechanical oilments, I developed a sense of responsibility towards Rosa-Lu. It was up to me to get her through the Raid.
When we finally reached the start of the Raid, joing other cars from around the world, I sensed a festive atmosphere developing as old acquaintances joined forces once more. Meanwhile, newcomers like myself, wandered around camp, bemused and bewildered. It was a circus and everyone had their part to play.
The following morning was one of anxiety. Alex hadn't arrived yet. "It's ok - he's coming", was all I got, as I continued to wander around camp, making acquaintances and chewing on a little soul food. Then it happened. I felt a lump form in my throat as I caught sight of a big guy working his way through the camp. "This has to be Big Alex", I thought. Holy shit, he was big. He must have weighed at least 120kg. Despair overcame me as I walked over to Rosa-Lu and nervously rocked her from side to side, as if trying to reassure us both that we were in this together. I wanted to call my girlfriend and tell her I would be home soon. As soon as what? There was no turning back now. I introduced myself to Alex, like a lamb to the slaughter.
I lay in my tent that night, amidst a serenade of snoring Raiders, as another piece of the jigsaw puzzle was cautiously laid on the table. Now we were three. Only another 6000kms to go.
Our first day on the road together was a leisurely 120kms jaunt on bitumen road to Curtain Springs bush camp. The Raid has started and Rosa-Lu responded well to the extra weight she was being asked to carry. Alex was a light traveller. I noticed he only had one bag with him and I commended him on his ability to organise himself so.
"My other luggage is still at Alice Springs airport", he replied.
"Oh", I said.
"We will collect it in two days", he added.
"Oh", I said again and fixed my eyes on the road ahead.
I noticed an assortment of birds ripping the guts out of an unfortunate kangaroo which had fallen victim to a road train the previous night and thought of Rosa-Lu. That evening as I gazed up at the outback heavens full of countless other worlds, I considered my own small world and scrambled myself some eggs whilst watching Alex dismantle the interior of Rosa-Lu. He was sleeping in the car, he told me, until we found his tent at the airport. "Oh".
I gave him one of my blankets and spent a chilly and restless night listening to my co-driver snoring the paint off my girl and made a mental note to check her interior fitments in the morning, just in case anything had rattled loose.
Alice Springs came and went and after leaving the camp's pit-stop atmosphere - already six days into the Raid - Rosa-Lu, Alex and myself were about to experience our first real test. The Tanami track. Over 1000kms of what the Raid itinerary described as "rough dirt roads". For three days we crawled over iron-hard corrugations and meandered our way around potholes and rocks. Rosa-Lu behaved like a martyr, never complaining, while Alex slept, took pictures, then slept again. 'It was a comfortable arrangement', I convinced myself, as I struggled for space during one of Alex's slumberings.
It was at the Halls Creek camp that I began to feel a bit more like a "Raider". The Tanami track was behind us and we had survived it with no real problems. Not even a puncture, I allowed myself a little smugness and wandered around camp, indulging in Raid talk, getting to know people and sharing food and beer (usually theirs!). After the rigours of the Tanami, the mood within the camp was easy, but as we moved on to Lake Argyle for more rest and relaxation, we knew the worst was yet to come.
Traditionally, in Britain, the 12th of August is celebrated for being the start of the grouse shooting season. Small flocks or "coveys" of these birds are flushed or "driven" towards a line of waiting guns, to meet their fate. Most end up on the table, but a lucky few survive to fly another day. It was therefore no coincidence that this day was chosen to travel the infamous Gibb River Road, another 1000kms of rough dirt track. If reports and rumours were correct, then this section of the raid would be more testing than the Tanami. Cars were almost expected to fall by the wayside and only the strong would survive. So as we all gathered in our coveys and were flushed towards our fate, I felt something big was going to go down. Bigger than Rosa-Lu's delicate little 125 tyres. Bigger even than Alex's breakfast that morning.
My confidence was low throughout that first 245kms to Jacks Waterhole and wasn't helped by Alex, who delighted in giving me the statistics of his raid experience, four years ago.
"We had 22 punctures and broke the chassis in several places", he boasted with wide eyes.
My foot quivered nervously on the accelerator pedal as we swerved our way through a patch of sand at our usual break-neck speed of 30kms per hour. I tried to change the subject.
"Look at that flock of black cockatoos over there!"
Alex was getting excited and I didn't want him getting restless. I was having enough trouble controlling the car as it was. I needed calm concentration. I needed my girlfriend, if indeed I still had one. Meanwhile the outback sun beat down through intermittent clouds of red dust as the other cars raced by, their occupants full of eagerness and smiles. We pulled into camp that evening, unscathed and listened round the campfire to tales of woe as coveys were scattered far and wide. We, I concluded, as we quaffed Alex's beer supplies with the Top Gun team, were the fortunate ones. How long would our good fortune last?
There are no coincidences in life. So it was no coincidence that the following morning, day thirteen of the raid, my superstitious mind told me that today it was my turn to get my hands dirty. 10kms out of camp, my suspicions were confirmed. Rosa-Lu suddenly started to rattle. Then there was a grating, graunching sound, then a muffled whimper from Alex as I jumped on the brake pedal hard and his emergency first aid kit - a family-size bottle of lemonade - rolled out from underneath Alex's seat and caught him on the achilles tendon. I turned off the engine and we looked at each other, then got out to inspect the damage. Alex breathed a sigh of relief as we quickly realised the problem was not only relatively minor, (metal fatigue around the shock absorber mounting), it was also luckily on my side of the car. Thankfully the car behind us was carrying a spare and we lived to fly another day.
We flew unhindered, along the remaining 600kms of the Gibb River Road, sometimes reaching speeds in excess of 40kms per hour and followed the others to Broome - a coastal town on the Indian Ocean. The local papparazzi and statewide TV were there to greet us and all 75 cars literally bathed in the glory of the occasion. I washed Rosa-Lu in appreciation at what I'd asked of her so far and paraded her around town, leaving Alex to buy souvenirs and go camel riding on the beach. As we all left Broome, like a travelling circus, I was beginning to feel a little more like a Raider now. Part of something, but still not sure what. We had already "Raided" for 3000kms and still had another 3000 to go. With the most difficult sections of the raid behind us, it felt like we were on the home straight as we meandered our way south. I paused for reflection, while Alex took his nap. I'd seen parts of this country that looked like the earth was made yesterday. I'd been overwhelmed at times by the generosity, helpfulness and hospitality of the other Raiders, but still I couldn't put my finger on what this whole thing was all about.
So far we had travelled through National Parks, Aboriginal Reserves amd vast tracts of emptiness. We'd travelled on roads that had stretched beyond the horizon for hundreds of kilometres. Dodged camels, emus, kangaroos and flocks of cockatoos. We'd been mesmerised by the ever changing hues of the arid Australian landscape, as the sun painted the earth in colours of red and orange whilst it travelled unhindered across an immense blue sky. With the horizon sometimes visible from all directions, outback Australia made a mockery of the word 'space'.
So as we cruised down to 80 mile beach and ventured into the gorges of the Pilbara on our way down to the finish line, I felt a sense of achievement. Not just because I'd coaxed Rosa-Lu through some difficult situations and not just because I'd realised my dream of coming to Australia. Alex and myself were two completely people thrown together for four weeks in a tiny car. Although sometimes we struggled to get along - we had just had to get on with it.
When the Raid finally ended and everyone turned for home, I was still looking for the answer to complete the jigsaw puzzle that seemed so fragmented when I first arrived. Then suddenly one morning as I drove Alex into Perth for some last minute shopping before taking him to the airport, he made a casual remark which seemed to answer my final question.
"So now you have experienced something of the spirit of Citroen", he stated.
I thought about that phrase as I helped Alex with his luggage. It was the closest I would get to answering my question. A Raid was more about people than cars. The cars were just the medium.
But as I drove out of the airport, with Rosa-Lu performing like a spring chicken again, one last question came to mind as I watched Alex's plane take him home. When Raid #4 came around in the year 2000 and individuals from around the world polished their Citroens and joined hands once more, who would be the chosen one? Chosen to drive for "Big Alex!"
2CV Bamboo (Rosa-Lu)