“Hitch hiking and charities: it’s all just a bit 1980s, isn’t it?” I couldn’t help but agree with the chubby East Coast duty officer as he declined our plea for a free ticket to London from Edinburgh.
We had been up since four and having been dropped in Glasgow, we had decided to head north to Edinburgh thinking we’d have better chance of blagging a lift.
Three hours had passed and we had gone backwards. The duty officer gestured towards the door and we glumly trudged out of the office, the wind well and truly taken out of sails.
We headed to the nearest service station to thumb a ride. However, after 4 hours in the frozen north, our original tactics of friendly smiles quickly disappeared as the cold, the constant rejection and the dawning realisation of the enormity of our task leading to frustration.
Our salvation came in the form of Ed, a St Andrews graduate who had previously organised the race. He was heading towards Sheffield and was more than happy to give us a lift. When he dropped us of, within minutes, a banker took pity on us and powered towards Northampton in his BMW X6. Our garish charity t-shirts and hikers’ bags looked out of place next to his pristine leather seats
By the time he dropped us off, it was eight o’clock – cars were few and far between and lorry drivers had stopped for the night. My racing partner, Ollie, did one more round of the drivers and secured us a lift to Dover the following morning from a pair of Hungarians. We settled in for the evening, exhausted but eager for 4am to arrive, aware that around nineteen other teams had crossed into mainland Europe. Cacophonous and unrecognisable music blared out so any attempt at sleep was in vain.
At 4am, bleary eyed, we were signalled to by the Hungarian truckers to hop aboard. Their trucks could only fit one passenger so the first driver, Pau, took Ollie while I was left with, let’s call him Ildikó, (I am reliably informed this is a typical Hungarian name). While Ollie blasted out Swedish House Mafia to Pau, Ildikó, whose English was as basic as my Hungarian, proceeded to attempt a sing-along to Heart classics. Dover couldn’t come sooner.
Securing a ride on the ferry to Calais became chaotic. The whole thing descended into a Supermarket Sweep affair as desperate students persuaded, pleaded and physically begged for a ride anywhere. Pau came to our rescue again and offered to take us to a service station just outside of Calais where we were able to secure a lift from yet another Hungarian.
We didn’t catch his name either, so let’s just call this one Anikó (another typically Hungarian name, I am assured). Anikó was happy to take us to Reims which took us some distance into northern France. His truck however was less than impressive. Everything was broken, and, having acquired the lorry in Ireland, he was convinced that this was the reason behind its state of disrepair. Broken English expletives poured out of his mouth as he berated the truck. Anikó dropped us off at a service station but seemingly everyone was heading north.
Dejected, we contemplated yet another night in a service station when a Spanish man strolled in, the kind of person who you would be an utter fool to consider trusting. Every fibre of his being oozed criminality. He revealed that he was going to Barcelona and after much begging, Ramos (again, we didn’t share pleasantries so let’s call him Ramos) gave in and we cautiously entered his car.
He informed us that he had driven from Holland and was heading towards Valencia. He had been in the Netherlands for ´business’ yet he had no luggage. He made out that it was his car but kept stalling and seemed to have no idea where he was going. He told me he was Spanish but spoke very fast Arabic on the phone, describing the make and model of the car. As the vehicle sped out of the service station we instantly regretted our decision. Within ten minutes I had resigned myself to the gruesome and lonely death of the hitchhiker, anticipating a gun being pressed against my temple. To ease the tension, I asked him if he was a football fan. He roughly informed me that if I didn’t like football I should get out immediately. I decided this would be one of our less chatty rides.
Several hours passed and indefatigably he pressed on through southern France, stopping only once for about 40 minutes’ sleep. Around 200km north of Barcelona, he pulled into a French town and stopped the car. He told us that he would be a few minutes. Deliriously tired, we dreamt up scenes which would be more suited to an episode of The Wire than the south of France; Ollie ominously suggesting that he may well return in a body bag.
However, ‘Ramos’ returned and we pressed on south. As the sun rose over southern France, snow-capped mountains and azure skies replaced the constant drizzle of the northern France; Barcelona was well and truly in our sights. At half eleven, we walked into the hostel and discovered we had come seventh out of seventy seven teams.
Exhausted and triumphant, we collapsed into our beds as thoughts of safe and paid travel quickly sent us to sleep. It was a few days later that what we had achieved truly sank in: over 1500 miles, 51 hours, four different modes of transport and one criminal. Not only does it provide amusing dinner conversation, but (and not to wanting to sound mawkish) we truly felt we had learnt the true value of money. It felt bizarre buying our first beer in Barcelona: the ability to hand over a crisp ten euro note stirred up a strange sensation of empowerment, prompted by what was essentially three days of begging. If anything, we both felt the experience had somewhat restored our faith in humanity, the altruism of certain people and their kindness of spirit.