Above: “Mitzi” crossing the desert in 2003. Click on this picture to see more photographs of that overland journey.
David Pointon made several overland journeys to the Gambia between 2003 and 2010 to deliver vehicles and equipment to the only school for the blind, run by the Gambia Organisation for the Visually Impaired (GOVI). He was a founder trustee of the charity the Friends of Impaired Children in the Gambia. His travelling companion in late 2003 was Malcolm Garner (the Gambia Deaf Children’s Support Project – GDCSP).
For that first overland journey, completed in January 2004, David decided it would be a good idea to join the Plymouth/Dakar Challenge.
He said: “I thought it was one way of getting out there with support and taking a minibus for the school. There were three rules for the Challenge: spend under £200 for your vehicles; only spend £15 fettling it; and rules are made to be broken. It is a charity run and all the vehicles are auctioned in Banjul and the money went to Gambian charities.
“As I had a purpose for the minibus I didn’t care how much I spent on the vehicle and I didn’t put it in the auction – it was going to a Gambian charity anyway.”
He knew he wanted a four-wheel drive diesel minibus and early in 2003 remembered seeing such a vehicle which had been parked at the Wensleydale Rugby Club at Leyburn for a couple of years. It was also left-hand drive as it had been bought in Germany by a British serviceman stationed there who needed a vehicle suitable for a large family.
“His daughters had grown a bit and he had bought himself a small car. When he came to the club we had a look at it and drove it around the rugby field, and we eventually arrived at what I thought was a reasonable price.”
That vehicle – a Mitsubishi minibus – quickly became known as Mitzi.
Malcolm was among the friends he contacted when looking for sponsorship for this project. “I had known Malcolm professionally for well over 20 years. We served on the same special needs advisory council. Malcolm sent me an email back saying ‘Of course I will sponsor you – wish I was coming with you.’ He was recovering from prostrate cancer at that time which had been caught and fixed. As he was convalescing I sent him an immediate reply: ‘Why don’t you?’”
Advertising material was put on Mitzi and she began her travels around England as David and Malcolm collected donations.
And then she left England for good. “She wasn’t the quickest of vehicles so driving 600 miles down Spain in one day was quite interesting but we did it,” recalled David. It was in the south of Spain that they first met up with others on the Challenge.
The journey overland in 2003 was very different to those David took part in later because the road from Noadhibou to Nouakchott in Mauritania had not been completed. Instead the route took them through desert and across a long beach.
David said:”In our group there was a 43-year-old Triumph Herald, an old Mark II Cortina, a Lada and a Triumph 2000. The Lada never got stuck in sand the whole trip but the others got stuck quite often. As we had four-wheel drive we were pulling them out all the time and the clutch wasn’t up to it. When it went we had to reline it with the Triumph 2000 clutch lining.
“The repair worked which got us out of the desert but when we got down to the Senegalese border the thrust bearing went making the clutch pedal obsolete. The clutch was still working so we could still get drive. Changing up was no problem but changing down was not possible. So we went right through Senegal and into the Gambia without a clutch.”
It cost just £100 to fix Mitzi and then she was handed over to GOVI and spent three years as the school bus. When two school buses were given to GOVI by the Dales Team of 2006 David and Malcolm repossessed Mitzi. Since then GOVI has sold the vehicles delivered in 2006 and the children are now transported to school by a bus provided by the Gambian Government’s Integrated Education Programme (IEP).
David and Malcolm spent a lot of money on Mitzi to try and get her back into good working order. When Malcolm arrived in the Gambia in 2009 the minibus wouldn’t go and he had the engine replaced, but to no avail. So it was decided it was time to part company with Mitzi.
The Dales Team of 2010 had taken a Renault van to the Gambia and that was registered as an NGO vehicle with GOVI which has requested that David and Malcolm be solely responsible for it. The van has been used by Malcolm as part of the Gambia Deaf Children’s Support Project.
“It is a versatile vehicle because of the table and seating arrangement as well as storage,” said David.
For more photos of Mitzi’s journey, including repairing the clutch one night when camped in the desert, click on the photo of Mitzi above.
There’s more about that 2006 visit at Dales Team 2006