Saturday, July 4, 2009

• The Caravan That Thought Like a Lemming!


Little did I know when I sat at Gatwick airport on that Sunday evening waiting for my flight which was delayed for 5 hours, then 6 hours and now 7 hours just what was in store for me when I arrived at my destination in Southern Spain.

I’d never driven on my own on the wrong side of the road before and I was quite nervous even though I’d ordered an automatic so I wouldn’t have to change gear with my other hand and therefore avoid trying to use the door handle as a gear stick.

I knew the roads well; my husband and I had been taking this route regularly since buying our little piece of Spanish hillside five years before, but arriving at Malaga airport at 4a.m. having been awake for 24 hours was no fun. By the time I’d picked up the hire car and left the Autovia Mediteraneo (coastal motorway) to head for the small market town of Competa and my hotel, I could hardly keep my eyes open.

I nearly came a cropper in Algarrobo, when not used to the waffley steering mechanism of the Citroen I misjudged a corner and hit the barrier. Thank goodness it was there as I was fine but the car, which only had six miles on the clock when I picked it up, now had a rather textured finish.

It was around 6.30 on Monday morning when I checked into my room at The Hotel Balcon de Competa where I had stayed many times and knew all the staff and management very well. My room was, as most rooms at the Balcon are, above the terrace with views of the pool and the sea beyond. Unfortunately for me the terrace is also where most guests take their breakfast so as I was trying to get a couple of hours sleep I was kept awake by the setting of tables, the scraping of chairs on the terracotta tiles and the rattle of crockery; and let me tell you even a member of the W.I. can’t rattle a cup a loud as a Spanish waiter. By the time the first holidaymakers sat down with boisterous tales of their last nights exploits I decided to give up on sleep and go and get something to eat myself. I had a meeting arranged with the builder mid morning to arrange for electricity and water to be connected on our land, to serve the caravan when it arrived, hopefully the next day and if I couldn’t be rested I could at least be fed.

Now let me step back a bit and tell you why I am in Spain taking delivery of a large static caravan in the first place.

My husband and I have very little in the way of a pension for the future so decided that the only way we could have a happy retirement was to change our lifestyle completely so we sold our large house and bought a piece of land in Andalucía with an old ruined farmhouse. The rest of the funds we invested in a savings account and planned to rebuild the ruin and set up a business offering potting and walking holidays in this wonderful part of the world. Now after a hectic career in marketing I had recently trained as a potter and as my husband is a keen walker we hoped to be earn a retirement income by doing things we enjoyed that to us didn’t seem like work.

We also planned to farm the olives and almonds already on the land, grow our own organic fruit and vegetables, keep a few hens’ for eggs, a goat for milk and cheese. We were heading for ‘The Good Life’ but first we needed somewhere to live while the house was being built; thus the caravan.

Right then back to where we were. The meeting with the builder completed successfully; he had agreed to commission and install the services to the caravan once it had arrived, I now sat down to await the phone call from the delivery firm which would be bringing the caravan on a low loader truck down from France. I waited for the rest of Monday sitting on the terrace at the hotel but no call came that day so after dinner in the hotel restaurant I had an early night to try and catch up on my missed sleep from the night before. Unfortunately this was not to be as a party in the pool terrace bar below my room was in full swing until the early hours of the morning.

We all know the Spanish have a knack for partying and how they love to make lots of noise and this group did all it could to uphold that tradition. I managed to fall asleep at around 5.30a.m. only to be awoken an hour later by the, now familiar, rattling of crockery and scraping of plastic chairs on terracotta tiles as the waiters set the tables on the terrace for breakfast.

Our farm is about 40 minutes drive from Competa, 5 kilometres from the small rural village of Sedella, so after breakfast I decided to head for a bar near there to await the hoped for call, so that when it came I would be better placed to respond quickly. Off I went with reading book and phone to sit on the shaded terrace of the Casa Pinta, a hostel with bar and pool on the outskirts of Sedella. I had finished my book and had had a tapas lunch and still no call came. I was now getting worried as my return flight to the UK was booked for Wednesday afternoon but just as I was beginning to think my whole trip had been in vain the phone rang.

It was the man from the shipping company ringing from Holland but my jubilation was short lived as he informed me that their driver was just leaving Granada, two hours away and that having JUST looked at the map he decided that it was not possible for the lorry to navigate the twisting mountain roads. As you can imagine after such a long wait and 48 hours without sleep, I saw red.

I told him not to be so ridiculous, that I’d seen large loads using these roads all the time and besides, why was he only just looking at the map now, shouldn’t he have done that before agreeing to take the job and my money? That the road from Granada to Velez Malaga is a motorway and the road from there to Canillas d Acietuno is a mixture of dual carriageway and wide roads and Sedella is only a lick and a spit from there. I told him to ring me again when his driver reached Canillas de Acietuno and I would meet him there to guide him the rest of the way and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Boy was I scary. I almost frightened myself but it worked and two hours later I received a call telling me to meet the driver at the appointed place.

I’m not saying it was an easy drive, mainly because the driver had dropped off another caravan in Granada so instead of having a truck of 28 feet long it was doubled by the presence of an articulated trailer of the same length attached to the back. This made some of the hairpin bends and narrow bridges a bit tricky but between me stopping all other traffic and the truck drivers skill we managed to get it as far as the end of the unmade track which starts two and a half kilometres from our farm.

And that it where it stopped!

The German driver spoke no English or Spanish but we were able to communicate by using my very few words of German and a lot of arm waving and acting out. It became very clear that the truck would not be able to turn and come back if he progressed any further, it was not possible to remove the now empty trailer as that provided the ramp for getting our caravan unloaded and so we had reached an impasse.

Time for plan B!

The only person I new locally was Harald, a Norwegian I’d met once when we bought the land as he used to work for the Estate Agent. So followed by the truck driver I called at Harald’s house and found Mercedes, his Spanish wife doing a bit of topless sunbathing. I’d not, at that point met Mercedes, but by proceeding the trucker down the path I was able to announce our presence with enough time for her to grab a wrap before she came face to face while half naked with a strange man. After I had described my plight and asked if Harald could help she rang him and asked him to come home (bless him he was having a quiet drink in the local bar before dinner) to see what could be done.

Harald kindly agreed to tow the caravan along the track using his large 4X4 so back we went to where we had left the truck to get the caravan off loaded, its tyres pumped and the whole thing hooked up to the tow bar of Harald’s vehicle. At this point the German driver gave me a delivery note to sign and was off like a bat out of hell leaving a dust trail in his wake.

It was now up to us but by this time we had been joined by an old local chap called Salvador on his trusty moped. Salvador is Harald’s drinking partner and he introduced him as his ‘agricultural advisor’ so after some 'umming and aahing' we set off very slowly along the track as these static caravans are not made for towing, the wheels only being fitted for manoeuvring on site. All went well until we reached the first bend about 50 yards from the starting point.

I was driving in front as escort and had asked the driver of the approaching car to pull over until the caravan had passed thus giving Harald some space to swing out around the corner. Great, he stopped, but after I’d passed he continued on his way! Harald was therefore forced to take the corner a little tight and when I looked in my rear view mirror, shock horror, the caravan was listing to starboard at a 45 degree angle with one of its two wheels over the edge of the road with a shear 180 metre drop beneath.

Plan B hadn’t worked, what was plan C? Call for Pepe, that’s what it turned out to be.

Pepe, a man with a JCB was called out from the village to see what he could do and as he trundled along the track with his digger filled with his children and his dogs my hopes were revived. Pepe got out of his cab, looked the job over from every angle only to dampen my spirits when he explained that caravans are so flimsy that any attempt he made with his digger would cause more damage and we would be better sending for Antonio from Canillas de Acietuno who has a large truck with a crane lift, after which Pepe and his JCB trundled home. The phone call was made to Antonio.

In the meantime the night was drawing in and the track, which from our experience, before and since, is very quiet with hardly a vehicle to pass on the way, was heaving with people coming and going. Of course they all had to stop and rub their chins and suck in-breath through their teeth while telling us we had a problem and what we should or should not have done, offering their two penneth as to what we could or could not do and so it went on for the next few hours until it was quite dark. We had all missed dinner, I for one was dying of thirst and Antonio still hadn’t arrived. Salvador saved the day when he volunteered to get on his moped and go back to the village to get some drinks and by the time he had returned we had quite a crowd and as most of those present were Spanish we also had quite a party atmosphere.

By the time Antonio arrived it was near to midnight and the first question he asked to my dismay was, “is it insured” because of course the answer was no. While on the truck; yes it was, when it reached our land; yes it would be, but hanging half way off a mountain in the middle of the night; no, it most definitely was not.

Pepe returned on a moped to give Antonio a hand and together they managed to climb underneath the caravan and attach the wheel that was hanging over the edge onto the hook of the crane and the whole caravan was lifted by it’s chassis until it was supported by the crane. By this time the track was blocked completely and an even bigger crowd had congregated. So with one wheel on the track, one in mid air supported by the crane but still suspended over the edge and the caravan still attached to Harald’s tow bar all the able bodied men tried to move the caravan so that both wheels would be over the track at the same time and the crane could be released but unfortunately, the caravan was just too heavy and even the 20 or so men working together couldn’t budge it an inch.

Not to give in however, with the crane still in position, Harald moved his car slowly forward pulling the caravan away from the corner until both wheels were covering the track, the crane was released and all was saved to a great round of applause.

The caravan was then towed to a safe piece of ground to be left for the rest of the night, the spectators and helpers went on their way and I arranged to meet Harald and Salvador the next morning to show them the site we wished them to put the caravan and by the time I returned to my hotel it was 3 a.m. Thank goodness the hotel owner was still up and about. I told him my story he made me a sandwich and gave me a very welcome glass of wine but as I had to be back in Sedella early and had to pack and check out of the hotel there was little sleep for me again that night.

The next day found me back in Sedella, Harald had arranged for Pepe and his digger to support the caravan for the rest of it’s journey to avoid it tipping over on the rough track and he would arrive at four that afternoon to do the job. The site was identified, Pepe would be asked to clear it of dead, dried up weeds to reduce fire risk and after I had a quick tapas lunch I headed for Malaga and my flight leaving the boys to finish the job later. By the time I arrived home there was a message from Harald to say that the caravan had been sited successfully, he had erected the supporting legs and used a spirit level to make sure all was straight. What a great friend he proved to be.

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