Two things stood out from our brief visit to Albania, the cars on the road and their drivers. I read somewhere that in Albania 80% of cars are Mercedes. Although this seems ridiculous, our experience told us it couldn’t be far from the truth. This is apparently due to a large scale smuggling operation after the government collapsed in the 90s. Thousands of Albanian economic refugees were given asylum in Western Europe. Once they were there they stole lots of Mercedes and drove them back home to Albania to sell them. We saw evidence of this practice when we investigated a scrap yard for Land Rover parts. All we found there was an elephant graveyard of Mercedes Benz carcasses with Italian and German number plates.
The roads in Albania are not too bad but broadly single carriageway, they are full of freight and as a result the Albanians have become, shall we say, very confident bordering on psychotic when overtaking. The sheer consistency of this behavior was impressive. Throughout our drive through Albania we were being overtaken more than we weren’t, when we came round a corner or over a hill it was unusual not find two sets of headlights coming towards us at frightening speeds. The Albanians overtake with blind faith in the compliance of the person being overtaken. The whole system would become a 20 car fireball if ever just one person failed to obey this rule. The ominous bouquets that lined the road implied this was not necessarily an exceptional event.
Next we crossed Albania to Kosovo, another less than textbook border. Rich was driving when we pulled up to a crush of burning brake lights and jarring horns. The other drivers informed us that the road into Kosovo had been barricaded by anti-government protests. This was a serious blow to morale, we were all tired, hungry and still a long way from our destination in Macedonia. We sat while many Albanians turned and sped off the wrong way up the motorway. We were contemplating this as our only remaining option when a helpful man with a thuggish air approached our car from the shadows of the central reservation and tapped on the window. He was also heading into Kosovo and willing to show us a route around the barricaded tunnel. Our team was divided, half wanted to take the man at his word and follow, the rest were convinced that this was a Kosovan rebel and we were imminently going to find ourselves reading a poorly translated script into a camera-phone with four armed men looming behind us. In our sleep starved state we were all a bit edgy.
As a result of the “we are about to be kidnapped!” party not being able to come up with an alternate plan we followed our furtive guide. He climbed into his 90s Italian Mercedes and set off on a mud track down the side of the motorway embankment. We followed as he deftly negotiated an abandoned building site and continued through infinite murky backwaters. As we distanced ourselves from the lights of the motorway the “we are about to be kidnapped” party was garnering support. In our caffeine addled state we watched the Merc scramble up an impossible trail of soil and loose rocks. We followed. Just as we were all mentally selecting the photo our parents would give to the BBC to accompany the headlines we reached the apex and emerged on an expanse of deserted motorway. Our guide strolled over to us from his car and explained in broken English that his Samaritan favour would cost us 50 euros. The relief in the car was palpable, this man was merely a crook not a saber rattling revolutionary. I have never been so pleased by an attempted fleecing. We gave him 10 euros and sent him on his way disgruntled but thankfully not militant.
We arrived in Skopje, Macedonia in the small hours, located a hostel and slept. The next day was uneventful except for a brief comic interlude for everyone but me. I was interrupted from the call of nature and chased scurrying back to the Landie by an enormous stray dog with the build and attitude of a Millwall fan.
We crossed into Greece and drove along the Aegean coast to Athens where we would pick up two more temporary teammates bringing our number to a magnificent seven in the Landie. Ambitious?