Shaftesbury To The Gambia In A Three-Wheeled Car

Two Shaftesbury men are planning to leave Britain on Boxing Day for a 4,000-mile drive to The Gambia in a three-wheeled Reliant Rialto. Jonathan Buttress and Nick Merry will have to traverse beaches and minefields as part of their fundraiser for Dorset Mind.

You might have seen a distinctive three-wheeler in the Shaftesbury Carnival procession on Saturday. It came second in the ‘unclassified’ class. “It’s different. It’s definitely one of a kind. I look forward to getting it out on the road,” said Jon, as we inspected the three-wheeler, parked on Park Walk.

The fibreglass vehicle was gaining some attention. Before we started recording our interview a gentleman walked past and remarked, “If they have a crash in that, the fire brigade will cut them out with a butter knife.” Nick laughed, “If we ever crashed in that they would turn up with a dustpan and brush.”

Jonathan Buttress (right) and Nick Merry

These vehicles are rare. Nick says it was a ‘barn find’ purchased from Poole. “I’ve done some investigation, I think there’s only about 20 of them left in the UK,” said Nick. “Soon to be 19,” Jon interrupted.

“It’s a Reliant Rialto. It’s the same as the Robin, the same engine. They produced the Robin beforehand and then they went back to calling it the Robin afterwards,” Nick explained. “The sensible thing would be to do it up and sell it but that’s not fun. There’s probably fans of this model who will get upset with me taking it down to Africa and abusing it,” said Nick.

It was bought with this trip in mind. The men originally conceived the plan to drive to The Gambia as an alternative to the Paris to Dakar rally, but without the expense. The men have undertaken extreme driving challenges before. “We have been previously to Mali in a Ford Mondeo but that was far too easy. So we decided to do it in a three-wheeled, 30-year old car instead,” said Nick.

Nick says that the Mondeo had cruise control and was roomy inside. The three-wheeler will offer a very different experience. “It could be interesting because we will be crossing the desert and going off-road in the Sahara. The roads get progressively worse as you go further south. Northern Morocco is not too bad. They worsen as you get through Western Sahara. Once you get down into Mauritania, they are even worse. That’s where we go off-road and drive along the beach.”

Nick said the highways are in a dreadful state in Senegal and The Gambia. Jon drove on beaches during the last trip. “It’s certainly entertaining, especially when we got onto one at night. It was pitch black and all you can see is sand and sky. It is an experience,” he said.

Some of the countries the men will drive through are not what you would term the most stable. Jon and Nick are not concerned. “Last time we went it was the same situation. It was advised against by the Foreign Office for a couple of the places that we went to,” said Nick.

Surprisingly, the insurance required in travelling to countries that the government advises tourists not to visit is not too costly. “The specialist travel insurance is a bit more expensive, but it’s not ridiculous money. I think it’s about £180 for the two of us for this trip. That will cover us even through the countries that the Foreign Office says not to go to,” said Nick.

He clearly gets a buzz about visiting those nations with a reputation. “It’s all part of the challenge,” he smiled. I jokingly asked him whether he had checked who is Foreign Secretary at the moment, just to see if the current minster is reliable if they need help. “I believe there is consular assistance in Morocco but not in Mauritania,” said Nick. “If we get stuck in Mauritania, we’ve got a problem. We do have to drive through a minefield at one point, which is on the border between Mauritania and Morocco.”

Of course, travel advisories usually relate to the activities of extremists, terrorists or despotic leaders. The men’s experience of their last adventure in Africa was that the locals are lovely. “The people you meet there are incredible. They’re friendly and chatty. They’re brilliant mechanics as well. When we break down, and I’m sure we will, they’ll be able to help us get it going again,” Nick said.

“A lot of the car cars over there are of the older generation. It’s about the basic mechanics. That’s as basic as you can get,” said Jon, as he pointed to the three-wheeler. “We should be pretty well sorted.”

Jon doesn’t think the trip will test his friendship with Nick. “I think we are pretty good friends. We’ve known each other since primary school. What is now Abbey First School was St James,” said Jon.

The pair have been mates for forty years, after all. The biggest test will be fitting Nick into the vehicle. “I’m six foot two. I do kind of fit in it – ‘ish’,” he said. “We’ve modified one of the seats so far. We’ve got to modify the other one. I fitted the seat from a Smart Car. It is a little bit more comfortable than the original. It’s going to be cosy.” The men will share the driving.

Nick squeezes into the front seat

I looked inside the vehicle and noticed a white plastic clothes peg clipping something on the dashboard. “That’s holding the choke out when you start it,” said Nick. If you’re under 30 years of age, you might need to look up chokes. And the steering wheel has clearly seen some action. “It’s a little bit worn, isn’t it,” said Nick.

The men haven’t ‘souped-up’ the car in any way. “It’s had a bit of a service and that’s about it. We have still got to do a bit of tweaking to it. We’ve got to do some work internally to make it comfortable for a journey down there,” said Nick. Wires were dangling down from the back of the dashboard, hanging in front of the clutch pedal. Nick assured me that he didn’t have to hold wires to start the Rialto. “I haven’t actually got a clue what that wire does. I think it probably fell down when I was fiddling around there.”

The men are taking on the challenge to raise money for Dorset Mind. “We’ve all sort of had problems with mental health. My daughters and my wife have had problems with mental health. It just seemed the right charity to do something for,” said Nick.

The friends are setting off on their long journey on Boxing Day. “You’re only sat at home watching Christmas films so I thought we would set off and do something,” said Jon. They are not expecting a ‘send-off’ from the Town Band. “This time, we will be lucky if anyone even gets up to see us off. We’ve got to catch the ferry from Newhaven at 10am on Boxing Day morning,” said Nick.

I asked the men whether they had understanding employers. Jon does. He works for a company in Castle Cary and they have gladly granted him the time off. Nick is self-employed. Both of the men’s families are proud of them. “They’re supportive of it. They do think I’m completely mad and I’ve lost it completely this time by doing it in a Reliant. They wish me well and hope that I get back safe,” said Nick.

Jon’s family also think he’s bonkers. “They obviously thought I was mad the first time and they think I’m probably insane this time.

The men have not set a fundraising target but want to raise as much as they can. “Anyone can go to our JustGiving page to donate,” said Nick. You will find that at justgiving.com/fundraising/nick-merry3. “There is also got a Facebook page, ‘One Wheel Short’. We will put updates on that and tell more people about it,” said Nick.