In late 2012 I met randomly with an old school friend, Lucy Engleheart, whom I’d known since I was 10. This chance meeting set in motion a journey that would see the two of us drive around the Mediterranean Sea through North Africa and the Middle East a year and a half later in a 1971 Land Rover. We named our journey Shifting Sands.
At the time I was keen to get away and paint. Lucy had just returned from a round the world trip with her boyfriend and wanted to travel again. The whole process started when I found an expedition grant that included a new Land Rover! This got our minds rolling. I’d recently returned from a trip to Jordan and thought it would be quite interesting to explore the area a bit more. Lucy had recently been to Syria.
We thought “how hard can it be”? To apply for the grant only required 250 words and we thought we can do that over a bottle of wine!
Our plan was to drive down through France, into Morocco, across the coast of North Africa, on through the Middle East and back up through Eastern Europe to the UK. It was post Arab spring and not many independent travellers were going to that part of the world. Our hope was to broaden others’ perspectives about what this area has to offer.
Most people travelling to this part of the world at the time were journalists or aid workers with vested interests. We just wanted to go with no agenda to meet normal people. See normal families going to school, eat with them and get involved in their daily lives. At the end, hopefully come home with positive stories. We’re all the same, doesn’t matter what country you’re from.
A lot of really old maps put the Mediterranean at the centre of everything. So our plan was to document the people and connections we made with our own map of the Mediterranean.
Ultimately we didn’t win the grant including the free Land Rover. But we’d developed the idea over 4-5 months, so we thought sod it we’re going to do it anyway! We’d no money, no nothing. Looking back nobody would take us seriously, everyone thought we were crazy!
It took us a year and a half to get the point where we were nearly ready to set off. Lucy and I scrimped and saved but we still didn’t have a car.
One night Lucy was in the pub with her boyfriend and boyfriend’s brother. The brother mentioned how his wife wanted him to get rid of an old Land Rover in the barn. “I’ve got this old land rover that needs an adventure” and Lucy said “well, we’ve got an adventure that needs a land rover!” and that’s when we acquired ourselves a 1971 Series IIA Land Rover.
Lucy had spent 2 years driving overland trunks in Africa and had an extensive knowledge of bush mechanics. But not on a Land Rover. As an architect who’d been working a desk job for several years, I’d never driven a Land Rover before let alone fixed one!
The only modification we made to the Landy was to put a wooden platform across the back as a make shift bunk to sleep if required. With only a regular service to a car that had been sitting in a barn for a few years, in March 2014 we set off! We’d planned for the whole trip to take about 6 months spending 2 weeks in each country, staying a week in a city in each country to make connections.
We didn’t get off to a great start! On day two the rear differential broke when we were halfway through France. Our one and only major breakdown, it took a couple of phone calls back to the UK and about 8 hours under the car to remedy!
Every man thinks they’re a mechanic! There were a couple of times we let others we met on route help with a mechanical problem, but every time they’d touch the car they’d always break something! So for pretty much the entire trip we did the mechanics ourselves. At least if we broke it, we’d know what we broke!
It was strange actually, we found a much more chauvinistic attitude here in the UK than the Arab countries. Before we set out we wanted to fit a radio in the car and went to a garage in the Colchester to buy the parts. We’re going to build the housing and wire it in but were told in no uncertain terms that we were incapable of doing this ourselves. He refused to sell us the equipment!
Yet when we got to Tunisia we met these two guys. They didn’t blink an eye! Instead of worrying whether we could do it or not, they worried whether the size of speaker we bought would fit in with everyone else in Tunisia!
This kind of meeting was the story of the trip really. Many adventurers set out to complete big challenges, to go the fastest or climb the highest. But so often they say the best or pivotal moment of their adventure was the unexpected interactions with the people from different cultures. We’d always set out to document the people and places of our journey just instead of maps being the medium, our 1971 Landy became the piece of work!
We didn’t really have a strict idea on leaving London on what we’d be doing along our travels which turned out to be our biggest strength. It allowed for an organic transformation of the trip to something much more interesting.
Which was lucky really because after working on the build up to the trip for a year and a half with Lucy it turned out we had completely different ideas of what we’re going to be doing!
The car broke down all the time but having to look for parts or help made the trip! By going through each country and working the car as we went along, it gave us the reasons to go deeper into the communities and cultures. It made the trip not just about us but everyone’s contribution along the way.
By the time we got to Morocco we were both going deaf, the noise inside the cab was absolutely hideous. We’d measured 97 decibels in driver’s footwell! That’s like standing beside a really loud lawnmower for hours on end! We wore ear protectors but even still I got an ear infection, and we both got tinnitus. We thought at one stage we’d have to cancel the rest of the trip.
At the start of the trip I would shy away from calling myself an artist, but not by the end
As we were walking around Marrakech we saw this artist using local materials, one of which was a really thick cork. I knew cork was a really good insulating material so we approached him and he invited us to his work shop. When we told him about our project he said his gift to our project was to have his local artisans line the Landy with cork!
Whilst we sat under the car attaching the new rear differential (shipped from UK) they applied the cork. To our surprise they even put all this brass detailing and Moroccan metal work around the steering wheel, the hand break and dash board. It really was beautiful, and we could hear again!
Our first night in Algeria we stayed with Fatima and her family for 2 nights. Fatima was absolutely awesome and interesting. This was both Fatima and our first couch surfing experiences!
It was intense! Lucy and I slept in the sitting room. Their culture is all about spending as much time as possible with guests. So eventhough Fatima had a bed of her own she slept with us in the sitting room!
It was good there was two of us. As I was being dressed up in head scarves, Lucy could update social media or look for the next place to stay! Fatima’s sister made all these beautiful things at home and she gave us a present of this amazing embroidered pieces that we sowed into the back of the Landy’s seats.
In Libya we found this lovely fabric shop. Outside we met Musa, a Ghanaian, who could sew. With this lovely fabric Musa made the curtains we needed for the back of the Landy.
Language was a bit of a barrier, but from what we could gather Musa had arrived in Tripoli 2 months previously. It seems likely that his next move may have been to get into Europe, but this is just our guess. A lot of the old town had immigrants in the port waiting to move on. Our two hour meeting with Musa brought home the number of people and severity of the refugee situation.
In Libya and all across the coast we met Syrian refuges migrating to the different countries. In Algeria the snazziest restaurant in town was owned by affluent Syrians refugees who’d made the decision to leave Syria earlier than most. We have this stereotypical view in the UK of refugees being poor with little to offer, but refugees come every level of society desperate for a better life.
By Jordan we’d slept in the Landy a few times and kept getting splinters in our sleeping bags from the wooden deck. So we decided to paint and varnish it. We had to service the car anyway, so with the help of our local friends and all his kiddies we got to work!
We took it to a workshop and with the kids help we got with painting and sanding. It was great, a proper community event. We painted the deck in white, black and green lines and triangles in patterns from the Bedouin nomadic tents.
Algeria blew us away. Right from the start it was the most welcoming place we’ve ever been and both of us have travelled quite a bit. As Lucy drove off the ferry a guard shouted through her window “Welcome to Algeria Mrs Land Rover”!
We’d walk into a shop to look at some fabrics and walk out with free cakes! One guy gave us coupons for 350 litres of fuel that got us all the way through the country. We would stay in youth hostels, and wouldn’t be let pay instead being taking out for dinner.
Maybe it’s because in Algeria they don’t depend on tourism, they don’t see dollar signs on your face. I don’t mean that in a mean way, it’s just the way it is in some countries. In Algeria it’s difficult for Algerian’s to get visas so we were a great way for Algerians to meet foreigners and find out more about the outside world.
Our Shifting Sands expedition was the most incredible 6 months of my life, but it was absolutely exhausting.
I had a few barriers to cross, and emotional turmoil for family and friends who didn’t want us to undertake this trip. On top of my own awe at how we were going to take this on, I’d have friends calling asking how are you going to do this? “You’re crazy” they’d say! It was really tough.
The trip was such a huge gift for me, it’s given me the confidence that I can draw. On our journey I drew every day, it was my time to focus on the present moment and be mindful. I’ve always secretly wanted to be an artist but I never felt it was my life.
People would stop in the street and look at my drawing and say “oh you are an artist”. I was an architect and being an artist was someone else’s life. At the start of the trip I would shy away and say no, I was an architect but by the end I would say “Yea I’m an artist”!
In the same way at the start I wasn’t a mechanic, by the end we were both mechanics!
I’d like now to combine art with travelling. I’ve started a new project called Urban Artventuring – which brings all my interests together: people, stories and places. I’m commissioned to draw specific locations in a city, connect the people and their stories with the location.
This way I hope to explore cities through other peoples’ eyes – a new way to travel and discover.
I like to think of myself now as a Creative Explorer, it covers most things I want to do – And why not make up my own job description!
Find out more about Anne-Laure and Lucy’s Shifting Sands journey at shifting-sands.com