It is one of those moments where the inevitable looms, like a truck coming towards you full tilt. ‘Fuck,’ says Jon.
I say like, as though an apt, crafty simile, but in fact a truck has actually just come towards us. Immediately after impact with the side of the bridge, my right eye pops open to assess the situation: nobody is hurt; our fragile frames remain intact.
But there is now a distinct paucity of functioning wheels on my truck, and our quest to reach Athens is rapidly falling into abeyance. Thank heavens, at least, that the kettle is still OK.
We are travelling with four other trucks – our single ATA carnet has to be processed with us all together – so at least Jon and I have some assistance and moral support. Consequently we immediately set about changing wheels just to get me over the Bulgarian border. The disadvantage of loitering colleagues however, is that I can’t really boil the kettle – it looks bad whilst nine other drivers stand around puffing and panting with wheel braces.
For anybody in the know, truck wheels are incredibly heavy – the lifting of which ought certainly to be avoided by trombone-playing travel writers. What if I break a nail?
So I pace a bit, pretending to direct traffic, and waving at the remaining AC/DC trucks rolling past, colleagues’ faces glued to our predicament as they briefly contemplate slowing down.
Glossing over the particulars, we do eventually manage to limp through the remainder of Serbia, clearing Customs reasonably swiftly. Entering Bulgaria however, is a rigmarole; one is handed a USB stick at the first booth, and a frosty glare. This stick is then bandied about from window to window – god help you if you miss one – as road vignettes are bought, and carnets stamped.
Athens is signposted as we creep past the last booth: 929 kilometres. Crumbs, that still sounds like an awfully long way.
Michelin Tyre Assistance rings me as I’m finally relaxing on the Bulgarian side, tucking into something inedible from an incomprehensible menu.
‘Mr. Barny?’ asks a thickly-accented voice on the other end of the receiver. ‘This is Mr. Melan. We can’t get anybody to come out to you in Bulgaria. Can you go back across the border?’
Well, frankly, no. One simply can’t drive willy-nilly across these bleak, bureaucratic frontiers. And whilst I’m thinking about it, why can’t the authorities brighten up the concrete with a few French marigolds or a hanging basket? Tsk.
‘We could have a tyre on the Serbian side in one hour,’ continues Mr. Melan. A drawn-out debacle ensues, beginning with a deferent chat with Customs agents enjoying an espresso break on the next table. The short version is that it then takes eight hours to travel from Serbia – Bulgaria – Serbia – Bulgaria to have the tyre changed.
This also involves detaching the tractor unit from the trailer so that I have no goods to declare – call it a little brainwave of mine, if you like. So, AC/DC’s trailer languishes with Jon in Bulgaria while I wait deliriously for a tyre fitter one kilometre away on the Serbian side. Jon moodily quaffs espressos in a different country – gradually depleting the pocket money I’d left him – and assumes I’ll be no longer than an hour.
When I’m finally mobile again, and sidle up to the first USB Gestapo booth once more, they’ve changed shifts and regard me belligerently.
Well, what on earth do I think I’m doing with no trailer? I think briefly of looking round in mock horror – ‘Ooh, it must have fallen off somewhere on the Nis road’ – but humour seems to be poorly received today. And anyway, I’m not in the mood.
Now to add insult to injury, once under way and reunited with Wrecker Jon, I have never seen so many tyre places in one country. Just half an hour into Bulgaria, the Sofia ring road -shanty towns to the north, and hideous Soviet-style blocks of flats to the south – is simply littered with forecourts stacked with truck tyres. The last six hours must surely have been a cruel, practical jape.
Progressing bumpily on crumbling roads, we guess as professional drivers what the speed limit for trucks might be in this country. ‘Flat out?’ suggests Jon, adding sugar to his tea as we pass another tyre retailer.
That sounds about right, yes – the company motto has always been ‘Drive fast, take chances’. Of course, in this new age of health and safety, we now say, ‘drive within reason, and take calculated risks.’ I jest of course. We still drive fast.
A sign reading ‘Automated Disinfection’ greets us at the border, yet there is no robot wearing washing-up gloves. In fact, nothing happens, except that a swarthy chap demands to see our passports. I think it must be an old sign, from the days of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans.
Now what with the severe delay, we cannot complete the journey to Athens legally. Well, we could but we’d need to stop for a nine-hour break, potentially imperilling the Greek concert. Yet the show must go on, as they say in show business.
‘How far can you get?’ asks the transport manager in the office. We’ll make Thessaloniki, I reckon, and consequently two drivers are flown there immediately. They will continue with the truck to Athens, while Wrecker and I put our feet up in a twin room for what is left of the night.
A few hours later, the phone rings. It’s one of the relief drivers with extraordinarily vague instructions regarding the rendezvous point. ‘Hotel Nikopolis is where you want,’ he says airily. ‘It’s a white building five minutes from the airport, next to a hospital.’ Oh great, that should be a piece of cake, Greece being signposted the way it is.
Just imagine, if you will, that you’re driving an eighteen-wheeler on the international route to Athens and think whether nebulous directions such as these would help you in any way whatsoever..