I spent the second night tucked in behind a semi on a side-street near a McDonald’s. My gas gauge was getting very low and I couldn’t find any open gas stations. The thought of running out of gas on a freeway, in the dark, where people did in excess of 100mph terrified me, so I called it a night, found a quiet place, and slept.
The next morning I was up early, determined to make up some time. I found a gas station and was on my way! I headed south through Germany and into Austria with the landscape becoming more and more beautiful. The open grassy lands of the north gave way to soaring peaks and deep valleys in the south. There were beautiful walled chalets on hilltops, thick forests, and steep Rocky Mountains. I had to remind myself that this trip was not about Europe, and I made a mental note to come back again soon for a proper visit to Germany and Austria.
I passed through the southern border and into Slovenia. I wish there was more to say about it, but I passed straight through without so much as even having to stop for fuel.
My main sight for the day was to be in Podgaric, Croatia. I had read that, up on a hillside, in the middle of nowhere was an impressive monument that looked like something out of a science fiction movie. I was determined to see this thing for myself.
The temperature had climbed to 88 degrees (31.5 Celsius) and it was really heating up in the rascal. Stopping for anything immediately kilted the airflow and it got unbearably wam. I pulled over to a gas station and headed for the cold Cokes and ice cream. I chatted with a couple of Brits who were heading to Romania on their motorcycles. The had passed me earlier on their bikes. They joked that I was never going to make it Mongolia if I kept going that slow. None of us had any idea just how slow this was going to get.
I turned off the freeway and headed about ten miles along winding country roads to where I hoped the monument would be. I was beginning to lose faith when I turned a corner and saw it. There, perched on a hill above a small lake was the monument.
Erected to the soldiers who dies from 1941 - 1945, the monument is an imposing and surreal concrete structure. Part Star Wars spacecraft, and part concrete bird, the structure appears to be readying for flight. I had been prepared to be disappointed (as many things you see on the internet often are in real life), but this was even more surreal than I had anticipated. Adding to the the surrealness of it all was the absolute silence. There was no one around. No cars came by. No dogs barked. It was perfectly still.
I got back in the Rascal and headed back to the freeway. I was almost a full day behind schedule and desperately wanted to make up some hours. The miles flew by as I passed from Croatia into Serbia, heading for Belgrade. That is when things started to go wrong.
So far I have been able to use Google maps as a backup to my paper map. This has been especially helpful in cities where the map I have does not have enough detail to be truly useful. However, when I entered Serbia, my phone cut out. The international SIM card I was using apparently did not work in Serbia.
“Oh, well” I thought as I looked at my map. “It looks like I just stay on this freeway, thank the left fork at Belgrade, and it is smooth sailing to the Romanian border. I should be there late tonight.” But it was not smooth sailing. There was no left fork. I realized pretty quickly I was off track and pulled over t o a gas station. I pointed out to the attendant where I thought I was, and he agreed. He then pointed me back in the right direction, gave me three turns to make, and then I would be on the right track. I dutifully followed the first two turns but could not find the third!!!
I drove farther and farther along, doing something I swore I would not do...drive after dark. There were no lights on the freeway, and cars were passing at over 100mph. Add to that the up and down grades of 11% and I had to get out of there. I took the first off ramp I could find and tried to calm my nerves. Just as I was about to pull in to a parking lot and call it a night, I looked up and saw a sign for the road I had been looking for! It was just my luck! I turned right and followed a semi. The road wound through some parts of the city before opening up again. This didn't feel like what I thought the road would be, so I pulled over. I got out the sat phone and called Michelle for assistance. Using the tracking device on the van, she was able to tell where I was and give me some advice.
Unfortunately, what she was seeing on her screen and what I was seeing on the ground were two different things. Coupled with the fact that I could not read any ofthe signs, I was going on blind faith and dumb luck. Back home, Michelle was screaming at the computer, “Stop! Turn around! You are going the wrong way!!!”
I was exhausted when I crossed the border. I couldn't figure out why the border agents were giving me strange looks. I chalked it up to the Rascal and went on my way. My phone got service again and I checked back in with Michelle to thank. Her and let her know I had made it safely. It was then that I realized I was back in Croatia!!! That is the problem with not being able to read Cyrillic/Serbian/Croatian.
I was embarrassed and dejected. This was supposed to be the easy part of the Rally and I was failing miserably. I pulled into a gas station, set up my hammock and went to sleep.
Four and a half hours later I was up and ready to try again. I checked the maps and had a plan of attack. I paid close attention to all the signs and followed them exactly, and was lost again. I pulled into a parking lot and looked up to find that it was a Suzuki dealership! My Rascal is just a Suzuki with a different name on it, so I stepped inside to ask for directions (and some oil filters). I again showed on my map where I thought I was, and where i wanted to go. It took four people consulting to come up with a plan to get me there. “It is very common to be lost in Serbia,” one man mused. The directions he wrote were two pages long, included maps, diagrams, and landmarks. I would like to say that he was sending me the long way around, but this turned out to be the “simple” path outlined on my atlas! I guess it left out a few details!!!
I wove through the outskirts of town before crossing over the Danube river. It actually was blue! Who knew?!?!
I passed through idyllic small towns in the agricultural areas surrounding Belgrade. Again, this did not look like what I had expected to be a major route to pass between countries, but at least this time the signs matched up! The gas gauge was getting close to “E” again, so I pulled over at a small station to fill up and get something cold to drink. There were only two options at the pump: Gas and Diesel. I chose the former, filled up, paid, and left. That is when things really went wrong.
The Rascal gave a hiccup. Then another. Then it slowed sown. Waaaaaay down. I found the next small town and pulled over in front of a house that (I believe) was for rent. I did my mental checklist and decided that I must have put the wrong gas in the tank. What else could it be? The Rascal was running. I put gas in it. Then it didn’t run.
I devised a way to pump the gas out of the tank and into my jerrycans. About half way through I had second thoughts and decided to try a few other things before I pumped out all the gas. That way, if it was something else there would be gas in the tank to actually try and start the Rascal.
I changed the points (which are the bane of my existence) and that did not help. I checked my spark plug wires and they were fine. Oil was good. Coolant was good. Nothing was working. So I decided to get help. I mean, there was no way I could have been so dumb as to put diesel in the gas tank, right??? Turns out there was a garage just four doors down from where I had parked. They would be able to get to the bottom of the problem in no time... Eexcept it was closed!
I wrote down the number for the garage and walked to the local convenience store to ask the cashier to call. She informed me that she knew the mechanic, and he was in Sweden!!! She made a few phone calls and found someone who wold come “in half an hour”. I was reluctant to leave the little shop because it had air conditioning, but I was becoming an inconvenience. The shop was only slightly larger than the Rascal, and I was taking up a lot of room. Other customers had to turn sideways to get past me. I chose a beer from the cooIer and an ice cream from the freezer as the next best options and tried to pay for them. The store was cash only and I had no Dinars!!! What else could go wrong?!?! I left the little shop and sat down in the shade of a house to wait for the mechanic.
A little while later, a man walked by and put a liter of Coke next to me. He smiled and said, “You have no Dinars,” and walked away. I thanked the man. It was pretty clear everyone in the little town knew about my predicament.
An hour later a small sliver Peugeot pulled up in front of me. Two men got out and started chatting in Serbian. The older, skinnier of the two came over to me to sort out the issue. Darko Kasler introduced himself. He spoke a few words of English, some French, and a touch of Italian. Between the three. Languages and a lot of hand gestures I was able to explain what I had done to try to solve the problem. He smelled the gas I had pumped out, looked at me, and said, “Diesel.” Yep, I had been that dumb. He let me know that he was going to tow me back to his shop where he would drain the tank and get me sorted.
The younger, bigger guy never introduced himself. He sat in the Rascal and steered while I rode in the Peugeot with Darko. There was air conditioning!!! While we drove, he told me a little bit about himself. He had been in the army and had seen service during the Kosovo War. I could tell it soured him on on politics. “The men of Serbia are good. Politics are shit. Blair, Clinton, Trump, Milosovich. All the same. All shit.”While I’m not sure I would lump them all together, I had to agree with him that the people of a country are usually much better than the politicians of that country. It was a topic he would return to frequently.
We arrived at his shop, a large garage tucked in behind an impressive house. We parked on the sunny driveway next to the shop, and he immediately got to work fixing my mistake. He had several young men there who obviously worked for him in some sort of apprenticeship role. He often had to leave my Rascal to check the work they were doing on the other cars. The man who had been riding in the Rascal said something to Darko. Darko spun a front wheel and said, “Brakes. Stuck.” Well, so much for my vehicle passing its MOT!
The pumping out of diesel was going slow, so Darko took me a few doors down to his house where we sat in the cool of his patio, drank beer and talked. He yelled for his daughter to come join us. She was 12 and apparently had been learning English in school. Her English was very good, and she served as a translator for us. I asked her to thank her father for coming to rescue me. His response was simple. “Serbian men are good.” I explained where I was from in the U.S. and Dark got very excited. He had seen a special one the Discovery channel about Oregon and was fascinated by our big trees. He kept making the sound of a chainsaw.
The beers drunk, we walked back over to the check the progress on the Rascal. It looked ready to go. We hopped in his Peugeot and sped off to get some gasoline and Dinar. At the gas station he pointed out exactly which pump I should use. Slowly. Carefully. He wanted to make sure I never made this mistake again!
Back at his shop we poured the gasoline into the tank and he set about getting it started using some starter fluid. It was at that time that I realized why my Rascal was so loud: The seam on my muffler was split! Just how good of a job did the mechanics do back in the UK checking the Rascal out??? The Rascal roared back to life (literally...that thing is LOUD) and I heaved a massive sigh of relief. I wasn’t out of this yet.
Darko took the driver side front wheel off and pulled off the brakes. He just shook his head and showed me the brake pads. Now, I’m not exactly sure what he said to me. Like I mentioned before, we were working with a serious language barrier, but I think that he was explaining that the brake pads were completely shot. The last word sounded a lot like, “Catastrophe”. Now, to be fair, he could have been telling me that driving my car was as much fun as playing with a box full of cats. You never can tell with the language barrier!
The passenger side was just as bad, so we hopped back in the Peugeot and sped off to the parts store. Suffice it to say there were no Bedford Rascal brake pads lying around. He and the manager went in the back and consulted while I waited. Ten minutes later he emerged with a box tucked under his arms and said, “American. We go.” I couldn’t tell if this was good or bad.
We stopped a few doors down. He looked at me very seriously and said, “you hungry?” YES! I was starving! I had eaten some biscuits (cookies) earlier that morning, but that was it. He took me into a bakery and ordered Burek, a spiral filo-type pastry filled with sausage. “Serbian food,” he told me. “Real good.” He was not kidding. It was amazing. Flaky, flavorful, and exactly what I needed.
Back at his shop, he got to work. There had been no pads that would work, so he got the closest pads he could find and got to work shaping them with an angle grinder. One of his young assistants looked at him, looked at the pad, looked at me and said wryly, “Serbia.” The two of them laughed and the sparks began to fly.
Ten minutes later my set of custom made brake pads were being placed on the Rascal. Within a half an hour it was all over. The Rascal was ready for action!
Darko guided me back to the gas station where I could fill up the Rascal. We dra another beer and toasted to my good luck. He warned me never to put diesel in again, and I promised I would not. As the sun set in the west, I slipped out of town and across the Romanian border.