The Recovery

Now, how in the diamond hell did this happen? It’s just before 10 pm and I’m in Exeter services and I’ve got a flat tyre. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, but the tyre is on a trailer, the trailer is on the back of a Ford Ranger pick up and the spare isn’t bolted on the trailer where it should be, or even in the load bed of the Ranger.

No, the correctly-sized spare tyre and wheel combination for this trailer are sitting outside a workshop – outside a workshop in Ryde. That’s Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and THAT is and long way from Exeter and this situation is upsetting the AA person on the other end of the phone. I was in Ryde on the Isle of Wight at just after 5 pm this evening, shortly after I finished work and collected the Ford Ranger from my parents (yes, I’ll be nice to it). I then dodged the traffic around Newport and headed for the Yarmouth-Lymington Wightlink ferry to start a mammoth road trip to collect what will shortly become known as the Dodokas project.

Truth be told, I tried to dodge the rush hour traffic in Newport, but wound up reversing the pick up and trailer a quarter of a mile back up a small lane and then rolling a young girls’ Fiesta down into a farm entrance after she’d ploughed into a delivery van at the speed of … Death Metal! That was what hit me when I twisted the key to try to start the Fiesta to get it out of my way and clear the road to avoid a major hold up that would inevitably incorporate tractors and trailers as I can see a forager working in the field next to the hedge.

Off the ferry in Lymington and straight to a petrol station to fill up the pick up with just under £40 of diesel. This will become a very regular occasion in the next few hours, rather too regular for my liking, but I’m committed now, so here goes, zero the trip and head off on to the road, bearing south west. The roads to Exeter are not a lot of fun in any vehicle – always busy and it’s early Friday evening and it’s raining. A lot. Relief comes between the towns, nice open roads where I can stretch the legs of the pick up. With 2.5 litres, a turbo and 12 valves it’s a lot pokier than my doka, which is a relief. It also has ABS and pretty powerful lights. It only has a tape player, though, so I’ve zoomed back to the mid-nineties and we’re cruising along, slightly misty-eyed to the Wonder Stuff.

This pick up also has a very entertaining feature in this weather – part time 4WD. Unless it’s snowing or we’re off-road this means 2WD and on wet roads like this that means one thing, even with an unladen trailer – powerslides! The roads are emptying a bit as I near Exeter and there are several roundabouts where the casual observer would have seen a rather sideways pick up sliding gracefully around, followed by a large flat object, apparently trying to go straight on. Ahem.

Anyway, I was in Exeter before ten pm and when I came back out from having some ‘food’ while I was waiting for Aidan ‘Mustard Pot’ I had noticed that one of the rear tyres on the trailer was distinctly soggy. The AA person on the phone doesn’t want to help me. ‘We can’t send anyone to help you because without a spare tyre the car wouldn’t pass an MOT’ is his opening gambit. ‘The trailer doesn’t have an MOT’ I venture. ‘What ?’ exclaims the fourth emergency service. ‘It doesn’t need one, it’s a TRAILER.’ Deadpan seems to be the only way forward. I’ve now settled down on the wheel arch of the forlorn trailer – this is not going to be a short conversation. Inevitably I get the return of ‘I’ll have to speak to my supervisor’ and the line goes dead. After what seems long enough for someone to actually make and ship a tyre to me direct the person comes back on the phone, ‘We’ll have someone out to you straight away.’

This is a relief as without four inflated tyres there’s no way I’m going to be able to collect two double cab Syncro T25s from St Ives and deliver them to a lock up in Bristol in the next day and that would not be good. The phone conversation doesn’t get better though – ‘What’s the postcode where you are please?’ I’m asked. ‘Errr, I dunno, it’s Exeter Motorway Services, there’s only one.’ The person on the other end of the phone then seems to go through the entire list of motorway services in the UK before finally hitting on Exeter. Unfortunately the concept of a single motorway services at one point as opposed to separate services on either carriageways is proving very difficult to grasp in the AA call centre. My location is finally decided and apparently someone will be with me soon. I’m not hopeful though.

While I wait for someone I grovel around under the trailer. On the boat I checked the brakes, it would appear that one of the rods that should allow them to operate is completely missing. Aidan’s supposed to be bringing some M8 threadbar and an assortment of nuts. If we don’t have enough bar the trip is going to become very ‘interesting’. Cornwall isn’t renowned for its straight, flat roads and there’s going to be over a tonne of unbraked lump behind me soon, rather than a nice, light trailer.

A breakdown truck appears, circles the pick up and drives off into the coaches. Less than half an hour was too much to ask for, wasn’t it? Shortly after, I get a phone call – ‘Hello, we’re from the AA, where are you parked?’ I can see the guy in the breakdown truck that circled me on the other side of the parking. He’s on the phone, looking down. Coincidence? ‘By the entrance to the service buildings’ I say, looking straight at him. ‘I’m in a pick up with a trailer on it.’ His head snaps up ‘Oh the AA said you had a caravan’.

After a short chat, where I discover that some of his family holiday on the Isle of Wight and his questionioning of my sanity when discovering what I’m trying to do, he’s off to get a tube for the spare wheel. Phew. So, where’s Aidan? ‘There was traffic. We’re just south of Bristol.’ He’s getting a lift down here with Sheldon82 and they’ll get here eventually. Best get comfy in the cab. Aidan actually gets to me before the AA contractor and the threadbar does fit and then the man comes back with a fully operational wheel – we’re back in business.

From Exeter the journey’s an easy one – get on the A30 and stay on it until St Ives. Apparently the guy who’s selling the dokas will meet us there, whenever we get there, so that’s OK. After a few miles and when Aidan’s just commenting what a nice truck the Ranger is we change from tarmac to concrete. ‘BLOODY HELL’ goes Aidan. ‘I’m sorry’ I say. In its day one of the key advantages the T25 had over its rivals was coil springs all round, giving that lovely, plush ride. Fifteen years later cart springs are still ubiquitous in pick ups. This endows the Ranger with a fantastically stiff-legged gait and when towing and on concrete the ride builds up to a spine-jarring oscillation, which Aidan has just discovered. All I can do is apologise and hope we return to tarmac as soon as possible.

Thankfully, the road is only concrete for a short while and around 2 am a tidy blue doka pulls round a roundabout in front of us and flashes a work light at us – we’ve found Dan and should have the first doka loaded shortly. A short while later he pulls up and I turn the rig round and park up just down the road. This is his parents house and we must be quiet. Oh and the dokas are round the back and the first one has no gearbox. On the plus side, it’s down hill all the way to the trailer. We push the red doka round the house and roll it down to the trailer, the bed of which is already tilted ready to accept its load. Despite this we can’t push the truck onto the trailer. After some faffing about with a hi-lift jack I get out the webbing straps that will hold the doka on the trailer and ratchet it the last bit.

The bed goes down, Dan hands us a bag containing six cans of Red Bull, wishes us good luck and we’re off again. Well, we would be off, but we have to stop at the first available petrol station to brim the tank again.

I continue driving and all’s going well for the first ten miles. We’ve just gone across a very exposed stretch of the A30 and things aren’t right. In the tail lights of the Ranger I can see the headlights of the doka, dimly illuminated. Until now they’ve been steady, but now they’re weaving. In fact the whole rig is weaving and the weave is building. I try continuing at the same speed – the weave gets bigger. I try slowing down gently – the weave gets bigger. I try braking – the weave gets bigger. We’re now taking up both carriageways of the dual carriageway and in the green light of the cab I can see Aidan staring at me, more than slightly concerned. I know all of the blood has drained out of my face, but does he? ‘Frell’ I mutter, punch the hazard warning lights in, dip the clutch, select fourth and slam the throttle on the floor. The Ranger surges forward, the weave stops, all is well, I light up a cigarette. We were very close to hitting the Armco and that was one of the scariest moments in my driving career. Still, we’re OK and the job’s still on, best get on and drive.

We stop in Exeter and check all of the tyre pressures, but they’re all spot on. The weaving remains a mystery. I drive until Taunton services, when Aidan takes the helm. Thankfully the M5 is pretty straight and I sleep for a fair bit of the way up to Bristol, coming to near Portishead. The trailer is weaving a bit again, Aidan holds it steady and puts it into the ruts in the road surface made by the forty tonners, it straightens out after a fashion, but feels a lot worse in the passenger seat.

At 8 am we pull up outside Mark ‘Mudlark’s’ shop. He won’t be around for a while, so Aidan tears into cereal. I’m working on chocolate, so eat another couple of bars. The roads in Bristol are quiet and it’s just getting light. It seems odd that we’ve been going so long and the day’s just starting. Mark turns up after a short while and opens the lock up that will be the dokas’ new home for a bit. It’s a good, big space, more than capable of swallowing a couple of T25s. We tilt the bed of the trailer and run the red doka into the workshop. Apparently SyncroAndy’s on his way, but we have a date with a white doka in Cornwall, so we turn tail and head for the motorway again, before 9 am.

Of course, we don’t quite make it that easily, as another fuel stop is required as the Ranger’s fuel is almost spent AGAIN. Good grief, this is a diesel! It’s supposed to be good on fuel! I’m back at the helm again and it’s nice to be driving without a large brick following us. The Ranger keeps up well with the traffic and soon enough we’re approaching Exeter again, we fly past it and I don’t even notice the concrete section and Aidan is examining the insides of his eyelids, which can’t go on for much longer as I’m going to need to do the same again. Eventually I admit defeat and bring us up in a lay by.

A quick change over is effected and we’re off again. At least Dan’s parents should be up when we get there this time! I alert Dan when we’re 10miles out of St Ives. He’ll be there, don’t worry. He is and we get to swarm over his 16 doka, even more stunning in the daylight. His parents are pleased to see us and shower us in tea, I think they may be a little grateful to be losing the pair of derelict VWs that have been occupying their parking spaces. We aren’t resolving their problem entirely though – there’s still a Beetle shell and various other oily lumps abandoned where the dokas had been. There’s also a set of Suzuki Jimny wheels that Dan was hoping to fit to one of the dokas, quite how I’m not sure. I offer to relieve him and his father is keen to lose them – they’ll pay for the hire of the trailer, too. We load them into the back of the Ranger, maybe a little weight over the towbar will settle it down..

I’m still driving and there’s a white lump behind us again – I can see it clearly in the rear view mirror in the daylight now. We’ve filled up with fuel another time and are hauling the second beast to Bristol, currently on ‘that’ section of the A30, exactly the same place where the rig got a weave on the last time and it’s doing it again. It’s also more windy and there’s blatantly a lot more traffic than there was at 3 am. The hazards are on and we’re all over the shop. I try accelerating, but to no avail, so give the brakes a sharp dab, hopefully – success. I light up. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme nor reason to how to stop the damned thing once it starts and all I can make out is that weaving trailers are not good for my lungs. If Aidan doesn’t let go of that arm rest soon he’s going to lose the circulation in his fingers, too.

My driving shift is over at Exeter and Aidan heads up towards Bristol again. He takes it a bit easier than me and we don’t have any more incidents with the trailer. When we arrive at the lock up SyncroAndy is waiting with Mark. The red doka has been pushed well back, but the white one is going to have to be pushed in at an angle as there’s an RSJ upright in the way. After much heaving and grunting we admit defeat – it’s not going in with us pushing. ‘Hang on’ says Mark and disappears into the shop car park. He reappears with a T4 van and a big bit of cardboard. Andy positions the cardboard and with a roar of the T4s’ TDI and a big grin from Mark the white doka rolls home. The job is done.

Andy and Aidan are going to have a poke around at our new and rather ropey looking purchases. I’d love to stay, but I have a date with a ferry and a very comfortable bed. Before that I have a date with another petrol station though! I steam back down to Lymington and get on the 18:15 boat. I had left the Island on the 18:00 the evening before. As I roll back into the marshalling yard the trip meter rolls over to 900miles. I wasn’t going to do this dokas thing. I was skint and I already owned one! Over £200 on diesel and about £50 on the ferry and it looks like I’ve dived in with both feet. How on earth did that happen?!

by Thomas Cowley