Split - Sarajevo - 291 Km
Today the tone of the driver’s briefing was back to being military and serious and we all paid attention accordingly. We were instructed we would have full police escort all day with the diplomatic core riding shotgun with us giving immunity. We were to gather at the border and await further instructions. We grouped up as requested and followed orders to radio check on channel 1.
The driving that followed was possibly one of the most memorable experiences of my career to date. Finally, the slow coaches had to keep pace and the racers had to hold back. This produced fast and concise driving. We had to keep the convoy tight and stop none convoy vehicles breaking the formation by watching the road likes hawks.
Police out riders and traffic officers raced ahead to ensure junctions were closed to the public and we were instructed not to pay any attention to any traffic lights.
Briefed to ‘own the road’ and use our horns and lights as appropriate the attention this stint required was awe inspiring. We were also instructed to conduct high speed ‘drive by’ overtakes past the media vehicles who had photographers strapped in to the back of the vehicles yet hanging out to get the best shots.
When told to go, you had to have faith in the convoy leader and media car that they had eyes for you on the road ahead and simply had to go when instructed. The roads were in quite poor condition and made of concrete meaning that traction was low and scrubbing off speed was difficult without the dashboard lighting up like a Christmas tree.
Our M2 remained as cool as a cucumber throughout, however I was relieved to have Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus to choose from rather than just having sheer horsepower and a prayer.
Both Lorina and I had won stinking rally colds which were obviously exacerbated by constant air conditioning in the hotels and car thanks to the 35 degree plus temperatures. Therefore, as you can imagine we were glad to see the landscape of Mostar open before us.
Mostar is the chief city and, historically, the capital of Herzegovina. It is situated in mountainous country along the Neretva River and lies on the Sarajevo-Ploče rail line. Mostar became a Turkish garrison town in the 16th century and in 1566 the Turks replaced the town’s wooden suspension bridge over the Neretva with a stone arch one, whence the name Mostar which is taken from Serbo-Croatian word, “bridge”.
This stone bridge had a single arch 90 feet (27 metres) wide and was a masterpiece of Ottoman engineering. In November 1993, during the Bosnian civil war, the bridge was destroyed by artillery fire from Bosnian Croat forces. A major rebuilding project was undertaken to restore the bridge and nearby buildings that had also been damaged and the bridge reopened in 2004. The bridge and the surrounding area were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2005.
Upon our arrival in the main town square, James Bond music blared out and the streets were lined with excited people attracted to the rumble and rainbow colours of our convoy. We were each in turn parked up by the Police, with our BMW being placed in front of the War Memorial. A furnace greeted us as we exited the car, so we went in search of shade and refreshment. Turning back to check the M2 was looking neat and tidy as people pressed against it to see inside and nod in appreciation, it all hit me like a thunderbolt.
I’d parked this vehicle in Horse Guards Parade in the same manner and received the same reaction from the public. Here I was thousands of miles later in a brand new yet battered country I’d never been to and it received the same reaction and paid the same tribute to our armed forces. Lump in throat we made our way into the old town to admire the bridge and the gentleman whose party trick it was to jump off. Some opted for the quiet shelter and shade with an iced drink understandably drained with the heat and tiredness from the intense drive which was far from over.
The convoy re-engaged and this time we were two cars from the front, so the drive was simply awesome. Heart in mouth, we thundered through the towns with blue lights flashing thanks to our police escort.
We were taken into the heart of Sarajevo and our cars put on display for all to see. Hundreds gathered around the display asking questions about our journey, our automobiles and our sanity for taking on such a challenge. The only sign of any conflict was when we passed through ‘Sniper Alley’ where bullets still scarred the buildings. The city itself was modern, cosmopolitan and welcoming.
After a good few hours of chatting to locals, dignitaries and media alike we were invited for one last high-speed escort to our hotel where we parked up in a secure compound with numerous security guards. We later found out that one of the security guards wrote to the organisers to thank them for the opportunity and said it was the greatest night of his life.
Lorina and I were exhausted. We were both unwell from the dreaded rally lurgy so headed on up and coughed the night away keeping each other awake. Day six was over and we were exhausted. A harsh drive, the heat and this pesky bug had taken its toll. That said, we were both buzzing about the day’s events and looking forward to heading to the ambassador’s residence for a memorial service for the fallen the following day. Sadly, this night, sleep just did not come…