A Mercedes bus, the desert and Mrs W’s tights.

This may seem like an unlikely three word clue for a TV quiz game, but in fact it’s the summary of an event from way back in my life but still memorable to this day.

My first job in the travel industry was working for an up market provider of specialised escorted tours to more unusual locations such as the Nile valley of Egypt. I worked in the office as a Tours Executive …a grand way of saying we took the bookings and managed the process of putting the tour together but although we were office based we were also all trained as Tour Leaders and on occasions  throughout the year
we also would take groups on these wonderful itineraries as Tour Leaders.

We would meet the group at London Heathrow and then fly out to the start point and accompany the group and ‘look after them’ at every step until finally returning to London.
We were thoroughly trained by more experienced colleagues so although most of us were just in our early twenties, we were able to cope with most ‘incidents’. I have many stories but I was reminded of one recently when a friend asked me for advice on a car overheating warning light!

On one such trip in Egypt, the majority of my group had booked for an optional day trip to Alexandria from our Cairo hotel base and as was expected, I too accompanied them. It takes about 2.5 hours by road to Alexandria. Cairo is a big city and it can take 25 mins just to get out of the city before you join the the desert road for then two hours drive of just desert and not much else. Whilst still in the outer districts of Cairo, our smart Mercedes coach began making a grinding noise and slewing in its alignment and it seemed we had a puncture. Fortunately we were able to pull in at a roadside repair ‘shop’ …this was grubby, chaotic and staffed by a couple of what looked like 14 year olds! Anyway action was swift, coach jacked up, wheel removed and spare on in 15 minutes and off we went again.

Now I haven’t yet described my group…let’s just say an eclectic mix. Anyway a lady I had christened Mrs Notebook (as she recorded in a notebook several questions per hour of things she needed to take me to task on) immediately demanded of me ‘they have fixed it, haven’t they? You wouldn’t be taking us out to the desert road with no spare?’ In true Pinocchio style I gave her what was hopefully a confident look and assured her that was the case…. but knowing it wasn’t!

We got to Alexandria without further incident, had a good day and started our return trip back down the desert road in the late afternoon. About an hour into the return journey back on the desert road, I found we were pulling in off the road in the middle of nowhere.

My heart sank…surely not another puncture. Who could be so unlucky and actually more so as now had no spare and we were were and truly out in the desert …back in the early 1980’s, this was not the more highway like route that it is today.

Leaving my group inside the coach in decreasing comfort (the engine had been stopped and so had the air conditioning) I went outside to talk with the guide who was accompanying us and the driver  into the 110 degrees F (40 Centrigrade) furnace! In the best style of school boy humour, with the guides translation, the driver announced there was good news and bad news! Good news was that we didn’t have another puncture (phew) but the bad news was that the coach fan belt had broken, so  we had an overheating engine (as this belt drives the water pump and alternator) and no air conditioning.

I hasten to add this was before the days of mobile phones, and we were a long way from anywhere. As we were a party of about 30, flagging down a passing vehicle for a lift wasn’t really an option either. The driver reassuringly suggested that in about 3 – 4 hours one of the company’s other vehicles would be passing by and we could flag that down and use that to get somewhere!

This didn’t seem like a good option but it was the only option….so I got back on the coach and announced the good and bad news. This was generally accepted with stoicism – the kind of passengers we got on these tours were often retired military top brass, Miss Marple look alikes, feisty spinsters and so on, in general intrepid travelers.

I thought our fate was sealed for the next few hours…but suddenly I am approached by a lady from the back of the bus. I had got to know Mrs W quite well over the course of our time in Egypt. She was accompanied by her 21 year old daughter who was been taken on this adventure by her mother as a birthday present. I had assumed Mrs W was just coming for a chat or indeed to commiserate with my predicament. I was only two years older than her daughter and I think she felt a bit protective towards me (and also saw me as a prospective son-in’law) as I was now bombarded with questions from the other passengers…concerned not about safety but would they miss drinks and dinner etc.

But no, this was not what she wanted. Mrs W  had a queztion…. , Can’t we just fix the fan belt with a pair of tights? …she was sure she had read that somewhere once. From our conversations I knew she was well read in Dickens, Darwin, de Vinci and it now seemed also in car mechanics for beginners! I explained that although I too was familiar with that workaround it probably really only was any good when used as a quick stop gap for a Mini car to get you a few miles to your local garage…and besides which, who has a pair of tights on in these searing temperatures!

I do, she swiftly replied…and promptly retired to the back of the bus to remove them in a dignified manner.

Far from confident, I returned outside and through the guide I explained to the driver what was on offer. He evidently was not as well informed as Mrs W and me on this method of alternative fan belts and just laughed at this crazy Englishman and his ideas for his bus engine. However after much, much persuasion he said we could try. Now a car engine is one size, but a Mercedes bus engine is huge.

We used the entire length of the tights…both legs and the joined area (sorry not sure if how this can be otherwise described) to replace the belt that had linked the bus water pump, alternator and cooling pump! It was not a pretty sight… but the driver reluctantly started the engine waiting to be able to say to me …look, I knew it was no good. But miraculously they held (all credit to the quality of hosiery that Mrs W invested in) and the engine started cooling down and we had air conditioning. The drivers confidence seemed to grow and from point blank refusal, agreed to use this to try to get us back on the road and to the possibility of some assistance. Through the guide as interpreter I gave the health warning…don’t push our luck ..stick to about 50 km/hour and lets hopefully limp in to the first town that was only about 10km away to get a proper repair.

We set off with extreme caution…maybe only 10 km /hour…then a little faster, with constant checking for warning lights. A little increase to a bit faster followed , and then more.

Suddenly the driver became convinced all was well, foot went down and back to 110 km/hour… I was a bit distressed but as the miles went buy I realised we were approaching the town now and I crossed my fingers and held my breath.
But the coach was not stopping. The driver was now so convinced that Mrs W’s ‘Pretty Poly’ tights were the answer he ignored all pleas to stop and drove for a further 1.5 hours back to Cairo to deposit us at our hotel!

This was some years ago but I am now fairly convinced that for the remainder of this bus’s life, it was reliant on Mrs W hosiery for its cooling system, alternator and air conditioning.

Moments like these tend to bond people and in fact I remained friends with Mrs W and her daughter for many years to follow. When asked by acquaintances how we met..nobody ever really expected the answer she gives  them!

Author: tockwith

Enjoying doing a short, light hearted blog most weekends. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it!

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