In September 2011 a truck rescued from the scrap heap and restored in the UK completed an around-the-world journey - powered by waste vegetable oil. The journey began in September 2009. The man at the wheel of the 'Biotruck Expedition' is Andy Pag from Croydon in London. Yesterday, The View from Fez caught up with Andy and his partner, Christina Ammon, who are in Morocco resting up and writing about their 30,000 kilometre, 25 country, odyssey.
Photo: Suzanna Clarke
It is easy to suspect that, as a child, Andy Pag was hard to keep indoors. There is no record of his having run away to join the circus, but it is easy to imagine. The major escape, however, had to wait until he was twenty-one when he headed to Africa.
"When I was 21 I borrowed my sisters motorbike and drove it to Dakar. Along the way I saw 'dole scroungers' driving beat-up old cars from Europe to sell in Africa. Having been a tour guide in Europe during the summer, and having nowhere to stay in winter, I decided to try my hand at selling an old wreck in Africa. I went to Germany, got a Mercedes 240 and drove it to Mauritania."
It was not his most successful trip. "I lost the money to police and Mafia in a setup scam," Andy explains with a wry smile. "Next year I didn’t lose money. On the third year I actually made money."
Travelling and making money at the same time was an alluring combination and from one car per trip Andy graduated to organising a three car convoy and spent the next twelve years of selling second hand cars in, "the Sahara… Niger, Mauritania most of West Africa".
"We couldn't have done it without the enthusiasm and help from the strangers we've met along the road. The random acts of kindness have given us an overwhelming faith in how great humankind is" - Andy Pag
In 2007 Andy drove a chocolate powered truck to Timbuktu. The truck was adapted so that it could run on waste from a cocoa butter factory. As one newspaper reported at the time, the fuel was, "extracted from thousands of misshapen chocolates". For some people the achievement would have been enough. However, for Andy it was just the start. “When we quietly rolled into Timbuktu, we were too tired to be elated. But by the time we backed on to the ferry across the Niger at dusk, we were plotting our next carbon-neutral adventure.”
Andy became intrigued with the possibilities of biodiesel and so organised a rally to see if it was possible to travel from the UK to Greece in vehicles powered by waste cooking oil. For that journey, he drove an adapted Peugeot 405 that he bought for £500 on Ebay. It was on that "Grease to Greece Rally" in 2008, that a signpost pointing to Istanbul gave him the notion of voyaging further afield.
Back in England Andy rescued a 22-year-old school bus from a scrap dealer. The vehicle had a 1,200 litre fuel tank and oil filtering system, and was converted to run on vegetable oil. The speed may not have been great, but the fuel economy certainly was. The truck was capable of travelling 5,000km on a full tank of fuel.
For the Biotruck Expedition leader, finding waste vegetable oil from restaurants along the route was only one of the challenges. The Mercedes truck also suffered "constant breakdowns" and, in a more serious incident, Andy was arrested for using a satellite phone illegally in Ajmer, India. He was fined 1,000 rupees (about £15) by a court for violating Indian wireless and telegraphy laws. The court dropped a more serious charge of misuse of a satellite phone for espionage and terrorist activity. "This held up the trip for months,",Andy said. It also soured his previous affection for India. "The cost and the stress were petrifying. I was stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare. It was Kafkaesque".
Andy says that it would have been even more difficult without the support of friends and family. "When I was in prison my sister brought messages. But I nearly gave up. All I wanted was to head to Nepal. Anything to get out of India".
No good adventure story would be complete without romance and for Andy this came when he was contacted by freelance journalist Christina Ammon, from Oregon in the US. After many Skype phone conversations Christina joined Andy.
|Andy working with school children in Thailand|
"Christina contacted me when I was in Nepal because she wanted to write an article about the truck. We kept in touch after that because we have a lot in common - she lives in a truck and we both like paragliding. Eventually I said to her: It's a shame you're not a bit nearer because I'd really like to take you out to dinner'. "She said: 'Well when are you arriving in the US?' "I was due to arrive in the US around Valentine's Day and promised to take her out on a date. "In the end we couldn't wait until then and she ended up joining me early in Indonesia and the relationship blossomed from there."
For Christina, the best bits of the trip have been the breakdowns. She said: "That's when we met the most interesting, friendly people and had the unique sort of adventures and insights which you can't have travelling any other way."
Now the journey is over and the truck has been sold, Andy and Chris have come to Morocco in order to spend time writing about their adventures. Why Morocco? Andy does not hesitate."I love Morocco. All the trips I have done here have been great. I love the mountains, the sea, the food and sense of freedom. Now we are thinking of staying here until April or May".
The book that comes out of this stint of writing should be fascinating. Andy describes the theme as "being about breakdown. The truck is really a metaphor for this journey and I put myself in situations where things break down. It is only in those moments that one feels truly alive."
And, yes, there is a new truck. Recently purchased, it is undergoing modifications in Spain. The new truck isn’t going to be all junk. Andy explains, "Having learnt some lessons from the last one, I want to pick and chose what bits are recycled, and what parts are new and efficient. The truck itself for instance is only seven years old. It uses only eight litres to do 100km on motorways, less than half of the old Biotruck.
"So this new Biotruck represents a shift in philosophy of living purely off waste to a more compromised approach to allow for the benefits of the efficiency of newness. With the same find of cooking oil, I’ll be able to go twice as far, and I’ll be able to get there quicker."
This extraordinary journey is both a learning and teaching experience for Christina and Andy who believe that making fossil energy more expensive, so its price represents the damage it causes, is the only way to encourage viable development of alternatives sources of fuel, and to reduce consumption. But that’s a view that is hugely unpopular because it impacts dramatically on quality of life.
Are they pessimistic about the political will to change things? "No politician will do it, but eventually as the stuff runs out, the price will climb anyway. It already is. Driving around the world teaches you that the earth spins on an 'axis of diesel'. Even in the milder political climates of national and local politics, leaders worldwide don’t want to tell their voters about this link between energy and comfort. Voters don’t want to hear it. Corporations certainly aren’t going to admit it. Even environmentalists don’t really want to highlight it for fear of alienating the fragile public interest in sustainability."
Perhaps the most interesting lessons of such an adventure are inevitably about oneself. Andy smiles and says, "It is ironic then, that as someone who has travelled the world in search of an answer, I’ve discovered that the answer is not to travel, but to invest yourself in a community, and to build relationships with the people and places around you."