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Published: July 28th 2016
D239B and D113
When I speak of driving in Europe, the most common question I get asked is about driving on the ‘other side of the road’. Really that is a pretty simple task. First off, I sit on the ‘other side’ of the car and from there on it all goes back to front rather simply. Roundabouts and intersections challenge me a bit as I have to remember to concentrate on looking to give way to the left rather than the right.
There are many other challenges associated with driving in Europe.
The main one is the narrowness of their roads. Their towns and villages were well established long before the motor car was invented. Narrow roads in towns helped as a defence strategy against invading forces. Thus it is common to find urban laneways which would not be wide enough for a horse-drawn cart let alone a modern motor car. It would be impossible to pull a cannon or other machinery of war along such narrow streets, and two horsemen riding abreast would easily obstruct the pathway. Stone houses built in the middle ages are still inhabited, but there is no space for their cars. Cars are parked in nearby open areas or in garages usually some distance from the owner’s abode.
Last year I did an advanced European driving course in Turkey. Turkish drivers are very strict instructors and persist in driving as close to any other vehicle as possible. For a month their dogged veering into my path gave me extra concentration skills, in particular, attention to keeping a cigarette paper between my truck and the little van that wanted to play dodgem cars within the boundary of the traffic lane I wanted to drive in. After that, I took an advanced course in multiple gears changing techniques while swinging the steering wheel from lock to lock as I climbed the mountains of the French Alps near the Italian border-traversing the D902 route to Val D’Isere via col l’Iseran driving toward Chamonix Mt Blanc.
In the last few weeks, I have been doing a refresher course on driving at close quarters as I slithered around the raceway that Italians call a road. They don’t have freeways; they have a free for all. Their government has its arse out of its pants so far, that lanes on main roads (other than tolled freeways) are barely 2.25 meters wide (based on an engineering assumption that vehicles are 1.75 m wide and allowing two ‘spaces’ of 0.25 meters). Trucks (and our motorhome) are generally about 2.6 meters wide. So trucks and larger vehicles normally straddle two lanes. I am usually alert to traffic behind me when I straddle as I am technically trespassing in the neighbour’s lane. But I became less concerned as I noticed that even small cars in Italy like Renault Kangos and Fiat Pandas were also straddling. Well it turns out they were not straddling, but wavering, wandering and wobbling; always on the lookout for an opportunity to get up close and personal with a dint free vehicle just to see what such a thing would actually look like. Or sometimes they might have wanted an extra dent on another corner so as to have a complete matching set.
So now that I am full throttle on driving again, and I am back in France where the driving is easy, that bloody James the GPS decided to put me to a test.
On the day before the 2016 celebration of the French revolution, and the Nice terrorism attack, James thought he would terrorise us. First off he tried to send me up a little street that bars 3.5-tonne vehicles, He often does that. When I got him to calculate a different route, the bastard got nasty and took me on a long circuit. His hissy fit sent us on a circuit to traversing road number D113 and the D239B from Ganges to Pommiers. A more straight forward road would have been a simple cruise up the D999. I did not know that at the time, and James was not having any boring old road, especially if it saved time.
First off he softened me up, guiding me along a scenic path around the pretty town of Ganges, up in the hills, about 70 km, north-west of Montpellier.
I should have known something was amiss, when on leaving the next little village, Saint Laurent Le Minier, he instructed ‘Go right on the roundabout, and take the second right, then go straight ahead, too easy!’ The ‘too easy’ is nearly always a warning that things are going to spiral out of control. On taking the second right, there was a stone bridge so skinny it looked like it had been anorexic since it was built. Luckily I could line up to go straight on the approach and then crept across it with just a few centimetres spare each side.
The ‘Straight ahead’ instruction from James, now meant ‘You are on your own.’
What followed turned out to be probably terrifying road trips I have ever had.
Road signs showed that we had joined a road labelled D113.Very soon the road narrowed. In this part of the world, that is really not so unusual. The usual problem with these narrow roads is being prepared to meet an oncoming vehicle. Invariably one driver will stop at a point, where the track is wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass. So as I drive along I constantly make a mental note of the last place where the road was a bit wider, in case I have to reverse to it. But here, soon there were no wide sections.
The road wafted up the side of a mountain like a helium balloon magnetised to the side of the cliff face as if the wind was sort of pushing it against the mountain side. Its path wobbling about as if the helium pressure was too low to make a rapid ascent. My path up the side of the mountain grew scarier as prospects of finding a place to turn around became extinct.
Recent high winds had blown over some power poles and electricity lines hung low. My breathing stopped as I scraped underneath them hoping not to make contact. Blood flowed again when I emerged a few meters further on without feeling an electric jolt.
Then the inevitable happened. I met a vehicle coming downhill towards us, at a point where we were driving the cliff ledge. The oncoming vehicle was a wide delivery van. Between us, we needed 5.20 meters, maybe a bit more. There was no particular place that seemed wide enough. The oncoming driver obliged by pushing his van into the bushes on his side. I was on the outside, with the cliff dropping down somewhere. I don’t know how far. I was too scared to look. My right-hand side mirror was over the edge as my left-hand mirror got up close and familiar with the other vehicle. The other driver and I eyed each other off, each mentally asking about the sanity of the other. My eyes were flickering everywhere. I inched forward for maybe a foot. The other guy crawled some centimetres. It was clear we would touch. I stopped and reversed a full vehicle length. Then realigned and approached again this time with the rear wheel no more than a foot inside the cliff edge. I moved toward the point where the two vehicles would fuse again. Again I looked into the big white eyes of the other driver. And got the front mirrors to almost kiss. If only I had let my wife out before this
. She would have been saved if our vehicle had gone over the edge. At that point, with the two vehicles front mirrors almost touching, it was too late for that. The other driver passed a full meter and stopped. I notched another six feet with my eyes flashing between one mirror showing a slow motion movie of a disappearing foot wide road surface beside the right rear wheel. Next to that foot wide piece of gravel road edge there was nothing, at least in the foreground, absolutely nothing. Looking into the left mirror was unpleasant, but not as fearsome. There was a little gap between the side of my vehicle and the other guy’s mirror. That gap was closing like a Vernier callipers. At one point, daylight between the two passing surfaces disappeared and I feared that we had touched. Adjusting with a slight twist of the wheel pulled me further away, and as I put space between the other vehicle’s mirror and my side. Tension in the right-hand side movie built to a crescendo as another precious inch of the road beside the right wheel vanished. Once I got over half way past the other vehicle, the other man could drive forward. I sat frozen, watching as the two movies concluded rapidly enjoying a ‘happily ever after’ ending. It took another ten minutes for my thrashing heart rate to return to a mere hammering.
Anyone would hope that that scary scene would be the end of the nightmare. But James the GPS had been sitting there on the dashboard smirking in silence. There were no roundabouts or intersections on this journey, just a ‘go straight ahead, too easy’ thoroughfare. There was not a straight 80 meters in the whole trip. The road continued upward clinging to the mountain, sometimes through scrubby bush and at other times perched on the ledge that road builders had hacked out of the rock.
After meeting the oncoming van, the road gradually got narrower. Ever present in my mind was the fear of meeting another vehicle, especially on an even slimmer road. So I wanted to move as quickly as possible. The climb was steady, but never particularly steep. However, the narrowness of the road scared me into never getting out of low gear. Fear stopped me from moving at much more than walking pace. I must have been like a snail sprinting. Front and centre on my mind was fear of sliding, being pushed, skidding, or just plain careering off the ledge. I have discovered that I did rise about 900 meters in the entire afternoon.
At times I thought why not stop for a photo
. But the time that would take, might potentially give other traffic time to catch up.
After a while, James spoke ‘In 300 meters turn hard right.’ This is where I left the D113 to commence my drive up the D239B. Doing a hard right was not possible. I had to do the three point manoeuvre several times to get around. But now there was hope. Surely no other road would be as dangerous. And besides my ears were popping; I must be near the top. Alas, my hopes were dashed as I continued upward on a road barely wide enough for one vehicle. I just had to mentally rule out the possibility of meeting any traffic. My thoughts turned to the bastardry of James the GPS.
What if I skid on loose gravel here? There is no armour rail, no barrier to stop us all from careering over the edge
I was driving on a rocky ledge. Earlier on the D113 there were some low concrete barriers edging road where it traversed a ledge. Now there were no such barriers. Not only were there no barriers, but the camber sometimes sloped outward, and was strewn with loose gravel, making the possibility of sliding more a probability. When I dared to glance across the ravine, I could see sheer granite cliffs alternating with heavily wooded slopes where trees grew vertical but seeming close to parallel with the ground. I could not see the bottom.
Several times the ascent was steeper and I negotiated a series of switchbacks. On some of those a sharp hairpin bends, my sweaty hands could hardly grip the well as I avoided rocky overhangs on the inside of the cliff face. At a dead slow pace, I moved the vehicle closer to the edge to avoid the high top of the motorhome from colliding with overhanging rock. What if a vehicle comes around this corner from the other direction? On these blind corners, even at a snail’s pace, we would not see each other until we would be about to crash. And then what? I guess it would be over quickly? It would be only seconds before I reached the dark depths of the bottom, however far down that is. This mountain would not take prisoners.
Eventually, the road straightened to approach an open area, almost flat for about 100 meters. I had reached the top. There was space here to stop. But I did not. I still had to go down. My desire to stop to take a photo was overcome by a sensibility to get moving downwards. All afternoon I had been climbing to this point, and now the shadows were getting longer. My underpants were brown enough already. What perils would face us on the descent?
Driving down turned out to be uneventful.
But when I reached the bottom, I did regret not having thrown James the GPS out the window at the top.
As I have said, I have no photos.
But I have found a YouTube video for the D113. This link might help you find that video, which was probably taken from the helmet of a motorbike rider. The latter half of the video shows some of the terrifying ledges I spoke of, but generally, there is a concrete barrier along the ledge on the D113. That barrier is absent on the D239B.
Here is the link, and I restate that it is not my video. Its author’s details are in the film clip.
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