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Serious drivers and wacky cars in rally from Hungary to Mali

After its initial stage from Budapest through Austria to Italy, the rally will make its way across the south of France and Spain, then cross over to Morocco, Mauritania and Mali.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2008 19:04 IST

While the Dakar rally is canceled, dozens of drivers are still braving dirt roads and desert sands in a quirkier version of a Europe-to-Africa race.

A caravan of cars, trucks and motorcycles _ including an ambulance, an ice cream truck and a Hummer _ left Budapest on Saturday hoping to arrive in Bamako, Mali, on Jan. 27, a journey of some 8,700 kilometers (5,400 miles) through eight countries. More than 300 participants started in the third edition of the Budapest-Bamako rally, an event whose motto is "Anyone, by anything, by any means," and that combines adventure with charity. But beside the usual dangers of the road, they may have to face an even bigger menace this year _ terrorists in North Africa. The annual Dakar Rally was canceled last week after organizers said the race had received "direct" threats of terrorism from al-Qaida-linked militants in north Africa, but officials of what is sometimes called the "budget Dakar" decided to go ahead with the competition.

"Our race has not received any terrorist threats," chief organizer Andras Szabo Gal said. "Authorities in Mauritania are aware of our itinerary and while they can't guarantee our safety, security will be strengthened."

After its initial stage from Budapest through Austria to Venice, Italy, the rally will make its way across the south of France and Spain, then cross over to three countries in north Africa _ Morocco, Mauritania and Mali.

Some 40 teams in the Budapest-Bamako are in the competition section, racing their four-wheel-drives not against the clock but each other. The only scheduled events are the daily starts and finishes of the 16 stages and teams score points by completing a wide range of quirky tasks along the way.

One example: Go to Sokolo, a village in Mali, and find Nelson Diarra's home in the Amdalei neighborhood. He has four wives and four homes. Find the right home and look for the letter on the wall. Most the participants, however, are in the "tour" section of the rally, an even wackier event, where vehicles include a three-wheeled Velorex last produced more than 35 years ago in the former Czechoslovakia, a Romanian Dacia, an East German Wartburg, an ambulance to be donated to Bamako rescue services, an ice cream truck and a converted Budapest city bus.

Also making the journey to Bamako _ and hopefully back to Budapest _ is a 54-feet-long articulated bus which for 20 years transported workers building rockets at an army base in eastern Hungary.

"This bus was part of the Cold War but we're using it for more peaceful purposes now," said Akos Sipos, one of the eight passengers on "Bus number 7," named after one of the busiest lines in Budapest and outfitted with a plasma TV, a beer keg and four bunk beds to make the journey more comfortable.

The bus, like most of the other vehicles in the rally, is also loaded with bags full of donations like clothing, medicines and school supplies which will be distributed along the rally's route in Africa.

Around 25 percent of the participants are from outside Hungary, including teams from Britain, Spain, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. The "K-Team" of Kevin Smith and Kevin Foster _ both from Watford, England _ is taking part thanks to winning a TV competition. They were awarded a 1985 Polski Fiat to use in the rally, which broke down and needed heavy repairs even during test drives around Budapest.

"Any terrorists which see us will just feel sorry for the car and surely let us go," said Foster, 30, a plumber and builder. The team is supposed to sell the car in Mali and give the proceeds to charity, although it remains to be seen whether they can find a buyer for "Philip," which unlike its drivers did not need to be inoculated against the yellow fever or take malaria pills.