Sue woke first and nudged me ‘Do you think there’s someone outside with a torch knocking on the van?’
‘No’ I reply, determined to stay asleep.
But then I hear it too – a clear double knock followed by a voice ‘You can not stay ere …. you must go.’
We have to make a decision, the first of a number over the ensuing hour.
We had driven up the narrow, winding road that clung to the side of the cliff overlooking the gulf of Porto that morning to Piana, a town perched high on the hills above the sea, built to counter the frequent raids that plagued Corsica in the middle ages. It was not a long distance, less than 10 km, but painfully slow due to the seemingly unending series of blind corners above largely unprotected drops of hundreds of feet and the need to negotiate oncoming traffic along what was in many places a single track road. But the sun was out, the sea was blue and the views stupendous!
Driving on the right we were on the outside of all the bends, right next to the drop. This required a considerable level of concentration – although I noted that different hazards threatened on the inside, downhill side of the road – overhanging bulges in the rock walls and deep drainage gutters – neither comfortable for van driving, but less frightening than the prospect of driving over the edge! I commented to Sue, as I had done previously on many similar stretches of road over the previous three days, that I wouldn’t fancy driving this in the dark!
We had done the tourist thing of stopping half way up by the rock that looked like a dog and walked out through weather fashioned and contorted rock formations to a perch high on the cliffs and more fantastic views northwards up the coast. Then we completed the drive to Piana, which unsurprisingly offered no parking places for the van. We retreated back out of the town and after a couple of hundred metres found a dirt layby in front of a derelict chapel and another great view across the gulf. Here we settled down to watch and listen to the drama of a thunder storm rolling in from the sea. This entertainment concluded we then walked back into the town to a concert of polyphonic singing in the church.
When we came out it was dark. I didn’t fancy moving the van and in any case it was perfectly placed for an intended walk the following morning in The Calanche. So we decided to stay put for the night and go and have a drink at a rather swanky hotel with a famous terrace. Sue, sensibly, suggested a beer, but I was having none of it – you don’t go to the terrace of a swanky hotel to have a beer, that’s what you do in the van! So we had cocktails, and jolly fine they were too!
Then we went back to the van, heated a pizza in the oven and settled down for the night. Traffic on the road had dwindled to nothing, the only sound coming from thunder rumbling far out to sea, accompanied by distant flashes lighting up the sky.
‘You can not stay ere ….. you must go!’
Our first decision is probably the crucial one – do we respond or just lie doggo and pretend we are not in the van (there are no lights on) and hope he gives up and goes away? The latter option goes against our instincts not to offend (it’s possible that parked next to a chapel, even a derelict chapel, is just not on) and one of our wild camping principles is to always move on if challenged.
I take a quick look at the time (11pm), open a window and look out at a small, wiry chap, probably in his 60s standing a couple paces back from the van.
‘You can not stay ere!’ This is said in a voice without any trace of aggression, but with a firmness that seems to brook no argument.
I try and deal with the matter in English – ‘Why not? We are well off the road.’
‘You can not stay ere …… It is forbidden.’
Sue tries a more thoughtful approach, ‘Ques que cest le problem?’ but elicits the same response.
‘You can not stay ere……. you must go!’
The sensible option would be to be extremely apologetic, explain (in what remains of our ‘O’ level French) that as there were no signs prohibiting overnight parking for vans (of which there are plenty on the island) we had not realised our error and that we would of course move on. However, given the lateness of the hour and the nature of the road that would have to be navigated we would much prefer to move first thing in the morning – or words to that effect………
Then he sways slightly and takes a small step to rebalance himself and I realise that he has been drinking and probably more than was wise.
The second decision is straight forward – I long ago realised that you can’t reason with a drunk person, although you can expend a lot of time and energy trying. Moreover drunk people can be rather unpredictable and prone to difficult behaviour. Up to this point the exchanges had at least been civil and it would be risky to end up in an argument.
Sue and I consult – the only thing to do is to move on. He is probably from the town and will likely weave his way back there once we have gone. There are other, equally functional laybys just down the road which will serve just as well. I remember that I have had a drink myself, but calculate that this will be largely out of my system by now and I only intend driving a short distance down an empty road.
‘OK, we go.’
Then, as I start to take down the screens covering the inside of the windscreen I realise why I can see him so clearly – he has a car and he is standing in the beam of its lights.
‘Shit, this guy’s been driving!’
We continue with our preparations and before long we are ready to go. The chap is sitting in his car, waiting for us to go and I catch a glimpse of what I later think is him talking on a mobile phone.
I pull slowly out onto the road and start the drive. Once round a few corners I start to look for another stopping place. I reject a couple as being too close to the road and another which is really a passing place – which warns me that the road is beginning to narrow and that I will soon be starting that tricky, winding descent. Fortunately the next corner reveals a wide, flat layby with smooth access from the carriageway and I pull into it, manoeuvring the van until I am satisfied with its position. I get out, walk around and then climb back into the cab. For some reason I choose to sit a while, mulling over the last half an hour.
The beam from headlights light up the rocks on the opposite side of the road. A vehicle is coming. I wait for it to come around the corner behind us and then to pass us – but it is travelling very slowly and as it reaches us …… it stops.
‘Shit it’s that chap again, he’s followed us!’
Sure enough the car pulls over to our side of the road and a familiar face looks up at me. Through his opened window I could see a finger wagging and a shaking head.
‘You can not stay ere ……. you must go!’
Another decision to be made. I really don’t want to drive down that road in the dark and, l suddenly remember, whilst I feel certain I would pass a British breathalyser test I am not sure I would a French one! But I am beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable about how the situation is developing and am linking his persistence with a degree of menace. I want out, I want to be rid of him and I can’t see him leaving us alone until we have indeed gone – and that will mean, at the very least, driving back down the road to Porto. I don’t consult, I tell Sue I’m going to drive on.
I stick my head out of my window and say, ‘OK we go …. you go on so I can pull out onto the road.’
‘No I follow you.’ He reverses back behind the van.
This does little to allay my growing sense of unease, he clearly intends to see us off, but I feel committed and once again I drive the van back onto and then down the road. I change up to 3rd (the highest gear I’d used in the past three days) and then look in my wing mirror. Sure enough there are the lights of his car following close behind. I allow my concentration to fix on these lights in my mirror and suddenly realise that I am already on the twisty narrow bit and find myself taking the next corner slightly too fast for comfort, needing the full width of the road to negotiate it. I slow markedly and, after some thought, change down to 2nd. I am now travelling really slowly, about 10 mph, but this enables me to take due account of the twists and turns and keep a good distance from the outside of the road – and the drop, whilst keeping an eye out for what’s going on behind.
The next couple of miles continue like this, the van crawling along with me peering through the headlights at steep rock faces to my right and nothingness to my left. Sue and I begin to discuss what our plan should be when we arrive back down in Porto – I am not convinced it is going to end there. We identify two options: we drive to the undoubtedly now shut gates of the one campsite that we know is open and park there for the remainder of the night or; we return to the car park at the town’s harbour where we stayed last night and where there should be one or two more vans.
Before this discussion is concluded I notice that another car has joined our little convoy and then hear a horn blaring, presumably objecting to our slow rate of progress and asking to pass. Then the two sets of lights drop back behind us out of sight. I continue our slow progress, my growing hope that the escort has finished is dashed a few minutes later when both sets of lights reappear in my wing mirror. The first car (I no longer know which is which) suddenly overtakes me with its engine over revving before breaking hard in front of me and only just negotiating the next bend without mishap. I assume that it will now draw away from me and we will be back to the same uneasy procession, but no, it slows down to my speed and keeps station about 30 metres in front of me.
Now I am really uneasy, I have a car being driven recklessly immediately in front of me and another following close behind. I even begin to wonder if, when they had dropped back out of sight, they had stopped to confer and agree a joint approach and remember that I thought I had seen the chap on his mobile whilst we were packing up to move from our original spot. I feel the need to test out the situation and slow even more to see what happens. Predictably the car in front slows too before picking up speed again as I do the same.
I turn my attention to the car behind and as I round yet another corner onto a rare straight bit I indicate for it to pass. To my surprise and relief it does, with a light ‘thankyou’ touch on the horn – a piece of normal behaviour that reassures me that we are not, after all, caught up in a sinister sandwich.
Despite the tension I now smile to myself, this at least will give the chap in the lead car something to think about and I am just beginning to consider stopping altogether. My feet are pressing gently on the brake pedal and the clutch as the car in the middle makes an unsuccessful attempt to overtake the lead one. I hear a horn again and then the leading car puts on its hazard warning lights and suddenly swerves across to the right hand side of the road. I hear the unmistakable sound of crunching metal as it comes to a sudden halt on the side of the road. The following car also stops – in the middle of the road. I have already come to a stop 30m back up the road and watch as doors fly open of the car in the middle and a figure jumps out and runs towards the crashed car shouting. It is a woman and we realise that her shouts are not of concern but more of frustration, if not exasperation.
We have another decision. Do we get involved in this or not? My selfish instinct is to keep well out of it and I start to work out whether there is sufficient room for me to pull past the two stationary vehicles and ‘get away’ – before my conscience kicks in – Is the man hurt? Do we have a responsibility to report an accident etc? I am puzzled by the ‘crash’ as, peering through the beam of our headlights, I notice that the car is not against the rock wall and his speed must have been negligible, thus making serious injury unlikely.
The dilemma is then solved for us. Another woman steps out of the driver’s door of the car in the middle of the road and beckons us urgently to pass. I don’t hesitate, immediately engaging first gear and crawling slowly past. As we come abreast of the crashed car I can see the man, on his feet and seemingly OK, talking to the woman who had run down the road to him. His car, I realise, has grounded on the lip of the deep drainage ditch.
I drive on, resisting the urge to speed up. The sharp bends continue to loom in our headlights …… and then there are more lights approaching from behind! As the vehicle reaches us its lights flash and I slow more and indicate for it to pass ………………
To be continued ……………. Don’t miss the next episode on Monday 10th December!