The Ashbourne pals who say their vintage 1994 Renault fire truck "never gave a day's trouble" on the 15,000km rally often spent their nights fixing other people's vehicles!

'The sheer distance we had to cover was overwhelming at times but we made it happen as a team'

A group of car mad pals from Ashbourne who took part in a 15,000km rally from Dublin to Sierra Leone in a vintage fire truck that they restored themselves describes the experience as "life changing."

Adam Johnston, Tim Higgins, Eoin Murphy, Declan Moore, Colm Murphy and Sam Kenna embarked on the adventure of a lifetime in The Budapest to Bamako rally billed as the “world’s largest amateur rally” in a 1994 Renault fire engine they bought in the Netherlands and 'upcycled' themselves.

The adventurous bunch drove through two European and five African countries finishing in Sierra Leone clocking up roughly 15,000km in 19 days.

The group undertook the challenge to raise funds for children’s hospice charity LauraLynn and UN’s children's agency Unicef. Over €15,000 was raised in the efforts which will be split among the two charities.

If that wasn't enough, the generous bunch donated boxes of clothes, school supplies and toys they took with them on their journey to underprivileged schools in Africa. They even presented a punching bag with a newly opened boxing club in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

The Budapest-Bamako is a minimal assistance adventure and navigational race that is not for the faint hearted. The Ashbourne group had no rescue helicopters, tow trucks, translators or tour guides having to rely on their own luck, resources and skills! However with five mechanics in tow, they didn't have too much to worry about.

Adam along with driving buddy Tim were the navigation duo for the trip driving through France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and finishing in Sierra Leone.

"We knew it was going to be tough but it was a lot harder than what we thought it was going to be," said Adam.

"It was amazing to experience the different cultures and to see how people in really poverty stricken places live," he added.

"At times the sheer distance we had to cover on sometimes pure dirt roads was overwhelming but we made it happen as a team."

The unlikely rally vehicle that the group chose to use for this challenge turned out to be somewhat of a talking point among fellow competitors as Adam explains:

"The fire truck was a big head turner, there was a lot of interest in it because it is such a unusual vehicle," said the Ashbourne mechanic.

"There were people in proper off road vehicles worth a lot of money and kitted out in the proper gear, and we are kind of chancing our arm," he added.

"It was like the vehicle of the rally. We'd stop late in the evening and there would be people fixing jeeps . We had a lot of gear with us, we had welders and all sorts of tools so we;d nearly spend our evenings fixing other people's vehicles but lucky enough we never had to fix our own. It never gave a day's trouble.

The group had been tipping away making repairs on the truck since it was bought in January of 2023.

"It was a fully functioning fire truck, we stripped all of the back out it out and we did normal repairs, we had to put a new alternator and diesel tank on it," said Adam. "We gave it a good clean, put a new spring on it, small bits and pieces nothing too major really.

"We put couple new seats in the front and more in the back. "Days were long and road conditions were challenging but the hardy bunch completed every stage of the rally.

"The stages were tough and long, most days it was a 6am start and nine or ten in the evening finishing and getting to the campsite but we made it to every campsite and finished every single stage," explains Adam.

"Navigation was tough because if you didn't take the right route, you were pretty screwed."

Coming from a developed country, seeing poverty up close was "an eye opener" according to the rally participant who said:

"We had to drive 30km through a national park to get into Mauritania which was off road and tough enough. South Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania was just pure desert. When we crossed into Mauritania it was like three days of nothing but sand.

"Those days were tough because there wasn't much to see and in Mauritania people just live in tents. When you see the poverty first hand, it is hard to believe, they really have nothing but are so happy.

"Guinea was a nice country to drive through even though the roads were so bad, the scenery was good and it was mountainous."

The group was stopped in their tracks briefly due to political unrest impeding their journey as Adam explains: "We were coming through Mauritania and the rally organisation told us that there were protests and riots in Dakar and Senegal because of the presidential elections and they advised us to stay at the border.

"We had a campsite organised so we just went to it along with a few other people.

“There was no phone signal due to the protests so we had no way of communicating with anybody which didn't really matter only to us but we couldn't touch base with family at home."

The rally troupe had support along the way in the form of Adam's dad, Des and his friend Fintan Mulchrone who 'came for the spin.'

"My father and his friend were in a jeep as well supporting us along the way," said the proud son. "We did get stuck a few times in fairness and they pulled us out so we were lucky to have them with us!"

Driving in some parts of Africa is not for the faint hearted as the Ashbourne sextet soon discovered.

"Erg Chigaga in Morocco was our first real experience of proper off road driving with the truck trying to reach one of the campsites and it was that rough that my dad actually turned around in his jeep and decided he wasn't going to go any further and stayed in a nearby B&B," remembers Adam.

"We kept her lit and did almost 60km of hard, hard off road travelling," he added. "When we got to the campsite it was an unbelievable sight to see the sun setting in among the sand dunes.

"We tried to get into the campsite and we got stuck and Tim came up with an idea to strap two spare wheels to the front tyres and try to get in while a crowd of people were watching us, saying these mad Irish egits.

"But we managed to get in and got a big cheer from everyone. If felt like we had nearly won the rally at that stage even though we were only starting!

Stocked up on non perishable foods, the group who had hoped to get some down time at campsites with fellow participants says some nights they went without food due to pure exhaustion.

"Most days we didn't even stop for lunch because if we had 400km to do, some parts of that you couldn't even do at 20km per hour with roads being so bad and we had to stay on schedule.

"Crossing the finish line was the highlight because it was so tough, some days we wondered if we' d get there.

"It was a life changing experience for us all, it really opened our eyes."