Epic manned mission home

Kevin Fong takes a road trip across Europe after volcanic ash grounds his plans

April 29, 2010

Am stuck in Toulouse because of Icelandic volcano”, I text to my wife. Better than the usual “dog ate my homework” line and, in this case, true. I am at a European Space Agency meeting, discussing the research we need to do to enable human interplanetary missions. We’re trying to plan a Mars shot here and we can’t even fly to London. The meeting breaks up and, with all of our flights cancelled, we discuss our options over dinner and then sleep on it.

At breakfast the next day, after a night of watching hotel and train reservations evaporate as I surfed hopefully towards them on the internet, I sit down to paw gloomily over the forecast for the volcano and our airspace.

“Well,” says Martin, a German doctor of medicine who is about my age, “we have a car.” While I was dreaming about planes and trains, he was hiring automobiles. The plan is for Martin and his companions, space physiologist Rupert and Christophe, a clinical pharmacologist, to drive to their home in Bonn.

It is a journey of 1,200km or so and they are offering to go out of their way to drop me in Brussels. This is a gesture of outstanding munificence but sounds to me a little too much like an episode of Top Gear without the fun or the nice cars.

So later that morning I find myself in the queue for the train at the Toulouse SNCF station about to bid farewell to my German friends. Christophe lingers in the queue with me while I try to find out when I’m likely to be able to get home. It is Saturday. The first guaranteed train from Paris goes on Monday but the SNCF guys are on strike, so the rail link from Toulouse is uncertain.

“When is the strike due to finish?” I ask a French bloke in the queue. He puffs his cheeks out and does that classic slow-motion Gallic shrug thing. “Strikes in France”, he says, “are not like zis.” Which is to say the rail workers strike until they’re fed up with striking and when that might be is anybody’s guess.

While this conversation is going on, the woman at the desk finds a train going out of Brussels, tomorrow at 16.59, as long as I can get there by car. Christophe looks at me with a smile as though he knew this was how it would work out all along. Were he American he would say: “See, I told you so, you frikkin idiot - now get in the vehicle already!”

The Germans defy every cultural stereotype you could care to throw up and I am now both pleased and relieved that they have so generously offered to take me with them. There is no plan other than to drive until we reach our destination.

Too late I realise that I should have stocked up on more food and drunk less water before we left. The deciding factor on when we stop will be the fuel tank. I look at the gauge rather desperately: “Bloody hell, this thing gets great mileage, doesn’t it?” Martin smiles. “Diesel,” he says. “Bugger,” I think.

The updates continue: European airspace will be disrupted for days, possibly weeks. There are tens of thousands of people stranded all over the Continent and all the money in the world is not going to get them where they want to go. It is a minuscule insight into how desperate it must be to try to flee a humanitarian disaster.

I am watching a movie on my laptop, somewhere between Limoges and Chateauroux, when I feel the car brake suddenly. I look up expecting to see the end of a traffic jam but am confronted instead by the image of an upside-down car in a cloud of dust, flying through the air, moving across our path 100m away. We watch it bounce and smash on the road ahead while we brake and swerve into the hard shoulder.

The nearly unrecognisable Peugeot that once contained a family of four lies mangled on its roof. The father lies bloodied beside it, the mother hysterical, her children trapped inside. Looking at the hissing wreckage, I am sure someone in among it all must be dead or about to die. We do what we can, feeling naked and impotent as all honest doctors do in such situations, outside of their hospitals without their medical paraphernalia. The man is bleeding heavily but is conscious and can speak his name; that at least is something. The mother and children mercifully and miraculously look more or less OK. We wait for the paramedics, hand over and after a lengthy chat with the gendarmes, we leave.

The second half of the journey continues less jovially and more carefully. The once seemingly comedic volcanic disruption has a new gravity. We are aware suddenly of a motorway full of over-tired people driving too hard and too far. There is less talk of Mars and interplanetary space. We make it to Brussels by midnight and find a hotel near the station. I have one pair of trousers and these are now stained with blood and iodine.

I board the Eurostar the next day looking more dishevelled than my companion travellers but as pleased as I can ever remember being that I am finally on my way home.

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