"The Grand Tour's Madagascar adventure was our toughest yet," says Jeremy Clarkson

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A glimpse of heaven on the road to hell: The Grand Tour's Madagascar adventure was our toughest yet, says Jeremy Clarkson (Sunday Times, Dec. 06)

[Very mild spoilers]

Before you ask, I don't know why Amazon chose not to show The Grand Tour's Madagascar special until now. Was it a mistake? Unlikely. You don't look at the giant Amazon corporation and think: "Well, that's just a jumble of ill-conceived ideas and wonky thinking." So doubtless there was a good reason. Maybe a computer coronavirus algorithm worked out that mid-December was the optimum time for a show of this kind.

Whatever, it's my job now to give you a behind-the-scenes taste of what happened on what turned out to be our toughest trip yet. It was so tough, in fact, that for the first time one of our cars did not make it to journey's end. Whose? Er. We filmed it so long ago, I can't remember.

What I can remember is that we started on the French island of Réunion, because I've always wanted to go there. It's not a French protectorate; it's as much a part of France as Nancy or Brest and was the first place in the world where there was a transaction in euros. Oh, and the flight there from Paris is the longest domestic flight in the world.

We began on the beach, having lunch, and afterwards decided to go snorkelling. Richard Hammond went to the hotel beach hut and returned half an hour later with three masks and a contented look on his face, saying: "My French is really coming along. I just had a proper conversation with the man in the hut."

That night we discovered a British tourist had been eaten by a shark off the very same beach the day before. "Hammond," I inquired, "this French you spoke, did he say, 'Do be careful, a man was eaten here yesterday,' and you replied, 'The pen of my aunt'?"

It turns out that many of the world's fatal shark attacks take place in the waters off Réunion. It also turns out the island has the weirdest ring road. It's built on stilts out to sea and is the most expensive road in the world. We were the first people to use it.

We were then told that we had to waste the next week of our lives looking for buried pirate treasure. Hammond and James May liked this idea and visiting the grave of the pirate La Buse. I didn't. I don't find them interesting. They are just aquatic burglars. Or wife-beaters. But I was very interested in where this quest would take us: Madagascar.

We tend to think of Madagascar as a small island in the Indian Ocean, like a Maldive or a Seychelle. But, actually, it's the second-biggest island nation in the world. It's even bigger than Germany. And we had to get up its east coast, in search of this stupid non-existent treasure, along the RN5, which is said to be the worst road in the world.

I didn't believe this, so I turned for advice to that great explorer and outdoorsman Angus Deayton, who, along with womanhood's answer to Bear Grylls, Mariella Frostrup, had driven the RN5 for a BBC series several years earlier.

He confirmed it was pretty bad, which is why I decided to make a few changes to the Bentley Continental GT I'd brought along. Had we stayed on Réunion it would have been fine, as the roads are smoothed with EU gold, but in the Brexit wasteland of Madagascar it would need a few alterations.

Completely new long-travel suspension; armour-plated undersides; rerouted fuel lines; new brakes to fit in the smaller wheels; motorcycle headlamps, to make way under the bonnet for snorkels; and an external roll cage. Inside it was as comfortable as sitting on Bob Ross's hair. But from the outside I'd made a Mad Max special effect.

Hammond went even further and fitted tank tracks to his Ford Focus RS, while May fitted his Caterham Seven with big wheels at the back. Then went to the pub.

Madagascar wasn't colonised until about AD500, which meant the rest of the world had baths and sewers and aqueducts. But they still hadn't found this enormous slice of paradise.

Whoever did find it obviously had a logorrhoea, because every single name has two or three more syllables than you'd expect. The capital, for instance, is Antananarivo. And until a couple of years ago the president was a Mr. Rajaonarimampianina.

For the entire duration of our trip we asked directions in French and figured when people shrugged that we were pronouncing everything wrong. Only after we came home did we find out that the majority of people there don't speak French any more. It'd be like coming to Britain and asking directions in Latin.

We also found out that Madagascar is one of the few countries in the world where you can still catch the bubonic plague. Another is Mongolia, the last place The Grand Tour visited. It makes me wonder: is May to blame somehow?

Unlike Mongolia, however, 90 per cent of all the plants and animals on Madagascar are found nowhere else. They have one cat-like thing that shags trees when it's horny, and a shade of green so bright you can't look at it. And slicing through it all they have the RN5.

It's not a road in any accepted sense of the word. It's just some earth where, for the most part, trees aren't growing. I've seen post-storm riverbeds that have better surfaces.

There are boulders the size of garden sheds and ruts in which a fully grown man could hide. And, to make things worse, to our left was a jungle made from colours that exist nowhere else, and to our right an endless succession of perfect white beaches. Which meant half the time we weren't looking where we were going. On one particularly rough day we covered four miles in 16 hours.

In the Caterham May was very hot and very muddy and very unhappy a lot of the time. Whereas in the Bentley life was a lot better. One minute I'd be piling through water deeper than the car was and the next climbing over what looked like a collapsed tower block. Sometimes it was very hot work and I had to ease the air-conditioning down a bit. Once, I had to use the car's winch, as I'd ended up perilously close to a 200ft sheer drop.

I fell so deeply in love with that car and its hardcore determination to keep going that I decided I'd bring it back to the farm as a permanent reminder that when Bentley decided to make a serious off-roader, it ought to have done what I did. Not built the Bentayga.

It took a while but, eventually, the Bentley arrived back in Britain, and I was very happy. It was, too, because there's nothing in the Cotswolds that's even a tenth as difficult as what it had conquered on Madagascar. In one field we hit 140mph.

But then came word from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The Bentley had started in life as a development mule, and the rules say these must be destroyed to ensure they don't ever seep onto the market. So, one day soon now, my beloved car — the best and hardiest I've ever driven — is going to the crusher.

I shall be very sad, but, at least in our show, its star burns very brightly indeed. I challenge you not to fall in love with it too.

The Grand Tour Presents: A Massive Hunt is on Amazon Prime from December 18.

***

Jeremy Clarkson: Bentley Continental GT V8

"It was very hot, and you only had whatever provisions were in your car. I lost some weight. You had jungle a shade of green we simply never see in Europe, turquoise sea and miles of white, sandy beaches. I think James May will agree with me, and we don't agree on much, that Madagascar is about as beautiful a place as we have ever been. Both my colleagues made unwise choices as far as the cars are concerned. They went through levels of discomfort I would have been very unhappy about. They really did suffer terribly."

James May: Caterham Seven 310R

"Madagascar could certainly do with a bit of road-building. We would legally be obliged to give some of the treasure we were hunting to the locals and that would be the decent thing to do, because it's a very poor country. Some of those big puddles I drove through had things in them that I don't really want to think about. Annoyingly, a lot of the time I was stuck behind Jeremy in his stupid Bentley as he was trying to get over a rock or something. I could have got there quickly but I couldn't pass him."

Richard Hammond: Ford Focus RS

"I wanted a Ford Focus RS because I thought it would be perfect. Then I realised that essentially a rally car for the road wasn't going to be ideal for proper off-roading. So, in my wisdom, I then put it on tracks. The tracks were amazing but perhaps are more designed with snow in mind. We were on a proper treasure hunt. Jeremy equates pirates with aliens but pirates were real. Supposedly a very famous pirate scattered his treasure there. In our usual ill-planned, chaotic, disparate way, we tried to find it."
 
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