The call came through late on Friday evening: Operation ‘Mini Adventure’ was GO! GO! GO!
Saturday afternoon finally arrived after an anxious wait and I met with Agent Jovanovic of wheels HQ at a top-secret rendezvous point where the exchange would take place. “The car has been equipped for your journey,” was all he said as he handed over the keys and a secret dossier containing the details of my mission. Raising his cup of take-away coffee in a salute (perhaps wishing me good luck?) was his only gesture and then he was gone.
Wasting no time, I climbed inside the Mini Cooper S Coupé and tore open the plain brown envelope. My instructions were simple: get the Mini to Khasab in Oman, and get it there before sunset!
A quick check of the time and counting of fingers revealed that it would be tight but possible. However, to maintain the pretence that I was simply an automotive photographer out for a leisurely drive I would occasionally need to stop and take snaps to avoid any suspicion. Damn, this was going to be a close-run thing.
Key in ignition and push button starter, um, pushed and started, the little Mini awoke with a throatier engine note than I was expecting. The words of Agent Jovanovic echoed in my head and the meaning soon became clear. “The car has been equipped for your journey” was confirmed by a quick glance at the fuel gauge. I had a full tank of petrol and I was ready to roll. Thank you, Comrade!
Every second was going to count so I set off like a stunt driver from The Italian Job, weaving my way through Dubai traffic and down on to the Emirates Road. Unable to find the switch that flips the car registration plate to a false one I made do with sitting exactly at the maximum speed limit in the outside lane. This seemed to have a strange effect on the behemoths that populate the E311. Obviously, a diminutive car such as the Mini has no right to be in the outside lane and close bumper-on-bumper action with much headlight flashing ensued. Pulling over to the adjoining lane (but maintaining velocity) had a few 4x4s hurtling past me to regain pride. Even before hitting the Sharjah bottleneck I had scored two camera flashes for these idiots and I am feeling quite smug as I lure another into taking the bait.
Through Sharjah I regain pole position. The nimbleness of the Mini means I barely have to lift whereas the wallowing 4x4s are not quite so poised as we hit the traffic-cone chicanes that now line the route. Breaking out through the other side of Sharjah sees traffic thin and I am left on my own again in the outside lane with time to take stock of my surroundings.
Seating position in the Coupé is a little strange and I have been struggling to find a compromise that works for me. I settle for a position that, although comfortable, is slightly higher up and closer to the wheel than I would have liked. This in turn makes rear visibility almost non-existent and I have to duck down a little to look in the mirror to be able to squint through the small gap between the sloping roof and raised spoiler.
I’m not totally convinced of some of the design features in the cabin either. The central dinner-plate sized speedo/ infotainment display is an oversized caricature of the original Mini design and resembles a giant alarm clock. With the hazard light button placed on top, I wonder if a flat-handed, downward slap on it will engage auto-destruct. Minor aesthetic issues aside, this Mini is a fun place to be and I love being back in a front-wheel-drive rev-box after a prolonged sabbatical.
Comfort and road noise are surprisingly good, although my posterior took a bit of a hammering on bumpy, uneven road surfaces. The stiff suspension set-up on this Cooper S will come into play once we hit Oman so it is a minor loss of comfort in a trade-off for better handling that I am willing to put up with if this Cooper S lives up to expectations.
Ras Al Khaimah is the next hurdle. Anyone who has been through Ras Al Khaimah recently will know that the road network is undergoing a ‘little work’ with traffic slowing to a frustrating pace. To narrate this part of the journey would be an unnecessary bore so all you need to know is that we made it through unscathed but took a massive hit on time. The next stage would be crucial if we were to make it to Khasab for sunset but it would involve the delicate issue of crossing the border.
The Emirates/Oman border is a militarised zone. Barbed wire, a battalion of soldiers, minefields, tanks and even an off-shore submarine that receives real-time video footage from an overhead satellite (probably) are just a few of the many security measures that would need circumventing. As a Level 5 operative I am trained to overcome such hurdles but, in a cunning double bluff, I decide to proceed through immigration like a normal tourist.
Passport, car registration and a craggy, yellow-toothed smile get me through the Dubai end without incident but on the Oman side things get a little tense when I am asked for my insurance documentation. I’d been assured that BMW was party to our Mini Adventure and insurance was arranged for our special ops deep within Omani territory. Unfortunately, I had no documentation to prove this. My training immediately kicked in and I used an old Jedi mind trick I had learnt from a Master. Never underestimate the power of being honest and looking like a small lost child.
Border cleared, it was time to show the Cooper S some real roads.
For those who have never been to Khasab, you are missing out. Sea to your left, vertical cliff face to your right and more twisting curves than a suitably appropriate metaphor containing a lot of curves could ever express. Traffic rarely exceeds an occasional car or two that may hamper your swift progress and the only other obstacles to be aware of are the little goats that seem to think it is cool to hang out at the edge of the road.
One of these miniature goats sucked in through the air scoop of the Mini would inevitably terminate the turbocharger, leading to almost certain detonation of the engine and failure of my mission. I therefore use my New Earth Army training and telepathically send out a ‘calling all goats’ communiqué warning them that if they even dare to put one little hoof on the road I will stare at them until their heart explodes. Goats, you’ve been warned.
And with that, I light up the front wheels and set off repeating my mantra over and over and over again: It is 1964. I am driving a Cooper S. This is Monte Carlo and I am Paddy Hopkirk.
The beautiful scenery passes me by in a blur. Heightened senses take over as the adrenalin starts to pump through my body. We are racing against time here. The sun is a lot lower in the sky than I would have cared for and I still have to stop at intervals to take photographs!
The Mini is punching well above its weight. Just over 180bhp from the turbocharged 1.6-litre fizz-box of an engine has me pulling the coupé through the corners as the back end slithers around unsure of what direction I am going to chuck it into next.
The Mini is in its element but I misgauge my braking distance on a particularly long right-hander and we start to drift across to the opposite lane due to lost traction on the slippery yellow rumble strips. Foot off brake, hard on the accelerator and there is a momentary pause before the revs build up, the turbo spools up and then the front wheels light up like crazy to pull me out of this slight sideways predicament that I seem to have gotten myself into.
If this was on the track it would be the automotive equivalent of ballet but the fear of oncoming traffic is a very real danger. Momentarily, my butt cheeks are clasped tighter than a really tight thing but the Mini pulls me through as beads of sweat drip down my forehead. Um, time to stop for a few more photographs and the realisation that it is not 1964, this is not the Monte Carlo Rally and I am most definitely not Paddy Hopkirk. However, it does not go unnoticed that I am indeed in a Cooper S, which, thanks to its capabilities, has just potentially saved me the embarrassment of handing back a slightly bent car to BMW.
Rapid photography taken care of at a random roadside castle (and ego back in its place) it was a return to the road. No time to dwell on the mishap. I had over-cooked it into that corner but had exited unscathed thanks to the Mini. With the new-found respect I had for my steed I returned to the road and refocused on my race against the setting sun.
Up over the hills at full charge, my battle against time continued as I squeezed every last ounce out of this turboed four pot, front-wheel-drive wonder. A brief but necessary stop, just past the Golden Tulip Hotel, has me stalling for yet more photographs. Rolling the Mini onto the easily accessible beach for a quick snap against the rocky outcrop and another with the waves gently lapping the shore has me in my element as a photographer, but the sun is fading. We are losing the light. I must reach Khasab!
The pace is furious and I opt to head down to the old port at Khasab, briefly stopping for a photographic opportunity that presents itself but I know in my heart that it is not ‘the one’. I am kicking myself. We are losing the sun. I haven’t yet got the shot!
An old abandoned dhow lies beached in the distance and the sun is setting directly behind it. This is it in a now-or-never, down-to-the-wire, do-or-die type scenario!
Hurtling along the gravel to reach this final and imperative goal I yank on the handbrake and spin the car through 180 degrees while simultaneously releasing my seatbelt, opening the door and rolling from the car like an Eighties’ TV cop hero.
And there it is. Mission accomplished and a deep sigh escapes my chest.
What better way to celebrate the Mini’s 53rd birthday than our own little Mini Adventure in a race against the sun to Khasab?
Now, with the sun set, it was time to break for the border and not spare the horses. With no need to stop for any more photographs it would be flat out all the way. Mini Adventures are awesome.
The above feature is based on actual events.