The year was 1982. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, rerouted an RAF Hercules over foreign territory and requested the scrambling of jets and choppers and ground troops. The diplomatic cables burned back-and-forth. President Reagan expressed concern. The situation was desperate.
This wasn’t the Falklands War, that came a few months later. This, in fact, may have been more emotional for the Iron Lady. Her only son, 29-year-old Mark, had gone missing.
A privileged and rather bored young man who’d failed his accountancy exams three times, Mark Thatcher was searching for some meaning in life and caught the motor racing bug. He’d competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours, and it was with extemporaneousness and a side order of hubris that he took on the very different and more dangerous challenge of the Paris-Dakar with little more than bravado and a rudimentary compass.
The rally was very much in its infancy. Mark couldn’t remember he’d even agreed to compete. “It all began when I took part in Le Mans in 1980,” he wrote in The Guardian in 2004. “One of the sponsors happened to mention they were running three Peugeots in the Paris-Dakar, and would I like to do it? I said yes and forgot all about it”. It was this level of groundwork which led to navigational errors, life-threatening thirst and an international rescue mission.
When the sponsor rang back a year and a half later with Mark’s ticket to Paris, our automotive adventurer decided that though his memory of agreeing to race was hazy, it might be fun to try and cross the Sahara. His lack of care and concern was almost admirable. Even the amateur competitors rigorously prepare months if not years in advance, mentally and physically as well as technically and strategically. “I did absolutely no preparation. Nothing”. He did half a day’s testing and the day after that was driving out of Paris’ Place de la Concorde in the direction of Senegal.
It was New Year’s Day, 1982. Mark’s role for the three-week mission was to be the navigator. His driver was experienced Porsche racer and Le Mans class-winner Anne-Charlotte Verney, who was ten years Thatcher’s senior, and they had an on-board mechanic, Jacky Garnier. Thatcher hadn’t actually finished Le Mans in his two attempts, and one might argue that the 8.5 mile-long Circuit de la Sarthe requires minimal map reading skills, but that didn’t stop him feeling cocksure about the desert raid. “I’ve now raced in Le Mans and other things,” Mark told the BBC, “this rally is no problem.”
Well, the first problem was the car itself. Their Dangel-converted Peugeot 504 estate had a very long wheelbase, whilst the harsh terrain of the Sahara lends itself better to a short-wheelbase machine. “I was thinking, OK, I wonder how this is going to go?” wrote Thatcher with typical forethought. “I soon found out.”
At Sète, the cars boarded a transport ship to Algiers and left the safety of France behind. Two days later, on the 4th January, the Algerian stages began. Algiers to Ouled Djellal; Ouled Djellal to Hassi Messauod; Hassi Messauod to Bordj Omar Driss; Bordj Omar Driss to Tit. Where is Tit? An unkind guide might have pointed to the navigator of the white 504. With each mile south the terrain got tougher and the nightly tales in the bivouac, the temporary village in which the teams camped, grew more lurid. “I remember thinking, two days before we stopped” wrote Thatcher, “that this could all go very badly wrong.”
Saturday 9th January saw the raid travel in convoy towards the dunes and desolate mountains of Timeaouine, close to the border with Mali. Thatcher, Verney and Garnier never made it. “We must have hit something,” reflected Thatcher. “What actually happened was the trailing-arm links both broke; so the rear axle just broke away. We stopped. Others stopped too, took note of where we were and went on. But the silly bastards – instead of telling everyone we were 25 miles east when they finished the section, they told them we were 25 miles west.”
The “silly bastards” soon had a cold Kronenbourg in their hands and their feet up in the bivouac, while Thatcher had no GPS, no sat phone or locator beacon, and had to explain to his team-mates why they only had a half-full water container. “There was not a lot in the car. I remember being slightly annoyed, in fact, at the way the rally organisers arranged the water truck every day. I learned quickly that you should get to the truck quite fast. For some reason, I got to the camp late the night before and couldn’t fill up. So, we had five litres of water – instead of ten – between the three of us”. They rationed themselves half a polystyrene cup each twice a day, and were soon having to drink the radiator water. There was a small amount of dried food which Thatcher described as “useless.”
The number one rule when it comes to getting stuck in the Sahara is to stay with your vehicle. They remained there for six days. Unsurprisingly, there was some strain felt. “The thing I did not understand,” Verney later told the BBC, “is [Mark] could not find where we were. With all the machines, he said, “I can’t find [our location]”. That’s the only thing that made me angry”. Mark claims to have been positively zen about the whole ordeal. “When they didn’t come back for us in the first day I remember planning [psychologically] to be out there for five days, then for a week. I was never scared for my life.”
Thatcher did have an uncommon navigational aid at his disposal, though; a parent who was premier of a G8 nation. Without a radio, Mark had no idea of the fuss brewing at home as soon as it was reported he’d been missing for three days. Half of Fleet Street was now in the nearby town of Tamanrasset and the other half were trying to fly down there. His father, Denis, was there too.
A distressed Mrs Thatcher telephoned the British ambassador in Algiers. “I’m afraid there is no news,” she strained to tell TV reporters. ‘Maggie’s Son Lost in Sahara’ cried the front page of The Sun. ‘Fears Grow For Lost Mark’ headlined The Daily Express. Ronald Reagan rang from The White House: “I was calling to tell you that Nancy and I feel so deeply – you are in our thoughts and prayers, you and Denis – about Mark.”
The Algerian military assigned five aircraft to the search, and the French government scrambled an additional three. The Algerian colonel commanding the operation was, according to Denis Thatcher, “a remarkable soldier who quite clearly knew what he was about”. On Thursday 14th January, after six days lost in the desert, the team and their stricken Peugeot were spotted 31 miles off course. “The Algerians had a well-organised, well-structured plan,” wrote Mark. “Ground assets and air assets. It was coordinated with ground-to-air radios. I heard a Herc in a search pattern, fired a flare and within five minutes two Land Rovers appeared.”
War reporter Michael Nicholson was down there for ITN. Addressing the News at Ten, he reported: “Mark Thatcher and his French co-driver were sighted this morning by an Algerian Air Force C130 search plane only a few miles from the border with Mali. As the pilot returned to the rescue headquarters at Tamanrasset, he was embraced by Mr Denis Thatcher, Mark’s father. He seemed overcome with emotion when the pilot told him he’d flown over the stranded car so low he could see the couple waving shirts and handkerchiefs at him. Once the sighting had been confirmed, Mr Thatcher telephoned the Prime Minister in London to tell her the good news. Afterwards, he said, “you’ve got a very relieved mum and dad.”
“It’s all alright now,” stated the Prime Minister, “and life to me looks totally different personally from what it did two days ago. It puts your other personal worries into perspective.”
For Mark’s part, he seemed pretty unaffected, telling reporters that all he needed was “a beer and a sandwich, a bath and a shave.”
But while the nation was relieved, soon Mark became a butt of jokes. It quickly emerged that he’d risked everything by taking what appeared to be a shortcut on the map, instead of keeping to the known and used tracks going due south. The Dakar organisers blamed it on Thatcher’s inexperience, while Mark has laid responsibility at their door. “It’s not to suggest that the rally organisers were not doing their very best to find us, but the event was still young and they were still learning their craft. Having said that, I can’t remember a year when someone wasn’t killed.”
There was one further part of this debacle that Mrs Thatcher had to weather. The dinner celebrating Mark and his team-mates’ safe return was largely liquid, generous and very expensive, and the bill hadn’t been paid when they left the Tahat Hotel in Tamanrasset. The local police and the British Embassy had to get involved. Eventually, Mark’s mother wrote a personal cheque for £1,784.80 to cover the hotel bill and keep both the Algerian and UK tax payers happy.
It wasn’t to be Sir Mark Thatcher’s last scrape. There have been controversial Arabian arms deals, dubious off-shore banking activities and even a failed coup d’état in Equatorial Guinea, for which he received a four-year suspended prison sentence. It might be best if he stayed away from continental Africa and deserts in general. On the other hand, one is reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, the bountifully eye-browed Sir Bernard Ingham who, when asked by Mark what he could do to help his mother win a third successive general election in 1987, responded: “Leave the country.”