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Expect the unexpected

14 April 2008

It all began around the campfire in June, 1997, when three couples talked tentatively of taking a year off, and travelling overland to England. For some, the “gap year” came at the ripe old age of 50! We look at the preparations and the start of the 34 900km journey

Text and photographs: Beryl Kotze

The idea was first mooted 10 years ago while we were on a 4×4 trip in Mozambique, when my husband, Dave, me and our friends, Brian and Maureen Day and Willie and Ingrid Hardman, spoke about a journey through Africa.

We felt that 2007 would be the ideal timing for such a trip as our youngest daughter would have matriculated and it was to be Dave’s 50th birthday.

Not that it was going to be easy. It meant we would have three kids at varsity during the planned Gap Year of 2007. We needed to leave our home running and we would not be working and earning money for the year.

We could have waited a few more years to fulfil our dream, but when is the right time? When you have the money and the time, you may be too old or sickly to do such a trip. Before you know it, it’s too late to pursue your dreams!

Ten years later all three couples were still committed to the idea. We started having meetings at the beginning of 2006, laying out a rough route, but without time schedules. Calendars and watches dictate every day of our lives, and we did not want to know or care whether it was Monday or Sunday, 8am or 2pm.

We planned to meet at Pete’s Place in Zambia on 20 March, 2007, our effective starting point. After Zambia we were to travel up the western shore of Lake Malawi and into Tanzania. Then east, following the Mozambique border to the coast before continuing up the Tanzanian coast, with a detour into central Tanzania.

Across the top of Tanzania, cutting through a corner of Kenya and into Uganda to visit Lake Victoria and perhaps Rwanda. Then back into Kenya, covering most of the central part of the country and back down the coast almost to the Tanzanian border. We would then move up the Kenyan coast and then west and into Ethiopia.

Through central Ethiopia up to the Eritrean border, then left and down slightly and into Sudan, then almost straight up to Egypt.

At this point the group planned to separate, the Days and Hardmans intending to turn around and travel back to South Africa, revisting places they had found of interest on the way up. The Kotzes and Kargs wanted to travel through Egypt and follow the Mediterranean coast through Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco before crossing into Europe and on to England.

The Kargs, incidentally, are Neville and Lorraine – dairy farmers from Mooi River, who decided to join our tour late in 2006.

Dave purchased a Toyota Land Cruiser from a friend. Known as the Troopie in Australia, it is fully imported and not available as a new vehicle in South Africa. It comes standard with dual fuel tanks and air-con.

Dave removed the bench seat to secure our National Luna double-door fridge/freezer in the right rear corner of the vehicle. Between the driver’s seat and the fridge he built a storage compartment for a second battery, recovery equipment, tyre pump and tools. He also installed a 65-litre fresh water tank.

On the left side of the vehicle, both sliding windows were removed and a narrow storage compartment accessible from the outside was built in. One of the two hatches was for our day-to- day cooking needs – cutlery, crockery, spices, pots and pans. The other was for clothing.

On the inside below this storage compartment was another long storage area for rice, mealie meal, pasta, flour, tinned foods etc. Underneath the vehicle was a water tank, built by Dave Surian from the Exhaust Shoppe, through which the exhaust pipe passes to warm the water while you travel. So when we stopped, Dave set up a portable shower cubical outside the driver’s door, connected the shower rose and the switch for the pump and we had a hot shower! Up front we had a CB radio and an inverter for charging all those items that require 220V.

The vehicle’s standard engine was a five-cylinder 3,5-litre diesel with a four-speed gearbox. This was a very tired combination and could not maintain 120 km/h on the flat, even when totally unloaded. Trying to fit a turbo was not successful. Dave then decided on the Toyota 4,5-litre petrol engine with a carburett or and a five-speed gearbox.

It went like hell but proved very thirsty – 22 to 24 l/100km in and around town, and about 18 on the open road. So even with two 85-litre tanks the range was less than 1000km. Two additional jerry cans were loaded.

Dave also installed a second alternator to charge the two auxiliary batteries. On top was the roof-top tent and on the side we had a retractable awning.

Then the vehicle windows were tinted with a plastic film to keep the interior cool and protect against smash and grab. The vehicle received its last service, almost new tyres, two spare tubes, one spare tyre on a rim and another without a rim.

The Cruiser was christened Garfield (as he is large and very thirsty).

About a month before our intended departure date of 11 March 2007 we discovered that we were short of a few visas. We had intended to arrange visas at the border posts or in the neighbouring country.

This, we discovered, would work all the way up the east coast of Africa, except for Uganda, and only up to Egypt. From there and across the top of Africa we needed to pre-arrange visas, and we needed to do it in South Africa before we left ! The next problem was that most countries only wanted to provide visas three months prior to scheduled arrival, and we would only be in Egypt about five months after our departure.

So we started… first, Ugandan visas – R300 each. We had to courier our passports up to Pretoria and wait to get them back. In the meantime I wrote a letter to the Egyptian Consul explaining the situation and he agreed to accommodate us.

Next we had to work on Libya – they wanted us to contact a travel agent in Libya and arrange it through them. Aft er attempting to phone them in Libya and not being understood, we decided to e-mail them in the hope that someone in the office would understand English! Jackpot!

Ten days later we had a reply saying that everything could be arranged via Wings travel agent in Libya and we could do it en route as long as we gave them a month’s notice of our date of arrival – at a cost, of course! A Libyan escort had to meet us at the border and accompany us in our vehicle the enti re ti me we were in Libya until we left the other side to Tunisia.

Well, on Thursday, 15 March, we finally set off from Johannesburg to meet Neville and Lorraine Karg in Warmbaths. We left together at 9am and headed for the Zanzibar border crossing into Botswana. All was going well… then a red light began to flash!

It was our alternator warning light. We stopped and Dave found a cut wire. As it wasn’t an immediate problem we proceeded over the border and made our first bush camp in Botswana.

In the morning when the engine was cool, Dave discovered that alternator number one was not charging. Luckily we had alternator number two. Dave bridged the batteries so that this alternator charged all three batteries and we set off towards Francistown.

From Francistown we decided to take the scenic route up to Nata through the Makgadikgadi Pans. Then there was the smell of burning rubber! We stopped to discover that the fan belt driving alternator number two had snapped. The engine was too hot to work on, so we decided to push through to Nata, as we had three batteries.

Big mistake! This scenic route was slow going and rough. By 4pm we were about a third of the way! The Kargs were ahead, going fast to try to get us to Nata before nightfall. Because of dust they could not see us but kept in regular radio contact.

Six o’clock, two-thirds of the way and bang! A flat tyre! We tried to contact our companions but guess what? Their radio had given up the ghost…

So we changed the tyre, and at 7pm, with the light fading fast, we were on our way again. Eventually we had to put on the headlights, and our batteries were draining. By 8.30pm our headlights looked like candles.

We reached the main road, 30km from Nata. Then Garfield stopped – all three batteries were fl at. We were stranded on the side of the road in the pitch dark and I was scared! Dave said we’d have to sleep where we were, and I wasn’t happy.

Then, up drove Neville and Lorraine – from behind! They had turned around to look for us, took a wrong turning and ended up behind us. They towed Garfield to Nata, where we arrived at 10.30pm.

The road to Zambia brought more car troubles. The air-conditioner belt broke, and so did the main fan belt. Fortunately we had a spare. Then we found out that the switch to change fuel tanks wasn’t operating – and we hadn’t even left Botswana.