Driving 20 000km from England to South Africa is no walk in the park. Extreme road conditions, bandits, red tape… it’s certainly not something you’d want to attempt in, say, a Porsche 944. But, a few years ago, that’s exactly what British adventurer Ben Coombs decided to do. This is his story.
Africa. A single word, which, for many people, is laden with images of mystery, danger and suffering. To visit the continent is to embrace adventure and uncertainty. To attempt to cross it in an old Porsche is, frankly, tempting fate. But that was exactly the fate I chose for my long-suffering 944. With over 320 000 kilometres on the clock, its days as my daily transport were clearly numbered; but it didn’t seem right to simply sell it. One last adventure was needed. A chance to go out with a bang. Unfortunately a few weeks before departure, the Porsche embraced the prospect of ‘going out with a bang’ rather too literally. A bolt on the crankshaft worked loose, the oil pump stopped, and within seconds, the Porsche’s angular nose was occupied by 2 479cc of scrap metal and smouldering oil.
I had two choices: either give up on the expedition I’d had been planning for over a year, or fit an unknown engine and set off for Africa anyway. Being both stubborn and an optimist, I opted for the latter, and a scrapyard engine was installed and fired up for the first time one dull October afternoon. The following morning, Laura and I met up with some friends who’d decided to come along in their Mitsubishi 4×4, and set course for Cape Town, 21 500km away. Heading towards Dover as the engine misfired, leaked vital fluids, and tormented us with its oil warning light, I found myself willing it to just hurry up and fail; to bring an end to this ridiculous trip. But it didn’t fail. It propelled us onto the ferry to Calais, down through an autumnal Germany, over the Alps and on to Istanbul; the Porsche’s grand touring credentials proving just as impressive as its sporting abilities.
With just over 3 000km under our belts, confidence in the faulty engine was building, so we continued south to Syria. Our entry into the alleged ‘Axis of Evil’ was accompanied by a sudden increase in poverty, litter and hostile stares. These reached a peak as we headed into the desert following the signs for Iraq, before stopping short in the ruined Silk Road city of Palmyra. After getting thoroughly lost in Damascus, we entered Jordan. A night camping next to the Dead Sea – the Porsche deploying its roof tent in the finest overlanding tradition – precluded a trip through the Jordanian highlands, courtesy of the King’s Highway. This fine sweep of tarmac was the first chance in nearly 5 000km to drive the Porsche as nature intended, and it duly responded to the change in tempo, the chassis waking up and chattering like a long-lost friend while the exhaust barked enthusiastically down the straights, all the way to Petra. Egypt was next, and didn’t promise to be easy, given its reputation for being difficult to get any vehicle into, let alone a somewhat incongruous Porsche. Frustratingly, our worries were correct, and it took 14 hours, copious amounts of paperwork, ample baksheesh (bribe money) and a fax from England before we could hit the road to Cairo.
Two weeks after leaving England, we threaded our way through the frenzied local traffic towards the pyramids, where it was sublime to be able to drive among such incredible structures, having got there the hard way. Then came the Sudan, and the first big challenge of the trip. The Nubian Desert stretched into the distance, hundreds of kilometres of emptiness, criss-crossed by dirt tracks. The Porsche celebrated its first taste of gravel by knocking its exhaust off, overheating, and jamming the heater on full. The thermometer inside the car was reading 60°C as we fashioned makeshift earplugs from tissue paper and bounced through the sand. The engine temperature hovered near the red for most of the three days it took to cross the desert, a fact which continuously reminded us that we’d forgotten a spare head gasket. Eventually though, we reached civilisation, crossed the Nile and sped down perfect tarmac to Khartoum.
We entered the exotic capital – built on the confluence of the Blue and White Niles – through the city of Omdurman, into which the ongoing conflict in Darfur had spilled a few months previously. Then, pitched battles raged in the burning streets while helicopter gunships hunted overhead. When we visited, however, the only sign of burning came from the Porsche’s overheating motor. Following a few days of repairs, we left Khartoum and headed to Ethiopia. As soon as we crossed the border into the bustling, aromatic border town of Gallabat, the world changed. Sand and desert was replaced with lush vegetation rising up into Ethiopia’s highlands. Addis Ababa was passed in a blur of potholes and illness, then the Kenyan border loomed large. Riddled with banditry and tribal inter-fighting, northern Kenya’s lawless scrubland presented the Porsche’s toughest challenge. Before leaving the border town of Moyale, we solemnly entered our details into an army logbook before joining a convoy of a few lorries, and their escort; a Kenyan Army Land Rover, reassuringly packed with firepower. At 11am, the nailed barriers preventing anyone from leaving unescorted were moved aside, and we entered the wilderness. Marsabit, the next town was 250 tough kilometres away.
Unfortunately, the Kenyan Army seemed to consider speed to be the best defence against gun-toting ‘shiftas’, and the convoy disappeared into the distance, leaving us alone to fight our way through the mud. It was demanding driving. Rain had turned the mud track into a rutted quagmire, and it took all my concentration to keep the Porsche pointing in the right direction, and lots of forward planning to stop it getting beached in some deep rut. Team Shogun was finding it even more taxing, spinning off the road twice in the first 50 kilometres. By early afternoon, we were over halfway to Marsabit, and the road conditions improved. Unfortunately, the Porsche’s reliability didn’t; I noticed the fuel gauge was dropping quicker than usual and stopped to investigate. A shimmering kaleidoscope floated on the puddles behind the car.
I jacked the car up and squirmed beneath it. Gloopy mud caked the car’s underside, and dripped on me continuously. The problem was quickly apparent; the fuel filter mounting had broken, dropping it onto the half-shaft, which had worn a hole in it. Predictably, we’d forgotten to pack a spare fuel filter. I attempted a repair by torchlight, lying on my back in the mud. I tried gaffer tape first. Mud and fuel coated every surface and it was impossible to get anything clean, but eventually, the tape stuck. Sadly, the repair didn’t work, the leak came back the moment the engine was started. Next I tried amalgamation tape and jubilee clips, but these fared little better. Team Shogun was tiring of waiting, and produced a towrope. I didn’t argue. The last 100km to Marsabit seemed to take forever. From succeeding on the toughest road Africa could throw at us, we were reduced to bouncing along behind the Shogun, trying to avoid the obstacles littering the track; a task that became impossible after dark.
Rocks pounded the Porsche’s unprotected underside. The exhaust was gone within a few kilometres, removed by an errant boulder. Often the rocks crashed into the vulnerable sump, throwing the car disdainfully into the air. Others singled out the floorpan, and we repeatedly felt the metal buckling beneath our feet. One impact twisted the car enough to reposition the driver’s seat. Limping wounded through the lawless night, it was obvious that Africa was routing us, and there was nothing we could do about it. It had been dark for hours when the Porsche’s battered carcass was dragged into Marsabit. I abandoned its cramped cabin and didn’t even bother looking beneath it before retiring. The following morning we towed the Porsche to a garage with a sodden, litter-strewn inspection pit, and set to work. The fuel filter was removed and patched up, and sections of lacerated fuel line were cut out and replaced with bits of garden hose.
Somehow, by the following afternoon the car was ready to attempt the 240km track to the next village. The rain had stopped, and a dustbowl punctuated with acacia trees stretched into the distance. The track was less rutted than before, but painfully corrugated all the same. The ridges pounded the cars for hours as we shook our way through the barren landscape, eventually taking their toll on the fragile Porsche. The exhaust parted company first, then the fuel filter (again). I tried to plug the leak with Araldite glue. As I did, two local women in flowing tribal robes took an interest in the Porsche’s plight, and helped in the only way they could. Clapping and dancing, they began to pray. It was possibly the only time a Porsche has been be prayed for by a Kenyan nomad.
Unfortunately, their efforts came to nothing, and the repair only lasted a few minutes before fuel pressure overcame it. Team Shogun insisted on providing towing services to the faltering German once again, so as dusk descended, we continued into the foothills of Mount Kenya. Fortunately, the rocky pounding of a few days earlier didn’t reoccur. Instead, Kenya intimidated us with a raging storm. Raindrops exploded on the windscreen with miniature drama, as sheet lightning strobed through the sky above. And then the track ended at a raging torrent, where a 50-metre-wide flash flood raged across our path. A dozen lorries sat on either bank waiting for the waters to subside, while mid-flood, a truck keeled over forlornly, having failed to make it across. Team Shogun was unphased by the obstacle, and plunged impatiently into the churning waters. I fired up the engine, accepting we’d have a small fuel leak while it was running. Taking in the slack in the towrope, I followed the Shogun into the melee. The Porsche tipped over at a crazy angle, headlights glowing opaquely beneath the torrent as water swept across the windscreen.
Slipping the clutch to keep the revs up and prevent water from backing up the stumpy remains of the exhaust, our momentum carried us past mid flow, and still fighting the current, we climbed up the Wadi’s far bank. I killed the engine and the bark from the exhaust died, replaced by a round of applause from the disbelieving truckers. Following yet more repairs, we continued south across the equator, visited the source of the Nile in Uganda, then headed through Tanzania, where we saw our first elephant, a whole family painted serenely in the moonlight. Malawi and Zambia passed routinely beneath our wheels, and we entered Botswana, where our friends in the Shogun took drastic measures to end the monotony. Having just stopped on a dirt road, I glanced in the mirror to see them careering through my dust cloud. I hit the gas in an effort to escape, but it was too late.
The heavy Mitsubishi smashed into us at 50km/h, crumpling the back end of the car and wrinkling the bodywork as far forward as the doors. The front of the Shogun was barely scratched. Despite the damage, we passed into beautiful Namibia, the penultimate country of our journey. After visiting the Skeleton Coast, we entered our last desert: the Namib. Cruising along, Laura and I sat in blissful silence, knowing that with only 1 500km to go, nothing was going to stop us reaching Cape Town. It was about then that the front wheel fell off. I’d noticed vagueness in the steering and coasted to a halt in the empty desert. The passenger side front wheel had come adrift and jammed in the wheel arch. Jacking up the car revealed that the lower wishbone had cracked, breaking the ball joint on the MacPherson strut and releasing the wheel. We had no spare ball joint so there was no option but to bodge the car with what we had, and limp 250km to the next town. We removed the wheel and slotted the damaged joint back together, then attempted to hold everything in place using a selection of ratchet straps and cable ties, arranged to apply tension when the suspension was loaded. After nearly two hours of experimentation, it was done, and with fingers crossed we climbed back into the Porsche and edged gingerly forward. 10km/h. 20km/h. 25km/h.
The repair held. At around 30km/h, a harsh vibration began, so we resigned ourselves to escaping the desert at just under this speed. As darkness built over a vista of magnificent desolation, we counted down the miles to tarmac, our confidence slowly returning. About 30km later, the wheel fell off again. We rebuilt the suspension and continued towards storm clouds backlit by the sunset. Ten minutes later, the wheel was off a third time. Another repair ensued. Pulling away, the first bolt of lightning crashed into the desert, illuminating our desolate surroundings. A few kilometres later, shortly after midnight, the wheel fell off for a fourth time. With lightning now strafing the desert all around, we decided against waving metal tools around in pursuit of another repair. All we could do was cower nervously in the vulnerable cars and await either daybreak or a lightning strike – whichever came first. It seemed to last a lifetime, but eventually the long, tense night was over, an electric blue sky signalling daybreak.
The storm was gone and somehow neither car had been struck. I reattached the wheel and by 5am we were pushing on through a vivid morning. The wheel fell off twice more in the first 25km of the day, each repair proving less resilient than the last. Having barely slept in 30 hours, tired and dehydrated, the prospect of abandoning the Porsche bore down on us. Several more failures came in quick succession, the suspension becoming ever more worn, the spectre of failure growing larger every time. By the eighth breakdown, it was only stubborn determination that was keeping the Porsche inching forward. As the temperature climbed past 40°C, we checked everything over as before – but this time, we found some tiny bits of grit in the grease within the socket. We cleaned the ball and socket thoroughly, strapped everything together and held our breath as we pulled away. The steering felt more taut, and an hour later we’d covered over 30 kilometres. Hardly willing to believe we’d cracked it, we crawled across the baking desert for six hours to the first town in 320km.
Still at it
And there, in the centre of town, was a beautiful sight. Tarmac. Silky smooth tarmac, all the way to Cape Town. As the final repair had proved reliable in the desert, we knew it would be safe on tarmac, too, so for over 1 000km we pottered along at 60km/h, until the stirring silhouette of Table Mountain rose from the horizon. Jubilantly, we followed the Atlantic Coast into the last city; emotions overflowing exactly 60 days after the scrapyard engine ran for the first time.
Specifications – Porsche 944 Coupé
Engine 2 479cc four-cylinder petrol
Power 120kW @ 5 800r/min
Torque 205Nm @ 3 000r/min
Transmission Five-speed manual
Drive Rear wheels
Driving aids None
Ground clearance ground… what?
Fuel tank 55 litres
Consumption 10 litres/100km
Range per tank 550km
Fuel cost Approx. R55 000
Text and photos: Ben Coombs