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Cape to Cairo

May 6, 2016
6 minutes read
Cape to Cairo

Ever since I learned as a schoolboy about the British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes and his vision of the Great North Road from Cape to Cairo, I have dreamed of driving the length of Africa, earth’s second largest continent. Like many dreams, it seemed no more than a fantasy until, a little over a year ago, I was retrenched when my dotcom employer closed down suddenly.

After 12 years of continuously climbing the career ladder it was time for a break. It was frightening to think that, for the first time, it might be possible to make my dream a reality. Terrifying as the idea was and tempted as I was to just play it safe and get another job, I sold my “ordinary car,” cashed in my pension and 12 years of savings, threw in a tax rebate check and my meager severance pay, and converted the lot to U.S. dollars, which is the most negotiable currency across all of Africa.

But I wasn’t yet ready to hit he road. I did not own a 4×4 vehicle and, although I could scrape together enough cash to buy one, it would have left me too broke to drive it. However, for the past 10 years I had been involved in a love affair–bordering on obsession–with vintage Volkswagen Buses. Once I had discovered some of the capabilities of these remarkable vehicles, it had always been in my mind that I could merge my dream and my hobby and drive a vintage Kombi from Cape to Cairo, and to that end I had spent many daydreaming hours designing my ultimate modified off-road Bus.

But, newly unemployed in April 2001, I had neither the time nor the money to build this fantasy Kombi. But I did have a bone-stock 1975 Volkswagen Fleetline Kombi, a rare Brazilian-built, South African-assembled 15-Window Split-windshield Bus, that I had recently restored and painted up in zebra stripes like the old East African safari Buses. Most people wouldn’t leave an urban area in a car like that but, for my purposes, it was the ideal vehicle, and I set about preparing it for a long and arduous journey. Although I was prepared to make the trip alone, I soon had a car full of travelling companions. First, my girlfriend Gisela quit her job and announced she was coming with me. Then my friend Shaun got wind of the expedition and demanded to come along, and soon afterwards he had cajoled his girlfriend Gina into joining us as well.

Meanwhile, Gisela pulled off a minor miracle by organizing equipment sponsorships for the expedition from Kodak, Goodyear and Sony. I had felt three people was about the most the car should carry but, for better or for worse, we left Johannesburg as a party of four in an overloaded and ancient Kombi on the coldest day of the year.

We were headed south, away from the intimidating bulk of Africa north of the Limpopo River, to the continent’s southernmost point at Cape Agulhas, which we had chosen as the formal starting point of our Cape to Cairo adventure. That gave us the opportunity to tour South Africa a bit before venturing into the rest of the continent, which gave time for the Bus and the group to settle down in familiar surroundings. Touring through some of our own country’s scenic regions was also an appropriate send-off, as we were planning to be abroad for at least six months.

From the southern tip we made our northward way via Cape Town, where we lightened the Bus by sending some of our gear home. After Cape Town, we headed up the west coast, through Namaqualand, an arid region of stony soil and low scrub that turns into a colorful flower garden almost overnight after the annual rain. Our timing was perfect, as Namaqualand unfurled for us the best wildflower season in years. The day before we left South Africa we said goodbye to Gina, who had come to the conclusion that Africa was too daunting for her and she returned home. We crossed the border as a party of three, with the Bus further lightened, but still heavily loaded.

From South Africa our journey took us through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, to complete Cape to Cairo and the African leg of the trip. After Egypt we crossed to the Middle East and continued through Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany, where we sold the Bus to a collector and returned home.

Although our time and money budgets were very tight, we nonetheless made a point of experiencing the major attractions of each country.

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