Through the Sahara – in a 1950s Kombi
More than fifty years ago, two brothers living in what was Southern Rhodesia planned a trip to London. They bought a Kombi, fitted a roof rack, bed and a Primus to it and drove straight across Africa. In the Sahara, they got stuck more times than they could count, Drive Out reader Ivor Wiid writes.
In January 1959 my brother, Raymond, and I discussed going overseas like so many of our friends were doing. Most people travelled to the United Kingdom on a glorious two-week boat trip on the Union-Castle Line from Cape Town. As we wanted to do something more challenging, we decided on an overland trip to London.
Raymond (25 at the time) was working and living in Salisbury with his wife, Mary. I was 24 and was working in Bulawayo where I was living with my parents.
We planned to drive from Bulawayo to Tangier, Morocco. First, we would drive to the Victoria Falls, and from there through Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), the Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo), French Equatorial Africa (Central African Republic), Chad, Cameroon: Nigeria, French West Africa (which included Niger and Burkina Faso) and then via Algeria to Tangier. From Tangier, we would cross over to Europe by boat and continue driving to London. Or so we thought…
We decided to live like hermits for a year to save as much money as possible, to learn about a trans-Africa trip to London by reading books and magazines, and to get a suitable vehicle.
A Primus and a roof rack
Neither of us had any confidence in Land Rovers, as it was said in those days that if someone you know buys a Land Rover you should pray for them instead of congratulate them.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles weren’t as common as they are nowadays, and the only alternative to a Landy was the American Jeep. But we couldn’t afford a 4×4 anyway, and as my brother was driving a VW Beetle and he trusted Volkswagens, we decided to buy a VW Kombi and customise it.
We bought a second-hand 1957 1200cc Kombi with about 30 000 miles (about 48 000km) on the clock. Its top speed was 100km/h – downhill!
Few cars had synchromesh in first gear in those years, which meant you had to double-declutch to get the car into first gear while the vehicle was moving. Most vehicles had drum brakes, as disc brakes were still a novelty.
We built a bed the width of the vehicle and a cupboard into the Kombi, and fitted a double Primus stove and windows to the kerbside door. On top, we fitted a custom-made roof rack and waterproof canvass cover.
Si ye pambili (Keep going forward), as we named our Kombi, had “Dunlop Tyres” painted on the one side, as Dunlop had given us four tyres for the trip. (Big deal, we thought at the time, but it turned out to be a big deal, as we had no tyre problems except one puncture just before Paris, France.)
“Trans Africa to London” was painted on the back, and its name on the front.
We planned the trip with the book Trans-African Highways by the Automobile Association (AA) of Rhodesia and the AA’s free Touring sheet no 8, Notes on the Overland route to Algiers.
The Touring sheet listed petrol prices for 19 countries or towns. The cheapest price per imperial gallon (4.54 litres) was 3 shillings (30c, or about 7c / litre) in Colomb-Bechar, Algeria, and the most expensive – 10 shillings and 3 pennies a gallon (about 23c / litre) – was in Bidon V, Algeria.
A Coke cost more than a beer in those days.
The three of us got the paper work, visas and vehicle ready and decided to leave on 8 February 1960. One was only allowed to travel through the Sahara in the cooler season, between November and May, and it was the end of the very heavy rainy season in the Congo.
From Nigeria we intended travelling north to French West Africa (specifically Niger and Burkina Faso, part of this federation of eight French colonial territories) and then via Algeria to Morocco. However, when we collected our passports from the French Consulate in Harare, we were told to report to the French Consulate in Kano, Nigeria.
The consulate charged us £55 per passport – a stiff fee at the time – to enter the Sahara. The high charge covered emergencies should the authorities have to rescue travellers who got stuck in the desert. The authorities controlled one’s movements from a town in the Sahara according to time of departure, destination and expected time of arrival. A search party was sent out if you hadn’t arrived at your destination by a certain time.
Pg. 2 | You want to go where?!
You want to go where?!
Having both resigned from our jobs, Raymond and I left Bulawayo on 8 February 1960, as planned, with Mary. At the Victoria Falls, we met a medical doctor, one Dr Cloete and his travelling companion, Mac McKenzie, both from Oudtshoorn. They were driving a Mercedes-Benz 180D.
We started talking and discovered we were doing the same 3500 km trip through the Sahara. Because they were doing a different route to Kano, we arranged to meet at the airport in Kano on 2 March.
We had no problems travelling through Zambia as the roads were tarred. In the Belgian Congo, it was a different story with lots of rain and lots of mud. But the VW Kombi had good ground clearance and we got through easily enough.
While we were travelling through the Congo, some locals ran after the vehicle shouting, “Independence! Independence!” It was just two months before the general election in May 1960. The election followed violent uprisings in the Congo, which became independent on 30 June 1960.
There, we met a French couple who had travelled through the Sahara in a Citroën 2CV. They gave us sand mats they had used when they got stuck. It came in handy when we reached the desert.
We visited Lake Kivu, a big tourist attraction, and saw some pygmies and the giraffe-like okapi for the first time.
In the Cameroons, we met some American missionaries who asked us if we needed anything. We told them we needed some sugar, and they responded, “Granulated or cubed?”
From Bangassou in southeastern Central African Republic we went through Bambari, Fort Sibu, Fort Archambault (Sarh), Guélendeng, Fort Lamy, (all in Central African Republic), Kussere and Gamboro (Cameroon) and to Dikwa across the Nigerian border to Maiduguri.
Surprisingly, we managed to meet the two men from Oudtshoorn at the airport in Kano on 2 March.
Being obedient travellers, we reported to the consulate in Kano and told the official of our intended route through the Sahara. Well, he nearly swallowed his cup of coffee! The French military were testing an atom bomb near Gao, Burkina Faso (then French West Africa), that was along our intended route, he told us.
He asked to see our passports. “No, no, you cannot follow this route to Morocco. I will tell you which towns to go through. You will go to Algiers. When you get there, please report to the British Consulate,” he told us.
The consulate prepared new papers for our following new route:
- Kano to Agadez in Niger;
- Algeria: In Guezzam, Tamanrasset, Arak, In Salah, El Goléa Ghardaïa, Laghouat (400 km south of the Algerian capital Algiers in the Atlas Mountains), Djelfa, Algiers.
Pg. 3 | Into the desert
Into the desert>
From Kano we followed our new itinerary (on what is now the 4500 km Trans-Sahara Highway from Lagos to Algiers) and arrived in In Guezzam on 5 March. Here, we decided to tell the authorities we would be leaving at 8am the next day, but we actually left at 3pm on the day of our arrival to give us an extra 17 hours to reach the next town, Tamanrasset, 261 miles (418km) away, in four days.
It was a good thing we did, because we were in for a tough time …
Off we went into the desert, following markers planted in the sand every 5km. The black-and-white markers looked like steel railway sleepers. When you stand next to one, you’re supposed to see the next one, but they were sometimes buried in the sand.
We got stuck often and soon learned to aim for darker patches of sand, which had a firmer surface.
We learned not to spin the wheels too much, as you then just sink deeper into the sand. When we did get stuck, we rocked the car by selecting first gear, going slightly forward, and then selecting reverse as quickly as possible and going backwards. We repeated the process going backwards and forwards until the vehicle was rocking fast enough to get out of the hole.
The driver then kept driving, often for half an hour, until he got to firm sand, which meant the rest had to walk, carrying the two spades, sand wire mats and metal plates used in the recovery.
Mary’s eyes became so badly swollen, she could hardly open them.
Barely an hour after we had left In Guezzam, the driver of the Mercedes-Benz got stuck in the sand. While he was trying to rock the car, he selected reverse too quickly and the gearbox got stuck in reverse. Try as we might, we couldn’t get it out of gear.
We had no option but to remove and strip the gearbox – right there in the Sahara.
All we had apart from a toolkit were standard car jacks and one solitary inspection light. (Apart from that, our other equipment and parts included sand mats, spades, ropes, water hoses, spark plugs and a 6-volt coil. We did have spare engine oil.)
We heaped sand next to the Mercedes, pushed it onto its side onto the sand heap, and steadied the vehicle with the jacks.
We took turns to undo the prop shaft and other parts and removed the gearbox. As we had no spare gearbox oil, we had to be very careful not to let the oil run out.
It got very cold after sunset, around 6pm. Our hands were freezing and we had to wear all our clothes to keep warm. By midnight, it was bitterly cold.
Fortunately, we had enough drinking water (about 50 litres) and had tinned meat and vegetables and some fresh food. However, we couldn’t wash our hands with the precious water, which was reserved for drinking only.
It was a huge job. We started removing the gearbox at 4pm and removed the cover from where the gear selectors are. We saw the gear selector had become stuck after it had slipped out of its groove.
We worked right through the night and eventually got the Merc going at 11.30 the next morning.
We arrived in Tamanrasset, a big French army post, at 6pm on 9 March. It had taken us more than three days to do the 418 km from In Guezzam. In the process we had got stuck in the desert 30 times.
“We are all worn out from digging, pushing and walking,” Mary, whose eyes had improved, wrote to her parents. “If this desert doesn’t stop soon, I’m flying over. I honestly can’t take much more of this. It’s damn hard going, but we believe the worst is over.”
We had been on the road for more than a month since we had left Salisbury.
Pg. 4 | Stuck in the desert
Stuck in the desert
In Tamanrasset, where we rested for two days, we met a couple, Julien and Alice, from the Belgian Congo, who, with their son and a cat, were fleeing from the Congo to Brussels in a VW Kombi. Julien wasn’t mechanically minded, so we agreed he would prepare the meals and we would look after his car.
When we inspected the air filter of Julien’s Microbus, the oil in the filter was rock hard. He had obviously not been checking the oil as we had. We had been replacing the oil in the oil bath filter in our VW daily while driving through the desert.
During the rest of the trip we kept on getting stuck and having to dig ourselves out. Each time we managed to keep on si ye pambili-ing.
Once while we were digging ourselves out, we heard a far-off droning. We could still hear it the next time we got stuck. The third time we got stuck, we saw a red speck on the horizon. By the fourth time we were stuck, the vehicle arrived – a Forward Control 4×4 Jeep with a group of American friends on board. They pulled us out of the sand with their winch before continuing their trip.
For a long time we approached what looked like a mountain on the horizon – the Tadmaït Plateau. We drove to the top of it and drove on it for one and a half days before driving down the other side.
We eventually drove out of the desert to the oasis town of El Golea, complete with palm trees, water, dates, coconuts and shade.
At the time, the Algerian National Liberation Front was fighting for independence against the French Army (the fighting only ended in 1962). Every morning before one could drive off, the French army had to mine-sweep the road from El Golea, and a French Foreign Legion soldier accompanied you with a machine gun.
Greatly relieved, we eventually reached a tar road south of Laghouat, about 400km southwest of Algiers.
After passing through Djelfa in the Ouled Nail Mountains, we drove into Algiers on 20 March, almost six weeks after leaving Salisbury. After days of seeing nothing but sand, the sight of the sea was so overwhelming, Mary started crying.
Algiers was a place of firsts for us – it was the endpoint of our first (and last) trans-African odyssey; it was there that we saw television for the first time; and we had our first bath there since leaving Kitwe in Zambia.
The city was teeming with soldiers armed with semi-automatic rifles and they got searched for bombs at every shop we entered, Mary wrote.
We went to see the British consul in Algiers who told us to get onto the first vessel sailing for Marseille, as Algiers was very dangerous. Plastic bombs were exploding all over the place.
Understandably, everyone had had enough of the journey by now. The nights were so cold Mary was shivering despite wearing three jerseys, a coat and a skirt. “We shall all be glad to see London, because everyone is getting on everyone else’s nerves and we never stop fighting,” Mary wrote back to her parents.
We nevertheless stayed in Algiers for a couple of days before taking the ferry to Marseille. From Marseille we drove the two VWs to Brussels. There we had mussels and chips for the first time and learned you eat “French fries” with mayonnaise, not vinegar.
We crossed the Channel on 5 April 1960 and drove to London, where we arrived later the same day.
Raymond and Mary worked in London until August 1960 when the VW Kombi was loaded onto the Cape Town Castle on board which they returned
to Cape Town. They drove back to Bulawayo.
I started working for the Overseas Visitors Club in London, as many South Africans, Rhodesians, New Zealanders and Australians were doing.
I got a job at Moons Motors, close to a number of five-star hotels, parking cars for a fee for British aristocracy. I worked in London for a year and then toured Europe on a 150cc Lambretta Scooter with a group of New Zealand friends for three months.
I returned to Cape Town by boat the next year and took the train back to Salisbury, via Johannesburg.
- Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe): Bulawayo, Salisbury (Harare), Bulawayo, Victoria Falls;
- Northern Rhodesia (Zambia): Lusaka, Kapiri Mposhi, Ndola, Kitwe;
- Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo): Élisabethville (Lubumbashi), Jadotville (Likasi), Bukavu,
- Stanleyville (Kisangani);
- French Equatorial Africa (Central African Republic): Bangassou;
- Chad: N’Djamena, Lake Chad;
- Cameroon: Guélendeng, Mandelia; and
- Nigeria: Maiduguri, Kano.
- French West Africa (Niger and Burkina Faso): Madaoua, Gao
- Algeria: Reggan, Adrar, Colomb-Bechar
- Morocco: Meknes, Tangier