Month: September 2019

We are Finally Ready to Leave

by Kae Lewis

The van was ready by September, several months before we were due to leave but we expected the first snows to arrive in Erbach in October. Evan was working without a garage so there would be no possibilities for mechanical repairs after that time. For the last few months, we were assembling our equipment and stores. The same do-it-yourself expedition books were very helpful in suggesting the types of stores we should take.  However we had to be extremely careful about weight because all Evan’s efforts with the van suspension would go for naught if we overloaded the vehicle.  Already the spare parts, being such weighty but essential items, were taking up a large part of the available space.  

 First there was the food store, and we had to work on the assumption that there would be few opportunities to buy food along the way. We decided that half our supplies would be dehydrated foods such as rice, dried vegetable and meat preparations, soup mixes, milk powder, flour, sugar and coffee.  The dry goods were light and easy to pack but not very palatable or healthy on a long-term basis.  We also packed about 200 cans of meat, some long-lasting German ‘Stinkwurst’ (a very aptly named sausage) and vaccum-packed very salty (and hence well preserved) ham.

 We assembled a medical kit with remedies for all common and many not so common problems.  We were aided in this by ‘The Traveller’s Health Guide’ (Dr A.C. Turner) which is a comprehensive treatise relating to the pitfalls threatening the health of the traveler.  After reading this book, you cannot help wondering if it would be better to stay in the sterile atmosphere of your own living room, rather than face the possibility of catching one of these most dreadful diseases.  On the other hand, lack of knowledge is often the biggest threat to a traveler faced with a sudden illness in an isolated area,  Then one is at a loss to know just which of all those pills packed carefully in the medical kit is going to do any good.  This had happened to us in central Java several years previously when I had suddenly come down with typhoid fever.  I went rapidly from a healthy and carefree tourist to a feverish, almost comatose state with very rapid dehydration in the humid jungle.  It was fortunate that Evan recognized the signs and got me to a hospital where I spent several days on an IV drip.   

We visited a doctor in Germany who gave us typhoid and cholera vaccines and wrote prescriptions for some emergency antibiotics and a large supply of anti-malarial drugs.  She recommended several different types of the latter, that we were to take daily throughout our time in Africa.  

The other health problem concerning us was our water supply. My bout with typhoid in Java could be safely blamed on my drinking local fruit juices with ice at restaurants. From that time on, whenever we were traveling, we had found that if we drink only bottled water, we can remain reasonably free of the dreaded traveler’s diarrhea which at best can certainly take the enjoyment out of travel.  

To ensure that we would have good water to drink in Africa, Evan fitted a dual filter system in the van.  The first part was a paper filter which would clean large particles from all the water we used so as not to block our pumps and pipes.  This could then be passed through a second ‘reverse osmosis’ membrane filter to provide us with sterile drinking water.   He made use of disposable dialyser units which he was very familiar with at work.  The whole system was operated by a modified battery-powered stainless steel gear-pump and although Evan had built the whole system himself, it worked faultlessly throughout our time in Africa. 

A disposable dialyzer like the one Evan set up in the van to filter all our drinking water.

By writing to the Automobile Association, we obtained a Carnet de Passages en Douane, an essential document which allows the importation and subsequent exportation of a vehicle from each country we were to travel through, without the necessity of paying customs duty or taxes on it.  Instead, a sum of money (an indemnity) is left in the home country to give each host country a guarantee of its customs duty should the vehicle fail to be exported. In our case, the indemnity was obtained using an insurance policy.  Without this Carnet in his possession, a motorist in Africa would be permitted to pass through few, if any, border posts.  To cover any loss or damage to the vehicle in Africa, it is difficult to obtain insurance but we eventually found a company (Lloyds) willing to cover us.

Another essential document is of course a passport and all the necessary visas.  Later we realized that it would have been wise to obtain a new passport with extra pages glued in the back.  The African border-guard, who has a mania for rubber stamps, quickly fills up a passport as he demonstrates his skill with a flourish on a new page.

 We wrote to all the European embassies of the countries we intended to visit but many did not reply, while those that did put up miles of red tape in our path.  It was becoming apparent that we would not be able to obtain visas very much in advance or they would expire long before we arrived at the border of the country. Postal applications seemed to take up to six weeks each, and they needed to keep our passport for that long, meaning we could only do one at a time. In the end, we decided that we had no choice but to make personal applications for visas along the way.

Many of the embassies required the applicant to be in his country of citizenship to apply for a visa and, since we hold New Zealand passports, we could not obtain them from Germany before we left.  Fortunately we had a permanent residence permit for Britain and concluded that we would have to take a trip to London immediately before we left.  This was convenient in any case because our good friend Jerry in London had agreed to allow us to store our household effects in his attic while we were away. Within a relatively short period of time, as a result of all these enquiries, we had a mountain of papers relating to the official aspects of the trip.

At nearby Munich, we visited Darr’s Expedition shop which specializes in outfitting expeditions like ours.  Apart from maps and a light-weight aluminium shovel, we bought some sand ladders.  These were aluminium plating designed to form artificial runways during World War II and would provide a hard surface if our wheels became bogged in sand or mud.  They were large, heavy items which were difficult to pack conveniently, but we decided on the advice of our books, that they were essential equipment.  We also bought eight metal jerrycans for petrol and several plastic water containers to supplement the fitted water tank we had under the front seats of the van.

 Evan pondered for months over his choice of tires.  My brother, Brian, who had experience of driving in the Australian Outback, told the yarn about the time he had five punctures in one day.  It was with this story in mind that we equipped ourselves with five spare tires, making a total of nine top quality steel-belted radial truck tires, each with a loading capacity of over a ton. Steel belted radials were new, and even when Evan called the Head Quarters of the tire manufacturers in England, he was unable to get any useful advise about their use in the Sahara.  We were to discover later that it is the quality and not the quantity of the tires that is important.  One spare would have been enough.

Evan, Kae and Katy at Aachen, Germany in the summer of 1981, just before we left for Africa.

 As our departure date drew near, we began to pack the storage compartments in the van, packing light goods, such as the dehydrated foods, spare wires and cables, gaskets and other light spare parts and clothing in the roof storage compartments.  The heavier supplies likes tools, spare parts, canned goods, bottled gas in the large compartment under our bed.  The more bulky spare parts were bolted underneath the chassis.  In this way we hoped to prevent the van from becoming top heavy and tipping on a rough track.  We still had to find places inside for books, maps, pens and writing material, radio, tape-recorder, binoculars, cameras and bags of film. The list was endless but, as with the food supplies, we had to assume that there would be few opportunities to replenish supplies of such things as film, toothpaste or even toilet paper along the way.  Each article was included only after a long debate on its merits but we remained fully convinced that we would be unable to manage without these things, rejecting only a tiny proportion. 

Just before we were due to leave, I received another letter from Brian in New Zealand.  The very thought of his sister wandering aimlessly around the Sahara, perhaps never to be seen again, had spurred him into action.  He had researched Saharan navigation methods in the library, and we carefully packed the resulting thesis to consult in our hour of need.  He sent his valuable compass with the caution that it probably would not work in the Sahara, recommending that we learn to use a sun clock.  A parting gift from our German schoolgirl neighbor was a carefully drawn cardboard clock face for our sun navigation.  Also out of concern for us, she had carefully followed the instructions from my brother who lived half a world away.  We knew there would be anxieties ahead for our family and friends, especially if the postal services were, as we expected, unreliable.  We resolved to send them as many letters as possible.

There was no possibility of storing away eight jerry cans, two water containers and five spare tires in our lockers.  So they were stacked on the floor, blocking our access to the camper.  The sand ladder lay across the stove and sink so we had no access to that either.  We packed the rest of our belongings in the apartment into wooden tea-chests which we planned to leave in London.  By this time we had fitted these in,  the van was packed to the roof.   But everything was ready, and the months of anticipation were over.   We were Africa-bound at last.

Preparing the Van for Overland Travel

by Evan Lewis

When we purchased the VW Kombie in 1979, we were already planning to go to Africa, but partly because we had to choose the correct date to start the journey, we decided to travel around the Mediterranean first. Then we were both offered research jobs in Germany and settled in Erbach near Ulm for 16 months before embarking on our African adventure. Our living accommodation in Katy was complete by the time we arrived in Erbach, but there was still plenty to do in preparation for Africa. Some parts, such as the front suspension had been damaged by the rough country roads we had encountered in Spain and Greece.

In addition, the engine was making knocking noises, and even after replacing the cylinder heads with original parts, the knock persisted. The VW dealer in Ulm worked on it and could not find out what was wrong. So, after weeks of trial and error, we ended up replacing the whole engine. Well actually, we replaced the short-block which is the crank case without the two cylinder heads and their overhead valves and push rods. This reconditioned engine-replacement did not include “accessories” like starter motor and alternator. When we installed and started the new engine, we were horrified to hear that the knock was still there but mercifully, after a while, it disappeared never to return.

We were renting a house from a family in Erbach near Ulm. The owners lived upstairs and we lived downstairs. When we arrived, we didn’t speak a work of German. Well maybe Ja, Nein and Guten Tag. It soon became necessary to explain to them why I was constantly tearing the VW apart every week end and putting it back together again in time to drive to work on Mondays.

Learning German got me into trouble more than once. I had to learn the German names of all the car parts and processes. In German you would never say “I need this or that” because it is the car, not you, that needs the part. Instead, you would say “My car needs…”. But as my German teacher said, when he got frustrated with my German grammar, “Evan, you speak English with German words!” Well, one day I announced loudly in German to our neighbors “I need a new exhaust pipe” or “I need a new out-puffer” as the German word for exhaust pipe is “auspuff”. As you can imagine this resulted in great peels of laughter. The German words for car parts are quite descriptive and they are all male, female or undecided!

Names of car parts in German – from my log book

On another occasion, I was out on the pavement on a hot July Sunday in my greasy black overalls when our neighbors, coming home from church, greeted me asking how I was and I said “I am HOT”. They replied in German “No, WARM” to which I said “No, REALLY HOT”. I was reprimanded, being told that HOT means something completely different in German. No wonder they called me “Der schwarze Teufel”.

But our neighbour and landlord, Alfonz Wilderotter proved to be a good friend to us, and helped us every step along the way. He started by inviting us to his house every Friday evening to drink Schnapps when his English and our German improved with increased confidence. Eventually they invited us to a private “Doozie” ceremony.

You see, in the German language there are two completely separate forms of grammar. In the formal version you always say “Sie” instead of “you”. The informal grammar is only used for people with whom you are very familiar, such as your spouse, or small children and in that case you say “Du” instead of “Sie”. Not only that, but all the rules of grammar change. We concentrated on the formal version so that we would not make the mistake of addressing the Professor with childish or overly familiar language. People would laugh when I spoke to Kae in the formal version of German. They assumed we must have had a fight.

After performing the “Doozie” ceremony we were now permitted to address the Wilderotters with the more intimate “du” form. This was a real privilege, and something we really appreciated. Soon we were even dreaming in German and knowing a second language proved very useful in our travels.

Alfonz was an engineer working on building luxury buses and large snow-cat vehicles with hydraulic motors. We wanted to construct a plate to cover the gearbox and part of the engine to protect it from damage by rocks. I found an old sheet of heavy gauge stainless steel and he helped me cut it to fit. Not only did it work perfectly to protect the mechanical parts, it also streamlined the underside of the vehicle so that it tended to dance across the sand like a stone skipping on water.

We also had protecting plates over the whole underside of the chassis and the steering gear. These were parts that I obtained from a local man living in Erbach who allowed me to salvage whatever I wanted from his old green pop-top VW camper. Because removing a section of the roof affected the overall strength of the vehicle, the factory pop-tops had plates covering the chassis to provide extra strength. This created a space like a large box and I bolted heavy spare parts inside which had the effect of keeping the weight down low.

Repairs: There is a long list of repairs we performed in Germany and soon Katy was like the proverbial old axe with a new head and a new handle. Perhaps rather than describe every detail, the list from my log book might be quicker:

  • two cylinder heads with head gaskets and rocker cover gaskets
  • short block engine
  • engine mounts
  • oil cooler
  • clutch plate and cable
  • two batteries and diode splitter circuit
  • brake linings and pads
  • two front brake disks
  • four heavy duty shock absorbers
  • six new body panels to replace those rusted by salt on the roads
  • replaced engine compartment lid which was rusting
  • replace sliding door
  • paint and painting supplies
  • retracting seat belts from the green VW
  • chassis plate from the green VW
  • new exhaust system, muffler and tail pipe (auspuff)
  • second hand front suspension
  • replace torsion bar and bushes in rear suspension
  • laminated windscreen which will not shatter
  • new stub axels and rear half-shaft axels
  • constant velocity joints
  • steering joints
  • quartz halogen head light bulbs
  • hydraulic brake master cylinder
  • oil pressure and temperature gauges

I had fitted the gauges in England, and one winter day, we were driving to work with the rather inferior heater going. Suddenly the cab filled completely with white smoke! The plastic oil line running from the engine to the gauge on the dash was too close to the exhaust pipe and melted, spraying oil on the exhaust. The smoke was sucked in by the heater boxes which surrounded the exhaust system.

There were other modifications we had already prepared in England. As Kae mentioned, I cut a hole in the barrier between the cab and the living quarters in the back. This could have weakened the vehicle so, with the help of our neighbor Tom Barker in Newcastle Upon Tyne, we welded in steel reinforcing and frames for mounting the seats.

We removed the bench seat and replaced it with two comfortable bucket seats retrieved from a Fiat car in the wrecker’s yard and Kae recovered them with cloth. We removed the spare tyre from its well under the front seat, leaving a space for the complicated water tank.

Then we fitted a heavy steel plate inside the front of the vehicle, removed the VW sign from the outside and mounted two spare wheels in its place (as seen in the photo). We also made expanded metal mesh to place over the headlights to prevent stone damage.

Surplus Spare Parts: The repairs in Germany left a lot of fairly usable spare parts, together with other parts I obtained second hand. We took these with us, together with many new parts, many packed in grease to prevent rusting. These included:

  • shock absorbers
  • brake master and slave cylinders front and rear and adjusters
  • brake springs and hydraulic hoses
  • constant velocity joints
  • front and rear torsion bars
  • anti-roll bars
  • rear stub axels
  • wheel bearings and wheel hubs
  • steering damper
  • steering tie rod
  • petrol pump
  • brake parts
  • clutch plate
  • rubber bumpers for suspension
  • handbrake cables
  • cables for clutch brakes and accelerator
  • speedometer and cable
  • assorted light bulbs for tail lights, license plate, interior, head lights
  • switches and wiring with connector plugs
  • carburetor parts
  • chrome wing mirrors (we did use them)
  • plastic tail light assembly and flashing indicator light covers

New Parts: In addition to second hand parts I also spent a lot of money on new parts that I thought might break or wear out on the journey.

  • wiper inserts
  • clutch and other cables
  • decoking kit
  • engine and sump gasket kits
  • exhaust repair kit
  • four sets of brake pads (front and rear)
  • fan belt
  • spark plugs, ignition coil and wires
  • fuses
  • distributor cap, rotor, points and condenser
  • headlight bulbs
  • alternator parts and bearings
  • starter motor bearings and brushes
  • new engine inlet and exhaust valves
  • concertina push rod tubes (replaced without stripping the engine)
  • valve grinding kit
  • petrol filters
  • pedal rubber pads

Expendable or consumable items:

  • 30 liters of engine oil (a gift from a taxi driver who was selling up)
  • gear box oil
  • hydraulic oil for brakes
  • lithium grease
  • Pentrating oil
  • assorted nuts bolts screws, self tapping screws, washers
  • split cotter pins
  • tyre repair kits and inner tubes
  • valves for tubeless tyres, valve cores and valve tool
  • emery cloth and wet and dry sand paper
  • primer paint
  • one liter of pastelweiss paint and spray paint to match the VW
  • paint brushes
  • hand cleaner
  • exhaust pipe sealer
  • epoxy and other adhesives

Tools: I already had an extensive tool kit but needed to buy some specific tools including the large 46 mm ring spanner required to remove the rear axels while some others I took just in case I might need them. The whole kit was heavy. Battery operated electric drills were not available at the time. That would have been handy. Here are some of the tools I listed.

  • 46 mm ring spanner
  • metric taps and dies
  • drill bits
  • easy outs
  • hack saw and blades
  • two pound hammer
  • cold chisel
  • goggles
  • pop riveter
  • tin snips
  • vice grips
  • jacks x3
  • sanding materials
  • paint stripper
  • wire brush
  • center and pin punches and leather hole punches
  • plain, long nose and bent-long-nose pliers
  • wire side cutters
  • water pump pliers
  • electrical multimeter
  • scissors
  • large set of files
  • compression tester
  • valve grinding tool
  • feeler gauge
  • steel measuring tape and steel ruler with scribers
  • large selection of plain and Phillips screw drivers
  • large collection of open-ended and ring spanners
  • crescent spanners 6 and 12 inch
  • Complete metric socket set with accessories and extensions
  • spark plug socket
  • foot operated tyre pump
  • tyre pump that screws into a spark plug thread (can damage the head)
  • tyre levers x 3
  • large rubber hammer for tyres
  • tyre pressure gauges x2
  • tyre tread depth gauge
  • grease gun
  • torque wrench
  • valve lifter
  • piston ring compressor
  • micrometer

Special Equipment: These items were needed for overland travel:

  • Locking petrol cap
  • Locking wheel nuts
  • Combination lock for spare wheel
  • padlocks
  • 13 Jerry cans for petrol 20 liters each (5 gallons)
  • 5 plastic 20 to 30 liter cans for water
  • compass
  • snow chains
  • Nylon tow rope
  • 5mm wire tow rope (old elevator wire rope)
  • two tonne shackles x 2
  • Two short handled shovels
  • sand ladders wrapped in sack cloth
  • 300 mm wide rubber conveyer belt: two pieces 15 feet long
  • Worksop manual
  • Fire extinguisher
  • petrol and water funnels and spouts

Evan’s Log Book

By Evan Lewis


I had not even contemplated travelling the world until Kae and I went on our first date to a Chinese restaurant in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1969, when Kae opened my eyes to the possibilities as she outlined her ideas and dreams. At the time Kae was 18, and I was 19, and we were married a few years later. We both knew that, before contemplating an extensive trip, we had to complete our education first. It was 1977, after we had both graduated from the University of Canterbury with science degrees, and I had completed my MSc and Ph.D. degrees in Biochemistry, that we finally left our New Zealand homeland to backpack through Asia to England.

This blog is based on diaries Kae kept during the journey, and letters we wrote to our parents in New Zealand. The letters were mailed to family members who then kept them for our records. My contribution to the journey was mainly to drive, to keep the vehicle on track and to take photos, although we took turns with the camera. Kae concentrated on food supplies and cooking, navigating and dealing with the mountains of paper work such as the passports, visas, Carnet de Passage, insurance and much more. Without her enthusiasm for travel, perseverance and determination to make it work, none of this would have happened.

I kept a log book of technical details before, during and after the journey and will use that to write a few notes. Readers who aren’t interested in technical details may want to skip over some of my ramblings, but keeping the vehicle going was a major concern!

Evan’s very battered Maintenance Log Book for our VW Kombie Van

Our Katy (as we affectionately named the Volkswagen Kombie campervan, based on her licence plate KTY494P) performed remarkably well and literally took us around the world. We lived in her for a total of two years over the eight years we owned her.

We were living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north of England near the Scottish border from 1977 until February 1980. We were working at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, both of us were involved with research into various aspects of renal dialysis when one of our Newcastle friends gave us a book called “Desert Taxi”. Her inscription in the book reads:

“To Evan and Kae, Good Luck and my admiration.”

Hearing our stories and plans, our British co-workers already thought we were completely crazy Kiwis and could hardly believe we were even considering going to darkest Africa. But here was one lady who had confidence in us.

The book is about a couple who travelled across the Sahara Desert in the 1950’s in an old London Taxi. After we had read it, we thought,

“If they could do it, we can do it too”.

Mind you, they nearly perished in the process. However, for me, that was the moment that the possibility of going to Africa really became a reality. However, it was to be three years later before we were to set foot and tires on African sand and soil.

Desert Taxi by Michael Marriot, published by Panther Books (UK) in 1956

Why did we choose a VW? Well we did look at other options. We were not looking for a London Taxi, and could not afford a reliable Land Rover with its four-wheel-drive. Then we found a newspaper advertisement for a large second hand Mercedes Benz camper which seemed ideal. The ad said it had some body damage, the price was great, but it was located in Kent. Neither of us were able to take any time off work, and so we drove the whole length of England and back, a total of 700 miles, in two days. Unfortunately, we found that the Mercedes had too much damage for us to be able to repair it.

Then we looked at a VW Kombie van that had been owned by an Indian restaurant. It smelled so strongly of curry that we thought we would never get rid of the smell. We often laughed about the curry wagon we nearly bought. Finally we found Katy and fell in love. She was a 4 year old VW Kombie that had been used as a meat delivery van, meaning there were no interior camper fittings. We bought her on the eighth of February 1979.

So, why a VW? They were in common use in most African and European countries at the time. This meant that new or used parts were reasonably priced and readily available everywhere. The VW Kombie design has some interesting and almost unique design features.

The engine is small at 1600cc, which means it is a bit underpowered, but on the other hand, it does not take a lot of space and is quite economical. It is a rear-mounted, flat horizontal four-cylinder engine designed originally by Porsche. Being air-cooled, like a small motorcycle, you don’t have to carry water for a radiator, nor worry about leaks or boiling. The London Taxi story was full of problems caused by the radiator leaking and using up their precious drinking water supply in the Sahara Desert. These VW engines can overheat, and it was difficult to monitor the temperature, so I replaced the dipstick with an oil temperature gauge and watched it like a hawk. It had a manual 4 speed gear box operated by mechanical linkages from the floor mounted gear lever.

The suspension is also interesting and played a significant role in our travels. Both the Kombie van and VW Beetle car use torsion bar independent suspension. This consists of two suspension assemblies bolted to the chassis – one for the front suspension and one for the rear. Each assembly consists of two large steel tubes about 3 inches diameter (8cm) running across the width of the vehicle. Inside each tube is a steel torsion bar. One end is connected to the inside of the tube and the other end to a drop-arm with the wheel mounted on its bearings. When the vehicle is lowered to the ground, the drop-arm rotates and the torsion bar twists like a spring producing enough force to hold up the vehicle. While travelling over rough ground, the wheel moves up and down, causing the torsion bar to twist. The tension in the rear suspension can be adjusted which has the effect of raising or lowering the vehicle.

This suspension has a huge advantage over the conventional straight axle used on nearly all vehicles of that era, and many vehicles even today, generally only providing about 6 to 9 inches (15 to 22 cm) of ground clearance in the middle of the back axel. The torsion bar system has considerably greater ground clearance and performed incredibly well in deep sand ruts where the wheels could drop down deep into the ruts without dragging in the sand. This compensated for the lack of four-wheel drive (4WD) but more about that later.

It had hydraulic disc brakes on the front wheels and hydraulic drum brakes on the back, with cables for the hand brake. The clutch and accelerator pedal were mechanical, operated by long cables going from the cab to the engine and transmission unit at the back. The steering was mechanical, with no power-steering. Katy lacked air conditioning but we were not used to using AC and found in Asia that going from cold to hot locations made us feel sick. In addition, AC would only burn extra fuel. There was no radio but that was no real concern as we had our portable radio with shortwave bands so that we could to listen to the BBC World Service. Now all we had to do was convert it into a camper.

Evan doing running repairs and maintenance on the roadside in Africa. This was often multiple times in a day.

The Sahara Hand Book by Simon and Jan Glen, which Kae mentioned, was the best source of information about desert travel that we had. They had used a two-wheel-drive VW Type 2 bus, just like ours and provided a lot of useful advice. I was able to implement many of their suggestions, such as an oil bath air filter, while some were too expensive for us, such as a limited slip differential and electric winch.

My personal log book includes an amazing array of plans and preparation for the trip to Africa, and we will not be able to mention them all. There is another book full of proposed budgets, distances, fuel consumption and costs, ferry and border fees, for many alternative routes and much more.

At the time we left for Africa in 1981, the Volkswagen Company had completely scrapped the whole design of the Types 1 and 2 VW Kombie and changed to a water-cooled engine with conventional wishbone coil spring suspension. What a shame that they became just like any other brand. The die-hard VW enthusiasts were disgusted. The VWs are now made with 4WD but the great torsion bar suspension never returned. The newer models can be recognized by the rectangular corners which replaced Katy’s elegant curves.

Plans To Go To Africa

by Kae Lewis

The key to trans-African travel for us was Zaire.  (Today it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo but for us, in 1982, it was Zaire.)  This country is so large and occupies such a central position on the map of Africa, that to try to plan a route around it is almost impossible.  There was a route passing through Chad but we had been told at the time that this is definitely the worst road in Africa, and like most others in central Africa, would be closed during that April to November rainy season as well.  To add to the difficulties, the newspapers at the time were full of stories of Colonel Gaddafi’s relentless move southwards into Chad and the continuing civil war.  The Chad embassy in Paris was understandably not issuing visas for tourists either.

At this stage, the jungles of Zaire seemed to be the obstacle in our path but all we could do was plan to be there at a time when the elements would not be working against us and hope for a more stable political situation.  Many previous expeditions had foundered here because the Zaire Government had a tendency to close the border at short notice. In any event, when we enquired at a Zaire Embassy in Europe about the possibilities of trans-Zaire travel, we were told that all borders are closed at all times and the only entry port is via Kinshasa airport.  This is the kind of obstacle that douses the hopes of even the most determined traveller.  

In the following months of 1981, using often sketchy newspaper reports, we attempted to piece together information about the political climate of all the countries we intended passing through.  We felt this was important, to avoid blundering into an out-of-control situation. At the time, we knew that these can flare up overnight as some would-be empire-builder touches his torch to the tinder dry chaos that is the everyday state throughout most of Africa.  However, we could try to be aware of the possibilities, which at the time seemed to be a reasonable approach.  However, with hindsight, we realise that no Westerner reading his newspaper can possibly understand all the undercurrents, crosscurrents and outright torrential floods which make up life on the African scene.

We had already owned a 1974 Volkswagen Kombi campervan for several years and had had the inside fitted to make a tiny living space for two. We had spent seven months the previous summer circling around the European side of the Mediterranean from Spain and Portugal through France, Italy and the Balkans to Greece.  During this time, we had come to love the van and the life she allowed us to lead.  We camped high on the bald rocks of the Pyrenees mountains and amongst the cork plantations of Portugal, on the cliffs and beaches of the broody blue Mediterranean or on the edges of timeless Greek villages with the tangy scents of wild thyme drifting in the  door.  We camped in the hills and passed an hour with an old goatherd or in the yard of a tiny white-washed Greek Orthodox chapel, built for whom? . . .  by whom? . . . for it had stood alone in the solitary hills for generations. We camped deep in the forests beneath the majestic red cliffs of the Dolomites in Italy, among the apple trees of an ancient French farmyard, and in the green mountain pastures of the Swiss Alps, listening to the tinkle of cowbells as we ate our evening meals.  It was little wonder that we were now making plans to start a journey which would allow us to camp endlessly in the wild once more. 

The first important decision to be made was whether to use the Kombie for Africa.  The alternative was to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, like a Landrover, which would presumably be able to handle the bad roads more successfully.  However this would mean that we would be sleeping in a tent each night, and this rather daunting prospect quickly tipped the balance back to taking the Kombie.  Besides, she, our Katy, was like home to us.  We had already owned her since 1978 and lived in her on the road with no other home for nearly a year.  We felt we knew Katy well enough to know she would give of her best.  The big advantage was that we were already well aware of where her weaknesses lay and could attend to them before setting out. 

We had already spent a good deal of time and thought in designing the interior of the van the previous year, before our trip through Europe and while we were living in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in northern England.  Evan had cut away most of the solid floor-to-ceiling steel wall that separated the front cab from the back of what had originally been a delivery van when we bought it in 1979. This left enough steel wall on each side to support the new front seats but opened up the entire van as one space and left us with an access hatch so that we could move forward and jump into the front driving seats without going outside.

The original delivery van had a hard bench 3-person seat across the front cab. Evan removed this and utilized the space to make a large water storage tank. He welded thick sheets of PVC plastic into a tank with very odd shapes to make use of every available space under the seats for water storage. Once it was complete and no longer leaking, he mounted two very comfortable bucket seats, second-hand from a Fiat car, on top. I sewed tough new woven fabric seat covers which would not heat up in the sun or become sticky like a plastic one would.

We had a carpenter who specialised in camper conversions fit the rear with a comfortable bed which folded up into a seat during the day. We had a tiny cooker with two propane top burners, a grill and an oven. Running along beside the stove was a work bench and tiny sink with running cold water coming up from the sixty litre storage tank under the front seats. In a side compartment, we had enough bottled propane gas to last us about five months. I sewed fabric covers for the bed and thick curtains, including mosquito nets. 

We had a tiny cooker with two propane top burners and an oven. Beside that was a tiny sink, with a work bench and storage cupboards above and below.

There was about one square metre of standing space in front of the cooker and sink bench.  Many people would feel cramped in such a tiny space but we found this unimportant when we had a grand dining room and living room always just where we chose and decorated to perfection by Mother Nature herself.

From the rear of the van, looking across our bed, to the sink bench and stove, with the new access to the front seats completed.

We had designed the van to have plenty of storage areas, because, even when we built it back in 1979, we had planned to take the van on long safaris.  The bed base lifted up, and there was a large storage compartment underneath.  As well, we had fitted a fixed high fiberglass roof so that there was a circle of storage cupboards above our heads. This had the advantage that there was headroom in front of the sink bench so we could stand in front of it without the necessity of raising a pop-top roof.  All this original part of the van, which we had used in 1980 to tour of Europe, was now very familiar and homey to us and needed very little work doing on it. 

Evan was excited by the technical challenge of coaxing a standard two-wheel-drive vehicle across the African continent. He has always been an enthusiastic amateur mechanic who had grown up in a small town called Te Puke in New Zealand where his father was the local High School engineering and mechanics teacher.  When he was a teenager, Evan had worked with his father on many engineering projects at home, including the complete restoration of a vintage 1935 Austin 7 car. This had taught him all the mechanical skills that were to stand him in good stead in Africa.

During each and every spare weekend during 1981 in Ulm, southern Germany, Evan prised off every nut, bolt and moving mechanical part on the van.  In most cases, he replaced all the vulnerable parts, packing the old original part amongst our ever-growing pile of equipment to take with us.  We could not afford to buy too many new spares to take with us but in many cases, the original still had plenty of life left in it.  As it was, our spare cash was all disappearing into the local VW agency who must have wondered why our van needed so many repairs, and why we did not just give up on it.  

Evan and I did not speak much German. We had had four months of full-immersion instruction in the German language at the Goethe Language Institute the previous year, followed by a year of living and working in Ulm. This meant that everything we needed to buy was obtained with great difficulty using very basic German, our trusty dictionary and punctuated with exuberant sign language. This situation was not helped by the fact that much of what we needed to buy for a long-term expedition was not your every-day supplies. Evan had to learn all the German jargon for car parts and vehicle maintenance. Trying to explain our particular requirements to baffled German shopkeepers and car-parts dealers certainly taxed our poor abilities with the German language to their fullest.  

For about 18 months, our neighbours in the immaculate streets of Erbach, near Ulm, bore with us as Evan clanged and banged at rusted suspension bolts well into the night, spreading his greasy tools in front of our house and onto the footpath. They called him the ‘black devil’ (‘Schwarzer Teufel‘) because as they strolled past taking their Sunday constitutional, they invariably saw him covered in grease peering from under the van.

Evan replaced the engine with a factory-reconditioned ‘short block’, just to give us that extra margin of safety.  With the help of our kindly neighbour, Herr Wilderotter, he welded on some strengthening to the chassis and fitted a thick stainless steel plate over the gearbox to protect it should the vehicle ground underneath. Other standard VW plates were obtained from wrecked vehicles and bolted under the long steel girders of the chassis.  This left a convenient space where long heavy spare parts were secured with U-Bolts.  These parts included axels, springs, constant velocity joints and shock absorbers.  He constructed another steel chamber in the rear engine compartment for small heavy parts.  

There are in fact several manuals which instructed the amateur expeditioner in matters mechanical, and Evan knew their contents almost by heart. He often had to weight the merits of their excellent advice with the size of our ever-diminishing bank balance and try to find a compromise.  At the end of that summer, we really felt that the van could face anything put in front of it.  Little did we know what that would be.

Chapter 1: Our Dreams of a Journey Through Africa

by Kae Lewis

For the uninitiated Westerner, thoughts of Africa can range from man-eating lions jumping out from behind tangles of tropical jungle to giant boa constrictors clutching their victims in a deadly embrace; from waterless wastes where a traveler can meet a horrible thirst-crazed end to roads that can bury a truck in thick, gluey mud up to the level of its door handles.  

These were just the kind of thoughts we had in the months leading up to the end of 1981.  Would we have the audacity to put our six year old Volkswagen Kombi campervan and ourselves through the unimaginable rigours of an overland journey on the continent of Africa?  The biggest problem we faced was that in these pre-internet days, there was a total lack of information about Africa available to the average Westerner.  We tried discussing it with friends, family and fellow travelers but Africa to them was a dark, unknown place. It filled the newspapers with gloomy tales of Armageddon, of impossible political dilemmas, military coup and counter-coup, of trigger-happy soldiers and most often of famine, sickness and misery.  It was difficult to imagine a place for tourists amongst this.

Most of the people we spoke to about such a journey assumed we were not serious, others thought we were just a little crazy and quickly changed the subject, and then there were those who felt it was their duty to discourage us from going for our own good.  We read all we could find about Africa, and, although there were books describing the lands and peoples of Africa, these still did not answer the question which was upper-most in our minds: was travel in Africa for the independent motorist possible?

With hindsight, what we lacked was the up-to-date information available on the web in this, the information age. Computers were in their infancy in 1982, and although we were both using mainframe computers extensively in the workplace (for pre-programmed calculations only), they were not for individual use. Even in the universities where we worked, the computers were not hooked up to a web; this stunning advance was still a decade away. In retrospect, how isolated each person was, no one in the world having much idea what the other was doing. We had no notion of the magnitude of what lay ahead, and in the meantime, we had to do the best with what we had.

It was during this initial planning phase that the Australians, Simon and Jan Glen published their book, ‘Sahara Handbook’.  We devoured it and soon realised that here at last was part of our answer. With its concise maps and detailed information about even the smallest oasis throughout the Sahara, this book had a huge impact on our confidence that the trip was feasible and not just a dream. We now knew that the first stage of the journey at least, the forbidding Sahara Desert, was possible. The decision was made.  We would cross the Sahara, and then worry about the rest of Africa when we arrived at the southern side of the Desert.

Sahara Handbook by Simon and Jan Glen, published by Roger Lascelles, London 1980

An added bonus for us was that the authors specifically mentioned the VW Kombie campervan as being appropriate for desert travel.

The VW’s ability to survive misuse (up to a point), carry heavy loads over rough terrain economically, and provide the privacy of a mobile home, are some of the factors which make it so popular.

Simon and Jane Glen

Over the following months, we discussed several contingency plans, such as to ship the van from Lagos, Nigeria back to Britain, or continue and perhaps reach Kenya.  There was even the possibility of returning through the Sahara to Europe.  This latter plan was our least favorite, and we were determined that we would at least try to travel on through Africa if we could.

We had, even at that stage, a great deal of faith in fellow travellers, those you meet who are travelling in the opposite direction.  We had found on previous trips in Asia and Europe, that this is by far the most reliable source of information when travelling in unknown places.  There is a comradeship and a deep feeling of ‘in-it-togetherness’ amongst fellow travellers. We meet briefly, immerse ourselves in deep conversation for mutual exchange of information and move on, like ants touching as they pass to reveal the source of the honey. 

We hoped that these unknown strangers could set us on the right path, confident that all was well when they themselves were recently there. This method of travel left a lot up to providence and assumed that we would in fact find other ‘crazy’ tourists driving in the opposite direction through Africa.  At this stage, we were not even sure if we would see any.  We were well aware that if we failed to progress on the other side of the Sahara, we could lose our beloved van which was all we owned in the world.  We also knew that Africa was not a tenderfoot’s continent, that care and attention to detail was necessary if we were not going to lose our own lives as well.

After months of contemplating and dreaming, it was time for action.  My husband Evan and I were both born and raised in New Zealand.  We were both trained research biochemists and, for the past four or five years, had been travelling and working in Europe. At the time of finally deciding to go to Africa, we were living in Ulm in the south of Germany where we were both working at the University of Ulm Medical School to further our research in renal dialysis. Evan had a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and at that time, was a Von Humboldt Fellow specializing in computer modeling of the process of dialysis in the human body.  I was a research technician, helping to set up and carry out a research project on the effects of zinc on the human body during dialysis treatment.  

 In 1981, we both had a one year contract that would end in December 1981, and we set this as our departure date from Ulm.  We knew that the winter months from November to January were the times best suited to Saharan travel and also that the rainy season, when roads in central Africa would become impassable bogs, was due to start in April.  We could see that if our journey southward through Africa was going to be successful, we would have just three months, from January through to March to be across the Sahara and well into central Africa.

Why a Blog? Why Now?

In 1982, Kae and Evan Lewis set off from Europe to travel the length of Africa in their 1974 VW Kombie campervan with two wheel-drive. This blog includes the photos we took and excerpts from travel diaries and letters we wrote at the time. We left London in early January 1982 and reached a beach in Capetown in South Africa nine months later, after a journey of 20,600 miles. We averaged about 10-20 miles/hr and were seldom out of first gear.

Why choose to publish a blog now, so long afterwards? Much of the route we took, through the Sahara Desert, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and the Congo (called Zaire in 1982) and on to Uganda and Kenya, has been closed off to overlanders since the 1990s due to various rebel and Islamic insurgencies with their associated terrorism, kidnappings and wars, the random terror acts and lawlessness of despot dictators, the terrifying increase in Ebola and Cholera in the Congo, and finally, because the road through Central Africa is now more impassable than it ever was, having returned to the jungle it came from only a few years after we passed that way.

In 1982, there was no web, no google searches for up-to-date information, no blogs, no cellphones or emails, no GPS or satellite communications and most of the post offices were not functioning or sending out mail only on a quarterly basis, if at all. Even international phone calls on public landlines were unavailable at these post offices. Once we left Europe, our family and friends had no idea where we were for months on end. Also, without GPS or even large scale maps, we ourselves often did not know where we were. We navigated by compass and degrees of latitude and longitude, calculated when we arrived at a city large enough to appear on the wall map of the entire continent of Africa that we had. There were few, if any signposts, and most of the locals we asked had very little idea in which direction you had to go to reach another town, even one only 20 or 40 miles away. We were on our own.

Kae Lewis

Assekrem, near Tamanrasset, Central Algeria

Dedication

This book is dedicated to my husband Evan who somehow gave me the courage to accompany him from one end of Africa to the other. His superb technical skills in driving and keeping our van mechanically sound was the key to our progress through the endless sands, jungles and bogs of Africa. 

This book is also in memory of Katy, our brave little 1974 Volkswagen Kombie campervan, registration number (GB) KTY494P. Despite her lack of 4-wheel drive and being grossly overloaded, she had the uncanny knack of rising up and over the deepest hole, the softest sand, the stickiest mud or the steepest incline like a ship rising above a wave. It broke our hearts after eight years of adventures with Katy to sell her and say goodbye.  

It is also dedicated to Johanna and Juerg, those other ‘crazy’ tourists who taught us so much about travel in Africa. This book has come about as the result of a reunion between Evan, Kae, Johanna and Juerg on a Swiss mountainside in August 2003, twenty years after we had first met beside a beautiful waterfall in the middle of Central African Republic in 1982.

And mostly it is dedicated to our son Craig in the hope that it will inspire him, not only to dream impossible dreams, but to actively and relentlessly carry them through.  In this way, and only in this way, will he be able to say at the end, “I made the most of my life.” 

Kae Lewis              

Evan, Craig and Kae Lewis 1993, California USA