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.
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.
© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2019. All rights reserved.