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!
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.
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.
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.
Categories: Overland Travel