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.
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.
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.