“It’s your road, and yours alone. Others may walk with you, but no one can walk it for you”
My instant reaction to the 123 Mercedes driving in to my yard was “road trip”; the second thing was that the car’s name is Mustafa. My plan was not so much made as born.
If I had to sum up my plan in one word it would have been “Mombasa”. So I took out my 1994 Michelin map of Africa, can you imagine my surprise, when I saw I had already highlighted the route back in 1994. This galvanised my decision to do what would be my first road trip in 30 years. I decided to call the trip Two Women and A Merc because I was only taking one other person with me and that had to be a woman.
One of the things I enthusiastically anticipated was meeting people who I would never usually cross paths with. I knew that on a road trip personal differences do not matter and I looked forward to meeting people from all walks of life, with totally different values, aspirations and stories. And the stories were always better than fiction!
I quickly learnt that things had changed lot since I drove my series III Land Rover from UK to Senegal. For instance, I got out my old wheel brace to remind myself how to change a tyre without a Hi-lift jack, when my son informed me that these days there are Impact Wrenches. Wizardry I thought! When we were sponsored an impact wrench by Hot Tools in Edenvale I was super impressed. (We actually used it when we had to take brake callipers off the rear wheels to do some work in Arusha, crawling under the Merc with my new gadget I felt like a pro).
My mind was being taken up with the need to learn the mechanics of the Merc, which fortunately has the original diesel engine – none of the modern technology to confuse me. So I assisted fitting new tie rod ends to the front, new brakes to the rear, new shocks, so much maintenance I began to wish I had just driven as it was after the Bull Run and only fixed things as and when necessary along the trip.
Even the driver’s door and front windscreen were replaced and all new Dunlop tyres were donated by Hein Strauss of MyCarNow. Later we were sponsored by Dunlop. I discovered that, just as in my cross-Sahara trip, I needed to prioritise spares, one of which was a starter motor which we did actually use in Zambia. I won’t lie this was fitted under the capable instruction of Mark Harvey the owner of Kapishya Hot Springs & Buffalo camp in Mpika.
Mustafa was my introduction to the world of Mercedes Benz clubs. Specifically, 123 Mercedes Benz fans. Having never owned a Merc I was in the dark about the massive following the 123 model has. Mercedes 123 clubs from southern and east Africa began to contact me and thus I became immersed into a whole new world. A world in which I discovered the beauty of the 1950s Mercedes models, the sheer robustness of the 1981 model and the splendour of Mercedes vehicles over the years.
My biggest learning curve was not the mechanics, nor the first aid, or the route, it was a thing called Digital Media. I had never heard of such a phrase and it terrified me. Very patient people spent their evenings explaining social media and all its “rules”. This was my biggest challenge of all. If you are not enjoying this Post you will know that my skills in this area have not improved.
During my preparation two things started to happen. Firstly, I realised I could ask for sponsorship and secondly, as I started to post tentatively on social media, sponsors started coming out of the woodwork. Fantastic people started to contact me offering accommodation, fuel, meals and activities. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. Mustafa the Merc was inspiring complete strangers from southern and east Africa to generously extend their hospitality. We literally had more offers from generous companies and people than we had time to accept.
At this point I realised that my BBF (if you can have such a thing at 62) could not make the trip with me. So with another flash of inspiration I decided to “advertise” for a co-driver on my Facebook page. I began my post: “Are you a lady with a sense of humour, patience and adaptable to a variety of situations? Most important of all, do you have “le mal d’afrique”? Because, without a passion for Africa, you will never survive a month with me!”
I had 78 replies! And this is where it all began.
When’s your next adventure?
Life is too short to live with fears, so steel yourself to tackle that thing on your Bucket List that you swore you’d never do. It’s amazing just how easily you can turn your fears on their head.
Days passed crazily and it was the small things I was most concerned about forgetting. So by January I decided to bring my departure day forward to March 3rd because I just could not take the excitement for much longer. Now I had national media approaching me, even a TV station in Nairobi. My life was being transformed from a full-time frail caregiver for my parents to something I cannot even name. It was evident that Mustafa the Merc was the star and I still have a sense of wonder how a 1981 240D Mercedes can capture the imagination of so many.
I wanted to know Mustafa’s history so we turned to Riaan Lottering and his co-driver Martin Troeski who had purchased the Merc from a lady who had been the sole owner of the car. Unbelievably Mustafa had had one lady owner. But life changed in soo many ways for the Merc when these guys purchased the original white Mercedes and prepared it for a rally in South Africa – The Bull Run.
The rules of the rally are that your car must be older than 30 years, cost no more than R20 000, then each team pimps their car to a unique style. It was Riaan and Martins’ creation which inspired my road-trip without any doubts.
Of all the ladies who contacted me to join me on the road-trip I immediately clicked with Helen. So she flew to South Africa from her home in Oman on February 24th. We drove in a convoy of 123s to the Indaba Hotel on February 25th with the 123 Club to be greeted by dozens of well-wishers. It was my first taste of the excitement which was to come. The Indaba, Nata Lodge and Chobe Safari Lodge group are one of our major sponsors, and the first with the vision to come on board.
By now I wanted to find myself far, faraway. To go to the furthest point I’d ever imagined and slowly work my way back. I imagined making a beeline for the most remote, difficult-to-reach location on my radar and worrying about the return route afterwards. So this was how we set off.
The day before our departure we discovered we need a new CV joint; these were the one thing we had not changed. Having kept in touch with the previous owners we knew the age of various parts and they were able to give us some spares to take with us. So, like all good road-trips, we set off a day late with two new CVs and another spare one.
Our parting started with some final hugs for my 2 old horses and a steady drive north. Our first night was with Baobab Bush Lodge, who sponsored a delightful room as we anticipated our first border crossing. Arriving at the border was shocking! Never had I seen a line of so many trucks, over 5km of trucks waiting to enter to the border control. Fortunately we passed to the front and found all the officials pleasant and helpful, unlike one of the runners who told me I had to pay $50 because I was not vaccinated!
Passing into Botswana we gratefully collected our first sponsored fuel from Kwa Nokeng Oil. I felt all my Christmases had come at once, free accommodation then a free tank of diesel. Now the roads were good and we were thrilled to be “on the road”. Arriving at Nata Lodge our new-found royalty status crept up on us again when the Manager greeted us at our chalets. This became something we had to get used to in the parallel universe we had entered.
On the way to Kasane we saw spectacular elephants by the road, as well as giraffe and impala. One elephant stands out in my mind as the epitome of Botswana. In Kasane we were invited for breakfast at a charmingly bohemian café named Coffee Buzz, where I could gladly have spent the entire day. So many people and businesses wanted to meet us it was overwhelming. Kwalape Lodge and Chobe Safari Lodge were our hosts. As I sit here I can still smell the Chobe River from our marvellous cruise and picture the hippos in the water. In retrospect I wish I had spent a week in Kasane.
Seeing the Falls from Zambia created a wonderful expectation of the land just beyond the river. Crossing into Livingstone we enjoyed another river cruise on the Zambezi where we met an awesome young couple who were expats in Lusaka. I don’t remember the last time I laughed so much. Helen and I were having an absolute blast everyday with lots of photo opportunities with Mustafa and new friends.
We heard about a guy named Nel who had a workshop near our hotel so we made arrangements to visit him. Nel, who is a legend in his own time, took us on a guided tour of his plot of hidden gems. Under a tree was a vintage Studebaker which had been put there because it had no engine. I implored him to restore without its engine it as a centre piece for the self-catering units he intended to build. Later, as we travelled north it seemed that everyone we stayed with knew Nel and his passion for vintage vehicles, but also because Nel had built his own “helicopter” and flown it!
In Lusaka we were invited to have breakfast with a vintage car club with their impressive vehicles. Hosted by Lusaka Legacy Resort I saw my first infinity pool. I was impressed! We were sponsored yet another full tank of fuel by Petco but we had arrived on a public holiday. Lack of research on our part made for an exciting drive along Kalambo Road and the adjacent road to get to Petco, which was closed, naturally it being a public holiday. We inched our way through the busiest bazaar-like road dodging taxis, buses, barrows, street vendors, children and people coming from all directions. For one hour we must have been the weirdest spectacle. I felt as if we were being interviewed for the circus. But really our biggest adventure was yet to come.
Travelling through Zambia after recent cyclone Freddie would not be attempted by many but we are the adventurous sort. We enjoyed chatting to the locals about the area and the unusual amount of rain in the north. Zambian roads enjoy a lot of pot holes, all a bit bigger than one should really try driving over but we made good but slow progress until we hit the end of a traffic jam. A seemingly endless procession of large lorries across the entire width of the road. Poor Mustafa could not get up enough steam to overtake the hordes of trucks so we were often sandwiched between a dozen heavy goods vehicles which occasionally decided to overtake each other, which was terrifying.
With the roads so bad travel was slow and frequently we would not make it back to our accommodation just before night fall. Even more frequently, in fact always, our accommodation was on some remote road and we would be watching the sunset and needing a pee at the same time. One such evening, we had not seen a vehicle since entering the sugar plantations and we were looking for the railway line to cross as per our instructions. There were many small railway lines and we seem to cross all of them! After irrigating the sugar plantations we eventually found our generous hosts, relatives of Thomas Walter Savory, an early pioneer. People must have thought we were late for everything.
One night, we had been so late setting off that day, we drove through a thunder storm on an unlit road, but that’s another story.
On a few occasions bakkies would overtake us and flag us down, usually to see Mustafa and greet us along our journey. One bakkie did just that at the end of a long drive when we were turning off to find our hosts for that night. We were so grateful because we believed our host had come to the main road to meet us and we wouldn’t get lost that evening. He chatted for a while and he casually asked us where we were planning to spend that night. To which I obviously answered “we are coming home with you”. Wrong person! I added it to my list of embarrassing moments.
The unending police stops never got any more light-hearted. One Zambian police lady took my papers and told me I was ‘in trouble’ so I must follow her. First thing to do is to remain calm and – politely – deny that you did anything wrong. This may sound strange, but it is a simple test and always worked for me. If they are serious they will just take you to a police station. If they start discussing you know you’ll be alright and they are trying to discriminate you with the goal to get a bribe.
So cunningly I thought that I would not remove my very dark glasses, so she could not see my expression, also as it turns out, so I could barely see her at all in the unlit small room. She stated that I had driven through a red light and she had it on camera. I lied saying I had a dash cam so could prove that I had not (I do not believe there even was a red light on the road anyway). This bizarre conversation started where she asked to see my dash board camera and I asked to see her video. It went something like “show me yours” “no show me yours”. After a few rounds of this I said that I had no time for her and I was leaving, which I promptly did.
We did not even drive for a full kilometre when we were stopped again by the police. At some road blocks the police insisted we take their relatives as passengers. When we were transporting the police officers “grandparents” to their farm we asked them how far from our proposed destination their farm was. Oh no, they said, this was the road to their farm not to where Helen and I actually wanted to go. So we stopped the Merc, they got out and we turned around. The same police officer waved at us gaily as we past him again in the opposite direction.
Soon after this I stopped stopping at road blocks ignoring the mad waving of arms.
“All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road.” Jack Kerouac
I’m not so sure!
We had traversed Zambia from south west to north east and laughed happily all the way. We were loving this long drive which everyone thought was so inspirational. Since we left South Africa we had experienced no power cuts, never ever felt unsafe, everyone was affable and helpful (apart from the unlucky police lady). Every village we drove through motorbike taxis waiting for their passengers all shouted and waved as we passed them and tuktuks took videos of us videoing them.
In the north we visited Shiwa Ngandu, an English-style country house. We drove from Charles Harvey’s splendid estate to his brother, Mark Harvey, at Kapishya Hot Springs. The next obstacle between the brothers’ homes was to negotiate, what I can only guess, was storm water across the road. Mustafa braved the rickety bridge and we bumped along in the rain through the most striking avenues of trees until we were stopped by the District Commissioner, who clearly thought we were both crazy. He was kind enough to phone ahead to the lodge and again phoned later to ensure we had indeed arrived. Clearly he thought maybe we would not get there. Sadly the Hot Springs had been flooded by the river and were no longer warm or welcoming. But we did have expert assistance in fitting our spare starter motor there.
The brothers’ lives were rich in history and I could have listened to their anecdotes all night. Charles had just returned from hunting with the King of Nepal and Mark had once hosted a European queen whose security staff that were not particularly fond of her. Following one evening’s interesting narrative Helen and I made a run for our chalet though the rain, only to discover that neither of us had the key. By now the lodge was dark and everything was locked so I suggested, because we were the only guests, that we try all the other chalets until we find an open one and spend the night there. But Helen was not up for a bit of breaking and entering so I went back to try to raise someone at the lodge. Creeping through the bushes and tapping on windows in the dark I eventually found Mark who let us in to retrieve our key.
In northern Zambia it had rained heavily and the roads were looking worse than ever but we were not far from Kalambo Falls and starting to feel like the adventure in Zambia was coming to a close. Little did we know that we were far from it.
At this point we met another waterfall fundi at Kapishya, who we had originally met on the Chobe river cruise, so we followed his 4X4 down to the falls. Very quickly Helen told me to stop because Mustafa would not make the steep rocky ascent back up. So listening to the voice of reason, as Helen always was, we “parked” Mustafa and hopped onto the running boards of our new friend’s 4X4, rocking and rolling down to the falls. After being deposited back at our abandoned looking Merc it soon became apparent that we needed a tow. How we wished we hadn’t been so foolish as to follow our Indian friend downhill. To add to my indignation, in trying to turn Mustafa around we pulled off the trim from the driver’s door. Another part to put in the boot!
Entering Tanzania was delightful because we found a tiny border post on a dusty track near Kalambo Falls. Just a few small buildings made up the border and the officials were very congenial.
Helen and I wanted to drive through Katavi National Park along the west of Tanzania but after much debate it was decided that good old Cyclone Freddie had left the roads from Sumbawanga too wet and unpredictable for Mustafa. It was not so much that we thought we may get stuck, it was more that if we got stuck there were so few overlanders, or even tourists, to rely upon anyone coming along to pull us out. Until now we had been the sole occupants at most of the places we had stayed so meeting anyone in Katavi National Park was a tall order. In fact Zambia had been deserted of tourists outside of the Victoria Falls and Tanzania proved to be same.
So we drove from Mbeya to Iringa with the same man who had towed us out of the Kalambo Falls. On reflection we could have learnt a thing or two from him about time. He had driven from London many months ago and was truly stopping to smell the roses at every destination, a luxury we had not budgeted for. At this time we had to pay for our own accommodation on this part of the journey, having no 4 star sponsors here! So we requested three rooms at Mbala View Lodge, where our friend thoroughly checked out every room for hot water or even water, before haggling strenuously over the price.
After a bath in brown water with lots of shampoo, I thought ‘What the Heck’ I slept very well in my private abode, actually I think I may have watched the TV. Here there were other occupants in the form of a football club, we knew this because they went everywhere in unison all wearing their kit. Next morning we saw them all having breakfast together, but alas, there was no breakfast for us. Indeed we were told there nothing at all for us.
After doing my daily maintenance checks on Mustafa we all set off again, but in different directions, we headed north to Karatu, where I spent my 62nd birthday in style at Octagon Lodge. Next day I managed to get Helen up by 5am (our habits proved to be different and this became a standing joke between us) and we spent US$400 to see the Ngorongoro Crater. There was heavy rain and I was convinced we had wasted all our money, but miraculously the blue sky came through once we reached the crater floor, leaving the deluge above us.
Later I received a very angry WhatsApp message saying I had stolen a room key. After several minutes I realised it was not me but our 4X4 friend, who had negotiated so fiercely for our room prices, who had inadvertently taken the key. They were not amused!
Whilst in Karatu we endeavoured to undercover the weird noises emanating from the passengers rear wheel. We took off the callipers and also tightened the hand brake ourselves. Convinced we had fixed the issue we continued.
Before arriving at Moshi it became apparent that the noises were louder. This was extremely worrying so we decided to pull over for the night and sought a welder in the morning. I had decided to have studs welded to the inside and attach the wheel with nuts, as you would a Land Rover (the only vehicle I really know). I spent the entire day in a state of enraged fury as the “mechanics” began to remove the CVs as well as the drive shaft. I was furious and insisted they replace both immediately. Onlookers were surely convinced one of them was going to die as I shouted instructions with great wrath for several hours, for that was how long it took them to weld on a few studs.
Subsequently we realised this had not solved the problem either. Pushing on to Tanga we drove slowly through the mountains south of Nsamwangwe when the wheel pulled violently to one side and then the other.
“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” John Steinbeck
Determined to get to Tanga I dismissed the lurching car as cross winds, having seen warning signs earlier on the road. We drove through an archetypical Muslim village to get to our next host at Villa Matalia, it was the first week of Ramadan and we made a mental note not to walk through the village with bare arms. Finally, after traversing much sand, we arrived at the beach, where we were to be marooned in paradise for the next week. Our Swedish host was one of the most interesting people I have ever met, retired from the UN, he continued to live by his convictions. There were no tins in his larder, everything was made fresh that day, even the furniture was recycled and I admired his principals. I had time to reminisce about our journey so far and all the people who had offered us their hospitality and generosity.
One jovial guy hosted us in Kabwe; he’d kept in touch with me for months before the trip. Turns out all he wanted to do was drive Mustafa and learn all its quirks: like the back doors do not open from the outside; you cannot shut the driver’s door unless you wind up the window first to stop the glass moving; the boot is locked with a padlock; you have to undo the bush reflectors to check the oil every morning; the driver’s door also locks with a padlock; it is two-man job to open the bonnet (one of us inside the car and the other one of us simultaneously pulling a cable tie through the grill); once warmed up the only way to stop the Merc is to drop the clutch and hold the handbrake at the same time and sometimes the passenger’s door only opens from the inside as well. He was super excited for the small drive!
I recall on another occasion we were sponsored a large house, which we arrived at in the dark – as always. Upon departure we drove outside the gate to see that we were in fact at the end of the lane so could only retrace our steps to get to town. It immediately became clear that this was not going to happen. Not to be deterred I proceeded to reverse up the rocky lane until I came to the blind corner. The path became so steep that Mustafa simply did not have the energy to reverse any further. Eventually we managed to raise the owner of the house by phone and he arrived in a small car. When I passed him to the tow rope he looked a little glazed. Nonetheless, I instructed him to reverse his car to the back of Mustafa and I attached the tow rope. His car started to slide with wheels spinning when he reluctantly began to drive forwards, so I put Mustafa in to reverse again and we slowly mounted the hill between steep high sided rocks. He was not a happy man. But on a brighter note we do keep in touch.
Also in Zambia in an area of much rain, we encountered another very jolly host with a small establishment of chalets. At the end of the evening we were the last people to leave the patio because we were using the internet to Post to social media, as always. I set off for the chalet before Helen and soon found myself wondering along unlit muddy paths towards where I thought Chalet 7 was. But it wasn’t. There was no one else staying in the establishment, we never saw other tourists, and everywhere was in darkness. Long story short, I managed to retrace my steps finding Helen still on the internet. If she had already gone to our chalet I would never have found her until daybreak.
At a small guest house in Tanzania we took two rooms. I was in my room when Helen came along and said the electrical board in her bathroom was too noisy. Yes, that is correct. Every bathroom had it owns Distribution Board for electricity to each room. So being tired, I took my key card and tried it in the room opposite mine and, Bingo, it worked. So Helen collected all her bags and moved in opposite me. Perhaps being too honest, Helen then went to reception to ask for the correct key card for her new room. The receptionist, a hostile little woman, as were all the staff who must have gone to the same hospitality school of manners, followed Helen back to her room asserting that this room was more expensive. It was identical and we were the only guests! We were both tired, knowing Helen could be politely firm and quietly stern at the same time, I closed my door and giggled as I listened. The little women continued to harangue Helen as Helen quietly got ready for bed. I was waiting for the receptionist to try to physically remove Helen from the room from the tirade I could hear. In desperation to make this ranting woman leave the room Helen paid the extra money and the receptionist walked away slamming every door she could. We both went to sleep quite quickly after that bit of excitement.
The police in Tanzania were the polar opposite of those in Zambia. We were told that in Zambia police were not paid regularly so this may be the cause for their lies and berating attitude. In contrast the road blocks in Tanzania were ludicrously pleasant. The first time we were stopped we thought “oh here we go again” but the police there had big smiles and wished us safe journey, god bless or simply complemented Mustafa.
I recollected that after leaving Usa River, the most picturesque area where our splendid house overlooked Kilimanjaro, I had taken my boots to a guy on the corner of the road in a small town in Tanzania, like you do, to have the soles sewn on in preparation for a bush walk in Arusha. In small towns people still have real skills which have been forgotten in modern cities. On my way back to my hotel, which was just one block behind me, I set off happily anticipating my walk in the national park. I could easily see the sign for the New Holland Hotel. But as I turned the left corner the hotel sign was now behind the main market square. Undaunted I marched through the market and ended up in a street I did not recognise, but at least I could see the tall hotel building, so off I went again. When people saw me enter the market the second time everyone wanted to help. Two young guys did speak English and I explained my predicament. They took me to a hotel which I assumed was the back entrance to the New Holland. I walked downstairs and asked the only lady there how to get to the car park, where Mustafa awaited me. She started opening doors and showing me rooms. It soon became obvious that the helpful guys had taken me to the nearest hotel to assist me. So off I went again trying different lanes to get to Mustafa. When I entered the market for a third time I quickly jumped in a tuktuk. He understood New Holland Hotel and immediately drove in the opposite direct upon which we entered the correct car park.
Meanwhile unwinding in Tanga, where we were given an exquisite thatch cottage a few meters from the beach, I decided to make a plan. Next morning I examined Mustafa and was horrified to see the drive shaft had left the CV joint by approximately 6cm. No words can reflect my anger at the guys who had removed my CV and drive shaft when welding studs inside the passenger’s rear wheel. I wish I had strangled them whilst I had the chance yesterday. As a result the bearings were completely shattered.
A Mercedes club in Kenya offered to have bearings sent from Mombasa which was only 50km away. After debate, Helen offered Ridiculous Road Trips to fly up with the parts and drive back to Johannesburg with her. This was the third time we had discussed the idea of Helen driving back with Link so eventually I agreed. This meant a drastic change in plans and I had to cancel a lot of meet ups in Dar and a sponsored vacation in Zanzibar. But a plan is a plan and I said goodbye to Helen and Link in Dar Es Salaam and a few days later flew home.
Helen and I absolutely cherished the entire journey, the people we met, the fun we had, the fantastic accommodation and the mechanical learning curve. Getting to know one another was a fascinating challenge and really entertaining. We both became emotionally attached to Mustafa the Merc, who remains the star of the journey.
I view the trip as a taster for future adventures and am already planning a route which includes Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. I have emerged from a naïve digital creator to become a social influencer. Isn’t life weird? Watch this space.
Written and experienced by Tanya Ritchie-Hicks of two women and a merc