London - While many 80-year-olds might consider settling down and easing off the adventures somewhat, that wasn’t an option for South Africa's Julia Albu.
In June 2017, Julia departed her home in Cape Town in her 20-year-old Toyota Conquest and drove it 12 000km across Africa, all the way to her daughter’s house in London, England!
Although her decision to take the long and scenic route through Africa - rather than a quick flip through the skies - was admittedly hasty, a year of preparation was invested before she finally drove away. An eastern route through Africa was planned, supportive sponsors and charities joined the cause, and a blog site was launched to document the journey.
Driving her faithful Toyota Conquest, nicknamed “Tracy”, Julia had many adventures along the year-long trip, and arrived in London to a hero’s welcome.
Asked what was her motivation for embarking on this epic trip, Julia said she was listening to a radio talk show one day where the host was remarking about how much a well-known public figure (guess who) had spent on cars for his wives.
“I was incensed about this expense and thought it was ridiculous,” she said. “So on the spur of the moment I called the station and told them that I was 80 years old and that my Toyota was 20 years old. We’re a combined age of 100 and we’re both 100% – so much so that I’m going to drive it to London to see my daughter.
“As soon as I’d said it, friends started calling me to see if it was true, so I had to bite the bullet and say that, well … I guess it was … even though I hadn’t thought it through. My partner of 33 years had recently died, I was broke and I couldn’t knit. But I thought that if I could research how to do it and team up with my favourite charity, I might be able to do some good for the world.”
This got her in touch with Toyota’s "Start Your Impossible" global corporate initiative to transform the organisation from an automobile to a mobility service company. The campaign includes real-life stories of Olympic and Paralympic athletes as well as everyday people who demonstrate the values of humility, hard work and the never giving up. And an 80-year old woman driving from Cape Town to London certainly fits the bill.
The stock-standard Conquest, except for slighty raised suspension to improve the ground clearance to deal with Africa’s infamous potholes, didn’t skip a beat and covered the 12 000km journey without any breakdowns or even a puncture.
“The only thing that’s ever happened is that one of the front wheels almost wobbled free after a particularly bad stretch of road coming out of Uganda. So it got bolted back on by a mechanic at a petrol station and we carried on. Simple as that. I’ve found that nothing is a problem in Africa; you get problems when you reach Europe,” said Julia.
The trip wasn’t without its challenges though, for instance when she reached the Kenya/Ethiopia border and discovered that she didn’t have enough carnet sheets (like a car passport) to get Tracy into the country.
“I’d used up more than I anticipated by taking a detour into Uganda. So I had to turn around and drive for another ten hours back to Nairobi to get a new supply. Fortunately, I’ve been very laid back about the whole trip and promised myself never to be in a rush to finish the journey.”
Another huge challenge was the fact that she had no money. “But I met some very wonderful, hospitable people via my blog who offered to put me up along the way, and they were always fascinated to hear about Tracy.
"I also tried to arrange to have a family member or guide join me for sections of the trip and help me through each country. But when it came to crossing the Sahara, I had nobody. My guide didn’t have a passport, so I was forced to drive from the Ethiopian border all the way to Khartoum on my own. But I had my radio blaring and I was singing along and didn’t experience any problems. I didn’t speak the language, of course, but the Sudanese people were always very kind in pointing me in the right direction.”
Julia says there were many highlights of the journey, particularly involving the people she met along the way.
“I remember just one time I saw a group of women walking along the side of the road in Ethiopia. They all had this most amazing halo of plaited black hair on their heads. So I stopped the car to say hello and to distribute some chocolate biscuits and a handful of the 2 000 pens I had been given by the literacy charity.
“I took some photographs of us and one of the ladies showed her appreciation for my gifts by opening this kind of pocket around her waist to share her meal with me. I’ve no idea what it was we ate, but it was so kind of her to show such hospitality to a stranger. After sharing lots of hugs and kisses, we parted as friends.There were so many experiences like that.”
So is Julia ready to finally settle down and learn how to knit? Not a chance. This adventurous octogenarian plans to turn around and drive Tracy right back to Cape Town.
“I’ve bought lots of lovely treats and goodies to share along the way, and I’ve got a huge list of people – family and others – who want to take turns in driving with me.”
When she arrives back home shes’s been commissioned by a publisher to write two books about her adventure – one from her perspective and a children’s book from Tracy’s perspective.
“But next time I’d like to go take a western route around Africa and then time my arrival in England so I can meet the Queen. I was desperate to meet her this time but apparently it’s the wrong time of year. Her people told me that unfortunately during the summer she’s just too busy with other royal engagements.”
Julia’s blog is at www.myafricanconquest.com