Bite The Dust! A Volkswagen Road Trip

[Edit: this is the abridged version of my narrative on what was one of the most epic road trips of my life. The complete, unedited version will be availed elsewhere, in a forthcoming book]

Owners’ clubs are strange entities; but it depends on what owners’ club we are discussing. Some clubs are inactive. Others are very active. Some spend their time talking smack about other clubs (“You should have bought a Subaru, you idiot!”) while some are too busy waist-deep in pointless civil wars to even organise themselves into something resembling a club. Maybe they have so much in common, 99.9%; that when they stumble upon the 0.1% that they don’t agree on, it becomes the focus of their energy.

ANONYMOUS CLUB

And then there is an anonymous club I had never heard of until some weeks ago. That’s the actual name: Volkswagen Anonymous Club. Membership, if sights seen are anything to go by, entails ownership of either a Type 1 or Type 2 Volkswagen (original Beetle or Kombi). Nothing newer is accepted, though nothing was said about owning a Karmann Ghia, the slowest classic sports car ever made. I will not set about bragging about pioneering anything, but ever since The Paji invented The Great Run, many have been the imitators and numerous are the replications, varying in seriousness from failed charity runs in gaudy PSVs to serious efforts like what the VWA put together. And boy, did they put together a drive!

Bite The Dust 2016 turned out to be an adventure of Top Gear proportions, and by the third day in, I was seriously contemplating taking a bus back home. This is what happened.

Bite the Dust Day 1: Tuesday 31st May 2016, 05h00

Itinerary: Nairobi – Kitengela – Namanga – Amboseli

We meet up at KFC Mombasa Road on a cold Tuesday morning; where I show up half an hour late and underprepared for what lies ahead. The excitement is palpable. Lined up are three Type 2s and nine Type 1s.

I’d love to say that their vintage varies but it doesn’t. With the exception of a pretty blue Type 1 with registration from early 1996, the rest of the lineup consists of pre-1975 metal.

Also palpable in the air is the fog of doubt as to whether or not these admittedly aging vehicles are going to make the trip from Nairobi to Mombasa along the tarmac, let alone through the highly convoluted route as planned by the organisers. The road trip begins.

UNEVENTFUL FIRST DAY

The first day is uneventful for the most part; or rather, at least until we get to Namanga for lunch (yes, it took that long. We were in classic cars, so shut up). Along the way I notice that a lot of people are attracted by the convoy of Volkswagens. For those nuts with loud aftermarket exhaust pipes, here is a tip (pun intended): get a Beetle. You will attract more attention that way. Along the way I also notice that puny, air-cooled flat four engines aside (none of them comes within shouting distance of 100hp), these cars can gather up quite a bit of pace; but this is relatively speaking. 100km/h is not impossible, but do this long enough (i.e. more than 20 minutes) and the oil temperature shoots up, forcing you to make numerous stops. God grant me patience.

Namanga is where we have a protracted lunch break after which the nightmare begins.

I covered this route before in a newly imported turbocharged Subaru Forester SH5 late last year. I found the road to be rough, plus the dust was an annoyance. In a Volkswagen Type 1, rough and dusty is an understatement. The 40km unbound surface from Namanga to the Amboseli National Park Gate is a tribulation, a trial made almost unbearable by the cloying daytime heat; and for what? For a story? No. Because first and foremost I’m a petrolhead.

Yes, the rough road is taking its toll on the cars. The convoy starts breaking apart as people joust to drive lead.

(“Driving lead” is an American military term for taking the first position in a convoy. It is an undesirable place to be because in case of an ambush or an attack, the lead vehicle is almost always the first to be hit. When road-tripping old Volkswagens, driving lead is desirable because then you don’t get to eat the dust kicked up by vehicles ahead of you.)

All the jousting and jostling for lead will have consequences and sure enough, we start stopping more frequently. The cars are getting taxed to within an inch of their lives. The constant stops for either a quick fix or to wait for stragglers means we make it into the park late in the evening and darkness falls while we still quite some way from camp. Where is the camp, you ask? Right at the other end of the park. Good Lord.

CARS START SHOWING THEIR AGE

The cars start showing their age. One car eats ignition coils. Others lose their idling. The air cleaner on our very own Concours-grade Type 1 falls off its mounting, embedding itself next to the serpentine belt which it starts chafing away at.

Good thing we noticed on time -during one extended stopover in the dark as yet another ignition coil was replaced while we peered fearfully into the inky blackness listening for hungry clawed and fanged creatures of the night-, otherwise dirt might have gone into the carburetor and then into the engine (failure) or the belt would have snapped (precedent to failure).

After what seems like an interminable night drive, we make it to camp at around 10 p.m. I’m too tired to even review the days’ events, but I can’t help but think that in a serviceable Landcruiser, this leg of the trip would have taken three hours instead of thirteen.

The whole experience feels unreal…

Bite the Dust Day 2: Wednesday 1st June 2016, 06h00

Itinerary: Amboseli – Kimana – Oloitoktok

This is a relatively short leg of the trip. We spend the morning driving in circles looking at wildlife before making a break for the exit in the early afternoon and powering our way to Oloitoktok town, where I am glad to be back; having last been here in December 2012 during Great Run II.

I am back at the Chombo Cha Upendo Children’s Home run by Teule Kenya. The children are glad, and very excited, to see the old German cars trundling into their compound.

This is the focus of Bite The Dust’s Charity in 2016. There are presentations, there are discussions and then there are games, none of which I understand (but all of which evoke my own childhood) and one of which forces me to run as fast as I can against one of the Type 1 drivers. I’m unfit from years of avoiding the gym, I’m cramped from sitting in a car for several hours, my shoes are like racing slicks and I’m running on grass. Like an American muscle car, I can’t put my power down properly.

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Enroute to Amboseli. PHOTO| JM BARAZA

Traction becomes a problem, as does sideways grip. There is the footwear equivalent of wheelspin as I launch into the sprint.

To avoid oversteering and plowing into a child, I have to take the corners like a Formula One car on cold tyres and the inevitable result is that I lose. The game ends. The evening has been a resounding success.

WE BUNK STRATEGICALLY

The Teule people extend their hospitality by inviting us to have dinner with the children and spending the night at their guest house. We have to bunk strategically: there are about 15 of us and the bedrooms hold maybe seven or eight maximum.

Gamely, some of us opt to crash on the couches and/or on the floor. Despite the day being less demanding than the previous one, sleep comes fast once the lights are off.

Bite the Dust Day 3: Thursday 2nd June 2016, 05h30

Itinerary: Oloitoktok – Chyulu – Tsavo West

We visit a garage in Oliotoktok that turned out to be the wet dream of all barn finds. There was a Beetle shell nestling among the weeds and the rusting hulks of abandoned cars. There was a gutted Ford truck straight out of a Clint Eastwood film.

There was a Series I Land Rover skeleton, sans front wings. My driver landed himself a complete Type 2 manual transmission, which he wasted no time taking off the old man’s hands. Not a bad morning. Time to head out.

The Chyulu gate of Tsavo West National Park is roughly 70 clicks off the main road, on yet another unbound surface.

It may have been the Type 2’s suspension, or it may be that I was a little zoned out from having nothing to do as a passenger, but the drive wasn’t dramatic at all. Things got dramatic at the gate, when we had to establish our base for the night.

STRONG DISLIKE FOR CAMPING

There were two camp sites, we were told: one was nearby but had not facilities at all, and no bandas.Allow me to explain what a banda is and why this was disastrous:

A banda is a KWS cottage for people like me; i.e. people with an aversion for camping. The first night at Amboseli was spent at a camp but I did not camp per se, I instead cajoled and finagled my way into a nearby outlying cottage.

The rest tented the night away. I have had a strong dislike for tenting ever since a camping incident in my early teenage years led to a vicious showdown over food, a brawl with a pack of baboons in Lake Nakuru National Park not entirely dissimilar from gang warfare.

So when the park rangers at the gate said there were no bandas at Campsite 1, you can imagine the sinking feeling that slowly descended into my stomach from the back of my throat. Given that I had also brought with me a tiny backpack with a selection of t-shirts and several lookalike pants, it meant I had no tent of my own. I was in a quandary.

Campsite 2 had bandas and facilities, but it was also out of the question: it was 150km away, deep inside the park and probably close to the Tanzanian border.

Nobody was going to drive me there through the night in an old VW in the first place, let alone pick me up again in the morning. Thoughts of the dark orange Volkswagen Amarok I had for the Great Run again started looming large inside my head, but I

quickly tossed them out. After all, what better adventure is there than one in which difficulties have to be surmounted? In fact, what is adventure, if not overcoming hardship with a positive attitude?

FOREBODING TURNS TO ANXIETY

We drove to Campsite 1 (through the blackened landscape that is the Shetani Lava Flow) where my sense of foreboding immediately turned to anxiety. The ground was strewn with rocks everywhere.

The small field that they called a campsite was ringed with shrubbery the likes of which can conceal clawed and fanged creatures of the night.

The bathrooms were a clean hundred yards off from where we were to pitch our tents, right next to said shrubbery. There was elephant dung all over.

When we looked askance upon the park rangers, they added to our trepidation by casually stating that yes, this was an elephant path; and yes, there may be other animals that pass by at night; up to and including but not limited to hyenas, buffaloes and

hippopotami. Yes, you will also be on your own, and no we won’t give you our guns. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This was just the beginning of a night I will not soon forget.

I had to sleep. The Beetles were too small to sleep in, the Type 2 I rode in was occupied by its owner, the other Type 2 was laden with goods and the third Type 2 had had to return to Nairobi from Oloitoktok.

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Headed to Oloitoktok. PHOTO| JM BARAZA

There was only one other option: bunk with somebody; that somebody being the same person I rode with on Day 1 in the shiny blue Beetle.

SLEPT LIKE MATCHSTICKS

A one-man tent housing two grown men is nowhere near five-star status. We had to sleep like matchsticks, dead straight and without moving an inch, lest things become really awkward really fast.

Two lessons learnt: 1. When using an air mattress, it pays to check all the valves to make sure they hold the air within properly. 2. When the park ranger says various forms of fauna come wandering through the camp during the night, perhaps you should take care to zip up your tent well before dozing off; more so if you have had a delicious, meat-based supper and the dirty dishes (plus aromatic leftovers) are lying around somewhere nearby.

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Briefing before entering Shimba Hills. PHOTO| JM BARAZA

I slept fully dressed and was woken up in the middle of the night by some rough tugging on one of my trouser legs.

In my groggy state, I recalled that I was in fact not at home, but was sharing a tent and had perhaps delivered a kick in my dreams to my tent-mate who was then expressing his displeasure at my poor neighbourly habits.

I swore to extract a promise from the VWA chieftains that from this point onwards, I will either sleep inside a building or they had better arrange for my return to Nairobi. I turned over and continued to sleep fitfully.

Bite The Dust Day 4: Friday 3rd June 2016, 05h00

Itinerary: Tsavo West – Mtito Andei – Voi – Mariakani – Shimba Hills – Kwale – Ukunda – Diani (South Coast)

My neck hurts, as does my back; something is pressing very hard into my right hip, shoulder and knee, plus there is a very sharp pain on my left shin near my ankle.

There is nothing actually pressing into me: my hip, shoulder and knee are supporting my weight because I’m lying on my side; on the ground. I did not fall off the air mattress, so what gives?

The damn mattress deflated, that’s what. It let all the air out slowly through the night so that by morning, the two of us were lying flat on the Earth itself. Not a good start to what would eventually be a very, very long day.

SHARP PAIN BOTHERS ME

The sharp pain on my leg also bothers me, but it’s still a bit dark to see anything. What I notice is it hurts even more when I touch it, so I let it be until daylight. There are signs of life around the camp: people are coming to.

There is no point to continue lying on the ground; it’s bloody uncomfortable; I might as well just get up. For the first time on this trip, I think I’m the first one up; that is along with my “roommate” who finds it slightly amusing that our air suspension for the night did collapse. I’m in no mood to laugh. He also makes me ponderous when he insists he does not recall me kicking him at all as we slept.

Perhaps he is just being polite, but he really insists I didn’t kick him.

Dawn breaks shortly afterwards, everyone is up and we start exchanging pleasantries and I discover I’m not the only one to survive a hellish night. I check my leg again, pulling up my trouser leg only to discover the most worrisome, most unsettling and most disturbing thing ever.

Blood.

I’m not panicky; the blood is little, mere drops of it, and it seems to have come from a scratch of some sort. That explains the “what” of the pain, but it doesn’t explain the “how”.

No one notices and I stay mum; instead listening to the others. That is when the body of evidence pointing to a possible attack starts growing.

Two of us spent the night in their cars, my chauffeur in the white Type 2 and a jovial chap (Jap?) in a white Beetle. I’ll explain the Jap part later; but sleeping in a Beetle is not ideal nor is it recommended.

His slumber was interrupted by the discomfort and the need for a bathroom break in the dead of night, so he heeded the call of nature and traced his way to the distant bathroom, where a nasty surprise awaited him. He met a creature of the night right at the entrance: his flashlight illuminated a pair of eyes that reflected the light back at him, he may have seen a spotted pelt but he did not wait to see claw or fang. Rocky ground and call of nature be damned, he was back in his car long before the nightcrawler could decide whether or not he was edible.

A HYENA ATTACK?

The man in the tent next to ours heard the commotion and got up to check what was happening. He too got out his flashlight and poked his head out of his tent, only to almost come face to face with what he swears was a hyena.

He also swears the hyena had its head partly inside our tent, which, may I point out, is where my feet (along with the rest of my person) were.

Japs’ fight-or-flight sprint as well as our neighbour’s waking up may or may not have caused the hyena to turn on its heel and disappear into the night, leaving two much shaken campers and two oblivious sleepers who may have just escaped possible mauling by nature’s garbage collector: the so-called Crocuta crocuta. Team Mafisi, where you at?

Need I explain what was going through my head at this point? My leg gets yanked hard in the night, my roommate says it wasn’t his doing and my neighbour says he woke up to see a hyena attempting to squeeze a third warm body into our already packed tent. In the morning I find a bloody scratch on my leg.

Do the math: I can proudly declare I was almost eaten by; nay, I was actually in the jaws of a hyena and lived to write about it. My life is complete. Also, no more camping for me.

Thrice is enough, especially if on all three occasions, close encounters with beasts of the wild are involved.

(If you recall some time back I did a quick review on the Land Rover Discovery 4 with the new powertrain, a car we drove in the outer fringes of the Kalahari Desert. On the first night out there in Botswana, we had tented camps just like this time, and just like this time, there were dangerous animals lurking around our tents as we slept… the rangers said there were hippos and possibly a lioness. The Nigerians who accompanied us on that drive were so freaked out they all piled into a single tent and held each other sleeplessly till morning. I’ve had it with camping in the wild).

A SUBDUED CONVOY

It was a quiet and subdued convoy that departed from camp that morning, after more pre-flight wrenching as was now the norm. Our spirits quickly lifted: today’s drive would be the longest, but it would be mostly tarmac, so we were looking at good speeds.

In addition, this was the day we expected to reach our destination, Mombasa, and who isn’t excited at the thought of going to the coast?

South Coast is beautiful and serene, our route would bypass the coastal city’s notorious traffic jams and circumvent the hateful ferry and… We were jovial. We picked up the pace, as we powered towards the Mtito Gate of Tsavo West National Park.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have upped our speed. One of the two remaining Type 2s, the one I was not in, somehow severed a brake line, bringing the convoy to a halt, again.

The good thing about classic-owning grease monkeys on a long journey like the company I had is that they take the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” to a whole other level. These people toted spare parts like they were trying to open a retail business in Mombasa.

Couple this to the fact that the Volkswagen Type 1 and Type 2 are wonderfully simple but solidly built and one can see that nothing short of a random act of God was going to stop us.

A spare brake line was found, some quick bush mechanics executed and… the brake line didn’t fit. Damn. So the circuit was tied off at that point, meaning the Type 2 had no front brakes and we limped all the way to Mtito Andei, where a proper brake line was found and installed. The journey continued.

Aah, tarmac. Sweet, sweet, asphalt. After three days of being brutalized by the murram tracks of the national parks, we could have kissed the blacktop, so glad were we to see it.

And it was going to be that way (mostly) all the way to Mariakani. The thought of the bright, white, sunlit sandy beaches of the South Coast, ice-cold tamarind juice, calm, easy-going nature of coastal denizens and the thought of finally sleeping in a proper hotel room propelled us with a hitherto unseen purpose southeast towards Mombasa at a considerable clip.

STRONG ATTRACTION

I did say that sustained highway speeds are the bane of the air-cooled engine, didn’t I? The attraction of Diani by sunset was strong, so strong that we started taking liberties. And as it happens when one takes liberties just one too many times, the price for it will be immediate and it will be high.

One of the cars overheated.

I t wasn’t until the rest of us got to Voi, had lunch and did a little more wrenching (seriously, does it never end?) that we realized two cars were missing.

One was being driven at a sedate pace by the VWA vice-chairman; but surely an hour later he should have been here. The other had been thrashed “Herbie Goes Bananas” -style for some time before the driver pulled over to the side and waved us on, indicating he was fine and probably needed a bathroom break. So where the hell were they?

A few frantic phone calls established a circumstance that dampened our spirits as fast as the thought of tarmac had raised them earlier that morning.

“Herbie’s” driver had in fact stopped for a bathroom break but just before resuming the journey, noticed that his engine bay was only slightly warmer than a kiln. You could have baked cookies in it. Hot engines don’t tend to cool very quickly, more so if they are air-cooled, so an on-the-spot brainwave had Herbie’s driver open the oil cover to let the hot air out, cooling the car faster.

This was where the ugly bride that is misfortune made her presence felt: the boiling oil; hot as the devil’s underpants, splashed on his right arm, scalding him badly. And he was alone. Oh God no, surely no…

It was heartbreaking.

IMMEDIATE CONCERN WAS FOR THE DRIVER

Of course the immediate concern was for the driver. How was he? We all wanted to drive back just to make sure he was OK, but cooler heads prevailed and it was agreed that it was pointless for everybody to drive back, and with good reason. It would be a waste of fuel.

It would be increasing the risk of another breakdown. And as any EMT worth their salt will tell you, a finite number of helpers is useful in  a dire situation; any more assistance and the situation quickly degenerates into chaos. So one car was sent back (plus the vice chairman’s car which was already on the scene) and thus begun a long wait.

We had reached Voi at 1 p.m in the hopes of making it to Mombasa just about sun down. Instead, sun down found us having left Voi a few short moments earlier, and darkness set upon us as we battled the dusty, bumpy diversions at Taru.

Herbie’s driver had had his burns looked at (thankfully, they were not as serious as they were unsightly) and he again insisted he would manage driving well enough; the only difference this time being the wick would be turned down a peg or two. Ok. But as

it transpired, we were not out of the woods yet.

HOW WE BROKE THE LAW

In the interest of the story, I will narrate how we broke the law. But in the interest of protecting rights and identities, I will not specify who broke it; the law in question being driving in the dark with the headlamps off.

One of the Type 1s fried its alternator, meaning the battery was not charging. The engine developed a misfire as a result, but worse yet, no single electrical component could be used, lest the battery drained in short order.

If the battery drained completely, the car would not run, it would stall; and once stalled, it would not start again. Tension started building.

This was the solution, as suggested by yours truly. Since the Type 1 could not run with its lights on, the driver would have to tailgate us in the Type 2; and I do mean proper sniff-your-bumper tailgating. He had to have a deft braking foot lest he ran

smack-dab into our little rear-mounted 90hp air-cooled engine. To improve visibility for him, he would also have to pull slightly to the left while the car behind him (shiny blue 1996-reg Type 1) with its ultra-bright LED aftermarket projector lamps would pull

slightly to the right thus doing the illumination for both cars. We set off again, a little slower this time.

Somehow we made it to Mariakani by 8 p.m. where we had a break to rally our spirits and our energy. This was as good as Mombasa, and we congratulated ourselves. The locals too did not believe it once we told them what we had been through to get there. Admiration for the classic cars ran high. We heaved sighs of relief, all of us except for one: my driver. He knew better.

PENNY DROPS

At exactly 9.00 p.m., we lined up for the final stretch, and that was when the penny dropped:

We had to drive through Shimba Hills to get to the South Coast, which meant we still had 95km to go on roads worse than what he had seen in Amboseli and Tsavo so far.

“And remember the Type 2 has no lights and Herbie overheated so it will have to be real slow. We are looking at three more hours, possibly four.”

The drivers wanted to sit on the ground and never get up. Dead silence followed that announcement. For the first time in the entire trip, something close to mutiny was on the brink of cooking; but even then, what would the mutineers do?

We had two options: drive into Mombasa’s horrific truck-filled traffic jams and cross the unlovable ferry to get to the South; or take the long lonely road through Shimba Hills, which was devoid of traffic or ferries but demanded vehicles far removed from Volkswagen Beetles.

I once again thought of the Amarok with its turbo engine, leather seats, air-conditioning and high intensity discharge lamps. If I had it, I may have blasted off into the night on my own in a cloud of dust thundering non-stop to Diani in record time where the rest would find me later sound asleep in a massive air-conditioned hotel room with white cotton sheets and a TV set. But, no. We had come this far.

We were in too deep to call it quits, and besides, that would have been very uncivilised of me to ditch these people who I had grown to like and had developed a strong attachment to.

Step 1 was top assure them that not the entire 95km was punitive. Only half of it was; the other half was tarmac the likes of which we directors of the Great Run and Club TT Motorsports seek whenever we hold an event. Beautiful, smooth and sinuous, part II would compensate for the vagaries of part I. Off we go.

Tailgating on tarmac in the dark is not the same as tailgating on rough roads in the dark. There is a lot of last-minute braking and last-minute swerving as hitherto unseen rocks and potholes suddenly spring up in our lights.

Worse yet, the lopsided three-car formula would not work here, so the light-less Type 1 driver had his work cut out dangling off our rear bumper as the back lighting from the projector lamps on the blue car was both impractical and inapplicable.

Oddly enough, the drive was not as harrowing as we feared, but it took forever. I surmised that previous practice gained from arriving at Amboseli late in the night had honed the drivers’ dark-driving tolerance levels to a high point, so we did make short work of the rough half (with a few stopovers to wait for stragglers). We got to Kwale at half past one in the morning, and like earlier in daylight, celebrated at the sight of smooth tarmac.

So near. So very near. So damn near. Only 40 clicks left. We put the hammer down, throwing caution to the wind and roared in the dark towards Diani. I could smell the sea by now, I could feel the warm, muggy, coastal climate through my open window, I could read addresses on signboards and some of them said “Mombasa”. I urged my driver to charge harder.

We made it. We were finally there; after four arduous, adventurous days of ardent driving, we were in the South Coast. Boy, was I going to sleep!

We had made it. Those damn 40-year-old Volkswagens actually made the 750km-or-so drive to Mombasa without fail. Impressive does not begin to describe the feat these folks had just pulled. It was an

achievement worth archiving, which is why they get this, the longest write-up I have ever submitted to the Nation Media Group.

IT HAD BEEN REAL

It had been real. Over the course of my career as a motoring columnist, I have seen a lot. I have almost broken the suspension on a brand new Range Rover up in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

I got lost by myself in a canyon in California when the sat-nav system on the Infiniti I was driving went off suddenly. I was almost arrested in South Africa after winding up a Chevrolet Lumina SS to insane

speeds on the N1 from Stone River Mouth. There is no shortage of adventure in my line of work, but this; this Bite The Dust 2016 road trip takes the cake. It was a week spent in the Twilight Zone.

Part of it comes down to the participants. When nicknames like Monk, Japs (Japathola), Duster, Chairman, Lily, Warui-sah, Mikey, Marto, Gerra, Wamzz (Worms? Sorry…) et al get thrown about, you

know you are not among members of an owner’s club any more, you are in a brotherhood. And what a brotherhood it is.

It is analogical to a well-built transmission, where all the gears mesh perfectly to create smooth, flawless motion. Their combined skill set means someone knows something about something, so they will never be stumped by any kind of breakdown.

It is widely believed in motoring circles that owning and restoring a classic car makes you a better person generally: more patient, more tolerant, kinder and more appreciative of others’ existence.

This I can confirm after spending the better part of a week in the company of those fifteen people. I want to go back, I want to be part of them again, I want another adventure (maybe in a more luxurious car this time) with them, I want to be like them: kind and patient and easy-going and tolerant and knowing exactly what they want from life.

I wonder if the Volkswagen Anonymous Club accepts Karmann Ghias into the fold…

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