Marcel and his trusty VW
Marcel, tell us a little about yourself.
Born in 1973 – lived in Egypt for one year with the family – took the roads less traveled on many occasions, including those to Southern Africa, the Mekong region, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in order to travel and to write. Then studies International Relations in Geneva and started to work for a major international humanitarian organization. Lived and worked – one year at a time – in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Israel and the Autonomous and Occupied Territories, Chad, and Afghanistan. The stamps in the passports, which were not stolen, have accumulated more than 40 different countries, and still no flat or car is permanently his own.
What made you want to drive through Africa in a Volkswagen Beetle?
It was Africa, that we wanted – the real Africa – and not a priority a beetle, to start with. We wanted to see the remote, romantic Africa, more far away and more real than the one we enjoyed so much: Two years earlier, we had already done a trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. We arrived in Johannesburg with an open mind. How best to travel through Zambia, Malawi, and Moçambique, without being dependent on other people, and without spending too much money? We had already left the more innovative ideas such as ultralight airplanes behind us in Europe. Buying a car was a rational choice compared to public transport, organized tours, hitchhiking. But what car? Our budget was limited, so we toured the garages of Randburg with an extremely nice Brit, who had immigrated to South Africa. A four-wheel drive was beyond our means, except if it would be a very old one, which we would hardly know how many days he would live. A second-hand pick-up could have been an other choice, because it has quite a high ground clearance… So we browsed through second-hand cars when we saw that forest-green newly reconditioned Beetle. “We should do it with that Beetle”, I told Ken, the Brit, and Sandra, more than half-jokingly. “A Beetle would be a good
choice”, Ken – an experienced Africa traveller – told us to our utter surprise. Unlikely highjacking target, high ground clearance, engine in the back (good for sand), not heavy (also good for sand), Ken listed arguments, which sounded compelling. In the evening, we were in Ken’s family house and contemplated on different cars we thought. “The Beetle was the best”, Sandra and me agreed, probably not uniquely based on rational arguments but also on emotion. “So then let’s go and buy that Beetle”, Ken said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to travel through Africa in a VW Beetle. The next day, after a phone to the bank obviously, we bought that Beetle to drive through Africa.
Why a Beetle and not something more rugged like a Land Rover?
I would like to provide you a more romantic answer than money, but that’s what it came down to. What we didn’t know when we bought the Beetle, is that we would overtake quite a few stuck Landrovers on the 12,000+ kilometres trip that would follow!
Marcel needed something reliable
What kind of preparation did you do before setting off from home?
Working in order to earn enough money – reading about the countries we wanted to visit. The internet was still not so developed as today, but we managed to get a few useful contacts. Apart from that: No big master plan, as traveling is about taking the day as it comes.
What were the aims of your journey? For example was your interest in experiencing many different cultures or were you wanting to get close to the wildlife?
It was both nature and culture, that fascinated us about Africa. We had little expectations when we went for the first time to Africa in 1995, but it was so great to experience the wilderness and the African culture that we thought that second long trip in 1997 could not possibly get close to our many experiences. But it did.
Making friends in Malawi
What were your thoughts upon arriving in Africa and setting out on the long road ahead?
We felt a great excitement. We were a young couple, had no private or professional obligations, except to be home three months later. It would not have been the same had one of us been on his or her own, or if it would have happened in a different way, with a different car. But sitting in that Beetle together, feeling the freedom and adventure of long roads ahead of us, was just fantastic and romantic.
Which was your favourite experience from the journey and why?
Difficult to say. We saw fantastic wildlife on our own in the Kafue National Park in Zambia. We went to Livingston mission on 2000 metres in Malawi. We learned how to dive in Malawi and practised it in wonderful Moçambique. We met the Prime Minister of Barotseland in Western Zambia – a fantastic and unexpected experience. The list could go on and on. Every day had something unexpected.
Meeting the Prime Minister
Which was your worst experience and why?
The Beetle generally lived up to its reputation, but we had quite a few breakdowns, one of which was in a National Park, where we could not expect any help. We had no chance but to separate – one would stay with the car, one would walk, hoping not to encounter poachers or too many wild animals for once. That was a bit scary. Another scary moment was when Sandra got Malaria in Malawi.
Camping Beetle style
At any time were you scared, perhaps that is too harsh a word, apprehensive then and if so why?
What kind of car maintenance did you carry out on the journey and was servicing a car in the middle of the wilderness easy?
First of all, we bought the big Beetle book of 200+ pages, which described every little detail in that vehicle. Something like a “How to Use a Beetle”. We would get to know that book quite well! The two biggest problems I recall was a clutch cable, that broke (remember that the engine is behind in a Beetle) and the starter cable that would fall out from behind the right back wheel. For the later problem we used the Beetle book. We’d stem up the 890 kg Beetle, and Sandra – always her! – would crawl under the beetle to re-connect the cable, sometimes causing an ignition in the vehicle, which scared me to death. The former problem ocured just when Sandra had malaria and should have been shipped to the guest house to rest. So a couple of other travelers took Sandra, while I pushed the Beetle with the help of some Malawians to the nearest Bush mechanic. He could re-wire the clutch cable with very simple means, and told me: “You can drive as far away as Johannesburg like this” – and he was right!
Sandra gets out to push
What wildlife did you see? And as most of your driving was outside the national parks did you still feel close to the animals?
We saw everything there is to see: Lions, hyenas, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, antelopes, you name it. While most of the kilometres were outside the National Parks, we spend proportionally more time in the parks. But even outside the parks, the nature feeling in Africa with its wide distances is tremendous. I remember that on one road in Zambia, we knew that we would probably not meet more than 10 humans for another 700 kilometres or so.
Empty African roads
What were the subjects of your conversations on the long road? and was there at any time friction between you both?
We would always listen to the same cassette of Kenny Rogers – more my favorite than Sandra’s. We’d talk about what we experienced at any given time. We’d talk about God and the world, but much more about the wonderful world around us. Yes, there were some frictions on rare occasions, but they were minor in my reading, and we arrived back in Jo’burg and eventually Switzerland knowing that we had an experience that only the two of us could really understand.
Was there any stage when you’d just had enough and wanted to go home – if so why?
No, we never wanted to go home again.
What were your emotions upon reaching the final destination point?
Sadness and satisfaction.
The end of the road for the trusty VW
How did Africa live up to your expectations?
We followed the advice “Expect nothing – enjoy everything”. And having already an unforgettable experience behind us two years before, we really tried to expect nothing. So we enjoyed even more. Any expectations we could have were surpassed.
In hindsight would you have done anything differently and if so why?
Absolutely nothing, except maybe saving more money beforehand in order to travel longer.
What advice would you give to someone planning to undertake a similar adventure?
Follow your heart and live your dreams – it can be too late any day. Don’t plan too much, but rather take things as they come. Take as much time as you can.
Did your African experiences change your outlook on life and if so, why / how?
I can only speak for myself. Africa certainly was an eye-opener with its enormous natural beauty and friendly people, who lived on so little yet were in many regards more happy than I usually was. Africa is just something tremendously romantic, especially if you do it on your own and not in an organized tour, where someone says “OK guys, enough of that Lion, we need to get to Vic Falls before it’s dark”.
With the great adventure long behind you – what does Africa mean to you now?
I worked in Africa later – in West Africa and in the Sahel Zone – both much poorer regions than Southern Africa. It was much different working there than visiting. Some of that romance gets lost when you see behind the surface. But I still admire that you don’t need a reason to dance in Africa, you just do it.
What are your travelling ambitions for the future?
I have gone into humanitarian work. I basically live and work in countries with an ongoing armed conflict or one that has just passed. So the strife for adventure has reduced somehow, as you can imagine. But if I had the time and the money, driving from Europe to Cape town in a Land Rover would still be something I’d love to do. So would it be to travel from Chile to Alaska, and to live on an island in the South Pacific before it is too late. And did I mention the Orient Express? Did I just say I don’t need traveling anymore? 🙂
To read Marcel’s full trip report from this extraordinary experience visit www.stoessel.ch and I am grateful to him for granting Safaritalk permission to use his photographs in the interview.