Overlanding Africa in a vintage Bentley is not for the faint of heart, says MARK BLAND.
“MARK, THERE ARE three 100-year-old Bentleys wanting to drive from Cape to Cape (Cape Town to Nordkapp, Norway). Can you help?”
I remember the call so well. When someone like Paul Marsh from the eponymous 4×4 outfitter presents you with such a challenge and opportunity, how can you ever turn it down?
Much like an author preparing to write their next book (we met a famous one on our adventure), we had to come up with the storyline (the route), get to know the main characters (who were these intrepid people wanting to take on Africa’s blazing sun and time-beaten roads in vintage cars?) and make checklists of all the plot points to be included (the logistics, shipping, prepping, shopping, vehicle modifications and more). The ultimate cliffhanger, of course, was not knowing how the various twists and turns would play out. After all, how can you even try to predict what eventualities may present themselves when driving cars from the 1920s south to north through Africa? To add a little more excitement to the mix, from brief to departure day, we had six weeks in total to plan!
While dealing with all the more formal aspects of the expedition, my curious mind started jumping around with thoughts such as: when was a trip like this last undertaken and were these the oldest cars to attempt to traverse Africa? I wasn’t completely sure, and still am not, but I did know we were in for one great adventure.
Fast-forward those six weeks and, with all expedition members accounted for in Cape Town, the vehicles packed and ready to go, along with a newly acquired 79 Series Land Cruiser packed to the hilt with spares, tools, tyres and gin, it was time to head north for Namibia. Over the course of the next three months, we were to tackle the west coast of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, eSwatini and Zululand searching for Southern Africa’s best gravel back roads and passes while visiting some of the region’s most iconic destinations, such as Etosha National Park, Deadvlei, Lake Kariba and the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal.
On a trip of this magnitude, the special memories, anecdotes and unique encounters abound. However, there are an exceptional few that have me grinning as I reminisce about this band of merry men and women and their three intrepid Bentleys.
We obtained special permission, with strict rules attached, to enter Etosha National Park – only for us to quickly realise that in a vintage vehicle you are at not much more than toe-level height of the local elephants. If that was not enough to get the adventurers sweating in Namibia’s hot sun, the fact that one of the rules was that the hoods had to be up meant they were sitting in the equivalent of a pizza oven for humans. Driving the back-up truck, I enjoyed air conditioning and music and emerged dust-free at our destination, unlike the rest of the crew who always ended the day in varying shades of ginger, tawny or tan, depending on the country and road. And yes, I was called a 4×4 softie many a time!
In Zimbabwe, we commandeered the Kariba car ferry and turned the belly of the boat into a steamy workshop by day. At sunset it was time for a mid-lake dip while we desperately hoped the stories that crocodiles don’t swim to the middle of the lake were true. For 22 hours, we enjoyed Lake Kariba to ourselves.
After deep hesitation, the park warden at Zambezi National Park gave us access on condition the cars were not noisier than the usual 4x4s exploring the park. With vehe- ment reassurance that the cars were in fact no louder than modern cars, we started up the engines ready to depart, only for the 6.5-litre Bentley to give us its first almighty backfire of the trip. I remember seeing a large ball of fire with billowing smoke that made everyone jump for cover.
To make matters worse, she promptly broke down 50m along the road as we were trying to make a hasty, but dignified, exit.
In Matobo National Park, the most revered and loved park for many an overlander, we settled in for a beer. Who should be drinking alongside us but author Tony Park! As a teenager, I had devoured his books, daydreaming about exploring Africa. Now I was on a one-of- a-kind expedition myself.
Our convoy certainly attracted its fair share of attention, but more often than not people in rural parts would ask us why on earth were we driving ganda gandas (tractors) around Africa!
To date we have travelled a little over 16 000 kilometres through six countries. By the time this article goes to print, we will have added about seven countries to the list, be a few more tyres down, enjoyed many more cups of Amarula coffee and be a few kilometres closer to the equator.
THE EXPEDITION VEHICLES
Still with its original engine and registration number, and with a full and comprehensive restoration completed in 1995. This car has competed in many rallies and events, including the Mille Miglia, Gran Premio Nuvolari, Peking to Paris and Bavaria Historic. It has also completed routes such as New York to Los Angeles to Alaska, Singapore to Myanmar, and Ecuador to Santiago and back to Buenos Aires.
Over the years this 4.5-litre has gone through
many makeovers, from its chassis and bodywork to its engine and fittings and extra fixtures. With its current Le Mans-style coachwork, it has maintained its stylish legacy and although the newest Bentley in the family, it has already racked up some formidable miles over some rough expedition terrain.
1926 BENTLEY 8-litre
From regal beginnings the car went to being stored away in a barn, forgotten about and vandalised until its second chance came in the 1980s, when
it was lovingly and painstakingly restored over a period of 10 years. It eventually found a new owner and undertook a number of rallies, including the Myanmar Classic Tour, the South America Challenge and the Bentley Alaska Tour. Under its current owner it was raced at Donnington Park and Silverstone during 2018 and 2019 and always placed in the top six cars.
Are you looking to plan your own trip around sub-Saharan Africa, either in your personal vehicle or a fully equipped 4×4 rental? Mark Bland from Routes Rediscovered is offering two readers an hour of consulting and planning time to the value of R600 each.
To stand a chance to win:
- Answer the following question: From which year do the Bentleys on the tour date?
- Send your answer to email@example.com.
Entries close on 31 July 2023; winners will be informed by email. The prize is valid for 12 months from announcement date.
For more details about the cars and routes, go to www.routesrediscovered.co.za.