It might not be the first vehicle that comes to mind for an expedition, but a vintage Bentley offers a fresh take on the experience. In fact, this style of slow travel could well change your approach to overlanding. By Mark Bland
For many, Southern Africa is the first place would-be adventurers choose to dip their toes into the world of overlanding travel. Whether this be in a newly kitted out 4×4, a trusty VW Polo with a borrowed tent in the boot or a 4×4 rental, modern-day explorers and safari lovers find countries such as Namibia, Botswana and South Africa are ideal. But it’s not every day that those overlanders choose to set off in 100-year-old vehicles.
When Paul Marsh (of Paul Marsh 4×4) asked if I could help a group of vintage Bentley owners to plan their adventure, I jumped at the opportunity. Their ambition is to drive from South Cape (Cape Town) to North Cape (Nordkapp, Norway), a goal that will be completed over several years. Although all three vehicles have proven their mettle in races, rallies and tours, the adventurers needed help on the ground. Not just with planning the route, but in supporting this bold adventure.
To make the challenge that little bit more exciting, from brief to departure day we had six weeks in total to plan the first three months. Fortunately, with countless miles of overlanding under our belts and constant planning work being done with our Routes Rediscovered clients, a lot of the latest information was at our fingertips, allowing us to dive straight in.
Part 1 of this trip, broken down into three legs, was planned to take three months. We set off during the latter half of 2022 with the goal to tackle as much of Southern Africa as possible. In South Africa we explored the Cape Peninsula, Cederberg and Namaqua region before crossing the Orange River into Namibia at Noordoewer. From the Orange River we headed north via the Fish River Canyon, Mariental, Sesriem, Swakopmund, Twyfelfontein and Etosha before slowly tracking back down to Windhoek for a break.
Leg 2 of the journey took us through the backroads into Botswana and up to Maun. Here the Bentleys were swapped for a helicopter and game viewing vehicle before we continued via Gweta, Nata and Kasane. The Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe played host to us for a few days as we cleaned, fixed and troubleshot our way through each of the vehicles.
Leg 3 was a whirlwind tour of Zimbabwe from Victoria Falls via Mlibizi on to the Kariba Ferry. From there we headed down via Harare to explore the Eastern Highlands, taking in Birchenough Bridge before heading to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins and Lake Mutirikwi. The route then took us via Matobo National Park and onwards to Beitbridge. The beautiful journey down through Magoebaskloof and the Panorama Route led into eSwatini via Bulembu border post and out via Lavumisa. From here we went to St Lucia, heading west via Babanango Game Reserve and the KZN Battlefields before finally taking a well-deserved break until 2023.
Big thanks must be given to the motor museum at Casterbridge in White River, along with the local vintage car specialist, Ken Grossmith, who lovingly cared for and fixed up the Bentleys during this down time.
The expedition vehicles
1926 Bentley 6.5 Litre
A veteran of events like the Mille Miglia, Gran Premio Nuvolari, Peking to Paris and Bavaria Historic, this Bentley still has its original engine and registration number. A comprehensive restoration project completed in 1995 has returned it to its original glory.
1926 Bentley 3-4.5 Litre
From its chassis and engine to its bodywork and fittings, this Bentley has undergone more than one makeover. It currently boasts Le Mans style coachwork in keeping with its pedigree.
1926 Bentley 8 Litre
The restoration of this vehicle took a decade, but it was well worth it. At UK vintage races in 2018 and 2019, it always finished in the top six cars. It’s earned its stripes in rallies such as the Myanmar Classic Tour, the South America Challenge and the Bentley Alaska Tour.
The one thing I absolutely loved about being both a passenger and driver in these old cars is that you are so much more immersed in your surroundings. You get to hear, smell and feel things you never would when cocooned in your 4×4. You also get to engage with the locals on a very different level. Considering that this is one of the things I love most about overlanding in Africa, it really did open my eyes to how much we can miss when sitting in an air-conditioned car. So remember to open the windows, to stop, talk to passersby and really absorb all that surrounds you. Slow travel is the way to overland (anyone with a 1HZ engine especially knows what I mean!).
Like any overlanding expedition, a fair margin of error is required along with an ample dose of patience, humour and trust. After all, how can you ever even try to predict what eventualities may present themselves when driving cars from the 1920’s south to north through Africa?
That said, an expedition in vintage cars takes on much the same recipe as any other. Some of our main learnings, which can be applied to our more traditional 4×4 expeditions too, include the following:
It is better to be over-prepared versus under-prepared. Do your research on routes; have emergency contacts at hand; use resources such as Tracks4Africa and iOverlander; keep your next campsite’s contacts close; carry extra water and food; have some spares and tools and know how to use them. The more you can be prepared in advance, the more you have at your disposal to use when on the road.
Fuel and range
Know your vehicle’s range: particularly true when you are travelling in three fuel-guzzling Bentleys with a range of about 300km. Further to this, know where you can get fuel and what payment methods are available. We chose a petrol 79 Series Land Cruiser as the back-up truck so that if need be, we could always siphon out into the Bentleys.
One person’s bad road is another person’s dream road. Overlanders are incredibly helpful and eager to share tips. However, one person’s idea of a bad road may be a dream for you. So do your research, have a plan, and have a back-up plan. We did many roads that some people said could not be done in these cars. These Bentleys were built in a time when gravel roads and farm driving were somewhat par for the course. The ground clearance and general oomph of their big petrol engines mean the cars could generally go where any normal SUV could go. (And we have all seen where the good old skorokoros can go in Africa.)
We were fortunate to have a mechanic travel with us but having some basic mechanical knowledge will, more often than not, help you out of an emergency. Remember to always do your daily vehicle checks. I may not quite be able to fix a vintage car engine just yet but at least my knowledge has progressed from tyre kicking to possibly looking at changing the spark plugs. (It’s amazing how cable ties have a remarkable ability of fixing many things!)
To date we have travelled just around 16 000 kilometres through six countries and by the end of 2023 plan to be exiting out the north of Africa (hopefully). Whilst we might not know just yet, how or where we can exit the continent, for now we have the journey through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya to look forward to.
To see more images of the Bentleys on expedition and discover all the places they went, go to www.routesrediscovered.co.za/blog.
If you’re looking to plan your own expedition in these parts, the Tracks4Africa Traveller’s Atlas Southern Africa is just what you need. Covering 10 countries, the Atlas is based on the same data as our GPS maps and is ideal for macro planning. Aside from the map pages, it also contains country information and details on legal requirements for your vehicle.