From Johannesburg to Mombasa in a 1981 123 Mercedes, could it be done? This is the story of Two Women and A Merc. By Tanya Ritchie-Hicks
My instant reaction to the 1981 123 Mercedes driving into my yard was “road trip”. My plan was not so much made as born. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be “Mombasa”. When I took out my 1994 Michelin map of Africa for a first look, I got a surprise. I had already highlighted the route back in 1994. This galvanised my decision to do what would be my first road trip in 30 years. I decided to call the trip Two Women and A Merc because I was only taking one other person: a woman. I advertised on Facebook for a co-driver and so Helen Haun joined the trip.
Also read: Mustafa the Merc, the expedition vehicle
Our departure date was set for 26 February 2023. The day before, we drove to the Indaba Hotel in a convoy of 123s. By now I wanted to find myself far, far away. But at this point we discovered we needed a new CV joint. So, like all good road trips, we set off a day late with two new CV joints and another spare one.
Spectacular elephants by the road
Arriving at the border to Botswana was shocking. Never had I seen a line of so many trucks: over 5km of them waiting to enter. Fortunately, we passed to the front and found all the officials pleasant and helpful. Unlike one of the runners who told me I had to pay $50 because I was not vaccinated!
On the way to Kasane we saw spectacular elephants by the road, as well as giraffe and impala. One elephant stands out in my mind as the epitome of Botswana. As I write this, I can still smell the Chobe River from our marvellous cruise and picture the hippos in the water. In retrospect I wish I had spent a week in Kasane.
Seeing Victoria Falls created a wonderful expectation of the land just beyond the river. Crossing into Livingstone we enjoyed another river cruise on the Zambezi. Here we met an awesome young couple who were expats in Lusaka. I don’t remember the last time I laughed so much. Helen and I were having an absolute blast every day with lots of photo opportunities with Mustafa and new friends.
Roads for the adventurous
Travelling through Zambia after recent Cyclone Freddy would not be attempted by many. However, we are the adventurous sort. We enjoyed chatting to the locals about the area and the unusual amount of rain in the north. Zambian roads feature a lot of potholes, all a bit bigger than one should really try driving over. All the same, we made good but slow progress until we hit the end of a traffic jam.
A seemingly endless procession of large lorries across the entire width of the road. Poor Mustafa could not get up enough steam to overtake the hordes of trucks. As a result, we were often sandwiched between a dozen heavy goods vehicles. Occasionally, they would decide to overtake each other, which was terrifying.
We traversed Zambia from southwest to northeast and laughed happily all the way. We were loving this long drive. Since we left South Africa we had experienced no power cuts, never ever felt unsafe, everyone was affable and helpful. Every village we drove through, motorbike taxis waiting for their passengers all shouted and waved as we passed. The tuk-tuks took videos of us videoing them.
Bumping along in the rain
In the north of Zambia, we visited Shiwa Ng’andu, an English-style country house. We drove from Charles Harvey’s splendid estate to his brother, Mark Harvey, at Kapishya Hot Springs. Mustafa braved the rickety bridge and we bumped along in the rain through the most striking avenues of trees. At least until we were stopped by the District Commissioner, who clearly thought we were both crazy. He was kind enough to phone ahead to the lodge and again phoned later to ensure we had indeed arrived. Sadly the hot springs had been flooded by the river and were no longer warm or welcoming. But we did have expert assistance in fitting our spare starter motor there.
Entering Tanzania was delightful because we found a tiny border post on a dusty track near Kalambo Falls. Just a few small buildings made up the Zombe border post and the officials were very congenial. Helen and I had wanted to drive through Katavi National Park along the west of Tanzania. After much debate it was decided that good old Cyclone Freddy had left the roads from Sumbawanga too wet and unpredictable for Mustafa.
It was not so much that we thought we might get stuck. It was more that if we got stuck there were so few overlanders, or even tourists, passing by. We could not rely upon anyone coming along to pull us out. Until now we had been the sole occupants at most of the places we had stayed. Meeting anyone in Katavi National Park would be a tall order. In fact, Zambia had been deserted of tourists outside of Victoria Falls and Tanzania proved to be same.
Weird noises from the wheel
We headed north to Karatu, where I spent my 62nd birthday in style at Octagon Lodge. The next day, I managed to get Helen up by 5am for a trip to the Ngorongoro Crater. (Our habits proved to be different and this became a standing joke between us.) We spent US$400 to see the crater. There was heavy rain and I was convinced we had wasted all our money. But miraculously the blue sky came through once we reached the crater floor, leaving the deluge up on the plateau.
While in Karatu, we endeavoured to undercover the weird noises emanating from the passenger’s rear wheel. We took off the callipers and also tightened the handbrake ourselves. Convinced we had fixed the issue, we continued.
But before arriving at Moshi it became apparent that the noises were louder. This was extremely worrying, so we decided to pull over for the night and sought a welder in the morning. I decided to have studs welded to the inside and attach the wheel with nuts, as you would a Land Rover (the only vehicle I really know).
I spent the entire day in a state of enraged fury as the “mechanics” began to remove the CVs as well as the drive shaft. I was furious and insisted they replace both immediately. Onlookers were surely convinced one of them was going to die as I shouted instructions with great wrath for several hours.
Subsequently, we realised this had not solved the problem either. Pushing on to Tanga we drove slowly through the mountains when the wheel pulled violently to one side and then the other.
An abrupt end
In Tanga, we were given an exquisite thatch cottage a few metres from the beach. The next morning I examined Mustafa and was horrified to see the drive shaft had left the CV joint by approximately 6cm. No words can reflect my anger at the guys who had removed my CV and drive shaft when welding the studs. I wish I had strangled them while I had the chance the previous day. As a result, the bearings were completely shattered and would need to be replaced.
After debate, Helen offered Ridiculous Road Trips to fly up with the bearings and drive back to Johannesburg with her. I said goodbye to Helen in Dar es Salaam and a few days later flew home.
Helen and I absolutely cherished the entire journey, the people we met, the fun we had, the fantastic accommodation and the mechanical learning curve. Getting to know one another was a fascinating challenge and really entertaining. We both became emotionally attached to Mustafa the Merc, who remains the star of the journey.
See more of the adventures on social media:
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Two Women and A Merc had Tracks4Africa GPS Maps and our Traveller’s Atlas Southern Africa to guide them on their trip. Our GPS maps for Garmin devices provide turn-by-turn directions from Cape Town to Cairo. The A3 Atlas is ideal for both planning and navigation, covering border posts, country specifics and points of interest.