Conquest of Africa at 80 – in a good way

Review: Vivien Horler

My African Conquest – Cape to Cairo at 80, by Julia Albu (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

JULIA Albu likes a road trip. Her epic covered about 11 000km through 11 African countries and 9 European ones. But unlike most overlanders, Albu was 80 and her car, a bog standard Toyota Conquest, was 20.

Breathlessly she told John Maytham on Cape Talk in June 2016: “Next year I’m going to be 80 years old. My car will be 20 years old. Together we’ll be 100. We’re going to drive to Cairo.”

Surprised, he responded: “And what route are you going to take?”

“I have no idea. I think I’ll keep to the right.”

And that’s what this indomitable woman did: head north from Jakkalsfontein on the West Coast to Cairo and Alexandria, via Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan.

And once in Egypt Albu kept going. Since she’d come this far, she reckoned, she’d drive on through Europe and “go to London to see the queen”. She wrote to Queen Elizabeth suggesting tea, and was ever-so-politely rebuffed by a lady-in-waiting, who said however the queen thanked her for her letter “from which Her Majesty was interested to learn about your remarkable journey…”

She didn’t let the fact she had little money and few mechanical skills put her off her quest. She received some sponsorships and but not many. Her pleas to Toyota fell on deaf ears – until she was about 200km from Cairo when they suddenly sat up and took notice. They rang and asked if they were too late. She suspects they decided not to come on board at the start because they feared “I’d die somewhere en route”.

Well she didn’t. What she did do was make friends across Africa, act as an ambassador for Shine Literacy, distribute books to schools and Bic pens to thousands of people (they came in handy when a little sweetener was occasionally needed at border posts), eat some strange and wonderful food, sleep in both marvellous and ghastly beds, and get more familiar with potholes and what she calls humpy-bumpies in roads than she would have liked.

She didn’t travel alone. At the start she told Maytham she would need someone with her, as she had no idea how to change a tyre. So she was accompanied pretty much all the way by a succession of friends and family, some of whom thought she was quite mad. And the long hours together in the car deepened several relationships, although her son Giles, a former overlander guide, turned out to be a bit of a grump.

Humpy-bumpies in the road didn’t account for all the ups and downs. The car, known as Tracy, had a couple of problems along the way although very few; Albu’s dicky knees meant she couldn’t always see what there was to see, especially if stairs were involved; and she and her son-in-law had to wait five days at a border crossing for a carnet so Tracy could cross into Egypt.

When Albu finally flew home, more than a year after she had set off, she wasn’t feeling well. It turned out she had both bilharzia and double pneumonia, and ended up in hospital for five months.

Tracy had been shipped back to Alexandria because Albu’s plan was to drive back home, but this was now out of the question. However, such is the force of Albu’s personality that a Scotsman she had met for just 20 minutes in a restaurant in Ethiopia volunteered to drive Tracy back to Cape Town.

Once the journey was over, Albu had a new challenge: to write the book of the journey based on the blog she kept.

There isn’t too much reflection and sometimes the book reads a bit like a trip diary of the “and then… and then” variety. But what comes across is Albu’s courage, her breeziness, her good humour and her determination. As Maytham says in his foreword, Albu is an inspiration.



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