A SERIOUS case of travel fever is what motivated Charlie Grzelak and Adrianna Wolkska from Poland to complete an adventure road trip from Scotland to Cape Town in a revamped 1996 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van (Sprinter 208). What many may consider to be a completely crazy journey, the two explorers have been on the long road for the past ten months after converting their Sprinter into a mobile home.
“Once bitten by the travel bug, it never quite lets go. No one believed we made it all the way in this vehicle or that we stood any chance of making it to Cape Town. But we did!” they said.
“We wanted to explore the East Coast of Africa, its famous national parks and beautiful Indian Ocean coast. We achieved our journey’s goal to cross the continent to its southernmost point. We also visited friends in Zimbabwe, and decided to leave our van there.”
Although the 17 year old ex-builder’s Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van is not a 4×4, it has missioned through rocky and muddy terrain, deserts and rivers. The van was nicknamed Rusty, due to the antique, rusty appearance of the vehicle. “Old Rusty doesn’t have air-conditioning or any other luxuries, although the 79 horsepower engine is as strong and tireless as an ox,” Charlie added.
A few creature comforts include a bed with under-bed storage, laminated flooring, a kitchen cabinet and a second battery system that enables them to charge their camera, phone and laptop. Rusty was bought for equivalent of R10 000 in Edinburgh in Scotland. It has already driven through 27 countries, 40 000 kilometres to Cape Town and the southernmost point of Africa, Cape Aghulas.
Charlie says that while Rusty was a little cramped, he is astonishingly comfortable. “In some countries when bush-camping was not possible and campsites were not available, we actually rented a room just so that we could get a safe overnight parking and we would prefer to stay in the vehicle, rather than the room.”
Their Sprinter mobile home was built out of recyclable and eco-friendly materials that were reclaimed and re-used items. “Everyone finds it fascinating that such a vehicle, that was not designed for this purpose, would make a long distance voyage through Africa. What we felt we needed most was mechanical simplicity, ruggedness, good ground clearance and ample space inside. “We have achieved this without any sponsorship, grants or any outside support, except the kindness and hospitality of people met en-route.”
Vehicle breakdowns, say Charlie and Adrianna are part of the fun that has offered them ample opportunities to explore Africa and experience the friendliness of its people. They recalled their most hair-raising experience to be a lioness in Zimbabwe that charged after them, as she was protecting her prey – a waterbuck that she had killed. “We also got stuck in mud in the same national park and had to dig ourselves out. It took us an hour of digging the mud away by hand. As soon as we got out a 4×4 pulled up and asked if we’d seen the lions yet. They were not even 500 metres away, there were six of them walking right in our direction – 10 more minutes and we could have ended up as supper.”
Their travels have taken them to 49 countries in Europe, Asia, East and North-West Africa, mostly by car over the past decade. “We first travelled all around Europe and backpacked our way through Asia when we ran out of countries to visit. One of our projects was a 14 000 kilometre journey by a standard Ford Mondeo from Edinburgh (Scotland) to the Sahara Desert, to raise funds and to deliver donated items for the Eve Branson Foundation. “We also wanted to raise awareness, educate and teach new skills to women living in the Moroccan Atlas mountains to empower themselves so that they could support their families once the men left for the cities to start new lives there, forgetting what they left behind.”
Charlie related that the image of Africa in the western media was rather skewed. “Africa is generally in the news when there’s a famine, war or a dictatorship is committing some atrocities. Otherwise there is what you see on National Geographic – amazing wildlife and natural wonders.”
He said that he and Adrianna had a burning need to sink their teeth into the real Africa. “Our goal was to simply explore and experience this unbelievably beautiful, amazing and diverse continent on our own, meet the people who live there and travel through it.
“We are originally Polish but moved to Scotland to pursue university studies and work at the same time. We raised funds for this journey over a space of three years by working part-time and saving on commodities.” This meant no coffees, dates with friends, parties and home cooked meals instead of eating out.
The trip involved another three years of research and preparation. “We are passionate about exploring new places and sharing experiences with others. We would like to continue living the dream by working in the travel and tourism industry.” They added that this fascinating journey was not without its sacrifices. Charlie and Adrianna had to quit their jobs, packed up their rented flat in Scotland and sold most of their belongings that had been left in Poland with their families.
“It also meant getting stuck a few times in the mud and sand but changing to all-terrain tyres helped a lot.” The two adventurers who are far from basic amenities carry a portable shower but usually use a bucket and a jug to bath. Their DIY washing machine was designed from a 10 kilogram dog food container that serves as the washing drum. “What really does the trick is soaking the dirty laundry in water and washing suds. The cleanest wash is as a result of a long drive on a bumpy road!”
Their laundry is then hung out to dry on a piece of string. Their cooking appliances initially consisted of a small camping gas stove that was later traded in for a bigger version, although it proved to be more expensive and resulted in the added complication of having to connect it to different gas connections in different countries. “A hand-made charcoal stove for R30 that we bought in Uganda ended our fuel problems.”
Charlie said that they had visited the Kruger Park, Kalahari Desert, Blyde River Canyon and experienced the true spirit of bushveld hospitality in many places from Graskop through Pretoria to Cape Town. “We plan our distances each day according to points of interest and depending on the hospitality of our hosts, who accommodate us in their homes, normally we stay one to three days at specific spots.”
He added that their journey was in no way an attempt to break a world record. “If we do manage to break one, we will pay for the damages,” he mused. Adrianna remembered the eagerness of people along the way who had assisted them whenever old Rusty experienced some engine trouble. “In Kenya we firstly broke one of the pulleys driving the belt in the engine, In the middle of a national park. We were towed to their in-house garage, spent three nights camping there until Charlie went to Nairobi 150 kilometres away to source the part accompanied by the head mechanic. They never charged us a cent for helping us.”
A Major Repair
She added that after a spring in the rear suspension snapped they were unable to find a replacement and had to attempt a bush repair. “We found another spring in a scrap yard and got a blacksmith to shorten it and adjust it in an open fire, like he would do with a horseshoe. The whole process took three days, for which we ere taken back home by our mechanic. We parked in the front yard of a tiny building that housed five families.
“Although they all did not have much they shared everything with us and made us feel like celebrities and part of their families at the very same time.” The shoe-string repair got them as far as Kampala, Uganda where an attempt was made to repair the spring properly. It was not completed until a designated “finder/fixer” found a crashed van like ours in order to repair it. It took two weeks during which time we were being absolutely and utterly spoiled by our Italian-Ugandan mechanics and their family, pizzas and tiramisu included. When we were unable to find replacement shock absorbers in Zimbabwe, we managed to find the right ones on Gumtree, about 2 500 kilometres away in Cape Town. We could not believe our luck and the kindness of people who brought them to us for free as they were flying to Zimbabwe for Christmas.”
Their next quest on their incredible journey is to circumvent the world, in a car. “We are already planning our next adventure – crossing the Americas, North, Central and South by car, but first we have to raise funds,” they added.
Nicolette Lambrechts, Mercedes-Benz Vans Brand Manager says: “The amazing story of Charlie and Adrianna is testament to the robustness, toughness and durability of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. It is indeed a phenomenal product that continues to push the boundaries of the large vans segment even beyond its life expectancy.” Lambrechts adds that although Rusty is well into his teenage years, he has demonstrated reliability. “The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Freight-Carrier and Panel Van are definitely ideal vans for motor-home conversion. The chassis are well suited for medium to large custom designed motorhomes.”
Mercedes-Benz recommended body-builders maximize Sprinter’s intelligent, robust and quality design when crafting the motor-homes. They also ensure that safety, comfort and reliability standards are not compromised.