What more can you learn at 80? Lots, if you decide to drive 10 000km to Cairo

My African Conquest: Cape to Cairo by Julia Albu
My African Conquest: Cape to Cairo by Julia Albu

Octogenarian Julia Albu – who at the age of 80 together with her trusted 20-year-old Toyota Conquest named Tracy, adventures across the African continent – describes her journey to Francistown in Botswana. 

The next morning I rushed to see if Tracy was still with us, and there she was, waiting.

“Hurry!” I said to Zambi, as I was dying to get going – I was becoming addicted to the rhythm of Tracy on the open road and I was enjoying my beautifully upholstered two-seater sofa. And I was also starting to feel the spirit of adventure …

Next stop was Francistown, where we were to stay with Rick, the brother of Ant van Malsen, my neighbour in Jakkalsfontein. I’d never met Rick or his wife Val but they’d been told the day before to expect Zambi, Tracy and me for the night.

We called him to let him know that we were on our way, and he in turn warned us about the road from Gabs to Francistown. Botswana had been flooded in the previous rainy season and from what he said, the road would be appalling, and the drive now, in the dry season, a long and dusty one.

“I’ll meet you at the Spar in about six hours. I drive a white bakkie and my dogs will be on the back,” he said.

Six hours?! we thought, disbelievingly, and unfolded the map on Tracy’s bonnet.

Octogenarian Julia Albu – who at the age of 80 together with her trusted 20-year-old Toyota Conquest named Tracy, adventures across the African continent Picture: Supplied

“What rubbish!” I said to Zambi. “It’s only 430 kilometres away. The way Tracy’s going and with that long lovely road ahead, I reckon on four hours max.”

First lesson learnt: the locals always know best! It took us six hours practically on the dot to get to the Spar on this section of the Great North Road, which had lost its top in the floods. Over corrugations and around potholes we went, switching between Zambi reminiscing about her childhood to singing along to Abba and Neil Diamond, who travelled all the way with me to Cairo. (Tracy got a new radio before we left, with music put onto a memory stick with loving care, with all the nostalgic stuff of yesteryear, by my grandson Thomas, Katherine’s son.)

Zambi and I learnt a lot about each other during those six hours that we’d never had the time or space to share before. I think it was one of the most special surprises of my trip: the alone time and sharing I had with three of my four children. Life is so busy and we don’t take the time to really get to know our families and friends, and Tracy’s two-seater sofa became that safe place to let of steam, cry and (mostly) laugh with utter joy. I recommend a Tracy front seat for everyone!

Driving along with a sense of freedom, just the three of us and the ribbon of road ahead, was incredible, and it made me quite weepy with happiness. Botswana seemed to have no fences; just mile upon mile upon mile of road (one 38-kilometre stretch of the road was without a single bend), with nothing beyond the road verges but bush, and what seemed like forests of strange trees growing out of anthills. It was truly beautiful.

My African Conquest: Cape to Cairo at 80

By Julia Albu 

Jonathan Ball Publishers

224 pages


There were also more donkeys than I’d ever seen – mothers, fathers, babies, teenagers, grannies and grandpas moving in grey herds through the bush. I never found out why there were so many of them but it did strike me as strange to see donkeys next to elephants, buck and giraffe.

Eventually we got to Francistown and found the Spar. Waiting there for Rick, we looked around at the ramshackle tables set up beside the road where the locals sold cooldrinks, the donkeys everywhere pulling rickety carts, and the convoys of trucks driving down from the rest of Africa. Truly amazing stuff!

A short while later, we heard the barking long before the bakkie appeared, with a load of dogs of all shapes and sizes, all desperate to get out of the confines of the bakkie and bite every passerby. Rick was a man you couldn’t miss, with his sun-battered face under a slouch hat, and a huge smile. He was a fund of information – for example, there’s a pipe that runs alongside the road that carries all the water for Gabs from the north, he told us.

Botswana had been hit by Cyclone Dineo earlier in the year and their dams had gone from four percent to full in just one season – So, Cape Town, don’t despair! I thought.

When I left the Western Cape in mid-2017, the water crisis was just beginning to peak. Dam levels had been declining since 2015, but between mid-2017 and mid-2018, water levels hovered between 15% and 30% of total dam capacity. Talk of “Day Zero” hadn’t yet surfaced at this stage, but it was coming: by October 2017, when I had to fly back briefly to Cape Town to renew my medical aid (about which more later), talk had begun of the possibility of municipal water supplies being largely switched off and residents having to queue for their daily ration of water.

In Botswana, however, there was no problem with any water shortage. In fact, there was no problem with anything at all, both in Botswana and in every other East African country – “No problem!” was a phrase that came up repeatedly, all the way up through Africa.

Octogenarian Julia Albu – who at the age of 80 together with her trusted 20-year-old Toyota Conquest named Tracy, adventures across the African continent Picture: Supplied

The people were so friendly and helpful, even if they couldn’t always follow through. It was, in fact, in Francistown that I asked a local car guard if he could help me to fix the dongle I was using to keep in contact with friends and family back home, and of course he said, “No problem!” and unfortunately he stuffed it up. Still, he had such a nice smile and was so keen that I didn’t mind.

Greetings between Rick and us and his dogs done, we all got back into our vehicles, and Zambi and I followed him round and round and up and down, seemingly going on forever, until around a bend we came to a huge tree shading a spreading farmhouse.

The dogs leapt down and raced ahead of us. At the back door we were met by a huge black cockerel called Cockie, who guarded the door and certainly wasn’t about to let us pass before Val came out to welcome us. Cockie then flounced of in a bubble of angry feathers, muttering to his wives to follow him.

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