Travelling across Africa in a Trabant

Photo: official TransTrabant website

The Soviet-era Trabant – a tiny plastic car built in former East Germany that was left “by the roadside” following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, may have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but it still has a special place in many Czechs’ hearts. Among fans is a group of travellers, including a journalist and filmmaker, who have made the tiny vehicle central to their adventures. In late 2009 they conquered Africa in a Trabant - travelling all the way from Tunisia to Cape Town.

Two months, 11 countries, 20,000 kilometres: that is how far journalist Dan Přibáň and three colleagues were prepared to go for adventure in 2009. Not in a massive all-terrain vehicle but in a Trabant – a car that boasts an engine only slightly more powerful than some lawn tractors. Back in Prague, working in a documentary about the expedition, Dan Přibáň told me recently why the Trabbie was important.

“We chose the Trabant because we wanted to show that a trip like this one was possible without a 4x4, and GPS, and a satellite phone and things like that. People these days think such a thing is not possible, but it’s not true! The whole engine is made up of between 20 to 50 parts, if you don’t count the screws: it’s great for a trip like this, if you know how to repair it. If you take a 4-stroke engine there are many more parts, so if it breaks down you might be lost. The Trabant is the simplest thing you can imagine. When our engine broke down in the middle of the desert, we repaired it using just a hammer and screwdriver.”

The trip across Africa wasn’t Přibáň’s first difficult journey: he and colleagues successfully conducted a similar trip to Uzbekistan in 2007. But compared to Africa, he says, Asia was a walk in the park.

“When we prepared Africa, my thought was that it would be easier because ‘everyone’ goes there. I thought it would be more prepared for travellers and tourists. But Africa is a completely different level than Asia: everything is harder and much more complicated. By comparison our trip to Samarkand in 2007 was easy.”

Preparations for Africa took roughly two years. In September of 2009, the group, with an additional car in tow for filming, set out. The team crossed Europe and began the Africa odyssey in Tunisia. Dan Přibáň told me more about how they planned the route:

“My first plan was to take the western coast, but we were told that was impossible in a small car. But later I met guy who did it on bike. So maybe we could have done it, but we chose the eastern coast. Then we ruled out countries it wasn’t a good idea to cross, for safety reasons, so Congo and Somalia. So we chose Sudan. In all it was 11 countries and we went to areas we wanted to see like Victoria Falls in Namibia. In all it was Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.”

Along the way, they shot a myriad of different scenes, some of which made their Youtube; they also filed reports with a support team at home making sure the latest info was up on Facebook. The scenery, Dan Přibáň says, was often amazing but also one of unexpected contrasts.

Photo: archive of TransTrabant
“If you travel to Sudan - just one example - it’s just desert and hot. But when you cross the border to Ethiopia, it’s hell and heaven! It’s green and wet and a beautiful country. The Sudan is beautiful as well but it’s at sea level. When you enter Ethiopia, it’s a different world.”

Differences were also highly visible in many of the deserts, where, their car of course broke down on a number of occasions. Luckily the team always managed to pull through.

“We had to cross the Libyan desert in northern Africa, a white desert. The sand there was completely white and full of strange dune sculptures! This was not Mars, this was something in Alpha Centauri! Then you cross into Sudan and this was a hard desert, with yellow sand and no roads and 50 degrees. Then you go to the Kalahari and there was no sand! Just small trees and bushes. In Namibia it was all red, a red desert. Very impressionistic!”

Of course, no tour of the continent could be complete without exotic wildlife, which in time for the travellers became commonplace.

“You’re travelling along and it’s like ‘Oh, another elephant!’ And another. And another. It’s possible to see elephants on the road and it’s like ‘Hey did you see that?’ ‘What?’ ‘An elephant.’ ‘Oh’. And we saw lots: lions and zebras and so on. If you go to a national park you can see everything. Because we slept by the side of the road, at one point we were discussing whether it was safe – whether an elephant could step on the Trabant – but nothing happened.”

While they weren’t squashed by elephants, they did experience plenty of other adventures, such as trying to cross a difficult 200 kilometre long stretch of extremely bumpy road.

“The most complicated process was at a village near the Kenyan border, where the whole village told us it was impossible to go down to Marsabit because of rain, so we had to rent a truck. They thought we needed a truck. It was horrible negotiating a price, then loading the cars (they didn’t have a ramp) so we had to do it from a hill. The whole thing took maybe eight hours. Once we were on the road we realised we actually could have taken the cars and it would have been much, much, much easier!”

Other events included trying local cuisine and occasionally – only occasionally - staying at a comfortable hotel.

“It is really great to sit on a terrace with coffee and watch the trees and baboons and tell yourself this is great! Colonialist-era Africa. And then you head back on the road, and sleep in the tent!”

Now, back in the Czech capital Dan Přibáň and his team are putting together the final scenes for their Czech TV documentary to be aired in the coming months. After that, they will begin planning for 2011.

“We haven’t been in a Trabant in South America. It took two years to prepare for Asia, two for Africa. In 2011? South America!”