Tea in the Sahara


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Time for tea! Philip and Perry halted their Saharan crossing at 4.00pm in order to don dinner jackets and enjoy fizzy wine and cake – much to the bemusement of their German travelling companions : credit: © Philip Russell
In part one, we followed Philip Russell and Perry Dutfield on the first half of their overland trip from Lusaka to London in a converted Series II ambulance. Now, with more red tape standing in the way of the intrepid travellers, their goal of reaching the UK looked less than straightforward…

See part one of this story here.


Having crossed the border into Zaire, the next main stop for Philip Russell and Perry Dutfield would be Kinshasa – the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With little petrol left and a reasonable distance still to travel, they paused at Thysville hoping to replenish their stocks, but with the absence of a bank, they eventually managed to change £5 into local currency at a hotel and get enough fuel to take them to Kinshasa.

Then began several days of frustrating bureaucracy. The banks in Kinshasa were shut when they arrived on Thursday 12 October and with no campsite on offer, the pair managed to get agreement for them to stay in the car park of the Intercontinental Hotel – making use of their toilets and shower facilities whilst there. However, they were told that a second night was firmly out of the question and it was suggested that perhaps they could try the local Police (Brigade Mobile) instead.

A night in the safety of their compound was followed by a ferry ride to Congo Brazzaville on the other side of the river. On arrival, they were told in no uncertain terms that there had been a coup, and all visas issued by the previous regime were null and void. Without the necessary permission, Russell and Perry were sent back across the river – a sympathetic border guard failing to stamp their passports when they re-entered Zaire, effectively being made stateless.

“We needed to get the right paperwork,” explains Philip. “So we went to the British Embassy who then sent us to the German Embassy. They then sent us to the French Embassy who directed us to the Portuguese Embassy – all without any luck.”

Delays and stops along the way were never a problem, and offered a chance to meet curious locals and swap stories 

After two ‘rounds’ of following embassy advice, the British Consul, Andrew Kettles, took pity on the pair – largely because their attitude was pretty relaxed and, unlike others who had been in similar situations, clearly were not jumping up and down with expectations of help. “I’ll give you dinner if you service my car,” offered Kettles. “When the local garage does it, it usually comes back with older parts on than when it went in!” Philip and Perry immediately agreed. When the Consul found out that they had stayed at the Brigade Mobile, he was somewhat horrified, asking whether they still had their possessions and were invited to make the most of the British Embassy Club instead – complete with swimming pool, tennis courts and, of course, toilets and showers.

With mud a problem on their approach to the Sahara, the pair frequently had to extricate themselves from tricky situations. Here the Series II is resting on the open door

A party at one of the diplomatic residences followed that evening, along with a very tempting offer by the American military to ‘pop’ the Series II into the back of one of its large cargo planes and fly them over Congo Brazzaville to Bangui. For Philip it would also provide an introduction to his future second wife, Janice – the secretary to the ambassador.

Another option was available to the travellers: putting the Land Rover onto a ferry ‘train’ where a series of linked barges would transport various vehicles up river for four days – drivers and passengers living in their steeds for that time, but Philip and Perry opted to continue their plans to travel by road and track.

“When Monday came around, we returned once again to the German Embassy – a letter from Andrew Kettles in hand,” recalls Philip. “They mentioned that the new regime across the river were setting up an embassy in Kinshasa and so we hot-footed it to the address and just happened to find the new ambassador inspecting the premises. He told us that they would give us the visas we needed, providing we could produce tickets for the ferry to Brazzaville. We bought those and were then told that it would take between eight and 14 days for the paperwork to be sorted; it felt never-ending, but when we finally got the visas, they were numbered 001 and 002 – the first to be issued.”

On the road again. A broken windscreen would later prove to be a symptom of more serious problems below 

Having arrived in Kinshasa on the 12th, the pair eventually made their way to the ferry on 27 October, ready for the 10.00am crossing. “The official didn’t believe that we had visas this time,” laughs Philip. “When we produced them, they told us that they would arrest us if we were still there that afternoon. Why? Because they could… Naturally, we visited a bank to pick up some local currency, bought fuel and quickly left town.”

Their next destination was Gabon, where to their pleasure they crossed the border without any apparent problems. “Twenty minutes later and we suddenly became aware of blue lights and a siren behind us. Pulling over, the officer explained that as we had entered French territory, we were meant to go through immigration, customs and the police controls. We had skipped the last, but what annoyed him most was that it had taken him 15 minutes to catch up with us thanks to our eagerness to press on!”

One of many pontoon ferry crossings which often used the Land Rover’s battery to start the ferry’s diesel motor

As October gave way to November, the Series II made progress – with the help of several pontoon ferry trips in Cameroon. These ferries were commonplace and usually fitted with a diesel motor, but never with a battery with which to start it. The modus operandi was to simply remove the battery from your own vehicle, use it to fire up the engine, then put it back where it came from whilst making your way across the water.

Treacherous conditions created by rainfall and logging transport made the going tough, but never stopped the SII from progressing

This would be the least of their worries however; for the following days, Philip’s diary includes simple, damning statements such as: “Bloody awful roads… rain, rain, rain… roads awful… STILL raining.” To make matters worse, there was a major logging industry in the region and the huge trucks that literally dragged the felled trees from their once homes did an excellent job of turning a passable track into a chewed-up quagmire that would challenge our overlanders.

“We were very proud of never needing to be rescued however,” recalls Philip. “The conditions on that section in particular meant that we had to make full use of four wheel-drive and low-range, but even when we thought we were stuck, the Land Rover pulled us straight out.”

Perry removing the windscreen after shards of glass rained down inside. A snapped chassis was later discovered to be the cause

Although the Series II was proving to be a worthy companion, Philip and Perry were becoming slightly concerned with what was happening up front. “We didn’t know why at that point, but as we were driving along, shards of glass were breaking off from the windscreens – clearly the frame was flexing and despite our efforts to tie it in position using the roof rack, it eventually got so bad that we just removed the screens altogether and put up with the rain.”

Perry happened to have a friend in Kaduna, Nigeria who helpfully was the manager of the local Land Rover dealer. It was thought that with the Sahara not far ahead, the 160-mile diversion was well worthwhile and offered the perfect opportunity to put IWE over an inspection pit and stock up on some spares in anticipation. A loose propshaft was sorted, a broken bonnet catch welded, new radiator fitted and replacement windscreen glass procured and fitted, although this would again be a short-lived fix.

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“Neither of us realised that the reason for the collapsing windscreen frame and the glass showers was that the chassis of the Series II itself was cracked,” smiles Philip. “We did have it welded up at one point, but it didn’t last and I’m convinced that it actually cracked fairly early on in the journey, thanks to the speeds necessary in order to make the best of the rough roads.”

The fitting of a new axle casing, rewiring the interior electrics, realigning and fixing doors, an oil change and the purchase of some new tyres are all documented in Philip’s diary and despite the pair enjoying the facilities and home comforts on offer, they finally decided to make a move on 21 November – a slight false start when the dynamo then seized because the wrong size of fanbelt had been fitted, and they had to limp back to Zinder where repairs could be facilitated.

Meeting another Land Rover and its German inhabitants offered company and increased safety for the Saharan crossing

With the Sahara on the horizon, a stop in Agadez gave them the chance to hook up with another Land Rover – this time inhabited by some Germans, also heading north. With safety in mind, it was decided that they would cross the sand together, as Philip explains: “There is a hard crust on the sand, but if you fail to make good enough progress, there’s a good chance that you start to sink in. If it rains, then you’re stuck until it dries up and that can take some time. That’s when people decide to sleep in their cars and with smoking still an acceptable pastime and a vehicle full of fuel in various cans, fire was a regular, and often tragic, occurrence back then – the frequent sight of burnt-out vehicles emphasising the need for caution.”

Thankfully, there were no such issues for Philip and Perry, however, and at one point, much to the bemusement of the Germans, the pair brought the Land Rover to a halt at 4.00pm sharp.

“What are you doing?” one of them enquired? “It’s 4.00pm,” exclaimed Philip. “We are English and it’s time for tea.”

To the astonishment of the onlookers, Perry and Philip donned their dinner jackets, erected the awning, set up a table and chairs and laid out a rug. They then proceeded to crack open a bottle of fizzy wine from the fridge (eventually served by one of the Germans) and a tinned cake. “They thought we were absolutely mad,” laughs Philip. “But they got the humour and playfully joined in.”

Perry poses by one of the white-topped markers in the desert – one of the few navigational methods on offer

By the time the convoy approached Tamanrasset, the serious job of navigation had taken over: “This was ‘proper’ Sahara,” explains Philip. “Your only real means of finding your way through was to keep a lookout for the occasional posts with a white top. You’d reach one, then stop, get out your binoculars and see if you could spot the next one before driving towards it. If you failed to see one for a while, you were very much lost.” Nowadays, of course, it’s tarmac all the way, but no such luxury then.

For the Germans, Tamanrasset would be a no-go area as they were refused entry and had to return to Niamey. Philip and Perry had their own issues as, despite their considerable petrol provisions, the fuel had all but gone and they were void of any coupons with which to buy some more. Eventually, a spot of bartering temporarily resolved the situation and an opportunity to fill up properly would be taken advantage of in In Salah.

Kissing the tarmac – clearly happy to finally reach graded roads after so much sand

Their crossing was all too quickly coming to an end, but the challenges remained as the Series II was piloted up and over the Atlas Mountains.

​​​​​​“Suddenly, it was cold,” recalls Philip. “We didn’t have a heater – we didn’t need one when we set out – but suddenly we would be waking up to frost on the ground and water that took a good half an hour to boil before we could think of having a cup of tea.”

They may have been closer to home than ever by this point, but complacency would not be allowed to take over and their strict servicing schedule remained. On Sunday 3 December, the pair fitted new plugs, points, replaced the air and fuel filters, adjusted the valve clearances, mended the air horns, and fitted a heater – after all, it was now winter.

With the Mediterranean in sight as they approached Algiers, the temptation to dip a toe in the water was resisted, and instead the Land Rover was pointed west along the coastline towards Morocco – their shortwave radio picking up the BBC World Service for the first time on their trip. Having crossed into Morocco, they then entered Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, and booked their passage on the ferry that would transport them to the mainland before heading into town.

“When we eventually wandered back to the port, there was some consternation,” laughs Philip. “We hadn’t realised that Cueta uses Spanish time and so was one hour ahead of Morocco – IWE nearly left on the ferry without us!”

Remarkably, Philip has kept much of the paperwork from his trip, including maps, postcards, official documents and even the ticket for the boat ride home

Somewhat ironically, given that the pair were now about to embark on the home straight, Perry went shopping for a new pair of binoculars and Philip bought a new camera, but after crossing over into Spain, the next major purchase would be tickets for the Bilbao to Southampton ferry.

On 13 December, the Series II was driven onto the 6.30pm ferry in preparation for the two-day trip back to the UK and, following a rough passage across the Bay of Biscay, the rest was relatively smooth sailing – complete with dance in the evening. The overlanders docked in Southampton at 8.00am on 15 December.

UK Customs didn’t even bat an eyelid at the ‘motorised zebra’ coming into the country and after a brief stop in Hedge End near Southampton to see a relative, Philip dropped Perry in Blandford Forum, Dorset and was home at his parents’ house by 1.15pm. Opposite a full page picture of a real zebra, his last diary entry simple reads: Message ends.

Two or three weeks later, the Land Rover – complete with its cracked chassis – was taken to a local scrapyard near Poole and consigned to an unknown fate. It had been bought cheaply and served its purpose admirably, but as Philip now prepares to mark his 80th birthday, he often wonders exactly what happened to it. Does anyone else remember it? Did parts of it end up on someone else’s Series II? After all, there can’t have been too many zebra-striped Land Rovers with a Playboy bunny painted on the front. Maybe we will never know, but please do get in touch if you suspect otherwise.

Crucially, the excitement and adventure of their experience still lives strongly in Philip’s memory and thoughts of undertaking a return journey back to Zambia are ever-present. So, would he do it again?

“Unfortunately, Perry passed away in 2013 and so I would have to find a new travelling companion as well as a new Land Rover,” reflects Philip. “But never say never!”


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