Out Of Africa: The Cape Town Granny Who Drove To London

Our online magazine enjoys celebrating women over 50 years old. We are such a positive group with so much still to offer the world and so much life left to live. However it is a rare occurrence that we meet someone who puts us all to shame. Last Tuesday was just such a very special day as I met Julia Albu, or Cape Town Granny as she is affectionately known in the South African press.

Cape Town Granny leaning against car in front of a Pyramid
Cape Town Granny and Tracy at The Pyramids

She is a vibrant and passionate lady of 81 years with 4 children and 7 grandchildren. Her grandchildren call her Go-Go which you will see from this article is a most appropriate name.

Cape Town Granny on the bonnet of her Toyota car with glass of champagne
Before she set off!

When Cape Town Granny turned 80 years she decided she wanted to drive to the UK. She owned a 20 year old Toyota Conquest, no money, but a lot of spirit. She was inspired when she heard on the radio that the then President of South Africa, Mr. Zuma, bought his wives new cars every year. She was incensed, due to the current state of the country, and so she called into the radio talk show. She informed them that she was going to drive to London as she wanted to show everyone that there was life in both her and her 20 year old car – together they made 100 years of life! No sooner had she made that call than people called to support her mad-cap scheme. Her children thought it was a crazy idea but adopted reverse psychology and told her they thought it would be fun. It didn’t work as Julia decided she would definitely embark on this epic journey. She wanted to make it worthwhile so she decided to combine it with raising money for an African charity, SHINE, which helps children to understand what they are reading. Julia could have adopted another charity like Save the Rhino, however she felt that if all children could read then they could save the Rhino – reading is the key to success.

Cape Town Granny and friend studying map of Africa
Planning the journey

Now came the tricky part. Tracy, her Toyota, had to be prepared for such a journey. Toyota did not want to get involved as they thought the Sahara would finish off both Cape Town Granny and her car! They obviously had not met this woman as remarks like that just made her more determined. As she recounted her journey to me I realised that there is not much in the world that Julia is not prepared to tackle head-on.

Cape Town Granny & car in the Sahara desert
Tracy and Julia making light work of the Sahara

People started to turn up and show their support. One neighbour gave her 6 tyres, which actually were not needed as ‘Tracy’ never had a puncture and together they rolled into London with the same tyres that they set off with. Another neighbour gave her petrol. Julia manages to get the best out of everyone and I can understand why as there is so much to admire in this lady – she is intrepid and so trusting in humanity. Her son-in-law failed to teach her about the mechanics of the car but did raise Tracy’s suspension to cope with the mud.

Her best friend came to the rescue over the interior of the car which was lined top to toe with Draylon, a fabric not conducive to the extreme heat that it was about to experience. After an endless search for someone to re-upholster the car including the ceiling, Julia found some men who took this task on, they mixed and matched the fabric so that the job was completed to perfection. Tracey was re-lined and looked like the interior of an exotic nightclub!

Her sister from Swaziland together with her friend from the UK came over to pack up Julia’s house before she set off. However no-one wanted to join her on her trip as it “was so dangerous”. Her youngest daughter offered to see her out of the country and eventually as far as Zambia. Off they set one June morning in 2017. Julia admitted that she cried most of the way but they got lost in Kimberley, can you believe? She needed to concentrate and suppress her emotions which, as she so often told me, was hard on such an emotive journey. In Johannesburg the man who supplied the petrol arranged for a troop of Harley Davidsons to send her on her way and so she was of!.

Throughout her long journey via 11 African countries, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and finally Egypt she always had a passenger, either a member of her family or a ‘guide’. Wherever they stopped she had to share a bedroom with the guide and in some cases they did not speak the same language however they got by with sign language or an expressive face, the latter being the case of Julia. There was no hurdle that was going to stop this Cape Town Granny from achieving her ambition.

I asked her if she ever felt frightened or threatened on the trip and she never did. What she said was, ‘what is the worst that can happen? I die”. An honest answer from a truly remarkable lady. However it is my belief that one of her best traits that stood her in good stead was that she understands Africa, she respects and admires the people and she has a magnetic and warm personality that sets one at ease combined with an optimism that encourages others to join her and not stand in her way.

Cape Town Granny and African friends in front of Temple of Soleb
Temple of Soleb at Wawa village

The stories she told me of her various escapades, collecting water from the source of the both the White and Blue Nile, travelling up to the top of the Livingstone mountains in a bakkie (South African small truck) on a set of springs as the seat no longer existed. She said she bounced all the way there and back and wished she had brought a sports bra, and this is aside from some padding for her bum!! At the border with Ethiopia she could not get an entry visa so she had to return to Nairobi, some 10 hours of driving, but not until the border control had given her a good breakfast (this was after she shed some more of those endearing tears). She met a man in Nairobi, in a shop, who was Croatian and took her to his home to meet his wife and children. When he found out she had no-one to travel through Croatia with he said he would join her when she got to Greece for the northern European section and he did! The same man let her stay in his house in Nairobi whilst she got her visa sorted, and he got her car repaired at his own garage.

Throughout her journey she was writing a blog and because of this someone from the UN contacted her and invited her to stay in Addis Ababa. In Lalibela, Cape Town Granny met 4 African Professors who she called her ‘4 Guardian Angels’. She travelled to the Salt Mines at Danakil, one of the lowest points on earth where she met the workers who only earn $1 for chiselling out a block of salt and for this they are eventually blinded by the horrendous glare. Cape Town Granny is going back to the salt mines on her return journey armed with a bag of sunglasses that she asked all her friends to donate.

She entered Sudan on her own as her Ethiopian guide had no passport, probably one of the harshest African countries on her trip. She stayed in a small hotel, no water – not a drop, with tin foil on the loo seat and a mattress full of bed bugs. She would have been forgiven if she had given up on her challenge at this point but not this intrepid Granny. She continued on into Egypt, meeting and making new friends all the way.

From Egypt she crossed to Greece, drove up through Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Holland and finally a ferry to the U.K.

A bus stop in the desert / Cape Town Granny
Egypt to the left and the Red Sea to the right and a bus stop in the middle of nowhere

This is just a snippet of this year long journey. I am hoping that Julia will be writing a book to give us all the detail of this momentous trip. The thing that struck me is that we hear so much from the press about the fractured Africa, how dangerous it is and unsuitable for visitors. However Julia was not just any visitor she is someone who loves and appreciates the Africans. She wants to experience their lives and she accepts she has so much to learn from them all. It was evident from her stories that there was a mutual respect between Julia and the people she met.

There are not enough words to describe this lady. She is truly inspirational, a motivating force. She encouraged me to follow my dream, which is nothing like the one she had in June 2017 whilst listening to the radio in Cape Town, but nevertheless we should all follow our dreams and not say we are ever too old to do anything. I am inspired by the name her grandchildren call her, Go-Go. I think we should all join Julia and have more ‘go-go’.

A signpost in Africa / Cape Town Granny

Please follow Cape Town Granny on her blog as she drives home – click HERE. She left London on Friday 22nd June and will be taking a slightly different route on the return journey but having met this formidable and enchanting lady I am sure there are going to be plenty of adventures and many more friendships made along the way.

If you want to donate to SHINE charity please click through to the Julia’s giving page – click HERE.

For more posts from travelling Grannies click HERE.

1 Comment

  1. A lot of women are also in football heaven! This has been an excellent World Cup, so far, plenty of goals, and unexpected wins. In the case of England its refreshing to see the young players play with such passion compared to the prima-dona’s of past, who didn’t seem to have passion at national level.

    Since and including France1998, my last attendance at a World Cup, international football feels to have deteriorated. But Russia 2018 has been very entertaining. If you do not enjoy football why not attend some of the fabulous festivals that are taking place. There is everything from dance, music, literature, sustainability and food. My friends and I, all over 60 are loving them.

    I followed Julia’s delightful blogs but am confused. I thought she returned to Cape Town after reaching Cairo. We tried to meet her in Cape Town in January 2018, it seems she must have continued to Europe. Remarkable woman, thanks for lovely post on her.

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