Conquering Africa: the ’59 way (by Wernher Hartzenberg)

Please enjoy this week’s variety of guest posts I’ve arranged for you while Kurt and I take our first trip to Cape Town.

I’m really excited for today’s post. I’ve been planning to post this ever since I met a remarkable man at the gym, Wernher Hartzenberg. I didn’t know his name yet. I only knew him as the first guy to be cool to me during my workout time in the testosterone-loaded free weights area. He will even take turns on bench and spot me if we’re working on upper body days at the same time. He was the one I mentioned (not by name) in a previous post, I Can Bench Press Your Mama.

When I finally had a chance to exchange more than hello, he had an astonishing story to tell about driving an old VW van from South Africa…to NORWAY! I’m sure you’ll find it as interesting as I do.

Be sure to check out his website, Aircooled Wonders, and read more adventures, check out their restorations or maybe just go rent one of their cool classic cars.

Conquering Africa: the ’59 way

-by Wernher Hartzenberg, of Aircooled Wonders

To tell the story of an extraordinary 1959 Volkswagen Kombi named Mabel, I’ll need to jump 40 years forward and start the telling with a newborn friendship between two young men, Wernher Hartzenberg and Espen Svensen. Both of us had one thing in common: the desire for adventure. We did not know at the time what impact this meeting would have on the rest of our lives and how we would both find respect for a vehicle that was once upon a time advertised as the people’s car.

It was 1999 and the first ever African Beetle Marathon was just the event to dip our toes into the river of adventure. Boy, would this little stream soon flow like a fearsome river through our veins.

Espen was born in Oslo, Norway. With his forefather’s Viking blood running strong, he decided it was time to see the world. He was so sure about his fate that he purchased a round trip ticket that would take him pretty much, well, around the world. Being an adventurer there would be no better place to kick it all off than in South Africa.

On the other side of the world, a young student, Wernher, was just getting ready to start his adult life. I was like most other South Africans, brought up with the mindset that once you finish your studies, it is time to face the real world, and that meant getting a 9-to-5 job. Luckily, I was young and also knew how to use my free time. That year’s summer break was going to be different; I was going to go BIG one last time.

On Sunday January 10th 1999, six teams set off on a journey that would take them through 5 counties and more than 7500km. Some of the teams showed up to race, but to my mind there was no point in rushing it. The first reason was that if I race through it all that would mean an early arrival, which in turn would mean that I would have to face the real world sooner. What 23 year old in his right mind would do such a silly thing? The second and main reason was that a lot of precious experiences would be lost. So 20 days it was going to be, which happened to be the cut off time and let’s face it, how fast could I really go in my grandfather’s 1959 beetle. Soon the racers were separated from the pacers and friendships started forming among the tail runners. This is how I met Espen and this is how a lifelong friendship started. Our two teams stuck together, especially on the second leg of this journey. We had started together, travelled together and finally finished together.

Espen enjoyed Africa so much that he substituted his ticket to see the world for a 1959 VW Kombi named Mabel. After soaking up the Southern African sun for 18 months, Espen decided it was time to visit home again. What better way to get to Norway than by taking an epic journey up the East Coast of Africa, then cross over to Europe and finally knock on Mom’s door in Scandinavia for a cup of hot chocolate? After a bit of preparation and a lot of butterflies, we left the southernmost point in Africa in May 2000.

We all know that life is what you make of it and this trip was no different. The first thing we realized was that “Africa Time” does exist.  The only way to make this clock tick is by doing what you can, where you are, with what you have.  So with that in mind we soon learnt how to obtain the optimal results out of people, nature, and Mabel of course.

An example of how this worked in our favour was when Mabel started coughing and crawling near the Ethiopian border. We had started that day by creating a path through a washed out section of road between Marsabit and Moyale (Northern Kenya). No one had passed through this section in 2 weeks. It took us 2 hours and a considerable amount of physical labour to clear a 50 meter stretch of road. It wasn’t only physical stress on our bodies that day, but a little emotional stress as well. While digging, moving rocks and pushing Mabel through the muddy water, we noticed a hand full of bandits, armed with AK 47’s, approaching in the distance. Naturally our work pace picked up and by the time they could even think of reaching us, we were gone. This, however, did not do Mabel any favours. Soon she started letting us know that something was wrong with her. We spent that night on the Moyale border. Early the next morning, we made an attempt to push on, trying to eventually reach Addis Ababa, 900 km away. This did not happen as planned and soon we found ourselves being towed by a Minister of Transport and his tractor-trailer and passengers. The first town after the border was Mega, which became our new home and workshop for the next few days. After taking the engine out and fixing what looked like valves that were starting to burn, we were on the road again, but without the result that we were hoping for. It turned out that, with our limited knowledge on these iconic cars, we had forgotten to check the petrol filter, which obviously got blocked while driving through the dust and mud.

We could only laugh at ourselves and, after some high fives, we were on the road again, a lesson well learnt.

Mabel did a superb job, taking us through 17 countries in just under 4 months. Sure, we got stuck in the soft Nubian Desert sand and also blew 3 tyres, while trying to keep up with the convoy on the rocky Kenyan roads. But that is why we did it, for the indescribable experiences. It was in this very same Nubian Desert that we saw the most beautiful sunsets, followed by nights under the pristine starry skies….. living the dream.

Mabel currently resides on a farm deep in the mountains of Norway. Espen is now happily married in Chile. As for me: South Africa is once again my home after 10 years of travel, where I still dream of one day seeing Mabel back in her rightful birthplace.

Managing our way through a washed out road.

Roadside assistance from the local ministry of transport in Southern Ethiopia.

Spending nights under pristine starry skies.

Crossing one of the few operational bridges in rural Ethiopia.


Two of my other favorite pieces by Wernher are his Kombi story and Beetle story:


About Wernher Hartzenberg

Writer and air-cooled car buff Wernher Harztenberg
Writer and air cooled car buff Wernher Harztenberg

I was pretty much born with cars in my blood. My grandfather bought his first new car ( Beetle) in 1959. It was passed onto my dad as his first car and then became my first car when I turned 18. My dad has also owned Porsche’s all his life and he is a huge influence on my passion for cars. I love to travel and in 1999 I did the first ever African Beetle Marathon in my 1959 Beetle. The marathon took us 7500 km around Southern Africa and through 5 Countries. Here I met my Norwegian friend Espen Svensen and in 2000 we traveled from South Africa to Norway in  a 1959 Kombi named Mabel. After Norway I ended up in Atlanta, GA and soon after Spartanburg, SC where I coached tennis for 9 years. In 2009 I moved back to South Africa and started collecting cars with my dad. I opened a workshop in 2010 where I restore classic Beetles and Porsche’s. I also started a website called Aircooledwonders where I try and capture the amazing history behind South Africa’s air cooled cars. I am also involved in a event called Kalahari Desert Speedweek, held at Hakskeenpan. It is the South African ” Bonneville”. I race a 356 Porsche.

3 thoughts on “Conquering Africa: the ’59 way (by Wernher Hartzenberg)

  1. My God, My God!! The spirit of my father IS alive and well…It has simply moved to another continent!! Awesome story! Amazing adventure, would love to hear more details of that one. I am envious as hell!!!

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