Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The long road through Africa

I've talked at length about Route 49 and our exploits in Africa but wanted to share the experience of it's birth. I had been working in London for about a year when I met Grant. He and I were attached to an agency that provided Butlers to the catering trade and we were probably the best in the business. We always saw an advantage in a job such as the chance to add four or five hours to our claim sheet and return home with a few bottles of champagne. Grant is South African and through a good mate Ed Martin I had become very interested in SA, so I quizzed Grant at every opportunity about the chance of going out there to live and start a business. Grant was in the process of doing a degree at the South Bank University in Tourism with the eventual aim of returning to SA to start a business of his own. It transpired that he wanted to start something in the transport industry ferrying backpackers around SA in custom built coaches themed around Rock Bands!!!! During that year my then partner Ruth had organized a trip to Africa on an overland truck from Nairobi down to Harare. On her return four months later she said that there was a massive gap in the market for a service to get backpackers to and from Zimbabwe and Cape Town as the only way to go were by plane from Johannesburg, which you had to get to first and then pay an extortionate amount for the fare as SA is the most expensive air miles in the world. Or you could go by coach also via Johannesburg over three days and the final choice was by rail, 4 days. We bought a massive map of Africa and pinned it up on our wall in the flat and planned our route. The obvious route to me was the most direct route up through Botswana staying well clear of Johannesburg but adding an extra border post. This would take 24 hours of non stop driving for 1465K

With this all planed, off we all went to start our dream business in what was to become the most exciting time of our lives. Grant and his then partner Leila decided to go directly to Cape Town to get things started and Ruth and I went to Zimbabwe to see what reaction we would get from the locals. Why on earth we went to Harare I don't know but there we were talking to a bunch of Overland drivers who didn't like the idea of us taking away their cash jobs of ferrying the poor passengers down to Cape Town in what was basically a lorry. Ruth and I took the train from Harare to Joburg where we hired a car to drive down to Cape Town. Just 10 miles outside Joburg we tried to find a radio station we could understand as they were all either Afrikaans or one of the thousands of local languages spoken in SA. Eventually we found an English speaking station that said that Kensington Palace were making arrangements for Princess Diana's funeral!!! We couldn't believe what we were hearing. At first we thought it was a very cruel joke but as we hadn't had any news for over a week it must have been true. Ruth and I pulled over on to the verge and sat listening in disbelief crying like children. Once we were settled in our beautiful thatched cottage in Muizenburg the planning started. We made the dinning room our office with a window looking out to sea where the whales would delight us with their antics while we tried to raise money to buy the first bus. Two months later we had exhausted nearly all our avenues of raising any money when the final letter arrived, telling us that we had been unsuccessful again and another letter telling us that the name (Zimcaper) we had been working with for the last year was unavailable. For Ruth and I it looked as though we were going back to the UK. I sat in the office for an hour while Ruth and Grant went off to the garden to contemplate the future. While I sat there I looked out of the window at the fabulous view and thought about that hell they call London. Looking through the Yellow pages I found a guy who would rent us a VW mini bus and then I started looking at the map and found a road that went from Hopetown to Kimberly called Route 49. I shouted to Ruth and Grant telling them what we were going to do and all hell let loose. We designed a poster and flyer's while calling every backpackers in Cape Town telling them the business would start with the first bus leaving the next week. The three of us sat by that phone for days waiting for the first booking and when it came we opened a bottle of champagne. In the end we had three passengers for the first trip who we picked up from Green Street Backpackers who had forgone the 15% commission to get us going (£25 in total) and off we went. The idea behind the company was to provide a relaxed but efficient trip including on board food and drink with pillows, blankets and eventualy Videos on demand.

Check back for the story of the trip tomorrow.


Yzerfontein said...

Very interesting, and entrepeneurial, and beats taking a flight from Johannesburg. Looking forward to the next instalment.

Head of the Family said...

Thank's yzerfontein, yes it was a big step and a brave one that eventualy became an institution not just for backpackers but zimbabweans as well.

ExAfrica said...

Head of the Family!

Obvoiusly your wife does not read this!

Head of the Family said...

To be head of the family the following criteria have to be accomplished:
Age: I win
Main bread winner: I win
Good looks: I win
Male: I win

My wife reads this when I let her!

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