Thursday, December 23, 2010

1959 Cape Town to Cairo Overland - with caravans!

Completing an overland trip today is sometimes quite stressful.  Being an expedition leader with a convoy of vehicles adds additional stress.  Now add 36 vehicles, majority of which are towing a caravan to your convoy and drive North from Cape Town.  The logistics leading 106 people would be pretty hard work.  Now do it in 1959...  And that's exactly what the founder of Airstream caravan did.

In 1959, 41 vehicles & Airstream caravans plus a few support vehicles (104 people) convoyed from Cape Town to Cairo.  The founder of the Airstream caravan, Wally Byam, was instrumental in expanding on the lifestyle a caravan could offer.  As a result, he lead his 1959 convoy North from Cape Town in a total of 221 days. In this blog post, I link to the various YouTube video clips, and a few photos from a podcast interview.

A few interesting comments and observations from the various videos: Eldest person was a gentleman aged 85 whilst the youngest was a girl aged 6.  The convoy 'quite accidentally' came across the Great Zimbabwean ruins!  Pith Helmets are a must as almost each film shot of the convoy includes one.  Giant Wildebeest sound like thunder as they rumble across the plains.  A good day in Ethiopia would be a total of 6miles covered due to the road conditions - It took a total of five weeks to get to Addis Ababa.  A good quote form part 5 of the videos:
'The Nubian desert is a blistering inferno of vagrant sandunes exiled from the rest of world'

Wikipedia article:
Wallace Merle "Wally" Byam, (1896-1962) was one of the pioneer manufacturers of the travel trailer. He founded the company, Airstream Inc. From the 1930s until his death in 1962, Byam was a leader in developing both a romance and ethusiasm associated with the automobile and recreational vehicle culture as well as product features as the United States became increasingly focused on highways and automobile travel.
The rough route the caravaners drove was: South Africa, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe & Zambia), Congo (DRC), Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Eqypt.

The photographer on the trip was Pete Turner.  His first major assignment was commissioned by Airstream Trailer Company and National Geographic Magazine. A few of his photos are displayed below and are extracted from a podcast he did in 1997 during which he spoke about the trip and his photography.

In the photo below, Pete Turner's vehicle is towing the Golden Airstream Caravan.

Here is the first video clip from the film (1 of 5):

Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5

A few more photos from the YouTube video clips:

Mussolini bridge in Ethiopia built during WWII.
A tiny scooter is used to convey a message to the 'Caravaners'

Dale Schwamborn was a scout for the expedition.  He recalls and shares a few of his memories of the trip - Airstream History (scout truck) and YouTube video clip:

In closing, I would love to hear more about this trip, more specifically the people element. The information on the web is slightly scarce.  Please get in touch if you have any more information.  Questions like: How did 106 people get on, and how long did it take to get started in the morning? What was the average speed?

Thanks to Wes Kibble (Twitter) from Off Road Action - the vintage offroad site - for the link to the Cape Town to Cairo trip.
Rather timely, the Overland Journal winter 2010 edition published a long article titled 'Venturesome Spirit' by Lois Pryce.  Photos in the published article were provided by Dale Schwamborn.

Additional Reading:
Scout Car Model

Book: Cape Town to Cairo by Lillie B. Douglass Cape Town to Cairo
The 1965 Desert Magazine describes the book as follows:
Here's a trip that every trailer owner drams about, but this couple took.  Along with 41 American families, they joined a caravan tour and journeyed the length of the African continent by house trailer. The author tells how they solved problems of food, water, road repair, heat, cold and desert and mountain terrain.  It took them seven months, but they save Africa as few Americans have seen it.  They visited Pygmy country, skirted the weird Mountains of the Moon and wound up camped at the base of Cheops Pyramid, near Cairo. 
You may not be free to make a trip to places like Zanzibar and Tanganyika, but you'll enjoy taking it vicariously with the author - even to deciding what to pack. Its high adventure and enlightening as well since the author's curious mind explored history and tradition along with offbeat country. And, who know, you might one day close the door to your house and take off too?  As the Douglass' discovered, anything is possible if you know what you want and direct your efforts to accomplishing it. This is that kind of book.
The 1965 Desert Magazine advert:

Additional photos from various sources on the web.  Few photos from Pete Turner's podcast, the YouTube Film and other sources.


  1. great bit of history and thanks so much for bringing it all together

  2. The gold trailer was manufactured in 1957 in Jackson Center, Ohio based on Stella Byam's dream trailer. It was used on several Caravans and Rallies by Wally and Stella prior to the African Caravan. It was not built for or intended to be given to Haile Selassie. In 1969 I purchased "Stella's Gold Airstream." From the California factory and sold it in 1977. I worked at the California plant from 1964 until 1969. Pete Turner is still a good friend of mine. Also there were 41 Airstreams, and three auxillary vehicles on the African Caravan. Dale "Pee Wee" Schwamborn African Scout 1959 - 1960.

  3. Thanks to Dale Schwamborn for the comments and corrections to the article. It's fantastic to see the enthusiasm for Airstream and the correct historical elements are conveyed. Please note the Golden caravan was not intended as a gift.

  4. When I was 11 years old my family was on a round the world trip. When we were in Cairo my father took me and my brothers and sisters out to the camp where the airstreams were parked. We met several of the travelers, looked in their airstreams. It was very impressive!


Comments always welcome...