I first met Julia Albu, one of the Grand Dames of the PR industry, some 25 years ago… writes Melanie Walker. Larger than life with a voice to match, Jooooolia was definitely one person who I would always say yes to whenever she asked me to get involved in the ‘Hat Day at the Races’ for The Organ Procurement Trust.
This towering force of nature is like that. She asks you for something, you acquiesce! So it was no surprise to me to hear in April of last year that she was planning to drive her trusty 20 year old Toyota Conquest, Tracy, from Cape Town to London, leaving on her 80th birthday on the 13th July. Madness, sure. But not unexpected!
I’m sure many people in South Africa caught the episode of Carte Blanche with this octogenarian daredevil, but over the last six months, I’ve been calling Julia wherever she is to do interviews for Radio Today – and I have enjoyed the trip so much she’s invited me to join her for a stretch on the journey back again!
Now back in Cape Town, and feeling a little under the weather after undergoing a 4 hour operation on her hands to rectify a skin condition, I managed to get her on the phone to find out what it’s like looking back on her adventure.
Which was the friendliest country you travelled through? And which was your favourite? Any of them a ‘never-again’?
You know, I hate to tell you, but I can’t tell you that! Mainly because in every country I travelled through, everyone was so kind, so welcoming and so helpful. Even in The Sudan, despite my travelling travails, it was wonderful, they couldn’t do enough for me. A country is made by its people.
All the countries were so different, it’s difficult to decide which I liked the most. When it came to Ethiopia… well, let me tell you, when I crossed over the border, it was like taking a trip into the Bible!
I loved The Sudan, adored Kenya, especially as I went to so many wonderful places there that I’d seen on film. Dar Es Salaam – I met up with 40 SA ex pats who looked after me like a star. I went out every night for three weeks, and they flew me to Zanzibar.
Even in Malawi where so many people have nothing to give, what they could help with, they would with a smile. Each one gave me something marvellous.
There’s no country I’d say never again. Well, if I were, well, no – even Egypt. I’d go back because of the people. The guide I had there was one of four brothers, who all looked after me while I was in the city. They’ve all said come back and stay with us – even though there are 20 of them living together in one house with the wives and children. But I will go back. But from a country point of view, I was most upset with the treatment of animals in Egypt… I don’t think I would spend too much time there again. In fact I lost 7 kilos in that last bit, as I gave up meat along the way, mainly because of the poor treatment of animals and I just couldn’t face eating any meat at all, so I became a vegetarian…
How many kilometres did you cover? Which country had the worst roads?
About 14 -15000kms – more than expected – because I went to Uganda which I wasn’t going to do. Uganda also had the worst roads.
And which was the most difficult to travel through?
When it comes to the one that was most difficult to travel though, well… ultimately probably The Sudan. I had a really great guide with me for a while, but when I left the border of Sudan, setting off to Khartoum, he had to leave me there, because he had no passport. So I ended up travelling completely on my own, but opened all the windows, cranked the tape deck up, and missioned on through the desert. It was funny because it was so odd.
I ended up sleeping with seven Egyptians, beat that!
There I was eventually, in the dark, there was nothing to be seen, and eventually I saw a little hut while I was looking for somewhere to stay for the night, but nobody could understand what I was saying.
I then reached a little town, and drove around for a fair while shouting “hotel? Hotel?” out the window, driving round the streets trying to find something. Finally, one person said, come, I know Hotel, so I followed him and found a place which had the loo seat covered in tin foil – no idea why!
The next day I ended up driving around shouting out the window, “Which way to Khartoum???” and they all just looked at me like, “What is this mad woman on about?”
I finally found a couple of men under a flyover bridge and they pointed me in the right direction, but the son decided to come along for the ride to show me the way.
The roads have unbelievable security checks all the way, and the only time I ever had a problem was there as I had this man in my car. The moral of the story is: Don’t give people lifts – [the security guys] ransacked my car, looking for what I don’t know. It was very unpleasant, and I couldn’t get them to understand or talk any sense into them until they went after my Nile water – I was incensed with rage and said “touch it and I’ll kill you”. I went to a lot of trouble to get water from all the different Niles and they weren’t going to pour it out.
Eventually the man in charge made a call or two – while I’m sitting there thinking I’m going to be ‘disappeared’ and my family will never hear from me again – but when he came back, he was all apologetic. No idea who he talked to, but it did the trick!
I think when I hit the Cafeteria between Sudan and Egypt, that’s in the ‘no man’s land’ – where I ended up sleeping with seven Egyptians, beat that! – for a couple of days as I had to wait for a carnet, it was difficult, and it became a harder country the further north you went.
I’m 80, what’s there to be frightened of at this stage of my life?
Ultimately, wherever I went, I was honestly too gobsmacked to be frightened. I’m 80, what’s there to be frightened of at this stage of my life?
I wish I could have walked more, that I was fitter. But found that most people had so much respect for me because of my age. They’d all rush to help me.
Any unexpected adventures?
Yes! The camels were unexpected in the Sudan! I was staying in a tented camp which we had come across late at night – after travelling at full speed with my son-in-law driving flat out over a road that usually only 4 x 4s can handle. There was a huge sandstorm that night, and when we woke up everything was covered in sand. And standing outside my tent, there, galloping towards me was a snow white camel. Cue the soundtrack of Lawrence of Arabia I tell you. I ended up having the ride of my life, going off to see the pyramids, probably the first that were ever built.
Some of my highlights were meeting the Masai in the Masai Mara during the Games they hold there to raise awareness for saving the lions‚ seeing the source of the Nile‚ all the organic vegetables growing along the roadsides and having breakfast with a giraffe.
How were the countries you visited similar or different to South Africa?
Everything was totally different. We in SA have the best of it. We have everything. I’m proudly South African and visited all the embassies in each place, but in every country it seems they have no bathrooms, and the people are different. We have it all in South Africa, we don’t know how lucky we are. I will never complain again.
In the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, one of the hottest and lowest places on earth, there are these ‘salt mines’, where Afar men sit in the blazing sun hammering out blocks of salt which they then load onto camels, and walk 200 kms to get under $1 a slab. Then walk the camels back again 200 kms to do the same. Imagine spending your life like that. I want to take each of them $100 when I go back there. We slept outside on bare beds in the middle of the desert under the full moon with a camel train coming past in silence… Beautiful, but sad.
Where would you like to return?
I don’t know, there was Botswana, which was absolutely wonderful, a place that has been kept so well. Then Zambia, which is very lovely, Malawi with its poverty, but still so much happiness to be seen there. Tanzania was divine, every section of it, especially the Masai Mara where I ended up unexpectedly….. Actually, I want to go back everywhere again.
What did you miss the most while you were away?
Hot water! But here I am back in Cape Town with no water! I went three weeks without water, but oversized ‘body wipes’ saved my butt.
Who benefitted from your trip? Were you on a mission to raise money or was it just for yourself to celebrate your 80th, or to inspire others?
I did it for Shine Literacy – a group which offers literacy support programmes in 66 primary schools – to gain awareness of the problem of illiteracy throughout Africa. Their reach at the moment includes the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. They offer training to organisations such as faith-based organisations, community centres as well as to individuals who share their passion to get children reading and, in this way, address South Africa’s educational crisis. It’s a wonderful organisation – But unfortunately I didn’t raise a whole lot of money. However, I am continuing on my quest to raise money for them. I did take books from the organisation with me and gave them out along the way. In fact, one of the things I’m trying to get going and involved with in Ethiopia is to find schools in other countries that will twin with local schools.
Plans for the future? Where is Tracy now and how are you getting her back?
Tracy arrives on the 8th February in Piraeus in Greece. I will be going over there at the end of March, so I catch Europe in summertime. I am going to stay for three weeks with my cousin Michael Sutton (the renowned South African architect who now lives there) and he has been helping me with getting Tracy shipped and stored, and she’ll probably stay with him for a while. From there I’ll be taking her through a whole lot of little countries that I’ve never heard of, but getting visas is the issue. I’ll be joined somewhere there by this wonderful man, I met in Kenya, who’ll maybe travel with me then to Milan, Switzerland, France, then to England, where I’m putting it out there that I’d like to have tea with the Queen for my 81st birthday…
So Julia – any last notes for any other intrepid travellers?
Best tip – take boxes of chocolate biscuits with you! (Oh, and water…)
Watch ‘Lady Julia’s African Adventure’ in a special Carte Blanche Segment
If you’re overseas, you can watch this episode of Carte Blanche by subscribing to Showmax (14 Day Free Trial). See the trailer here:
It took her seven months, but 80-y/o Julia Albu managed to make her way from Cape Town to Egypt. After the break, @DerekWatts meets up with her to find out more about this remarkable journey across Africa. #CarteBlanche pic.twitter.com/E7xeLZjQCq
— Carte Blanche (@carteblanchetv) February 4, 2018
Follow Julia’s blog on MyAfricanConquest
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