World Travellers

World Travellers

Porsche’s classic 944 proved the ideal partner for a road trip of a lifetime

As road trips go, this was as up there with the best, covering over 21,000 km, 26 countries and five major deserts - coupled with the threat of hostile encounters through treacherous terrain.

This life-changing adventure, starting in England and ending in South Africa, was the brainchild of engineer Ben Coombs, who would be accompanied by friend Laura Reddin. And as you’d expect for such a grand tour, a suitable vehicle that would make it through dramatically varying tundra was required, so Ben turned to his trusty Alpine White 944, sporting a sprightly 320,000 km on the clock.

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Purchased back in 2002, the 944 2.5-litre Lux with five-speed manual was initially used as a daily driver, however, when Ben decided to purchase something in keeping with his evolving work commitments he couldn’t bring himself to let it go.

“I had so many memories with that car that I didn’t want to simply sell it to a stranger,” Coombs explains, “so I decided it should go out with one last hurrah.”

The goal Ben set himself, accompanied by co-driver Laura, was to drive the 944 from England to Cape Town on the southernmost tip of South Africa, a journey of over 21,000 km.

With little money between them, the only modifications they made to the 22-year motor were to raise the suspension by 50 millimetres and fit a homemade roof tent fashioned from a piece of plywood. What could go wrong?

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“Seventeen days before we left, the oil pump failed and damaged the original engine. I’d bought a scrap 944 to take spares from for the trip, like drive shafts and shock absorbers, so I took the engine out of that and the garage who had raised the suspension installed it for me. It first ran at 10am on the Friday we were due to leave!” says Ben.

The couple made it into France, then resolved to press on through Europe.

“I have an engineering degree so can go back to first principles,” Coombs explains, “but I was wet behind the ears in terms of hands-on mechanics. Nevertheless, I managed to find and fix a minor vacuum leak which greatly improved the running. And we were inspired to keep going by the sense of adventure.”

A week of driving through Europe and Turkey brought the car to the Syrian border, and a step up in risk-management. But the car was running well and the pair resolved to continue, driving though Syria and Jordan before catching a ferry to Egypt.

After countless hours of complex paperwork at the port, the 944 finally emerged onto Egyptian soil, now proudly wearing Egyptian number plates, and headed for Cairo. “Driving past the pyramids,” Ben says, “that was the first moment where it actually felt like we were achieving something. But in truth it was only the start of our journey across Africa and we still had around 16,000 km to go.”

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After crossing Egypt, the 944 faced its first major hurdle, the Nubian Desert. This was 500 km of unmade roads, simple corrugated dirt tracks that weaved their way through the vast, empty expanses of southern Sudan in temperatures that regularly passed 40 C.

“The Porsche could take the punishment,” Coombs says. “All we lost was the exhaust, but we just strapped it to the roof and on it went.” The journey led from here into the relatively greenery of Ethiopia and on to the border with Kenya where car and drivers faced what had always promised to be their greatest single challenge of the trip.

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The road from Moyale to Marzabit skirted the disputed and dangerous border between Kenya and Somalia, a lawless region that bore frequent witness to violent tribal skirmishes and smuggling. “It’s 500 km of really bad roads where it is understood you just do not stop. Let alone break down,” Ben explains.

“We were formed into a convoy with the Kenyan army as an escort, but it had rained for the first time in two years and the roads had turned to soup. We couldn’t keep up with the trucks in these massive ruts and were eventually abandoned in the middle of this bandit-ridden tribal war zone.”

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The Porsche ploughed on, however, its underside taking a beating from the rutted and rock-strewn road. In Marzabit, the 944 underwent repairs to a damaged fuel pump before setting out to complete the final section of this perilous part of the journey that would land the couple in Nanyuki, on the equator and still 8,000 km from their destination.

Coombs describes the next few days as being relatively trouble free, passing through Uganda and Tanzania where the only hitch was a robbery that saw Laura’s passport stolen. By now the car was showing over 350,000 km, at least 1,600 km of those essentially off road.

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Wherever they now went, through Malawi and Zambia, they were greeted with a mixture of confusion and excitement at the site of this increasingly careworn 1980s sports car. Botswana and Namibia led to the cinematic and eerie Skeleton Coast and the last big challenge of the journey, the Namib Desert.

“The sun was setting as we began to cross the Namib,” Ben says, “and we had this feeling that nothing could stop us now. We were doing about 65 km/h when one of the ball joints fractured and we didn’t have a spare.

“So we used ratchet straps and cable ties to lash it back together.” This temporary fix held and failed time and again as pitch darkness descended. With a powerful lightning storm rolling in off the South Atlantic, the couple slept fitfully in the 944’s cabin until dawn before trying again.

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Eight further attempts to make the ball joint hold eventually bore fruit and they were able to crawl out of the desert at just under 20mph, taking eight hours to find tarmac and the opportunity to increase their speed.

Nevertheless, the 944 was still pegged to around 40mph and took two further days to cover the 1,100 remaining km to Cape Town. The Porsche 944 in front of the Table Mountain in South Africa “It was a dramatic finish and the car limped over the line,” Ben admits, “but it did it. Some 62 days after we left the UK, covering over 21,000 km, crossing 26 countries and five major deserts.
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Coming over the brow of a hill about 80 km north of Cape Town to see the grey smudge of Table Mountain on the horizon, we realised at that moment that nothing was going to stop us. I don’t think there are many sports cars I’d have the confidence to cross Africa in, but the depth of engineering in the 944 made us believe that it was possible. And we did it!”

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