For 47 years the record for the fastest drive from London to Cape Town had stood unbeaten. Several teams had tried and failed to beat the blistering time of 13 days 8 hours set by Ford ‘works’ rally drivers Eric Jackson and Ken Chambers, but none had succeeded. The reason…Africa. A continent that is known to tear itself apart on a regular basis had been in various states of unrest for over 40 years, rendering the quickest route from top to bottom untenable. Over the years, roads had improved, but the political situation had declined following the slow withdrawal of the British Empire. Where as before you were likely to receive a smart salute, today you were more likely to get stopped for hours at a border check point, or worse of all, have a gun thrust into your face!
That’s not to say that Eric and Ken had it easy. Their original route was to take them from Morocco into Algeria and then a south-easterly track across Africa to Kenya, but within just a day of setting off from London they were stopped on the outskirts of Madrid, their planned route had been blocked due to a conflict between Morocco and Algeria. There was no option but to turn around and head for Italy and the ferry to Tunisia. With no time to shop for new maps, on board the ship they purchased a postcard showing the African continent with key cities on it – that would have to do!
A a publicity stunt to promote the launch of the new Ford Cortina, failure wasn’t an option and with the might of the global manufacturer swinging into play, they summoned agents along the revised route to be ready for the dynamic duo. Crossing Libya, Egypt and Sudan, all was going well until they reached Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and a scheduled service stop. The dealer there gave them some stern advice, advising them not to proceed. Somali bandits (the same as those that attack ships in the Red Sea today) had moved inland to ambush passing motorists. With the stakes at Ford running high, the team had no option but to press on. Sure enough, as they approached the Kenyan border, they were ambushed. Fortunately though the glove box in the new Cortina was the perfect size to fit a couple of .38 Magnums!
13 days 8 hours and 48 minutes after leaving London the adventurous pair rolled into Cape Town. They had beaten the previous record set 11 years earlier by George Hinchcliffe by just 18 minutes!
In 2010 there was a short window when Africa seemed to be at peace, an attempt at the record was in sight. The Max Adventure team, supported by over 80 companies and with the Patronage of both Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Ranulph Fiennes set out from the RAC building in Pall Mall on a wet October night. With pledges of donations for their chosen charity, Help for Heroes, reaching Cape Town in record time became even more important to the team
The only authorised crossing from Egypt to Sudan was to travel on a ferry that traversed the length of Lake Nasser. This 250 mile crossing would take a whole 2 days, valuable time that the team could ill afford to waste and so a quicker route to Sudan had to be found. A scheduled ferry service ran from Jeddah to Suakin in Sudan across the Red Sea, but with Saudi Arabia having next to no tourist industry it took 2 years to gain permission to drive through the kingdom. Even then, the team’s reconnaissance trip went wrong when on arriving at the Saudi border they were told their UK registered Land Rover Discovery could not enter on the grounds that the steering wheel was on the wrong side! Back to the drawing board and a left hooker was purchased.
With a crew of 3, driving around the clock in 4 hour shifts (drive, navigate, sleep), the Max Adventure team made good progress, reaching Jeddah, some 3,800 miles away, in 80 hours and bang on schedule. There was a delay in the ferry departing, but all in all things were looking good. Half way across the sea though there was an urgent sat-phone call from their UK Operations team, the Ethiopians had changed the rules on entering their country, with written authorisation from the British Embassy required to be presented at the border! The team had to press on though and deal with the matter when they got there.
Africa was typical Africa, poor quality roads and lengthy border crossings, but despite this the team made good progress south. Entering Ethiopia and trying to get hold of a faxed letter of authority from the Embassy cost them a valuable 4 hours and so upon arrival at the Ethiopia / Kenya border the team found that it had just closed After 30 minutes scouring the remote town they found the Customs Officer in a bar and after some gentle persuasion and a bribe of crisp US Dollars, he obliged by opening up his office and processing the team. With this delay, plus only being allowed to tackle the treacherous Marsabit road in the north of the country with 2 armed guards, they reached the Kenya / Tanzania border after it had been closed for some hours. Late at night and with the heavens raining down upon them, the team managed to persuade the pyjama clad Customs Officers on both sides to open up and let them through! It was only on reaching the next border between Tanzania and Zambia that their luck ran out. Even though Mac crept across the border to meet with the Head of Police on the other side, the answer was no and so the team had to huddle in the back of their vehicle for 8 hours catching up on some well earned sleep.
The rest of their journey was relatively uneventful, and after 10,000 miles, through 21 countries and across 2 continents, the team pulled into Cape Town, finishing at the AA of South Africa building to a rapturous welcome. Their time from London was 11 days 14 hours and 11 minutes and in doing so had earned their place in the record books and history. They were now the 6th team to set a new fastest time, ever since Humphrey Symons and Bertie Browning set the first high-speed run of 31 days 22 hours back in 1939 in a Wolsely 18/85.