Dargle to Dargle – lessons on the road

“Fantastic project mister” is an apt description for Jethro Bronner who undertook a 4-year project (2013-2017) to restore and then drive a 1964 Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint G and photograph a 26 000km journey over 23 countries from Dargle Howick to Dargle Ireland. (www.dargletodargle.com)

Interview by Jane Weston

1. You spent 19 months meticulously preparing the car – where did you learn all those skills – at 22, that’s pretty advanced stuff?

I threw myself in the deep end with that – when I bought it, it was in pieces so I had no choice but to put it back together and I decided to learn as I went along. These days with the internet there are a lot of people online who post their work and show what they are doing with their cars – so that is very helpful – so it was mostly going online and chatting to people.

I was really stubborn about doing it in the most authentic way so I tried really hard to save the original engine – but it had had a hard life and really bad corrosion damage. I tried everything to get that engine to work – I built it up completely but the first time I ran oil through it the corrosion damage somewhere between the water jacket and the oil passage showed that to fix that would be completely uneconomic. So I got an engine exactly the same as the original and transferred all the internals into it – the car that went through Africa was pretty much factory standard 1964 Alfa Romeo.

The Pyramids are at Karima, Sudan, on the banks of the Nile. All pictures Supplied/Jethro Bronner

2. Are you still an Alfisti in your approach to restoring?

I have since changed my tune on that – I’m not really that interested in preserving cars as museum pieces anymore. I’m much more interested in driving them and keeping them on the road. I do things that are true to the spirit of the car but now I’m not against modification anymore.

A friend of mine was killed last year in his Alfa Romeo. He rolled it in a tunnel – he hit a patch of ice – the car bounced off a wall and flipped and he was killed. I thought, you know what, if better suspension, better brakes, wider tyres, roll bars make the car more driveable, and, in the event of an accident you walk away – then that’s the way to go.

3. Another of your blog followers said “your story has inspired me to ignore good sense and follow my heart ….. at almost any cost”. I wondered if you subscribe to that? I’m reminded of the Chris McCandless story in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild who walked into the Alaskan wilds and did not survive. I wonder if you were as detailed in planning the trip or how much was ‘just doing it’?

Yes I read that book a bunch of times. Not really. I did kind of throw myself in at the deep end – I thought I could get through most situations. You have to think quickly on your feet. I think a lot of people are scared about travelling in Africa because it does seem so scary, but actually if you go with a good attitude and are willing to talk to people, shake hands with everyone, it’s okay. Suddenly it’s very easy again.

4. You seemed to smoothly navigate most situations you encountered, even constant demands for “money for friendly”?

That sort of thing gets really frustrating – one wants to enjoy the area but people are constantly trying to bug you for money. Here I was in touristy areas but as a lone traveller doing a long trip it is kind of weird. It feels very strange because it is hard to get into a tourist frame of mind.

The biggest shock I had was in Egypt – Sinai is pretty much abandoned, everything is really difficult. Then you get to Sharm el Sheikh, go through the city gates into a modern town and suddenly there are tourists everywhere. You’ve just spent three days driving through what is essentially a completely desolate area and you sit there at this table having breakfast in a modern hotel – kids running around screaming, tourists everywhere. You feel almost jaded. I just had to get out of there and get back on the open road.

5. How many people did you meet who really actually understood what you were undertaking – not just driving on your own but driving in that kind of car. Did you find being solo difficult?

Not really – I purposefully set out to challenge myself – the whole idea of being completely on my own, camping, driving out to the desert and finding a quiet spot and setting up camp. That kind of solitude was fascinating to me. You do learn a lot about yourself. What you think you enjoy or know or understand about yourself really gets challenged. But sitting on top of an ancient pyramid with the late afternoon sun starting to go down, in that moment I really wished I had a buddy to share it with – so that was a revelation. I thought I was a loner and that was when I realised I’m more of a people person than I thought.

With an Egyptian soldier, in Abu Simbel.

6. I would imagine the person who left Dargle might not be the same one who returned to Dargle – did the trip change your ideas of what challenges you face as a human being and what you think you know about life? Did you go with many preconceptions or did you go with an open mind?

I did go with an open mind but I was a bit too judgemental while I was travelling – something I’ve been working on recently. I don’t worry about things I have no control over. I focus on what I can do to make any situation as pleasant as possible.

Can I sort this out?

Recently I did a trip to Cape Town in my Giulia sedan and it was really difficult – the car wouldn’t run right, the starter motor stopped working. I remember arriving in Bloemfontein as it was getting dark and I had to get to Port Elizabeth. I jump started the car to get it running and drove 7 hours through the night to PE and got there at 3am, slept for 4 hours, fixed the starter and drove all the way to Cape Town the next day.

I could have, in that moment, got absolutely desperate and frustrated. What have I got myself into? I’m in the middle of nowhere, the car is not working! Instead, OK, what can I do to sort this out? I had to keep the car running but I had a really great trip. Then on the way back the starter motor stopped working completely on day 1 of a 5-day drive. I had to find a slight hill to park it wherever I was. Five days up the Wild Coast jump starting the car every day – but I was cool with it.

7. Your blog ends in 2017 in Italy. Why did you not carry it on to your arrival in Ireland?

It’s mostly because I want to rewrite the blog in a more introspective way – in a way that is more truthful than it is now – it is very matter of fact as it stands.

8. By the time you reached Ireland and shipped the car back, what did you need to do to Sebastian?

The car I drove is actually named Julia – I’ve got 3 Giulias. It was a bit of a joke actually – the one is called Giulia because that is the series of car. I jokingly called the other one Sebastian because in one of my favourite novels “Julia and Sebastian” – Julia is very well sorted while Sebastian is an alcoholic, charming but completely dysfunctional. That’s kind of how the cars were – Giulia was the reliable one you could drive across the world. Sebastian was the one you couldn’t get down the road without breaking down.

It did need quite a lot of attention. It’s stripped back down on the bench now – it’s in pieces. I want to rebuild it so that it’s a lot more driveable. It had a lot of body filler in it. The more I uncovered the surface the more I could see serious damage that had to be repaired. I didn’t do any bodywork on it for the trip and there was a lot of bad repair under the shiny paint job.

9. What about the road clearance on the car?

It wasn’t really an issue unless I did silly things. One day in Sudan I was navigating around a mountain and the road was so rocky it kept beaching on the exhaust – I should not have been on that road – it wasn’t really necessary. That beat it up a bit.

A young security guard at a hotel in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.

10. What about petrol supplies – you talk about trying to find petrol stations?

I had a long range tank high up in the boot – in a space you can’t really use – you could put stuff under it. Technically you could do the trip without a long range tank if all stations had fuel. That’s the thing – the distance between petrol stations is not that far, but a fair number won’t have fuel of any kind because that week’s delivery did not arrive. That’s where you can get into trouble.

11. Did you ever end up staying in a place far longer than you planned because you couldn’t find fuel?

The only place I ended up staying longer than planned was for paperwork at the border.

12. You commented that Alfistis know how to make a plan – If plan A had hit snags was there a plan B – an evacuation plan?

I didn’t have a plan if things went totally wrong – I imagine I would have left the car where it was, taken whatever I could carry and headed for an airport.

13. Apart from the stone throwing incident in Ethiopia did you encounter many other difficult situations?

Not really… Egypt was a bit tricky. Some countries surprised me. Kenya was so amazing, if anybody ever came up to me in the street they just wanted to know what I thought of Kenya and if I was having a good time – they were very proud and hospitable. In Tanzania it got a bit much – pull over and instantly someone was on you trying to get money – it became difficult to enjoy the moment.

14. What did you overestimate /underestimate needing – for yourself or the car?

I had too much luggage – I could have gotten on much better with a pair of jeans, shorts, sneakers instead of bags full of stuff. You don’t really need all that – out on the road nobody cares how you dress.

15. Any “a ha” moments where you completely overturned any preconceptions you may have had – what you thought it would be like?

You hear how terrifying countries like Sudan are, but when you are there I can’t describe a place where the people were more friendly – completely different to the international perception of a war-ravaged country. You see little villages – simple, very simple structures out in the desert but all clean and organised. It’s like they live very traditional lives – from a western perspective they are very poor but they have been living this kind of farming agricultural lifestyle on the banks of the Nile for thousands of years. It is poor but actually I got the sense that it is minimal but not destitute.

I really want to change how Africa is portrayed. All you get is the Cape Town lifestyle, wine tasting in Franschhoek, Clifton beach life, Camps Bay then the Big 5 game parks and then starvation, conflict and poverty and that’s about it. I find that really annoying – the whole continent is really quite diverse – and there are some incredibly creative and forward looking people on this continent. If you took a pic in the middle of Uhuru Park in Nairobi, no one would guess it was in Kenya with the skyscrapers and modernity.

In Metema, Sudan, a border town between Sudan and Ethiopia.

16. Would you go up the west coast of Africa for the next trip?

I could go to Uganda and Rwanda but it means missing out on Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam – and Kilimanjaro. It was a toss-up. I would still go through Dar es Salaam – that is a fascinating place.

17. Ian Grossert’s wonderful blog post in 2015 said, “I love the beauty of your direction, of your sense of place and self in the World.” You do seem to have a great sense of place and history – do you think of things that way?

It was a while ago that I did the trip. I was a terrible student in school and dropped out of varsity after a year. I could not relate happily to the whole traditional view that you are not a valuable human being if you do not succeed in this narrow channel of school, then university, then get a 9-5 job. It’s all made up. If you don’t fit the criteria of a successful person you get overlooked or stamped on or told you will be a complete failure in life.

Not my path

People feel threatened if you choose not to follow their way of doing things and say “How dare you tell me that this way of life is not the only way”. But it wasn’t my path. That whole structure works for some but not for everyone.

I realised you don’t actually have to follow that route – you can go out on your own and take on really difficult things and people will see that okay, this guy is serious. I sat down and I thought about what I really, really wanted to do with my life and I realised I might not achieve it staying in a very traditional environment. So I dropped out of varsity to build the car.

When I told people I was going to drive across Africa many said, “Yes, sure, whatever”. They didn’t think I was serious. Now they don’t know how I did it. It seemed too difficult to do. I’ve made so many incredible contacts on that trip and I’m starting a company, getting funding for a new trip and driving the whole project.

I remember turning up at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese and the guy who runs it and is famous amongst Alfistis, Marco Fazio, could not believe I had come all the way across Africa in the car parked in the Museum’s courtyard.

Classic Alfa was a sponsor for parts for the car. They are based in Croyden, South London.

18. If you could restore any car now or do any other kind of challenge now – what would it be?

I’m actually in the process of planning another adventure. It is still very much in the early planning stages so it may change and the cars need a lot of work to get them ready. There has been a lot of fascination about this trip from a broad range of people – not just car people.

This time I want to share the experience, so I’m looking at a Cape Town to Italy trip in vintage cars but with a team of creative people from different walks of life. We would film it as an authentic real time travel show – there would be no film crew, no camera or back up cars.

It’s been quite a tricky thing to put together – it will be very much an “indie” thing as we will be doing it ourselves and without big budgets for hotels and equipment. Many top directors want to be working on a film set not on the road in vintage cars and camping for four months. There won’t be any luxury hotels and air conditioned Range Rovers. You can’t produce anything interesting like that.

I’m busy putting together the funding for it – there has been such a great response to it and some have offered to do it for free because they are so excited about the idea.

19. You have to presumably think about what is going to sell – how will you market it?

I’ve noticed with motoring shows the stuff that people think will sell is sometimes not very interesting. In the car world there are a lot of review shows, some restoration stuff. I think the market wants real, authentic stuff. If you look at what is succeeding on social media – there companies are throwing millions of dollars at glamorous high end content which is falling flat. Then you look at Casey Neistat. He has a phone cam, an internet connection, is completely honest and fearless so people can relate to him and a no limits philosophy, “DO WHAT YOU CAN’T”. And he has 10 million YouTube subscribers!

Gatekeepers are gone

We are coming up with our own ideas, raising sponsorships and funding, producing it and selling it ourselves. We are not going to ask anyone for permission ever, so we can maintain creative control.

The world is really opening up – a lot of the gatekeepers are gone. If you want to create something fascinating like this project – I think it has a lot of scope – I think people will want to watch. The way I’m doing it I’m not going to a production company or studio to ask for permission to produce it – I’m going to find the money myself and bootstrap it and make it happen. If there was a major company who wanted to get involved later on to buy it then great. I hope they will realise, wow, these guys really believe in what they are doing – there is credibility in doing it this way.

20. Best advice you have ever received?

You have to figure out what you want to do. That sounds really simple but it’s not – if you ask anyone “If you could have anything what would you want?” – they might say a holiday. That’s not a plan for life, that’s a plan for a holiday – what do you do after your third margarita on the beach because now you are just sunburnt and hungover… that’s not going to get you where you want to be.

You have to define what you want. If you are smart and work out what you want, you can pick the limitations for yourself. The thing is, some want to leave all the doors open forever – guess what, life is going to shut them for you. You can pick your limitations or life will do it for you. I asked myself what do I want to do?

I want to start a media company producing really incredible TV shows about driving through Africa and roll it out later into book publishing, films or whatever. But number one for the first few years is producing the TV show about driving through Africa. I know where I want to be in the end.

Meander Chronicle motoring

But it also means that I can’t start a punk band and tour around the world like I really wanted to do since school. I can’t be a rally driver, I can’t run a classic car workshop. All these doors that I’ve had to shut to say, ‘this is the path I want to follow”.

The real core for me is never to have to ask anyone’s permission to do what I want.

I wouldn’t trade any tough experiences I’ve had for anything – if I had had a perfectly happy, well-adjusted childhood I might not have had the propulsion to pursue what I want. There have been authority figures who terrified me as a child – they seemed all powerful then. But in the real world, I realise they never were. You never know where the butterfly effect starts in one’s life – and becomes a tornado.

21. What do you consider to be success?

Pick out what you want. Decide your route to success and what you consider success – there will always someone with a nicer house and car so that is not success to me. Bertrand Russell said the happiest person he knew was “the groundskeeper at his family’s estate who was at war with the rabbits”. He had this purpose which was to keep the rabbits out of the garden and he achieved that every day. That was his idea of success. He chose what was success for himself and was happy and fulfilled in it. Chasing status symbols does not mean success. If you buy a brand new Ferrari there will be a new one in three years.

The trusty Giulia takes a breather on icy roads.

22. What quote do you live by?

There are two – the one is from Mahatma Gandhi. He said “Actions express priorities” – people say what they believe but there is no better way to figure out what they really believe than by what they do – that’s the ultimate.

If I had a billboard it would be, “Our days are our lives in miniature” – as we live our days so we live our lives – 100 % true. If you go through life thinking, do I want to hit snooze to sleep for an extra 10 mins or get up and go for a run? Am I going to be distracted by my Instagram or am I going to focus and get work done? If you multiply that by 10 000 then those days really are your life.

I once decided to calculate how much extra time I would have if I slept 2 hours less every day – turned out to be an extra month and a half in a year. Can you imagine having an extra month and a half in a year? If you go through your days saying, “oh whatever”, then suddenly your years become like that and then your life.

23. If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be?

I’ve thought about this a lot – there are many I can think of – perhaps someone like Terry Crews, an actor and NFL player. He’s not even super famous but has the most wonderful attitude. He does a lot of comedy stuff – he is most well-known for his Old Spice commercials and the TV series “Everyone Hates Chris”. He was also Time Person of the Year 2017.

He has had an incredible life story – he has this infectious attitude – that would be quite a lot of fun.

24. If you could change anything in the world, what would it be?

I’d work on myself more – you can’t go out and set out to change the world until you have got yourself right. Every year on June 27 I sit down and work out what do I want to improve or focus on – this year it is positivity, relentless positivity and moving forward.

I tend to wallow in stuff sometimes. If I think about the tough times on the trip, they were not pleasant at the time but now I can laugh about it. Just because things are tough you don’t have to be upset about it – you have to power through it and move on. I’ve got an exciting project, I’m young, there are some great people involved.

25. If you could buy any car what would it be?

That car is the centrepiece at the Alfa museum in Arese. I’ve changed my mind about the 8C 2900 B Lungo, although it is a beautiful car. Now it would be the 33 Stradalis Prototype and neither will ever be for sale – you can’t even put a price on them. The most valuable car ever sold recently was $70 million – a Ferrari 250 GTO. But there is no comparison.

Thirty-six Ferrari 250 GTOs in the world compared to two of these 33s. And then I would drive the hell out of it – it would not be sitting pretty in a garage – I’d be doing burnouts down the streets of Milan to cheering crowds.

A tale of two bakkies

If I could only have one car it would be the Sprint I did the trip in. I would have that car forever – it would never be sold. I worked in Cape Town and drove pretty much everything from R7 million Lamborghinis to 4x4s so I’ve been down that route. I get back in that car and it just feels right – it is my car. But what is interesting – out of all the cars I’ve ever driven, Aston Martins, Ferraris, old beaters – the car that draws the most amount of attention from women, is my little red Giulia that’s outside – that’s the one.

One of my best friends says it’s because it’s this cute, characterful little car – because the guy driving it is probably interesting and not just a douchebag who only cares about how he looks. That’s what it is.

26. How do we pay it forward in our lives – how to we give back to make our little place in the sun a better one?

The biggest thing for me is really the positivity thing. Some people I know when they walk into a room, people turn and are excited to see them – they bring great energy. I’ve never met Terry Crews but he seems to leave this energy everywhere and it makes everything better. Everyone can do that – it involves vulnerability and honesty – and responsibility – to make the world better you have got to start with yourself. If you get your act together – if you sit on your bed and ask yourself honestly what stupid thing am I doing to wreck my life – it will come to you. Everybody knows what they are doing – if you do that and start sorting yourself out and exude positivity, confidence and responsibility it is infectious.

It’s not about everything is wonderful all the time. You could say things are tough, I’m under a lot of pressure and stress but I’m not going to lie on my bed and wallow in misery.

27. What can’t you do without?

Music. I had my current playlist on shuffle in my workshop and my friend was amazed how it bounced from classical to heavy metal, from pop to baroque pop, indie pop to pop punk, alternative to hard rock, hip hop to gospel, electro house to techno.

28. When you look back at your life in 50 years, what do you want it to look like?

I could get to be 35 and get a bad health diagnosis but I don’t want to be 35 or 55, get a terrible diagnosis and say I’ve not done anything I wanted to do. I could deal with that tap on the shoulder saying the party is over as long as I have enjoyed myself and done meaningful things.

– Jane Weston interviewed Jethro Bronner at Ground Coffee in Hilton