Julia Albu lives in the shadow of Table Mountain in South Africa’s beautiful Western Cape, and one morning, a discussion on the radio turned her life upside down.
She was listening to a discussion about then-President of South Africa Jacob Zuma and his taste in motor cars, which leaned toward the extravagant. This feisty grandma then telephoned the radio station to say that she owned a 20-year-old Toyota that she named Tracey and it ran so well that she would drive it all the way to London. So why did Zuma need all these new cars?
The response that she received from other listeners was fantastic, so she declared on air that she would drive Tracey from majestic Table Mountain to have tea with Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace in London! This declaration made in haste and as a joke began to gather momentum, and before she knew it, she had sponsors lined up and was heading north from her cottage on the way to London!
Inoculated against practically every virus known to man — except for STDs, as the doctor didn’t believe that was necessary — our heroine was comfortably ensconced in the freshly upholstered pink floral seats of Tracey.
Following a group of Harley-Davidson motorcycles that escorted her from Johannesburg, the road led her to her first foreign country, Botswana. Here, she was introduced to all that travel could be, especially in a continent as underdeveloped as Africa.
Elephants and other animals wander freely over the roads in Botswana, and she and Tracey tangled with one early in her trip. Evading the elephant and the ever-present potholes, she soon found that the people she met along the road were beautiful and warm. They gave her the respect that her age demanded and called her ‘Gogo,’ which is a respectful name meaning grandmother.
In the first few weeks of her trip, she camped at the side of the road, but sleeping on the ground soon took a toll on her. Naturally, her family was concerned and her daughter traveled with her through Zimbabwe, while her son accompanied her through Malawi.
Through all this, her indomitable spirit shone through and her deep love for the continent she called home was evident. She spoke eloquently of the beauty she had seen — Lake Malawi with all its charm and the power of Victoria Falls — but she also spoke about the beauty of the people she had come across, the warmth and friendship they had shown her.
She mentioned a man in Malawi who sold wicker furniture from under a tree at the side of the road and the schoolgirls in Zambia who read to her. With all the love that she was shown along the way, she did not have time to feel lonely. She and her venerable tin friend Tracey were off on the adventure of a lifetime!
She also found that her age was both a blessing in disguise and a hindrance. Many African border posts can be hellish to negotiate with, but this little grey-haired lady sailed through them like they did not exist. The natural respect that African people have for the elderly (a lesson many Western cultures can learn) proved useful, and she astounded the border officials when they learned where she was going.
One official in Uganda asked why she was traveling to London, and when she told him that she was going to have tea with the Queen, his eyes nearly popped out of his head.
Her body, though, let her down and caused her endless frustration when she could not explore all the things that she wanted to. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak and she couldn’t climb the mountains or swim in the rivers and lakes.
While she may not have been able to undertake all the physical things that she wished to, she took the time to meet and chat with all manner of people and her diary was stuffed with names, addresses and business cards of all the beautiful people she met along the way.
A perfect example is an elderly man named William whom she met in a tiny rural village in Tanzania. They spent many hours together chatting before she went on her way. Months later, when she was back in South Africa, a letter arrived from William saying how much she had inspired him with her “radiance and full-of-life personality.”
She finally arrived in Egypt, where her quip about going to have tea with the Queen bought her no fast exit. She had to spend several nights sleeping in a café while waiting for Arabic number plates to arrive for Tracey.
She continued through Egypt and arrived in Cairo, where she went to the banks of the Nile to collect a little bottle of water. This bottle could proudly stand next to bottles of water from the source of the White Nile gathered in Tanzania and water from the Blue Nile collected in Ethiopia.
While Tracey was packed into a container for her trip across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, Julia flew back home for a couple of months of rest and recuperation. In no time, she was back in Greece with her beloved Tracey and made her way across Europe to England.
Unfortunately, she arrived in Ascot Week and could not arrange tea with the Queen. Amazingly, she then turned around and started her return trip, driving back down Africa to her home.
Julia Albu’s story shows that elderly people do not all need to be wrapped in cotton wool. She has shown that the barriers imposed on women can be broken down and the restrictions imposed on the elderly can be thoroughly smashed. This inspirational story should be one that we all take to heart — we can all achieve what we want and it is never too late to undertake that one big adventure we all aspire to.