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  • Guest article: Diplomatic status in Africa.
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    Guest article: Diplomatic status in Africa.

    The Deputy German Ambassador for Somalia drives his 35-year-old 200 (W 123) through Kenya.

    Text and Photos: Jens Tanz

The call of the wilderness.

“I took a drive in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The views were immense and wide.” If you don’t listen too closely, the first words of Karen Blixen’s best-seller can be adapted to this old car. In exactly the spot where her tragic love story with Denys Finch Hatton really took place. The day is going to be hot again. You can feel that already and it’s not even 8.00 am. Brenda, the maid, is baking sweet-smelling pancakes in the kitchen for the children, while the gardener is raking together the dry leaves. During their period of service abroad, German diplomats live in an official residence which includes their own staff, that’s just the way it is. Christian Resch is such a diplomat. He is the Deputy German Ambassador for Somalia. But since there is no embassy in Somalia, the smart man takes care of business from neighbouring Kenya.


Hakuna Matata.

Through the back door to the carport, past a brand-new gleaming white Nissan Patrol. It’s what his wife will use in a minute to take the kids to the day-care centre. Behind it, there is another car which used to be gleaming white, maybe, but now it’s just, shall we say, white. The 200 built in 1981 has taken some knocks over the decades. The countless previous owners always kept it running – but didn’t take care of it. The old boy from the glory days of the upper middle-range saloon class needs some coolant. Our destination for today: Lake Naivasha, a trip of 100 kilometres. The leisure and safari gear is next to the food box in the enormous boot which is a little porous underneath. But it’s holding up. “Hakuna Matata” is what the fun-loving Kenyans say, meaning something like “No worries” which, strictly speaking, indicates that there is a situation in which you could worry. But not today.


The living room of the 1970s.

With a clack, Resch opens the massive door with the conical-pin door lock and sits down in the world of blue plush and clear lacquered natural wood. It’s still possible to feel the dream of every wealthy middle-class driver in the late 1970s; an old Mercedes-Benz keeps its stoic superiority for a lifetime. What’s that? Where is the steering wheel? Ah. Kenya is a former British colony, so they drive and sit on the right as they do in the kingdom. The man from Berlin had the blue dashboard carpeting made in Nairobi but not to protect the dashboard from the sun rays. Rather to cover up what the rays of sun have done to the dashboard in the last 35 years. He pumps the accelerator a few times, turns the key – and the powerful M 102 engine awakens harshly. A familiar, mechanical sound. A hearty pull to release the parking brake. Press down the clutch, shift into gear and off we go.


Robust, good value and something special.

The Stromberg carburettor has just been adjusted by the resident mechanic and now it uses a mere 17 litres per 100 km. In the city. Which is not surprising because here, every 100 metres, high bumps have been set in the tarmac in order to keep down the speed of the commuters. Hakuna Matata. If you drive over these bumps at more than 20 km/h, you will lose both axles. Nairobi’s drivers approach at full speed, brake abruptly and then speed up again until the next bump. Premium-grade petrol is quite cheap in Africa. The African private vehicle of the diplomat was supposed to be robust, cheap, inexpensive and well used. The Mercedes-Benz meets all three criteria perfectly. Resch bought it three years ago from an Indian and what happened to it before that is apparent only in the paintwork. The tachometer broke at around 114,000. During a construction period of ten years, the W 123 model was manufactured over 2.7 million times as a saloon car, a coupé and an estate and in the first year of production after 1975, at the same time as the “Stroke 8”.


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Free passage with the CD.

We continue on our journey to Naivasha. Past villas and slums, colourfully dressed people waiting for a bus, Massai with long walking sticks, and toothless corncob sellers. Protected by the letters CD (for “Corps Diplomatique”), travelling in Kenya is pleasant. If you are travelling without this immunity, the police, lurking everywhere, may well stop you, find something wrong with the car and then open their hand. That can be expensive.


But even without corrupt cops, the overland journey is still pretty risky in between ancient trucks, handcarts and moped drivers who seem to have a death wish. We occasionally dodge the odd giraffe majestically gliding along the bumpy road. The Daimler purrs while exuding such reliability that Resch has to nod his head in recognition. Without my persuasion, he would never have set off on the long journey to Naivasha. But why not?


Out of Africa.

We glide down into the valley of the East African Rift just like Denys and Karen did in Finch Hatton’s plane in the last third of the film. Thanks to the large windows in the Mercedes-Benz, the views are immensely wide. As far as the Ngong mountains. The soundtrack of “Out of Africa” reaches our ears from the iPod. We reach the lodge without breaking down once, of course. I sit on a stone on the bank of the lake and listen to the clicking noise of the old car’s engine cooling off. Life is somewhat simpler here close to the Equator. Behind us, the hippopotamuses snort, over us, the sea eagles circle. An example of German engineering in the midst of nature on the other side of the world. Maybe time passed over this old car unseen. Maybe a W 123 is the first positive step on the way to slowing down in an ever-faster paced Western world? No worries. “I took a drive in Africa.”