Airstream founder Wally Byam had such a connection with his customers that he often organized and led them on guided tours across the US, Canada, and Europe. These trips—referred to as caravans–became so popular that Airstream owners would often sign up in large numbers to join Byam on his latest road trip adventure, which usually involved visiting national parks, cultural centers, and remote communities.
In 1959, Byam organized what is likely his most ambitious and famous caravan—a 14,000-mile journey across the length of Africa. The expedition started in Cape Town, South Africa, on July 15 of that year with the goal of reaching Cairo, Egypt, in three months’ time. It would end up taking a total of seven months to cover that distance, traversing 11 countries and facing untold obstacles while en route.
The video above is a documentary that was filmed during the 1959 African caravan. Not only does it serve as a record of that journey, it is a time capsule of a bygone era. It shows a group of adventurous American travelers making their way across a continent that was on the verge of dramatic change. At the time, much of Africa was shaking off the last vestiges of European colonialism and beginning a decades-long struggle with its own independence. It was a transitionary period that would make similar excursions very challenging in the years that would follow.
The 48-minute documentary is reminiscent of similar films released by the National Geographic Society during the 1950s and 60s. And while it is fascinating to watch, it is certainly a product of its time, with a few misconceptions and stereotypes that were typical of the age. But it also shows a group of hardy, self-reliant travelers who faced many challenges on their journey. Those included encounters with wild animals, sweltering conditions, a lack of water, and completely nonexistent roads. All while towing their Airstream travel trailers behind them through lands that had surely not seen an RV before the arrival of these intrepid Americans.
Today, the journey from Cape Town to Cairo remains a daunting one, passing through many landscapes that are still wild and untamed. But in 1959, it was a road trip unlike any other. For the 106 individuals who took part in the caravan, it was undoubtedly an experience to remember. When it was over, some would continue on to explore the Middle East and Europe, while others returned home with tales of exotic far-off lands and the amazing people that inhabited them. It must have been a wonderful time for such an adventure.
Wally Byam continued to organize other caravans until his death in 1962. But the 1959 journey across Africa remains the most storied of all of his travels. Watch the exciting documentary above to understand why and gain a deeper appreciation of what traveling in an Airstream was like during that era.