The first crossing of Africa by motor vehicle was completed in 1909 by the Imperial German Army Lieutenant Paul Graetz (1875-1968). At the time he was on an extended furlough as a military engineer stationed in German East Africa (today’s Tanzania).
The motor vehicle used for the expedition was custom designed according to Graetz’s instructions by then Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau GmbH, a company that became Benz-Werke Gaggenau (now Daimler AG - i.e., Mercedes Benz).
The car cost the then considerable sum of 13,000 gold marks. At a time when “Horseless Carriages” were widely dismissed as mere rich man’s toys, many thought Graetz was mad to attempt his expedition. One German newspaper observed that he might as well drive to the moon. Such scepticism made it hard for him to raise the additional funds he needed to realise his quest.
Although Graetz had built his vehicle in 1904, it was another three years before it finally arrived in Dar es Salaam. Graetz had to spend 75,000 gold marks mostly from his own pocket to get started. In the end, the trip itself cost nearly twice the amount.
Graetz used the money to commission companies, missions, and farmers to bury gasoline barrels, oil cans, tyres, tubes, and other replacement parts at 24 locations along his projected route. He had each of his depots along the route marked with simple crosses with his name on them.
He thus had a total of 6,000 litres of gasoline/petrol, over 200 litres of oil, 25 rubber tires, and 33 tubes deposited – and he did find most of his supplies on the journey, something that bordered on a miracle given the duration of the crossing.
Graetz’s description of his departure from Dar: “The sun was already low in the slightly overcast sky when the telegrams reporting on the start had been sent off to Europe from the post office of Dar es Salaam and the vehicle set off, accompanied by the cheers of a large crowd, down the acacia-lined avenue in the direction of Pugu, our first day's destination 20 kilometres away.”
During the following months, he and his team averaged only about 15 kilometres a day. The car often had to be pushed, towed, or even disassembled to overcome obstacles.
In 1908, Graetz had the distinction of becoming the first person to drive a motor vehicle across the Victoria Falls Rail Bridge. But, by the time he reached the Bechuanaland Protectorate towards the end of the year, he had run out of money, forcing him to suspend his expedition to raise additional finance in Johannesburg.
He accomplished this through a series of Christmas season public talks. The highlight of his lectures were groundbreaking colour images of his expedition up until then.
In this respect, Graetz is also distinguished for his experimentation with early colour photography, which used the then new Lumière Autochrome process.
With the additional funds he had raised, Graetz was able to restart his expedition from Palapye on January 10, 1909. At Palapye he was joined by an Australian named Henry Gould. This was after his previous four German co-drivers had all dropped out. The third member of the crew was also a local African (otherwise described as a “Capeboy”) named “Wilhelm”.
The new team crossed northern Botswana along a route that took them through Serowe (where he was greeted by Kgosi Khama III), Khumaga, Rakops, and Ghanzi.
Having set off from Palapye with 800 litres of petrol and 100 litres of oil on board, the team found that the additional fuel at their designated Ghanzi region depot had not been sealed properly causing it to have evaporated. This resulted in the car being pulled by oxen into the then Ghanzi police post after the team had been rescued by a local farmer.
Although the trip began with torrential rains, by the time the trio had reached the Ghanzi farms they had come close to perishing of thirst; Gould being in a delusional state after having nearly killed himself sipping petrol. From Ghanzi Graetz and company reached the border in the vicinity of Charles Hill on March 13, 1909. Thereafter, they had a relatively easy journey to Swakopmund via Windhoek.
Upon completing his auto journey, Graetz received messages of congratulations from both his monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II and the British monarch King Edward VII. The Kaiser subsequently, on June 21, 1909, greeted him in person at Hamburg, where he and his car had returned to Germany.
After retiring from the army, in 1911-12, Graetz became the first person known to have crossed Africa by motorboat, traveling from the mouth of the Zambezi to the mouth of the Congo, a feat which he filmed.
During World War, I Graetz re-enlisted in the military serving as a fighter pilot on the western front. After the war, he was involved in building up the company that was to become the German national airline, today’s Lufthansa.