There are few people who touch our lives only briefly but still leave a lasting impression. Far-sighted entrepreneur and avid adventurer, Adolf Waidelich, who died tragically by suicide in November 2017, was one of those people. His passing left a legacy which can be measured by the impact he made on the lives of others.
He was very practical engineer who, with his comprehensive range of innovative equipment and accessories designed and made for off -road travellers, contributed materially to making dreams of travelling to far-flung parts of Africa a reality for thousands of people. But Adolf was also a dreamer, with a deep love for Africa and its vibrant history.
Adolf’s rise to prominence came as the groundswell of interest in overlanding and serious 4×4 adventures started to take hold in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. The main reason for this sudden spike in interest was the fact that most bakkies that were available locally now featured fourwheel drive models, some with double-cab bodies. Before then, 4×4 driving had been largely limited to a fairly hard-core group who drove Land Rovers, Jeeps, and a few imported Toyota Land Cruisers.
4×4 models were now within the reach of many family budgets, and off -road driving training courses were off ered countrywide. In addition, several tour operators began off ering guided self-drive off -road adventures inside the borders of South Africa, as well as trips into other African countries for those with real wanderlust.
In the early days, many of the 4×4 vehicles available were basic, and (in terms of accessories) there were only few products available. There was little in the way of special equipment for the overlander in accommodation and catering equipment, so most people had to make do with normal camping gear. A demand for customised off – road equipment resulted in the establishment of many specialist companies catering for this market. Several flourished, but many foundered in the face of growing competition.
This is the environment in which Adolf Waidelich, an accomplished engineer with wide-ranging experience of overlanding in Africa, shone as a pioneer and trendsetter – he designed and manufactured a growing range of innovative equipment and accessories to make 4×4 adventures more comfortable and enjoyable.
The man, his history
Born in 1948 in BadLiebenzelle, a town in West Germany, Adolf obtained a master mechanics diploma before deciding, at the age of 20, to head for South Africa − even though he did not speak English.
He got a job working at a Volkswagen repair shop in Johannesburg, but was immediately attracted to the bush, and in 1970 set out in a Series II Land Rover on a four-week trip which only served to heighten his interest in 4×4-travel through African terrain. He was never the same again; from that time, he only ever owned one two-wheel drive vehicle.
The next step was establishing Qabuka Safaris in 1971; it was one of the first tented safari camps in Botswana, and (aided by sponsorship from the United States) proved very popular with American visitors until the Bush War made this a dangerous region.
This is also the venture in which he met his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Heriza, a theatre sister from Oregon in the US, who specialised in working with heart surgeons. This involvement resulted in one of her colleagues telling her that he could arrange for her to work with Professor Chris Barnard and his heart team at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. Liz jumped at the offer, and was soon working long hours alongside the famous professor. When the time came for Liz to enjoy a spell of leave, in 1975, she wanted to go “on safari” and was urged to go to the Okavango rather than just to be a tourist in the Kruger Park. Her next step was to join a nine-day Qabuka safari, and there she met Adolf. Th is proved to be the start of a fairy-tale romance; they were married in 1977, close to the statue of Livingstone at the Victoria Falls. “He was our best man,” quips Liz.
The marriage officer was in full bush-war uniform, and guards were stationed in the surrounding bush to see that the ceremony went off uninterrupted! Their “honeymoon” included driving back to South Africa in a convoy protected by soldiers.
The region was no longer safe for safaris, so the newly-weds reluctantly moved to Johannesburg. Here Adolf joined forces with another German automotive technician, Walter Biermann, to set up B&W Motors in Bryanston, specialising in 4×4 vehicles.
An early job-seeker who walked through the door looking for any kind of work was a 17-year-old man from Zimbabwe, Th embalane Ndlovu, who was destined to become Adolf’s most loyal employee. He learned a host of skills from Adolf, whom he said was like a father to him.
An important breakthrough came when B&W Motors was asked to convert a couple of Volkswagen Kombis into a form of game-viewer for use at the opening of the initial Sun City complex in 1979. This venture provided valuable publicity, and the next project involved adapting 4×4 vehicles for use by a couple of well-known wildlife photographers.
It was during this period that Adolf and Liz enlarged their family circle with the arrival of two children, Rosemarie and Steven.
B&W Motors, which later morphed into Safari Centre, was soon acknowledged as a fi rst-class builder of customised 4×4 vehicles and off -roading accessories. In 1989, the business made a brief foray into uncharted waters when it was granted a franchise to sell the Russian Lada Niva 4×4 SUV in South Africa.
As mentioned earlier, Adolf teamed up with Francois Rossouw, a seasoned 4×4 Challenge driver, to use this form of competition to promote the merits, including sand toughness, of the nimble, sure-footed Lada. Rossouw went on to win three successive Transvaal titles and the Lada won 20 out of 24 events with two second places.
However, this episode in Adolf’s life did not last long, and ended with an acrimonious court battle with another party who claimed to represent Lada in SA.
Adolf’s next venture was establishing Frontrunner Engineering in Midrand, making 4×4 accessories and overlanding camping gear. It was in the year 2000 that he went to Australia, and obtained the rights to make the sturdy roller drawer system that became so popular in South Africa under the African Outback label.
This saw Adolf’s company, African Outback Products, enter a period of rapid growth, which necessitated a move from premises in Meadowdale to a large factory in Isando, where he eventually employed as many as 75 people. His aluminium canopies and roof racks became legendary. Th e company also started exporting products to Germany.
4×4 Megaworld, which was the major distributor of African Outback products through its countrywide network of stores, took a 50% share in African Outback − and, in return, Adolf had a 10% share in 4×4 Megaworld, and was a director.
Unfortunately, there was a disagreement between the business partners, and African Outback lost its major distribution network.
This put Adolf’s business under immense financial pressure, and he merged African Outback with Richard Ransome’s Big Country 4×4 in 2012. This turned out to be an ill-fated venture which ended with the combined company being liquidated in late 2013. Adolf then went to Namibia, where he set up Livingstone Camp, and began living his dream in Livingstone’s ‘Garden of Eden’.
Then, in 2016, Adolf’s son Steven was involved in a horrific head-on accident which he was lucky to survive; he spent 40 days in the Union Hospital in Alberton, followed by lengthy rehabilitation. This put immense strain on Adolf, particularly as at this stressful time Steven’s wife Leigh was expecting Adolf’s first grandchild, Carl Thomas. The good news is that Steven has made a miraculous recovery, and Carl Thomas became the apple of his grandfather’s eye when he was born.
In addition, Temba, now 42, continued to maintain close links with Adolf, who assisted him to set up his own business; he now makes products such as aluminium canopies and roof racks under the trade name ‘Kalahari Canopies’. When I spoke to him at the time I interviewed Liz Waidelich, Temba said that he was very happy as he had secured a substantial order and his business was flourishing.
However, the years of financial and personal stress proved too much for Adolf and he took his life. He left an amazing legacy, and tales of the achievements of Adolf Waidelich will be told around campfires for many years.
Adolf the dreamer
Beneath Adolf’s tough and gruff exterior (and sometimes temperamental behaviour) was a dreamer; a person who had a real passion for renowned Scottish medical missionary Dr David Livingstone and his work in Africa.
Before his unexpected death in Johannesburg in November, Adolf was fortunately able to fulfil his long-held dream of a being a contributor to the building of a permanent museum tribute to Livingstone in the Linyanti area of Namibia − present-day Sangwali.
Adolf’s passion for Livingstone and his extensive expeditions in Africa led him to follow the great explorer’s trail into the Zambezi region in 2006. A little-known fact was that Livingstone passed through Namibia on his African travels, spending time in the Linyanti region in the mid- 1880s, where he befriended the MaKololo chief, Sebetwane.
Adolf met Linus Mukwata, a fellow admirer of Livingstone, in Sangwali, and there he found a small museum which Mukwata had built on the outskirts of the Nkasa Rupara National Park in honour of the explorer and the ill-fated Helmore/ Price expedition.
Holloway Helmore and Roger Price, of the London Missionary Society, set out in July 1859 from Kuruman with their wives and children on a daunting 6 000km ox-wagon trip through the parched Kalahari in the hope of meeting up with Livingstone. Th ey wanted the explorer to introduce them to the MaKololo tribe, among whom they wished to establish a mission.
Disease and a lack of decent water took their toll in a journey that lasted almost seven months, instead of the expected three.
Sekeletu, who was now chief of the MaKololo, refused to let the missionaries settle in Linyati, saying that they must “wait for Livingstone”. The chief was unhappy that strangers had been sent to him, as Livingstone – and especially his wife, Mary, daughter of Kuruman missionary Robert Moffatt − were important to his political plans.
These plans included leading his tribe out of the malaria-infested valley, but this would have put them at the mercy of Chief Mzilikazi and the all-powerful Ndebele. Sekeletu was relying on the fact that Mary’s father was an ally of Mzilikazi, and was hoping that the combination of Livingstone and his wife would be his lucky charm.
Within days, 18 of the remaining 21-strong Helmore/Price party were ill with fever, and seven people in the party died in a period of 17 days. Sekeletu rebuffed further advances by the missionaries; and, in the end, Roger and Isabella Price and the two remaining Helmore children (all of whom were ill) set off across the desert plains of what is now Botswana. Isabella died on the way, but the other three made it back to Kuruman.
Linus Mukwata, who grew up hearing his father and uncles recounting the drama of the Helmore/Price story along with tales of David Livingstone camping on their land, decided that a museum was needed to keep these memories alive.
The museum remained an idea until Linus met Stella Kilby, a UK-based journalist and great-granddaughter of Holloway Helmore. She’d inherited a cache of letters and documents that told the tragic story first-hand. After much research, she retraced the route that her ancestors had taken across Botswana and into the Caprivi.
Linus then built a tiny museum in a shady clearing. Maps on the walls plot the travellers’ routes, and reprints of letters, journal entries and photographs from the London Missionary Society bring the story to life.
Adolf moved from Johannesburg to the area near the museum in Namibia when he retired in 2012. There he built Livingstone’s Camp as a camping base for tourists visiting this lush area in the Caprivi. He was also able to help Linus upgrade the Livingstone Linyanti Museum, and the two friends built two bridges to facilitate access to this historic site.
The historic importance of this museum was recently acknowledged by the Namibia Scientific Society, and a joint venture with the European Union saw the thatch-roofed clay structure upgraded to one with brick walls and a galvanised corrugated iron roof. The official opening took place on October 16, 2016.
Adolf’s son Stephen is trying to keep his father’s dream alive in Linyanti while they look for a buyer for the historic Livingstone Camp.