Sunday supplement: magic carpet ride

5d ago

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In 1973, Siegfried Hammelehle, Carole de Gara, and Rick Lomba drove from Germany to Afghanistan and back again, a journey of 27,000 km, crossing Turkey, pre-revolutionary Iran and much of post-coup Afghanistan. Leading their two-car convoy throughout the eight-week expedition was Siegfried’s own daily driver, a factory standard Porsche 911. Almost half a century later, we’ve tracked down the intrepid traveller.

“Oh, our trip was ages ago,” Siegfried says modestly, a little bit surprised when the phone rings. And he’s right. Forty-six years ago to be exact. His story has been gathering dust in Porsche’s archives ever since and was only recently stumbled upon by chance. It tells the unlikely tale of a German, a Brit and a South African, and an incredible two-month road trip across some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world in two entirely unsuitable cars.

Our protagonists are British-born student Carole de Gara, 23-year-old South African photographer Richard E. Lomba and 34-year-old textile entrepreneur Siegfried Hammelehle, a fanatical Porsche fan and proud owner of a recently acquired 2.4-litre 911 S Targa.

It so happens that their unlikely endeavour was written up in Christophorus many years ago, and the visual power of the few black-and-white prints and negatives and one colour photo that were found on file cried out for a revisit. So some tentative research began to track down the trio, and things did not start well. Rick Lomba, the official trip chronicler, had long since passed away and his original travel notes were nowhere to be found. Carole de Gara, meanwhile, had got married in her native England, and the change of name made here similarly hard to track down.

But there was a glimmer of hope remaining in the story’s pivotal figure. A series of phone calls and e-mails eventually tracked down Siegfried’s brother Walter, who was able to help our archivists make contact and set up an interview.

“I was in Kabul for the first time in 1963 during a trip to Calcutta,” remembers Siegfried today. He was there to acquire some of the country’s beautiful hand-made carpets, a product he imported into Germany from all over the world. But his brief business trip fostered a powerful fascination with the unspoiled and under-reported country, and he resolved to return to Afghanistan and film it. In his Porsche, naturally.

But Siegfried needed a qualified cameraman to do the job properly. Enter Rick Lomba. Siegfried already knew him vaguely from a visit to South Africa to see his uncle many years earlier. Rick had been just eight years old at the time, but now — in 1973 — he was studying film and theatre in England. His girlfriend at the time, who was to join him as an assistant, was, of course, Carole de Gara.

“I just said, 'if she thinks she can do it, I don’t mind',” says Siegfried. Two films were planned: one about carpets, one about Porsche. In the spirit of the age, our adventurers took little in the way of supplies and spares. Alongside the standard toolkit, some spare spark plugs, oil filters and V-belts were shoved into their luggage, but that was the extent of their preparation. And so, with Siegfried in his Targa and Rick and Carol following in an old VW 411, on August 5, 1973, the three of them set off.

Fairly early on in the journey they stopped counting the flat tyres. Temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius and higher were the norm in the rocky deserts near Mount Ararat, but the best was yet to come in Afghanistan’s Daschte Margo — the so-called 'desert of death'. Here, temperatures exceeded 60 degrees Celsius and created what Siegfried recalls as a surreal environment of absolute dryness — something that would be seared into the travellers’ memories.

While the Porsche ran like clockwork, the Volkswagen, which was already fairly long in the tooth, had major problems with engine mounts, compression and electronics. It was forced to undergo extensive repairs in Tehran and was revived once again by an imaginative mechanic in Erzurum in Eastern Anatolia. With just pliers and some wire, he managed to get the car running again, and running so well that it lasted all the way home. On September 30, 1973, exactly 56 days after setting off, both cars made it back to the start point in Altbach.

Upon their return the travellers went their separates ways. Siegfried's contact with Carole broke off soon after, although for a while he remained sporadically in touch with Rick. The film about carpets was actually broadcast by SWF, a regional broadcaster in south-western Germany, but tragically for us, the one about the Porsche sank in the Mediterranean along with the yacht belonging to the man who was meant to be editing it. But that’s a whole other story. As for Siegfried, he now lives happily with his wife in the Esslingen district of southern Germany. And in the garage? A 1970 911 T.

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Comments (4)
  • Love the story. My dad did a similar run in a Mercedes in 1970. I was 4 and got to tag along.

    4 days ago
    1 Bump
  • : Maybe there are still the original film rolls. Editing was maybe/hopefully done with a print and not with the original film. At least that's how it was always done professionally. You dont want to damage the original when editing because of loss of quality and damage. Would suggest to see if the laboratory or Carole still has the original rolls of film.

    2 days ago

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