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Kombis reincarnated as tour buses in Uganda

By Maggie Hiufu Wong, CNN
updated 2:17 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Kombi Nation Tours recovers and refurbishes abandoned VW Kombi vans in Uganda, for use as slightly odd but very cool touring vehicles. Kombi Nation Tours recovers and refurbishes abandoned VW Kombi vans in Uganda, for use as slightly odd but very cool touring vehicles.
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New life for abandoned Kombis
Meet the team
Sparked back to life
Shore excursion
Touring trail
Waterfall way
Hardy wheels
Not entirely risk-free
Scenic voyage
Memory van
Still going strong
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • VW ended the production of the Kombi last year, but the vans' resourceful spirit thrives in Uganda
  • Kombi Nation Tours recovers abandoned Kombis and turns them into tour buses
  • "Many of the clients that we attract are from that 'nostalgia market,'" says company director

(CNN) -- Much was made of the death of the VW Kombi last year, when the last van rolled off a Brazilian factory floor after more than 60 years of continuous production.

But there are still places where this icon of world travel can be found, spluttering and stuttering along the dusty paths of adventure.

A small tour company in Uganda has discovered a few Kombis rusting away, abandoned by their owners in dusty corners of the country, and is putting them to use as hardy servants of travelers seeking alternate means of travel.

In 2009, Steven Cresswell and William Boase toured Uganda from the UK on a motorcycle and saw several deserted Kombi vans along their way.

A year later they returned, bought and revived one of these relics, named it "Piglet," and founded Kombi Nation Tours.

MORE: Kombi's last rites: Farewell to a travel icon

After a backpacking tour in Africa, Rachel Landman moved to Kampala, Uganda, to run Kombi Nation Tours.
After a backpacking tour in Africa, Rachel Landman moved to Kampala, Uganda, to run Kombi Nation Tours.

From ambulance to tour bus

Piglet, a 37-year-old red Kombi van, was first registered as an ambulance in the northwest of Uganda.

"She'd been last used as a matatu (bus/taxi)," says Rachel Landman, director of Kombi Nation Tours.

"Though when we found her, she was being used as a storage for car parts with the words 'Please Enjoy Me Again' painted on the back window."

The company quickly found two more camper vans, namely Beatrice (Betty) -- formerly an ambulance -- and The Dude, formerly a chicken hutch.

Many of the Kombis were used as taxis and minibuses until they become difficult to maintain.

"VW Kombi are no longer common in Uganda," says Landman. "They ceased to be used as taxis and buses in 2000.

"They're actually the more expensive choice because of the amount of (maintenance) invested in them but most clients still choose them for the novelty factor," says Landman.

Every recovered Kombi is reincarnated by chief mechanic Fred Seruwo, who refits the engine and brakes, reworks the body and takes the van on a 700-kilometer test drive.

"When I get back [from the test drive], we have a nice Kombi," says Seruwo.

MORE: 10 cars for every type of traveler

Good, bad, ugly of a Kombi tour

Many abandoned Kombis can be found in Uganda.
Many abandoned Kombis can be found in Uganda.

Not all Kombi fans are confident the vehicle is suited to Africa's terrain.

"Having been to Africa, I believe there are more appropriate vehicles for touring this part of the world," says Californian Gary Garfield, a Kombi fan who toured Europe in a Kombi in 1973.

"The Kombi is/was fun and has great memories, but it's old technology and I wouldn't seek out a tour that uses these for a nostalgic rationale," he adds.

Thus, the company also owns a fleet of 4x4 Toyota Landcruisers as backups.

"[Our camper vans are] a bunch of old ladies, and this means that they do occasionally have hiccups, usually related to poor-quality fuel confusing their guts," says Landman.

But the company says no major breakdowns have occurred so far.

"Kombi Nation Tours was born out of Boase's and Cresswell's motorcycle tour and it remains the inspiration of the tour company," says Landman.

"[Kombi tours] are to replicate that trip, a true adventure," says Landman.

"Many of the clients that we attract are from that 'nostalgia market,' those who traveled in a Kombi back in the 1970s."

One quality that has turned Kombis into icons of resourcefulness are the stories that get towed along in their exhaust stream.

Landman describes one such episode: "In February 2014, we were traveling between Ishasha, home of the tree-climbing lion and Bwindi, home of the mountain gorillas.

"We left the savannah of the national park only to find the road had been resurfaced the day before and raised about 40 centimeters and we couldn't get the Kombi onto the main road.

Tourists watch elephants from their Kombi in Murchison Falls National Park.
Tourists watch elephants from their Kombi in Murchison Falls National Park.

"Luckily, Kate, one of the clients who had owned a Kombi in Nepal in the '70s, and her nephew, had a good sense of adventure.

"Together we dug some of the gravel and sand -- luckily not yet tarmac -- and made a clearance to drive the vehicle up -- and replaced it afterward of course."

MORE: 49 journeys that'll change your life

'They'll be around another 40 years'

The Kombi has been in production since the 1950s but Volkswagen shut down its Brazil plant, the last facility making the vans, on the last day of 2013.

"We are, of course, all saddened that they will at some point fade away," says Landman.

"But we think they'll be around for another 40 years or so. From a business perspective, it makes them more special and unique.

"On tour outside of Kampala [the vans] certainly turn heads. Children run to them in the village and sometimes just stare at them, confused, in the very remote areas.

"Old men wave and its been known for them to stop walking and take off their hats!"

Have you traveled in a VW Kombi? Share your experience in the comments section.

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