From there, the adventure continued into Argentina and Brazil, where Abel’s odometer – which had been zeroed at the start of the trip – hit the 100,000km mark.
Here the couple are in the high Andes near Villa Unión, in Argentina
A stint in Uruguay followed, before heading back to Argentina and over the Andes to Santiago, Chile.
And there Abel ’s rear axle again cried enough, which was hardly surprising considering that it had criss-crossed the Andes a total of nine times. Salvation came from Mercedes-Benz itself.
“The head of Kaufmann – Chile’s only Mercedes dealership – offered us his facilities,” explains Elisabeth. It was just the garage, though, because the couple did the bulk of the spannering themselves.
And they didn’t hold back.
Elisabeth and Fred took residence at Kaufmann Mercedes, Pajaritos, in Chile to mend the car – here axle repairs are in progress
“We spent six days a week there for three months, refurbishing a lot of mechanical and electrical parts,” adds Elisabeth, who isn’t shy about getting her hands dirty.
Trawl through their 200-plus social posts and you’ll find snaps of her overhauling the brakes and re-installing needle roller bearings in the rear axle’s sliding yoke. By mid-May, Abel ’s rear end was sorted.
And that was just as well, because the route back to Colombia over the following four months involved some seriously rough roads, including the PE-3N from Cañón del Pato to Cachicadán, Santiago de Chuco, in Peru – the route that proved so tough they emulated Bertha Benz’s pace by covering just 247km in 14 hours.
The Mercedes motoring through the Torres del Paine National Park, in Chile’s Patagonia region
“The road winds around steep mountains with drops of hundreds of metres without guardrails, and parts of it are washed away,” explains Fred, who counted 38 single-lane tunnels as they climbed more than 4000ft. “I had to adjust the carbs several times, too.”
Adding to the treacherous environment was the fact that locals occasionally sabotage the road with hidden bumps and by removing drain covers, as the Smits found out.
“Of six covers in one village,” recalls Fred, “one had been removed, but I didn’t spot it.”
The result was touch-and-go as Abel’s rear suspension bottomed out, and the car had to be jacked up to be extracted from the hole.
A black-market petrol purchase in Venezuela
The drama continued when the Smits later had to move the remnants of a landslide by hand, then ran out of fuel.
Thankfully, like Bertha 130 years earlier, they were able to buy some from a chemist, albeit at an exorbitant cost, as Fred recalls: “We bought 62 litres at $4.63per litre!”
That day was just one of many extraordinary, if harrowing, mountain-pass experiences before they made it back to Cartagena, from where Abel was once again loaded into a container, this time heading for Felixstowe, England.
The couple spent eight months touring the UK and The Netherlands before the onset of COVID-19 scuppered their plans.
Back in Europe, the Smits and their Mercedes enjoyed a Buckingham Palace photocall while in London (left), and stayed in their native Haarlem in The Netherlands, from December 2019 until March 2020