Visiting Africa conjures up thoughts of malaria tablets, shady border agents, and months of logistics and planning. This is not that kind of trip. As your thoughts turn to what you will be driving, you might picture a Defender 110 with a rooftop tent, ARB fridge, and loads of spare fuel, and tires. This is not what we were driving. This is a very different kind of African adventure. No spare parts, no tools, no satellite phones-hell, we didn't even bring a map! This is the story of two college buddies who reunited for a few days of fun in the bush.
Royce Ferguson relocated to Cape Town with his family a year ago and drives a bone-stock Land Rover Discovery 3 (badged as the LR3 in the States) that has never been off pavement. I had plans to visit Africa, reunite with this old friend, and introduce the Land Rover to the dirt in the process. Shortly after arriving in Cape Town, we loaded up the LR3 with biltong (South African jerky), water, and sleeping bags and headed 500 kilometers northwest, through the South African wine country to Karoo National Park.
Our perceptions of Africa were changing quickly as we travelled at 75 mph over smooth roads on our way towards Karoo. We had no reservations, no plans, and no expectations other than finding adventure and having a good time. How did we decide on Karoo National Park? The park is one of 17 national parks in South Africa, but among those only four parks contain "4x4 Eco Trails," and of the four, Karoo is the closest to Cape Town. What's a 4x4 Eco Trail? Instead of paving roads and busing people in like you see in Yosemite and Denali National Parks, the clever folks in South Africa realized that these wide open spaces are best enjoyed from behind the wheel of a 4x4 on unpaved roads.
We arrived at Karoo National Park after dark and set up camp in the established campsites in the park. These grassy sites each contained a fire pit and were close to the restroom facilities, which were clean and included plenty of shower stalls. With no rooftop tent in our possession, we set up camp right under the stars for the night. Karoo is not home to large African predators like lions or cheetahs, so we carefully packed our food away and took our chances with the rhino, baboons, and fox that inhabit the park. For those who are feeling less adventurous, there are thatched-roofed, Dutch-style cabins available at the park as well.
After a breakfast of biltong, we headed to the main lodge to grab the keys for the Embizweni Cottage. This completely self-sufficient cottage is off the grid and uses solar-powered lights and gas-powered appliances. What's more, the cottage is located at the far side of the 45km Nuweveld 4x4 Eco Trail. The trail begins by winding its way up to the top of the Klipspringer Pass and has expansive 360-degree views. Cliffs at the top of the pass house nests for black eagles, which are just one of the raptors found in the area.
Birds aren't the only wildlife to be found in Karoo. Along the route to the Embizweni Lodge, we saw baboons, hartebeest, gemsbok, ostriches, and tortoise-but the black rhino eluded us. Traveling at a relaxed pace and stopping often to photograph the wildlife, we arrived at the cottage in early afternoon. The route was relatively easy and we didn't encounter anything that required low-range, though we did take the opportunity to explore a few more challenging washes in the LR3. After a peaceful afternoon at the cottage, we headed out at dusk to search for more wildlife. Following a spectacular sunset, we were greeted by the sounds of a hissing tire instead of the sounds of wildlife. A quick trip back to the cabin allowed us to change the tire on a flat surface, but it also left us with no spare. Fortunately, the tire change took little time, as a thunderstorm quickly rolled in after dark. The lightning provided the only light for miles around and lit up the park with splendor.
The next morning we woke up wondering how much the dry washes from the previous day had changed with the night's rain. Fortunately, the route had changed little from the previous day, although high winds limited the amount of wildlife that we encountered on the trail. With fewer stops, we were back to the main lodge by noon and looking for more adventure before returning to Cape Town. There was one 4x4 Eco Trail remaining to be conquered, but it was obstructed by a locked gate. We began to think that trails in South Africa might not be so different from trails in the States after all as we headed to the visitors' center to return the keys to the Embizweni Cottage and inquire as to the status of the closed trail.
"Passage through Pienaars Pass costs 170 rand," the woman at the front desk explained to me. "And it is a very rough route, Grade 4 to 5. Are you certain you want to go that way?"
"Can we do that in my stock Land Rover?" Royce asked with his concern in his voice.
"Oh yeah, no problem," I replied with what I hoped was a good poker face. I didn't know what a Grade 4 route meant, but the fact that this woman was concerned about us driving through Pienaars Pass certainly piqued my interest. With no idea what we were getting ourselves into-and no spare tires-we paid the fee and grabbed the keys for the Pienaars Pass gate lock.
After driving past the gate we ventured into a quickly narrowing valley. Amidst the rocks and vegetation, we could see the narrow shelf road clinging to the canyon wall. "Is that the road?!" Royce asked with ever-growing concern in his voice. "Just put the transfer case in low-range, raise the air suspension, and put the Terrain Response in "Rocks" mode-you'll be fine," I advised, trying to convince myself as much as Royce.
Fortunately, the difficulty of the track was due to steep, loose terrain, not large boulders or ledges. With only 30-inch tires (all-seasons on 18-inch rims at that), ground clearance is not the LR3's strong suit, but the Land Rover is never wanting for traction. Pienaars Pass was tight and technical, and on numerous occasions the tires began to slip before the traction control on the Land Rover kicked in and we continued forward progress. Soon we were back at the top of Klipspringer Pass again, via a different route than the previous day. Not wanting to press our luck any further without a spare tire (or spare anything at that point), we headed down the graded road and returned the key for the gate to the visitors' center. We had to get back to Cape Town anyway to go cage diving with Great White sharks, but that's a story for another day.
The Newbie's Guide to Outback Gear
To have an adventure like this, you don't have to go all the way to Africa. You can easily replicate a similar trip near wherever you live. We found that the following items made our trip much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.
- Plenty of water
- Sleeping bags
- Binoculars Camera
- Fullsize spare tire and jack
- Bug repellant
No one is ever fully prepared for what might happen in the backcountry, but isn't that sense of adventure part of the appeal? That said, these are some items that we did not have along, but will bring along the next time we hit the trail. The rooftop tent isn't essential if you don't plan to camp, but everything else on this list should be considered mandatory for any trip to the wilderness.
- Rooftop tent
- Cargo hold downs
- Tire plugs
- Tire gauge
- Air compressor
- Second spare tire
- Recovery strap
- Basic tools
- 5 liters of extra fuel
- Ice chest