Travel to Africa is intimidating to many people, and for good reason. Political unrest, staggering poverty, and animals that would like to make a quick snack of you all rank high on the list of fears. But taking a step back reveals a whole continent that is just as expansive as it is diverse. On the trip featured here, mine workers striking in Johannesburg didn’t affect our adventure any more than school teachers striking in Chicago would affect your daily routine. Armed with nothing more than a camera and a Lonely Planet guide, I booked a flight to Cape Town to meet up with a college friend—no visas, no vaccinations, no prescriptions.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because I had previously made a similar trip that was documented in the Feb. ’11 issue of Four Wheeler (“Two Men And A Landy”). That just whet my appetite for more, and when my friend Royce informed me that he was moving back to the States soon, I knew that I needed to make another trip to South Africa post haste. This time we upped the ante with a 1,700-mile road trip that included international border crossings, living out of a truck, and over half of the trip on dirt roads. When I arrived in Cape Town, Royce’s Land Rover LR3 was in the shop with electrical issues (insert Rover joke here) so we had to come up with a contingency quickly. Day One and the lack of planning was already biting me in the butt. Would this be a harbinger of things to come?
Fortunately, there are many rental agencies that cater to tourists, and we were able to find a fully outfitted Toyota Land Cruiser from KEA Rentals (see sidebar for more on the Cruiser). When I say “totally outfitted,” I don’t mean that it comes with a dash-mounted GPS or satellite radio like you might find at Enterprise. This Toyota was equipped with an African Outback Products camper shell with an integrated rooftop tent, an Engel freezer/fridge, and more. KEA also provided sleeping bags, a fresh water tank, pots and pans, chairs and a table—basically everything you would need, short of clothing and food. That was good, because that was all I had packed. This made it very easy to fly to Cape Town and just hit the road.
Before the ink could dry on the rental contract, we pointed north for destinations unknown. Along the way we stopped for fuel and chocolate crunchies in small towns with dirt streets and no stop lights. Chocolate crunchies are these delicious chocolate cookies that made up the base of our food pyramid for the trip. As a bonus, South Africans call them “biscuits,” so we did not feel as guilty about eating meals consisting entirely of cookies. We spent our first night in Namaqua National Park on the Northern Cape where the wildflowers were in full bloom.
Our visit was so well timed you would think that we planned it that way. The scene was not unlike the 100-year blooms witnessed in Death Valley and Anza Borrego where the whole desert floor is awash in color. We arrived in Namaqua to rain, which was responsible for the flourishing flowers. I must confess that prior to this trip, I have never been a big fan of rooftop tents, finding them to be expensive, cumbersome, and unnecessary in the States. As we prepared a dinner of Ramen noodles in a steady drizzle (crunchies not providing the necessary warmth for the evening), I learned the value of both the RTT and the Ostrich Wing awning.
The next morning after a breakfast of instant oatmeal (note the distinctly bachelor culinary theme that would continue throughout the trip), we took the road less traveled, working our way north towards Namibia. When given the option, we always chose the most rural route to get to our destination (another theme that would continue throughout the trip), avoiding pavement whenever possible. None of these trails were comparable in difficulty to, say, the Rubicon, but they did provide plenty of opportunities to relax, slow down, and enjoy the scenery. Much of the drive was through a dry, harsh landscape, and when we did encounter water, it was often flourishing with plant life and birds in every color on the spectrum. Like the rest of the animal kingdom, we were naturally attracted to these locations as well. They provided water, shade, and lower temperatures than the surrounding desert.
I was nervous about the border crossing between South Africa and Namibia, but as we went through the process, it became clear that my fears were unfounded. It took us half an hour to fill out the necessary visas and declarations, and our vehicle was not even searched at the sleepy crossing. With the necessary paperwork in hand, we continued north to Ais Ais for the night. Ais Ais may sound like a Vanilla Ice song, but it is actually a resort on the periphery of Fish River Canyon, which was our destination the next morning. Ais Ais has a lodge, a restaurant, designated camp spots, and even hot springs where weary travelers can soak their tired bones.
Fish River Canyon is a destination for hiking and rafting, not unlike the Grand Canyon. Carved out of a flat plateau, Fish River Canyon is a massive gorge with dozens of varied color rock layers exposed by the river’s constant erosion. We spent more time exploring Fish River Canyon than we had anticipated, which put us a little behind schedule. “Schedule” is a relative term, but as we flipped through our guidebook we kept finding our way back to dramatic photos of the red dunes at Soussesvlei that would become our destination for this journey.
Falling short of Sossusvlei, we stopped in Nawnub for the night. Much of the currently popular “overlanding” fad can trace its roots back to South Africa, and after staying at Nawnub and similar lodges, it is easy to see why. These ranches provide a place to park and camp for a small sum, and doing so entitles you to all of their facilities, which included flush toilets and hot showers at each of our stops. We don’t have a similar framework of businesses in the United States, which is a shame because I could camp in a rooftop tent and eat Ramen every night as long as I get a decent toilet and a hot shower.
The next morning we reached Sossusvlei and its expansive red dunes. The winds of this area create a distinctive ridgeline at the top of the dunes, which were quite striking in the early morning and afternoon light when only one side of the dune is illuminated. Once the sun was high in the sky, we ventured further into the park into sand tracks that were only accessible with 4WD. At one point, we even got stuck and had to air down our tires. This weeded out many of the tourists in the national park and gave us access to secluded dunes and oases.
Camping at Sossusvlei was busy without being too crowded. Like Ais Ais, there was a hot spring at the center of the campground where all of the travelers congregated in the evenings after the sun went down. We could have stayed at Sossusvlei for an eternity, but unfortunately KEA wanted their Land Cruiser back well before then. In this regard our lack of planning worked against us, since every page we read in the Namibia guide book revealed another destination just waiting to be experienced. In the end, we had to just set the book aside and face the responsibilities of returning home.
While turning towards home was bittersweet, it did not mean the end of the journey. Our border crossing returning to South Africa was as easy as it had been passing into Namibia, with none of the bribes or hours of waiting that you often hear in relation to African borders. “Easy” shouldn’t be interpreted as “boring” though, and the highlight of the border crossing was a ferry ride across the Orange River with our Land Cruiser.
We chose to take an alternate track back to Cape Town, following the Atlantic Coast while looking for the remains of shipwrecks and items washed ashore. We found more locked gates and fences than buried treasure, but regardless, it was still a better option than following the tarmac and road signs south. And that was the simple goal of the entire trip: to spend time with an old friend and see something new. We surpassed that goal with minimal planning, creating memories that could easily be duplicated by anyone with a valid passport and sense of adventure. So what are you waiting for?
Few vehicles conjure up images of the African savannah like the 70 Series Toyota Land Cruiser. Toyota fans in the States drool over these things, not just because they were never available here, but for their rugged styling, reliable diesel engines, and factory selectable lockers in axles that would leave Wrangler Rubicons with feelings of inadequacy. The ‘11 79 Series Land Cruiser pickup we obtained from KEA Rentals was definitely no-nonsense, with crank window rollers and rubber floor mats inside. The naturally aspirated 1HZ diesel is as reliable as the sun coming up every morning, but you might experience a few sunrises and sunsets before the 129 hp coaxes the heavy Cruiser up to speed. The engine was fed by dual 80-liter fuel tanks (42-gallon total capacity), which gave us an operating range over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) between fueling. The 1HZ engine was backed by a five-speed manual transmission, part-time transfer case, and the locked solid axles we mentioned above.
To be honest, I was more excited about this truck before the trip than after. While it never left us stranded (the highest priority), the underpowered engine and mining truck suspension combination left something to be desired. In the end, we would have happily traded it for an 80 Series Land Cruiser that is readily available stateside. The FZJ80 is no rocket ship, but it is faster than the truck we rented and features a supple coil suspension with the same beefy axles. KEA also offers Defenders, Toyota and Nissan double cabs, and other 70 Series configured as recreation vehicles. It is not the only business to offer outfitted vehicles in southern Africa, nor is it the cheapest. When shopping for a rental, be certain to ask plenty of questions to ensure you are getting the best value, not just the cheapest price. Some questions to ask would include:
-What is covered by your insurance policy? (Tires and windshields are regular casualties)
-Do you have other locations I could return the vehicle to if I wanted to do a one-way trip?
-How many miles are on the vehicle I would be renting?
-What gear is included with the rental?
-Do you offer discounts for certain times of the year?
-Do you offer discounts if I rent the vehicle for an extended period of time?
A partial list of rental agencies includes:
Drive South Africa
Southern Off Road