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Exploring the Rich Tapestry of Caravanning and Motorhoming in South Africa: A Journey Through Time


Cradled within the heart of South Africa’s storied landscapes lies a cultural phenomenon deeply entrenched in the fabric of exploration – the enduring practice of caravanning and motorhoming. From the dusty trails of the Northern Cape to the serene shores of the Eastern Cape, the journey of caravanning has traversed a path steeped in history, marked by significant innovations, iconic models, and a profound evolution of culture.

Unveiling the Journey: Origins and Evolution

Caravanning and motorhoming have a long and rich history in South Africa, dating back to the early 1900s when horse-drawn carriages were used for travelling and camping. However, it was not until the 1950s that caravanning took off as a popular recreational activity in the country. This was largely due to the introduction of affordable and lightweight caravans that made it easier for people to travel and camp in comfort.

As caravanning became more popular, so did the demand for camping facilities and caravan parks. In response to this demand, many caravan parks were established throughout South Africa, offering travellers a safe and convenient place to park their caravans and motorhomes. These parks often featured amenities such as electricity hook-ups, water taps, and ablution blocks, making them an attractive option for caravanners looking for a home away from home.

Embracing the Open Road: Lifestyle and Community

Throughout the years, caravanning and motorhoming have evolved to become more than just a way to travel and camp. They have become a lifestyle for many South Africans, with some choosing to live full-time in their motorhomes or caravans. This has led to the establishment of dedicated caravan and motorhome communities, where like-minded individuals can come together to share their love for the open road and the great outdoors.

Nature’s Playground: Exploring South Africa’s Landscapes

One of the key drivers of the caravanning and motorhoming lifestyle in South Africa is the country’s diverse and stunning natural scenery. From the rolling hills of the Drakensberg to the sandy beaches of the Wild Coast, there are endless opportunities for caravanners and motorhomers to explore and enjoy the beauty of their surroundings. Many caravan and motorhome enthusiasts also take advantage of South Africa’s numerous national parks and wildlife reserves, where they can camp in the heart of nature and observe the country’s abundant flora and fauna.

Navigating Challenges: Costs and Infrastructure

Despite the many benefits of caravanning and motorhoming, some challenges come with this lifestyle in South Africa. One of the major challenges is the cost of owning and maintaining a caravan or motorhome, as well as the expenses associated with travelling and camping. Additionally, not all roads in South Africa are suitable for caravans and motorhomes, which can limit the options for travelling and exploring the country.

To address these challenges, many South Africans have turned to caravanning and motorhoming clubs and associations for support and guidance. These organisations often organise group trips and rallies, as well as provide resources and information on everything from caravan maintenance to camping etiquette. They also play a key role in advocating for the interests of caravanners and motorhomers and working with government agencies to improve infrastructure and regulations related to caravanning and motorhoming in South Africa.

Pioneering the Path: Origins of Caravanning in South Africa

The history of caravanning in South Africa can be traced back to the early 20th century, as the nation underwent transformative societal shifts. Caravans, rudimentary in design yet brimming with potential, provided a gateway to remote destinations and a connection with the untamed wilderness.

The story of South African caravanning begins with the pioneering efforts of Geert Jurgens, a Dutch coachworks and truck body builder. In the early 1950s, Jurgens opened the first caravan business in Germiston, Johannesburg, laying the foundation for an industry that would captivate generations of adventurers. Jurgen’s venture into caravans was not new; he had been building caravans since 1938, but it was in South Africa where his vision truly took root.

Innovations and Revolution: Evolution of Caravanning

Key innovations such as lightweight materials, improved towing mechanisms, and enhanced aerodynamics revolutionised the way South Africans explored their vast and varied terrain. The introduction of fibreglass construction in the 1960s heralded a new era of durability and efficiency, allowing caravanners to venture further afield with confidence.

In the mid-1960s, the caravan boom continued, and Jurgens celebrated the manufacture of their 10,000th caravan in 1967. By the late 1960s, Jurgens introduced a side tent on their caravans, and in 1969, you could buy a Jurgens 13A with a tent and a fridge for R1540 plus tax. The industry was booming, and South Africans were eager to explore their country’s breathtaking landscapes.

Click on the gallery below to see the kind of caravans that were marketed and covered by Caravan and Outdoor Life at the time:

Iconic models began to emerge, each leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of caravanning culture. The Jurgens Fleetline, Gypsey Caravette, and Echo 4×4 trailers embodied the spirit of rugged exploration, captivating a new generation of travellers. These caravans were not just vehicles; they were symbols of freedom and adventure, allowing families to escape the confines of urban life and reconnect with nature.

From Exploration to Lifestyle: Culture of Caravanning

Beyond mere transportation, caravanning in South Africa evolved into a way of life – a culture defined by camaraderie, adventure, and an unyielding appreciation for the journey itself. Caravan clubs and gatherings sprung up across the country, providing a sense of community for enthusiasts eager to share stories, swap tips, and forge lifelong friendships.

As modern caravans and RVs grace South Africa’s highways and byways, the spirit of exploration remains as vibrant as ever. State-of-the-art amenities offer travellers a home away from home, while still honouring the rugged traditions of the past. Today, there are numerous different makes of caravan on the market, catering to every buyer’s needs, from traditional caravans to off-road models designed for gravel roads and beyond.

Motorhomes: A Different Mode of Exploration

The history of motorhomes in South Africa intertwines with that of caravanning, offering a different mode of exploration for adventurers. In 1974, the Jurgens Caravan factory in Kempton Park launched the Autovilla, built on a Volkswagen Kombi chassis, marking the inception of motorhome travel in the country. This innovation allowed travellers to experience the freedom of the open road while enjoying the comforts of home.

Evolution of Iconic Motorhome Models

Over the years, iconic models such as the WJ Elite and the Companion captured the imagination of travellers, offering unparalleled comfort and luxury on the open road. Despite challenges such as heavy import taxes and changing regulations, the motorhome industry continued to thrive, with manufacturers adapting to new technologies and market demands.

Transformations of the Autovilla: 1977-1985

In 1977, the Autovilla changed, with Jurgens adding a small double bed over the cab, called a Luton bed. The outside colours changed to all white with green striping on the side, a plastic orange insert in the waist and roofline beadings. These vehicles had 1800cc engines, and a few had automatic gearboxes − which, because of the vehicle weight, became problematic and were discontinued.

In 1979, Volkswagen launched the all-new T3 shape Kombi, this time with a 2000cc engine. Now the motorhome bodywork became bolder and more spacious inside, and some had a small bathroom. But, until 1982, the outside still had the round front Luton as well as a more rounded rear end.

Shifting Landscape: Industry Challenges and Innovations

In 1983, the Autovilla motorhome bodywork was given a much more modern shape and colouring, with a front Luton and rear end that were both more square. For various reasons, such as heavy import taxes, importing the Volkswagen chassis was no longer a viable proposition, thus bringing an end to these Volkswagen Autovillas. Because these vehicles were underpowered by SA standards, many conversions were done by various garages, mostly by fitting a Ford V6 engine.

Also in 1983, Jurgens imported several CF Bedford chassis/cabs from England, with 2300cc 4-cylinder (Vauxhall) engines. On the single-rear-wheel chassis, they built the Autovilla Prospector (a 4-berth), and on the double-rear-wheel chassis, they built the Autovilla Pioneer, which was a five-sleeper. Both had bathrooms with a slide-away chemical toilet and tip-up basin. The Pioneer also had a hot-water gas geyser and shower. Both models were 2.4m wide, much more spacious, and had a handy luggage compartment outside the rear, as well as lots of packing space in overhead lockers, and under the bunks. The colour was white with burgundy and silver for the Prospector, and white with bronze and silver on the Pioneer. Motorhome Hire Companies such as Auto Deutch and Campers Corner (both now redundant) also started to operate and purchased quite a number of these motorhomes. In 1985, the era of Autovilla came to an end when the Kempton Park factory was sold, and Jurgens production ceased for quite a while.

In 2009, Jurgens re-launched a modern Volkswagen Autovilla, but this was short-lived due to the appeal of other Jurgens products. However, it is interesting to note that, to this day, many people refer to any motorhome as an Autovilla, in very much the same way that people today refer to any dishwashing liquid as Sunlight.

In Europe and the United States, truck-manufacturing companies offered various sizes of chassis designed for motorhome bodies. However, due to import taxes and levies imposed by the South African Government, the motorhome industry in South Africa had to rely on manufacturers to rework or rebuild locally available truck chassis before constructing complete motorhomes. It was no mean task for a truck chassis to accommodate a water tank, grey tank, black tank, gas tank, bottles, batteries, and a generator.

Therefore, in the early 80s, Kennis Motorhomes and WJ Motorhomes, to develop and supervise the construction of such chassis, formed a new company, Rec Vee Industries.WJ Motorhomes in Vereeniging was owned by architect Wildrich Gronewaldt, and Jack Rawes, an electrical engineer. Wildrich became the sole owner within a short while.

WJ had already started building the Entertainer motorhome in 1979, based on a Mitsubishi Canter chassis with either a diesel or petrol engine. The Entertainer was a 6.5 x 2.5m motorhome with the entrance towards the rear, and the kitchen across the back. They were mostly custom-built for customers, usually with a large double bed over the cab and a pull-out couch or three-quarter bed behind the driver. Because the engine on this truck was situated under both front seats, getting from the front into the back of the Entertainer was a problem.

In 1985, the Mitsubishi chassis was replaced by the Nissan Cabstar, with a much more powerful engine, but production ceased in 1987. In 1985/86 the Companion and Companion S motorhomes were launched − both models with a back door only, and with two single beds length-wise. The Companion SE, with a side entrance, was launched in 1987. The SE was a 4-berth with two double beds – one over the cab and the other in the rear. The small kitchen was behind the passenger seat.

From 1988, the Mitsubishi L300 engine changed to 2000cc, and the new SE5 was born, a five-bed with a bathroom, including a hot-water shower and flush toilet. The original WJ outside colours of white and red, with yellow and black stripes and red skirting below the floor line, were now changed to white, silver, and black.

These motorhomes became very popular with private buyers but were also very popular with several rental companies that had sprung up in the meantime. Kennis Caravans and Motorhomes sold over 500 of these units, and Ci Caravans also launched an equivalent, called a Ci Explorer.

In 1994, the manufacturing rights were taken over by the Jurgens-Ci factory, from WJ Motorhomes and from Ci Caravans. From then on, the model designation was called JSE 5 and they were built in large numbers to Motorhome Industry standards until the year 2000.

Emergence of New Models: WJ Elite

Back in 1983, WJ had developed a flagship model called the WJ Elite. This was a class A motorhome integrated like a bus so that one could easily move from the front to the rear. Initially built on the Mercedes-Benz 508 chassis, most of them had the 4-cylinder diesel engine, later replaced by a 5.7L Ford V8 engine and automatic gearbox. A type of power steering with a hydraulic ram was also fitted.

These were good-looking motorhomes with bright outside colours – white, with red, yellow, and black stripes. In the B model, both driver and passenger seats could swivel, and with the two additional swivel chairs and a table in the middle, made a comfortable lounge. The kitchen was in the centre, and the pull-out couch and bathroom in the rear. Another double bed could be lowered in front, above the steering wheel.

All these were custom-built, mostly full houses with one − or even two − air conditioners on the roof, and with an on-board generator, TV, and a spacious bathroom with a flush toilet and sitz bath.

From 1984, the Mercedes 508 was replaced by the 613, now with a powerful 6-cylinder diesel engine and automatic gearbox, until 1989 when Mercedes-Benz stopped producing this model.

The Elite became longer with time, and the chassis was stretched from 6.5m to 7.8m, until the last model: the 9300 LTD. This model had a separate bedroom, en-suite bathroom, and a double bed fitted diagonally so that you could walk around it. They became more and more luxurious, with two TVs, large fridges/freezers, radios, DVD players, etc.

With all the extra weight, the gross vehicle mass was far exceeded, and the brakes of these Mercedes chassis were sub-standard. (If you had to make an emergency stop, you were in trouble). As a result, Mercedes assisted in some cases by fitting a retarder in the driveline. This is the reverse of an electro-motor, which now is found on most buses! As the Mercedes-Benz Elite chassis was no longer available, a few Elite 6500s were built on specially-designed chassis made mainly with Ford parts, in 4.9m and 6.5m lengths.

In 1995, the Iveco vehicles from Italy came to South Africa, and with the Iveco chassis now available, the much larger Class A Elite was reborn. Fully integrated Elites started rolling off the production line − but only after all the body fibreglass moulds had been adapted to the newly reworked Iveco chassis. As before, most were sold before being built, and delivery lead time was usually three to six months.

Unfortunately, the whole body of the Elite, from back to front, had to be made from fibreglass moulds, including the front grille, windscreen, engine lid, dashboard, etc. etc., which was very costly and labour-intensive. For this reason, it was decided (when the Mercedes Sprinter became available) to go back to a Class C version, using the original complete cab with front doors, etc.

Creation of the Pacer

To begin the saga of larger motorhomes such as the Pacer, we need to step back in time. Eight additional Bedford CF chassis were obtained directly by Kennis Caravans in 1985. They were stretched, and new Ford V6 engines installed, with manual gearboxes − and the first WJ Pacer was born. When the prototype was featured in the Caravan & Outdoor Life magazine, they were all sold within a few days.

Only in 1992 did the Pacer re-appear, built by WJ on a Nissan V6 3L bakkie. Kennis purchased the bakkies and had the chassis chopped off directly behind the cab, and a complete, new, wider and longer chassis was designed and fitted, with a wider rear axle.

This new concept was revolutionary – the same size as the Elite 6500 but much cheaper because of the Nissan donor chassis. These Pacers were available with two double beds, a bathroom with shower and toilet, a well-equipped kitchen, and a nice dinette that could also convert to a single bed. A year later, the Toyota 4.1L V6 chassis was used, because the Nissan chassis could not handle the extra weight. Production continued until the year 2000.

Sunseeker: Class C Motorhome

In 1999, the pioneers in the motorhome industry, Gerdus & Hannecke Theron, designed and built their own fibreglass motorhome body onto a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, called the Sunseeker 2000. They also extended the wheelbase of the Mercedes to accommodate a bigger body. The Sunseeker was a class C motorhome with a separate cab, and therefore did not require the expensive moulds as the Elite, and therefore could be built at a more affordable price.

This Sunseeker was the first truly South African motorhome, and the Theron’s manufactured quite a number of them before they retired. They were taken over by another couple, Kobus & Elzabe Delport, and they built quite a few more. The Sunseeker 2000 was marketed until 2005, by which time the new Sprinter shape had become available, and the Sunseeker 3000 was launched. This model was also very popular, and many of them were built before Kobus retired.

In 2000, a completely new factory was built by a consortium of local businessmen in Vereeniging, to build a motorhome body on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 413/416 chassis, the Nomadik.

Shaping the Future: Advancements and Changes

To read about all the latest caravan and motorhome developments within our industry, that were launched recently at the Caravan Overland Show in Gauteng, please click on this link.

As South Africa continues to evolve, so too does the landscape of caravanning and motorhoming. Advancements in technology, shifts in consumer preferences, and changes in environmental consciousness are reshaping the industry in profound ways.

One notable trend is the growing popularity of eco-friendly and sustainable travel options. With increasing awareness of environmental issues, many travellers are seeking out caravans and motorhomes equipped with solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, and waste recycling systems. Manufacturers are responding to this demand by incorporating eco-friendly features into their designs, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of leisure travel.

Another emerging trend is the rise of digital connectivity on the road. As more travellers rely on smartphones, tablets, and laptops to stay connected, caravans and motorhomes are being equipped with high-speed internet access, satellite television, and smart home technology. This allows travellers to stay connected with friends and family, stream their favourite shows, and control their on-board systems with ease.

The future of caravanning and motorhoming in South Africa also holds promise for innovative design and customisation. With advances in computer-aided design and manufacturing, manufacturers can create bespoke vehicles tailored to individual preferences and needs. From compact camper vans to luxurious motorhomes, the possibilities are endless for travellers seeking a truly unique experience on the road.

In conclusion, the history of caravanning and motorhoming in South Africa is a testament to the enduring spirit of exploration and adventure. From humble beginnings to modern innovations, the industry has evolved in remarkable ways, shaping the way we experience our world. As we look to the future, the possibilities for caravanning and motorhoming are boundless, offering travellers new opportunities to discover the beauty of South Africa and beyond.

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