It all started when I was 69 years of age, living in a cottage on a game farm, working, and saving towards retirement. My little Opel at the time was taking strain on the appalling roads and I suddenly thought, “This is it, now I have a good reason to buy a 4×4!” This realisation may seem quite reckless to some, but the reality was that I had no idea how long I would still be alive. If I wanted to have fun and adventure, I needed to get going without delay. I bought a used Freelander 2 automatic 4×4, the baby in the Land Rover family and, oh, how I loved that car! Included in the purchase price was an off-road 4×4 driving course, one that was ideal for getting to know the capability of the Freelander. I must admit I had some reservations, in the beginning, I was afraid that I would not be able to cope in situations that would require big strong men (I am small), and that they would treat me with disdain should I fall behind. And so, I pepped up my courage and went off to Land Rover’s skills course. Luckily, there was only one other person, a young man who felt apprehensive too, so we shared our concerns and had a really interesting morning listening and learning from the course instructor. “Trust your car,” he said, and the car was indeed so capable that I coped really well.
I left there high on adrenaline – I had done it! It was so exciting and I loved the challenge and wanted more. I rushed home and immediately booked an organised short trip to Lesotho, driving in a convoy and staying in lodges on the way. Lesotho is beautiful and my training paid off handsomely. I confidently tackled the mountain roads and loved the driving, I also learnt some valuable lessons along the way such as adventures are not always perfect; things can and do go wrong; not all people are nice, and; lodges may not be as presented or expected. On the upside, things can be beautiful, hysterically funny, and some people are really nice. I found out that being an alone driver means learning to cope alone, which brings a great sense of achievement (I am fiercely independent). A cheerful, positive attitude (even if you want to cry) really helps to weather the storms and allows you to have a great time. The dynamics of travelling in a group are also interesting, it is like being at sea with all sorts of currents swirling around but being independent is essential. At the end of the trip, someone gave me the contact details of Chris van Niekerk, of Bluerhino Safaris, who was offering a special price on his tour to drive to the Serengeti in May the following year.
I must say that, from this point in my story until today, nothing would have been possible without three exceptional people.
• Chris van Niekerk (Bluerhino Safaris – yes, it is spelt that way) is the most gifted travel guide and has a passion for Africa and its people, combined with an absolute commitment to helping people realise their dreams. Chris is non-judgmental, does not micro-manage the convoy, and empowers everyone with knowledge and advice so that they can travel on their own if they so desire. The result is that he has a devoted following of people who prefer to travel with him.
• I am so grateful to Jos Joubert who designs and custom-makes ABBA Campers (safaricampers.co.za). He built me a camper that I can manage on my own (a big step up from a humble tent). His wise advice, endless patience with my need to change my entire vehicle and camper through robberies, accidents, and money crises, so that I could eventually emerge as a butterfly into the world of easy, comfortable camping.
• Riaan van Wyk from Isuzu (now Fourways) who took my request for a 4×4 bakkie seriously. I was a cash buyer following an insurance claim and the other dealers of a well know brand couldn’t be bothered with me, would not allow me to test drive before purchasing, and were generally unhelpful. Riaan was the opposite; helpful, enthusiastic, patient, and kind. To this day I go back to visit him and report on my amazing Isuzu KB 2500 – a tough, comfortable vehicle which I enhanced with leather seats, snorkel, along-range fuel tank, and other accessories. He dispenses hugs, enthusiasm, and any help that I might need.
First the dream
A trip to the Serengeti? Could I bear to die without having visited that iconic place? I had to join the trip. But the facts were against me: my employers did not allow me to take long leave (three weeks) during the year; I had never camped before and had no idea what to expect; I had no camping equipment, and; I didn’t know how to cater for a trip. All I had was a 4×4 and the desire to go… As for the money, I decided I would earn the money as the year went on, by scrimping and saving for a trip of a lifetime.
Hold onto the dream…
I approached our MDs and asked them to help me celebrate my 70th year. They asked what I wanted, and I told them about the leave needed to drive to the Serengeti. They were so excited and agreed at once. I left their office in tears, knowing I was on my way. I phoned Chris from Bluerhino and told him I was ready to book. It seemed sensible to try out a trip with Chris and to learn about camping, but I didn’t want to cook as I had no experience of life on the road. Chris agreed to cater for me, but for one trip only. In hindsight, I quickly learnt that cooking in the outdoors and while on-the-go is easy. The video on his website showed exactly what to do, so I booked to go to the Okavango Swamps in December. And so, my search for a tent began. I toured all the camping shops, read all the magazines, and soon realised that there were two provisos: I must be able to manage to put it up on my own and I must be able to lift it myself. Not only am I small but not particularly strong. This second limitation actually simplified matters because it applied to everything I would buy, that needed to go in and out of my car. I settled, eventually, on the smallest of the Oztent range – a marvel of ingenuity. The tent is like a pram hood and can be put up or down in a couple of minutes, even in the dark. I continued with my essential purchases, always bearing in mind my limited strength. Chris installed a second battery in my car to power my fridge. That was a big challenge, as it was so heavy that I dragged it along on a blanket to the car. And, on returning home, I could only drag it as far as the lounge and there it stayed until the next trip. One has to make small sacrifices for one’s dreams.
Botswana was beautiful and addictive, this trip was much better organised than my first outing to Lesotho and I discovered I loved sleeping in a tent. I was somewhat surprised to find that the ablution blocks in one of the camps had reassuringly familiar white loos, with flush cisterns. Okay, the hyenas also liked them and regularly chewed through the pipes, and there were always lots of flies. It was extremely hot, but I coped with this camping lifestyle and noted changes needed for the next trip. Yes, Chris was right, if one is organised and prepares meals in advance, the catering is easy.
There is a great deal to say about the Serengeti trip but that is a story all on its own. I could not take photos, as I simply do not have enough hands. There are only a few campsites in Tanzania, so we stayed where we could and it was certainly a revelation! The Serengeti was unspoiled, we found the migration and marvelled at the sheer numbers of wildebeest and zebra. Nothing can prepare one for this reality. Visiting five different countries was such an education, each one so different; each having smiling, welcoming people. It was hard work doing everything myself. I lost quite a lot of weight but it had all the elements of a great adventure.
This trip with Chris, to Kaokoland in Namibia and driving over the famous Van Zyl’s Pass, was a highlight. This was the beginning of the next big change for me. The weather started out very wet and our first campsite, near Etosha, was simply a lake. Chris found a small mound of solid ground and instructed me to, “Pitch your tent here!” I felt a bit reluctant but my tent was fine and watertight. In the morning the water level had dropped and we were on our way again. I got stuck in the Cunene River, the water in the car was up over my ankles and I had to be towed out. Water had flooded my engine, so an hour was spent by Chris and James (one of the
other guests who is an electronics expert) pumping out the water. That amazing Freelander dried out completely in three days and was ready to tackle van Zyl’s Pass. It was exhausting, concentrating so fiercely driving over rocks for a couple of days but we all managed without too many problems. We were very proud of our achievement. Our names are now written on special flat stones at the foot of the pass for others to see. One of the guests drove a custommade vehicle with his bed already made up in the back. Chris casually mentioned to me that if I could find a similar solution it would give me another ten years camping. And so, I had a new dream… a goal that would make everything so much easier… having a ready-made place to sleep. I spent a year searching for a new solution – one that I could manage alone. I visited caravan, trailer, and rooftop tent factories and searched tirelessly on the Internet.
Then I remembered that one of the guests on the Serengeti trip had recommended ABBA Safari Camper as being a great solution for me. So off I went to visit Jos Joubert, the manufacturer, just outside Pretoria and I struck gold. Jos custom makes his campers and he assured me that it would be made in such a way that I could open, close, and drive it comfortably on my own. We discussed at length how the changes would be made, sell my Freelander 2 and get a single cab bakkie. His advice was detailed and very wise, and at no time did he pressurise me. Despite all my efforts, the market was depressed and I couldn’t sell my Freelander 2. It seemed fate kept slamming every door in my face. It was so frustrating. Then shortly before Christmas, as I was approaching a riot on my way to work, an uninsured driver crashed into me and wrote off my car. I was not hurt and when told by the assessor that my Freelander was a write-off, due to the expense of Land Rover parts, I realised that this would actually solve my problem. My car was well insured and Santam paid out promptly. I was up and running again, after a quick phone call to Jos the search for a new bakkie was on. I searched, researched, and talked to many people. Some treated me with disinterest and others would not even make a vehicle available to test drive. By then I had decided I wanted an Isuzu because it is comfortable for long driving and sturdy. I wanted a manual 4×4 as I was ready to learn how to do this ‘off-road driving’ properly. This is when I met Riaan van Wyk, who had just taken over new car sales for Isuzu. He was gracious, not at all condescending, and, as my plan unfolded, his enthusiasm grew. I was test driving in no time at all.
The Isuzu staff got used to seeing me lying under their cars on the (clean) showroom floor, as I needed to know what I was buying and had so much to learn. I ordered leather seats, a snorkel, long-range fuel tank, and, as these were being installed, I had a set-back. I was tied up and robbed one night, and most of my possessions were taken. It was very traumatic, but I was absolutely determined not to let them take my dream too. I made more calls and visits to Jos about my camper, which kept being delayed by my changing life circumstances. He didn’t give up on me; patiently listening and readjusting the delivery date while accepting the irregular payments until all was paid. Since time was not on my side, due to my age, I decided to get everything I wanted in my dream camper and Jos added to that list. There were things like a built-in compressor, tyre pressure monitoring system, and a solar panel that he knew would make a big difference to my travelling experience – and today I have good reason to be grateful for his additions and valid suggestions. Finally, my camper arrived! My plans to store my camper, when not in use, became too expensive after the robbery but it was a blessing because I love driving my camper which, being fibreglass, is not heavy. It is an extension of me, a vehicle that makes dreams come true.
The camper’s maiden voyage was to the Central Kalahari with Chris. I had so many gadgets that it took a while for me to get used to operating everything in my new Isuzu bakkie. Nothing, however, could distract me from the wonder of that special place, the Kalahari. We were a small group, there was an eclipse of the moon at that time and we viewed it from this lovely remote place where the stars filled the sky and only the sounds of the bush could be heard. The challenge remained that I needed to find a better solution to driving alone, of eating and drinking on the road and having everything within arm’s reach.
The wide-open plains of the Serengeti, with or without animals, are always spectacular.
The trip to Uganda to see the mountain gorillas took 33 days and was a lifechanging and fantastic experience. I bought clips to go on my sun visor so that my different glasses were within reach and I finally found the Hydro flask, that keeps drinks cold for ten hours and can be used with one hand. I discovered a new place for keeping snacks and bought a bigger fridge that made the catering much easier. This Uganda trip was a really big dream that took a year of waiting and saving. There was so much to do for border crossings (always a stressful business), more planning, the gorilla trek walking program to prepare for, and watching Chris’ informative videos so that I was as prepared as possible. At the last minute, fate (or rather an uninsured driver) almost stole that dream too when crashing into my
Isuzu! It had been such a struggle building up this vehicle to my specific needs, I was in despair. My son told me not to give up. Chris went to the panel beaters on my behalf to check my vehicle and pronounced it ‘good to go’ and I was up and running again. There are no words to explain what one gains from a trip like that. I am just so grateful to have had that experience.
There is nothing quite as comforting at the end of the long driving day, regardless of what the campsite or the weather is like, as climbing inside my ABBA Safari Camper. To close the door and potter around ‘my home’, with hot and cold water, cupboards, room to stand or sit, and finally to climb into my double bed and think of where my next adventure will take me.