The Caravan & Outdoor Life team visited a small caravan factory deep in the heart of Brackenfell in the Cape to witness the latest custom-built Sahara caravan rolling off the ‘press’
So just who is behind Sahara caravans? Well, these bespoke caravans are produced by a company called Frontier Lifestyle that had a rather chequered stop-start past after various owners attempted to start production in Cape Town … which was later moved to Joburg. Good news is that the factory is now operating smoothly in Cape Town under the ownership of Ian Gates.
Ian is assisted by his son Donald, and what a team they make – father and son are both aeronautical engineers by trade, with Donald having operated his own kitchen cupboard business for a number of years aside from their mutal aeronautical experience. They are also a family that has camped and caravaned for decades, so they know what it’s all about, they know what folk expect from the caravan and what works. You could say it’s a lifetime of thought and passion that has resulted in the legendary new Sahara finally making it out of the factory and on the road to its first client in Joburg.
It’s taken three years of trial, error, tweaking, trial, error and tweaking, but at each stage you know that what started out as a rough diamond has eventually turned into a sparkling four-wheeler. Why so much tweaking? Well, for a start, you won’t find many guys more fanatical about build quality than a couple of aircraft engineers. After all, lives depend on their workmanship and this ‘fanaticalism’ is just as evident in the production of the Sahara.
The Sahara Desert is the largest on earth (no one really counts the Arctic and Antactic Desers as deserts … do you?) and fittingly their new caravan carries this name. It’s large. It’s big. It’s heavy. Depending how it’s specced up it can weigh anywhere between 2500 kg and 3500 kg and relies on electric brakes to be street legal. Not that there is anything negative to say about electric brakes – they are fantastic for being able to control the caravan should this be needed (But more on this subject later).
The Sahara is a custom-made caravan, built to ownership requirement and built to endure harsh conditions. It has an immensely strong, SABS-approved, fully galvanised chassis and big, fat All Terrain 15-inch tyres on heavy-duty mag wheels that give a ground clearance of some 260 mm. The double axles are rated at 1750 kg each with 12” x 6 stud hubs for strength.
The overall total body length is a whopping 8.94 m that, in turn, provides an interior length of 7.37 m. Take this and consider the 2.26 interior width and 1.93 headroom height and you have a lot of space to make your home-from-home … well, a home-from-home.
The front and rear panels are moulded in fibreglass while the side panels have an outer skin of aluminium bonded to plywood which, in turn, is bonded to a foam core framework and, finally, another layer of plywood to form the inside wall. It’s all vacuum-bonded together and Ian took great delight in proving the strength of this construction by smacking it with a hammer – with his full force. After five mighty blows a few dents and cracks appeared – which was worse than his fingers, which suffered some nasty scratches from the force of the hammering. This construction is how the off-road caravans are made as they resists knocks far better than a conventional caravan.
There is a downside, of course, which is that this strength adds extra weight, but as Ian says, he is building a big, strong caravan that can go most places. What really struck us is the number of man hours it must take to produce this caravan. It looks highly labour intensive and everywhere you look you get the sense that the Sahara has been put together with diligence and caring.
Up front is a large dinette for four people … but rather than using the table top for a bed base, it has more durable boards stowed under the cushions that are used to turn this area into a second double bed – if required. Mid section is devoted to kitchen space – but minus the stove, which is on a slide-out outside the caravan. The cabinet joinery is of an extremely high standard and it has one or two features that really caught our attention, such as the rotating wine bottle rack in the one corner and the moulded Perspex see-through cupboard door windows (see before you open!). And there are also lights inside the cupboards that definitely add an up-market sense of luxury to this giant of a caravan.
And, lest we forget, there is a slide-out flat screen TV adjacent the rotating wine rack, neatly out of sight for when you’re travelling but nicely positioned for those sitting in the ‘lounge’. Yes, it has full DSTV and a media centre with automatic satellite tracking on the roof (between the two airconditioners). Team Ian and Donald have truly thought through every last detail with great care. Another clever idea they have is that all appliances installed are standard buy-from-your-local-chainstore items. The benefit of this is that if something packs up while you’re travelling around South Africa then you have far more options for places where you can return or swap the appliance while it’s covered under its national warranty.
All drawers are on ball bearing runners and glide closed, and you will also find a microwave oven with grilling function, a large 230-litre fridge and a 35-litre freezer. These all operate off 220V, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem as most caravan resorts provide such electrical facilities. For those going to more exciting, out-of-the-way places, you might want to add a small generator, but otherwise this caravan is equipped with 12v deep-cycle batteries and an inverter to power items such as the lights. There is also a stainless steel sink with hot and cold running water in the kitchen. The rear is all living quarters – a full en-suite bedroom including a full shower and swivel head toilet. The water system is high pressure and powered by a self-priming pump. The Sahara also has its own outside locker and, yes, don’t forget that pull-out stove unit and, naturally, there is also packing space for clothing – and plenty of it.
A feature that many South Africans in particular would welcome is the large flat screen TV that is revealed by a panel that opens on the outside off the van. How lekker is it to be able to stand and kuier outside under the giant Fiamma awning tending the braai or nursing a beer in hand with your bum in a comfy chair, while that giant TV beams you the latest sport, movie or reality show. It’s a real ‘wow’ feature.
A man and his toys … the Sahara is equipped with Alko’s electric corner steadies: yes, put those steadies down simply by pushing a button! But that’s not all: this caravan is also equipped with electric operated wheel brakes. For years these have proved very popular in the USA and Australia, as electric brakes give the driver the benefit of being able to apply the caravan’s brakes to any degree – from 5% through to 100% – should the caravan become unstable. That’s awfully handy when going downhill or while towing in strong side winds. Should the combination become unstable then the caravan’s brakes can be applied without touching the towing vehicle’s brakes so that it can swiftly be brought under full control.
We were unable to tow this caravan as on the day of completion it was on its way for delivery to a customer in Gauteng. We cannot vouch for its towability other than that Ian was towing it to its new owner behind a V10 VW Toureg. He also mentioned some speeds that he had test-driven the Sahara at that we don’t seem to have written down – let’s just say that Ian is assured of its capabilities at speed!
The factory is small which offers them great control over operations and we estimate that it is probably capable of make two caravans at a time, which suits their business model for low-volume, hand-made caravans using aircraft precision … and all to your specifications. What Ian and Donald have achieved is certainly no mean feat.
Ian Gates, Frontier Lifestyle, 021 982 4434, www.frontier-lifestyle.co.za