It was during my last trip to Africa, a wonderful self drive through Kruger, Sabi Sabi and Motswari that I really became aware of the limitations of rental 4×4 campers. Almost all of them are set up with roof tents or fabric sided pop tops. While those work fine when one is staying in secure designated campsites, they offer no real security for anyone camping in rural or urban areas where thieves are always on the look out for easy pickings. If I was to undertake a major expedition traveling by myself through several different countries, my security would have to be a major concern.
When I returned to the States I began looking in earnest for viable options. I flew down to the Overland Expo in Arizona to check out the latest and greatest in overland vehicles and the selection was impressive. There were trucks and jeeps of every size and shape on display. Huge Unimogs capable of traveling over virtually any terrain costing several hundred thousand dollars would certainly provide adequate security but apart from the cost, just changing a tire would be a monumental task. The size and weight of the vehicle would limit its ability to cross rivers on small bridges and primitive barges. And if one did get stuck good luck getting it out on your own!
Over the next few days I looked at everything, discussed the pros and cons with all the experts, and left with a huge pile of catalogs and several potential options, or so I thought. Back home I wrote down all the things I was looking for in a vehicle and came up with the following list.
It had to be big enough for me to comfortably live in for several months at a time but small enough that it could negotiate small bush tracks and not appear so overly ostentatious that it would attract a crowd wherever it went.
It had to be a Right Hand Drive, the norm for most African countries. If you’ve ever tried driving a left hand drive in a right hand drive country you’ll know how dangerous it can be, especially when you’re traveling by yourself. Pulling out to overtake or to go around anything can be suicidal. You simply can’t see what’s coming until it’s too late. Some manufacturers offer special cameras that let you see the road ahead but I wasn’t convinced. Africa is already full of crazy drivers – I didn’t want to add to that number!
It had to be a diesel – they really are the best for extended low speed driving through the bush – and it had to be capable of running on African diesel, a high sulfur formula that would quickly clog the filters in any modern American truck. And of course it had to be a four wheel drive.
It had to be easy to work on. African mechanics are incredibly talented at fixing just about anything but if it requires a computer to analyze it, or special parts to fix it, chances are you’ll be stuck for a long time. Even if you’re a talented mechanic, traveling with the requisite tools and replacement parts for American made trucks is a very difficult thing to do.
It had to be wired for African electrical requirements. Unlike the USA where 110 volts are the standard, in Africa it’s all 220 volts or more. This can be a very big deal in a campsite situation and not something I wanted to have to deal with. Besides every appliance purchased in Africa is set up for 220 further limiting ones options.
It had to have sleeping quarters inside the shell of the camper. Pop tops and camp on top options, while offering great views and comfortable beds don’t provide the level of security I was looking for. I wasn’t worried about the wildlife, I was way more concerned about the temptations these options would offer to those looking for an easy break in, and Africa has more than it’s fair share of thieves and thugs.
It had to have direct access from the camper into the cab. I wanted to be able to get the hell out of Dodge if things went south and I found myself in a situation I needed to leave in a hurry. Having to exit the camper to access the cab totally defeated the object of the exercise and eliminated slide in campers as an option as none of them offer cab access from the inside.
As I worked through my list I realized it pretty much discounted every American manufacturer, at least any that I could afford. Driving or shipping a vehicle from Europe, which has the same power base as Africa, remained an option, especially some of the very nice German campers, but with prices starting at $300,000 they were all out of my league.
I came to the conclusion I had to search for a vehicle within South Africa. The problem that this presented was finding one that met with all my requirements. There are plenty of overlanders who sell their vehicles at the end of their trip and oftentimes that’s in South Africa, but buying a used four wheel drive is always a dicey option especially one that has been driven several thousands miles in the bush. Besides that I couldn’t find any that met with my criteria.
By this time I was pretty certain of one thing. The best vehicle for the job was the 4.2 Diesel Toyota Landcruiser LC79. It’s as tough as nails, easy to work on, and almost as easy to find parts for. Its not the most high powered vehicle but it has a reputation for running forever. It would however be no easy job getting one as this is also the favored vehicle of the ISIS army and they have been actively buying every one they can get their hands on. They’ve been so successful in this regard that President Obama had to ask Toyota to take measures to prevent them from buying any more!
After much additional research I was able to locate a firm in the eastern Cape who claimed to have the ability to convert these Toyotas into four by four campers and when they sent me photos of their work, I was sure I had found the right company. They also agreed to help me locate and purchase a Toyota, and after spending a considerable amount of time going over all of my equipment needs and desires we signed a contract and began searching the country for our vehicle of choice.
It took six months and when it arrived it was white instead of the hoped for beige. The dealer was apologetic but said if we chose to wait for the right color, it could easily take another six months or more. We decided to go with the white – a color that many wild animals are very wary of – and we would have it sprayed khaki at a later date.
And so the work began. The first thing they did to my lovely brand new truck was to take the bed off and cut it in half! They needed to extend the base by 15 inches to accommodate their custom camper shell that they would build out of high impact resistant, corrosion free GRP material. The first photos I received were more than a little alarming but not to worry they said, we’ve done this lots of times!
Fast forward almost eighteen months from the date they took delivery and the vehicle is almost totally complete. I can’t wait to take delivery of in January to put it through its paces on a couple of short test drives before I set off on The Quest. I’ll go over all the equipment we’ve outfitted it with in another post. For the moment enjoy the pictures of the work as it unfolded.