Offroad adventure in southern Africa

Our Ford Ranger on the Sani Top, Lesotho
Why even bother renting a 4wd? Isn't South Africa very developed country with good roads?

Me and my friends have been having a discussion about where and how to sleep when traveling on budget. "But how do you carry all that camping gear with you? You should go to hostels instead - the price is almost the same and you get to know some of the fellow travelers on the way..." Well, we do not see it that way ... Camping is much cheaper, but THE reason to go camping is location! Wild nature, dreamlike views, waking up with the sunrise and listening to birds singing in the mornings. One has to have been through something like this to truly understand it! And the campsites that offer that kind of close-to-nature experience are not at all easy to access :) Those campsites are normally not accessible by "regular" sedan car - no, it is necessary to have a 4wd with high clearance and maybe low/high gear option. 

Camping in  Mata Mata Rest Camp, Kgalagadi park. We had a visitor in the night: a hyena!
We chose to camp on our trip to southern Africa, which is one of the decisions that defined the whole trip. We packed a tent, sleeping bags, self inflatable mats, portable gas stove etc. You can imagine, it's a lot of stuff and we weren't going to carry all that weight around ... so we decided to rent a car. Because the plan was to visit some of the most remote places in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, renting a 4x4 was inevitable! We had the 4x4 for the first three weeks of our trip, for the fourth week (in Cape Town) we settled for a smaller sedan.

Ranting a 4x4 vehicle in South Africa is not as easy as one would think!

We did struggle a bit with renting a 4x4. We started filling out the inquiry forms and looking for offers in May 2016 (so half a year before our trip). First offers were all above 2000€, some even 2500€! "No way!" I said to myself and kept on looking. I used the textbook negotiating technique and told one of the companies the offer from the other and so, in time, we got to a reasonable price: 1600€.

But the cheapskates as we are - that was still too much for us. Katarina wrote some questions about renting a 4x4 in South Africa in one of the Facebook groups (Kgalagadi Sightings). A car broker contacted us with an offer we could not refuse: 1350€ for a Toyota Hillux! Done. We stumbled upon problems with paying with MasterCard. We switched to Visa credit card and managed to pay and book the car. Yeeey! So remember, paying with MasterCard in South Africa is a no-go.

Real - time experience

Problems again: after four hours of waiting and dealing with Thrifty car rental agency at the airport in Johannesburg they wanted to "upgrade us" from a 4x4 Hillux to 4x2 Toyota Fortuner. But I was stubborn enough to get us a similar car to Hillux: a 4x4 Ford Ranger 2.5 Diesel Double Cab with low/high gear and diff lock. The car was looking great, Katarina was smiling since its hood was higher than she was and we happily drove off.

Janja is learning how to drive on the left side of the road. No problem!
South Africa was British colony and, therefore, they drive on the left side of the road. Me and Katarina used our skills, acquired during the Australia trip, but Janja and Tomaž had a bit more fun learning how to drive and where are the wipers- and blinkers-handle :) Anyways, first few hundred kilometers were easy: wide, straight road, speed limit was 120km/h, so cruise control ON and off we went.

But the road was slowly changing. Ford Ranger saved us the first time when we got stuck in a traffic jam. They say: "When in Rome do as Romans do!" So we followed other 4wd cars, drove off the road into gravel roadside and went past all the city cars. Felt pretty good :) During next days we successfully climbed on the top of some sand dunes in Kgalagadi park and had no problems driving on the sand roads there. That would not be possible with low clearance car. 

Sunset in park Kgalagadi and one of the sand roads.
Just to picture the softness of the terrain. On the picture is a trace of a stopping vehicle.
But for the real 4x4 experience we hat to wait until we drove into our second stop, the Riemvasmaak Canyon, the one with hot springs, monkeys and scorpions. We would not be able to "climb" into the canyon without a low gear, let alone out of it! Unfortunately we do not have any pictures from  the most intense situations. The reason is that Katarina and Janja were mostly keeping their eyes closed and Tomaž was helping me with directions - checking the road and telling me, where is the best way to go.

Lesotho road and super high speed bump ahead of us.
Lesotho was special from the very beginning. We entered the country at night and were surprised that roads are all tarred and quite well maintained, but soon we realized that they have these insanely high speed bumps in the villages. We learned it the hard way as it was a surprise for us in the middle of road with 80km/h. It is advisable to drive over them with a speed of 10 km/h, even with Ford Ranger. The feeling when driving across it with higher speeds can only be described with flying :)

But these are the main roads, the side roads are gravel or worse. I tackled them with a lower tire pressure and the same speed (so around 80km/h, but girls were driving more slowly and carefully) :). Not advisable unless you are driving a rented car or looking forward to replacing a tire, bearing or springs. You can imagine that our one year old car was a bit squeaky on the end of our rental period.


One of the roads in Lesotho looked like that..
"Crossing at own risk!" River in the background.
So, I left the most extreme events for last: we tried some extreme off road on our way down to a viewing plateau by the Semonkong (Malestunyane) waterfall in Lesotho. First we parked our car in a parking spot, then Janja, Tomaž and I went to look around a bit and came to a lower plateau from where the view was wonderful. Katarina was not feeling well so I tried to show her the waterfall from the perspective that it deserves. Road looked drivable (not all aboard agreed with that), so we tried. Somewhere in the middle of our adventure we realized it's a no-go. A huge rock was sticking out in the middle of the road. On the left side there were terraced fields about 60cm below the road and on the right one was a steep slope up. And we had to turn around there ... somehow. After a few attempts it seemed impossible, but then at one point I drove a bit too close to the terrace edge and we slipped of it! I thought we were going to roll off the slope. Luckily we just swung a bit and then stopped there. But now we had only two wheels on the ground. With the help of diff lock and Katarina's, Tomaž's and Janja's directions, I managed to get our Ranger on horizontal grounds again. It was an adrenalin rush like no other. Maybe it was even more extreme that diving with great white sharks later on!

Renting a 4x4 with low gear and diff lock was one of the best choices for that kind and length of travel. I only have one remark: the trunk was too big and therefore messy all the time. But I survived that :)

And some photos...

The start of a decent from Sani Top (2876m). On the left side is an extremely steep slope, on the right side also, the road was muddy and slippery and we couldn't see more than a few meters ahead!
Below the Sani Pass we crossed one or two deeper waters :)
Ford Ranger in Kgalagadi park
Hmmm ... how should we overtake this huge truck? Easy! We drove around it on the gravel road.
In rainy season there is a river flowing over the street, but in dry season it's just a kind of very deep speed bump. No probelm for a high clearance car ;)

Rok Hocevar

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