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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Vanlife Africa - The Two Cowboys Puts Touring in a Can to the Test in Pretoria, South Africa

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How do you tour South Africa on a budget? 

Get a van and hit the road! That's what we did. We discovered that Vanlife is not yet a "thing" in Africa. We learned a few lessons along the way, and have some advice for people considering to give it a shot. It is a great way to explore this unique country and learn about its people! 

South Africans tour and camp a little differently. We think they are missing out on the flexibility of our preferred mode of travel. We set out to explore why it hasn't caught on yet, and how best it can be done on the fly in Africa. Maybe we can introduce them to it?

We started our journey by getting the necessary gear. It put us on the road for our first episode of our TWO COWBOYS' EPIC GLOBAL TRAVEL & CULINARY EXPERIENCE - 2019!


If you are an international tourist used to RVing, then you will be glad to know that you can rent a more common motorhome or an adventurous offroad 4X4 bakkie (mini-truck/ute with a roof tent). A more affordable option is to rent a vehicle and a little mini "offroad" tent trailer. The trailer comes equipped with a roof tent, shade tent, shower tent, sleep tent, another tent, more tents, power options, water tanks, and a little pullout kitchen (We are not a fan - too many tents. More about that later). All these options are familiar, well equipped, but quite expensive, clumsy, and a risky way for the uninitiated to undertake a journey in Southern Africa.

Like other destinations, there are also risks in Africa. People don't usually appreciate what African risk means when they land from another country. The roads are a concern with potholes (very deep potholes), stray animals, and a general lack of maintenance. The 4X4 option may give you a (false) sense that you can venture into the wild. In Africa, even something as simple as a tree thorn can puncture a tyre, and a pothole can separate your wheel from its axel. There are also wild animals, dangerous insects and snakes that are always looking for a meal, entertainment, or a new home.

Then there is the driving. Italy cannot compare to South African impatience, breakneck speeds, and general disregard for courtesy, and constant violation of the road rules. Mexico is chaotic but courteous. Driving in Africa is merely nasty. A typical Class-C motorhome is clumsy to operate and difficult to park in most South African towns and cities. Class-A's don't even exist here. The pothole-strewn roads are not kind to these types of vehicles, and you cannot fit them into the available camping spots, anyway.

Security is an omnipresent affair everywhere in Africa. Camping or overnight options are limited to secure campgrounds (caravan parks) and National/Provincial Nature Parks and Reserves. That is why the preferred way to tour and camp in South Africa is with a "caravan" (travel trailer) and lots of tents attached to the outside. People head to "resorts" over weekends and holidays, spend half a day setting up, two or more nights enjoying the facilities, and another full day breaking camp, cleaning, packing away and heading home.

Most touring and camping trips are extended stays at well equipped, safe (however, not always that affordable) resorts.

Observations About Vanlife in Africa

If you talk about a van in Southern Africa, people associate it with the notorious minibus taxis. The little Toyota HiAce van transports Africa! It is the African version of highly efficient and affordable public transport. Larger versions like Sprinter, Iveco and Ford Transits are used for the same purpose on longer journeys.

You can use your overseas license to rent and drive the smaller cargo vans. We rented a Nissan from Thrifty Car Hire for our first leg of our journey. The larger vans require a special "heavy-vehicle" license that is different from the standard motor vehicle license issued overseas and therefore put these vehicles out of reach of tourist.

Some folks already realized the potential of the omnipresent minibusses to be converted into living accommodations and camping solutions. However, you are unlikely to encounter any on the road. It is too foreign to the South African wat of touring and camping. It is a pity because Africa has the ideal weather for it. Weather insulation is the single most significant and most costly challenge (next to power) in North America. In Southern Africa, like Australia, Mexico and New Zealand, it is the least of your concerns because almost every day is a perfect weather day.

For the budget conscious there are well-stocked camping stores like Camp and Climb and Outdoor Warehouse that carry all the usual supplies. Here you can find your sleeping bag, tables and chairs, mattresses, cooling boxes, portable fridges, cooking utensils and water tanks. There are also several local and European-sourced fit-outs available for a more luxurious build of a van with a bed, water, storage, shade and power options. There are more elaborate fit-out operations that will help you make the conversion a bit more permanent and the stay more comfortable if you have your own vehicle. We will be exploring some of these options in subsequent episodes.

The main challenges for Vanlife in Africa are ventilation, insect control (mosquitoes!!) and where to park. We have solutions for these, we think. Stay tuned for advice and more about the lessons we've learned.

There are lots of opportunity for Vanlife in Africa. Vanlife is not yet a thing in South Africa. It is virgin-territory, and for us, it has been an excellent adventure. It is also an economical way to travel and see a fantastic country. You can easily equip yourself inexpensively with the required necessities before hitting the road.

Add it to your bucket list. It is something you have to try at least once. 

Cowboy in Africa!

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