Tim from Africa Expedition Support gives the essentials about how to prepare for your big expedition to Africa.
Sharon from Land Rover World magazine asked us the other day what happens when our clients arrive for an expedition totally unprepared. Well, most people come totally over prepared. Our expeditions are fully catered so the client only has to bring himself, a hand-full of common sense, humour and of course passport and vaccination certificate.
People have written books on preparation for expeditions; leaving the average first timer totally overwhelmed by what various specialists reckon is absolutely necessary.
Here are a few points to consider out of our 20 odd years of experience.
Always keep in mind, the more equipment you carry the more trouble you will have. Just because its shiny checker plate doesn’t mean it’s needed. Keep it as light as possible. You are not going to the moon and most parts of the World are more or less inhabited by humans. So there is no need to bring absolutely everything from home.
Of course everyone has different levels of comfort but you have to stay focused on what you want to achieve. Some people, at least in my opinion, get carried away by the sheer amount of equipment available on the market and considered necessary. Money allowing they end up with an 8 wheeler truck complete with shower, toilet, satellite TV, PC, and microwave etc. The whole lot is the size and the weight of an entire house. Result, is they can’t actually get where they want to go as the roads are too narrow, bridges too weak and they spend most of their time fixing things like that broken inverter for the toaster or the cracked shower head.
Besides for that amount of money one could book an exclusive flying safari with 5 star lodge accommodation all the way from top to bottom of Africa and have some change left.
So what do you need to be prepared?
Well, it depends where you want to go. If you are planning on extreme off-roading across the Sahara desert, taking on the rainforests in Congo and crossing Angola in the wet season then a 4×4 is essential. However, most independent travelers in their own vehicles tend to plan their expeditions around the weather and hug the main well-trodden routes.
A 4×4 is nice but not essential. Locals usually don’t have one and still drive around everywhere. We use land rovers simply because they pretty much fit exactly all the requirements for the ideal Expedition vehicle. At least until 1998, after that Land Rover lost sight in terms of expedition transport but then I suppose they earned better money elsewhere.
A 4×4 does makes your life easier. Remember when you are on an expedition you want to get from A to B. It’s not a winching competition where you can just walk out if you find yourself hopelessly stuck. On an expedition you try to avoid obstacles and drive around them instead of straight through. We used to drive Trans Africa’s from London to Cape Town in 20 tonne trucks with 28 passengers on board. No winch, no 4×4, not even a diff lock!
The ideal vehicle has no or very few electronics (you wouldn’t believe how slow an electric window can be with a lioness standing next to your door staring at you!). It has a diesel engine as they are simple to fix and run pretty much forever (before common rail came out that is). Diesel fuel is a lot easier to come by in remote areas and is cheaper than petrol. A decent sized running tank and a couple of emergency jerry cans will get you from fuel station to fuel station in most parts of Africa.
The best thing about a 4×4, especially the Landy, is that they are built extremely sturdy. Live axels, a proper chassis and the body just bolted on. Easy to repair on the side of the road and easy to modify if need be.
So now you have bought your landy but what about all the kit on the market to deck it out? A 3 inch lift kit, up graded springs and shocks, 12,000lb winch complete with bumper and bull bar, wide wheels with chunky tires, the usual diff, steering and under floor protection plates, rock sliders, the shiny expedition aluminium roof rack complete with ladder on the back and of course the compulsory snorkel. A fantastic looking relatively cheap to build proper expedition vehicle
Except it is completely useless other than to impress your mate or going to the Land Rover Show.
You have just added a lot of additional weight to your vehicle and chances are you will never need any of these great looking things. At least not on an expedition.
The problem with winches is that 90% of all cases you are stuck in a place with absolutely nothing to attach the cable to, anchors add even more weight and are only good in sand. But there are a lot easier tricks to get you out of a sand bog. So a winch is only good to pull other vehicles out but then a piece of rope or steel cable does the same trick since you have at least 2 vehicles.
A suspension lift looks great but also greatly changes the stability of your landy. Especially since it will be relatively heavy anyway and will have a roof rack adding additional height. A higher centre of gravity and you are likely to fall over at the first obstacle. Big tires don’t do anything but for the looks. Chunky mud treads are hardly ever needed and can give you so much traction you are likely to snap a half shaft in the middle of the Congolese rainforest. Stick to standard tire sizes. You can easily find yourself with totally shredded tires and then realize the size you have is not available on the entire African continent. But you could have picked up a 2nd hand standard size tire in the village 50 miles ago for very little money.
Snorkels can be good, for deep river crossings but on dust roads they work like a vacuum cleaner. You end up going through twice as many air filters. Avoid any thing made out of aluminium like roof racks. They save a lot of weight and there are a lot of high quality products around but any roof rack is likely to crack on corrugated roads (which there are plenty of throughout Africa). People who can weld aluminium in the bush are a lot rarer than gold.
All those bolt-ons do have their justification besides from looking good. But they specialize your landy for one specific purpose. You mix them all together and you end up with something sheer un-drivable in normal conditions. For an expedition you need an all-rounder.
When land rover developed these cars they paid well trained engineers a lot of money to set the specs. Those guys had a very good reason why they determined a certain suspension height, tire size etc.
So all you have to do is make sure your engine is sound, brakes are good, get a simple but strong steel roof rack, standard AT tires, and good heavy duty suspension. One thing we have added is rear airbags; which surprisingly have performed superbly on extremely bad African roads. It has also meant we don’t have to stop immediately to change a broken spring or shocker we can safely keep driving to the campsite and change it while enjoying a cold beer rather than in the dust of passing traffic.
Keep your spare parts to essentials. If you have replaced water pump, alternator, starter motor, timing belt, radiator and hoses etc before leaving home then chances are you won’t need to replace these on the road. Pack essential seals, jubilee clips, cable ties, gasket sealant, gasket paper, fuses, brake parts, spare shocker and springs, small compressor, and a good quality tool set.
So now you have the outside sorted what about the inside? Here are some basics to think about.
GPS: taking a GPS on an expedition is not quite the same as just sticking your sat-nav on the windscreen to find the right exit off the M1. It can be a very helpful gadget but also a very dangerous one in remote parts of the World. Often the GPS maps are not accurate or up to date (a bridge being washed away is a common occurrence in Africa!). We have picked up people in the middle of the Western Sahara totally lost after their GPS broke! You must be able to navigate the old fashioned way by sun, moon, map and ruler. Don’t rely on your GPS only; otherwise you could get into serious trouble.
Camping trailers: they definitely have their place on the market. If you just want to go away for a week, then it makes sense to hook your trailer to your city 4×4 and you are ready to go. At the end of the day you don’t want to take you’re fully decked out expedition landy to drop the kids off at school, go to work, shopping etc. But a trailer is a compromise and once you are out there on your big adventure you will find that you’re constantly dragging an anchor behind you. Besides for the price of a proper off road camping trailer you could easily get a Disco 1 or a Defender 90 tdi deck it out and just leave it in the garage as your toy and for the big expedition.
Camping equipment: The lighter, the better. The less you have to carry the less you have to worry about. Ideally everything should have a double purpose i.e. a detachable bull bar makes a great bbq grill, 20lt jerry cans double as camping stools and two jerries and a sandmat on top can serve as a great table.
Where to sleep is often one of the most important issues on any expedition. Without a decent nights sleep your trip can turn into the worst horror expedition ever. Obviously it depends on where your expedition leads you and what the climate is like. First option is sleeping inside your vehicle. A bit confined in a landy unless you have an ambulance body. It does make sense though in cold and wet climates and also is fairly secure. The down side is that your bed takes up a lot of space and you will find yourself constantly rearranging all your other gear. In hot and humid climates you will find yourself roasted to perfection in the morning.
Roof tent or tent on the ground? Both have pros and cons. We prefer the standard tent on the ground for various reasons. A good normal tent is just as quick to put up as a roof tent, however on a windy day it can be easily moved behind a shelter like your vehicle, a tree, wall, rock etc. While in a roof tent you are totally exposed to the wind. A conventional tent can also be put up away from the vehicle in the shade while a roof tent on top of the car hardly ever fits under that nice shady tree (remember most of Africa is covered with natural Acacia trees which at full maturity barely fit a standard car under). Should you decide to stay in the same place for a few days you can jump in the car and go to the village for more supplies without having to pack everything away including your roof tent. The centre of gravity is lower having a tent on the back of the car and the space on the roof rack can be used for other things like smelly jerry cans or fire wood.
And most important to me – after having had a few beers in the evening I tend to get up in the middle of the night to water those precious trees around us. The last thing I want is to climb up and down a ladder in the dark. But maybe that is just an age thing.
A lot of people feel safer on top of the vehicle and therefore prefer a roof tent but lets face it: the annoyed bull elephant is still looking down at you, and to climb in your car is not really a noticeable obstacle for a lion or leopard; and even an Egyptian cobra can stand up close to the height of a landy roof.
And of course there is the car fridge. It’s a great luxury and if you can’t live without it there are some really good sturdy ones on the market but they will strip your battery overnight so you will need a second battery on a split charging system. There is plenty that could go horribly wrong. Believe me there is nothing worse than having a fridge that does not work.
You would be surprised how many places in the middle of nowhere sell ice blocks even in the outskirts of the Sahara. The more often you get out there and talk to local people, the more you learn about them and their country; make friends and potentially get invited to eat and stay with them adding to a really rewarding trip. Getting in touch with locals is one of the biggest parts of any expedition otherwise you might as well stay at home and get the DVD about it.
Cooking equipment: This is always a point of debate between my wife and I. She wants everything including the kitchen sink. Reality is it is not a house you are building. A couple of medium sized pots, frying pan, a couple of multi-purpose utensils a decent 2 ring cooker and most importantly a small portable BBQ grill.
Awning: Useful but not essential particularly if you plan on spending most of your time in campsites where there is shelter. However, if you plan on camping up for days on end it is not a bad thing to have. Keep it simple, we use a tarp which can easily be tied to the roof rack but also doubles as a cover for equipment if we cannot be bothered packing away all our goods at night or if it is muddy it can double as a ground sheet. Anything that is permanently attached is likely to be ripped by the dreaded Acacia tree thorns while driving through game parks.
But back to the question about being prepared. As a rule of thumb the answer is simple – the more you bring the less prepared you are.
Many people believe the more money and equipment they throw into the expedition; the easier it will be to get through. The opposite is the case. It is most important to really think about where you are going to go. Are you really planning to get off the tar road crossing the Sahara in Mauritania? Are you really planning on staying up near the deserted area of Lake Turkana, Kenya for 6 weeks? Are you really planning on shipping to Tunisia then driving the length of Libya into Sudan? If the reality is you plan to stick to main routes, stay at campsites wherever possible and enjoy the many amazing tourist attractions Africa has to offer then save your cash on kitting out your vehicle with expensive equipment you probably will never use.
I can hear the protests from the crowd …… so let me tell you a quick story. A couple of years ago I went to the UK to buy more vehicles and equipment, upon returning, Debs, my wife, told me of a great DVD from Australia sent to us showing all these fantastic new products for 4x4ing in Oz. She described, while laughing, this thing like a bladder that you attach to the exhaust, place it under the vehicle near the bogged side and turn it on. As it inflates it lifts the vehicle out of the bog. Now while she was laughing; in all our years we have simply let tire pressure down and dug a little, I had to admit that I too had bought one while in the UK thinking how fantastic it will be. A fantastic gadget it may be …. But we have never used it regardless being bogged countless times in sand since then. I too got carried away with my buying spree, totally dazzled by the many products on the market.
The method to kitting out your expedition vehicle is put your wish list together, plan your route and then halve your wish list. Think about what are the really essential items. We have a huge converter in our 1965 hanomag simply to run a toaster so I can have a toasted sandwich while driving – one luxury I value. At the end of the day every item adds additional weight to your vehicle, additional weight means additional diesel, break downs, suspension problems which all adds up to additional costs!
Running a lot of gear is a job for specialists like us at Africa Expedition Support. We do run big safari trucks, generators, massive cranes and winches but this is support equipment for special clients; like a group of bikies wanting to cross the Sahara or the film crew filming a doco in the middle of nowhere in Uganda … but even though it requires a lot more equipment than your private expedition we always try and keep it as simple and minimalistic as possible.
Tim, from Africa Expedition Support, spends most of his time building vehicles for expeditions throughout Africa as well as being a qualified mechanic. Over the years he has built everything from 30 seater overland safari trucks to adapting Disco’s to the African continent. He has lived on the African continent for over 12 years and covered most it overland; he is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.
If you want some advice or information about expedition preparation feel free to drop us an email email@example.com or take a look at our website www.africaexpeditionsupport.com