Old-school overlanding

Words and pictures by Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
EXPLORING THE AFRICAN IVORY ROUTE

There aren’t many things worse than an intermittent engine noise or vibration which disappears before you can track its location or cause. While less random, our vehicle’s symptoms were rather more severe – every time we descended a steep slope in our ’48 Willys Jeep Station Wagon the cabin would fill with lung-burning smoke.

EXPLORING THE AFRICAN IVORY ROUTE Our tour of the African Ivory Route had only just begun and we’d already lost a headlight cover (it fell off after the first pothole), a clutch pedal pin (second pothole) and two exhaust rubbers (snapped after potholes three, four and five jumped us). Now something was burning in the engine bay.
For a long time I’ve dreamt of taking a really old 4x4 on a tough overland tour. I knew I was romanticising the idea – most of the time it was a slurred wish spurred on by beer and the hypnotic effects of a flickering campfire.
Several months back I mentioned the idea to Gary Swemmer, an avid off-roader, ex-rally driver, Voetspore adventurer, mechanic and owner of the Pretoria East LA Sport branch. Well, Gary’s no dreamer, he’s a doer, so after hearing my idea he quickly rebuilt a ’48 Jeep SW and a ’61 Land Cruiser FJ. He also found us a guide, a route and some willing companions to join our golden oldies’ tour.Unfortunately, just before embarking on the trip the FJ blew its head gasket and one of the participants pulled out (the owner of a Land Rover Series III), which left us with a ’48 Jeep, an ’85 Jeep CJ and an ’86 Hilux. Granted, these last two vehicles aren’t exactly relics but as far as comfort goes, they’re about as sophisticated as a cardboard shoebox.
As the terrain got tougher our smoking Jeep problem got worse. We eventually sprang from the vehicle, beat the fumes from our clothing and popped the Jeep’s hood. A short while later the problem was diagnosed as broken engine mounts. Basically, the only thing stopping the engine from spinning like a washing machine was the exhaust manifold, a few wires and the transmission.

What’s more, because the mounts were no longer holding the engine in place, it was free to move back and forth causing the fan belt to rub against the radiator. That explained the smoke. But there wasn’t much we could do about it – we were high in the Drakensberg mountains and on a track rockier than a Rolling Stones concert.

We nursed the Jeep to our first Ivory Route camp, Mafefe, and set up shop. The plan was to jack up the engine, lever the motor in place and use two ratchet straps to fasten the engine to the chassis. The idea worked beautifully. Gary related a similar story of when his LC 76 broke its rear suspension while travelling through Namibia; he temporarily solved the problem by substituting a high-lift jack for the stricken leaf springs and using ratchet straps to secure it in place.
The African Ivory Route is an age-old path which roughly circumnavigates the Limpopo province. The route was used by hunters and ivory poachers many years back, but more recently – in the 90s – the Limpopo government re-established the route to promote tourism in the province.

As you’d expect, the Ivory Route boasts a colourful history with a cast of numerous dodgy characters, none more infamous than Cecil Barnard, otherwise known as Bvekenya, a name given to Cecil by the Shangaan people. It means “he who swaggers when he walks” and is pronounced ve ken ya. Cecil’s life story is beautifully described by the author TV Bulpin in his book Th e Ivory Trail. Th e book was fi rst published in ’54 and is a rare fi nd in the book stores so if you have a copy hold onto it! Bulpin spent considerable time with Cecil, documenting his life story. Cecil was born in Knysna in 1886 but his family moved to the Transvaal from where, in 1910, he packed his bags and headed north to pursue a career in hunting.

The book tells of Bvekenya’s adventures in the bush, his exploits as a notorious ivory hunter and the many sleazy dudes he encountered. Back in those days the area was considered outlaw country, SA’s very own wild west, a place where the law feared to tread. Bulpin describes it as a place for men who lived on nothing but whiskey and quinine.
Of all the illustrious places associated with the Ivory Route there’s one spot in particular which is frequently mentioned in Bulpin’s book: Crook’s Corner, an area in the Kruger National Park that demarcates the confluence of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers. It’s also the place where the borders for SA, Zimbabwe and Mozambique come together. Perhaps for this reason, Crook’s Corner was favoured by men like Bvekenya who could escape the law by dashing across the river. Legend has it that Bvekenya often lived on a small island in the middle of the Limpopo River, hiding from the law for weeks at a time.

Of course, in modern-day SA the route’s no longer a set path through the Limpopo wilderness but rather a list of 10 accommodation options plotted en route –not a set path like Route 66, more a loose collection of sights. Five of these accommodation spots are cultural camps featuring bungalow huts; the other fi ve are wilderness safari camps with permanent tents, a communal kitchen and some of the best landscape views this country has to off er. Th e route’s too long to cover in one week, but you can pick which camps most interest you. We stuck to the route’s eastern half, following a path along the Kruger National Park. But before doing that we tackled the northern stretch of the Drakensberg Mountains – rainforest country.

I used to love those Camel man commercials, the ones with a bearded adventurer hacking his way through the jungle. For many years that image was my sole impression of what 4x4ing is all about. Sadly, southern Africa ain’t jungle country and if you want that panga-wielding experience you gotta head north to places like the Congo and Uganda. Well, that’s what I used to believe…

The track leaving the Ivory Route’s Mafefe camp is unlike anything I’ve ever driven. Try to imagine a blood-red road slicing its way along a sheer mountain face, crossing pebble-lined rivers, through ghostly mist and vegetation so thick it claws at your vehicle like a carnivorous plant.
Th is bush is alive. Every part of it oozes moisture, clutches at your clothing and slithers across your skin; its breath fi lls your lungs with the smell of loft y soil, clay rock and mountain air. Spiders fl oat from every branch and thorn-clad vines drape across the trail like a network of green veins. It’s possibly the most beautiful track I’ve ever seen.
Th is road takes you right over the Drakensberg Mountains – it’s only 12 kilometres long but will take about half a day to drive, especially if you stop for lunch or a swim along the way. Once you cross the Drakensberg Mountains you descend into the Lowveld where we headed north-east to Letaba Ranch, a 42 000 ha reserve bordering the Kruger National Park.
Letaba Ranch is exclusive to Ivory Route visitors – day visitors are not permitted. However, you can also experience the reserve by signing up for the Luvuvhu 4x4 Wilderness Trail (see page 22 of our October ’11 issue). Th is fi ve- or six-day trip is a guided, self-drive safari through Letaba Ranch and Makuya Park.

Once we got to our bush camp in Letaba Ranch we pulled out our tools and installed two new engine mounts purchased in Phalaborwa. A repair just in time – a few more hard-hitting kilometres and the ratchet straps would’ve snapped. Working among several nasty-looking spiders – rainforest hitchhikers – the job took roughly an hour to complete. We stayed at two more Ivory Route camps, Mtomeni and Mutale Falls, both of which will leave a lasting impression on you. As far as facilities are concerned, these safari camps are possibly two or maybe three stars, but their surroundings give them six-star status. Th e views here are phenomenal but the most bizarre thing is that no-one visits these camps, despite the fact that some of them charge as little as R250 per tent, and they’re all equipped with warm water, a shower, toilet and two single beds.

It could be that the camps are poorly managed, badly maintained or that the marketing approach by the Limpopo government is so ineff ective that not many people know about the route and its accommodation off erings.
Whatever the reason, things are about to change. As of 1 November last year a private company, Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD), was awarded the tender to manage the Ivory Route and its off erings. Th is means the camps’ facilities and activities will improve drastically, but the tariff s will rise accordingly. Happily, we’re told that the route’s focus will still be geared towards campers, overland travellers and budget holidaymakers, so prices shouldn’t climb too much. At the time of writing, the handover process between government and TFPD was yet to be fi nalised, but things are about to be wrapped up. Watch this space.
Back in the old Jeep I’d fi nally become accustomed to the lack of aircon and the intense heat rising from the transmission tunnel. I learnt that if I kept my feet off the fl oor I could prevent third-degree burns from the ultra-hot fl oor pan. In the past, when I told people I wanted to travel in an old 4x4, I oft en got comments like, “take a kidney belt”, and “you’re gonna die without aircon”. Th is made me doubt myself, and I started thinking that maybe I was too soft for a golden oldie trip, that I was part of limp generation of couch potatoes and virtual reality addicts. To hell with that, this was one of the greatest trips of my SA4x4 career.

Let me tell you something about aircon. It has a downside. Sure, it’s all very well when you’re sitting in a comfy cabin governed to a consistent 17° C but when you finally leave that insulated bubble – and you’ll have to at some point – the heat and humidity hits you like a shot of wasabi sauce up the nostrils. Once I realised that sweat was a good thing and that my clothes would never smell the same again, I realised what a lekker time I was having. There’s another plus side to overlanding in an old 4x4. Attitude. The last time I drove through the northern Limpopo, I was in a brand new Defender 110 – with the windows up and the aircon pumping. Most of the locals glared at us with that look that said “Oh, there goes another group of bored city folk looking for adventure.” This time, the locals loved us, and why wouldn’t they? Everyone appreciates the sight of a classic vehicle going the distance, especially when the driver’s got a goofy grin on his face and bugs in his teeth.

Of course, travelling in an old 4x4 has drawbacks, particularly where fuel use and reliability is concerned. During our eight-day trip we had to deal with numerous overheating issues on the Hilux, and the CJ Jeep had intermittent starting problems due to a faulty starter motor. The CJ also started backfiring after a deep water crossing but that turned out to be water in the distributor cap – nothing a rag and Q20 couldn’t take care of.
For me, a highlight was driving Jeremy Bergh’s ’85 Jeep CJ. We had Creedence Clearwater Rival playing on the stereo with the straight-six 4.0-litre engine throwing up a complimentary back beat. Dust was blowing in my face, the sun was frying my right arm and thigh, and I could remember thinking to myself, “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now”. Say what you like about Jeeps, but when it comes to having a jol off-road, an open-top Jeep can’t be beat. I knew this trip would be a success – all the ingredients were there. However, two things still surprised me. One: gee, this country’s beautiful! Two: you don’t need bundles of money to explore it.
And that sums it up – don’t let the costs of overland travel put you off. If you can afford a brand new 4x4, good for you, but if all you can buy is an old jalopy, seal the deal, dust it off and don’t fret about reliability issues; stock up on spares, invite your most adventurous chommie (preferably a mechanic) and hit the road with no expectations about your journey – you’ll be surprised what the old girl can do. She may even win your heart.

Mafefe is a community-owned camp on the African Ivory Route. The camp boasts a communal kitchen, bathroom facilities and fi ve mud rondavels with two single beds per hut. There’s no electricity but gas-burning geysers provide hot water. Expect to pay R350 per rondavel.

Contact Transfrontier Park Destinations on 021 701 7860 or go to www.tfpd.co.za

Mtomeni

S23° 38.820 E31° 3.600

Mtomeni is the only Ivory Route camp located within Letaba Ranch, a 42 000 ha reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. The camp consists of several permanent safari tents erected on wooden platforms. Each tent features hot water, a shower, toilet, two single beds and a viewing deck that overlooks the Great Letaba River. The camp also boasts a communal kitchen and braai boma. Expect to pay R450 per tent.

Contact Transfrontier Park Destinations on 021 701 7860 or go to www.tfpd.co.za

Mutale Falls

S22° 25.643 E31° 3.267

Mutale Falls can be found in Makuya Park, an 18 000 ha reserve that shares a 50 km unfenced border with the Kruger National Park. This Ivory Route camp is a lot like Mtomeni as far as facilities go but the views here are even more spectacular. Expect to pay R450 per tent.

Contact Transfrontier Park Destinations on 021 701 7860 or go to www.tfpd.co.za

WHO GUIDED US

For this trip we asked Transfrontier Park Destinations (TFPD) to compile a custom tour that would include parts of the African Ivory Route and its surrounding attractions. TFPD took care of all our accommodation bookings and provided us with a guide for the duration of our trip.
TFPD is responsible for the management of the African Ivory Route as well as a number of trails in SA and Mozambique, including the Shingwedzi 4x4 Eco Trail (see our December ’10 issue) and Luvuvhu 4x4 Wilderness Trail (see our October ’11 issue). The above mentioned trails are closely located and conveniently start / end straight after one another on a weekly basis. In other words, a great trip would be to explore parts of the African Ivory Route in your own time, then, join the Luvuvhu Trail on the Wednesday and the Shingwedzi Trail on the Sunday.

Contact Transfrontier Park Destinations on 021 701 7860 or go to www.tfpd.co.za for more info.

FUEL

The African Ivory Route is exclusive to SA, access to fuel shouldn’t be a problem no matter which camp you visit. If you drive a petrol guzzler carry two extra jerrycans as backup, especially if you’re planning a daytrip to the Kruger National Park via Pafuri gate.

WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS

If you keep to the eastern parts of the route you can buy provisions in Phalaborwa. Carry lots of liquids in the summer months, as this region gets hellishly hot.

ESSENTIAL GEAR

Bring an air compressor, puncture repair kit and a saw / axe to clear parts of the trail – particularly for the road leaving Mafefe camp where the vegetation grows quickly and will undoubtedly close the track. We performed two recoveries due to badly-eroded roads so bring your recovery gear just in case.

ROAD CONDITIONS

Most of the major routes are tarred but you’ll also encounter lots of dirt tracks, so be prepared for bad corrugations. Remember to reduce your tyre pressures once you’re driving on gravel; it’ll make a huge difference to your 4x4’s handling and ride comfort.

MAPS & DIRECTIONS

The Limpopo government’s created a terrific map that shows all the accommodation locations of the African Ivory Route camps. The map used to be available from their offices in Polokwane but due to managerial changes these offices are due to move. However, in the meantime, Tracks4Africa will get you where you need to go.

VEHICLE REQUIRED

Certain Ivory Route camps are softroader-friendly but you’re gonna need respectable ground clearance to get there. It’s advisable to visit places like Mafefe, Mtomeni and Mutale Falls in a vehicle with low-range and recovery points.

RISK

Large portions of the Limpopo province are considered malaria areas so precautions should be taken. Consult your GP or travel clinic. ..

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