Eight tips for safer overlanding.
Gary Haselau, well known Western Cape 4x4 instructor, is a man who’s done more than his fair share of overlanding over the years. We asked him to share some of his wisdom on how to make our favourite pastime safer and more enjoyable.
One of the most important rules of overlanding is never to be in a hurry. Allowing sufficient driving time to be able to relax and enjoy your trip is – to my way of thinking – vital.
Often, the first big mistake we make is thinking that normal driving times apply. You may very well be able to drive your car from Cape Town to Johannesburg in twelve hours on the N1, but once you turn off the tar, things can change considerably. At some time or another we’ve all been guilty of thinking that if we average X km/h then we can drive from here to there in X many hours.
That may work on some trips, but when you look at a map of Botswana or Namibia, there’s very often no way of telling how long any particular section of road will take you to drive. The map may show that a particular section is 200 kilometres – three hours’ driving at most, you may think – but that road could be corrugated, potholed, or washed out. If you try to tackle too much distance, you may very well run out of holiday before you reach your destination! (Ed: Happily, T4A’s new paper maps include driving time based on real user experience.
Go to www.tracks4africa.co.za/maps/about/paper/ for more information.)
For example, if you have a 10-day break and you’re going into the wilds, then you should plan your trip to last, say, seven days. That way, if you’re held up anywhere by adverse conditions, you should still have a great time. You also may want to spend extra time somewhere along the way.
We once arrived at Savuti, Botswana, at the end of a dry season, and the river there was the focus of thousands of animals. In addition to the usual elephant, there were vast herds of game: wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, kudu, eland, roan, sable, impala... the variety seemed endless. And, of course, the predators were having a field day. The scenes at the Chobe River were much the same when we arrived there, but with the added treat of enormous herds of elephant and buffalo coming to drink in the evening.
As usual we were short of time, and the people we were travelling with were running the trip like a military manoeuvre. Even though it created some disagreement, I refused to leave, and stayed an extra couple of days to enjoy and photograph these sensational game movements. Somehow I just knew that such a sighting could well be a one-off. I’ve been back a few times since then, but have never had the privilege of seeing such sights again.
2 Don’t forget your jersey
We often make the mistake of not packing proper warm clothing. Most of the time I travel in shorts and sandals – but even though it may be summer, and hot, when you leave home, you simply can’t bank on the weather staying that way. I’ve discovered that snow and ice can arrive at any time of the year. If you find this hard to believe, remember that just a handful of years ago the Cape mountains were covered with snow on Boxing Day. And remember that even in the desert, it can be really cold in the evenings when you’re sitting around the fire. While camping in the open in the Kalahari, I’ve had ice form on my sleeping bag during the night. Unexpected cold like that can be a serious matter if you’re not prepared for it, as hypothermia can be a killer. I have a special duffle bag in which I pack my warm clothing - this soft bag also proves useful for chocking loose items in the back of the vehicle when travelling. Of course, you may not have to use your warm gear on any given trip, but if the weather does turn cold you’ll be very glad to have it with you.
3 Put the sun-visor down
Another tip to help with tiredness and eye-strain is to keep your sun-visor down during a long drive. I’m a filmmaker by profession, and one day, on impulse, I held a light-meter up to the windscreen. Pointing it down the road, I found the reading was normal, but when I lifted it up to the sky, the needle went off the scale. It’s that ultra violet light coming through the upper portion of the windscreen that overtaxes the eyes and tires one out. Driving with the visor down makes a world of difference at the end of the day.
4 Pack extras for rainy days
Just in case you get stuck somewhere for a few days, it’s a good idea to pack some books, magazines and a pack of cards. For the kids, pack toys, games and books, too. None of this takes up much space, but as with many things, in a poor situation a little can go a long way in keeping your party reasonably happy.
5 If it’s5 dark, stop
Weather aside, another thing to be wary of is travelling at night, especially when you’re really tired after a long day on the road. At the best of times our roads can be dangerous, and after dark you’ll be contending with pedestrians, unlit vehicles, and animals, too. A good travelling schedule is to stop somewhere pleasant and safe in the late afternoon, make camp, have a good meal, enjoy some conversation around the fire, and then get to bed early. I get up at 04h00 or 04h30, pack the vehicle, have coffee and rusks, and set off. Then, just as it is beginning to get light and visibility is at its worst, I pull over at an appropriate spot and have breakfast. This way, I’m fresh after a good sleep; and there’s not much moving on the road, so I avoid many of the dangers but still keep up a good travelling average.
6 Don’t drive tired
A few years ago I was travelling to Namibia regularly, and often found that after getting up early, I would start getting drowsy at about 09h00. The solution to this problem was to stop somewhere and sleep for half an hour. After that snooze I could happily keep going for the rest of the day. It’s also generally recommended that on a long drive one stop for a break every two hours, as well as have a cold soft drink; and if possible, rotate drivers.
7 Slow down
Many off-road drivers drive too fast. These days, off-road vehicles are comfortable and fast, so it takes quite a lot of conscious effort to keep one’s speed down to safe levels. After many years of adventuring under all sorts of conditions, I advocate a cruising speed of between 100 and 110 km/h when travelling on a tarred road with a speed limit of 120 km/h. This is a reasonably economical speed and it doesn’t lose you much in the way of travel time. It’s an observable fact, that when travelling at a steady, constant speed, you often catch up with speedsters who overtook you earlier in the day.
When it comes to gravel roads, you must slow down a great deal more. Even a really good gravel road can be hazardous if you’re driving a heavily-packed vehicle at high speeds. There are often sudden bends in the road, or bumps, and not to mention the ever present threat of loose gravel. I’ve found that 80 km/h is the safest speed on a good gravel road. Bad roads must be negotiated more carefully, at a slower speed. A good rule of thumb: if your passengers are seriously bouncing around, you’re driving too fast.
8 Lose some weight
Don’t overload your vehicle. Packing the vehicle as lightly as possible contributes to your safety. We carry far too much stuff when going off-road, and most of that stuff is, to my mind, unnecessary. My personal wakeup call was when I discovered that some of my clients had explored much of Africa in the tiniest of 4x4s. It got me thinking, and since then, I’ve reduced weight in every way possible.
For instance, don’t carry stuff in glass; not only does it break, but it’s heavy. I now repack in plastic. Then there’s tinned food, which in bulk is really heavy. I now carry a limited supply and restock with necessities at the various destinations. You may think that buying foodstuffs in faraway places such as Botswana is too expensive, but I believe that the premium you may pay in so doing will ultimately be far, far less than having to replace springs, shocks and tyres on your vehicle due to overloading on bad roads. I also recommend carrying your fuel and water cans empty, and filling them only when you feel they will really be needed.