Four guys live the overland dream when they rebuild a 1969 Land Rover Forward Control and head north through Africa, taking the slow road to Rwanda. This is the first part of their amazing journey, related by Mitchell Sohn.
The idea of an Africa trip was born between four friends from Knysna sometime after high school. All four worked abroad for several years, saving enough funds before coming together to make the trip happen. Jon-Jon Abelheim worked as an English teacher in Vietnam, Harry Maarsingh as an engineer in Saudi-Arabia, Mitchell Sohn on the superyachts in the USA and Mediterranean, and Tuscan Hayward in construction in Niger.
The question then became what would be the appropriate vehicle. We wanted something we could fit bunk beds into. Pure chance and a number of beers brought Jon-Jon into conversation with a Forward Control owner in Knysna. The next day he searched Gumtree classifieds and found Agnes (now named after my late grandmother), a 1969 Land Rover Forward Control 2b. Because she was used by the SADF as a radio command vehicle her total mileage of 27 000km appears to have been genuine.
Jon-Jon and Tuscan flew up to Pretoria and drove Agnes to Knysna with her original engine, which produced a maximum speed of 40km/h. It took them four days to complete the trip, armed with only a pair of long-nose pliers, a roll of duct tape, Leatherman, and a stubby flat-screwdriver.
The original six-cylinder engine proved to be unreliable and it is known among Land Rover enthusiasts that its best use should be as a boat anchor.
A new 300TDi engine was ordered from Land Rover UK and installed with an R380 gearbox. She then underwent a five-month refit in Mitchell’s workshop, in Knysna. Four bunk beds were fitted, which convert to seating benches. The ceiling and interior were panelled and cupboarded with 6mm yellowwood. In went a 100-litre water tank, outdoor hot shower, and gas geyser. Other equipment added into the mix included aluminium sand ladders and five-ton bridging ladders, a five-ton manual Tirfor Winch, two spare wheels, two 100W solar panels, a 1 000W inverter, two 40-litre Engel fridge/freezers, and a serious sound system.
Agnes can now reach speeds of 120km/h but is most economical at 80km/h where she consumes 17litres/100km on average when fully loaded with four people. She carries 150 litres of diesel, which gives a range of around 900km.
In the course of extensive research on outfitting the vehicle, we came across Jan Vorster’s account of his travels. Jan has travelled through more than 111 countries over two decades, much of it in an extensively modified identical model vehicle he calls ‘Dipli’. Many of the modifications on Agnes were based on the specifications of Dipli from Jan’s website www.overlandhb.co.za.
South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia
We hit the road on 8 October 2019, tackling the Sani Pass with minor teething issues – a snapped throttle cable and a puncture. Then our brakes began overheating as we descended into Lesotho, so we crawled down in first gear low range. This was at a speed so slow that we got the deck chairs out on the roof to watch the sunset with beers in our hand, while one person drove.
We spent six days in Jan’s workshop in Johannesburg and got to know how our brakes worked. He informed us that the shoes weren’t correctly set, which is why they overheated on the pass. At Jan’s recommendation, we reinforced the swivel-ball to axle flanges with high tensile steel bolts using a jig he had made himself. This would prevent us from shearing the bolts on the swivel flange as we travel at a heavier weight than the maximum recommended by Land Rover. Agnes weighs 4.3 tons fully loaded, which is half a ton more than factory recommendation.
We also added a snorkel and Donaldson air filter while at Jan’s workshop and, in between, listened to stories of his extensive travels over braaivleis and beer.
A brief tour through the South Western Kgalagadi brought us into Namibia. The road stretched on through relentless corrugations and on to a mountainous landscape of dry shrubs and a sparse layer of crystals of all kinds of colours. It seemed at some points as though we had entered a rift onto another planet.
A steep descent down Spreetshoogte Pass brought us to a viewpoint where we camped overlooking a breathtaking lower escarpment. As the sun set we could hear the soft grunts of mountain zebra on the adjacent ridge; a herd of four. We toasted bread on the fire and made rib, cheese, and tomato toasties. At night the headlights of a vehicle could be seen approaching from the farthest end of the low-lying plateau. The space the headlights occupied was so vast that any sound of the vehicle was drowned out until it appeared over the nearest hill. This would be the only vehicle to pass us until we finished our breakfast the following morning.
Swakopmund and then Spitzkoppe were next, as we aimed to do some rock climbing. The climbing was challenging due to the nature of the granite rock, it was all friction climbing. Spitzkoppe’s campsites are breathtaking and we enjoyed the first real test of our potjie pots.
We then headed for the Skeleton Coast National Park, stopping at Torra Bay, where we met Titos, a Namibian man who maintains the camp by himself year-round until it is staffed for the December season when fishing is permitted. Titos walks a 3km route along the coast to fish for himself. He tells us he does not walk this route during dusk or dawn because of the presence of desert lion drawn to eating seals along the beach, because of the increasing scarcity of game. It’s their way of surviving Namibia’s long drought. The country as a whole was in dire need of rain when we visited.
After camping in a dry riverbed near the gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park, we were woken by rangers at 7:00. They said they were tracking rhinos and asked if we’d seen them. (Now that was ironic!) Next, they asked if we had any cold beer. (It was 7:00.) We watched them walk down the riverbed and out of sight to where they no doubt never found rhino.
We stopped in at Etosha National Park next, but became frustrated at the amount of traffic in the park and decided that we would prefer to get right off the beaten track. At that moment we ran into overlanders from Wilderness, our neighbouring town. We recognised their vehicle and they told us of their recent trip to Angola.
Just 12 hours later we were headed for Angola’s capital Luanda, instead of our original route straight to Malawi via Victoria Falls.
The border crossing to Angola was a convoluted procedure that required police clearance documents and the other usual vehicle certificates, as well as printed photos of the front, side, and rear of the vehicle. We used our Polaroid camera to photograph the vehicle and print tiny photos on the spot, which were accepted and stapled to other official documents. We didn’t have a copy of our police clearance, which the customs official could do but not without a bribe. This would be the single most expensive photocopy we’d ever paid for at around R200, as they were closing in minutes and we had no option!
Angola far exceeded expectations. The people were kind, friendly, and without malice. In general, we felt very safe and wild-camped most nights. Roadside food was cheap and basic. A fresh bucket of mangos cost R3.50. Fresh, delicious Portuguese rolls were just R3.
We stayed in the capital city, Luanda, at the yacht club. They provide free parking overnight for overlanders, showers are available, as well as restaurants and WiFi. Here we met several other overlanders – most of them from Europe – and formed a large table with all of them for beers and local food. These would be the only English-speaking people we would meet in the country in the month we were there. The language barriers of Angola would prove to be vast.
In the city, a convoy of diplomatic vehicles screamed past us with their sirens on. One of them tried to pass through a ridiculous gap in traffic and clipped our bull bar, wrenching it forwards. The police officer who was driving tried to get us to follow him to get a quote and pay for the damage on his vehicle. We told him this was ridiculous and we wouldn’t pay a cent seeing as we never caused the accident. So to the police station it was. We sat down in the police chief’s office where he used two toy cars on his desk to establish what happened, manoeuvring one past the other between a stapler and paper clips.
Then he went outside, took one look at the damage, which in itself shows what happened, and scolded the driver. All we understood was “…company car!” while he used his two toy cars to illustrate how one should give more space when overtaking. We left with a handshake from the chief and a bent bumper, which would remind us of the time we took the police to the police station.
Next, we headed east to do some rock climbing at Pedras Negras and to see Kalandula Falls, which were spectacular in their grandeur and solitude. There were no tourists, other than ourselves and one other overlanding vehicle, in sight. We managed to drive Agnes to the base of the waterfall for some spectacular footage. Spray from the falls was misting the windows and we had to shout to each other to be heard above the roar of the water.
We started for the Jimbe border to Zambia and, along the way, encountered the worst tarred roads we’d ever seen. Potholes were the size of wheelbarrows and often stretched across the entire road, made worse by long stretches of good tar which deteriorated again without warning over a blind rise or sharp corner. As a result, we hit big potholes twice with great force, and once we could swear we were airborne. On inspection of the wheels and leaf springs everything seemed unscathed, but later, down a very remote sandy ‘jeep-track’, our rear-left wheel fell off! We suspect that the stub axle cracked in one of the big pothole incidents, which caused the side shaft to wear and weaken on the now misaligned casing, which in turn lead to it snapping under torsion in sand.
Fortunately, we had the spare parts needed (a new side shaft and stub axle specific to the rear-left wheel). We reassembled everything over a couple of hours and made it another 100 metres before our brake master pin snapped. Now we had no brakes at all! Some would say this is Murphy’s Law. We drilled and tapped a long nut of our own, which we used to extend the thread of the brake booster pin, joining it to another bolt. All this was done on the spot in two hours. It was a blessing that two serious breakdowns happened in such close proximity and at low speeds. During the whole day only one car passed us on the sandy track; a Portuguese professor in a new Land Cruiser who worked locally in conservation. We waved him on and were ready to go by sunset.
After the sandy track, we continued down a road recommended by locals and the professor we had met the day before. It was a succession of deep ruts, roots and wooden bridges; perhaps the worst road we’d ever seen. Sometimes it changed to a single track, and sometimes there was no road at all – only a walking trail weaving through tall grass.
The wooden bridges had surely never taken such a load. They creaked and cracked as splintered logs dislodged and fell aside. Further on, some of the road had such deep, uneven, and muddy tyre tracks that we would have tipped had we not kept our speed through them. Our feet got wet upfront in the cockpit as a result. After three days we had covered 160km of this road when again we saw the only other motor vehicle – the same Portuguese professor, this time in a Polaris ATV. He was very impressed and said he’d placed bets with his colleague on how far down the track he’d find us bogged in the mud.
On the last 100-metre stretch of road to the Zambian border gate (which was just a single long wooden gum pole) we powered through the thickest bog of deep mud we had experienced yet and joked how ironic it would be to get stuck in sight of the gate.
The guard rushed to lift the boom for us, knowing that if we stopped we would be thoroughly stuck. Upon having our passports stamped out of Angola at this remote border gate, we noticed the officer change the date on the stamp from its position some years back, suggesting – as the road had – that nobody had passed through this route for quite some time.