overland Adventure ON THE ROAD WITH VOETSPORE
The intrepid Voetspore team is currently trekking between SA and Alexandria in Egypt, on an epic 20 000km adventure. However, the team’s VW Amarok bakkies were stopped in their tracks in the north of Kenya. Like the congenial penguin leader in the movie, Madagascar, the only thing that tour leader Johan Badenhorst could tell his colleagues was, “Just smile and wave, boys! Just smile and wave!”
Text: Johan Badenhorst
Photographs: Gideon Swart
I saw the Amarok for the first time at the Nampo agricultural trade show in 2010.
Like all motor and 4×4 enthusiasts, I was curious. What was the new kid on the block like? Is the engine too small for the application? Is the vehicle too sophisticated for African conditions? Had Volkswagen ventured into uncertain terrain, very much like Toyota did when they tried Formula 1? Would the outcome be the same?
More than a year later, the Voetspore team set off from the southernmost tip of Africa in three of these vehicles – two double cabs and one single cab. Our aim: Travel about 20 000km, all the way to Alexandria in Egypt.
The first part of the route was easy. South African roads were good, even though a few potholes had to be dodged. Then it was into Lesotho. The Amaroks’ 4×4 ability was put to the test straight away. Most of the driving was done in low range. The Amarok came through with flying colours.
We then tackled typical southern African safari routes — sometimes a track, sometimes gravel, sometimes potholed roads, sometimes good tarmac. These are not the type of conditions that influence your choice of vehicle very much. Most 4x4s would be comfortable — Isuzu, Ford, Toyota, Land Rover, Kia, Nissan, Hyundai, Tata, Jeep… and the Amarok.
The Amarok did offer something better than usual, though – comfort and fuel efficiency. If you spend many hours behind the wheel, comfort is of the utmost importance. If you pay the fuel bill, this also becomes a very important factor. In both these respects the Amarok stood out.
The kilometres ticked by, one border crossing after the other. Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia…There were many pot-holed roads and many gravel roads. Nothing too unfamiliar. But then you strike the north of Kenya.
The road north of Isiolo is known to be the worst in the world. It is just a couple of hundred kilometres, but television presenter Paul Theroux once named it the “longest road in Africa”. Once you’ve travelled it, you know why.
At Marsabit we turned west. We passed the Chalbi desert (which was then a lake because of the first decent rains in five years). We went to Gas. Then to Sibiloi National Park. The roads became tracks. The tracks became puddles of mud. But the Amaroks soldiered on, sometimes effortlessly.
We ran into administrative trouble. We had no visas for Ethiopia as we had been advised to get them at the border. But when we got there they turned us back to Kenya. “Go fetch your visas in Nairobi. No, rather go back all the way to South Africa. Go get them in Pretoria”.
It was a long way back. On the way, we had some technical problems with one of the vehicles, to put it mildly. The belt that drives most of the pulleys in the engine was torn to shreds. Some of the pieces went into the cam belt. The vehicle came to an immediate stop.
We opened what we could. We had assistance from a few bush mechanics – guys who are famous for fixing everything almost everywhere. No success was achieved this time. It seemed as though the problem was a little bigger than just replacing the belt and resetting the timing.
I phoned Bohdan de Wet in South Africa. He is Mr. Fixit for Volkswagen SA. He said he would fly up immediately to attend to the problem.
When Volkswagen made the offer to supply vehicles for this year’s expedition, it came with an additional offer: If you run into technical problems, we’ll send Bohdan to fix them.
The Amarok is a new vehicle. Thorough testing may have resolved most issues regarding reliability, but there is the odd chance that something unforeseen may happen, especially as we had fitted some aftermarket equipment, such as bull bars and suspension. This may have an unforeseen effect on the performance and reliability of the vehicle.
Bohdan asked us to get the vehicle to Nanyuki. This was a major undertaking. We managed, with the assistance of a Kenya Wildlife truck and its driver, who was prepared to drive for 30 hours non-stop.
We left Sibilio National Park just after one in the afternoon. At first it was a desert track, similar to those in Damaraland. By sunset we were approaching North Horr. The locals advised us not to proceed. No vehicles had reached this town in the past few days because of the torrential rain in the desert. We turned down their advice and pushed on.
The Track4Africa tracks were good. But roads and tracks change in the desert because of seasonal conditions. At times we found ourselves on totally different tracks to those on the GPS. We crossed dry sections of higher ground. Then, every so often, it was down to a “dry” riverbed. These riverbeds had become stretches of mud. We had to tackle the terrain with a fair amount of momentum, in low range.
Do I have any doubts about the 4×4 ability of the Amarok? Not after that journey through the desert, one night in November, 2011. These vehicles were developed to tackle serious terrain.
We arrived in Nanyuki at the same time as Bohdan flew in from SA with a new head for the two-litre engine. He had his suspicions about what had gone wrong.
Bohdan examined the problem. Further investigation will probably prove his theory, but at this stage it looks as though the problem originated with the bull bar, which has fins that might have directed dust and small pebbles onto the belt. This caused the belt to eventually tear, and pieces of the belt went into the cambelt. This had a major effect on the engine itself – the valves were burnt.
Bohdan had brought a complete new head for the engine. Within a day he had everything replaced, and we could continue our journey.
These are the kind of problems we believe are being sorted by VW as part of their learning curve in this demanding market. Perhaps a small adjustment to the ARB bull bar is all that is needed. Or a minor adjustment to the cambelt cover design.
In any case, to rectify the problem so that it doesn’t happen again seems a small matter in the overall scheme of things, but it had a major effect on us. We were fortunate to have Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles standing up to their promise to assist us with anything, anywhere in Africa.
So, sure, there may be a few issues relating to specific applications — reliability, for one. But with Volkswagen, one believes they will be addressed.
Where I, like so many others, had my doubts when I first saw this “wolf” from the Volkswagen stable at the Nampo exhibition near Bothaville in 2010, I now have full confidence that this is a serious player in the 4×4 market.
I did, however, have the advantage of driving it from Agulhas to Alexandria. This remains a privilege.
Want to know more?
Check out the official Voetspore website at www.voetspore.co.za. Here Johan Badenhorst posts daily updates on the team’s progress, backed by some excellent photography. If you need more information on the VW Amarok bakkies, as used by the Voetspore team, visit www.megaworld.co.za