Renault trucks Cape to Cape Expedition

Before February 2009 Capetonian Leon Nel had never ventured across the “big pond”. But when the Renault Trucks workshop manager and keen off-roader entered a competition to join the Renault Trucks Cape to Cape expedition and was selected, he made up for all those Africa-bound years in one fell swoop. Or a 40-day, eight-country swoop, in six-wheel and four-wheel-drive Renault trucks. This is his story

Text: Danie Botha Photographs: Leon Nel, Renault Press

You are a marketing type, working with Renault Trucks in France.

A brief lands on your desk to “demonstrate the company’s skills and know-how, show the quality of the product, verify the success of new emission technology, and reinforce the image of the brand on markets that are currently expanding”.

Easy! Drive a convoy of Renault trucks more than 30 000km, from North Cape in Norway to Cape Town in South Africa.

Sound ambitious? Sure does.

Yet this was exactly what the marketing types at Renault Trucks’ headquarters in Lyon, France, came up with. Their grand plan included a total of 50 drivers, consisting of employees of Renault Trucks, journalists, customers and the official team members.

And this is where Leon Nel, workshop manager at Renault Trucks in Cape Town, fits into the picture. The adventure was advertised in an internal newsletter, with a call for Renault Trucks employees to apply to join the Cape to Cape adventure.

“I love off -roading and overlanding in my Land Rover, so I didn’t waste much time applying for the adventure of a lifetime,” Leon says.

Leon Nel was selected, along with a fellow South African Renault Trucks employee. In February 2009 the two men were flown to Lyon, in France, for a final two-day selection test in what resembled a bit of a Camel Trophy-type competition.

“We had to drive the vehicles, demonstrati ng that we knew how to handle them in tricky off -road conditions. We had to perform navigational tasks, with compasses. We had to complete obstacle courses, in group format, to test our aptitude for problem solving and working together as a team. We even had to do some physical tests,” explains Leon.

Leon made the cut, but his South African colleague did not. Some more good news was due for Leon.

“The route we were to follow on the adventure had been scouted a year before our arrival in France. The official start of the adventure was at Cape North, but the convoy of Renault trucks obviously had to reach Cape North for the actual event to start.

“I was lucky… not only was I to join the convoy from Cape North, all the way to Kiev in the Ukraine, but I was to help drive the vehicles from Lyon, which is in France, all the way north through France, Luxemburg, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, to Cape North. Then drive through Russia and finally arrive at Kiev, in the Ukraine! All 40 days of it,” beams Leon.

And so the wheels of 12 Renault trucks – six Humvee-style Renault Sherpa 4x4s and six Renault Kerax six-wheel drive Dakar Rally-style trucks – started turning on the 4800km northern trip to reach the official starting point of the adventure.

Along the way the Renault Trucks marketing types had planned various display events too.

“In Germany, near the town of Wuppertal, a special off-road ride-and-drive event for current and prospective customers was held in an old mine quarry. The vehicles were extremely capable, and the six-wheel drive Kerax was especially amazing in the way that it didn’t falter one bit in deep mud and snow,” says Leon.

Snow? Indeed.

It was the height of the European winter at the time and as the convoy headed north it became increasingly colder.

“Europe is a beautiful place, but I imagine it would be so much better in summer! In Denmark and Sweden we had more customer events, and gala dinners. A personal highlight for me was the hotel in Gothenburg in Sweden, situated on the waterfront, right next to the largest harbour in all the Nordic countries. I watched transfixed as these massive vessels were loaded with thousands of vehicles,” Leon says.

Another Swedish highlight was the Gulf of Bothnia, at the town of Umea. The sea was frozen!

“I can now say that I also walked on water!” jokes Leon. “It was quite surreal and a bit unsettling, walking on this frozen surface, checking out the shoreline from ‘the other side’. But it is something I won’t forget in a hurry.”

The convoy also visited Denmark, and drove on several massive bridges spanning the North Sea and islands, linking Denmark and Sweden. Once they even drove under the sea, in a tunnel.

“The infrastructure is amazing! Those bridges and the tunnels are really, really impressive. Near Söderhamn in Sweden the frozen roads were so slippery that the trucks just kind of followed their own track, no matter what steering inputs we made. That was a bit nerve-racking! Interestingly, in places the locals had created perfect ice-skating areas that extended kilometres into the sea,” says Leon.

Leon was very impressed with Finland and its people.

“The Finnish are so friendly. Genuinely friendly, not ‘let’s smile for the sake of smiling’ friendly. We had a great product-display event near the town of Saarileska, where we duly impressed potential customers with the 6×6 and 4×4 trucks’ performance in thick snow in the forests. We also had a two-hour fun ride on 600cc snowmobiles. That was great!” says Leon.

But there was the small matter of the Cape to Cape adventure still on the agenda.

And so, finally, the convoy arrived at Cape North – with temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius!

“Eventually I found minus eight degrees Celsius quite accommodating. But at times it was so cold that no one dared venture outside,” says Leon.

And so, on 1 March 2009, the Renault Trucks Cape to Cape adventure officially got underway. The first leg took the 12-vehicle convoy from Cape North towards the Russian border, as the Renault trucks hugged the coastline on rough, snow-covered and muddy tracks.

“It was cold and driving through the thick snow was no picnic, but two days later we arrived at the Russian border post, near the seaport city of Murmansk in the extreme north-west part of Russia. And if you ever thought we had it bad in Africa with border-crossing red tape, you haven’t been to Russia!” laughs Leon.

The convoy was stuck at the border for 17 hours.

“We arrived there at 10am in the morning, and it was 4am the next morning when we were finally given the green light. I didn’t mention it at the time, but I had a sneaky suspicion that it was my South African passport that caused the problem. But we were finally in Russia and headed for the city of Murmansk,” says Leon.

It turned out to be a dreary, grey and utterly uninviting place.

“All the houses resembled identical pigeonholes. At least it seemed as if you could choose your colour of pigeonhole: light grey, standard grey, or dark grey! We were relieved when the convoy headed out of Murmansk the following day,” remembers Leon.

The Russian roads proved to be in a terrible state as the convoy headed south.

“Public toilets are non-existent. Filling stations next to the highway, like we have here, are a pipedream in Russia. From Murmansk we aimed for the White Sea and over the next few days stayed over in nondescript, run-down little towns, inhabited by people who were very clearly battling to make ends meet. “Eventually we arrived in the city of St. Petersburg, situated on the Baltic Sea. We spent three days there, exploring this old city in between official duties like customer events and gala dinners. Beautiful old palaces and churches forced us to face the freezing weather and go exploring,” says Leon.

After staying over in another nondescript little town just north of Moscow, the team arrived in the Russian capital.

“While St. Petersburg had so much to offer in terms of history and architecture, it was immediately clear that there was a lot more money doing the rounds in Moscow. The city’s people are rich! After two interesting nights in Moscow, and more customer events, we headed to Voronezh. We were now en route to the Ukraine,” explains Leon.

The city of Voronezh turned out to be a bit of a revelation. When the convoy arrived on the city’s outskirts a police escort was waiting. The Renault convoy was escorted with blaring sirens to their hotel in the city. Later more customer demonstrations followed, especially with regards to the new Euro 4 emission technology used in the Renault trucks.

From there the convoy headed to the dreary town of Kursk, which shares its name with the Russian nuclear submarine that tragically sank in 2000, killing all 158 crew members.

Next was the border crossing from Russia to the Ukraine, and it made the initial crossing into Russia look like a Sunday school picnic.

“We were there for 30 hours! We joked that there was probably a competition between the Russians and Ukranians to see which side could hold us up the longest. But it took us 30 long hours to cross that border,” remembers Leon.

On 19 March 2009 the convoy rolled into Kiev, the end of Leon’s adventure.

“Kiev is another historic city, with very old and beautiful buildings. We stayed at one of the best hotels in the city, and that evening, along with 400 other guests, I had my last dinner with the Cape to Cape group. It was a fitting end to an unbelievable, amazing experience,” says Leon.

The next morning Leon bid his travelling companions and the Renault Sherpa and Kerax trucks farewell and boarded a plane to Cape Town. Another Renault Trucks employee, a journalist or a customer would take over his seat in the convoy.

On 4 July 2009 the 12-truck convoy finally arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, after covering nearly 30 000 virtually trouble-free kilometres. Leon was there to meet his friends and colleagues and share in the moment.

And even though he didn’t say it in as many words, we’re sure Leon Nel is also very impressed by the marketing types at Renault Trucks in France.

Fine ideas those guys have.

Mighty fine ones.