Voetspore’s Johan Badenhorst believes that owning a 4×4 should not be a barrier to exploring our beautiful continent.
One of the best things to do on a Saturday morning is to spend some quality time with your 4×4 vehicle. Either you sit at home in your garage, fitting a new gadget to your canopy, or you visit your local fitment centre to browse through their shelves and see what is new. What is there that you may perhaps buy yourself for Christmas? But this is an activity reserved for blue beard overlanders. There are others who, up till now, have been armchair 4×4 enthusiasts, only travelling with the Voetspore Team on TV. But there is a way of getting them into the market, and this is through the rapidly growing 4×4 rental market.
Anyone who recently travelled to Namibia, the Kgalagadi, Moremi or perhaps even the Richtersveld will testify to the massive increase in Hilixes, Cruisers, even Nissans and Rangers, fitted with a basic AluCab canopy, rooftop tent, one Cadac gas cylinder and a jerry can. They are all over the place. You see them at camp sites, water holes, in town, stocking up with supplies at the local Shoprite, and sadly, too often, also lying on their roof after a sharp bend in the road.
The 4×4 rental market in Southern Africa is exploding. Savanah 4×4, Britz, Avis 4×4 Rental… these companies are doing good business.
4×4 rentals are nothing new. In the past, these vehicles were mostly on offer by companies who got into the business in spite of the obstacles. With border crossings becoming easier, with less visa requirements for foreigners and with insurance companies taking the leap of insuring Safari vehicles, this business is exploding.
It is clear that driving a 4×4 requires some extra skill and experience. These skills are not tested before a licence is issued. With a normal Code B one cannot rent a truck or a motorbike. You need to be qualified. Additional testing needs to be done. Not with a 4×4 though. Anyone can do it. Just present your normal drivers licence and perhaps a International Drivers Licence, and you are good to go.
Most people who have driven on the tracks of safari destinations in Southern Africa have a story to tell of how they had to assist a German, French, Spanish or American tourist in his or her 4×4. Often it is only a question of engaging 4×4, or perhaps low range. Often a diff lock is required to get a vehicle unstuck. 99% of the time lowering the tyre pressure is sufficient.
I doubt if the rental companies give the clients a proper briefing of how to use the vehicle. But one must understand that a first visit to Africa can be a little overwhelming. All the excitement of being on holiday on a different continent. The expectations of perhaps seeing a lion or elephant. The opportunity to camp in the open. All this, by people who have, just a day or so ago, travelled with their BMW’s or Alfa Romeo’s at 140 km/h on the Autobahns or Auto Strada’s of Europe. Now, suddenly, it is a different kettle of fish, and with no experience or training, things are bound to go wrong.
Just getting stuck in the thick sand of the Moremi or Khaudum is one thing. Apart from being inconvenient, it can be harmless. Entering a corner on a gravel road in Namibia at 100 km/h may have fatal consequences. 4×4’s are not designed for high speed, even though most of Namibia’s gravel roads are in excellent condition.
Recently, on the very busy tourist route between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay, I saw yet another rented 4×4 lying on its roof. Fortunately a South African touring party, one of which was a medical doctor, arrived at the scene just before I did and attended to the passengers. One of the ladies was severely injured and was in need of medical attention. It would be more than an hour before the ambulance form Walvis Bay could reach them. But fortunately, in this case, there were no fatalities.
This is not always the case. Too often, what was supposed to be a wonderful Africa experience, ends in tragic disaster.
Does this mean that I am against the business of 4×4 Rentals? On the contrary, I believe it is essential in expanding the tourism industry in Southern Africa and can do wonders for our market. It makes these destinations accessible to hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign tourists. More importantly, it can introduce the locals to a fantastic life style.
A 4×4 vehicle is expensive. To have it properly fitted, even more so. Many people (read women) have their reservations regarding this lifestyle. Will I be able to cope with camping in the open? What are the bathroom facilities like? What if there are no toilets? Is it safe? Will the massive investment be a waste of money?
Many people did not grow up going on safari with their parents. Holidays in the great outdoors were limited to an annual visit to the Kruger with its tar roads, chalets and restaurants. But there is a different life out there. Something that can only be experienced in Africa. That is the reason why you need to have a 4×4. Before you buy one, rent one and see if you like it.
There are a few conditions. Make sure you deal with a reputable company. A breakdown in the Savuti is different to a flat tyre on the N1. The vehicle should therefore be well maintained, and should the unforeseen happen and help is required, the client must know who to phone with the satellite phone provided, and not be exposed to adverse condition any longer than necessary.
A proper briefing should be done with the client. Making a sharp turn with diff lock engaged on a tar road can seriously damage a vehicle. Driving with the wrong tyre pressure, too hard on gravel or too soft on tar, can have dire consequences. There is a reason why vehicles sometimes need to be engaged in 2×4, 4×4 or in diff lock. Some of the 4×4 rentals are even equipped with winches and recovery gear. Incorrect operation of this equipment by the uninformed can lead to devastating results.
Vehicles should also be properly equipped. On another visit to Namibia I met a Belgium couple in Rundu. They were about to go and have dinner at a local restaurant when my son and I invited them over for a braai. They had been on tour for three weeks in Namibia and limited their overnight destinations to places where there was a restaurant. Their kitchen equipment, provided by the 4×4 rental company, was so limited, they were not geared to have one of the quintessential Southern African experiences – a braai in the open under the stars.
To introduce newcomers to the market or to expose foreigners to our fantastic continent, 4×4 rental companies need to take some responsibility. Do it properly, brief clients properly, make sure they understand, and thousands can enjoy and experience what we have known for many years.
Text: Johan Badenhorst