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Seeing the World from the Back of a Truck
There is a breed of trucker that fleet managers would hardly acknowledge as real transport professionals at all. Yet they are experts at their jobs and face tougher conditions, further from base, than many other truckers. They are the overlanders – the drivers and their back-up crews who turn the world into a rolling spectacle for the increasing number of travellers who love to rough it. FleetWatch correspondent, Graeme Addison, himself a former tours operator with a fleet of vehicles, describes the accelerating craze to get out there, get muddy and do it on four muddy wheels.
Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond and a British intelligence officer during World War 2, once told a tale illustrating the importance of trust when planning field operations. Just before the Allied landings in Morocco and Algiers, a leaflet was prepared in Arabic to rally the people. It was sprinkled by the boxload over coastal cities and desert villages. The leaflet was the handiwork of the Political Warfare Department but its translation was entrusted to a former Casablanca tea merchant who had joined the Free French.
The leaflet worked. At least, it produced a great welcome among the people whose thirst for liberation appeared to be overwhelming. Only afterwards did an American agent demand to know why Political Warfare had invested so much effort in a handout that said: "Drink Mohammed Ali’s Green Tea!"
I had a similar experience in the badlands of KwaZulu/Natal while running whitewater rafting operations on the Tugela River. My ops manager at the time, a huge Zulu named Mjwara – "Joe" to us – sported bead-encrusted dreadlocks and spoke English with an Oxford accent which he had picked up from a Mission education.
He was sent to pacify the tribes in the Msinga District where there is always a lot of faction fighting. We didn’t so much mind what the warriors did to each other as worry that they might turn on our boatloads of Joburg yuppies and foreigners who just wanted to be innocently scared in the rapids. To promise them the thrill of a lifetime was one thing, but actual bloodletting was not in the tour itinerary.
So Joe drove off with a white assistant in a 4X4 Bedford truck to talk to headmen all over the district. When I got down there, my welcome was overwhelming which puzzled me a bit though I put it down to excellent communication work by the team. In the previous season, our presence had been greeted with suspicion, partly I suppose because the Bedford was ex-SADF Angolan campaign and looked like a security force vehicle.
As it turned out, the Bedford was the reason for our newfound popularity. Equipped with a row of large lockable toolboxes along both sides, it was the perfect undercover dagga trading vehicle. Police seldom stopped it on the open highway and if they did, everything was in order. The toolboxes stayed locked as drivers explained that in there we carried the tools and spares necessary for field repairs, down to a new clutch plate.
One morning I opened one of the toolboxes myself and the truth spilled out in a grassy pile. There was a dramatic reorganisation of company personnel – redeployment is what we would call it now – with Joe and his sidekick being taken off the community relations beat to labour in the salt mines of raft repairs. Naturally, there was ill-feeling about this on both sides. The villagers kept sidling up and asking for Joe, while he was disgruntled and eventually left the job for finer pastures. Still, thanks to this exercise in communication, the season got off to a good start and our clients were none the wiser but far safer.
My business was on the fringe of what is called adventure trucking. Every overland trucker in Africa, Asia, South America and Australia has stories to tell. Most are deeply law-abiding because they can’t afford to take chances but they have stories all the same, funds of them. They will tell you about the hilarious and horrendous moments that happen when the tour party is about as far from help as it can get.
A growing industry
These are the explorers of modern times. Overlanding is a growing industry as hordes of backpackers pile aboard specially equipped trucks to wander through the world’s unspoiled places.
"We got stuck in the Namib Desert at Sossusvlei – in the mud," says Marcelle Coetzee, now a marketing consultant for Which Way Adventures of Somerset West in the Cape. "It was just our luck to arrive at the place in Africa with the least rainfall as the first flood in 23 years hit the place."
Both trucks in the convoy got stuck and 15 volunteers pushed them out. "The party was keen to participate and get dirty, even some of the girls," says Marcelle. "It left us with a great spirit afterwards!"
By driving into unspoiled places, you begin to spoil them. This is, of course, a contradiction that the ecotourism industry struggles to overcome. Most try to impart to their clients a wilderness ethic that imbues love for the outdoors, respect for the heritage and cultures of indigenous people, and minimum impact on wildlife habitats. Tread lightly, they say, in your heavy-duty offroader.
It’s difficult to estimate the size of the adventure trucking sector or its economic spin-offs (see panel story). There is no doubt that since 1994, when South Africa opened up in a big way to international tourism, overlanders have grown apace, both in the form of local businesses and as incoming tour operators from other countries. Locally, the biggies are Drifters and Which Way Adventures, while well-known names of foreign operators are Exodus and Contiki. There are many more ploughing the muddy and sandy roads from Serengeti to Kathmandu.
An overland expedition is a journey along a planned (but not always followed) route aimed at the more adventurous and budget-conscious traveller, usually around 15-20 at a time. Many of the areas visited do not have the infrastructure that the package tourist looks for but this is the whole attraction of the thing. Everything must be carried, from camp and catering gear to a workshop including chains and pulleys to haul out the engine.
These truckers are providing work for guides, mechanics, tour agencies, camp managers…and traffic police. There have so far been no reports of hijackings. Maybe that’s because it’s a bit daunting to tackle a truck full of youngish, tough-looking guys and gals driven by weather-beaten guides who look as if they can defend themselves. Not a soft touch, not like a minibus filled with camera-bedecked, wallet-packing visitors from abroad on tour of Soweto for a day.
Trucks are custom built
The trucks are custom-built to suit their application: large windows for game and scenery viewing, spacious interiors, roomy enclosed compartments for baggage, 250-litre water tanks, freezer, additional fuel tanks, huge roofracks, drop-down tables and pull-out tarps for field kitchens, radio-tape systems and internal p/a, floodlights and a generator that runs off the engine. Some have their ground clearance jacked up even higher than normal and all carry sandmats, digging tools, an assortment of jacks - and probably a winch.
The only thing they seem to lack is camouflage netting for air raids - and even that may come if conditions in Africa continue to worsen. Visiting "the World’s Most Dangerous Places" (the title of a best-selling guidebook by British adventurer Robert Pelton) is exactly what some tourists wish to do.
"Our vehicles are used under extremely harsh conditions," says Drifters, based in Johannesburg (www.drifters.co.za.) Its trucks are used all over the subcontinent under the slogan: Roughing it and Loving it.
"We are unable to simply purchase our vehicles off the shelf. Each vehicle has to be manufactured to our specific needs within the parameters of what is available. So remember, when things have that well-worn look, it is because they work hard and they work well!"
Most operators have their own workshops where all vehicle adaptations and maintenance tasks are carried out, while drivers are fully trained for field repairs. The scale of operations justifies this outlay on facilities and training.
Which Way runs a fleet of approximately sixteen 24-seater trucks powered by ADE 352T engines. The choice of the ADE engine is not arbitrary. Because all truck manufacturers were obliged to fit these engines during the sanctions years, spares are easy to come by throughout the subcontinent. Old engines are available to be reconditioned and fitted to the Isuzu, Nissan Diesel and Mercedes-Benz trucks that Which Way buys on auctions and refits for adventure.
Says Cany Bugler, MD of Which Way Adventures: "When our driver is faced with a problem and he has 22 passengers asking him when they’re gonna get rolling, he has little choice but to find the fault and repair it." Thus it is that the ADE engines, so well known to so many, are convenient for the company especially in the more remote areas.
Founded in 1990 by a group of former river guides, Which Way quickly established itself in the market for northbound expeditions. "Having travelled extensively in Africa, we watched with interest the advent of southbound overland trucks, and noticed a large gap…where were the northbound expeditions?" Which Way filled the gap, resulting in its fleet of yellow trucks which have been likened to the characteristic yellow cabs of New York, though conditions are slightly different.
Cany describes a breakdown 200km north of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. "We drove up from Cape Town with a spare engine and did a ‘transplant’ using a tree and a chain to get the motor out and a very large frying pan to slide the new engine in under the truck."
As one can imagine, being involved in overlanding and covering thousands upon thousands of kms a year far from garages, the company’s bush mechanics have come into their own. "The fastest engine transplant on the road took the mechanic precisely six hours."
Which Way vehicles in fact carry very few spare parts with them because the trucks are given a thorough going-over after every tour and receive a complete service. According to Roy Goddard, 43, a former electronics technician who now drives for Which Way, only the trucks going into deepest Africa carry springs, pistons and clutch plates.
Roy admits that as a driver, he does not have much time for a home or family life. "You couldn’t do this if you were married – you would be worried about what she was up to and she, likewise, about you!"
But for Marcelle Coetzee, 28, who has been with the company for four years and only recently came off the road to join head office, the best experiences were out there sharing adventure with others. Marcelle worked as a courier – basically the person who organises the commissariat from buying to catering.
"In the life out there you learn a lot about accepting things. Basic values and needs become important: shelter, love and friendship, a square meal, and you learn to appreciate nature that much more because you live by its rules from sunrise to sunrise."
Exhausted but smiling
A pair of drivers I met on the road at Bloemfontein, in an Exodus overland vehicle, were on their way back from Victoria Falls. Exhausted but still smiling, they cheerfully handed me a copy of the London-based company’s brochure for Africa, South America and Asia.
It boggles the mind to imagine crossing China, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Nepal, from Beijing to Kathmandu, in a mere month. The trip takes in the resting place of Genghis Khan and a look at the massive Potala Palace, seat of the (now exiled) Dalai Lama. Once again, Mercedes-Benz trucks are used but interestingly, in Asia fast two-wheel drive vehicles are the norm because its mainly well-surfaced roads make four-wheel drive unnecessary.
It’s a big world for the wide-eyed traveller who ventures a month to a year on any of these explorations. Most of the trips are really safe because local people welcome tourists. Comprehensive insurance is usually insisted upon by the operator who may have to fly injured or sick clients out, or cancel a trip when making a quick getaway from a politically volatile area.
The unexpected is all part of the experience, says Exodus in its publicity. For the author of "dangerous places", Robert Pelton, "adventure is the world’s greatest teacher and like all teachers will tell you, the more attention you pay the more you learn." Pelton says he personally got into adventure by seeking out places that were charged with danger. "I now realise I needed this high level of intensity to pay attention."
Not everyone is a risk junkie like Pelton. But once the overlander bug has bitten, the only cure is to get out and see the world – from the back of a truck.