Sometimes the road to Heaven leads through Hell


Sometimes the road to Heaven leads through Hell

In the leafy suburbs, those bulky 4x4s are often just status symbols. But look beyond that and you may discover a pathway to freedom, says ALI VAN WYK.


NEVER since have I felt as free as that time on the back of a huge Willys Jeep from the Botswana Army of the 1950s, wading halfway up its wheels through the waters of the Okavango Delta. We were on our way to the Nguma Island Lodge on the west of the Okavango system.

Or perhaps the freest moment was about 20 minutes before that, while we were drifting silently through a series of waterways in a mokoro, a canoe made from a tree trunk. It was late afternoon, the light was soft and warm, and the water speckled with purple and white water lilies.

We were surrounded by water birds — blue herons, giant herons, a variety of ducks, and in the trees the clear cry of the swamp boubou. When we got out of the mokoros and onto the Jeep and an old Land Rover bakkie, the Tswana guides warned us not to stand too close to the water. No need to tempt the crocodiles.

At one point, the water was too deep for the two vehicles, and we got back in the mokoros. The sun had just set when we came upon the magical world of Nguma Island, where the canvas tents were pitched in a clearing around a crackling fire, further lit from the surrounding trees by lanterns hanging like fireflies from its branches.

We were part of a group of 25 adventurers in 11 vehicles on a 10-day trip around the delta. We were supposed to drive our own vehicles up to the lodge but the annual flood in the Okavango was early that year. The people from the lodge arranged for us to leave our vehicles in a kraal near the A35, and we were on the mokoros, luggage and all.

Next to me, his eyes shining, was my four-year-old son, Christian. He claimed there were two more of his friends also with him – Spokie and Xandré – but after my initial surprise, I realised they lived only in his imagination.

Like a fish in the desert

A month before I had been appointed as the unlikely editor of a safari magazine. Drive Out was a magazine for 4x4 enthusiasts and born out of the success of the Afrikaans outdoor magazine Weg. Unlikely, because I wasn't the rugged outdoors type with khaki short sleeves straining to contain my upper-arm muscles, and a Leatherman on my belt.

I studied music, English and philosophy at university, where late at night and after a few drinks we would discuss politics or art with my fellow journalists at the student newspaper. We saw ourselves as rebels on campus, with our black military boots and matching overcoats, and what we thought of as our streetwise attitudes. We were not the sort to enjoy mountaineering or nature photography; those people were far away, maybe in the commerce or engineering faculties or somewhere in a koshuis.

And to be honest, I also had an unashamed bias against just about anyone in a 4x4. Only two types of people lived in that world, I thought at the time: first, the P&P brigade (Prado and Pajero), people who bought such vehicles for their luxury and ability to intimidate, and for their power on the open road.

These guys would use their car's 4x4 capabilities maybe once or twice, like that time he parked with his rear wheels in a mud puddle on the pavement outside Loftus. (And even then had to be towed out of there by a guy with a ‘real' Land Cruiser.)

The second type would be those weekend warriors with their Hiluxes and Ford Rangers who towered above the rest of the world like grasshoppers in mating season on their fat tyres and heightened suspension. On Saturday afternoons you would find them, emboldened by brandewyn and adrenaline, somewhere in the dunes beyond St Lucia, blissfully unaware that they'd just driven over the eggs of the last breeding pair of African oystercatchers.

But, as with any prejudice, I soon realised how wrong I was when I got to know the real 4x4 people. Make no mistake, those subcultures do indeed exist, but the weekend savages or Prado show-offs are only a fraction of the community. In fact, to this day I am friends with a few weekend-skollies. Lekker guys.

To hell with you

Actually, I was converted to the 4x4 lifestyle two years earlier when I worked for Weg, Drive Out's parent magazine. My predecessor at Drive Out, Barnie Louw, had to withdraw at the last moment from an expedition to drive the infamous Road to Hell pass, alongside the Orange River in the Northern Cape (not the Gamkaskloof Hell). So he asked me to go in his place.

The Road to Hell is not far from Goodhouse, believed to be the hottest place in South Africa, quite a distance west of the N7. Way back, this pass was used by an American miner, George Swanson, to transport ore out of the Orange River Valley with a pair of Series II Land Rovers, presumably sometime in the late 1950s. Swanson mined molybdenum, a metal used in steel alloys.

On the Thursday afternoon of a long weekend, I checked in with a lawyer from Stellenbosch, Johann Marais, and his son Schutz, a klong with the physical presence of a Springbok flanker. They drove an 80-Series Land Cruiser GXL, which I soon found out was a legendary off-road vehicle.

As we drove, the Marais' told me that the Road to Hell, along with Baboons Pass in Lesotho and Van Zyl's Pass in Kaokoland, is considered by the inner circle of 4x4 enthusiasts to be one of the most impassable routes in Southern Africa. The thing is, they told me, it's narrow, steep and rocky, and descends from a neck in the mountain all the way to the bottom of the Nougaseb Valley. The trip down is easy — any plaasseun in a two-wheel drive Isuzu bakkie can do it. The problem is that there's no place where you can turn around and go back, it's too narrow and steep.

Things get really tricky when you have to go back up. This requires a lot of experience and advanced 4x4 skills. One of the rock steps along the way is about a metre high, and navigating a vehicle over that requires the kind of skills you don't sommer acquire with your learner's licence.

Why the hell would anyone do this, I quietly asked myself, just as I have often wondered why people climb the Dawn Wall in the Yosemite National Park in America then jump off the cliff in a bat-like flying suit.

Powered by Piet and Telkom

The next morning in Springbok we met our guide, Piet van Heerde, a colossus of a man with a beard and calves like someone who grew up on a dikwielfiets.

Piet was something like Oom Kaspaas, a boere-hippy and a plattelandse seun with enough savvy to know how replace a wheel bearing in the middle of the Kalahari. He said no 4x4 course could equal his training — that of being a Telkom technician regularly tasked with fixing microwave towers in remote and mountainous areas.

In doing so, Piet destroyed more than his fair share of Telkom's Isuzu, Toyota and Nissan bakkies. When I met him, he was the proud owner of two 60 Series Land Cruisers from the 1980s, just as legendary as Johann's 80 Series. Just older, and quirkier.

Piet was full of stories. We soon knew all about the Tandjiesberge and the Rosyntjieberge of the Richtersveld, and Stinkfontein's Tatasberg and Blesberg. And the people of Namaqualand have names like balhaargras and volstruisdruiwe for the local flora.

By the time we reached the entrance to the pass early that afternoon, my fear of what lay ahead was very real. It's not actually a road, Johann Marais had said. Piet added: As jy hier in die kak kom, dan gaan jy in die kak bly." (“If you end up in shit along the way, you're going to stay in shit.")

But, as expected, the way down the pass was a pleasant experience. Our experienced drivers calmly guided the vehicles over the rocks at a civilised crawling pace.

When we set up camp down by the river in the late afternoon, my fear had turned to anticipation. Later, as I floated on my back in the middle of the Orange River and the sun cast its last rays in red on the towering rocks on the side of the mountain, I realised I had never experienced such remoteness before, and it was wonderful.

The next day would be the real test. Only about 800 metres of the pass that lay ahead was really demanding, but in one or two places it's so challenging that even experienced drivers go to bed early the night before and hold back on any drinking next to the campfire.

Unsurprisingly, the next day turned into an epic project. The biggest job was putting rocks into any deep holes so the wheels wouldn't spin on the way over, and to stack more rocks at the bottom of the bigger steps so the wheels would have something to grip on.

Everyone gets a pair of welding gloves, and you get to throw rocks the size of rugby balls around all day. Schutz Marais's energy and strength came in handy. I was with Piet when we got to the metre-high step. When you drive up such a steep incline, you can't see what's going on right in front of you — you only see the bonnet of the vehicle and the blue sky beyond. You have to trust someone standing at the top to guide you forward, and you won't even get that far if you haven't built up enough momentum by the time you reach the bottom of the incline.

With a cliff face on your left and a precipice on your right, it becomes a nerve-racking affair. Luckily, we got it right on the third attempt, and finally all three vehicles reached the top of the neck. It's a unique feeling. You're still high on adrenaline, but tired, relieved and wonderfully relaxed at the same time.

There, for the first time, I understood why people take on such seemingly pointless projects. Why people climb the Dawn Wall. The rare privilege of not allowing yourself to lose concentration for even a moment, all day long.

For a full six to seven hours, I thought of nothing but the task before us. Not once did I think about a grumpy client, an overdue payment, a crochety boss or a child being difficult. It was like a week's holiday packed into only a few hours.

Lucky the Bakkie

From here on we drove to an idyllic spot along the Oranje, Ramansdrift, in a gorge west of Goodhouse, to relax for a couple of days. There were no facilities, just a natural lawn to camp on next to the wide, gently flowing river. Ideal.

When we arrived there, it was still a good 34˚C. Johann poured me an ice-cold beer from his camping fridge and I knew I was hooked. I mean, how else could you get such a refreshing head of foam in the middle of the desert after a few days of trekking? And as the guys also started unpacking their solar panels to keep the beers cold, I began asking: could someone with my limited resources also buy something that would give me access to this sort of lifestyle?

A four-year-old Christiaan van Wyk on Lucky the Bakkie at the Okavango River.
A four-year-old Christiaan van Wyk on Lucky the Bakkie at the Okavango River.

Of course, they replied as one. To my mind this was a rich man's game, but this is not necessarily the case, as it turns out. I realised that a good 4x4 is an excellent tool that can help you travel to places that few other people can get to, and that no travel agency can offer you.

“Just get yourself a good second-hand Japanese bakkie with a fixed front axle," said the guys. “Solid front axle" was one of the many 4x4 terms I learned since. Like wheel hubs and diff locks and rock sliders, a solid front axle simply means your vehicle's two front wheels sit at the end of one long, solid axle instead of two shorter axles that attach them independently to the chassis. Just like your first go-kart or tractor. This ensures the two front wheels always remain on the ground and never lose traction.

Back home in Cape Town I started looking. Within weeks, and in one of the best impulsive decisions of my life, we bought a red 1992 Toyota Hilux double-cab bakkie for R56,000. We are not exactly the sort of family that name our vehicles, but Lucky the Bakkie immediately caught on.

TOP LEFT: Magriet Theron makes tea on the side of the road in Lesotho. TOP RIGHT: The entire Van Wyk family with Lucky the Bakkie in the Kaokoland. Isabella, Thomas, Christiaan, Ali and Magriet.
TOP LEFT: Magriet Theron makes tea on the side of the road in Lesotho. TOP RIGHT: The entire Van Wyk family with Lucky the Bakkie in the Kaokoland. Isabella, Thomas, Christiaan, Ali and Magriet.

I went on that Okavango trip with Lucky just as I had bought it, with battered suspension and old tyres. My wife, Magriet, and I hesitated for a while about whether a four-year-old should go on safari alone with his dad for two weeks, but in another excellent instinctive decision we decided he should. We still find joy in looking at those photos.

With that old bakkie, with no air-conditioning or electric windows, our family drove around Southern Africa for the next 10 years. We went to the Wild Coast twice; to Botswana, the Richtersveld, through the Kaokoland, through Zimbabwe, through Lesotho in torrential rain, twice to Mozambique, and our own national parks countless times.

We didn't change Lucky much. We ended up having to replace the tired suspension and get better tyres; we bought a camping freezer, and a friend helped us with built-in drawers, a kitchen and an aluminium canopy.

Finally, after 10 years, a heatwave in December in the Richtersveld convinced us we needed “something with air-conditioning". Lucky was sold for R110,000 to a young guy who was looking for a vehicle with which he could drive around Africa.

♦ VWB ♦

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