Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cape Town to the Namibia border

John's Photo

As John has requested a close-up photo of the XP I thought how better to start this update than with a John photo. As you can see we fly the American Eagle each time we raise the camper! Lots of looks but no comments yet. Actually it was a test as we wanted to add murals on the sides of the camper and we weren't sure if lowering and raising the camper would rub the murals off so we bought this cheap sticker and after hundreds of lowering and raising it is still there. Never got around to doing the murals though!

American Eagle
Northern Cape

After leaving Cape Town we then spent a couple of days at Yzerfontien where the beautiful white sand beach stretches for 16 miles. Great for walking and enjoying the cool ocean breeze. Our camping neighbors were cattle and wheat farmers from nearby Malmesbury and with typical South African hospitality, they gave us samples of their cooking, so we got to taste fried Snoek, which is a very large fish caught in the ocean during the winter months. They had frozen and kept it especially for their holiday week at Yzerfontien. Fresh matured beef from the farm and of course boerewors (farmer’s sausage) which was delicious.
After Yzerfontien we visited the West Cape National Park which is a small park that surrounds Langebaan lagoon, a turquoise large lagoon which is a known for its flamingos.

Kudu in West Coast National Park. You get some idea how thick and tall the brush is.
Abandoned building overlooking Langebaan Lagoon in the West Coast National Park

Our campsite for the night was at Paternoster’s Columbine Nature Reserve which is a fabulous park right on the Atlantic Ocean. The road to our site was sandy and a little rough but the destination was well worth it. We were all alone and right on the water’s edge where we enjoyed the sun setting over the ocean. Memories are made from such places.


Sun downers at Paternoster

Early morning fog surrounds the lighthouse at Paternoster

The next day we drove the very rough road to St Helena Bay and then our first dirt road that was a toll road! Yep, dirt roads can be toll roads.

Toll Road African style
From Elands Bay we went inland to Clanwilliam and the Cedarberg mountains.
We then had the long drive to Springbok and it was time for laundry and grocery shopping.

Vineyard at Clanwilliam with the Cedarberg in the distance
Yellow Mongoose in the Springbok campground

We then took the N14 East to see the Augrabies Falls and make our way to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park. The N14 was an exceptional good road for being so remote and relatively little traffic and then we found out why; BMW has sponsored the road and helps pay for its upkeep as they use the road in the heat of the summer to do their high-speed heat testing. While we were at Augrabies there must have been 15 or 16 brand new BMW’s of all shape and sizes which they had shipped over to do their testing with. Boy do the Germans know how to party?

BMW Speed and heat testing road.

Along the Orange River on the way to Augrabies

Workers laying the grapes out on slabs to dry into raisins.
Quiver Tree

Aurgrabies Falls Park
Aurgrabies Gorge

Next was the Mandatory stop in the busy town of Upington to stock up before heading to Kgalagadi.
Most if not all parking lots for shopping centers have parking marshals that guide you into and out of your parking space and watch your car while you are shopping. It is customary to give them a small tip of around .50 US cents or so. Well, while we were being guided into our parking spot in the Upington supermarket’s parking lot, there was a sudden bang and our back left just sunk down. Annie thought we had hit something real sharp and had blown a tire, but on further inspection the ground under the wheel had given way as it was over some sort of drain. The hole was so large that the entire tire was sunk up to the axle. I engaged 4 wheel drive low and the locking diff clicked in and out we came. It was quite shocking to see the size of the hole. And the adventure continues. Yes, we still tipped the parking guy, much to his surprise.

Collapsed storm drain that almost ate Bushbaby

We had broken the key to the door of the camper and were using the spare key but knew we needed to replace the key as soon as possible. So one of our chores in Upington was to find a locksmith and see if we could get a new key. The Upington locksmith studied our key for a minute or two, shook his head and said “Nope, we don’t have this key in South Africa, but I can make you one if you like!” He then went out back and returned with what he said was an old Nissan ignition key. Filed it down to approximately our key size and then duplicated it on his key machine. We then went back to the camper and did a test fit and when it didn’t work, back we went for some more filing. We did this a couple of times and then finally the lock turned! He brushed the key off with his wire brush, oiled the lock and with a huge smile gave me the new key. When I asked how much, he just smiled and said "Welcome to my country". Typical South African hospitality and kindness. Thank you Mr. Locksmith in Upington! 
We had a great campsite under a huge tree but boy it was noisy that night. Saturday night in the big town.

Camping in Upington. We always looked for the biggest tree.

The Lonely Planet Guide Book had pointed out that the last 60 kilometers to the Kgalagadi was on a very bad dirt road and that many of their readers had broken their cars along that route, with that in mind we left very early the next morning so that we could take it really slow along the bad road and not break our truck. Well surprise, surprise, since the last update to the Lonely Planet guide they have tarred the road and so we had a very easy ride all the way to the park. The last 40 kilometers or so you travel through the San Peoples land and many of them have small huts next to the road where they sell their handicrafts. 

We had made the long trip to the Kgalagadi as it is one of the very few places where you can see the Black Mane Kalahari Lion. It is also famous for its beautiful red sand dunes. Well, I guess we should have checked the guide books a little more closely as we arrived at the end of the rainy season so the grass was knee to waist high and there was tons of water everywhere. That meant the dunes were covered in grass and the animals didn’t have to be restricted to the few water holes as there was plenty of water. So the end result was although we heard the lions calling at night we didn’t see any and of course all the dunes were as green as grass. Even though we were there at the wrong time of the year we had a great time, we especially enjoyed camping at Rooiputs which is a wild campground on the Botswana side of the park. Wild means that there are no fences between you and the animals, which is way too much fun. Although this is where we heard the lions we didn’t get see them, but we were lucky enough to see a rare African Wild Cat walk through our campsite and we were visited by a couple of male Ostriches. We now need to return to the Kgalagadi in the dry season!

Kokerboom or Quiver Tree

Gemsbok using its long horns to scratch its butt

Baby Springbok amongst the wild flowers


Blue Wildebeest.

Leopard Tortoise 

The Weaver nests get so large that portions 
drop off and then thejust rebuild!

Safety in numbers



Monitor Lizard 

Tawny Eagle
Tawny Eagle down for a drink

Sign in Kgalagadi Park

Wild camping at Rooiputs Botswana

Our neighbour at Rooiputs through the long grass.
 Hmmm maybe the lions were closer than we thought!

African Wild Cat taking a stroll through our campsite at Rooiputs

Ground Squirrel using its tail as an sunshade during the heat of the day.

A family of Red Hartebeest

After the Kgalagadi we went back West to the small seaside town of Port Nolloth and then North to Alexander Bay and the Orange River mouth where many diamond mines are located. Both Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay were cold and fogged in so off we went to Vioolsdrif and our last night in South Africa before crossing into Namibia

2 Minute video of the Orange River Detour

A surprise through the fog at the Orange River Mouth

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What has worked for us and what has not worked.

The Chevy

We opted for the Chevy 1 ton over other platforms solely because the Chevy 6.0L gas engine is sold in South Africa in the Chevy Lumina, and therefore parts, for the engine, would be available. Now if this was sound thinking or not I can’t say as having anything major going wrong with any modern day engine is mush less likely than say 15 or 20 years ago. I think the harsh conditions here in Africa are more likely to cause peripheral parts to fail, i.e. drive train or suspension.

After 3 months and about 9,000 miles and easily 2,500 of them on dirt, the Chevy has exceeded our expectations. It has carried the load of the XP over and through everything and anything including axle deep sticky mud in Etosha, soft slippery sand in Alexander Bay, Etosha & the Kgalagadi and not once has she given up and said no more. Now probably any platform would have done the same, but we know what the Chevy can do and we are pleased.
We did receive a fair amount of criticism from naysayers pointing out, amongst other things, that the gearbox was going to fail, that the front suspension was not built for what we are asking it to do, and then we had the examples of others who have done similar Overland journeys in their Chevys and encouraged us to be brave and, as Nike says, just do it! Rick & Kathy of Travelling Tortuga fame have taken their Chevy from Alaska to the tip of South America and back to Texas, shipped it to Europe, explored the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and then traveled to Eastern Europe. There is also The White Acorn who rode the Ice Road of Alaska before completing a similar journey to the tip of South America in their Chevy.
We did modify the suspension a little including adding Super Springs at the back. They have worked great as they not only help carry the load (our springs are a good 1/8 inch off the helper springs) but they also help control the rocking and rolling which could have been severe on the off-road situations. We installed Bilstiens all round and everyone swears by them, as do we. We also raised the front-end about 2 inches by having Central 4 Wheel Drive in Sacramento install a new key. We had Suma Springs installed in the front which I think was a waste as the new key did all the real raising of the front end. Then of course, we installed the Rickson steel wheels and Michelin XDS tires. I can’t express how much peace of mind these babies have given me. The roads, both dirt and black-top, can be very rough and knowing the problems others have had with stock wheels and having the steel wheels between us and disaster is such a relief. The Rickson’s are not all sweetness and light as they do give you a stiffer ride and restrict how much you can air-down, however this does not compare to the benefits we have received.
Our modifications to the cab, removing the back seat and installing the 4 drawers on each side have worked great.
The Dometic fridge/freezer, we have between the drawer systems in the cab, has been brilliant. We have it running 24/7 at 0 degrees (the lowest setting) and use it as our freezer. We easily have 2 weeks of meat in there at any one time, which is great as you can never be sure when you are going to get good meat again. Actually that hasn’t been much of a problem except in Kgalagadi, but just having multiple choices of what to cook for supper is such a luxury. It also has a small shelf that doesn’t freeze and that is where the day’s beer lives. We have a sealable ice-tray and the freezer makes ice everyday. Oh what luxury in the 116 degrees of the Namib Desert.
Seat covers have been O.K. but I guess we haven’t been out long enough to give an honest opinion on their usefulness, but we have them and like them.
Dash Mat on the other hand is really something you should not do without, especially if you have a black dashboard like us.
Front window shades have been great and again necessary.
Layne’s extremely large front bumper sure looks cool and gets a ton of attention here, but thankfully it hasn’t been put to use yet. Again peace-of-mind can’t be measured.
We have not used the sand-ladders yet. The locking diff and low 4 wheel drive has gotten us out of all of our sticky situations. I think I tend to run in 2 wheel drive a little too long where a more prudent fellow would have switched to 4 wheel drive a little earlier and not have got stuck in the sand or mud. All is well that ends well.
At this stage not having a winch has not presented a problem. I have sat and chatted with many other Overlanders here in Africa and most don’t have winches, many used to carry them and now don’t and those that do haven’t used them much if at all. I think the cool factor for winches is the main selling point. Maybe we will regret it but so far I am happy with our decision to save the weight. We have one on the Xplorer and after 9 years we didn’t use it once to help us, did use it a couple of other times to help others though.
Biggest regret is not getting a new windscreen in the USA before leaving after getting a small star crack. This decision is going to bite me in the ass real soon.
Have not used the small 1000 watt Yamaha generator and probably won’t. That was a waste I think.
Haven’t needed the engine code reader yet, but that was a good investment.
The converter from 220 to 110 has worked great and I would recommend getting one for when you have the chance to get power. They call them power-points here and they are readily available at most campgrounds.
Interesting enough the solar panels are a dilemma here in Africa as the sun is so hot that you always look for the biggest tree to park under for the shade and then of course block the solar panels. We are very glad to have them though.

The XP

We love our XP and know we made the right decision in our choice of campers regardless of what vehicle is carrying it. With that said lets get the very few things that we have problems with out the way.

Stove Control Switch. On our camper the switch is located beneath the stove right next to the bed and because the switch is a push button affair it is real easy to turn the stove on accidently while making the bed or accessing the clothes storage under the bed. We both have turned the stove on accidentally, once with almost disastrous results as I had left the cloth curtain that Annie had made, on the stove while I was changing the sheets on the bed and the curtain smoldered and caught on fire and if I hadn’t returned to the camper with more just washed laundry right about then, we could have lost everything. We now switch the stove on and off with the toggle fuse switch and we haven’t had any more problems. I believe Marc has moved the stove switch on newer builds.

Go-Lights on the rear of the camper. We haven’t used them once and really are unlikely to. The intention was that they would work great for game viewing in the dark as they are remote controlled and we could sit at the dinette and watch game. Not so much. They do draw a tremendous amount of power and if you intend to use them over about say 5 minutes you have to run the engine or you will surely have a flat battery. All except one campsite in the game parks are fenced in to protect you from the animals so therefore no animals to watch and when we wild camped in The Kgalagadi we heard lions in the distance but nothing came close. We find the back-up lights on the flatbed more than adequate if we need to park after sunset which is very seldom. Others might find these lights invaluable, but for us they just haven’t been used and therefore a waste other than for the “cool factor”.

The Grey Water Drain. On our build the drain is poorly located and we need to park with the left side higher than the right for it to be able to drain. This definitely has been fixed on later builds. Marc installed a water pump for us which has helped but still we need to raise the left side on blocks when we want to drain the water. Really not a big deal, but needs, mentioning.

Now for what we like in no particular order.

Diesel stove. Works every time and we use it every day even if it is just to make coffee in the morning. It takes some getting used to, but we both like it and would get it again.

Diesel Dual Top hot water heater and furnace. Furnace is unbelievable, it heats our little home in minutes and it is really very quiet compared to the propane versions we have owned. Hot water heater has worked well for us as well. It too has been used every day as Annie only showers in the XP and we do dishes most times in the XP too. There are some excellent sculleries available at some campgrounds and we will use those when given the chance.

Fridge. 12 volt compressor is great and the positive lock on the door is invaluable.  After spending all day on real rough roads we have come back to chaos in the camper with stuff getting dislodged, but the fridge door has always stayed closed.

Cabin after a particularly bad road.

Water Filter System. The R.O. system with the ceramic filter in front of it for all our drinking water is great and again gives us tremendous peace of mind. The pressure switch that turns it off when the holding tank is full is a little faulty and temperamental but the system works.

Under floor storage and actually all the storage has been more than adequate.

Shower and Cassette toilet. I would never get another rig without a cassette toilet again. Have dumped the cassette in pit toilets, regular toilets and chemical toilet drains without ever having a spill. The system is great.

The Froli mattress system is brilliant. As matter of fact it is the thing that gets the most comments when we show the XP to others, and we have shown it many, many times. It is comfortable and extremely functional. Keeping the foam mattress away from the fiberglass and any moisture that can cause mildew is what it is all about.

Hydraulic System. Never failed and really a big wow factor. It has sat a little uneven when we have lowered it a couple of times and we spoke to the manufacture in Kentucky about this and he said not to worry as it would correct itself after a couple of times of lifting and lowering it. He was absolutely right.

Table under the flatbed with the storage bin light. Love it and use it almost daily to BBQ on.

Table out with Cobb grill doing its stuff.
Dual fans. The location and idea is great, I just wish they were Fantastic Vents as we never had problems with them which I can’t say is true for these ones.

Windows with integrated blinds and mossie nets. Great…. Especially the large window in the back. Really missed it when it broke and we had to have garbage bags taped over it to keep the rain out.

Annie says she loves the shower and cassette toilet and really wouldn’t know what she would have done without them. Plus she really likes the big skylight over the bed for the all light it lets in.

Peripheral stuff like the collapsible bucket and Cobb Grill are both indispensible. It is funny how the little stuff makes life on the road easier.

Driving down the road I don’t even know we have the XP on the truck. Everything is very balanced and feels very safe. Parked we have more than enough room and seldom get in each others way. Having hard sides in the living area makes us feel very safe at night and yes we have soft sides around the bed but it is pretty high off the ground and also feels very safe. Not having a crawl-through from the cab to the cabin is a bit of an issue, I think, in a very dangerous situation but hopefully we will never find out. The remote start of the Chevy engine might be an interesting ploy……

We do not regret any decisions we have made and are truly happy with both the XP and the Chevy. If we haven’t made ourselves clear on anything, please comment as we will do our best to explain things a little better. Once again we are not sponsored by anyone and as such are free from restraints.