Accessorizing your 4×4 – a Guide’s view
Making a mistake inevitably comes with a price, failing to figure out the difference between what you want and what you need, is a mistake of the more expensive kind.
You’ve bought your first 4×4, it’s brand new and the inside smells like a girl in leather pants. And just as you get comfortable behind the wheel, you’re sweaty palms on the steering wheel, Roy Orbison’s “What now my Love, (now there’s nothing…)” rudely interrupts your thoughts. “My ride must get kitted out” you mumble to yourself, but with cash-flow now as absent as that ARB bumper you’re dreaming of, where do you start?
Chances are good that you’ll start at the wrong place. Being led by your eyes, as opposed to your heart (yes, your heart!), you’ll rush in head first and spend money on all the things that will make your vehicle look good. Because you have a picture of your dream machine in your mind. The problem with your picture is that it’s been Photo-shopped. Photo-shopped by your neighbor’s 4×4 that drives past you every morning on the way to work. The one with the antenna mounted on the bull-bar and the “been there, done that” sticker on the back; Photo-shopped by the magazine-add-mud-sprayed-4×4 posing on a massive boulder with one paw in the air and photo-shopped by the sticker-wrapped fat-wheeled truck hugging the pavement in front of the 4×4 shop… Make no mistake, today’s onslaught on your senses is so effective that before you can say “snatch strap” you’re convinced that what you see is indeed what you need. Adding to the barrage is the large number of possible dealers, shops, manufacturers, fitment centers and brands to choose from. So much so, that even the harde-baard who thinks he knows what he wants gets lost in the maze of choices.
I have categorized 4×4 accessories into three classes: vehicle accessories; house-hold accessories and driver gadgets. Vehicle accessories are all the stuff you can bolt onto your 4×4. Research shows that the most popular items in this category include, bull-bars; after-market suspensions; tow bars and snorkels. Not only do they make your vehicle look good, they also create a false sense of indestructibility.
House-hold accessories are all the things that make you feel more at home in the bush. Topping the list in this category are fridges, tents, chairs, showers and porta-potties. Lastly, driver gadgets are of a more personal nature, fits into a backpack or cubbyhole, can be worn on a belt and have price tags best kept from your better half. Leathermans, GPS’s, Go Pro cameras and headlights head the field.
Most first-time 4×4 owners set off in the wrong direction. They head straight for the nearest fitment center, determined to transform their vehicle into that dream machine they have in mind. What happens next is predictable. A guy dressed in a two-tone khaki shirt, sporting at least 5 “leading-brand” logos on each sleeve, convinces you to fit an after-market replacement bull-bar. There are many reasons to fit one. The neighbor’s 4×4 has one; it will protect your vehicle against damage; it’s imperative if you want to attach heavy duty recovery points and a winch; best for attaching spotlights; increases approach angle etc. Next up, Mr Two-tone talks you into fitting an after-market suspension because the heavy bull bar demands it. The heavy duty suspension then allows you to also fit a replacement tow bar with an extra spare wheel carrier. Congratulations, you have fitted the top three most popular vehicle accessories and you’ve also ticked two of the top five most expensive accessories in this category. It usually doesn’t end there.
Moving on, you invite a couple of seasoned travelers and potential trip buddies over for a braai. Your plan is to keep ‘school fees’ to a minimum when it comes to acquiring house-hold accessories – stuff intended to make life for those dear to you as comfortable as possible. And if that second fridge between the seats you bought for your wife’s and kids’ drinks happen to chill an extra 6-pack of beers, it’s merely a coincidence. So, standing dop-in-die-hand with you around your Weber are that neighbor who towed a trailer down Van Zyl’s pass (stupid thing to do); that skinny chap from the golf club who drove through the Khaudum on his own (stupid thing to do) and your new cycling buddy who has successfully completed a 4×4 course at Gerotek (he is now a pro and knows it all). You listen intently and a list slowly takes shape in your mind: 1. Fridge/Freezer (mmm…must go see Mr Two-tone for advice on a dual battery system); 2. A shower of some sort, with cubicle and porta-potty for the misses; 3. Waterproof roof-top tent; 4. Comfortable chairs (make sure they’re not made in China); and so on…
Luckily when it comes to driver gadgets you don’t need advice. Accessories in this category do not need to be necessary nor practical, their sole purpose is to make you feel in control, even indispensable. They give you that “You’re the man!” feeling. You walk out the store with a top of the range Garmin GPS (you’ll soon realize that your mate’s GPS is loaded with the latest Tracks4Africa maps, therefore rendering your GPS totally useless unless you return to the store…); a Leatherman; a Petzl headlamp; a LED flashlight and Sasol’s latest edition of Birds of Southern Africa. Your wife will have no idea of what you’ve blown on the gadgets but if she does find out, the educational angle supported by the bird book will soften the blow.
Ultimately you end up with a vehicle weighing dangerously close to its maximum operating mass (stupid thing to do) and an overdraft that will ensure an uncomfortable degree of stress even when seated beer-in-hand on a wooden deck overlooking the Okavango River. The result could be arriving at Puros (go Google it) just to find you don’t have a cold beer because your “Afghanistan-proof” battery system’s computer suffocated in the Kaokoland’s dust and decided to stop telling your fridge to cool the beer. Getting hopelessly stuck in sand or mud is now a ‘clear and present danger’ because your vehicle weighs as much as a Unimog but is still fitted with standard-sized tires. Another possibility is tipping over your vehicle with an air-jack because Mr Two-tone forgot to show you how the release valve works. Even more disastrous could be your wife not talking to you for a week because your gas-powered shower-thingy exploded and engulfed her in boiling-hot water and pouring ice cold water over your “it’s just the two of us under the stars”-move.
So where’s the right place to start? A good place would be to go back to before Mr Orbison’s song interrupted your thoughts. Go back to that moment when you decided to spend half a million Rand (or more) on a vehicle. What if the real reason for buying a 4×4 was not “I’ll rather give the money to a car dealer than to the Receiver”, or “a 4×4 will enable us to spend more quality time together – we’ll get the kids away from the TV and cell phone signals”, or “a 4×4 is the safer choice, it handles gravel well and will cope better with a collision than a Corolla”… The real reason for buying a 4×4 will determine where to start. For most this real reason is not that obvious at first and it is this confusion that leads us to spending too much money on stuff we don’t really need. If you bought a 4×4 to travel through Africa, then yes, it will be less of a hassle if you acquired a few extras. A long range fuel tank will keep your vehicle going further and a fridge full of food will keep you going for longer. An after-market suspension will make your vehicle cope better with the load and a waterproof tent will make your dearest cope better with the weather.
But, if the real reason for buying a 4×4 had to do with you wanting something more from life, yearning for an extraordinary, life-changing experience or you wanting to find solace in the flames of a campfire, you should listen to your heart and start by getting into your standard 4×4 and pointing its nose in the direction of peace and quiet. And when you get there you’ll realize that there’s a difference between what you need and what you want. The ‘need’ list is not only shorter, but also much cheaper than the ‘want’ list.
I’ve traveled with people who started there, people who started with what they really need. I remember Oom Johan (‘n aartappel-boer van die Noord-Kaap) in his stock-standard Cruiser bakkie – he even kept the Marie-biscuit tires. “Never go the bush without a shovel” he used to say, “It’s handy if you have to go for a number two; you can use it to defend yourself; you can use it when you get stuck; you can use it to cover your ashes and you can cook a steak on it…” Now there’s some proper advice, make a note of that. He had the time of his life in the Caprivi, in a standard bakkie with two sleeping rolls chucked in the back.
I remember running into Oom Sarel Visser at Epupa. He’d traveled in a Series II Landrover through Kaokoland and with him he had his trusty pipe and hand-drawn map. The sketch was dated 26 January 1965 and it showed the route from Epupa via Epembe to Orumana. “Always make sure you know where you’re going and have a Plan B just in case Plan A fails.” That’s good advice. He told me where to find a spring close to Sanitatas and to sleep there because chances were good I’d spot the black rhino that roams those mountains. He didn’t have fancy accessories or clever gadgets (or GPS for that matter), but he had more stories to tell than all the people in camp that night put together.
I’ve run into his son Bennie, a guy who practically grew up in the Kaokoland, “Make sure you have enough fuel and carry an extra spare wheel” was his advice. “There’s other more important things (than porta potties, 12v hair-dryers, sand-plates and snorkels for example) such as bicycle tubes, pegs, a good tow rope and duct tape.
I recall chatting to Oom Johannes Cilliers. We were sitting bare feet in the sand watching blue wildebeest silhouettes kick up dust over the Liuwa Plains, “You don’t need much to experience this, you just need to get here” he quipped as he raised his tin mug to his mouth. And inside me I whistled “Give that man a Bells”!
I remember crossing the border into Angola at Ruacana, leading one of the first ever commercial tours from the Kunene to the Congo. That almost serene sensation of knowing I was driving where others, not so long ago wavered…and thinking that a passport is probably the best 4×4 accessory I’ll ever own.