Besides fuel economy, travelling Africa in a small urban smart car has its advantages.
After driving from Cape Town to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater and back in a smart car, this is what I learned:
1. A small car is an ice-breaker
One of the greater ironies of travel is that so many travellers hang around with other travellers from their country of origin. Many end up learning more about their neighbour in Parktown, Johannesburg than they do about the exotic locale they are “exploring”. 4×4 fundies wag chins about approach angles, record breaking roof top tent erections and the chill factor of mobile fridges. None of this interests the locals in the least.
There’s opportunity to learn a little more about the country you are travelling in from the people who actually live there and not someone who’s just passing through.
Driving a small car is a sure fire way to strike up a conversation, the chief subject being economy, which is top of mind in most African countries. You are also less threatening in a small car, which leads us to:
2. A small car has a better approach angle
A small car puts you at a far more approachable level.
Few Africans respect 4×4 vehicles driven by “mlungus”. Let’s state the obvious: they hark back to the colonial era. Other associations are: corrupt officials and the vehicles of NGO’s – the irony of R700 000 plus Landcruisers for organisations such as “Feed the Children” is not lost on locals.
There is also little empathy for 4×4 groups that travel in convoy and form laagers at public campsites. Are the Zooloos after them? It gives locals the sense that the visitors are insecure around the people and the environment, that such travellers are looking inwards rather than outwards. Confidence and openness are highly valued in Africa.
“Campers” who travel with all the mod cons and conveniences such as fully equipped caravan trailers, satellite dishes, fridges and roll out kitchen cabinets distance themselves from campers and locals alike. The feeling is they have brought their home with them, so they might as well stay there.
3. Cops get all fuzzy
If you drive a big vehicle with a big load, you’re papers will be checked and your car will be “searched” more often. The fuzz manning the roadblocks are more prone to rummage through big loads. The prospect of walking away with a cut of nicely chilled South African rump, a bottle of brandy or at least a pack of decent smokes is especially appealing. That you must be wealthy to drive such a car also raises the potential of bribes.
A small car, on the other hand, is stopped less, and often just for a giggle or to discuss fuel economy, engine size, mileage and price. You become wise to this after a while and, to save time, end up speeding between the police barriers without stopping – something the narrow smart is perfectly suited for. It also seems of little offence to coppers: “Hah! Crazy mlungus. Such kidders.”
Sadly, the smart is not narrow enough to avoid speed radar.
4. Travelling in a small car is more interesting
Imagine a trip where everything keeps going right? Boring; kinda Toyota-ish really.
Travelling with less stuff has its challenges, but you soon realise you don’t need all those comforts and assurances. Driving a car not suited for rough African roads means there is greater potential to break down, especially when you drive like idiots, as Crone and Wild were wont to do. But your trip becomes more adventurous and when you do in fact break down, you might spend days stranded in one location. The beauty of this is that you really get to experience that part of Africa. Most of all, you get to appreciate the spirit of Ubuntu for there always seems to be help at hand.