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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.

 



19 Responses to “4 reasons why travelling in a smart car through Africa is better than a 4×4”

  1. Nic

    Sorry just my opinion but what could have been a good article has become rather lame with the 4 reasons given. Perhaps it wasnt a good idea to compare to a 4×4 in the first place.
    1) If you are half friendly dont worry about having a smart car to get attention – some people are friendly by nature and some people will always form laagers whether its x5’s or smart cars. Each to their own.
    2)dont make generalizations about the cars NGO’s drive – sure the odd car is over the top but if you have a 300k landrover which many do, then fair enough. Your Smart car wont get you anywhere in Botswana’s 3rd largest town (and I mean access to your average house or office!) let alone in less devleoped areas where the NGO’s are often found…! So unless Africa has been tarred in all places up to the Ngorongoro or if the word pothole doesnt refer to the remaining tar on the road, I see no reason why you would want to be on tar or only the occassional dust road the whole whole time?
    Its also not about being insecure in your environment. Sometimes when you actually venture off the beaten track you might need to use a highlift jack…or a gas bottle because there is no crew to cook for you!
    3)only half decent reason but drawing water from a stone
    4) again if tar roads and the very much beaten track is your thing…then by all means drive a smart car or a ferrari !!

    Reply
    • Ant

      Thanks for your feedback, Nic.

      Sorry you found it rather lame, but hope you got the spirit in which it was meant, the primary thing being that small cars inspire less reproach from others. I believe it is a universal fact.

      I just wanted to add a few more points to answer yours:

      – I am sure I make it clear in the last section that there are circumstances a car such as this cannot handle rough conditions: “Driving a car not suited for rough African roads means there is greater potential to break down” Therefore I am not discounting the value of travelling the hard to reach places in a 4×4.

      – In regards to NGO vehicles: I was referring specifically to those “over the top” vehicles: “R700 000 plus Landcruisers for organisations such as “Feed the Children”.”

      – There is actually good tar all the way from the Cape to the Ngorongoro entrance. It is an easy 20km climb on good dirt road from there to the rim of the crater. There are potholes in some places along the tar but nothing a regular car with an alert driver cannot easily avoid. We hit one pothole that dented our rim on the whole trip of over 10 500km. Otherwise we were fine. No punctures.

      – I was not referring to highlift jacks or gas bottles – these one should consider necessary for travel off the beaten track. As stated, I was referring to “fully equipped caravan trailers, satellite dishes, fridges and roll out kitchen cabinets”

      – You may be surprised by the number of police roadblocks we encountered – far over 100. So, keeping the cops happy may have more of an impact on a long journey than you think as it saves time, and sometimes money.

      – Tar and the beaten track are certainly my thing. They are as much a part of Africa as everything else and I hope that more people find as much joy as I do in travelling these roads and meeting the people who thrive along them. The truth is that travellers aiming for those far to reach places will most often have to travel a far greater proportion of tar to get there and encounter many many people along the way. My hope is that travellers appreciate this part of their journey as much as their ultimate destination. Not keen on the Ferrari – uses too much fuel. But I hope take something small and economical again soon.

      Thanks again Nic,
      Ant

      Reply
      • Nic

        HI Ant,

        As you know every article has its lovers and haters. Fair diplomatic answer…I feel that perhaps more of a point could have been made on fuel economy than rather what you did dwell on. I havn’t been right up to Ngorongoro but have encountered many of those police stops that you have. I was never harassed in places like Zambia and I found that of the about 25 Zim blocks I went through they charged 1 dollar for each similar sized vehicle no matter what nationality or race you were. Malawi was fine too. Maybe Tanzania police were tough on you but I have to say in my opinion that its ones attitude with locals rather than the car you drive.
        I dont only think Alicia and myself are the only ones to be surprised by the slating of 4×4 drivers. Sure there are many who ruin it for the rest and up here in northern Botswana we deal with it all the time but the article really does make you sound like a city guy who has ventured out into the bush for the first time and done it successfully so Im now a know-it-all. However I am sure this is not the case. And I now see there is the point of fuel economy which I will so back you up on.
        BUT lets not forget if you breakdown in Africa outside of 2 or 3 certain countries you will more likely find a part for your Landy or Toyota than a Smart car or similar. Busy buying a 4th hand car up here and those are the things that have to be taken into account obviously!

        Still maintain though the article could have brought about points better rather than using the tactics of some modern day comedians.

        End of the day though you have a decent underlying point which does need to be spread and if slating 4×4 drivers is the way to make people aware of our fuel consumption, I will happily laugh it off if the overall message is conveyed!

        Reply
  2. Alicia

    I have to agree with Nic here. Although I understand the need to justify using a smaller car, why do you have to resort to insulting 4×4 drivers to make your point? 4×4 vehicles were made for these conditions. Smart cars were made for urban conditions. If you want to use a car designed for urban conditions in off road conditions, then by all means do that. But to say that doing that somehow makes you better than 4×4 drivers is illogical at best. These cars are being used in the conditions for which they were made.
    Perhaps you are better off making a case for better roads, and or better attitudes from travellers, rather than making silly generalisations.

    Reply
    • Ant

      Thanks for your comment, Alicia,

      – Where you say: “Smart cars were made for urban conditions. If you want to use a car designed for urban conditions in off road conditions, then by all means do that,” the truth is most of the route to Ngorongoro crater is on good tar. These are are not off road conditions and I am hoping to encourage others to consider travelling such roads in a regular car versus a 4×4 as many people still believe 4×4’s are necessary throughout Africa.

      – Where we did tackle serious off road such as the approach to Makgadikgadi pans, we floundered, and I am not saying were are any better for it. At one point I say we were idiots: You will read in section 4: “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.”

      – I am intrigued by your point: “4×4 vehicles were made for these conditions. Smart cars were made for urban conditions.” Then I must pose the question: Why are there so many 4×4’s in our urban areas?

      Reply
      • Alicia

        Ant, what I was trying to say, was that while you do have a valid point to make (see my first sentence), I think that it could have been made without slagging off 4×4 drivers, and making huge generalisations. If there is a case to be made for using smaller cars to drive through Africa, then the word must be spread! But there is no need to malign all 4×4 users in doing so. The fact remains, that if you want to go off the beaten path, or ensure that you are well equipped in case of a disaster, then using a 4×4 is the smarter choice.
        As to your point about suburban 4×4 usage, we are mostly in agreement. It makes little sense to be using a monster like that on our good urban roads if that is all you use it for. But, again, there is a case to be made for it. Remember that 4×4 vehicles are made for BOTH on and off road conditions, meaning that while I am not on a trip, I can still comfortably use it in town. In some cases, people may not be able to afford more than 1 car, but do not want to give up their 4×4 adventures. It makes sense for these people to drive their 4×4 around town, rather than buying a completely new car.

        To be honest, it isn’t really that big of a deal. My only point was that you needn’t make such sweeping generalisations in order to make a point. For people to know that it is possible to drive that far North without having a 4×4 is exciting enough as it is.

        PS, I am not a 4×4 owner. I use my car for as many adventures as I can, but there are many times when I can’t access what I want to because of a lack of a 4×4.

        Reply
        • Ant

          Thanks for all your comments, Nic, Alicia, Sarah,

          It’s a healthy debate and one I enjoy.

          Your trip was magic, Sarah, as are trips like it and the Put Foot Rally and I hope ultimately that people realise the relative ease, lack of expense and simple joy of travelling Africa – as long as you aren’t idiots, like us.

          Reply
  3. Sarah Duff

    Hi Ant,

    I loved your blog and the whole idea of the trip. I did a similar trip myself last year with another Getaway journo. The two of us drove up to Malawi from Joburg in a Mini and had such a great time! The Mini turned out to be an awesome vehicle for a 4000-km trip. We sailed through borders and police road blocks with smiles and waves from the cops (other people doing the journey behind us had to pay several fines and bribes) and everywhere we went, we made friends with people who loved the fact that we were two girls in a relatively small ‘city’ car. We wrote up the story for Getaway, and I’ve never had so much great feedback from a story before. Loads of people have called, emailed and tweeted to ask me more about how we did the trip – because they all want to do something similar in a 2-wheel drive ‘city’ car. By doing trips in Africa in 2-wheelers you can show people that Africa is accessible and that you don’t have to be super wealthy with a big 4×4 in order to do overland travelling.

    Look forward to more blogs about the trip!

    Sarah, web editor at Getaway

    Reply
    • Brett Wild

      Sarah
      you are a God send. i think i almost went into a coma reading the backward and forward here. the message you put out there with your mini article i think did the same as what we where trying to achieve. this is a tight merry-go-round we live on in the city and what an amazing thing just to step off knowing you can in any car. let alone the little ones we talk of. I’m sure we inspired this among many others with the thought that they just plain couldn’t .
      many thanks

      Reply
  4. Noel Brady

    Hey who cares whether it is best to tour Africa in a Smart Car or a luxury 4×4.
    Kudos to you guys for doing it differently and succeeding and for finding time to mix with the locals on a ‘lower’ level (the 4×4 guys can’t dispute that a Smart Car is way way lower than any 4×4)
    I enjoyed the ‘tongue in cheek’ 4 x reasons (Note; Not 4×4 reasons) why a small car is better than a 4×4, hey and I’m a BIG 4×4 fan.
    Me thinks that some people (we won’t catagorise them) are upset because you guys did it in a ‘normal’ vehicle without having spent moola Rands to launch another African country.

    Reply
  5. JP

    Great blog post, and great video! It looks like you had a fantastic trip! And being a Smart-driver myself, I found it fun with the 4×4 comments :) I have driven 2500 km i Norway in my car, and they were not used to seeing that on the mountain roads either!

    Reply
  6. Cam

    For what its worth, I think seeing the bigger picture here is important. Way back when I was a student my girlfriend and I drove to Malawi in a VW Fox 1300. We loved every minute and found we got way further than we thought. Sure we broke up soon after getting back – something about the CV joints that needed replacing if I remember right – but it is one of those memories we now share (she forgave me and became my wife). My point being, if you dare to push what you have a little beyond what others think you can do, you will be richly rewarded. Don’t let your ‘equipment’ be a reason for not exploring southern Africa!

    Reply
  7. jessy lipperts

    I LOVE this post. I’ve been wondering if I could take my Hyundai Getz into Africa and this post has certainly made me feel more confident. I’m all for 2nd hand cars, saving petrol and see my car as a vehicle and not as an investment or status symbol. It was great to read that you got up to Tanzania all the way. I hope you will write more about your trip and post pictures of all the roads to create awareness for those who think they can only travel in a 4×4. it’s not only quite difficult to rent them for clients but they’re also difficult to drive if you’re from Europe. On 3 occasions I hired a 4×4 for clients because they thought it would be so cool to drive through Botswana and Namibia like that. All 3 had no experience and got into accidents (rolled off the road because of animals). With the major liability fines it was a horrible end of their holidays. So this post is GREAT for creating awareness about driving in Africa in a small or normal car. Love it!!

    Reply
    • Ant

      Thanks for your comments, Jessy, and insights about renting 4×4’s which are important. Hope to bring more stories to you.

      Reply
  8. Paul

    Phew but some (note SOME) 4x4ers take themselves VERY seriously! Love this article. You can get to most places in a normal car and a lot more cheaply than in a 4×4, as you’ve shown. Of course you can do it even more cheaply and closer to the people and landscape on a bicycle. I’ve just cycled 1500km in Angola and Namibia. I camped wild, slept in beaten earth floors and carried everything I needed on my carrier. Get out there and enjoy it. Use your imagination and find a way!
    p.s. I also have a 4×4

    Reply
    • Ant

      Hi Paul. Your trip looks incredible and important due to your experiences there. Will definitely give your blog a read. Much thanks.

      Reply
  9. Roxanne

    I enjoyed this post, not because I agreed with every point, but because it made those points.
    To my mind there are three critical points to remember when travelling in Africa: 1. To get the best out of your trip, make sure you engage with the locals (no matter how big or small your car) and 2. Just go and do it (no matter how big or small your car). 3. Make sure you pack your sense of humour (the bigger the better!).
    Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Anton.

    Reply
    • Ant

      Too true, Roxanne. Still think smaller is the way to go – ‘small’ challenges people to think differently about the way they travel, and live. It inevitably leads to a more sustainable, responsible way of life. On top of that, Petrol is going up again and its not going to stop. I believe people need to change their fuel habits, especially people who use 4x4s in urban areas. Much thanks

      Reply

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