Off-road 101: No 4×4? No Problem!

Off-road driving is a sport – a form of art – where the vehicle’s capability is put to the ultimate test as it becomes a canvas splattered with mud, twigs for extra decoration and if you are really serious, a creative Picasso scratch. To quote the experts from the Isuzu 4×4 Off-Road Academy: “Brown is the colour of adventure“.

But like any type of sport, the key players and mishaps don’t go by unnoticed; you’ll hear the humble brag of everyone’s favourite steeds, YouTube videos of performance will feature on screens and stories and personal close-call encounters will be shared.

And of course, you won’t make it out of the conversation without hearing the Land Rover vs the Land Cruiser debate.

I have one parking space reserved in my heart for a specific 4×4 and until the time is right for the stars to line up and hand over the key, I’ll slowly continue on dirt roads and steer anything with wheels. 

A wise man once said – as he slowly turned his low clearance hatchback onto a road with a sign, 4x4s ONLY – “You know, it is not about the car, it is about the driver.” 

And that wise man was 100% right.

Off-road 101

Ordinary cars can have extraordinary adventures

Will I attempt the infamous Doodsakker on Namibia’s coast with a car? Never. But the kilometers of dirt roads in South Africa (and Africa for that matter) far outweigh the kilometers of 4×4-only roads. And unless it is a widely known fact that a stretch of road is only suitable for high-clearance vehicles with a low gear, not much will stop me from exploring.

I might not have the cash to drop for a 4×4 but I also don’t have time to wait and sit around for better days while there is so much out there just waiting to be explored and savoured. Why dream about one day when you can actually do something about it today? I don’t see the difference (besides costs) between a rooftop tent and a normal tent. In my humble-sedan-opinion, I don’t see the need for a fold-out kitchen when I can pack my cooking necessities into a crate (a crate can double into a table). I’m okay with living out of a bag instead of living out of custom-built cupboards. Ordinary cars can have extraordinary adventures, plus, you can almost always smile to the bank with a lower fuel consumption and more affordable repairing costs.

If a 34-year-old 1982 VW Beetle could make it from the Netherlands all the way to South Africa, why can’t another non-4×4 do the same?

Just a side note the Beetle owner, Jos Oosterbroek, managed to travel through Africa from Europe, for 20 000 km (at a top speed of 80km/h), and he did not even get one flat tyre! And no car problems! The green VW Beetle is on display in Uitenhage, at the VW Autopavilion museum; make sure to visit if you’re in the area of Port Elizabeth!

Tips for an off-road adventure (even if you don’t drive a 4×4)

Here are a few basic tips to keep in mind when you are going off-road with a low clearance non-4×4 vehicle over tricky terrain. It is not about the car, it is about the driver…

Road Trip Tips South Africa

Use your beautiful brain (and your phone)

If you don’t know the condition of a road, ask someone. If you don’t see someone, ask yourself what the weather was like in the area during the last 48 hours, did it rain? If it is not looking like an endless slippery slide, continue. If you feel uncomfortable at any moment, find a safe spot to turn around; but first consult a map or use your phone to get a guesstimate of the distance you’ll have to track back.

As slow as possible as fast as necessary

Go as slow as possible and as fast as necessary; observe your surroundings to make well-informed decisions when it comes to your next move. Patience is the key to safety.

Rule of thumb

Don’t hold your thumbs on the inside of the steering wheel. Why? If your front wheels get stuck on something, there is always that risk of turning your thumbs in a different direction if you can’t hold the steering wheel. Rule of thumb, keep ‘em on the steering wheel.

Don’t let the tyres get tired

While an all-terrain tyre upgrade might not be in your budget, it is always wise to carry a puncture repair kit and air compressor with you, especially if the terrain and remoteness of your location is not exactly in the middle of the city.  Yes, even if you have a spare tyre, pack a plug kit. If you are going over sand, rocky terrain or have a full load, adjust your tyres accordingly.

Through the mud

When you approach a stretch of muddy terrain keep to the “slow as possible, fast as necessary” principle; keep the momentum and keep your wheels straight.

Pay attention

Pay attention to your fuel consumption and the other measurement devices on your vehicle, as well as your surroundings. Make it a habit to always find a beacon every few kilometers, just in case you get stuck and need to call for help, “Yes sir, we are on the road about 4 km after the big rock and next to the tree that is close to other tree that looks like a tree.”

Jokes aside. Pay attention.

Get out, have a look

If you don’t know how to get over or through an obstacle, get out of your vehicle and walk to the obstacle.

Know your clearance

You need to have a mental picture of how much space there is under your bumpers (front and back) and the center of your vehicle to get over big or tall obstacles.

Pack a few basics

It goes without saying that something like a first-aid kit, water and navigational aids should always be on hand. Also remember to have some recovery gear with you such as a tow strap, a jack and a spare tyre. 

And leave the unnecessary gadgets behind

The gadgets come and go as the years go by, one moment everyone is flocking to this folding into that and that converting into something else and the next moment it is all about solar this and a tiny that. Each to his own, but try to keep it simple. 

Pack a friend

Do you remember the movie (and true story), 127 hours? Fun? No. Always tell someone where you are going or even better, go with a friend.

Insurance: it sucks, but it helps

You know what wacks the smile away from my face? Paying for what-ifs like insurance, but when the pawpaw hits the fan (or the idiot hits your window), it comes in handy. Additionally, you can also opt for 24/7 road-side assistance, for example AA.

Rest and relax

If your non-4×4 off-road adventure requires an overnight stop, remember to pack a tent and the camping necessities to go with it. And if you are ready for an extreme makeover, follow in the footsteps of Michael van Vliet, forget about “van life” and turn your car into your home.


Explore, get out there, dare to dream and discover those roads that you’ve always wondered about and the roads you’ve never had time for!



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