DEATH OF A DE­VICE?

For many moons, Jo­han Baden­horst and his Voet­spore team have re­lied on their trusty GPS units, loaded with the lat­est maps. Now those trusty GPS systems are be­ing re­placed by mod­ern smart­phones, loaded with the lat­est maps. Is the end of the tra­di­tional G

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - VOETSPORE DIARY -

Ever since we left Cape Cross in March 2000 un­til re­cently, ev­ery step of our jour­neys has been planned, mapped and recorded on a GPS.

In the re­cent past, I have writ­ten quite a bit in our monthly Voet­spore di­ary about these nav­i­ga­tion tools. I see this as just as much a part of a sa­fari as Old Man Emu sus­pen­sion, winch, long-range fuel tank and all-ter­rain tyres. Yet now, af­ter com­plet­ing the In­dian Ex­pe­di­tion, I be­lieve that we are wit­ness­ing the death of the GPS as we know it.

Over the last few decades, we have ex­pe­ri­enced tremen­dous de­vel­op­ment in the field of elec­tron­ics. We have wit­nessed the de­vel­op­ment of fax ma­chines, PCs, cell­phones and the GPS. Pocket-sized elec­tron­ics are not sci­ence fic­tion any­more. To­day it is sci­ence fact. It is claimed that the av­er­age house­hold wash­ing ma­chine of to­day in­volves more elec­tron­ics than what was on board the Apollo 11 shut­tle that made the moon land­ing on 20 July 1969.

The Global Po­si­tion­ing Sys­tem (GPS) was de­vel­oped by the United States Mil­i­tary. A min­i­mum of 24 satel­lites are placed in or­bit. They al­low a GPS de­vice to com­mu­ni­cate with them and cal­cu­late the de­vice’s ge­o­graph­i­cal po­si­tion. In the 1980s, this tech­nol­ogy was made avail­able for civil­ian use.

In Rus­sia, a sim­i­lar sys­tem, the Russian Global Nav­i­ga­tion Satel­lite Sys­tem (GLONASS), was de­vel­oped. This, too, is avail­able for civil­ian use.

Com­mer­cial com­pa­nies, such as Garmin, TomTom and Magellan, ex­ploited the tech­nol­ogy and re­fined it to the ex­tent that no one mak­ing use of the sys­tem, had any doubt of ex­actly where they are, any­where on the globe. The sys­tem was made even more user-friendly.

De­tail was added. Fuel sta­tions, ATMs, restau­rants, ge­o­graph­i­cal points of in­ter­est... all be­came part of the in­for­ma­tion dis­played on the de­vice. Nav­i­ga­tion soft­ware was in­tro­duced. The GPS be­came a so­phis­ti­cated electronic map, not only show­ing you where you are, but also how to get from A to B, and to C,D, E and F. Dis­tances were mea­sured and es­ti­mated times of ar­rival cal­cu­lated. It be­came an es­sen­tial nav­i­ga­tion tool.

In South Africa, Wouter Brand re­alised that there was a spe­cial ap­pli­ca­tion for the GPS de­vice. Many South Africans, or peo­ple trav­el­ling the con­ti­nent, do so on un­ex­plored ter­rain. The num­ber of peo­ple vis­it­ing the foun­tains of Gai-Ais in Namibia an­nu­ally are only a hand­ful, com­pared to the thou­sands that visit the Mugg and Bean in Wood­lands, Pretoria.

Yet for these trav­ellers, the true in­for­ma­tion about tracks in Da­ma­r­a­land can be a mat­ter of life and death. So the Track­s4Africa com­mu­nity was cre­ated with mem­bers of the pub­lic send­ing their tracks to T4A head­quar­ters. All these tracks were then com­pared and com­bined and up­dated on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. South­ern Africa, and later the rest of the con­ti­nent, was mapped by or­di­nary trav­ellers. No GPS track was more real than the T4A track. But then things changed. In the early 2000s, two Dan­ish in­ven­tors, Lars and Jens Eil­strup Ras­mussen, de­vel­oped a map­ping sys­tem which was ac­quired by Google in 2004 and in 2005 launched as an app called Google Maps. This re­placed the GPS de­vice as nav­i­ga­tion and was now avail­able on your smart­phone.

Yet this aid has one se­ri­ous short­com­ing. It is de­pen­dent on cell­phone sig­nal. There­fore, es­pe­cially in off-road con­di­tions, the GPS de­vice still had the edge.

The GPS de­vices and the maps are ex­pen­sive items, but in sa­fari con­di­tions – some­where in the Namib Desert, the Kala­hari in Botswana, North­ern Mozam­bique, even in the deep for­est of the DRC – money is not an is­sue when it comes to nav­i­gat­ing through in­hos­pitable ter­rain. In places like these, the bril­liant in­ven­tion of the Ras­mussen broth­ers is of no use.

There has been an­other re­cent de­vel­op­ment in GPS map­ping, namely the appearance of free GPS data. One such map is maps.me. These do not de­pend on tri­an­gu­la­tion or cell­phone tech­nol­ogy. Only a GPS sig­nal, in other words a clear view of the sky, is needed. These maps, which are down­load­able in re­gions as not to clog your de­vice with too much in­for­ma­tion, are amaz­ingly ac­cu­rate with de­tailed data, at no cost.

On our re­cent trip through In­dia, we made use of a num­ber of de­vices. Stre­icher had his iPhone. So did Ste­fan. Si­mon used an An­droid phone. I used the real thing – a Garmin 276Cx. A proper GPS with the most re­cent maps of In­dia as Garmin could pro­vide.

On a pre­vi­ous visit to In­dia, I no­ticed that all taxi and Uber driv­ers rely completely on Google Maps. I spent all my time dur­ing that visit in ur­ban ar­eas where mas­sive cell­phone net­works sup­port the more than 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple. I knew that in the cities, and in all other ar­eas where there is cell­phone sig­nal, the Google op­tion was prob­a­bly the best.

But I also knew that we planned to go to Sikkim and Leh/Ladakh. I knew that of­ten we would travel in ar­eas where, even in In­dia, there is a se­ri­ous lack of cel­lu­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion. That is why my choice fell on an old favourite, the 276C.

Nav­i­ga­tion re­quires in­for­ma­tion of a num­ber of vari­ables. Just hav­ing the map and the route is not enough. Road con­di­tions may change. Weather may play a role. In ur­ban ar­eas, in­for­ma­tion on traf­fic conges­tion is es­sen­tial in plan­ning a jour­ney. This is where the clas­sic GPS has se­ri­ous short­com­ings. TomTom, had for some time, the edge in ad­dress­ing these is­sues when ‘live traf­fic’ was in­tro­duced and the nav­i­ga­tion de­vice took this in­for­ma­tion into con­sid­er­a­tion when rout­ing. The TomTom de­vice had to have its own SIM card, or be con­nected through a nor­mal cell­phone with data ca­pa­bil­ity via Blue­tooth. This did im­ply how­ever, sep­a­rate de­vices.

All systems there­fore had short­com­ings: the Garmin had in­for­ma­tion that was true, but dated; Google Maps needed cell­phone sig­nal; the TomTom of­fered the best of both and where there was cell­phone sig­nal, the maps would be up­dated. Where there was none, it fell back on ex­ist­ing in­for­ma­tion.

On our In­dian Ex­pe­di­tion, we re­lied al­most 100% on Google Maps. The data was ac­cu­rate and up to date. Rer­out­ing was always to our ben­e­fit. When we ran out of cell­phone sig­nal, like in the po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive Jammu Kash­mir where the In­dian gov­ern­ment lim­its the use of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the ex­tent that our in­ter­na­tional roam­ing was to­tally in­ef­fec­tive on our cell­phones, we re­lied on maps.me.

My 276C, as re­li­able as it is, was sel­dom put to use. Not only are the maps dated, but rout­ing with this Gamin will some­times take you to weird and won­der­ful places; places that you did not nec­es­sar­ily plan to visit. There is always con­fu­sion be­tween short­est dis­tance and quick­est route when it comes to rout­ing.

There is an­other se­ri­ous prob­lem with the Garmin: it does not have the pre­dic­tive text op­tion. One has to spell the name of a des­ti­na­tion let­ter by let­ter. Make one mis­take, and you have to re-en­ter the name. It is as though you are work­ing with mid­dle aged tech­nol­ogy in the 21st cen­tury.

The GPS de­vices are ex­pen­sive. The new 276C costs more than R12 000. Add to that the maps of In­dia for an­other R800. The data for us­age on the cell­phone is not for free ei­ther. I paid 600 ru­pees, which is less than R130 for one gig of data per day for three months on a Jio de­vice.

Some of the other guys had more ex­pen­sive pack­ages specif­i­cally for their cell­phones, yet over a pe­riod of three months, for the nav­i­ga­tion op­tion, plus down­load­ing your emails, com­mu­ni­ca­tion with What­sApp and surf­ing the net, the ex­pense was neg­li­gi­ble.

Will I con­demn my Garmin or TomTom to the rub­bish bin? Not quite yet. Last time I checked I no­ticed cell­phone tow­ers only at Epupa and Pur­ros in Kaokoland. When nav­i­gat­ing Van Zyl’s Pass, the Marien­fluss and many parts of Kaokoland and Da­ma­r­a­land, the trusted op­tion re­mains a proper GPS loaded with a T4A map. For now.

Change I be­lieve, is im­mi­nent.

Jo­han Baden­horst is prob­a­bly South Africa’s best-known over­lan­der, with his amaz­ing ad­ven­tures tele­vised on SABC2. He also knows a lot about pa­tience – prob­a­bly the best at­tribute if you plan on trav­el­ling the African con­ti­nent.

Left: Nav­i­gat­ing your way through the sticks re­quires a GPS unit. Or a smart­phone loaded with the lat­est off-road map­ping soft­ware. Right: Are the days of a tra­di­tional GPS de­vice num­bered?

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