Learn­ing about life in the Big Red Truck

A Mid­lands fam­ily set out to ex­pe­ri­ence even more of Africa

The Witness - Wheels - - EXPLORE - NIHAL SHAH • Nihal Shah is a Bed and Break­fast owner in KZN.

SO ... In true African style, we have be­gun an­other leg of our much an­tic­i­pated African ad­ven­ture.

Why do I say “African style”? well, we were sup­posed to have left over three weeks ago, but our new rub­ber san­dals never ar­rived.

The BRT — our Un­i­mog lov­ingly named by Alhka, which stands for Big Red Truck (can’t quite un­der­stand why) — was in des­per­ate need of a set of tyres. We searched high and low and even got conned (long story) try­ing to buy a set of shoes for our house on wheels.

No one in SA seemed to have the size we needed.

Fi­nally Man­isha’s cousin (thank you Ris­sik!) came through and found us a set. We re­placed four tyres and kept two of the older ones as spares.

We got the tyres on Mon­day. We col­lected them in Dur­ban and had them fit­ted in PMB at HI-Q on Greyling Street. We spent Tuesday do­ing the fi­nal bits of pack­ing (it was like try­ing to fit a whale into a shoe­box — but with enough grease, any­thing is pos­si­ble).

The Big Red Truck

The Un­i­mog, for those won­der­ing, is a Ger­man man­u­fac­tured, go any­where ve­hi­cle. Our Un­i­mog was born in 1988 and spent a few years in the Ger­man army be­fore be­ing bought by a friend of ours (Hello Maartin!) who built a camper on the back of it and spent three years trav­el­ling through Africa.

To di­gress: We met Maartin, some two years af­ter we had pur­chased BRT, purely by chance. while trav­el­ling through Mozam­bique and had just set up camp.

Along comes a stranger and asks “is that your Mog?”.

Maartin was trav­el­ling through Mozam­bique and had seen us driv­ing and he recog­nised the Mog that he had built 12 years ago. He was like a kid in a candy store ... Well so was I.

Maartin had all the pic­tures of the en­tire build of the camper and for­warded me hun­dreds of them. We sat, drank beer and talked Mog.

In­side, the back half of the BRT is kit­ted out with a tiny bath­room con­tain­ing a toi­let and shower, and a gal­ley, which in­cludes a gas stove. 110-litre upright fridge and sink. The back has now been con­verted by Gary Pea­cock into a drawer and stor­age area for a 90-litre freezer.

In the front is a din­ner ta­ble and shelves for books and other loose items. On the roof (in front of the roof tent) are three 150 W so­lar pan­els that gen­er­ate enough power to keep our 4x105aH bat­ter­ies full. These bat­ter­ies run the fridge and freezer and all the lights.

On the nose, the min­ion Bob is the mas­cot over the wash­ing ma­chine, a drum that uses the Mog’s shak­ing to wash clothes very clean. The auto rinse cy­cle needs some more de­vel­op­ment work.

One of the ad­di­tions I added is a fold-down deck on the side. Even if the area is wa­ter­logged, we can still sit on the pa­tio and ad­mire the view.

It takes us 15 min­utes to get ev­ery­thing packed and ready to go.

But when the uni­verse knocks on your door and wants cof­fee and cake ... What can you do but put the ket­tle on, as hap­pened one evening when we had the plea­sure of meet­ing a very in­spi­ra­tional cou­ple, Margie and Peter, who hap­pened to be from our neck of the woods in How­ick.

Both are in their 80s and both suf­fer from cancer but they are out here camp­ing, liv­ing life.

Years ago they built a sea-go­ing yacht to travel the world, with nei­ther hav­ing any ex­pe­ri­ence of yacht build­ing or sail­ing.

Now they’ve built their own camper and travel from camp­site to camp­site stay­ing for months at a time. They’ve taught them­selves to play the gui­tar and har­mon­ica and other in­stru­ments and con­tinue to en­joy life as it should be en­joyed.

So back to cof­fee with the uni­verse. We de­cided to say our good­byes to Margie and Peter in the morn­ing and the con­ver­sa­tion went on and on and on. By the time we climbed into the Mog ... it was 11 am (again!).

So far we’ve met sev­eral older cou­ples who were all ex­cited that we were “trekking” at a “young” age, rather than at 60 or 65.

What about school?

When most peo­ple find out that we were plan­ning this trip through South­ern African for an ex­tended pe­riod, their first ques­tion isn’t “Do you have space for one more?” or “What route are you plan­ning to take?”

They ask: “What about the kids’ school­ing?”

Nikayl and Alhka are 12 and 10. These are the most for­ma­tive years of their lives.

What bet­ter time than now to show them how the rest of Africa lives and func­tions and al­low them to ex­pe­ri­ence the cul­ture that ex­ists out­side their (hope­fully!) ever-growing bub­ble. See­ing stuff like this on TV is great, but to ex­pe­ri­ence Africa first­hand, and I don’t mean from the win­dow of a five-star ho­tel, I think, is in­valu­able.

But back to their school­ing, they were both re­luc­tant to leave school for such a ex­tended pe­riod. I mean, re­ally!? I can re­mem­ber, as a kid, I was look­ing for any ex­cuse to be out of school, and in the bush. Later, Man­isha and I dis­cov­ered miss­ing out on play­time with friends was their biggest con­cern. Their school and teach­ers were very sup­port­ive of the trip and went as far as to pre­pare all the work that they needed to cover for the six months that we would be away (Thank you Mr D and Mrs Ti­aden!)

This also makes us teach­ers for the next few months.

Where to next

Our route ... well, we didn’t want to be tied down, so we made the de­ci­sion to play ev­ery­thing by ear, and prob­a­bly a good thing too, be­cause if we had booked any­thing we’d still be try­ing to re-jig it all con­sid­er­ing our tyres were three weeks late.

So, if we like a place we stay for a day — or a week. If we don’t, we move on. I’m not sure how this is go­ing to work out. Some of the parks we want to visit re­quire us to book with gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and that may not be as ef­fi­cient as we would like. But we’ll fig­ure it out.

The idea, as it stands, is to head to the Kruger Park and travel up the length to Pa­furi (near the RSA, Mozam­bique, Zim bor­der).

From there we hope to cross the Lim­popo river into Mozam­bique and then into the south of Zim­babwe at Songa (we’re hop­ing to avoid the ex­tremely busy and po­ten­tially money re­liev­ing of­fi­cials of the Beit Bridge cross­ing into Zim).

The one prob­lem with our in­tended route is that we need to cross the Lim­popo River.

How­ever, no bridge ex­ists and it all de­pends on the level of the wa­ter in the river.

We hope to en­ter Zim­babwe into the Gore­nazhou NP and spend a cou­ple of nights in the park and then head up the East­ern side go­ing through the Save con­ser­vancy and Chi­man­i­mani, Mutare, Rhodes Park and around to Mana Pools.

From there into Zam­bia, af­ter which the route de­pends on how long we stay at any place. If we do not make it to all the coun­tries, that’s OK — there’s al­ways next year.


Ready to start the Shah fam­ily trek in the Big Red Truck are Nikayl (12), Alhka (10) and their par­ents Man­isha and Nihal.

The min­ion Bob is the mas­cot over the wash­ing ma­chine, a drum that uses the Mog’s shak­ing to wash clothes very clean. (The auto rinse cy­cle needs some more de­vel­op­ment work.)


Alhka, Nikayl and Nihal with the in­spir­ing Peter and Margie from How­ick, who are also trav­el­ling through south­ern Africa one camp at a time.

The pas­sen­ger area with seat belts. Fic­tion ti­tles vie for space with home­work on the book­shelf in­side the BRT.

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