The Rock­ing Crawlers’ Ul­ti­mate 4x4 Ad­ven­ture is an an­nual ex­cur­sion to an un­known des­ti­na­tion where al­most unimag­in­able ob­sta­cles await. We went along for the ride.

Go! Camp & Drive - - Contents - Text and pho­tos Piet van Heerde

Af­ter 12 hours on the road, the con­voy fi­nally ar­rives at the overnight spot. There are 21 ve­hi­cles in the group and some of them are still busy climb­ing the last hill. The par­tic­i­pants are hun­gry and tired, and sud­denly a pan­icked voice calls over the radio: “The Pa­jero has rolled!” Look­ing for ad­ven­ture The Rock­ing Crawlers is a bunch of hard­core 4x4 en­thu­si­asts, and their Ul­ti­mate 4x4 Ad­ven­ture is the high­light of their year. A con­voy made up of a select few ve­hi­cles leave from Gauteng en route to an un­known des­ti­na­tion where 4x4s are tested to the lim­its. If there’s a good line to the right of an ob­sta­cle these guys will rather drive over the ob­sta­cle. Hard­core is the only way to de­scribe it. This ad­ven­ture isn’t for ev­ery­one. You have to ap­ply and will then be in­vited if your ve­hi­cle ad­heres to a few strict min­i­mum re­quire­ments: It needs at least 33” tyres, has to have a front and rear diff lock, and you can’t par­take in the ad­ven­ture if you don’t have a self-re­cov­ery winch. To par­tic­i­pate, your ve­hi­cle doesn’t need thou­sands of rands’ worth of equip­ment but what you do need to bring is com­rade­ship. If your an­swers im­press the or­gan­is­ers enough, you get an in­vi­ta­tion to this epic ad­ven­ture. >

DAY 1 Here we go!

The gath­er­ing point is in Midrand at one of the work­shops where some of the Rock­ing Crawlers do mod­i­fi­ca­tions to their ve­hi­cles. They are def­i­nitely not the kind of guys who would want dam­age to their cars. No, every­thing is planned down to the last de­tail and put to­gether with great care. All the par­tic­i­pants are friendly, but there’s a feel­ing of un­cer­tainty in the air be­cause no one knows ex­actly what lies ahead. Ev­ery­one re­ceived a list of things to pack, with your pass­port at the top of the list. The par­tic­i­pants gather round and the des­ti­na­tion is re­vealed. We’re go­ing to Swaziland! Then the con­voy rules are ex­plained: You are re­spon­si­ble for the ve­hi­cle be­hind you; switch your head­lights on when you’re on the high­way; and give way to other road users. T-shirts, buffs and caps are handed out and then we em­bark on our jour­ney with­out cer­e­mony. Corné van der Merwe drives in front with Bronx, the Jeep with the most mod­i­fi­ca­tions. It’s es­pe­cially its 39” tyres that draw at­ten­tion. Be­hind him is Ni­cholas Harris, and then us – my­self, Shane Klebb and Arné Kotze in Ruby, Corné’s wife’s Jeep Ru­bi­con. Shane and Arné are also the tech­ni­cal team. The group, how­ever, is not com­plete be­cause there are a few ve­hi­cles com­ing from Polok­wane and will join us later. Every­thing is go­ing swim­mingly un­til just out­side Bronkhor­spruit when the Ru­bi­con starts act­ing up. The con­voy stops, the bon­net is opened, and we take coun­cil. It seems that with the pre­vi­ous ser­vice some­one messed around with the trans­mis­sion fluid’s ther­mo­stat and now the fluid doesn’t flow all the way through the ra­di­a­tor. That why it over­heats.

Every­thing is go­ing smoothly un­til just be­yond Bronkhorstspruit, when the Ru­bi­con starts act­ing up.

The guys de­cide to seek help in Mid­del­burg. The rest of the con­voy can carry on; we’ll catch up later. The prob­lem is solved quickly and we head off to Carolina. The road is lit­tered with pot­holes, but with 37” Cooper tyres we hardly no­tice it. We meet the rest of the con­voy at the Waver­ley bor­der post, fin­ish the pa­per­work and drive to the Mh­lam­bany­atsi sports ground where we’ll be spend­ing the night. There are de­cent fa­cil­i­ties and hot show­ers wait­ing for us. We are given the as­sur­ance that the spec­tac­u­lar views will more than make up for any in­con­ve­nience the next day. >

DAY 2 Rock­ing it

Most of the ve­hi­cles in the group are Jeep Ru­bi­cons, all with their fair share of mod­i­fi­ca­tions. There are also three Pa­jeros and two Toy­otas – a Cruiser and a Hilux. One of the things you no­tice im­me­di­ately is how lightly ev­ery­one in the group drives. They hardly leave a track where they’ve driven and there are no signs of un­nec­es­sary funny busi­ness. Shortly af­ter we leave, the Pa­jero pulls over to the side of the road. Its drive­shaft is bro­ken and it looks like its pas­sen­gers’ ad­ven­ture has come to an un­timely end. Some­one mum­bles some­thing about fit­ting a spare drive­shaft. The routes we’re driv­ing to­day are old school bus routes that have been so badly dam­aged by ero­sion that the buses do not dare to drive on it any longer. It is, how­ever, per­fect for 4x4 en­thu­si­asts. Tyre pres­sures are dropped and we start driv­ing up the river­course. There are many big rocks that we have to drive over with the ve­hi­cles. It’s tough and within the first kilo­me­tre there’s al­ready a long list of in­ci­dents. The one Pa­jero’s right-hand side hub doesn’t want to kick in, but the prob­lem is soon fixed. One of the Jeeps’ tyres has come off the rim – an­other prob­lem that’s quickly sorted out. An­other Jeep’s front diff lock won’t dis­en­gage, but the me­chan­ics are on it. The big­gest prob­lem is with the Land Cruiser bakkie that’s lost its en­tire right­hand front drive­shaft. The owner, Paul Ruschen­baum, is busy on the phone or­der­ing new parts. He needs to stay be­hind and wait for it and will re­join the con­voy later – if he re­ceives the help he needs, of course. From here on out it’s plain sail­ing; even as we go over the ob­sta­cles that are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly more chal­leng­ing.

The next part of the route is up and down a moun­tain. The par­tic­i­pants test their abil­i­ties against huge, deep eroded ditches, and ev­ery now and again you see a re­cov­ery strap fas­tened to some­one’s ve­hi­cle to help get him through it. Each ob­sta­cle has an eas­ier op­tion, but who wants to drive that? The con­voy moves on, but it’s go­ing slowly. Lead­ing such a long line of ve­hi­cles through the hills of Swaziland is a slow process. We drive over a big gran­ite rock and through some more ditches… and the next mo­ment one of the Jeep Ru­bi­cons starts driv­ing back­wards. It jumps high and comes to a stand­still. Ev­ery­one gets out to see what’s go­ing on. Ap­par­ently the en­gine cut out just as the ve­hi­cle was on top of the rock. When the driver, Len Nel, wanted to pull up the hand­brake, his wa­ter bot­tle got in the way and he knocked the car out of gear, caus­ing the car to go back­wards. It goes to show how quickly some­thing can go wrong. About a kilo­me­tre fur­ther there’s an­other bot­tle­neck. One of the tyres of Nick Eras­mus’s Jeep came off the rim and now the whole con­voy isn’t mov­ing. Those who can help, help, and the rest stand around, wait­ing. As we look back we see the sil­ver Pa­jero that lost its drive­shaft this morn­ing driv­ing full steam ahead. The Cruiser has also re­placed its lost nuts and bolts and has re­joined us. The con­voy is com­plete again. From here on there are no more ob­sta­cles, but it’s get­ting dark quickly and we still have an hour’s driv­ing left for the day. The route from here to the camp­site isn’t dif­fi­cult or far but it’s still de­cep­tive and we need to drive very care­fully. And it’s right here where Martin Fer­reira’s Pa­jero veers slightly off the line and he loses con­trol. The first roll ap­par­ently hap­pened quite slowly. He landed back on his wheels for a mo­ment and then gra­ciously started rolling. Luck­ily – three rolls fur­ther – it came to a stand­still against a tree. And for­tu­nately no one was hurt. Ev­ery per­son who comes to help is an ex­pert. We de­cide on one per­son to drive the re­cov­ery, and what’s re­mark­able about this group is that the safety as­pects of 4x4 re­cov­ery are ad­hered to at all times. With the help of winches, straps and ca­bles, the Pa­jero is once again back on its wheels. Af­ter a quick dam­age as­sess­ment the ve­hi­cle is towed to where we’re camp­ing for the night. We’ll have to wait for day­light to see ex­actly what kind of dam­age was done. Then they’ll de­cide if the sil­ver Pa­jero, which now looks more like a gi­ant baked potato, will be able to drive on or rather head home. >

DAY 3 Beau­ti­ful Swaziland

The morn­ing re­veals that the Pa­jero has sus­tained dam­age to its en­gine and gear­box. The baked potato is go­ing home. Af­ter cof­fee and break­fast in the glow of the mag­nif­i­cent sun­rise, we drive on. Sys­tem­at­i­cally the route be­comes eas­ier and more en­joy­able. We drive up hills and down through ditches. Sus­pen­sion sys­tems are tested to their lim­its and more than one tyre slides off the rim. But that’s part of the ad­ven­ture and these small prob­lems are fixed in no time at all. But just when things start go­ing too smoothly, one of the Jeeps breaks down. The clutch doesn’t want to dis­en­gage fully and the gears are lost. The tech­ni­cal team has a look and af­ter a while the gears are back. We drive on through places with in­ter­est­ing names like Snake River and Cross Your Legs. We eat lunch, but when we want to drive on, the Jeep’s clutch de­cides enough is enough. We tow it to the near­est ser­vice sta­tion in Mba­bane. Un­for­tu­nately it means the end of Ger­rit Oosthuizen’s ad­ven­ture. The last part of the route takes us over gi­ant gran­ite rocks with moun­tains that stretch as far as the eye can see. At Zone Wa­ter­falls, where we’re spend­ing the night, we drive half­way along the wa­ter­fall on ter­races and pitch camp. Some of the guys take the op­por­tu­nity to wash off the day’s sweat in the icy pools.

DAY 4 Stuck in the mud

The first ob­sta­cle of the day runs past the wa­ter­fall. This one is for those who like steep de­scents – the slope mea­sures 52º in some places. Three ve­hi­cles at­tempt it, and a few peo­ple de­cide to walk down. When they re­turn, ev­ery­one is packed and ready to go. Be­fore we even really get go­ing, a Jeep’s en­gine cuts out. The tech­ni­cal team crack a joke as they look un­der the bon­net, but they can’t im­me­di­ately find the prob­lem. Soon the Jeep’s wheels are rolling again. It was only a fuse and we’re happy to be hit­ting the road again. But as we pull away the peo­ple in the Cruiser an­nounce that they have a flat bat­tery. Luck­ily the jumper ca­bles are close at hand and we can fi­nally head on. We drive through beau­ti­ful na­ture, be­tween big hills and huge rocks to the look­out point where it feels like you can see into the fu­ture. From here we drive al­most on the ridge of the hills, swerv­ing through the gi­ant gran­ite boul­ders. We reach a point where we again drive down a slope and end up in a green­ish patch of land. Bronx goes in first and >

it soon be­comes clear that it’s not just grass down there but rather a mud bath. Only a winch can save Bronx. Two more ve­hi­cles ven­ture in but the re­cov­ery time is too long and the rest of the con­voy de­cides to rather stay on terra firma. The par­tic­i­pants dis­cuss it amongst them­selves and then de­cide that they also want to at­tempt Hand­brake Hill. It’s just a short sec­tion of the orig­i­nal school bus routes, about a kilo­me­tre long, but ero­sion has taken its toll on the road. The ditches are so deep you can lose some­one in­side. So we start driv­ing up and ini­tially it looks man­age­able. We make it across the first few ditches and stop of­ten to give each other direc­tions. The next mo­ment it’s as if every­thing sud­denly stopped

work­ing. Nick has lost an­other tyre, the Cruiser in front of us is ly­ing on its stomach, all four wheels spin­ning in the air, and the radio an­nounces that the red CJ Jeep’s axle has bro­ken off. And to add in­sult to in­jury, it has just started rain­ing. The guys with the red Pa­jero stop to as­sist with the Jeep and im­me­di­ately start tak­ing it apart. They reckon they can weld it quick-quick. All they need is a welder… Some­one else con­nects Ruby’s winch to the Cruiser in front of us, and later some­one runs with a high-lift jack to go and help Nick. The com­rade­ship is doled out in spades and ev­ery­one helps those who need it. In the mean­time the guys found a wo­man on a farm, bor­rowed a welder from her, and fixed the bro­ken part on the red CJ. >

We drive through the coun­try­side, up steep hills and be­tween huge rocks to a look­out point that makes you feel like you can see into the fu­ture.

The con­voy can move on again, but be­cause no one fully trusts the welded part, it’s de­cided that the ve­hi­cle should rather be towed on a trailer. Be­cause of all the drama we ar­rive in Mba­bane af­ter dark. The guys de­cide not to take the route back to the place where we spent the first night and camp in the rain. We stay in the nearby Hawani Re­sort. To­mor­row we head home af­ter a gru­elling few days filled with drama. But one guy’s drama is an­other’s high­lights and ad­ven­ture. And the Rock­ing Crawlers wouldn’t ex­change these few days of driv­ing for any­thing in the world.

ON THE ROCKS Park­ing at Zone falls’ ter­races.

Sun­rise over Swaziland re­veals the ex­tent of the dam­age to the Pa­jero. There are un­be­liev­able views and rock-hop­ping aplenty when you at­tempt this route. BACK­GROUND.

FLEX FRI­DAYS. The ve­hi­cles in the group were very ca­pa­ble, but they some­times re­quired the hu­man touch to keep the wheels on the ground. The Cruiser’s front axle was in bits and pieces, but the right parts and me­chan­i­cal knowhow saved the day (in­set).

LET’S BE­GIN (clock­wise from left). There’s noth­ing quite like cof­fee on a CJ’s wheel arch. Wakey-wakey in the mist. Big rub­ber is the key (in­set). Fi­nal ad­just­ments are made. The cor­rect tyre pres­sure is one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of off-road...

ON THE STRAIGHT AND NAR­ROW. Fol­low the line. If there aren’t any rocks they’ll just drive over each other. A bent rim gets ham­mered into shape. One of the favourite look­out points: A mas­sive gran­ite shelf that al­lows for ma­jes­tic views.

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