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.
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.