Transforming our Toyota Hilux into the perfect travel vehicle
Words and photos by Villiers Steyn
My father always told me, “Son, there are three things you need when you travel in rural Africa: A Leatherman, a way to communicate with the outside world, and your own set of wheels.” I took this advice to heart right from the get-go when I started my career as travel writer in 2008, and although the first thing I ever did with my Leatherman was cut open a packet of Nik-Naks and I’ve only ever used a sat phone to change campsite reservations and phone home for important birthdays, I can safely say that he was absolutely right about all three. Without them, travelling to some of southern Africa’s wildest game reserves could have been disastrous.
Sourcing the right set of wheels, and then transforming them into something that wouldn’t just get me to where I wanted to go, but could also serve as my home away from home, has been a real adventure. I searched for well over a year to find my dream bakkie – a 2004 2.7L petrol Toyota Hilux double cub 4×4 – just in time for an epic 70-day road trip from Pretoria to the Serengeti and back.
She was worth waiting for, but wasn’t kitted for over-landing, so I immediately started with modifications. The first thing to go was the old fibreglass canopy, which I replaced with an Alu-Cab with large side flaps and a roof rack, on top of which I put a rooftop tent. I also installed an African Outback double drawer system in the back and another roof rack in the front.
On a trial run to Hwange National Park, two things became clear very quickly: First of all, rooftop tents are entirely overrated! They take up an enormous amount of space, weigh a ton, create so much drag when you drive you want to drive backwards, and they’re a nightmare to fold up before early morning game drives. Not to mention the perils of navigating that tiny ladder when nature calls at 2am. Then there’s the African Outback drawers; they’re very well manufactured, I’ll give them that, but with your camping fridge sliding out on top of one of the drawers, you have to be related to a giraffe to see inside.
These kinds of modifications are supposed to make life on the road easier, not make you fall on your backside in the middle of the night, or damage your toes when you’re digging for a cold beer. So before the big trip north, a small hiking tent (that takes up less than half the space of my camera bag) replaced the rooftop tent and the fancy but impractical double drawer system was replaced with a custom-built one, made predominantly from wood. The biggest and most practical change was bringing the fridge down to human-level (which we achieved by stacking the drawers on top of one another), but not far behind was my handy little charging drawer for laptops, phones, camera batteries, and any other gadgets.
An awning on the side to block the harsh African sun and provide a dry spot when the heavens opened was a great addition too, as was the sheet of metal over the inside of the tail flap. This simple extra turned a mostly useless surface into the perfect place to make early morning tea and coffee.
After more than 150 000 km on the road and visits to some of our continent’s wildest parks and reserves I can safely say that, with the right modifications, your overland vehicle can be better than any hotel room.