Written by Brent vd Schyff for Cars.co.za
How does one transform a standard Toyota Hilux double-cab into the ultimate overland Hilux?… and why would one want to? We had a chat with the managing director of Cape Town-based firm Alu-Cab, Warwick Leslie, to discuss the intimidating world of Overlanding, which, as it turns out, is not that intimidating…
If you think about it, Overlanding is just an extreme form of camping; it’s diffe rent to the activity of loading gear into a family car and then driving to a designated campsite, where you and your entourage will “semi-rough it” for a couple of days (while making use of various communal facilities), after which you have to pack up your detritus and return from whence you came. No, Overlanding is reserved for those who really want to rough it out in the wild; true Overlanding is, as the name suggests, “self-sustained vehicle travel over vast distances”, during which time its exponents live largely self-sufficiently.
As for the ideal Overlanding vehicle, well, that’s a large, spacious 4×4 with good off-road ability and space for all manner of camping gear and accessories, isn’t it? But, of course, not everyone can afford a vehicle like that. Alternatively, one could attempt Overlanding with a very basic vehicle (many have), but it’s not a very practical, let alone enjoyable, pursuit. Besides, both of those kinds of vehicles need to be painstakingly unpacked and carefully re-packed to set up and break camp… and if you plan to do lots of exploring over a large area with plenty of stops in between, that can become very tiresome.
Warwick Leslie’s “Ultimate Overland” Hilux (shown here) demonstrates that, with considered modifications, a humble bakkie can be transformed into a vehicle that will not only get you to (and from) far-flung remote locations with relative ease, but allow you to enjoy the experience more when you get there – because it incorporates the living quarters entirely in its bespoke (and liberally accessorised) canopy.
Warrick says the Overlanding industry gradually rose in popularity from 2010 to 2016, but really took off after that owing to, inter alia, technological advancements in design, improved GPS mapping software and more players entering the customisation market. What’s more, in the Covid-19 era, an increasing number of people have sought less mainstream escapes to, as they say, get away from the madding crowd. Meanwhile, American consumers began to favour modified pick-ups as Overlanding vehicles and it became an international trend, from which South Africa has not been excluded.
How does one even get into Overlanding?
It’s easier to start than you might think. Start with your vehicle, a map and set yourself a challenge to spend extended time outdoors… it’s all about getting out of your comfort zone and finding enjoyment in getting truly close to nature; get involved with local clubs and get to know your vehicle to fast track the learning curve. That is the basic essence of Overlanding (without committing too much at the onset).
For many, however, like with virtually all specialist lifestyle pursuits, to get the best experience you need to invest in the right gear. Standard kit will only get so far – to find that top-tier experience, you need to spec up. But surely it takes a lot of courage to transform a perfectly utilitarian bakkie into a specialist vehicle? We set out to understand what it takes to turn a standard Hilux into an Overlanding Hilux…
Why the Toyota Hilux?
When it comes to a choice of vehicle to use for Overlanding, the Toyota Hilux double cab is one of the best (new) vehicles available from a sheer-capability-for-Rands-spent point of view. It’s reliable, comfortable, spares are readily available, it has a reasonable turning circle and loads of aftermarket accessories are available, which makes it the ideal choice – it’s the benchmark in the bakkie market.
What modifications are required?
Not much is required to begin with, because the Hilux is an immensely capable package. It’s more a case of leveraging the vehicle’s abilities… You can, within reason, travel to certain remote locations with a 4×2 and decent ground clearance, but the ideal setup is 4×4 with low range and a diff-lock, as well as a mild shock-absorber upgrade and the fitment of all-terrain tyres. As the general standard tyre is more suited to sealed road surfaces, good multi-terrain tyres are a must. The standard suspension will not take the punishment on the longer bumpier roads so an upgrade is advisable (from a safety perspective). Other safety items include a tyre-repair kit and an air compressor; you’re going to get your hands dirty! Next, one can look at a canopy that incorporates an awning, as well as a ground tent.
Other basic items to consider fitting include a front skid plate, a long-range (larger fuel) tank, a battery system (to provide some alternating current to power basic appliances) and a fridge. Sure, all that extra gear certainly helps, but as Warwick comments: “My best adventure was in a 2-wheel-drive Kombi, with a ground tent, a cooler box and 2 chairs for four of us over 4 weeks, but the gear certainly makes your life vastly easier… If you’re in Botswana, doing your game drive, you don’t want to battle to ‘close things up’. You want to get to the next camp, pop up your tent, unpack and enjoy the sunset.”
In truth, the customer-specific nature of Overlanding means that “must-have equipment” is a matter of perspective, because everyone’s needs are different… What you want and what you need could be two different setups based on the type of journeys that you plan to undertake and, as I learnt by observing Warwick’s Hilux, it’s the result of many trips and lessons learnt about what is efficient – and what simply isn’t. You’ll learn as you go along, but be warned: customising can be a very addictive activity. Therefore, set yourself a budget and stick to it. Start small and gradually build your way up from there.
What modifications have been done to the Ultimate Overland Hilux?
Despite dwarfing a standard Hilux, you’ll be surprised to learn that not much has been done to Warrick’s “Ultimate Overland” Hilux. Modifications include aftermarket wheels, shod with Maxxis all-terrain tyres, Gobi-X front and rear bumpers that serve as mounts from which to jack up the vehicle, skid pans, an Old Man Emu fully adjustable suspension, a torque-converter lockup kit and Power Sport 6-pot calliper brakes. Other functional items include seat covers, rubber mats, additional storage compartments, extra power points, a killer audio system upgrade, tyre-pressure monitors (which may save a tyre or two… and your life), a battery system with a solar panel and a lithium battery, 2 fridges, a water tank, lighting, as well as a 150-litre fuel tank, which is said to extend the bakkie’s range to about 1 000 km.
But the real adventurous element is the Alu-Cab Canopy Camper setup, which incorporates a rooftop tent and a 270-degree shadow awning and houses various creature comforts such as foldaway table and chairs, a solar panel and charging system, plus an imported gas furnace to beat off winter’s harshness. If you’re familiar with Karoo winters, the latter is exceedingly likely to put a smile on your face.
What about maintenance and the vehicle’s warranty?
It’s imperative that your vehicle undergoes its standard scheduled servicing as prescribed by the manufacturer and, if you’re doing a lot of dirt driving, it is advisable to change the engine’s air filter in between services. Strict maintenance of the front upper control arms will help you to avoid poor wheel alignment and -tyre wear. What’s more, strongly consider rotating the tyres every 5 000 km.
To ensure that your vehicle’s warranty will be honoured, the rule of thumb is that if an Overlanding modification you’ve implemented affects a vehicle’s system that would usually be covered under warranty (in case of malfunction or failure), it won’t be covered. Each warranty claim is, however, treated on a case-by-case basis. Old Man Emu shocks, for example, happen to be Toyota-approved. The most important step is to have a conversation with your dealer about the nature of the modifications that you intend to make to your vehicle before you commission a firm to carry them out on your behalf.
I’ve got my gear sorted… so, what’s next?
Sub-Saharan Africa offers some of the best options for the Overlanding adventurer, but plan your voyage carefully. Get involved with community pages on social media. If you’ve gotten that far, then you’re likely going to be engaging with kindred travellers who will be more than willing to help. You may even spark up new friendships that last a lifetime, ones that make you wonder why didn’t start this earlier.
Remember, there are real-life challenges, like inadvertently trespassing on property or getting to a border only to realise that it’s been closed thanks to Covid. Some areas require permits to access and, for crossing privately-owned land, make contact well before you set off. Engage on a human level and, who knows, you may gain access to locations that few people, apart from the proprietors, have seen.
When you plan your route, mark off points of bucket-list interests such as camping under the Milky Way on the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in Botswana or nestling down at the bottom of the Baviaanskloof Mountain Reserve. Be conscious of the season during which you’ll be travelling; may overflowing rivers block your route? Just getting involved in the research will spark the interest further, believe me.
What happens if I get stuck out there?
The chances are that you will, eventually, get stuck in sand or mud somewhere along your route, but it’s all about the adventure… if everything was always going to go smoothly, what would be the fun in that? Sure, humour me, but there are limits to this – you have to have your wits about you. Something that is often overlooked is undergoing a basic 4×4 course that, inter alia, deals with vehicle-recovery procedures. That (knowing that you can venture out further on your own), will bolster your confidence and evoke the freedom to explore more. However, it’s always best to travel in groups of vehicles.
Overlanding… the marriage of lifestyle choices
The chances are that if you’ve read the article this far, you’re likely to be keen on doing more than one outdoor activity. Perhaps you have a predilection for a little bird-watching (ahem, of the winged variety), mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, fishing or just sitting under your shaded awning while you view a herd of elephants converge at the riverside to enjoy a drink of water. I think of Overlanding as the ability to create a mission outpost beyond your conceived borders. It serves as a natural extension of the outdoor activities you’re passionate about; getting to those special places not many get to enjoy.
As Warwick enjoys fishing, it was refreshing to see various flies positioned in a custom holder attached to his bakkie’s sun visor. A painful reminder that each commute to work is a fishing trip you aren’t on.
Get out there and adventure…
While you don’t need to have a vehicle that is as extensively equipped as Warwick’s “Ultimate Overland” Hilux, it certainly helps to know that, at any time, you can pick up and go on a trip to just about anywhere (with relatively little preparation) – that is indeed a true intrinsic attraction of Overlanding. Whether the next adventure is the game-viewing trip in the Lowveld or sojourns to the surrounds of the Cederberg or the Tankwa Nature reserve or other desolate areas, including the Northern Cape close to the Orange River, it’s good to know that you can keep it simple when starting and then, who knows where to from there (as you progress on the equipment front)? Perhaps the next discovery of a once-believed-to-be-extinct tribe in Central Africa? “What are you waiting for”? Adventure awaits…
If you want more information about vehicle builds such as Warwick’s “Ultimate Overland” Hilux, visit the firm’s website at www.alu-cab.com, follow their Alu-Cab Instagram page to find more inspiration and even reach out to the chosen fitment centre on 4×4 Mega World. Other helpful resources include the app and website called Tracks4Africa, which is a community-driven map source.