sisi, by life connected, car, overlanding, 4x4

The adventure of buying a (4x4) car in southern Africa for overlanding

Lars

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Meet Sisi (short for Segatlhamelamasisi, means Adventurer in Setswana), our newest addition to the By Life Connected family! She is a 1998 Toyota Landcruiser Prado, has a 3.4 liter petrol engine and is equipped with BF Goodrich All-terrain tyres, a Frontrunner roof rack, rooftop tent and pull out drawers. In the coming three months Sisi will accompany us across deserts and rivers in pursuit of our goal: starting a NGO in southern Africa that is focussed on creating a sustainable future for anything that is By Life Connected. Buying a car that is capable of taking us to very remote destinations and can withstand the bush isn’t easy, especially on a continent that is relatively unfamiliar to us. It involves a lot of research, a clear understanding on what you need the car to do and some luck. This is the detailed story on how we met and bought Sisi.

Why didn’t we just hire a 4x4?

During our travels we often get this question. It is true that hiring a 4x4 could have saved us a lot of time. About 6 months ago the same question set off a period we call “voorpret” in Dutch. It involved about a hundred hours of research; sending enquiries, visiting forums and reading books. Yes, I am one of those people.

As it was probable that we would start our journey in Johannesburg (cheapest flights, close to Botswana and Namibia and largest 4x4 market in Africa) I first sent quotations to all sorts of car rentals (large and small, specialized or not) based in Joburg. Their responses shocked me: including insurance, cross border fees etc, it would cost us at least €10,000 to hire the most basic 4x4 for three months! Ouch…  

For a day or two I was feeling uneasy and unsure: will the pursuit of our dreams cost us this much? I couldn’t imagine that buying and equipping a 4x4 for overlanding would be any cheaper than hiring. Nevertheless, after those quotations the idea of buying a 4x4 started to grow on me. It sparked my sense of adventure in a way that hiring could not. How much fun would it be to fully customize a 4x4 to our wishes and subsequently use it in the wilderness of Africa?! In addition to the fun, every euro we put in the car would be an investment, instead of a loss! Suddenly, renting seemed a foolish idea.

My enthusiasm peaked when I noticed that used 4x4’s in South Africa were actually affordable (have a look on Olx and Gumtree), and that there was an extensive used 4x4 accessories and camping gear market. I started to scour the internet for information on which brand and model are best for overlanding. The web was almost unanimous on this topic: Toyota Hilux and Landcruisers are the best options when considering capability, capacity, durability, reliability and value.

“The bureaucratic nightmare of South Africa” - The World Pursuit

So our plan would be to fly to Joburg, rent a car to search for 4x4’s, buy the best affordable Toyota Hilux or Landcruiser we could find, register it… A lump started to grow in my throat. The internet was full of horror stories from expats (with a Working Visa) who had to go to hell and back to be able to register a car on their name. It even got worse when I found out that it is impossible to register a car on your name when you’re visiting South Africa on a Tourist Visa. The evil-doer is the Traffic Registration Number (TRN). For the Motor Vehicle Department to supply you with one you will need a more substantial Visa that will allow you to stay in South Africa for more than a year.  

Fellow travellers of The World Pursuit thought of a loophole. They arranged friends of theirs, South African Residents, to register the car on their name. All you need after that is a letter from the ‘owner’ that gives you power of attorney over the vehicle in order to cross the border. Voila! As Kellie and I did our internship in South Africa in 2014 we already had some contacts which we would trust to not screw us over. Consequently, we were relieved and confident that we would be able to pull this off.

South Africa vs Botswana

Funny enough, our plans changed drastically again. We did not end up buying a car in South Africa, but in Botswana. One of the reasons is that, compared to South Africa, Botswana is a bureaucratic paradise. All you need to buy AND register a car in Botswana is a certified copy of your passport! I found out about this by stumbling on a blog by Goal42. When a car is licensed and registered in Botswana, the license plate never has to change. So when you buy a car all you have to do is exchange ownership papers and the same registration and license plates will change to your name. It is a strange notion that a few hundred kilometres and a border crossing can save you a lot of trouble.

In addition to being a bureaucratic paradise, Botswana also allows the import of used Japanese vehicles, including Toyota 4x4’s. So we would be able to buy a cheap and highly efficient used Japanese 4x4 of which the maintenance is easy, and spare parts are available for all models in the whole of Africa. This sounded like music to my ears.

The last reason why we decided to buy a car in Botswana is because a friend of us lives in Botswana. His name is Sander Vissia, and he works at The Koro River Camp. We made a 50/50 deal where we will buy a 4x4 and all the camping gear together and register it on his name. With a letter from him that gives us the power of attorney and a stamp from the police, we will be able to cross borders. After our travels the car will be his. We will probably do this deal again in a year or so, and then the car will be ours.

Buying Sisi in Gaborone, Botswana

With the knowledge above we felt confident we would be able to buy, register and equip a 4x4 within two weeks. Being the capital of Botswana, largest city and closest to Joburg, Gaborone seemed the logical base to start our car hunt. After our shitty flight to Joburg (read about it here) and bus trip to Gaborone (with Flight Connect), we were set. During our time in Gaborone we stayed at Gae Guesthouse. The hostess, Nio, is very helpful and friendly, and the price-quality is good. The guesthouse is located close to a very expensive hotel (where we parasitized on the Wifi) and, most importantly, it is around the corner of a street that is filled with car dealers that sell used Japanese imports!

Because Kellie and myself know next to nothing about cars, we needed to prepare ourselves. Websites like 4x4Africa were a good place to start. I also watched a youtube tutorial on how to buy a 4x4. Based on these sources I created a checklist (link to excel sheet) we could use while searching 4x4’s in Gaborone.

We started our car hunt by renting a car for a couple days. The plan was that Kellie and I would search for 4x4’s ahead of Sander’s arrival in Gabs. He had about 1,5 days to buy and register a car, so most of the work needed to be done before he arrived. The first day we drove through the city centre, visiting most of the car dealers there. If you are searching for cars produced in South Africa, like single-cab Toyota Hilux bakkies, the city centre and around is the place for you. If you are hunting for the used Toyota Hilux Surf, Landcruiser or Landcruiser Prado that are imported from Japan you should focus on the Molepolole Road. When we learned of this place, we spent 1,5 days on this stretch of Molepolole Road and visited about 30 car dealers. About 15 cars (mostly Hilux Surf) past our noob inspections (no smoke while starting, cleaned properly, no signs of accidents, etc) and made it into our first selection. Most petrol Surf’s were between 60,000 and 70,000 pula (± € 5,000-5,800). Diesel Surf’s were rare and therefore more expensive, think >€ 6,500. The Landcruiser Prado’s were between 70,000 and 90,000 pula (± € 5,800-7,500). Landcruisers varied strongly depending on the age and conditions; the cheapest we saw was 50,000 pula (€4,100), but it was a project to say the least. For us there was plenty of choice and we slowly began to become more selective. A sunroof, for example, quickly became a requirement instead of a luxury.

The next day Sander arrived in Gabs, and after a celebratory beer and bite, we headed to Molepolole (love that word) Rd to decrease our selection. We eliminated some Surf’s that missed a sunroof, a Hilux double-cab bakkie (diesel) that was too expensive and some Landcruisers that needed too much TLC. Our reduced selection consisted of a diesel Hilux Surf (100,000 pula, negotiable), a V6 3.4L Hilux Surf (65,000 pula, negotiable) and a V6 3.4L Landcruiser Prado (75,000 pula, negotiable). We have been told that is better that we buy a diesel or 3.4L petrol because of the load (roof top tent, roof rack, fridge, etc). A 2.7L would struggle to handle this extra weight when driving in areas where 4x4 are necessary

Lars, Sander and Raja, our very sweet Pakistani mechanic, checking out Sisi.

“Next time we see each other, it will be with a smile on our face.”

The final decision depended on the mechanics. Every car dealer could see straight through us when we pretended to look at an engine, meanwhile uneasy to even touch it. The three of us were like a bunch of young birds that are learning how to fly, but are too scared to take the final leap. So the best thing we could do was to find an independent mechanic. This turned out to be a golden decision. We received Raja’s phone number from a car dealer that did not have any 4x4’s (but was super helpful anyway), and agreed to meet each other at Nando’s the next morning. While we were waiting inside we saw a middle-aged Pakistani in a thawb (dress) with a long grey beard getting his phone out. Jokingly we said it would be really funny if our phone rang now... And it did! Turned out Raja, born in the same village Osama Bin Laden was killed in (#hasnothingtodowiththebeard), would be our super sweet and expert mechanic for the day. It is wonderful to witness how such an experienced mechanic snuffs out every problem. The first car dealer we visited hated him for it, and of course we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. The final verdict was that the petrol Surf was mechanically “unwell”, so we left that one for the vultures. We also eliminated the diesel Surf because it was too expensive compared to the Prado. That left Sisi!

When we said goodbye to Raja, we tried to give him some money for his advice, but he didn’t want any of it: “Next time we see each other, it will be with a smile on our face.” Not many people in the world have this attitude and to find it here so unexpectedly, it definitely made our day. He owns Abbott Motors (after Abbottabad, where he was born). Give him a visit if you need anything related to cars! Next to Raja, what also motivated our decision to buy Sisi were the car dealers Ashrad and KA (JAF Auto)! They have their business talks ready of course, but they genuinely wanted to help us get the best deal possible. They were open, very friendly and helped us out wherever they could.

Finalizing the deal

Let’s talk finances now. We ended up paying 72.000 pula (about €6000) for Sisi. This included registration, servicing and a roadworthy test which was all taken care of by JAF Auto. They also changed the water pump to finetune Sisi and drove us around Gaborone in search for camping accessories (rooftop tent and the like). Gaborone, however, did not have the accessories we were looking for; the choice was limited, too expensive and stuff needed be ordered. So the only thing we could do was head back to South Africa which, we knew, had an extensive camping and 4x4 accessories market.

The guys who sold us the car from JAF Auto. They were super helpful and very charismatic!

Gearing Sisi up

It was really cool to be able to drive back to South Africa on our own. Sisi was running well and we were excited to make her look like a true African camping car. We first drove to a tyre shop to make an appointment (for the next day) to fit Sisi with some new rubbers: BF Goodrich All-terrain tyres. If you want to head into the African bush these tyres are the best. After that we contacted and visiting some 4x4 fitters and found the shop we wanted to go in business with: Frontrunner. They could gear Sisi up with everything we were hoping for. Their shop looked awesome, with fully equipped Land Rover Defender’s standing in the middle of their showroom. In all, a 4x4 fitters dream! It got even better when they told us that everything we wanted was in stock, they could fit it all in half a day and it was less expensive than all the other fitters we found. What a service! We gladly handed over Sisi’s keys and went to a burger joint around the corner to grease the deal (they even gave us a coupon!). After a wonderful meal we came back and, God behold, there she was. Like a girl ready for prom, her metamorphose was complete

Sisi in the Frontrunner workshop, before her make-over!

Now the paying part… Most of the money was on my account, so logically we tried my account first. Entered my code… “Declined,” said the manager. What?! At the time I could feel my heart beating in my neck, while desperately trying to understand why it was declined. Before the transaction we made sure that enough money was on my back account and that the transfer limit was set to the max, so what could be the issue? I called the SNS bank using Frontrunners landline phone (so nice of them), and the bottom-line was that I can only increase my transaction limit in Europe and not the rest of the world. I was flabbergasted by that, thanks SNS for the service. Luckily Kellie took over and with some financial magic, involving 4 different bank accounts, we could pay for all the stuff they mounted on Sisi. Relief…

Our spell of bad luck wasn’t over though. In the workshop at Frontrunner the fitters found a problem with the radiator. The tank that holds the cooling liquid, which was full when we left Gaborone, was now completely empty and steam was escaping from the cap of the tank. Not good. So in addition to the tyre shop we also needed to go a radiator specialist. Sisi’s beautiful curves and accessories cheered us up a little though.

The next morning I first headed to the tyre shop (Tyres And More), where they did an awesome job of fitting Sisi with BF Goodriches, Formula 1 style for normal people (in under 1,5 hours). Next, the radiator specialist called Silverton Radiators (based in Centurion, Pretoria). I was quite nervous when they did some tests on Sisi. We just bought the her and already issues were potentially coming to the surface. If this is a sign of things to come, yeah well, that would facilitate our plans, to say the least.

During one of the tests they put a capsule with a blue liquid on top of the radiator and run the engine for about 5 minutes. If the liquid would turn green during the head gasket (really big problem) would be kaput, if it stayed blue it was another problem (leak or something like that). After polarbearing and eyeing the capsule for what felt like an eternity, the mechanic was satisfied. The colour remained blue. Ppffeeww… Not the head gasket. The mechanic went back into the shop to get his boss for advice. A big, grey and old Afrikaner exited the garage and started to listen to and touch the engine. After debating some time with his colleagues he was positive that the water pump was broken. If you recollect, however, the guys at JAF auto put in a new one only a few days before that. On one side that made me feel unsure; were the mechanics at Silverton Radiators telling me the truth? On the other side, however, I just trusted their verdict because I simply do not know anything about cars. The thing that made me uneasy and emotional though was that the boss said that we would not be able to drive this car into the African bush without fixing this problem. That idea frightened me, so I asked for a quotation. He said that for fixing the car we would have to wait for an additional 4 days (a water pump is not easy to come by) and it would cost us a whopping €700. Luckily, that was a deal breaker for me.

After a quick visit to a Toyota dealer for some advice we decided that it would be best, although a bit of a gamble, to head back to JAF auto in Gaborone again. Because of a garanty with them they would have to fix Sisi for free. The Toyota mechanic said that the engine would not be damaged if we would just fill up the radiator tank with water. And so we did. After a quick stop at the Outdoor Warehouse for camping equipment we drove back to Gaborone, filling the radiator tank with water every 100 kilometres.

Back in Gaborone we immediately went to JAF auto. The owners could not believe that the water pump was broken already and directed us to the garage to check it out. We stayed with the mechanics the whole time, to see what they were doing. After about 10 minutes he already found the problem, which was so simple I felt stupid, happy and betrayed at the same time. The reason why cooling liquid was leaking from the tank was that the radiator cap was not holding the pressure. As a result, all the liquid could simply escape the tank in the form of steam which ensured that the tank was empty in about half an hour. This meant that the guys at Silverton Radiators in Pretoria wanted to charge us €700 for a faulty radiator cap. Being specialists in radiator problems I can not believe that they did not detect this problem which means that it was their goal to screw us over big time. Luckily we did not fall for it.

So after a quick fix Sisi (who was already living up to her name) was finally ready for some (fun) adventure! Kellie and I could not wait to show her to Sander, looking all pretty. Our first destination, Koro River Camp in Tuli Block, Botswana!

P.S. for the financially minded. Sisi cost us around €12300 including 4x4 accessories, camping gear and insurance (fully covered in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe).  

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[…] the few weeks of semi-stress to get our 4×4 car bought and fixed (for more detail, see this blog), we could finally take her for a real drive. We left Gaborone early, the morning of the 51st […]

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