Back to the good old days

You don’t need a 4×4 to go off-road. In fact, sometimes simpler is better – and a whole lot more fun. That’s what a few friends from Zombie Offroad found out while venturing out in a pair of old-school Volkswagen Beetles.

Who says you need a highly modified4x4 to go camping and off-roading? The scene can quickly become a bit of a contest to see who’s got the most tricked-out vehicle and the latest camping gear. To prove a point, we gathered a few friends from Zombie Offroad to take on a new challenge: to see how little we can get away with in order to experience camping like it was back in the day. The result? A simple car and a really basic camping set-up, just like it used to be.

It all started when I was chatting over a beer with Pierre Nortjé, a good friend of ours and an avid collector of air-cooled Volkswagen Beetles. The subject was camping, and he mentioned that he’d been struggling to find a decently priced second-hand 4×4.I told him he really doesn’t need a 4WD vehicle to reach 90% of the local camping spots, and that’s where the idea began. As we’ve made a few videos for YouTube, we thought this would be the perfect starting point for an adventure video to prove that you don’t always need a big builtup4WD vehicle to explore off-road and have fun.

While Pierre’s Beetles are all in good running condition, the ones we selected for the proposed journey had been standing for some time and needed a bit of work. Pierre had opted for his 1961 vintage 1200cc bug, with its original dark blue paint and an authentic patina of age. My choice was a 1300cc twin port from 1971, sporting a bright orange paint job. After taking the two bugs out for a scenic test drive, we very quickly discovered some gremlins needed to be sorted out before our off-road excursion.

The orange Beetle was the first to break down, a mere 3kmfrom home, so we decided to spend a few nights in the garage, removing the engine, replacing old rubber parts and doing some general maintenance work. Pierre had also collected some genuine vintage Volkswagen roof racks over the years, and we fitted these while we were at it. They not only look the part, but were ideal for packing some camping “luxuries”. The bulky items such as the recovery sand tracks, Zombie portable braai, firewood and food crates went on top, while the cooler box, drinks, bedding and camera equipment took up most of the interior space.

Meanwhile, just a few days before the trip, we discovered that Pierre’s 1961Beetle had some crank seal issues, and sadly we were unable to find the correct parts in time. Luckily, he had a backup in the form of a light blue1968 vintage 1500cc.

We set off from Cape Town on a Saturday morning, taking the first dirt road detour to Darling via the Darling Hills road. Immediately the corrugated road conditions had us deflating the tyres to around 1.2 bar to improve the handling of the Beetles and to ease the bouncy ride. We had a quick lunch stop at the Darling Brew Tasteroom, then continued northwards on our West Coast journey.

The Beetles drove surprisingly well, despite being heavily loaded and with the air-brake aerodynamics caused by the packed roof racks. They weren’t the fastest vehicles on the highway, but people did not seem to mind being held back by our adventure-rigged Beetles on a road trip. In many of the cars that passed by, the occupants waved, hooted and took pictures of our old-school convoy. For some it was a sight that brought back all sorts of nostalgia, while others saw it as the Cold Water Omo of punch buggies. Is that still a thing? Anyway, we didn’t travel too far up the West coast road before taking the turn-off to Velddrif.

It was here that the orange Bug started developing an increasingly bad flat spot in the low rpm range, which made slow driving in town a bit difficult. We had tried to fix this issue previously on our test drive trip, but clearly had not completely fixed the problem. It was one of those things that disappeared after giving the engine a good rev, so we figured it would be fine using the universal fix: “She’ll be alright, mate – just rev it out.”

Soon we hit another gravel road, which would lead us straight to Trekoskraal, a classic wild camping spot near the sea. We weren’t far along the dirt road when the orange Bug started losing power and eventually died. I tried run-starting it while we were still moving but our attempts were futile. I had thought things were going far too smoothly…

Luckily, after a quick diagnosis from our air-cooled expert Pierre, we found there was no fuel in the carburettor – so either the Beetle was very heavy on juice, or the fuel filter was blocked. However, it was even simpler than that. When we opened up the fuel cap and air came rushing in, it was clear the fuel tank breather was blocked, and not long after that we were off again!

As you enter the beach area of Trekoskraal the road drops down a steep, rocky section. This is usually where you park your “platkar” and get into a 4×4 bakkie if you want to explore further. While we were waiting at the top, a Fortuner made his way up, spinning his wheels and making rocks fly everywhere. Pierre and I looked at one another, wondering how on earth we would make it back up the following day. Our Beetles were stock standard, with normal road tyres and not a huge amount of ground clearance. In other words, not well suited to driving over rock gardens. But by going slowly and taking directions from the other drivers, we were able to pick a safe line down the hill. Sure, there were one or two scrapes on the undercarriage of both Beetles, but we made it down in one piece.

Turning heads

Once down on the softer sand sections next to the coast, we were soon cruising happily, passing every brand of 4×4 vehicle you could name. All the campers, fishermen, kids and families stopped what they were doing to have a look at these two rigged Beetles driving past, while they sat next to their fullykitted4x4s. The track has some tough spots, with a few dodgy rocks lurking between soft sandy climbs and deep cross-axle sections, but the Bugs ate the terrain like they were made for it.

We cruised up and down the beach before settling on the perfect spot to set up camp. While we were planning our camp layout, Pierre pulled in the orange Bug and it immediately sank to its chassis. We had not once got stuck until we pulled into our campsite. Full disclosure is that our friend Ryno had tagged along in his 4×4 bakkie, but the idea for this trip was to be self-sufficient with absolutely no external help unless there was an emergency. This did not qualify. Yet. After taking out a few shovel-fulls of sand from under the wheels, we jammed a pair of sand tracks under the rear wheels. A push here and there was enough to give the wheels just enough traction to climb the tracks, and voila – the Bug spun free and we immediately parked it on harder ground. While setting up camp a few 4x4s passed by, and some of the drivers asked, rather sceptical, if we had really driven all that way in these old-school Beetles.

We had finally achieved our goal, and as the afternoon wore on, it was time to celebrate with a few cold ones from the coolers. We got out our Zombie Offroad flatpack braai, lit the fire and settled back to stare at this incredible scene: waves crashing right in front of us with the sun setting, and two vintage Beetles parked up on the beach. It was surreal to be time-travelling back to a classic Sixties adventure– worth every breakdown, bloody knuckle and sweaty shovelling episode to be celebrating this on the West Coast of South Africa with two iconic cars. Sadly, Trekoskraal has since been closed for overnight camping and only day visits are allowed. We’ve already started planning our next epic adventure, now that we’ve proven these old vehicles are up to the task. We had such a great time and so much interest from people along the journey, taking pictures of this crazy scene and constantly stopping us for a friendly chat. Old cars just have that aura, a character that brings a smile to everyone’s face no matter their age. And we definitely proved that you don’t always need a big 4×4 full of expensive kit to have a great time exploring some of the remote parts of South Africa.

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