Travel, Health

African trail hazards

The offending limb

The offending limb

It was Connie who alerted me, in her inimitable style, as we stopped at the entrance gate to the Moremi Game Reserve to pay the entrance fee.

“Jonathan,” she said, deadpan, “You have a stick up your butt.”

I realized even without checking that she was speaking metaphorically, so I looked at the next obvious spot—the rear of our Troopy. And there it was: a pretty stout limb as a matter of fact, wedged somewhere firmly in the vehicle’s undercarriage and dragging on the ground. Wedged so tightly as to be scoring an impressive furrow behind us. I was pretty sure I’d heard it get there, but the forest track we had followed had been littered with such limbs of various sizes, and I’d gotten used to the odd one smacking the undercarriage when a tire flipped it. The strategy with such limbs lying crosswise is to drive over the middle if possible, as this reduces the chance of flipping, but it wasn’t always possible, and many of the limbs were concealed in undergrowth.

A glance under the truck showed the limb angling up to the rear axle, where it took an abrupt bend in front of the tube and up into the chassis. I got down and slid under the Troopy, gave a yank on the limb, and  . . . nothing. It was well and truly jammed in there. So I slid in all the way, and found that the end had somehow crammed its way past brake, water, and diff-lock lines to lock itself behind a frame crossmember.

And then I noticed the sheen of some sort of liquid. Uh oh.

I could see the water line from our chassis-mounted tank, and it was intact. My next, worried thought was brake line. But the brakes had felt fine as we stopped. By now Graham had crawled under as well, and said, “Gear oil.” We smelled it and sure enough. The stick had ripped off the air line fitting for our ARB diff lock, and severed the line itself. Some differential oil had come out with it.

It took some serious heaving to free the end of the limb and remove it—I’m still mystified as to how it managed to insert itself that firmly in a fraction of a second. There was no way to repair the line—it was now too short and the fitting was mangled. So Roseann found a wood skewer of the approximate inside diameter as the fitting on the diff housing; I cut a short plug from it and used Gorilla Tape to securely fasten it in place. 

We drove the rest of the trip through Botswana and Namibia with the bandage in place. There was no more leakage, so the truck went into its shipping container that way. I’ll fix it properly when it arrives in Arizona. (I’ll check carefully to make sure no oil is being pumped up the air line toward the compressor, which can happen in certain circumstances with ARB lockers.)

I only forgot about the issue once, on the challenging track we took from Twyfelfontein to the Ugab River Canyon. I paused before a short but very steep and loose climb and, without thinking, hit the compressor switch for the locker.

“Uh, watcha doing?” Roseann asked. Oh, right. Of course we made the climb with zero drama and no locker.

In this case I don’t feel that I did anything wrong driving-wise, and I don’t feel that I was remiss in not having spare air line and fittings along. You just can’t predict everything. I did learn, however, to pay attention when Connie Rodman says there’s a stick up your butt.

And the damage

And the damage

Driving among elephants

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If you are as lucky as I am, you might someday get to drive your own vehicle in Africa. If you are very lucky, you might get to drive that vehicle close—sometimes very close—to African elephants. How you behave in that situation might determine whether or not your vehicle remains in its preferred position with all four wheels on the ground.

I’ve not only been lucky enough to drive close to elephants, but to have done it dozens of times, to have led others driving their own vehicles close to elephants, and, before that, to have been driven close to them. This, combined with (much more valuable) advice from biologists and guides with decades more experience than I, has imbued me with enough pachyderm politeness that—so far—my presence has been tolerated with no sudden 90-degree shifts of the horizon. But a quick search on YouTube will reveal others either unlucky enough or, more often, stupid enough to piss off the animal—and a full-grown African elephant is quite capable of toppling and/or trashing a heavy expedition vehicle.

The first thing to know is that the elephants you’re likely to see from a vehicle are probably quite used to seeing vehicles, and normally will virtually ignore them as long as those vehicles stick to predictable behavior. It’s when the vehicle does something unexpected—diverging from a known track, moving too quickly, approaching too closely, getting between members of a herd, or appearing unexpectedly—that the elephant’s alarm bells go off. It follows, then, that when piloting a vehicle around elephants you’ll want to stick to known tracks, drive slowly, keep distance between you and the animal, stay out of the middle of herds, and avoid surprising them. You’ll also want to avoid making loud noises—honking your horn to alert your friend in another vehicle that THERE ARE ELEPHANTS RIGHT HERE! is a no-no. And turn off your camera’s flash.

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If you’re on a game drive and spot a group of elephants browsing, and want to get close enough for better viewing or photographs, the best strategy is to let them approach you. Slowly maneuver to get 50-75 meters in front of what appears to be their path, stop, and wait. You can leave the engine idling or turn it off—I’ve never had it affect the elephants’ behavior either way—but leaving it idling gives you a less intrusive option for slowly retreating if it seems necessary. If they come close, great; if not, don’t punch it in an attempt to head them off. Wait and circle around after they have passed.

If you’re on a track and come up behind an elephant or elephants heading the same direction you are, you can slowly close the distance, but watch very carefully indeed for any signs of discomfort or annoyance—elephants don’t like to be tailgated any more than you do. On the other hand, if you come around a bend and find an elephant walking down the road toward you, don’t just stop; pull off to leave it room to take the easy path. 

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One common situation I’ve come across causes trouble surprisingly often. An elephant will be standing next to a road, either simply loitering, or musing on whether to cross and try that tasty acacia he sees yonder. However, even though he’s not moving, I’m absolutely convinced that elephant has already laid claim to the crossing. Numerous times I’ve watched a vehicle stop and wait for a minute, then try to ease past, and more often than not this results in an immediate flaring of ears, shaking of the head, and an annoyed trumpeting if not an actual mock charge. It’s tempting to anthropomorphize and think this baiting game is a popular elephant pastime, but in any case it’s better to just wait until he makes up his mind.

Speaking of charges: I first remember reading about the differences between a mock charge and a real one in an early book by a professional hunter. He described the mock charge as “ears out wide and flapping, trunk straight down, lots of head-shaking and trumpeting and stirring up dust, but brought up short of any real confrontation,” while a real charge was, “ears flat against the head, trunk tucked up underneath, no noise, just a shockingly fast rush at the offending object that would only stop when that object was flattened or gored.” I’ve only seen a single real charge, at a rapidly retreating safari vehicle that had tried the “squeeze past” maneuver (it escaped), but lots and lots of mock charges that fit the old hunter’s description perfectly and ended with nothing but a truck full of wide-eyed tourists and some really good photos. With that said, it would be utterly stupid to treat any charge by an elephant as a harmless show of bravado. I recently watched a video of a “mock charge”—ears out, trumpeting, the works—that ended with the elephant’s head impacting the side of the vehicle hard enough to tilt it significantly and induce screaming in the occupants and a precipitous retreat by the driver.

This elephant objected to us driving slowly past, obviously because of the young one behind her.

This elephant objected to us driving slowly past, obviously because of the young one behind her.

The other thing to remember is that an elephant can be a dangerous animal even when it’s not trying to be. I watched another video, taken from inside an open 12-seat safari vehicle, of a large bull elephant that slowly circled the vehicle three or four times only a few feet away, giving the forest of brandished phones and cameras inside a great show. Eventually he stopped, gently placed his head against the rear corner of the Land Cruiser, and pushed. The vehicle rocked on its springs and the occupants squealed delightedly. Then he pushed harder, and the occupants stopped squealing. Harder yet again, until it looked like the near-side wheels might be coming off the ground. At that point the driver abruptly took off, while the elephant just watched the retreating machine calmly. He clearly had no ill intent; he was just curious and playful—but that would have been irrelevant to the people inside the vehicle if it had turned over.

While I’ve had no such close calls, Roseann and I did have a hilarious episode on our last trip. We were driving along a track in Chobe National Park, heading toward Savuti Camp and pushing it just a bit to make it before sundown, with Graham and Connie a half kilometer or so behind us. It was a single-width track running through dense mopane forest about three or four meters tall—the astute among you will note this is more or less exactly elephant height. There was no sound but the calm rattle of the 1HZ diesel—until there was a deafening scream about two meters from my right ear, and an elephant crashed back into the brush from where it had been standing, completely invisible, almost in the road. I believe Roseann and I both might have made our own elephant noises. Fortunately the elephant left rather than sticking around to take revenge on the next Land Cruiser to come along, as Graham and Connie never saw it.

Most of our encounters on that trip were far less coronary-inducing—such as driving up to an unoccupied elevated hide (blind in U.S.-speak) by a waterhole with no wildlife in sight, having lunch, and being just about ready to move on when two, then six, then twelve, and finally sixty four elephants showed up to drink and bathe in the mud. A transcendent experience. 

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As we all know, elephants are facing an existential threat due to the rampant poaching trade, which does nothing but supply wealthy Asians with status-symbol trinkets and coffee-table sculptures. Income from tourism does at least some good in the fight against this despicable perversion of human greed, and encourages the countries involved to continue fighting. Thus driving among elephants is both a humbling personal experience and a valuable contribution to their future. 

Just keep in mind the rules of the road when you go.

Elephants always have the right of way.

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What causes those %#@**! corrugations?

 . . . or washboard, as they're known (only?) in the U.S. I've been asked this many times, but this time I'll give a nod to the people at Practical Motoring 4x4 in Australia, who explained it perfectly here.

Of course, knowing how they're formed doesn't make them any less infuriating, especially after 40 or 50 unrelenting kilometers of them has loosened every fastener on the truck and every neural connection in your brain, rendering the slightest first-world problem cause for scarlet-faced rage—such as when the iPhone RAM Mount suction cup pops off the windscreen AGAIN and you catch yourself seriously contemplating heaving the whole assembly out the window.

The only defense short of an airlift out by Chinook is to find that sweet spot speed at which the tires are more or less skipping from one crest to the next. It isn't effective enough to use the word relief, but there is a minor lowering of the rage threshold. Beware, however: With the tires in contact with the earth only about 40 percent of the time, the chances for sudden snap-oversteer on a curve or when braking are compounded. And don't think your suspension is getting the relief you are; it's still being punished.

To climb or not to climb . . . Uluru

I'm confident most people reading this will recognize the image above without the need for a caption. Formerly known as Ayers Rock (as christened by William Gosse in 1873 in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia), it is now preferably referred to by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, bestowed some few thousand years before Europeans chanced upon the 1,100-foot tall (from the base) sandstone inselberg.

We very nearly missed seeing it, fearing the commercialization of the site would spoil it for us. We're glad we decided to go, because the overwhelming grandeur of the place simply crushes any banality humans might tack on to it—besides which we found the visitors' center and associated community extremely well-run, and observantly respectful regarding the deeply held Aboriginal spiritual traditions attached to Uluru.

However. We also uncovered a disturbing controversy.

The local Pitjantjatjara Anangu never climb Uluru, partly because, as I read it, the route to the top crosses a sacred Dreamtime track. Around the site are numerous signs requesting that visitors also refrain from climbing it, both to respect this spiritual tradition and because the people feel responsible when someone is injured or needs rescuing—which apparently occurs with some frequency. 

Why not simply ban climbing? Because the 1985 agreement with the Australian government, which finally granted co-management of the rock to the local people, forcibly included a clause that precluded them from doing so. Numerous pleas from them to rewrite the agreement have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, each year several thousand tourists ignore the local beliefs and requests and climb the rock. Some do so simply to say they have; others apparently believe they gain their own special spiritual benefits from doing so. For some even this is not enough—one visitor apparently thought it would be oh so clever to hit a golf ball from the top; a young French woman decided it would be equally clever to have herself filmed running topless along the crest, to be posted on her Facebook page.

More? Sure: There are no facilities on the summit. Many of those climbers who feel their needs are more important than the beliefs of the local people also suddenly feel the need to urinate or worse after their triumphal ascent. When storms deluge the rock with rain, it forms stunning waterfalls, each carrying with it a little something from all those climbers.

Amelie, lovely young French woman at the excellent tribal arts center, informed us of much of this, expressing disgust at the solipsism of her topless compatriot. She also let us know there was a book we could sign, declaring that we had chosen not to climb Uluru in solidarity. We did so proudly.

The Anangu still hope to change the restrictions the government places on their management of their own sacred site. In the meantime, I'll state this: If you visit Uluru and ignore the requests of the local people because you have something to prove, or your shaman told you your spirit would be healed by the magical air on top, and you fall off—I won't shed a tear.


Fractal exploration . . .

My 1973 Land Cruiser attracted a lot of attention at this year’s Overland Expo West. However, I noticed a prevalent attitude in the questions I got. A lot of people seem to view a nicely maintained 44-year-old FJ40 as nothing but a museum piece, suitable for the odd retro run, collecting wistful “I wish I’d never sold mine” comments at Cars and Coffee, or day drives on nearby trails with lunch and a cooler of soft drinks on board. Actually traveling in it? That would be . . . a little crazy, wouldn’t it? Even a friend who’d owned a soft-top Jeep Wrangler TJ—not exactly a Bentley Bentayga by comparison—noted, “You wouldn’t want to go too far in this, would you?” during a grueling 20-minute errand run around Flagstaff.

To which my response is, What have we become? Have we reached a point at which, if our overland vehicle doesn’t have 80mph cruise capability, dual-zone climate control, 500 pounds of sound deadening, magnetorheological dampers, and a 16-speaker Burmeister entertainment system, it’s just not worth the hell of going anywhere? A recent thread I spotted on a Land Cruiser forum was titled “FJ40 long range use?” as if the poster was not even sure it was legal.

There are exactly three “disadvantages” to long-distance travel in an FJ40, assuming it’s been maintained to be reliable:

  1. It doesn’t like to go fast.
  2. It’s loud.
  3. It doesn’t have a lot of cargo space.

The first two issues can be solved at the same time: Don’t drive as fast and it won’t be as loud. Fifty five miles per hour is a comfortable cruise speed in a 40. Sixty isn’t bad, and 65 is okay if you need to take an interstate somewhere. You won’t be doing 700-mile days in an FJ40, but 400-mile days are easy if you’re transiting to get someplace special. Still too loud? Use ear plugs like motorcyclists do.

Ah, but what about those leaf springs, massive solid axles, and that 90-inch wheelbase? No, an FJ40 is never going to be a Land Rover Discovery, but then it’s never going to detonate an air bag in the outback, as two Discos I’ve been with personally have done. And with a set of medium-rate Old Man Emu springs and shocks, our 40 rides better than our 2012 Tacoma did stock.

That “transiting” I mentioned earlier? That is the magic of traveling in a slow, loud vehicle. In an FJ40 you don’t look at the map and set your sights directly on a destination—you look more closely at that map and think, What can we see between here and there? And more often than not that leads to discoveries you would have blasted right past at 80 in your 4Runner or Tahoe. 

Don’t get me wrong: We love our Four Wheel Camper and V6-powered, air-conditioned Tacoma.  But we also like to slow down every once in a while and enjoy what I’ve called Fractal Exploration: You take smaller bites of the world, and examine them more closely. 

An FJ40 Land Cruiser is the perfect vehicle for that.

Count experiences, not countries

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

(Note: Some time ago I published a version of the following article in OutdoorX4 magazine. I subsequently received more emails thanking me for it than any other article I'd published there. Thus I am reprinting it here. If you agree—or disagree—with it, please like and/or comment!)

For several years my wife and I lived as volunteer caretakers in Brown Canyon, a remote wildlife refuge property in southern Arizona. One of our duties was leading birdwatching hikes up the canyon, which ascended through several biotic communities from desert to oak woodland. And that’s where we had our introduction to listers. We’re both avid birders, but we simply enjoy seeing them, identifying them, and learning their biology. Not so the listers: Their drive is to record the most species possible, and for a small subset of them it becomes an obsession next to which nothing else matters—not the experience or the natural history, not even, sometimes, whether or not the bird they want to check off is disturbed or even driven off a nest, exposing eggs or hatchlings to predation. The cachet of having 1,000, 2,000, 4,000 species on a life list is all that counts.

Why do I mention this in connection with overlanding (besides the fact that non-obsessive birdwatching is a relaxing and educational pastime while camping)? Because frequently, while chatting with newcomers to our activity at the Overland Expo or elswhere, I’m asked, “So, how many countries have you visited?”

When I answer honestly, “I have no idea,” most are surprised, and wonder if I’ve been to so many I’ve simply lost count. That’s not really the case—I could certainly tally them up with a map. And while I know I’ve been lucky enough to travel in many more countries than the average American (who, statistically, has visited three), I also know there are legions of travelers of more modest means than I whose tally would outstrip mine if they cared to add them up. (My friend Lorraine Chittock, for example, has explored several continents on budgets most people would blow through on a trip to Disneyland.) 

It’s that emphasis on a tally that makes me uncomfortable, and which makes me deliberately avoid keeping track. Rattling off some memorized total would come off to me as, at best, grandstanding, and at worst intimidating to someone who’s perhaps never been outside the U.S. and is dreaming of broader horizons—or who might be because of finances and/or time “limited” to exploring North America, where I’ve counted many of my most sublime experiences.

And there is my point: It’s the experience that counts, not the count. Here’s an example. My wife and I fell in love with East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) on separate trips—me on a journalism assignment, she while working for a conservation organization. We’ve since been back together a half-dozen times, both to explore on our own and to work with the South Rift Maasai community on wildlife conservation projects. We could easily have used those additional trips to add to our total of countries visited; however, 1) we’ve not nearly run out of areas to explore in those two countries, and, 2) we’ve made several life-long friends through return journeys and continued interaction. To us that beats the fact that we’ve not yet been to Uganda or Burundi or Rwanda, each just a border away.

Or consider the Italian gentleman we met on a dirt road in a remote part of Tanzania. He was on his way from Cape Town to Cairo . . . on a bicycle. He would pass through “only” eight countries on the journey. You could drive through that many European countries in a day and add them to your list. Who has had the richer experience?

I’ve advised dozens of people planning for their first trip to Africa. Since it is a serious commitment for a North American resident to even get there, most want to cram in as many countries as possible in their two or three weeks. I struggle mightily to convince them to scale back on the countries in order to scale up on the experience. It’s fun to drive through exotic new places, but simply transiting doesn’t really gain you anything of lasting value. Digging in and getting to know a place and its people and its wildlife does. 

If you have fun keeping tally of the countries you’ve visited, great. But if the count becomes the chief metric by which you judge your success as an overlander, you might want to reevaluate your priorities and slow down a bit.

Might I suggest birdwatching . . . ?

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

The fiendishly clever Brompton bicycle

There are folding bicycles.

Then there is the folding bicycle that will fit in the overhead bin on an airliner. 

Those who witness for the first time the origami trick that is a Brompton being deployed or un-deployed invariably exclaim in astonishment. An ancient Navajo gentleman on a sidewalk in Flagstaff, regal in several pounds of silver and turquoise jewelry, stopped to watch me like I was some street magician as I collapsed my new Brompton to carry it into a shop. The process, which I’ve not yet mastered, took me perhaps 20 seconds. When I finished and picked up the bike by its saddle/handle, he looked at me for a minute, then, in that deadpan Navajo drawl, pronounced, “Well, you can’t do that with a horse.”

The Brompton is the brainchild of Andrew Ritchie, who could also be described as a pioneer of crowd funding. With the downturn of the cycling boom in the late 1970s, he could find no commercial backing for his folding bicycle concept, so he pursuaded 30 people to pay him retail for a bike that did not yet exist, with the understanding that if the company were successful, he would refund their investment, leaving each with a free bike. Every backer was paid back in full, and Brompton is now the largest manufacturer of bicycles (of any type) in England. 

Notice I wrote in England, because every Brompton is still built in the factory in West London. The frames are brazed by hand by specialists trained in house for up to 18 months, and each of whom stamps his or her initials on the finished product. CNC milling machines produce other bespoke parts, and final assembly creates one of what the company claims is up to four million permutations, depending on gearing (one, two, three, or six speeds are available), handlebar choice, color (144 combinations), and innumerable rack and luggage options up to and including a pukka canvas-and-leather front satchel by Chapman—also hand made in England.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

While I’ve known about the company for years, we finally found the justification to spring for one on our last trip to Australia. Town-bound for several days while the Land Cruiser was being serviced, we needed exercise. Roseann runs but I can’t. We needed to shop for incidentals, and the town was large enough to require a rental car. Both issues would be eliminated with a bicycle small enough to store inside or on the roof of the Troopy. So once back in Sydney we visited the excellent, quirky Omafiets bicycle shop. One look at the folded Bromptons displayed in nooks on shelves was enough to nearly convince us; watching one of the employees—herself a Brompton owner—perform the origami trick in about ten seconds further convinced us, and a short ride was the clincher. (Watch here for a genuine pro Brompton folder.)

There was just one complication: After riding the Brompton around a bit, Roseann mused, “Hmm . . . maybe we need two?” It made perfect sense—with two we could bop around towns without wielding the bulky Troopy through traffic, and a pair would still easily ride on the roof in the compact, bespoke hard cases available for them. We decided to leave the green example we bought in Sydney with friends, and buy another back in the U.S. so I’d have time to play with it before shipping it with us on the next trip to Oz. Thus, from the folding specialists PortaPedal Bike in Tempe, Arizona, we picked up the second, this one in the total-Brompton-geek “Raw Lacquer” finish that leaves the brass brazing visible on the frame. 

So what’s it like to ride with those small 16-inch wheels? My friend Bruce summed it up perfectly: “Just like the difference between a motorcycle and a scooter.” Those who point out the “compromises” in the Brompton’s handling—which can be described as either “responsive” or “twitchy,” depending on your attitude, are missing the point. The Brompton is essentially a different genus of bicycle. Complaining about its characteristics would be like complaining because a non-folding bicycle (or any other folding bike of which I’m aware) wouldn’t fit in that overhead locker. 

In fact, it’s a blast to pedal. The riding position is no different from a standard bicycle; people do long-distance touring on these things. The same physics that make the steering so quick—low rotational inertia—also make acceleration zippy. As a result of both you can really scoot around in tight quarters. The high-pressure tires don’t absorb much impact, and given their diameter you need to be cautious to cross railroad and trolley trackes at a right angle, but the rear suspension block helps make the ride surprisingly comfortable. The only limitation in my experience so far is dirt roads and trails that aren’t very well-packed. You’ll sink. This is an urban machine.

The front rack mount accepts all sorts of bags, from small Ortlieb handlebar bags to satchels large enough for grocery shopping. And, cunningly, when half-folded the Brompton becomes its own shopping cart, with the front bag mounted and the bike riding on the small wheels of the rear rack. Aftermarket companies sell larger versions of these wheels to make this even easier.

Ah, the accessories. The international Brompton community can fairly be described as “enthusiastic,” from the universe of custom carbon-fiber and titanium parts to replace the standard items, to the famous Brompton World Championship: a race held in the UK during which all entrants must conform to a strict dress code (think bow ties, tuxedos, period military garb . . .). The lightweight parts have the practical benefit of reducing the already reasonable weight of the Brompton for ease of handling and carrying. Some are affordable and whittle away minutely at the total, or you can go insane and order such things as a complete carbon-fiber front clip and stem for around $1700, instantly doubling the price of the bike and knocking off a whole pound.

I’m leery of the term “lifestyle,” yet there is a sort of captivating aura around a bicycle you can pedal to a cafe, then fold up and carry inside. Every time I take my raw-lacquered Brompton out I feel like I should really be dressed in knickers, a black turtleneck, and a beret. For all its undeniable practicality, its the fun of a Brompton that makes it worth every cent.

And then there's all that hay and oats you don't have to buy.

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

And what's this in the top tube?

And what's this in the top tube?

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches. 

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches. 

Happy Hour with National Luna

Look closely at the photo above. Aside from the obvious bit of magic we now blithely accept as normal—I’m downloading and viewing photographs in the middle of the Simpson Desert—note the cocktail. It’s a refreshing warm-weather concoction called a dark’n stormy: dark rum, lime juice, simple syrup, and ginger beer, served over ice.

Wait a minute. Ice cubes, six days from Anywhere, Australia? Yes, thanks to the National Luna 50 Twin Weekender fridge/freezer we had along. 

Just as with digital photography and laptop computers, we now take for granted the sorcery of the Engel 12V fridge and its descendants, which forever eliminated that three-days-out semi-cool swill in the bottoms of our old Coleman coolers (note I’m referring to proper fridges employing proper compressors, not the ineffective thermoelectric coolboxes). I don’t predict ice chests will go the way of 35mm film and typewriters any time soon—a fridge is still a wince-inducing investment—but increasingly an Engel/ARB/Dometic/Waeco etc. is becoming one of the first accessories added to a new overlanding vehicle. (When we were stopped at state border agricultural checkpoints in Australia, the officers automatically said, “Need to check your fridge.” They assumed anyone in a Land Cruiser had one.) 

Recently National Luna upped the ante, and gave us fridges with a separate freezer compartment. No longer do we have to struggle along with just cold beer, milk, and cheese; now we can add to that frozen meats, ice cream—and the means to keep a cocktail properly chilled. (Of course 12V fridges have always had the ability to freeze, but you had to choose one function or the other—fridge or freezer—or bring two units. We’ve done that on group safaris but it’s a bit much for a single vehicle.)

There are several quality brands of 12VDC/120VAC fridges on the market. We’ve had both an Engel and an ARB for years, and each has performed perfectly. With the exception of Engel, which has stuck with their tried and true Sawafuji swing motor compressor, and Waeco, which uses a branded compressor, virtually all fridge makers use the identical SECOP BD35 compressor in their smaller units, and the SECOP BD50 for larger fridges. (These were formerly known as Danfoss, but that company was bought out in 2010.)

Since the compressor is the heart of the fridge, you might think there wouldn’t be much difference in performance between brands using the same one, and continue to wonder why there is such a price disparity between those brands. Indeed, in general all work well and are reliable in harsh conditions. But the thickness and quality of insulation has an obvious impact on how often the compressor has to cycle (and thus use power) to maintain a set temperature, as does, to a lesser extent, the lid seal. Also, the thermostat can simply turn the compressor on or off, or the manufacturer can incorporate a sophisticated electronic control that varies the output in response to several parameters, further conserving energy. Inexpensive fridges use plastic exterior and interior cladding; more expensive models use aluminum or even stainless steel. In some fridges the evaporator plate is exposed in the interior, where it is susceptible to damage; in others it’s enclosed. Some fridges use plastic latches, others stainless steel.

Finally there are the ergonomic factors. Does the lid open only one way, or can it be switched to hinge sideways? Is there a useful interior light? Is the interior simply one big space, or are there baskets for organizing and securing contents? Does the control panel have an actual thermometer, or just a dial with numbers? What about a voltage monitor and adjustable low-voltage cutout? And since I’ve already written “finally,” a postscript that might or might not be important to you: You’ve spent a lot of money—does the fridge look like it’s worth it?

National Luna justifies its premium pricing by handily checking off all these factors. Particularly in the category of performance, in the fridge comparison tests in which I’ve been involved it consistently manages to both cool contents the quickest and keep them that way while using less power overall—an impressive trick. In fact, the one beef I have with this fridge is the name: “Weekender?” Not sure what NL was thinking, because the 50 Twin combines a 40-liter fridge with a 10-liter freezer—enough capacity for a far longer trip than one weekend. Not only is the capacity generous, but an easy-to-miss additional advantage of fridges over ice chests is that you don’t have to load all the contents at the beginning of the trip; the fridge will easily chill stuff added en route. We had more than enough room for all our refrigerated goods for ten days between supply sources. 

And the ice cubes just kept coming, every evening . . .

The NL fridge temporarily lashed down next to the Kanz kitchen. The fridge will be moved to a permanent position at the back of the Troopy once we have the cabinetry installed.

National Luna is here. North American distributor Equipt is here, offering free shipping as of this writing—or you can pick one up at the Overland Expo. If you have a family and need more room than the 50 Weekender, NL makes several larger models.