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Wild not Wild

South Africa doesn’t have a mainstream, luxury, hardcore off-road camper van. Mercedes-Benz Vans decided to do something about that. PETER FROST tests the result in the Tankwa Karoo.

Mercedes-Benz’s 4×4 Camper reaches the parts others can’t. Solar power and a phalanx of batteries mean it’s good for wild camping, in this case the rarer parts of the Koue Bokkeveld.

IT’S PECULIAR really that a land such as South Africa doesn’t have a dedicated, off-the-shelf, off-road camper van. The wildest of wilds and world-class dirt roads and all we’ve managed to come up with to date is a rash of bundu-bashing trailer-caravans and the odd, individually crafted carbuncle made by a tough-nut Survivalist hoping for Armageddon. Volkswagen’s Kombi-based California may be all-wheel drive, but it’s not going to survive the slings and arrows of the Richtersveld, and Mercedes-Benz’s own Vito-based V-Class is lower still. Fiat’s IVECO motorhomes can be seen crashing through the Namibian hinterland, startled Europeans clutching the wheel, but again, absolutely not recommended.

Into this void steps Mercedes-Benz Vans, keen to satisfy the wilderness junkies with this, the Camper. It’s based on the company’s short-wheelbase Sprinter and the idea is that you buy the van and use one of three officially approved outfitter-engineer companies to tailor-make your dream home-on-wheels.

Given that this is a Mercedes-Benz, it’s all notably high end. CT Conversions, one of the official suppliers, has approached the task with great gusto, creating a camper van that is part apartment block, part Mad Max and not a small amount of Dakar Rally. We called it Weissmuller, after the first real beefcake, and here’s how we got on.

Current camper van trends emphasise safety, with no back windows and one-way glass.

EVERYTHING INCLUDING THE KITCHEN SINK

Merc’s Badlands behemoth is essentially a Clifton apartment on the move. Le Creuset crockery, Wi-Fi, Samsung projector and soundbar, adaptable mood lighting, full solar, microwave, toilet and shower, air-conditioning; the list is long and comprehensive.

So too is the options list.

And that’s the point; both Mercedes-Benz and CT Conversions want you to tailor-make your retreat wagon. Head over to Stellenbosch Visio’s Instagram account to see the interior of the van. Suffice to say, it ticks all the aspirational, elegant-at-all-costs boxes, quite at odds with the exterior, which only manages to avoid White Van Man territory by virtue of its height.

And it’s this height that literally and metaphorically sets it apart. A bespoke chassis with suspension system by Fox (those long-travel, Dakar-demolishing shocks are beyond hardcore), 4×4, and tyres by Cooper complete the picture.

Allied to the Sprinter’s torquey 2-litre, 450Nm/140kW twin-turbo diesel engine, it means Weissmuller can go more or less anywhere.

Hardwood detailing, induction stove, Le Creuset accessories, Camper is less about camping, more about glamping.

TANKWA BOUND, VIA THE KOUE BOKKEVELD

And that’s where we go. The Western Cape is blessed with a plethora of escape options right on Cape Town’s doorstep and one of the most appealing is to head to Ceres, wind up Gydo Pass into the Koue Bokkeveld and then drop down into the Tankwa Karoo. The route offers a combination of tar and dirt, highway and backroad, mountain and plain, dramatic passes and endless straight stretches.
Driving the Merc in town makes no sense whatsoever. Can’t park, too tall for most carports, a mission to get into and out of. It’s like shopping in mountaineering boots: wholly irritating. But start it up, familiarise yourself with its ubiquitous infotainment system and things improve immediately. It’s a cinch to drive, high as a truck and all the controls are light and responsive. Certainly you can feel the weight, given the no-expenses-spared extras, but at no point does it feel short of breath or dangerously slow, issues that are common in many camper vans. In fact, it’s a hoot to drive and the only impediments are a cupboard full of expensive crockery and that governed speed, legally set at 100km/h.

Soon enough van and driver settle into a symbiotic kinship – lateral g-forces are the enemy and gentle, progressive passage is the way to go. By the time Cape Town’s Gordian traffic knots loosen and the West Coast wheat arrives, things are groovy indeed. From the elevated driver’s seat you can see everything, Merc’s engine is surprisingly quiet, Maria Bethania is on the bespoke sound system, there are cool breezes from the first-class air-con and those Fox shocks soak up everything the R46 can throw at it.

But as Michell’s Pass arrives, so too does an issue. Tall, high and on soft, long-travel suspension, Weissmuller does not like sidewinds one tiny bit and Merc’s Sidewind Assist is a welcome driver aid. Challenging gradients are less of a concern; the twin-turbo diesel easily has the measure of the snaking pass.
Once in Ceres, nasty south-easter behind it, the van settles once again, prepped and keen on that most theatrical of passages, Gydo Pass up into the cherry-rich Bokkeveld.

Gydo’s appeal is its series of switchbacks and trio of epic viewpoints. Weissmuller aces the twisties (once the talkative crockery had been firmly spoken to) and poses at the outlooks. Up there, with fruit lorries air-braking their fraught way down to market, it’s not exactly tranquil, but the din adds to the drama. Ceres below, the Matroosberg Mountains beyond, it’s a visual and aural overload, not soon forgotten.

Mercedes-Benz’s donor Sprinter features the company’s latest 2-litre turbo diesel engine. Performance is lively, the drive surprisingly spirited, though fuel consumption (around 14l/100km) suffers because of the weight.

RIGHT TURN TOWARDS NOTHING AND NOWHERE

Once up in the hidden wonderland of the Koue Bokkeveld, it’s more or less flat going and quite the most magical of kingdoms, ideal for a camper van with wilderness intentions. Fingers of Cederberg sandstone begin to erupt from the red earth soon after the ascent; 20 minutes later, not far from the hamlet of Op die Berg, the landscape resembles nothing so much as a Lord of the Rings set, an overzealous green-screener adding ever more impossible peaks and valleys. The village is known for Wonderlik, Lize Fabricius’s most excellent coffee shop and restaurant. It’s the last chance to fill tanks – van and driver both – before the real wilds of the Tankwa begin.

After Op die Berg the tar gives way to dirt, with stretches either rocky or sandy. It isn’t long before a curious alchemy happens: the van shrinks as the landscape expands. You’re glad of its size,

comforting in the monumental surroundings. Between Op die Berg and the Tankwa proper is the Kagga Kamma region, a hogsback of conservancies and nature reserves. And no fences. The Fox shocks hiss and the Cooper off-road tyres have their work cut out for them, but it’s comfortable going, the chassis up to the trials of the trail.

Hours later the sky threatens Armageddon, so it’s time to find a wild camping spot to test the effectiveness of all that kit. Just before the escarpment down into the Tankwa, a hidden path leads to a crescent of sandstone, perfect for a hidden evening’s investigation, away from hearty, chatty overlanders and inquisitive locals.

First order of business, find a level spot. This is harder than it seems, impossible it turns out, and the evening’s activities predictably involve chasing cups and plates across the tabletop. Camping takes a certain finesse, which possibly in our case is lacking. Challenges notwithstanding, it isn’t long before it all resembles a professional setup: outdoor chairs and tables assembled, food on the go on the interior induction plate, tunes gently finding the wind, drink in hand, mind in neutral.

And then in that epochal silence, a sunset like no other, nature’s kaleidoscope. Alone in the stillness, it is abundantly clear what the point of wild camping is – a visceral return to simplicity. And thanks to that Camper, absolutely possible.

The outdoor extras – table and bush chairs – live in the carry unit on the rear door. An electric awning is one of a plethora of options.

RED SKY AT NIGHT

The sky inferno abated, the Camper’s lights are deployed and, thanks to the substantial solar and battery pack, stay burning bright into the night, along with the other ancillary apparatus. There is a digital panel to indicate power flow and usage that by morning shows a reserve of more than 70%, despite the use of the induction cooker, projector, water pump and lights well into the evening. There’s no call for the air-conditioner or microwave, which will draw large amounts of power, but all in all, a competent, well-managed system.

The interior layout is less successful, but that’s largely a subjective assessment. Some will need the shower and toilet, others will prefer the extra space without them. We would junk the shower, swivel the bed, specify lighter crockery and option the extra table behind the driver’s seat.

The Tankwa skies rumble during the night, far-off desert storms providing a soundtrack as ancient as the landscape. But morning is painted fresh, and waking to a world devoid of anyone at all is a peculiarly wonderful thing (or terrifying, depending on your state of mind). Espresso in hand (care of the permanent Nespresso machine on the countertop), a bokmakierie greeting the sunrise – elemental. Striking camp is simplicity itself and the vertiginous trip down into the Tankwa a breeze, despite that formidably steep last leg before the R356. From there the options for getting lost are endless: north to the Kalahari, south to the Matroosberg, east to Gannaga Pass and Sutherland or simply to Hein and Susan’s iconic Tankwa Padstal for roosterkoek and alien encounters.

The beauty is that in Merc’s Camper it’s all possible. No off-limit stretches due to tyre or ride height restrictions. Our choices are limited by time, so it’s back to Ceres and home, battling the relentless south-easter most of the way.

As the traffic builds up and the crowds grow, it’s all we can do to not turn around and disappear again. Sun for power, stocked pantry, good coffee, 600km of fuel to play with. Who needs civilisation? Or perhaps the crux is just that – a fundamental redefining of what exactly constitutes civil? I’m pretty sure it involves a two-storey camper and an unbroken horizon. V