Adventure of a Life Time – Touring Africa in a Trayon – Pig Pen Part 1

Trayon Owner, Chris Hooke tells his exciting story of preparing and adventuring through Africa with a Trayon Camper. Enjoy!

Everyone has one at some point in their lives.

That fabulous light-bulb moment. 

Bing, Wow – a BRIGHT IDEA on how to find purpose, how to find adventure, how to really get fulfilment out of life !!  

Unfortunately I’d never had one….

Early in 2011 I was visiting my girlfriend, Helene, in France;  I became absorbed day and night with the autobiography of Wilfred Thesiger, THE LIFE OF MY CHOICE. 

Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. His subsequent travels and writings in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa shot him to fame. By the time of his death in 1993 he was arguably the last great bonafide adventurer and a fine writer and photographer.

My Light Bulb Moment

I remember the moment clearly, it was around 2.30am when … BING … my own normally dim light-bulb flashed. 

Wow!  A fabulous BRIGHT IDEA presented itself with an unfamiliar luminescence. Finally!

I would build a long-range 4×4 camper vehicle in my home town of Sydney; I would ship it across to South Africa; I would travel up the African continent to Addis Ababa and explore Ethiopia, the birthplace of Wilfred Thesiger; I would ship the vehicle across to India, then South-East Asia, motor on down through the Indonesian archipelago and eventually arrive triumphantly in Darwin. 

The main mission was to visit as many wildlife parks as possible on the three continents – after all, at the rate we are destroying nature; how long would that be possible? 

Simple. As the saying goes…

what could possibly go wrong?

By morning the Bright Idea had transformed into an invincible and mighty plan and  I immediately made my first mistake – I told Helene. And of course her response was “but Chreees, you don’t know anything about building cars and you’re a terrible mechanic and anyway, you’re too old.”

Right, ok.

The Vehicle 

Back in Sydney a month later I made my second mistake.

I sought the advice of Gordon, my trusty Scottish mechanic in Sydney; he insisted that if I really had to follow this desperately silly plan then an old, non-electronic Landrover Defender 130 (long wheelbase) was absolutely the right vehicle for the job. 

This surprised me more than a bit. 

I was thinking something more, well, civilised, like a Nissan Patrol 4.2 / 6 cylinder diesel (I already had a 4 cylinder Nissan Patrol that I’d travelled all over Northern Australia in without a problem) or a Toyota Landcruiser with their 4.2 / 6 cylinder. 

Both vehicles had a reputation for indestructibility. 

And jokes about Landrover Defenders were well known in 4×4 circles. 

One went like this: 

If you want to drive overland to the centre of Australia you have the option of three vehicles; a Nissan Patrol, a Toyota Landcruiser – or a Landrover Defender. 

But if you want to return – there are just two options ….

JOKE

And it wasn’t just in Australia that the Defenders were slated; at the time I had a mate in Namibia who worked in a Cheetah rescue program where they used exclusively Landcruisers. 

When I asked him his opinion about Gordon’s idea there was a sigh followed by a pause, “whenever I see a Landrover owner, it doesn’t matter what it is, I just feel sympathy.”

Even Helene got into the act, “But Chreees, you’re crazee, you always told me Nissan Patrols are MUCH better than Landrovers!”

But the Mechanic Gordon was persistent. 

He claimed the Defender was fine IF it was set up right; that the long wheelbase and carrying capacity would come into its own; that the constant 4×4 was an advantage; that the coil spring suspension was way superior; that it was much more economical on fuel.

Never mind lack of comfort, triple the noise, water leaks and oil leaks – they’d all vanish with a bit of DIY. 

To cut a long story short I bought into the argument. Duh. Third mistake.

Landy before the fit out

The clouds of indecision parted and the Gods seemed to be smiling; almost immediately I found exactly what Gordon had in mind – a 1996 “extended” single cab ex-Telco Landrover 300Tdi Defender with a steel tray. 

It was owned by a builder who was retiring. He swore it was the best vehicle he had ever driven. Totally reliable. Never a day off the road apart from servicing. Only 236,000 kilometres. Standing on Cloud 9 I believed him. 

Back on Planet Earth it was, in reality, a nasty piece of work.

I’d owned a couple of 4×4 vehicles in my lifetime but this was entirely different – in a fun/tragic sort of way. It felt special. Don’t ask me why, better not to go there …

The Accommodation

So I had the vehicle, what next? A camper body of course. But which one? 

There were many on the market, all very good. All very confusing. But the one I really wanted had been on my mind since 2008 when I came across an elderly couple in Northern Australia who were driving the usual suspect – a Toyota Landcruiser naturally. 

On their tray was a camper thingy that went by the name of …. TRAYON.

At that time I was exploring and photographing the fabled Top End in my own 4×4 Nissan Patrol. Four months of dragging everything out of it each night and setting up camp, not to mention stuffing it all back in the morning, had told me there must be an easier way. 

Here I was, in the prime of life, looking dusty, bedraggled, exhausted and not a day over 90; yet, here was this elderly couple looking fresh and energetic, enthusiastically showing me why their camping life was a dream. Ugh…! 

A simple light-weight box that opened up like an enormous oyster with a massive tent on top. It had a little kitchen, a tiny lounge area and a huge double bed with a 360 degree view. It set up in 10 minutes. How disgusting! I had to have one! Eventually, once I grew up

Back to the Future. In late 2011, just after purchasing the Defender the Gods kept smiling. Or were they smirking? 

I found an almost new Trayon Camper for sale up near Brisbane. It looked perfect in the photos. I slapped down a deposit without even seeing it and drove the Defender up there and bagged it. 

What joy! 

What absurd comfort. My girlfriend, Helene, who to date had remained extremely dubious about my ‘fabulous plan’, was most impressed.

 Almost immediately she also decided that Africa beckoned. Everything was falling into place. 

Or so I thought…

The Landy Setup

I delivered the Defender and Trayon to my Scottish mechanic early December 2011. 

Gordon was renowned as being one of the best Landrover Defender mechanics in Australia and he liked the idea of setting up a car that was going to travel over a good part of the planet over the next few years.

Lots of time went by – and lots of cash slipped through my fingers. Back then that didn’t matter. I was on my last job before retiring and this was my ‘retirement gift’. 

It had to be right, the Landy/Trayon combo was going to be my/our home for the next two to three years, possibly more.  

The Engine

The most expensive single item was a new motor. I discovered that Landrover had commissioned Brazil International to update the 300 Tdi power plant. 

The Brazilians came up with an essentially bored out 300 Tdi with better bits, including a Variable Vane Turbo. Power was up by 15% and Torque was increased by nearly 30% at lower revs. 

My research confirmed it was a more robust unit all round. A company in the UK called Motor & Diesel Engineering were the distributors. Because I was in the habit of visiting the UK every year (I lived there for 25 years) I arranged a test drive of a Discovery 1 fitted with the 2.8 TGV power plant. 

I was most impressed. It didn’t take me long to make the plunge and I had the Brazil International HS 2.8 TGV motor shipped to Sydney. 

Gordon fitted it for free and kept the old donk. 

The Offroad Accessories

By April 2012 the Landy was pretty much built. 

It had all the usual 4×4 accoutrements:

  • Winch
  • snorkel, 
  • stronger axles and hubs
  • upgraded suspension 
  • spot and camping lights
  • a roof rack for the spare tyre and a fitting on the bonnet to take anothe

The new motor started easily and a new exhaust system had been built for it. 

The Trayon Camper had been secured to the steel tray and a handy box was fitted between the Cab and the Trayon to house a second fridge and other stuff. 

I’d always planned to take an inflatable dinghy and that sat on the roof-rack with the spare tyre. 

The 9 horsepower outboard motor sat in a cradle Gordon had cleverly built and was bolted down next to the aluminium box behind the cab.

The interior had been lined with expensive Dynamat for noise and heat insulation. Air-con had been installed. So far, so good. 

The Local Test – Simpson Desert

But would it be any good in reality? For that we decided to test it on a trip to the famed Simpson Desert.

We set off in late April 2012 and it quickly became apparent that there was some understeer on the bitumen. 

Once I got used to that the vehicle seemed to handle dirt roads with aplomb. 

It felt ‘planted’ compared to my Nissan Patrol, the weight and constant 4×4 an advantage. 

Fuel consumption was very reasonable (considering the weight), around 12 litres to 100 kilometres.

At one point I got a bit enthusiastic on a dirt track, hit a mound and the car flew through the air and came down with a …. squish, not a bang! 

That was nice, the suspension really did work!! 

Camping in the Trayon was a joy. Some of the key things we loved:

  • Easy to set up
  • plenty of room
  • a really good stove
  • a gas/electric fridge
  • a gas hot-water system
  • totally comfy bed and a 360 view
  • dustproof and waterproof

We couldn’t ask more. Oddly enough the car didn’t even leak oil, a rarity for a Landrover Defender. But it always seemed to be the dirtiest 4×4 on the road.

So I fondly christened it Pig-Pen after the Charlie Brown cartoon character. 

Australian Explorer History

After skirting the Strzelecki we arrived at the inimitable one horse town of Innamincka early May, inflated the dinghy on the banks of Cooper Creek and had one of the most beautiful stretches of water in Australia to ourselves. 

We cruised up to one of the most important landmarks in Australia’s Exploratory history, the infamous Dig Tree. 

Most Australians are very familiar with the extraordinary exploits of the hardy Burke and Wills, King and Gray in crossing the country south to north and reaching the Bynoe River close to the Gulf of Carpentaria early February 1861. 

Charles Gray died of malnutrition 4 days before returning to the depot at Coopers Creek. The tragic communication failure with the remainder of the party led to the deaths of Burke and Wills within a few days of each other. 

It was understood later that had they been more conciliatory with the local Aboriginal population they would have survived – which is exactly why John King lived to tell the tale. 

He had sought help from the Yandruwandha people who in turn saved his life. In his 1861–62 testimony King said, ‘They appeared to feel great compassion for me when they understood that I was alone on the creek, and gave me plenty to eat.’ You can read more about the Burk and Wills expedition here.

On May 1st, 2012, we drove through the town of Birdsville and continued on to the start of the Simpson Desert, camping on top of the  first (and highest) sand dune known as Big Red. 

We were very lucky.

Rare rains had filled the Mulligan River below which ran north-south along the face of Big Red and afforded us brilliant water views, the last thing we were expecting in the middle of the desert. 

Water birds abounded, Black Swans arced gracefully through the curvature of the drowned tree roots. 

Helene and I toasted each other as dusk fell on Big Red – Pig-Pen’s maiden voyage was deemed a success. 

Nothing could stop me now …. Africa was calling.

The Adventure Begins in Africa

April 10th, 2013 :  Helene and I arrive at Durban Airport, South Africa. We have a rendezvous with our vehicle, “Pig-Pen” who has spent the last 3 weeks in a container being shipped from Sydney and is now housed in a garage somewhere close to Durban. 

The South African shipping agents were fine, we caught up with Pig-Pen looking lonely in a scrappy warehouse on the outskirts of Durban. 

After reconnecting the dual battery system it rumbled to life immediately at the turn of the key; we then spent our first night in a plush hotel in the centre of Durban with Pig-Pen in the courtyard being constantly admired by the fabulous and helpful staff. 

We hit the road early the next day with huge trepidation. We’d heard all the stories of crazy South African drivers and expected the worst. 

But guess what? Driving north towards Mozambique was a joy – the level of courtesy was well beyond Australia and France and Pig-Pen attracted lots of waves and gleaming smiles. 

We were really astonished and just so relieved. We’d both driven internationally because we were both filmmakers and didn’t lack experience; but South Africa’s reputation was fierce. 

Yes, we saw the occasional loon – in what country don’t you see bad drivers?  But in all our time there I don’t remember being worried whatsoever after that first nervous morning. 

The First Campsite

I’ll never in my life forget the thrill of the first campsite called Amatigulu Nature Reserve, roughly 125 kilometres north of Durban on the coast.

It is a bit run-down but green and glorious, nestling between two river mouths, the Tugela and the Amatikulu. There are no predators here, so we are free to roam on foot; that’s rare among Southern Africa’s parks. 

Everybody loves a dangerous man-eater but walking peacefully and quietly among zebras and giraffes has a special quality. And taking photos of Pig-Pen with curious giraffes around him is a fun way to start our Africa/India/Asia journey.

Our first real destination is Kruger National Park. But our route takes us via the Wildlife Reserves of Isimangaliso, the impossible to pronounce Hulheluwe (Shushloowe), Ithala and Swaziland. 

In the Royal National Park of Swaziland I had a hell of a fright – any experienced person would have laughed at what they saw. 

It is dusk. We hear lions roaring outside the camping compound – so far so thrilling because it’s the first time in Africa we hear them; we are getting closer to the ‘real thing’! 

A short time later I hear movement in the thick bushes bordering the camp. I investigate. 

What is it? 

Darkness cloaks the African bush very quickly so I whip out my torch, poke my head into the margins of the bushes and pan it around. 

Suddenly two gleaming unblinking yellow eyes pop into view. Aaaagh. Instantaneously I put 2 and 2 together and get 5; 

THAT’S A HUGE MAN-EATING LION!! 

With Olympian speed I scarpered to the Trayon, gratefully just a few metres away and throw myself inside and slam the door. 

Helene is reading at the table and I splutter, “a LION, just RIGHT THERE”, wildly jabbing in the general direction. 

We both jump up to stare out the window netting to see ….. a timid deer warily emerging from the bushes, glancing nervously in our direction. 

“But Chreees, we’re in a camping compound with massive fences all around us – how COULD it be a lion?” 

Right, hmmmm …

“Yeah, well, hey, what exactly is your point?”

The Kruger National Park

Pig-Pen is going fine (for a Defender) although it’s noticeably slow on hills, painfully so, and always just below boiling point, with the alarm set at 110 centigrade going off a couple of times, giving me a bit of a jolt and forcing me to stop and idle for ten minutes each time.

I quickly learn to turn off the air-con going up hills – the difference can mean around 5 degrees in the water temperature. 

The turbo exhaust temperature seems to be behaving which means the larger intercooler is doing its work – that’s a relief. 

Everything else seems to be pretty good, no problems. Yet….

Reaching Kruger in late April is a milestone. 

World famous, and rightly so, for its wildlife and landscape never fails to impress. The camps are well organised and relatively cheap, especially compared to Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya.  

Early in the peace we gaze down in rapture through the massive trees at the most beautiful of all antelopes (my opinion), two Waterbuck, male and female, slowly wandering along the sandy stretches of the Sabie River, always alert for predators. 

It’s one of those crystalline moments, the realisation that this is what we are here for; and understanding why so many people from all over the globe have been utterly seduced by Africa. 

There is nowhere quite like it. 

From dawn to dusk we patrol the dusty roads totally immersed in this wonderland; leopards in trees with their kill, the flash of kingfishers streaking up deeply shadowed rivers, elephants big and small meandering and sometimes crashing through the bush, birds of prey overhead, vultures exploding in slow motion as they heavily take to flight, their enormous wings miraculously vertical as they take off, baby giraffe taking their first faltering steps, hippos blowing and snorting in the shallows and impressing with their gargantuan noisy yawns, squirrels busily clambering up and down their chosen trees, halting to peek at us curiously.

Each day a kaleidoscope of colour, movement and emotions. How could anyone not be impressed?

Chris Hooke

We gradually make our way to the north of the park. All the time I’m aware of this irritating knocking coming from under the tray. 

In a Northern Kruger Park camp I remove everything, the Trayon Camper, the Stainless Steel cupboard, bibs and bobs I’d attached and test drive it ….. knock knock knock – still there. 

I jack the car up and examine everything that might rattle. Tighten everything …. knock knock knock – still there. 

On Day 3 I’ve given up trying to find the problem and am putting everything back on.

I hear a friendly South African accent behind me asking if I needed help. After explaining to him the devilish knocking and banging that had developed he doesn’t even need to look. 

Luck has delivered me into the arms of a Landrover Defender mechanic! 

“Without a doubt mate, that’s your A-Frame Ball Joint making that racket – your mechanic should have replaced that before you set off, bloody hopeless bits of kit.” 

Ha, good to know. 

Relieved to at least know what the problem is, I ask him what Defender he’s driving and he looks at me aghast, “No mate, no way, I’ve got a Nissan Patrol, you can’t beat ‘em.”

“Bugger”, I think internally.

Lovingly written by Trayon Owner Chris Hooke, Camper Number #555

Stay Tuned: Part 2 of Chris Hooke’s African Adventure will follow soon.

Disclaimer: The views, opinions or ideas expressed in this blog does not represent that of Trayon Campers nor the staff of Trayon.

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