Adventures into Africa are always a treat, and as I sit here, in the middle of 'nowhere' to translate experiences into words, my last night's camp proved to be a classic; it served up all the adrenalin and excitement of a night in Africa - atop the roof of our 4-wheel drive Isuzu D-MAX. Our rooftop tent was almost the height of the sparse, flat-topped Acacia trees and we blended in with our stark environment, looking out on southern Africa's remote Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
To us, the wildlife which passes nearby (and sometimes through!) our campsite under a star-filled night is a highlight, and having an apex predator, such as a lion, mere meters from our thin canvas wall is a thrill which little can beat. A sky denuded from moisture and city lights allows the stars to burn brighter - enough to illuminate the sparse sand-dune environment of the Botswana-side of this magnificent landscape.
Later in the night and from the comfort - and safety! - of our rooftop tent which was perched high up on our D-MAX Double Cab Isuzu, we watched in breathless awe as a single lioness with a new-born cub silently stepped through our camp. This cub could one day become the King of the area, but for now, it focuses on keeping with its mother's stealthy steps. We had the perfect vantage point from atop 'Big Blue', the name our Isuzu D-MAX had recently earned – but I'll elaborate on that later.
We arose in the morning at the proverbial crack of dawn. The saying goes that 'The early bird catches the worm', and we had much to see. With the taste of freshly percolated coffee and our camp gear secured, we climbed into the comfort of our D-MAX for another day in magnificent Africa.
There are no fences around these campsites in the Botswana section of this reserve so you constantly have to cast a keen eye, 360- degrees on your surroundings for animals - especially those predators which are now higher up the food chain than you are.
An experience such as this is worth a million dollars, and in the cold morning air, I peered over the steering wheel into the early morning light at the soft sand track we were about to follow. They lead into the distant dunes and looked as though they had already proven a wake-up challenge for those vehicles in whose tracks we were about to trace.
Naturally, having the right 4x4 is the most important part for a tip into remote Africa. A breakdown would be a calamity in these parts of the world, and previous trips we have undertaken produced other derelict vehicles that could go no further and had been left to rust away. A well-proven, robust engine, drivetrain, and chassis, such as that on our D-MAX, instills the confidence one needs in their capable, trusted overlander. As an added bonus, this Isuzu offers a feature that makes the vehicle easy to drive under these conditions as tackling the tracks less travelled was as simple as shifting the automatic gearbox into drive, dialing in '4x4' on the transmission switch, and letting the big 3-litre diesel do all the work.
So how did 'Big Blue' get its name? Being bright metallic blue in colour was one motivating factor, as was a big load bay - and not to forget the spaciousness of the comfortable double cab - but, the main reason came about from a big-hearted rescue. Being the publishers of SA4x4 magazine as well as Caravan and Outdoor Life and its Afrikaans counterpart Kamp & Karavaan, we often had to bend the rules and travel to remote places with no backup vehicle. Some may call it reckless or stupid, and although we had a Satphone for real emergencies, the calculated risk was largely absorbed in selecting the right vehicle for the trip.
On one such excursion, we were tackling a particularly tough section of the longest 4x4 route in southern Africa when we came across two vehicles in obvious trouble. On this occasion, one could no longer be called the best 4x4 by far for it was mortally wounded - a stripped rear half-shaft had left it with front-wheel drive only and therefore rendered it absolutely useless in the environment. Meanwhile, the back-up vehicle in turn was running in a condition known as 'limp mode', meaning that it had barely enough power to move itself - let alone tow another to civilization!
These professionally kitted out vehicles bore all the trimmings of a pucker safari vehicle - winch, spotlights, roof rack, roof tents, extra jerry cans, spades, high lift jacks - and of course, suntanned passengers. But, you do as you have to in situations such as these and we hooked a towrope to the rear of our trusty Isuzu and easily hauled the wary adventurers a fair distance to a manageable escape route.
So impressed was everyone with the blue Isuzu that our D-MAX became known as 'Big Blue', and so the name stuck from there.
For those purists who think a manual gearbox is better than an automatic - think again. The gear changes of an auto, particularly in soft sand, are quick and smooth. With this gearbox there is no coming to a sudden stop as you could while manually changing gears, and similarly you won't ride the clutch to pull away again.
A few months ago, Isuzu loaned us this D-MAX for six months to research both well - and little-known 4x4 trails and campsites for exciting articles in our prestigious magazine titles. We took the standard vehicle and opted for tougher, albeit noisier, off-road tyres that would offer better resistance to penetration from sharp rocks and thorns. We also added a canopy to the load bay to increase packing space as well as to secure our gear when in towns. The canopy we chose had a built-in kitchen that opened to reveal a two-plate gas cooker, crockery, cutlery, and glasses for sun-downers. For accommodation, we fitted a clam-shell roof-top tent - the type that has a solid roof and canvas sides with large windows. As for the rest, our Isuzu was stock standard, and over six months Big Blue covered some 24 000 kilometers, mostly along excessively exciting and challenging tracks and roads – some so remote that you might never even see them in a National Geographic.
There are many aspects that we liked of the D-MAX and most of these stem from 'simplicity'. When you are far from anywhere, simplicity equates to reliability; and in our case nothing went wrong - not even the wheel alignment required adjustment after all our travels.
Big Blue, equipped with a canopy and roof tent, had the image and promised adventure - yet it was as much at home in suburbia as it was in the wilds. It proved to be a vehicle that could be used for everyday transport with the bonus being that it was just so easy to drive, thanks to the automatic transmission and comfy seats. This, coupled with the simplicity of selecting high or low-range instantly changes it to an off-roader of note. And, let's single out the chassis which although is tough and rugged, absorbs the stress of deeply rutted trails - and has the strength to do this while towing another, far heavier laden vehicle and under difficult circumstances!
Sadly, Covid-19 has put an abrupt end to our adventures into Africa for the time being, and 'Big Blue' D-MAX has to go home to lockdown - but we know the spirit of adventure lies in every Isuzu, from the tested KB to the latest D-MAX. Just push the electric starter button to D-MAX (double maximise) your adventure!
Words: Godfrey Castle, Group Publisher of Caravan and Outdoor Life, Kamp & Karavaan, and SA4x4 magazines