With ever-increasing regulation and pressure on the environment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to enjoy the great outdoors with a 4×4 vehicle in a responsible manner. Fortunately, it is still possible to enjoy the largely pristine wide-open spaces of Southern Africa, and both local and European tourists in hired 4×4’s undertake self-drive safaris throughout the length and breadth of Southern Africa (and points north) every year. However, for unskilled off-road drivers this may appear to be too adventurous and intimidating, but there is way around this frame of mind, which happens to be the answer to this question, is driver training required for 4×4 & off-road vehicles…?
While there are many possible answers to this question, the most pertinent answer is that driving a fully laden off-road vehicle on unfamiliar terrain is like no other type driving you have ever done before. Every aspect of how a heavy off-road vehicle handles and behaves is different from how your own vehicle handles and behaves. From how an off-road vehicle accelerates, to how it behaves under braking on sandy or loose surfaces, to how well (or otherwise) it handles cornering, to how stable its straight-line tracking is during windy conditions, to how well it tolerates mistakes made during sudden control inputs are all different from what you know, but you get the general idea.
Therefore, having at least a basic grounding in off-road driving techniques is at least as important as having a visa for every country you plan to visit on your African self-drive safari, simply because it ensures that you will arrive at each country’s border posts in one piece. So, does all or any of the above mean that you need special skills to drive a safari-grade rental off-road vehicle safely in Africa? You bet it does, but the good news is that anybody can learn these skills, or at least the basics of how to operate an off-road vehicle safely.
However, becoming an expert off-road driver takes years of driving all types of 4×4 and off-road vehicles on all types of terrain, and no half-day course will or can turn you into an expert overnight. Nonetheless, you do not need to be an expert to complete your self-drive safari successfully; all you need to know is how to handle the basics, everything else being a bonus. That said though, the word “basic” means different things to different people, but for the purposes of successfully completing a self-drive safari in Africa, you need to have a basic understanding of at a minimum, at least the points that we will briefly discuss below.
While most off-road vehicle rental companies will introduce you to the vehicle, its equipment, and controls this happens only once, which is when you pick up the rental vehicle from their depot. The rest of the time, you are on your own, so you need to know what to look out for to prevent issues and/or unnecessary breakdowns.
Regular (daily) checks on items such as engine oil and coolant levels, under-inflated, or unevenly inflated tyres, possible oil/coolant/fuel leaks, the condition of drive belts, coolant hoses, battery cables/terminals, and other oft-forgotten items on your own vehicle becomes vitally important, since neglecting these items could ruin your expedition, and in the worst possible way, at that.
In this context, the term “primary controls” refers to levers, switches, knobs, and other controls that are designed to activate/deactivate differential locks, transfer cases, low range gear sets, and other features and/or systems such as lockable wheel hubs that collectively, make the vehicle a proper off-road vehicle. Successfully driving on off-road surfaces largely depends on knowing what each lever, knob, or switch does, and how the vehicle’s performance and capabilities can be enhanced when these controls are used correctly, or be degraded when they are used incorrectly, or at the wrong time.
While Africa’s road network has improved almost beyond recognition from what it was 20 years ago, most of your driving will still be off-road, with only some of it on paved surfaces. However, it is on the off-road bits that you are likely to be stuck in sand and/or mud traps so your choice of off-road tyres is critical to the success (or otherwise) of your self-drive safari. Nevertheless, your rental vehicle will almost certainly be fitted with all-terrain tyres, which is fine as far as it goes, but you need to understand that all-terrain tyres do NOT perform as well in mud or sand as they do on hard, but unpaved surfaces.
All-terrain tyres are in fact a compromise between all types of off-road tyres, and while all-terrain tyres will almost always get you from point A to point B, they can never perform as well as dedicated sand tyres do in sand, or mud tyres in mud.
For this reason, you need to be able to recognise the limitations of all-terrain tyres, and to use this knowledge to avoid obvious mud or sand obstacles. While tyre deflation can get you out of most tight spots if done correctly, the best thing to do is to avoid obvious obstacles, since you will not have a dedicated set of mud or sand tyres to change to when the going gets tough.
While engine power and proper gearing are important considerations in the design of any proper off-road vehicle, the main reason why these vehicles can do what they do when they are loaded has to do with the way their overall weight is distributed between the two axles.
Your fully loaded rental vehicle will have a weight distribution in the range of about 40% or more of its total weight on its front wheels, with the remaining 60% or less on the rear axle. This ensures that the vehicle is properly balanced, and minor upsets such as traversing moderately uneven terrain at a sensible speed won’t have any undue or dangerous consequences. However, hard cornering, steep side slopes, or hard braking can transfer much of the vehicles’ total weight to one axle or to two wheels on one side, which can cause one or more wheels to lose traction, which if it happens, can get you stuck or stranded for hours.
Thus, to remain stable and on an even keel, you need to be able to recognise the limits beyond which weight transfer becomes dangerous, or potentially so, and the only way to learn how to do this is through a proper off-road-driving training course conducted and graded by suitably qualified instructors.
While traction aids such as sand mats and ladders can save the day in a tricky situation, these devices can be dangerous if used incorrectly, or at the wrong time. For instance, using sand mats when the vehicle is on sloping terrain can cause the vehicle to slide off the mats, which can make the situation a lot worse.
Proper driver training has as much to do with teaching students how to avoid being stuck, as it has to do with teaching students how to recover a stuck vehicle, but largely, avoiding being stuck in mud and/or sand can often be accomplished by proper tyre deflation, proper use of diff locks, having sufficient momentum and other techniques. Therefore, traction aids should only be used as a last resort, and a properly qualified driving instructor will make a particular point of teaching you how (and when) to use traction aids, and when NOT to use these devices.
While it is important to be able to negotiate off-road obstacles successfully, it is equally important to be able to “read” off-road terrain correctly to avoid trouble. For instance, some types of mud can simply be ploughed through, while other types of mud cling to tyres and can stop you in your tracks within a few vehicle lengths. Some parts of Southern Africa consists almost entirely of the latter type of mud during the wet season, which means that you need to be able to recognise the danger before you get stuck.
The same thing is true of sand. In some cases, you can simply float over silicate sand if your tyres are properly deflated, while in other cases, you can sink up to your floor plates in sand with high clay content, even with deflated tyres. As with mud, you need to be able to recognise the danger before it swallows you.
Traction is what gets you going, but maintaining that traction largely depends on momentum. In some cases, it is possible to cross an obstacle with minimal traction between the tyres and the ground, provided you have sufficient momentum to carry you across the obstacle. Understanding the relationship between traction and momentum is probably the most difficult aspect of off-road driving to get right, but once you do get it right, you are at least halfway on your way to becoming a competent off-road driver.
Poorly executed water crossings have probably destroyed more off-road vehicles than all other causes combined, which means that you really have to keep your all your wits about you when you have to cross a river or other water obstacles.
There exists a set procedure that must be followed when you cross a river, and not following this procedure will almost certainly get you into trouble. However, crossing some rivers is not impossible and many people do it every day, but knowing how, when, and at what speed to cross the river is what sets these drivers apart from the drivers that get stuck, or who get washed away by the current.
Therefore, depending on the specific region you plan to visit, as well as the time of year you plan to do your self-drive safari, learning how to cross water obstacles successfully is without a doubt the most important skill you need to learn.
While proper off-road vehicles are incredibly tough, they are not indestructible. Properly qualified off-road driving instructors know this, and as a result, all properly conducted training courses will emphasise the design and operational limits of recreational off-road vehicles.
We therefore strongly urge you t pay particular attention during this aspect of your training, since it might take several days for assistance to arrive if you break your vehicle somewhere deep into the African hinterland.
Even the best off-road drivers get stuck at times, but the best off-road drivers also know how to recover their vehicles safely. However, off-road driving training courses do not usually include practical training in vehicle recovery, and the best you can hope for is to learn something about the theory of vehicle recovery. Nonetheless, even if you don’t receive practical training, you need to learn as much theory as you can, since some vehicle recovery techniques can kill you if you get them wrong.
It must be understood that the few aspects of off-road driving we have listed here will not make you an accomplished off-road driver, even if you master them all. However, what mastering them will do for you is set you on your path to becoming a more confident driver who will not panic the first time you come across terrain that differs from what you are accustomed to.
Nonetheless, just how confident you become depends on the quality of the instruction you receive, which is why it is vitally important that you only attend off-road driving courses that are presented and conducted by institutions and personnel that are properly accredited with an acknowledged professional regulatory body, which is why-
Accreditation is important
While accreditation means different things to different people, for the purposes of this article it should be taken to mean that all accredited training organisations provide levels of driver training and compliance with accepted practices that always conform to the standards set by the regulatory body. In the UK, one such regulatory body is the British Off-road Driving Association (BORDA), who has fully accredited members across the country. BORDA can be contacted at-
• E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Telephone: 0800 0433 505
In short, BORDA oversees and regulates the off-road driver training in the UK, and a prospective training facility hoping for membership has to pass a strict grading process, and the successful completion of regular refresher courses to retain membership.
What this means for you, as a prospective self-drive safari-goer in Africa, is that you will receive training that includes all of the above, and more. Overall, you will receive off-road driving training that is specifically geared towards your end-goal, which is the successful completion of your safari.
In conclusion, your training will ensure that you complete your safari with no damage to the vehicle, yourself, your passengers or to the terrain you have crossed, which is perhaps the most important consideration of all.