Road to the Camper – Building the first prototype

During the past number of years the opportunity was presented to spend a lot of time in the numerous game reserves around South Africa. These game reserves are pristine in their natural beauty and visited by thousands of people every year. Many of the parks have rules and regulations to maintain the natural environment while providing safety for visitors. This can be very limiting.  

Typically a day is spent in the car at 30km/h for 12 hours admiring the surroundings, looking for that little bird, elusive antelope or should the luck arise the lurking leopard. Special memories are captured while also providing relaxed and dedicated time to actually talk to your loved ones.

This is however where the problems start to creep in. There are not enough rest spots to stretch the legs, not enough place to hold and aim that monstrous camera lens required to photograph the eye lashes of the Cheetah or the fabulous colours of a Helmeted Guinea fowl’s head. Leaving the camp at around 06:00 and then wanting to make breakfast at 08:00 presents the challenge to plan the route carefully. You are stuck in the car.

My mind cannot stop thinking: So what is required to make all these issues disappear?

Sitting around a “braai” fire back at home, I notice my 10 year old farm “bakkie”(pickup). What if I remove the back window and panel, then convert the pickup into a camper? This will create a space to crawl through and then be able to walk around as well as a platform to take photographs. Needless to say within a week the grinder and goggles were out. Within an hour the kids were standing around shaking their heads and looking in amazement at the sparks flying with bits of bodywork hitting the ground with a thump.

Within a few weeks the bakkie could no longer carry sheep but was some kind of camper with wonderful benches, cushions and a pop top.

To make the build easy a steel frame on the rear was covered with Aluminium checker plate and painted. A door was manufactured for the rear and a pop top roof constructed to overlap a frame to avoid leaking.

The interior was laminated with 4mm plywood and strong benches built from super wood. Replacing the front bench seat with a single passenger seat opened an area to enter the rear of the vehicle from the front.

Two very good things about the Mahindra Bolero single cab is that when the front bench is removed there is no centre  console to contend with and the handbrake is on the right hand side of the driver and not between the seats.

Being a prototype the idea is to learn and improve every step of the way. Using heavy strong board to build the cupboards is not a good idea. Use a strong frame and much lighter material. Plywood has a very high strength to weight ratio and can be strengthened with struts.

Waterproofing and sealing must be one of the top priorities. Every join must take both rattles and waterproofing into account. This means every surface touching another surface.

After managing a couple of trips, some changes were required. Canvas panels were installed between the frame and the pop top, with windows and tie downs. The benches were rebuilt with aluminium with ply wood cladding and reinforced ply wood hatches.

A hinged solid wood insert was manufactured to convert the benches into a comfortable double bed. The insert folds up easily and fits behind the fridge whilst travelling.

Probably the most important lesson learnt is that the camper must be comfortable for your partner as well. Although I didn’t mind ruffing it a bit, your partner will not be happy if the build does not look good.

A pop top design presents less wind resistance when travelling, however it was found that compared to the alternative of a high roof, the high roof is a much better option.

Going on a camper holiday is the most amazing experience and the ideal way to discovery the treasures of South Africa. Being able to travel on the roads you choose, to the destinations of your choice while spending valuable time with your partner.

The second prototype was a full replacement of the camping frame with a fibreglass box. Building the camper is half the fun.

In the next post I will discuss the second proof of concept camper.