21 Feb 2020
Being on the road often gives me time to ponder things – past, present and future. And I make a habit of stopping at least once or twice on a journey to chat to people and hear their tales and to visit interesting, often forgotten places. In Padlangs, I share some of the thoughts and stories collected along the way.
These days, while travelling through our beautiful country, there is hardly a route where you will not see hired or private vehicles with rooftop tents, as well as the more sophisticated alu-cabs. Adventure travelling has come a long way. Even fellow Namibians heading out to their farms in Aminuis or Epukiro in the eastern part of the country are following suit, realising the ease of a home that simply opens up on your car roof.
And, Namibia is the perfect self-drive long-distance destination for camping trips with its vast landscapes, desert splendour and exciting destinations.
Reading up on Wikipedia, I was surprised to discover that rudimentary-type rooftop tents with a ridge-pole tent and plywood base mounted on roof racks appeared in Western Europe from the 1930s. These later evolved into the modern tent in a carbon-fibre box that could be erected easily with a crank-operated lever or gas rams.
In Namibia, we only really started to see them in the 90s, after independence. I have come to believe that I may have been one of the first to have a rooftop tent because I simply built my own. The seed was sown in 1984 while on a trip to Switzerland where I befriended a German-Swiss man who intended to drive through Africa. At the time, I never quite believed that this small, pale man would undertake such an endeavour, but nonetheless I casually invited him to stay with me and my family should he ever get to southern Africa. Two years later he appeared on my doorstep. He had the first rooftop tent I had ever seen and I was fascinated. He, too, was so taken with his tent home that he happily lived in it in my garden for two months and displayed no interest in my offer to sleep indoors. We also enjoyed exploring Namibia together. Each time I pitched my tent on the ground and he erected his rooftop tent, I was green with envy. Watching him luxuriating in his palace of a tent gave me the idea to copy it and I started making drawings and taking measurements to fit one onto my bakkie.
When we returned home, I worked with a late friend to construct two protypes. It took us five months to complete them, working after hours in his garage. We didn’t have all the right equipment, the hinges I found were made of heavy iron in a machine factory, and it was a challenge to find waterproof canvas at the local upholsterers. We cut an aluminium ladder in half and tried them out sleeping on the roof of the bakkie; we even made night tables for inside the tent to support a lamp or hold reading material. In retrospect, my tent could have done with some refining, reducing the impact the roof-heavy structure had on my vehicle, but we had many wonderful trips and some eventful ones in the rain because I hadn’t been able to source suitable canvas.
Our camping adventures and my fascination with the first rooftop tent I ever saw was topped by my friend’s experience with his rooftop tent on a trip to South Africa. When an enthusiastic camper saw his rooftop tent in the campsite while driving past, it drew his attention so completely that he drove off the road and hit a tree, much to the annoyance of his wife.
I was a teacher at the time we constructed the tents and had many school holidays to travel around the country with my family and enjoy the superior camping accommodation. In the early 90s, when I left the teaching profession and started my own tour company ‘Top Travel’, I began to hire out my bakkie with the rooftop tent to grow the business. Looking back with amusement, I realise that it must have been the first car rental company in Namibia offering a rooftop tent.
I never imagined then that they would take off as they have in southern Africa with thousands of visitors now on the roads in their hired white Toyota Hiluxes or Land Cruisers with state-of-the-art rooftop tents conveniently installed on top. Although rooftop tents first appeared in the northern hemisphere, they were never as big a success as in Namibia because of our ideal weather conditions, where it’s possible to camp out in all seasons and enjoy about 300 days of clear blue skies per year.
Time sped on and the years passed far too quickly. It’s already almost 25 years since we founded Gondwana, and the Gondwana Collection is now powering Namibia2Go car rental and hiring out Toyota Hiluxes with rooftop tents. After all, there’s still little to compare to sleeping under the stars in the Namibian wilderness.
Do I still have a rooftop tent? Well, to be honest, all those mornings of standing on the ladder struggling to close zips that were caked with sand finally got to me and I converted a few years ago to an alu-cab, which opens and closes in a second.
But, those quality times in my rooftop tent when it felt like I could reach out and pluck a star from the heavens will always be fondly remembered, as will the fun and camaraderie we had in the making of it.
Was my rooftop tent the first in Namibia?
If you know of any early rooftop tents or if you have any photos, please share them with us.
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