Drifters, a division of Tourvest Holdings has found favour in the 500-series Hino trucks as a reliable vehicle suited to the tough conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. The Hino 1626 truck chassis-cabs, which form the basis of a fleet of 18 overland safari vehicles, are proving very Africa-friendly in terms of reliability, durability, ease of maintenance and repair when operating in remote regions in Africa.
“We are very satisfied with the performance of the Hinos in operations that are varied but can be very tough, particularly when storms ruin the gravel roads and rivers rise,” said Steve Maidment, Operations Director at Drifters. “Our overland vehicles, which each carry 16 tourists, are often more than 1 000km from the nearest dealer, so reliability is very important.”
According to Maidment, the Hino truck-based safari vehicles have now clocked up 3.6-million kilometres, often under harsh conditions and have been virtually trouble free except for a couple of broken spring blades and a differential spider gear breaking due to getting stuck and spinning the rear wheel.
“The reason is that these trucks are built strong, with big wheel bearings and drive shafts. Importantly many of the steering, suspension and transmission parts have grease nipples, adding to the ease of maintenance and subsequent reliability. They certainly make my life easier!”
Drifters was established in 1983 with one well-used minibus, has grown significantly over the years and now has 30 full-time guides. A variety of different brands and vehicle types have been used for its touring operations in sub-Saharan Africa over the years.
The switch to Hino came in 2010 after a lengthy study and evaluation of potentially suitable vehicles available on the local market. There are now 18 of these Hino vehicles being used in operations that extend from five to 24 days, with trips from Cape Town to Johannesburg via Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Other countries which are on the Drifters extensive schedule are Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania.
These tours operate on tight schedules and most of the tourists are from overseas, especially Germans, Netherlanders, Belgians and Scandinavians so the reliability of the transport is vital in terms of meeting the timetable and providing outstanding customer service. The success of the Drifters business can be seen in the many tourists who return to South Africa to participate in other Drifters tours after their first experience.
A very important factor in the Drifters operation is that all the safari vehicle bodies are tailor-made by the company itself. These vehicles are unique in that they have to transport a full complement of camping equipment, such as tents, stretchers and chairs, as well as being equipped with a refrigerator, freezer, food storage area and a self-contained kitchen unit with cooking and washing up facilities.
The manufacturing facility is based in Muldersdrift, near Krugersdorp. A number of bus and truck body builders were used in the early days to build safari vehicles, but the requirements are so specialised that it was decided to take manufacture of the vehicle bodies in house. This was a bold move that has proved very successful over many years.
This facility where the vehicles are built also houses the maintenance and repair workshop as well as the various storerooms and a facility for making and repairing the tents. It has a staff complement of 15 people.
The frames of the safari vehicle body and several of the panels are made of stainless steel, which is corrosion resistant, while most body panels are made of glassfibre, which is light, strong and easy to repair when necessary. Some of the bodies are 8-9 years old and showing no sign of corrosion. The vehicles themselves cover between 70 000 -80 000km a year. They are serviced at Hino Honeydew while under warranty and then maintained by Drifters at the Muldersdrift workshop.
Very few outside suppliers are used in the construction of the safari vehicles; even the electrical wiring and trimming is carried out in-house. Each vehicle has dual fuel tanks, each with a capacity of 450 litres and special features on the filler system to deter fuel theft. There is a 400-litre water tank. Huge, panoramic windows which can be opened provide an excellent view of the scenery for the occupants, who are seated on adjustable Isringhausen seats as used in many truck cabs.
The design and construction methods for conceptualising and building these unique vehicles have been fine-tuned over the years and the latest models are ideal for this type of nomadic operation, often in remote areas of the continent. The bodies can be removed from one truck chassis and bolted onto another one, which a big plus.
Drifters manages its own tyres which often involves repairing punctures and other damage or scrapping tyres before the tread is worn down due to damage in off-road operations. The large wheels, with 10 studs, and the large tyres are other features of the Hino which make them well-suited to this overland touring operation.
The man behind the designing and building of the safari vehicles as well as all the other aspects of this complex operation is Steve Maidment, who joined the company as a tour guide in 1990. Over the ensuing years he has been instrumental in many of the innovations and initiatives which keep Drifters.