Driving on African sun

Driving on African sun

Show the world what’s possible when driving electric – from the Netherlands to South Africa and back with an electric car, charged mostly with solar panels. That’s the mission two Dutch explorers set on last November.

5. 6. 2023 Lifestyle

Two nature geeks, completely in love with each other, with adventure and with travelling the world – that’s how Renske Cox and Maarten van Pel describe themselves. Although they have experience with travelling and organising events on a business level, such an expedition was a true debut for both.

IMG_3175_e892a9f5.JPGRenske Cox and Maarten van Pel, two explorers on their journey across Africa

“We wanted to investigate a sustainable way of travel and inspire others to make their lives more sustainable while travelling. We notice sustainability is often regarded as something we have to do, something that’s not fun and you can never do right. We want to change this: make it fun and approachable so that more people will join. And we chose the Škoda Enyaq because it’s a regular family car, which makes our expedition more approachable for others. Plus it’s efficient and big enough to store everything we need,” Renske explains.

IMG_2725_4bdd83daThe pratical and spacious Enyaq attracts well-deserved attention.

The car is owned by a non-profit non-governmental organisation they set up for this expedition. The reason for this form of ownership was to show partners they didn’t seek any personal financial profit. The expedition is only feasible thanks to about thirty partners – not only is the expedition expensive, but they needed equipment that wasn’t available on the market.

Finding partners was tough at first

At the very beginning of the expedition was an idea of a sustainable world trip. As Renske and Maarten wanted to decrease their footprint on Earth, they decided not to fly anymore. When they drove their e-car to Norway, they came up with the idea to do a world trip with an electric car.

Skoda-Enyaq-30-45mm-Lift-Kit-75_135c04a2The roof box holds all the necessary mobile solar panels.

“It really started when we shared our idea at a party for friends and family in our garden. They all said that organising and doing such an expedition would really fit us. With this positive energy we started working out details. As we wanted to be self-sufficient, the idea of charging with solar power was born. After some calculations, we came to the conclusion that we needed roughly a 10-kW peak of solar power to be able to drive around Africa in one year. After a few weeks we knew in more detail how much space we needed inside and on top of the car – the rooftop tent,” Maarten recalls how it all began.

Dare to go electricDozens of companies and suppliers were involved in kitting out the modified electric car.

Then the hard part started: finding partners to make the expedition possible. At first, their story wasn’t sufficiently compelling. And none of the companies they met dared to become the first partner. As they really believed in the expedition, they decided to take a leap of faith and bought their own Škoda Enyaq 80. That way, the Dutch car dealership Van den Brug and Campwerk, who provided the rooftop tent, became the expedition’s first partners.

Disassembling a brand new car

After picking up the car and the rooftop tent, the expedition really gained momentum as Renske and Maarten were able to show a real car for Africa. Step by step, more product and financial partners joined the expedition. They found a partner for the charging unit – Venema E-mobility – and Tilbox for the rooftop box and storage for the 60 square metres of solar panels.

defaultApart from a day of sunshine, all that’s needed to recharge the car is a sufficiently large area of land.

“After our main partner Geelen Counterflow joined the expedition, we dared to start rebuilding the car – pretty much everything in the rear of the car had to be removed. It was hard to watch, the car was still brand new. We installed new custom-made springs by Cobra Suspension which lifted the car and enabled it to carry all the expedition gear. Mito Solar installed custom solar panels on the car so we could use solar energy to power our fridge and to charge an additional battery we use for our induction stove. After installing the 50-litre water tank with a simple but functional shower, the car was almost ready. One last important part was missing, though: proper tyres. Although we lost around 15 per cent of range due to all-terrain tyres, it gave us flexibility on different surfaces,” Renske describes.

Travelling through Africa really tests the car’s mettle.

What’s really unique about the expedition vehicle is the charging system. Let’s let Maarten explain the sophisticated technology: „We charge the car via its CCS port with DC power. Our solar panels produce DC and the battery is DC as well. With off-grid systems, normally the solar energy is stored in batteries (DC), while a converter converts the energy into AC. The car then converts this AC back into DC to charge the battery. All these conversion steps result in some energy losses. Our converter converts the DC energy of the solar panels to the DC voltage the car needs depending on the current state-of-charge and then charges the battery via the CCS protocol without the help of an additional battery. Beside the fact that we have less energy losses – which normally results in heating up the equipment you use – we need way less equipment.“

Charging challenge

As both adventurers admit, charging depends on multiple factors. If they choose to use the solar panels, they add roughly 50 per cent of juice in a day. But the yield is affected by clouds, the angle of the panels or the temperature (high temperatures negatively influence the yield).

IMG_6544_0a4dfcccIt only takes a few minutes to pack up the charging system.

“Using a wall outlet doesn’t necessarily make our lives easy. Wall outlets aren’t made to provide high power for more than twelve hours straight. On two occasions we melted a wall outlet although we were charging with only 2 kW. Since this experience we’ve been removing the wall outlet and connecting the wall outlet cables directly to the cables of our charging unit. The wires are connected more directly to our AC charging unit so there’s less to melt. As the wires are normally quite thick thanks to the fact that there are air-conditioners everywhere, this is often not an issue. However, there’s one thing: frequent power outages. In addition, sometimes it’s difficult to explain that we need to charge our car for more than 24 hours without giving the feeling we consume a crazy amount of energy. We often compare it to the use of an air-conditioner,” Renske shares what they have to face on the go.

Charging usualy takes a whole day.

Typically, they charge one full day and drive the other. In the morning, they lay the solar panels out in a field and connect them to the charging unit. When the sun is strong enough, they start charging with 1,5 kW, with the power increasing as the sun goes higher up in the sky. Around 10 am they reach around 4 kW and at noon the peak power is about 8,5 kW. If the sky is clear, it remains so until about 5 pm when the power drops below 1 kW. Then they stop charging and put all the panels back in the car again, which takes about 15 minutes.

No repairs so far

On a driving day, they simply set out in the direction of South Africa and see what the road brings: border crossings, remote forests, coastal roads or urban areas.

Both Renske and Maarten have nothing but words of praise for the car.  “It works like a charm. We have some bodywork damage on the underside of the car and there’s a dent in the aluminium plate, also underneath the car. But this doesn’t affect driving. Although the car isn’t designed for off-road driving, we found ourselves on some really bad roads. Overall, most roads are tarmac or gravel, but often there are a lot of potholes. On the really bad ones with lots of rocks, we drive slowly and keep being amazed by how well the car performs with the all-terrain tyres.”

IMG_6462_18b0e0afThe special Enyaq had to be fitted with modified shock absorbers as well as storage boxes.

“We got stuck twice when going off-road. Once, we knew it would be challenging, but we took our chances as we wanted to learn about the limits of the car. In addition we could learn how to get out when stuck. There’s one interesting aspect: people travelling the same route with a combustion car have to go to a garage every other month for new oil or other issues on the car. Yes, they often use a second-hand car and ours is new, but another advantage is that an electric car has only some 10 per cent of the parts of a traditional car, and very few moving parts. It’s like a computer,” Maarten points out.

Maarten va Pel copes masterfully with even the toughest terrain.

The simplicity of the electric car means they don’t carry any spare parts with them. They have tools to check faults in the software, and software through which mechanics can help them remotely if need be. And the biggest challenge in this respect? Electric cars aren’t very well known in Africa yet. So the worst-case scenario is that a mechanic would have to fly in to fix something – but of course Renske and Maarten are keeping their fingers crossed it won’t be needed.

All the way south and back

At the time of writing this article, our electric duo was in Nigeria heading south, awaiting the way through all the coastal countries in West Africa. The plan is to arrive in South Africa in July. When will they get back home? “We don’t know but the estimate is that the whole trip will take about a year and a half. Once we’ve arrived in South Africa, we’ll drive back home along the east coast of Africa. Flying back of course isn’t a sustainable solution and we can’t wait to experience the east of the continent, too.”

IMG_6548_d518bbbfWhen the two explorers reach the southern tip of Africa, they’ll turn round and drive back.  

Have they experienced any tough bits so far? No really scary moments yet, they say. “Luckily, we both love a good adventure. What’s the most challenging for us is coping up with the heat here in Africa. Temperatures around 37 degrees every day, sometimes with really high humidity. Not something we’re used to. And there’s something even more challenging than we’d expected – arranging visas for all the countries we go through. Every country is organised differently, and preparing everything well to be able to enter often takes a lot of time. Nigeria, for example, is a country that’s not open to tourists currently. It took weeks to prepare and yet we had to wait 16 hours at the border to be allowed in. We’re very happy we succeeded – it would be such a shame if a difficulty like this would stop us from completing our sustainable expedition,” Renske says.

As Maarten wraps up, what they find amazing about the expedition is showing locals in each country the possibility to drive long distances mostly using solar power. “We were stopped by a policeman in Nigeria the other day. When we told him it was an electric car, his jaw dropped, he even screamed in awe. We can really show the potential for the future, and the people here love it.”

If you’re interested in more information about this interesting electric adventure and would like to keep an eye on the two Dutch travellers, 4x4electric.com is full of great reading. And Storyboard will definitely be interested in how the trip goes as soon as they reach its southernmost point – so stay tuned!

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