Solar-Powered Safari: A Dutch Couple’s Epic Electric Overlanding Expedition in Africa
As more and more people recognize the potential of electric vehicles in sustainable travel, it’s only a matter of time before they become a common choice for overlanders worldwide. Despite this enthusiasm, few have dared to embark on cross-continent overland journeys in an electric vehicle, particularly in regions with limited charging infrastructure.
Enter Maarten van Pel and Renske Cox, a Dutch couple who are breaking new ground in the world of electric overlanding. Passionate about nature, sustainability, and exploration, in November 2022 they embarked on the formidable challenge of traversing Africa in a Škoda Enyaq iV80, powered by 60 solar panels.
Their remarkable journey, which they dubbed 4×4 Electric, demonstrates how overlanding in an electric vehicle can be both feasible and enjoyable, despite the unique obstacles it presents. Along the way, they are visiting regional projects on their route to highlight the solutions people are developing to use green energy and innovative ideas to make communities more sustainable.
We managed to catch up with Maarten and Renske via email as they laid over in Nigeria. Below, they share their experiences, insights, and the challenges they’ve faced on their groundbreaking expedition.
What was the inspiration behind the 4×4 Electric expedition?
Both of us are in love with nature and adventure, however we also want to protect the planet so that we can enjoy it long term. Therefore, we have become more and more passionate about sustainability in the past years. We started with driving electric in the Netherlands, and by making our house eco-friendly. We don’t use any gas anymore, collect rainwater and our garden is friendly to animals and insects.
The next step for us was finding a sustainable way of travel, as we don’t want to fly anymore. We have driven to Norway in the past with our electric car, and we loved it. But this time we wanted to go further, to places where no charging stations are available. As we prefer being in the wilderness, we wanted to be self-sufficient. So we decided to take solar panels with us to charge the car.
As there was no existing technique to do this, we decided to make an expedition out of it, working together with partners to make it possible. This is how the non-govermental organization 4x4electric was born.
How did you choose the specific electric vehicle for this journey? Did you need to prepare it for overlanding?
For an expedition like this we wanted a car that was efficient and big enough to take everything with us we needed. In addition, we preferred a regular family car, as this way we could show the world you don’t need a specific car to do this. It is doable for anybody! This is how the Škoda Enyaq iv80 was selected by us.
We did not make any modifications on the car, to show this is not needed. All we did was get all terrain tires and springs that are stiffer for the rough terrain.
We have 60 solar panels in the back of our car that we lay out in a field to charge. For this we use a DC-DC inverter, so we lose energy when charging. We can charge up to 11kWp and on a regular sunny day we can charge the battery to over 50 percent which is equal to 225 kilometers in driving. This way we can charge anywhere.
What have been the advantages of traveling in an electric vehicle?
There are many advantages to traveling all-electric. An electric car consists of only 10 percent of the parts, compared to a car with an internal combustion engine. Very few of those are moving parts. It is like a computer. This results in way less maintenance and risk of something breaking.
An electric car is very quiet. This is so nice when driving in nature. You only hear the tires on the surface and the surroundings. And the bottom of our car is flat, because of the battery, so no twigs or rocks and dust can get into the undercarriage.
We don’t need fuel stations to get somewhere. All we need are our solar panels. We can lay them out in a field and charge wherever we want to go wherever and whenever we want. This is such a freedom. Also, you don’t have the smell of fuel.
We can make pictures with our camera leaning on the window frame, as the car is not shaking because of the engine running. This is very nice if you want to make a zoomed-in picture.
What challenges have you faced while overlanding in an electric vehicle?
The only disadvantage at the moment, is that electric cars are not known and available here in Africa yet. If there is a real problem with our software, we will need the help of people far away. In addition, if there is no sun and we need to charge the car, it takes quite some time to explain to locals that we want to charge at a regular wall outlet, as they have never seen this before.
It is difficult for them to understand. Last but not least, fast charging is just not an option here yet. That is why we prefer charging with our solar panels. This way we can charge up to 9kW, while a wall outlet often has a maximum of 2 kW.
At the moment we are in Nigeria, in the first month of the rainy season. As the elections were a couple of days ago, we want to cross this country as quickly as possible. Due to the many clouds we wanted to charge mostly on the grid. However, the grid here is far from reliable.
We are now crossing a region where there is no electricity available for the past 4 days. We were able to charge our car once at a generator, with 11 kW even which is very fast. However, now we are in a small village with fewer options. This leaves us to charge with the sun, slow but steady. As even with clouds we can charge, it is just very slow. Luckily, we are in a safe and nice location and only 200 km from the border…
How do you plan your routes and charging stops?
The funny thing is that we don’t charge with the existing charging infrastructure, as there is none here, so we don’t plan our route around charging stations. On a driving day we choose the route we will like most, and if the battery is running low, we start looking for an open space of around 60 square meters.
Ideally, we charge somewhere remote with preferably a nice view and maybe even a hill with the perfect angle towards the sun. Once found, we spend the night here and lay out our solar panels the next day to charge a full day.
What we do plan sometimes are our charging days, looking at the weather predictions. If for example tomorrow will be very cloudy, we sometimes drive less so that we can solar charge a day later.
How have people reacted to your electric overlanding vehicle in the various countries and regions you’ve visited?
It is interesting to experience that many people don’t realize it is an electric car at first. Once we explain they immediately understand and are so amazed and enthusiastic about it. They truly see the potential, especially charging it with the sun as there is almost always sun here in Africa and it is free. The electricity network here is far from as stable as in Europe, with many power outages. So solar power is more reliable to them.
When we are solar charging or stopping somewhere in a village or city, we often take the time to explain to people what we are doing.It is just amazing to open their eyes to the possibilities in the future.
How has your journey in an electric vehicle affected your overall travel experience?
If you compare us to other overlanders with fuel cars, we overall have the same pace or even quicker. When traveling with a fuel car, you also take rest days to reflect on what you have experienced. We do the same, but charge the solar on those rest days.
We do want to complete our entire trip from the Netherlands to South Africa and back a bit quicker than others, so we make less detours to touristic locations. We enjoy the road we drive and stop at nice locations next to it, but we don’t make extra loops of hundreds of km as it means more charging days and therefore a very long expedition.
How do you see the future of electric vehicle overlanding? Electric vehicles in general?
It is a small market, but we do see a big potential here. The fuel here in Africa is much lower quality compared to what you find in Europe. In addition, it is often not available in challenging times.
Overlanders often have to drive from fuel station to fuel station, taking extra tanks with them to make it. Driving on renewable energy that is available everywhere, this gives the optimal freedom to go anywhere an adventurous overlander likes.
There are no standard customer products available for this yet, so more mainstream solutions will have to be developed.
As for electric vehicles as a general means of transportation, we have learned it is so much more complex than we think, as each country is just unique. In countries where more than 50 percent of the people live in poverty, sustainability is a lower priority. This while these countries can take far bigger steps compared to us in the Netherlands for example.
In addition, techniques that work in Europe, cannot work here due to culture, climate or other factors. And the other way around as well. But we can inspire each other to look at it from a different perspective. And that is just what we want to learn during this expedition. We want to learn from all those different perspectives, and see what we can make out of that. So, you could see this expedition as a college year for us, only on the road.
What advice would you have for someone considering embarking on an electric vehicle overlanding adventure?
Do it! It is such an adventure in a new and unique way. In Europe it is perfectly doable using the charging network. Out of Europe you will have to be more creative – charging at hotels, camp sites or at people’s homes. Or you take another source for energy with you, like solar or wind power. There are no real standard solutions for this yet, but we expect it will come in the future to travel to remote places.
As our travel pace depends on the weather, it is difficult to plan events far in the future. But we do look forward to arriving in South Africa and Kenya, as these countries have approached us via different connections as they are interested in what we are doing. In addition, they are working hard on sustainability themselves and we are curious to see this with our own eyes.
We are looking forward to drive through all the countries to come. We have learned they all surprise us in their own way. As we live day by day, we will see what the future brings.
Maarten and Renke’s are tracking their journey on their website 4x4Electric.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram.