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ESCAPE

From the Netherlands to Cape Town in an electric car powered by the African sun

From the Netherlands to Cape Town in an electric car powered by the African sun
Maarten van Pel and Renske Cox make it to Cape Town. (Image: 4x4electric)

Renske Cox and Maarten van Pel proved electric travel in Africa is possible after reaching Cape Town eight months after leaving the Netherlands. And they are only halfway.

On 11 July 2023, Maarten van Pel and Renske Cox arrived in Cape Town after travelling more than 24,580km across 23 countries in their bright yellow car powered by nothing more than the African sun. 

The Dutch pair describe themselves as “nature geeks” who are “both completely in love with each other, adventure and travelling the world”.

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Maarten van Pel and Renske Cox in Morocco. (Image: 4x4electric)

Together, they left the Netherlands and travelled down the African continent, determined to challenge the way people think about sustainability and how we move through the world. 

Cox and Van Pel have been together for seven years after meeting online. On their first date, they were already talking about travelling together. 

“We really like to be remote and just enjoy the beauty of nature – this is something we share and really like about each other as well,” Cox says. 

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Maarten van Pel from the Netherlands. (Image: 4x4electric)

Their dream to travel through Africa started four years ago when travelling in the southern part of the continent, experiencing the unique wildlife and nature of the region. 

“We loved it, but we also noticed the impact climate change could have here… if the temperature increases by only a degree, that could mean life or death for some animals and plants as well. On that holiday, we became even more passionate about sustainability,” Cox says. 

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Renske Cox in Morocco. (Image: 4x4electric)

Cox and Van Pel flew home, later agreeing they would no longer travel by air as the aviation industry contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. This did not mean their adventures were over. Instead, they discussed ways of making their own lives and trips more sustainable. 

“That’s how we came up with this idea to use an electric car,” Cox explains. 

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Camping in Angola. Image: (4x4electric)

Their vehicle of choice was a Škoda Enyaq iV80, the brand’s first fully electric SUV. It has a bright yellow wrap that attracts attention as it makes its way through Africa. 

There was still one obvious problem. In Europe, the car could be charged using networks already in place. Crossing into Africa, that sort of infrastructure was far less common. 

Without a charging network, Cox and Van Pel decided to bring their own with them – “so that we don’t have to knock on everybody’s door to ask for electricity”, Cox jokes.

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Solar panels laid out for charging. (Image: 4x4electric)

They removed the back seats to store 60 small solar panels that would power their journey. 

The car itself was fitted with seven panels on the roof and bonnet which connect to a “household” battery that powers a fridge, induction cooking and charges electronics. This means that all 11 kilowatts of power from the stored solar panels, unpacked from the car during stopovers, can be used directly for the car’s battery. 

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Solar panels laid out for charging. (Image: 4x4electric)

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Seaside solar charging in Angola. (Image: 4x4electric)

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Charging in Angola. Image: (4x4electric)

The pair then set off from the Netherlands in November 2022, having quit their jobs and committed to 18 months on the road. 

The couple typically has two types of days – charging and travelling. 

When driving with an internal combustion engine, days and routes are planned with refuelling in mind. Travelling electric, however, Van Pel and Cox were not looking for petrol station signs in the distance. Rather, they had their eyes peeled for the best places to lay out their solar panels. 

They start searching for a place to recharge early in the morning so that they can use as much daylight as possible. When they find their perfect stop, it takes about 15 minutes to lay out all the panels. 

“We quickly noticed that angling the panels towards the sun is quite important to have the best yields in one day, so we started looking for hills that had this angle, but with an even surface,” Cox explains. 

“We are generating our own power in the really unique nature spots that Africa has to offer,” Cox says. 

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Maarten van Pel and Renske Cox exploring Angola. (Image: 4x4electric)

While the sun does its work, Cox and Van Pel take the time to recharge themselves, update their followers and create content for their social media accounts. As the light fades, they pack the panels away in their storage units, cook some dinner and go to bed in the tent mounted on the roof of their car. 

“You get into a rhythm, I think. We live completely in and around the car. We make breakfast by the car, lunch as well, and dinner again,” says Cox. 

“Most of the time we sleep in the wild, somewhere really remote, which we like.” 

The other days are for travelling. 

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Driving through Nigeria. Image: (4x4electric)

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Maarten van Pel in Senegal. (Image: 4x4electric)

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Camping in Mauritania. Image: (4x4electric)

“We just started driving in the direction of Cape Town… you never know what you will see on the road. Sometimes we met very interesting people or visited a nice location – sometimes it’s just a really long driving day, and then you just enjoy the view,” Cox reflects. 

“In Europe, people often refer to Africa as one really big country, but we noticed that every time we crossed a border, it was different.” 

As they made their way down the continent, the pair hugged the west coast, travelling through Morocco, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. In Cameroon, they experienced more technical overlanding, finding only a single border crossing into the country which took them along a mountain road. 

“We don’t have a really high ground clearance, so it was quite a challenge to get through. It took us three days of driving really slowly,” Cox remembers. 

They then carried on through Congo, Angola and Namibia.

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The camp at dusk in Senegal. (Image: 4x4electric)

“We really are very in love with the nature there in Namibia… it’s so raw and untouched – it’s the second least densely populated country in the world, and as a human, that makes you feel so small. That’s a really powerful feeling,” Cox says. 

The couple arrived in Cape Town in July, where they spent a few days resting and planning the next stage of their trip – going all the way back up. 

This time, they are heading up the eastern flank of Africa, crossing from South Africa into Mozambique and then northwards.

Reflecting on the first half of the trip, Cox says she and Van Pel have spent over 800 hours driving together on this expedition, side by side. 

“Believe me, at some point, you have said everything you have to say to each other,” she laughs. 

“It can be quite intense… you don’t really have many moments all to yourself – we are almost always within 100 metres of our car, and always together. Your partner needs to be your best friend but also your colleague, and sometimes you don’t match. 

“Luckily, we have a relationship where we can talk very well. And it’s also intense in a good way… you really get to know each other on a better level than we did, because you share so much. 

“We are still very happy together… otherwise, the way back would be very long,” Cox laughs. DM

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  • Gregory Scott says:

    What a journey and what a ride, powered by the sun only, wow!
    Hopefully this will inspire our local EV market to pick up momentum.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Hmmm, 100km/day – seems about right for an EV 😀

      • Johan Buys says:

        If you were in a rush, you could plan your driving to avoid charging time. So drive at least optimal solar time and rest in best solar time. By now there are probably vehicles with a bit better clearance, bit bigger battery and there are solar powered charge stations that’d give you big Ah much faster than your own panels will.

        For definite, doing this trip using non-solar charge stations would be much easier, but these two had a specific mission. (and time)

        I sometimes regret that as a youngster I didn’t take a gap like these two did for an amazing adventure. Later on, life gets in the way. well done!

      • Michele Rivarola says:

        The ternal optimist fossil fuel troll. At least the luddites had some positives about them. How many miles did the first model T travel with one fuel charge? EVs and PVs will open development to areas where financial institutions will not invest whether you like or not. Get on with the times or be left behind quite simple

        • Dominic Rooney says:

          It’s curious that people who have nothing substantial to say revert to personal attacks. One may admire the enterprise of this couple but their adventure shows nothing that we don’t know already. EVs in their present form work in small cars in urban settings with adequate recharging facilities. They are not the panacea promised for carbon reduction until the electricity they consume is generated from products other than coal. It strikes me that climate-“activists” have very little idea of the complexity and variety of the real world. The real “solution” is always around the corner, the product of some unspecified magical solution that will break through the boring constraints of, err… the facts.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    It’s called living – so inspirational !

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