From the Netherlands to the southernmost point of Africa, then back to Europe along the eastern coast of Africa. Two adventurers and their Škoda Enyaq made it.

Renske Cox and Maarten van Pel are embarking on a sustainable expedition from the Netherlands to South Africa and back in an electric car to promote eco-friendly travel and showcase the long-distance capability of electric vehicles.

They've established a non-profit organisation to own the Enyaq and secured partnerships for funding and equipment. The car underwent modifications, including the addition of solar panels for charging, which mostly relies on sunlight and takes about a day.

Their journey aims to advocate for solar-powered cars in Africa despite challenges like extreme heat and visa arrangements. Expected to last about a year and a half, covering various African countries, they hope to inspire locals along the way and discuss the future of electric vehicles.

“Next, we wanted to charge the car at least half the time with solar power just as before. But the weather betrayed us a little. Clouds started in Ghana all the way to Angola, which was four months of travelling. And I don’t mean a cloudlet here and there; we saw clouds every day and often it was overcast. It cleared up for a day in Angola and then once again in Namibia. You don’t get much out of the sun in that kind of weather – the charging intensity jumps up and down, you’re almost at full power for a while, then it drops almost to zero and jumps back up again,” Renske explains why they were forced to use the electric grid as well.

But in Cameroon, for example, there were about 800 kilometres ahead of them where there was no grid, so they had to make do with their own resources. After charging, the car could travel about 350 kilometres, maybe 400 if going a bit more slowly.

“The difficulty was that this part of Africa is all thick jungle and it was quite challenging to find an open space where we could spread out 60 square metres of our solar panels without anything shadowing them. But in the end we always managed to do it and we can be happy with the overall score – we were able to take 54 per cent of our electricity from the sun. That was more than what we had originally counted on,” says Maarten.

The advantage of driving on electricity is that it is available almost everywhere. And it’s the same everywhere. So there is no need to deal with polluted petrol, a complication often faced by explorers in cars with combustion engines.

Undercover charging

Since there were virtually no public charging stations available even on the way back up the east coast, our pair had to charge from the regular grid. And since the local grid is not equipped for such a heavy load, recharging the battery was very slow.

But they say it didn’t matter that much. At this point in the expedition, Renske and Maarten were covering only 150 kilometres each day because of the bad roads. If they finished a stage at, say, 3 pm and charged continuously until 9 am, the battery was topped up – and it’s more convenient than charging from the sun all day. Moreover, they usually mixed the two approaches, anyway.

“Sometimes we had to do a lot of explaining and convincing. People there had never seen an electric car before. It could take an hour. We always paid for electricity, we were willing to pay even three times the local price. A couple of times we didn’t even say we were charging the car. We looked up the local price online and then tipped them a large amount,” Renske recalls.

You might be wondering – how is it possible to hide the fact that you’re charging your car? “It was at campgrounds, for example, where you can hook up a motorhome. Sometimes it was easier that way because we knew we wouldn’t explain to the locals why we needed their electricity,” Maarten adds.

Welcome innovations of the future

Quite understandably, our duo felt most comfortable in South Africa. Almost like home – after all, Afrikaans evolved from Dutch. Could they understand? “It was fine. The locals invited us to a braai which is something like a social barbecue and after a few drinks we got on very well,” laughs Renske, adding that even though they are different languages and some of the words are far from similar, they had a decent conversation with the South Africans.

It was worse during the next trip north along the east coast. “Swahili and a plethora of local languages and dialects. Sometimes English worked, other times just hand-foot communication. We’d open the charging connector cover where the fuel tank neck usually is and point to what we needed. We pulled out the cable with the connector and made small talk. We also displayed a map of our route on the body of the car – after a short or longer while, people usually figured out what we needed, even though they had never seen an electric car before.” The reactions of the villagers in general were remarkable, according to Maarten. “I would say 99 per cent of the people reacted positively and enthusiastically. Many times we would arrive in a village and in no time twenty people would be standing around, taking pictures and looking happy to see us.”

“It was almost as if they were celebrating that an innovation from the future had visited them. People welcomed us and responded very positively. They saw the electric car as something that could benefit them as well,” adds Renske. The hospitality and friendliness of the locals often surprised – for example, when they laid out solar panels on the ground, dozens of pairs of eyes kept watching them for hours. They also frequently brought mangoes or papaya as a present.

When Enyaq strengthens partnerships

When we ask what stuck out most in the travellers’ minds, they both blurt out: Namibia. A beautiful, remote, isolated country. And then, of course, many other bits and pieces. “I was struck by one change in the second half of the trip. In the west, we were pretty much the only white people in the circle of hundreds of kilometres. In the east, on the other hand, it was mostly the local whites who invited us to join them. We cooked, ate and discussed many interesting topics together. Or another thing: in the Netherlands, we breed a lot of cattle, even for export. In Africa, they have a different approach to getting meat – it’s quite common to hunt. And it has changed the way we look at this way of providing food. Not that we go hunting regularly now, but it opens your eyes to a different approach and that things are not black and white, right or wrong, they are just different,” Renske says.

“For me, one of the highlights of the trip was arriving in Cape Town. We could see Table Mountain from a distance of about 80 kilometres. I was really emotionally moved. We had been preparing the trip for over a year and then after eight months of travelling you arrive at the southernmost point. We drove up a mountain close to Table Mountain so we could take pictures of it and it was just phenomenal!” Maarten recalls.

A year and a half on the road in the small space of a car with another person – it must be quite a great test of partnership. “Yes, we were together very intensely, over a thousand hours side by side in the car. But we don’t argue much because we communicate a lot. We’re used to talking about things, even unpleasant feelings. I think the expedition has brought us much closer together. You have to trust each other implicitly. Sometimes we’re both tired after a hard day and there’s no room to be nice and pleasant. But when the other person understands that, that’s love too. It’s giving each other space,” Renske confides.

Both travellers admit that the expedition has changed them as humans as well. Maarten says he has slowed down overall and learned to live only in the present, one day at a time. The trip – understandably – took them out of the culture and rhythm of their home country. “We have a little different mindset now. We will fit back into life in the Netherlands eventually, but it will take time. For me, the important thing is that I realised what is essential in life. The people.”

A few scratches and a damper, that’s it

The fact that both partners drove from the Netherlands to South Africa and back in an electric car proves that this sustainable way of travelling is feasible. “Driving on electricity is simply different compared to internal combustion engines. As you can see, anything is possible. For us, electricity has become normal. One has to get used to this way. We live in a world where electricity is practically everywhere. And you can go everywhere using it. Or consider the solar charging. We’d never done it before and only tested it twice before setting out. We started in Morocco and by the time we left the country it seemed perfectly normal to us. You have to get used to the changes and you have to make yourself take that big leap and be open to new things. It’s a lot easier than people think, though,” reflects Renske.

What are the adventurers’ plans when they return to normal European life? Family, friends, Christmas and the end of the year are on the agenda. They haven’t thought about their other travel plans yet, but they admit that next year will be marked by their desire to share their story. And maybe even inspire others to do the same. So lectures, maybe even a book? “Yes, we are working on both. We have so many stories to tell,” they reply in unison.

On their way home, they stopped for a few days in Mladá Boleslav, visited the factory where their car was made and met with Škoda Auto board member Martin Jahn. He glued a Czech flag on their car as a souvenir from another country they visited.

The expedition car also underwent a thorough service inspection in its birthplace. “When the technician connected the car to the computer, he asked cautiously: Are they aware that it’s a rear-wheel-drive car and not the four-wheel one? Of course we know it's rear-wheel drive, but people thought that we simply had to have a four-wheel drive car to accomplish all this. There was one single issue: one of the dampers broke during the last kilometres of the corrugated roads, so the car limped 500 kilometres more to the harbour in Kenya and then another 2,000 from Greece to Czechia. The car is heavy and it just didn’t like the bad African gravel roads and the damper just gave up the ghost,” says Maarten, adding that apart from this they didn’t have to deal with a single technical problem the whole time.

“We are surprised because we really pushed the car over the limits. The skid plate got its share, but no big holes or something, it is just scratched and a bit dented. But apart from a cracked windscreen, that’s the only thing. There was no maintenance done, we only refilled the windscreen washer fluid regularly. And some minor plastic body parts were replaced. But the core of the car is so strong! We didn’t have to do anything at all. For me the most stressful thing was shipping the car to Europe. We disconnected the 12-volt battery so the high-voltage battery was automatically disconnected. First, we drove in the container and disconnected them, and I thought: okay, it will be six weeks in the container, how does it work when we connect it back? But I just stepped inside the car and drove it out as if it was driven yesterday!”

What happens to the specially modified car and its equipment such as the solar panels? “We don’t know yet what we will do. In the beginning, we will keep it all, as we want to share the story and it’s a lot easier to explain how something works if it can be shown immediately. But after that, we are not yet sure what we will do with the car and the whole setup. We might offer it to Škoda, maybe it’s convenient for the museum. But we will see,” says Renske.

Don’t overthink and get going

Finally, we ask our heroes what advice they would give to aspiring explorers like themselves. “Don’t overthink your idea. It’s good to have a goal and to stick to it. But don’t try to plan all things in between. Because then you only see bears on the road as we say in the Netherlands. There will always be reasons why one should not do it, there will always be obstacles. If you have something on your mind to do, don’t prepare for it too much,” says Maarten and his partner nods in agreement and adds: “A lot more things are possible than we think. When we came up with the idea to go on a long expedition with an electric car, we said, okay, we don’t want to rely only on the grid and there was no solution for that yet. Then Maarten said, maybe we can use solar and just lay it somewhere and charge, and there was no charging solution for that either. But we just said, okay, let’s try if we can find somebody who can make it. I think that’s my main lesson.”

“In the beginning we had this idea and we didn’t want to share it with too many people because we thought somebody else would steal it. But when we shared our story, the responses were so positive and we got so much support and knowledge – oh, I know this company, maybe it’s interesting to help you out and so on. So, if you have a great or even crazy idea, just dare to share it,” concludes Maarten.