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Text: Riéth van Schalkwyk Photographs: Johann Groenewald
In the middle of Kigali, on the car park of a hotel, we had to replace the clutch of our camper. It took longer than anticipated, because replacing the clutch meant the engine had to be removed, which is slightly more time consuming when the contraption with which to lift the engine out, arrives in the back of a taxi. Up to that point, there had been some other mechanical challenges along our 14,000 km road trip, which – I want to add for the record – did not involve our Land Rover only. Just before we entered Burundi one of the Cruisers needed to get a gearbox fixed and we spent 24 hours playing cards in the yard of the mechanic shop while waiting for parts to be bussed in from Dar es Salaam. Then came the big problem, which actually brings me to the beginning of my story. The alternator packed up. With my limited knowledge of what goes on under the hood, to me, this only meant no air-conditioning in the truck, in mid-summer on the equator. What happened then seemed like magic to me. In the sprawling capital of Uganda, we typed in “Landrover Dealer Kampala” on the iPad app and there it was – a pinpoint in a maze on the screen. We were certainly not the first travellers looking for this place because if we were it would not have been on this amazing app. As the left-seat passenger, I never bothered to find out why we always arrived at our precise destination. I assumed my husband was such an instinctive guide that he just knew where to go. Until that day I actually never bothered to find out how the electronic maps work, how and why a Land Rover garage, in the middle of a rather chaotic city with a multi-million people, would be a pin on an electronic app. We followed the electronic path, came to the pin on the screen and although we did not believe it at first, when we walked through the metal gate, it was obvious we had arrived on pin. We had been led to the source thanks to many travellers before us, who cared to share their tracks. Mr Abdul Ssesanga, the saving grace of many a Land Rover traveller through the heart of Africa, stood in the most extraordinary yard I have ever seen. A few hours later we were on our way to Entebbe, again following the electronic arrow through the chaos of small streets with no names and barely space enough to turn or pass. How is it possible to have all this information of almost every conceivable route and road – with small but essential details such as “sandy”, “dangerous”, “ferry closed”, “bridge is not yet open” – on a smartphone or an iPad?
What is the story behind these magical electronic tracks through Africa?
Pure coincidence and challenges with too much information on maps for delicate areas in Namibia was the key to my discovery. When I parked at a restaurant in Windhoek, next to a Combi covered in dust, with a scrambler inside, also covered in dust, I knew it must belong to Johann Groenewald, one of the men behind Tracks4Africa. The other partner, Namibian-born Wouter Brand, continued his motorbike journey before we could meet. Theirs is a tale of the right people at the right time at the right place, plus of course a great idea and passionate networking to make it happen. Where else but in the Kaokoveld would one think about navigation and dream up a way not to lose your way. At the turn of the century, Wouter travelled in Namibia’s northern wilderness areas. This group of friends decided that it was time to start sharing information and data, which they had already gathered and shared amongst their existing community of explorers, adventurers and enthusiasts on forums and discussions about routes and roads. It was the year 2000 and the first website of Tracks4Africa was born.Wouter and Johann are both engineers, techies and mad about road tripping. Johann is the map specialist and Wouter a data analyst. And so it began. With data collected by a community of 500 enthusiasts, the duo started to build the first online map. Soon more than 2,000 people had access to that map and were able to provide information about a new road here, an upgrade there. As the community sent in data, Wouter updated the map. Open innovation is what this kind of product development is called nowadays – when the users of a product determine how that product develops. “We never planned it that way, it just happened,” Johann says. After every trip Wouter posted a report on the website, with credit to the members of the community who sent in the data that was used for updates, adding a story about every new pin on the map and asking for input and opinions.
In 2003 new software enabled them to transfer the GIS data to a format that could be used on a GPS, which in those days was only a picture. Johann tells the story of when he tested this “picture” on his GPS for the first time in the Makgadikgadi Pan in Botswana. They were driving on a small track, and only he knew that this track would eventually take them to the main road and back onto the beaten track. Much to everybody ’s relief, they were not lost. Two years later Wouter said it was time to make the electronic map commercially available. They asked for opinions on the trusted forum and within one month sold their first maps. In 2006 Google Earth contracted them to work together for five years, and that was the beginning of the beginning: resigning from day jobs, renting an office, and the hobby became a business. In 2007 Tracks4Africa became the first company to launch a Cape to Cairo routable electronic map. “Although we call it a map, it is much more than that. We document and combine the travel experiences of individuals, adding everything a traveller would need to know along the way. We want to answer all the questions travellers ask. Where can I sleep tonight, and eat and buy airtime, fx tyres? Where is the closest hospital, police station, petrol station? We want to tell users which look-out point on a specific route not to miss,” says Johann.“When we started we did not have a goal of where we should like to be sixteen years down the line. We just improved the product as we went along, gaining experience, partnering with the right people and continued to develop appropriate apps.Back then we drove with a laptop with relevant software on our laps. The laptop was connected with a cable to a GPS, which then showed the GPS points which we indicated on the paper map. More than a hundred people travelled through Africa this way and shared their information on how to connect such contraptions. We called the contraptions ‘carputers’ back then,” Johann recalls.16 years later technology is available to broaden the functionality on those early maps. To do routing and tracking and to download the latest functionality of the app on your smartphone. Johann is of the opinion that the GPS as we know it will disappear in the not so distant future. Instead of a GPS in our cars we will be able to synchronise our smartphones with the screen in our vehicles and use our app of choice to navigate. The latest developments in the Tracks4Africa app are more zoom levels for navigating in cities and the possibility to put in a destination point. Earlier this year they also launched an updated travel atlas for Southern Africa, which comes with an updated version of the Track4Africa app.“At this stage Tracks4Africa has two apps. Firstly an Overland Navigator which will turn your smartphone into an offline GPS. This is used for obtaining directions to places on the map and it works more or less the same as a conventional GPS. The second one is the Guide app which is a digital reference guide for self-drive travellers. It provides offline access to the map, with points of interest as well as additional information on these places. The maps on the Guide app are intended to be similar to a paper map, but on your device provide zoom levels which are impossible on a static paper map.There are plans to bring in more zoom levels to the Guide app as technology allows. And the great thing is that the app can then just be updated to include the latest features.”
Apps can be downloaded from Apple and Google app stores. Paper maps and the road atlas are available in Windhoek at Cycletec, Adventure Centre and Radio Electronics. For further information on Tracks4Africa: t4a-guide-app.tracks4africa.co.za
This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of TNN.