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Arkady Fiedler – First person to drive an EV down the West Coast of Africa

Overlander is a relatively modern moniker for vehicle-based adventurers exploring new territories while seeking novel experiences or even a new way of life. The reality is that, in 2022, few places have not been explored on this planet. If you’re intent on being the first to lay foot on untouched lands, a trip deep into the Amazon rainforest might be worth the treacherous journey, or perhaps scaling a 24,840-foot mountain in Bhutan will earn you the badge of exploring the unknown. On the other hand, I will keep wishing I’d been born a few centuries earlier, aspiring to break new ground, see what very few human eyes have seen before, and experience the joy and satisfaction of a unique adventure.

The contemporary use of the word overland originates from those hardy men and women transporting livestock across the Canning Stock Route in Australia in the early 1900s and was primarily a functional term. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “by, on, or across land.” (Note: Scott Brady and Matt Scott recently recorded an outstanding podcast on “What is Overlanding”: overlandjournal.com/what-is-overlanding/.)

Image by wanowandthen.com

Having lived on the road for over a decade, I know my ancestors must be frowning on our need to pack up and embrace the overland lifestyle permanently. It was not the life intended for us; we were meant to settle and prosper—not roam free and prosper. There were a few early explorers who were progressive and intrepid, and they chose a life of danger and exploration. In turn, they have inspired others to do the same. Some were in the vanguard well before “overlander” was a well-worn word, and others have just started.

Polish adventurer and writer Arkady Fiedler, born in 1894 in Poznan, Poland, was one of those explorers. In the 1920s and 1930s, Fiedler traveled to South America, North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, West Africa (several times), and Madagascar, and wrote 32 books (his third book, Squadron 303, was adapted into a movie). Arkady Fiedler died in 1985, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of exploration by any measure. Fiedler’s primary goal while traveling around the globe was to record, study, and photograph the natural world. During his visit to Madagascar in the late 1930s, he integrated himself with the local population and, after a few months, found himself a wife and adopted two lemurs. Arkady’s adventures across the globe are admirable, considering leisure travel internationally in the mid-1900s was difficult after the Second World War for an individual from Poland. And as with most other explorers, he inspired many others to do the same.

Arkady Pawel Fiedler, his grandson and namesake, followed in his footsteps by becoming a well-known explorer by undertaking several notable expeditions of his own. Arkady drove “Maluch,” a tiny Fiat 126, across Europe, and in 2014, he took the same car from Egypt to South Africa. Seeking a bigger challenge, Arkady drove from Poland to Vladivostok in 2016.

Tell us about yourself

I am a part-time professional traveler and filmmaker. When I am not traveling, I run a small business at home and am a family man. I have written two books and have produced a few TV travel series dedicated to overlanding. I am also a public speaker and travel storyteller.

When did you first decide that the overlanding lifestyle would be a large part of your future?

I am a car enthusiast and have always been fond of vehicles, [ever] since I owned my first car, the iconic little Polish Fiat 126.

My grandfather Arkady Fiedler was a significant influence on my life. I grew up in a museum dedicated to his travels, in between all his exhibits and souvenirs from all corners of the world, surrounded by pictures from distant places. My grandfather made the world feel closer. Driving also [pleases] me, and I often choose to drive the longer side roads than the most direct route.

Your Fiat 126, aka the “Green Beast,” more frequently known as Maluch, is an iconic vehicle in Poland. What trips have you made with this vehicle?

I drove approximately 150,000 kilometers around Poland and Europe in my first Fiat 126. Then years later, the Green Beast took me across Africa, from Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 2014. The journey was a part of a larger film and travel project titled OnTheWay (PoDrodze). In 2016, I drove from Puszczykowo (my hometown), Poland, to Vladivostok, Russia, crossing mainly central Asian countries.

What motivates and inspires you to travel?

I am fascinated by all roads, from difficult and challenging ones to smooth and accessible ones. All roads connect us to different worlds that allow me to reach new places and people. In those moments, the journey becomes my personal experience.

What is your life philosophy?

I find that it is important to focus on your own goal and not to be influenced by others. You can be inspired, but choose [what] gives you the most satisfaction. Everyone has their own Everest to climb. It could be a motorcycle trip to Pamir or driving across a continent. There is still a lot of room for personal discovery in travel and exploration. It’s always better to feel the world, the environment, the heat, and the smells, through your own skin than to read about it or view it on a screen.

How do you afford to travel?

With more significant travel projects, I seek sponsorship and work with brands during the expedition. However, the most I have ever received from sponsorship deals only covered about 60 percent of the project’s budget. The rest I cover from my sources and often from loans. I always aim for my travel projects to be able to sustain themselves in the long term. A traveler’s real work starts after the expedition. In my case, I write books and produce a travel series for YouTube (many of them were also shown on Polish TV channels). I also do a lot of public speaking for cultural organizations, companies, and travel festivals.

Travel dreams and goals?

The latest one is to drive the length of South America with my little Fiat 126 and produce another travel series. In the distant future, another plan is to drive through North America and complete my film and travel project, OnTheWay (PoDrodze), which I started in 2009. The project includes completed trips along the Polish borders, crossing Africa, Asia, and (yet to be completed) both Americas, with the main character of the project, of course, being the little Fiat 126.

My goals are simple; that travel is part of my professional life and must be able to sustain itself while still supporting my family. I also plan to embark on a round-the-world journey in an electric car. One day, I would also love to take an electric vehicle on an unsupported journey to the South Pole.

My biggest dream is to spend a few months traveling around Southern Africa with my family (kids and wife).

An EV Trek Across Africa

In 2018, Arkady changed his focus and was the first person to drive an unmodified Nissan Leaf EV up the west coast of Africa from Cape Town, South Africa, to Europe—no ordinary feat. Only once you have traveled these roads will you understand the hard work and self-motivation it takes to complete a journey like his.

Fiedler and his friend, the photographer Albert Wojtowicz, drove the length of West Africa in a flurry, taking only 97 days. One of Arkady’s goals was to showcase clean transportation technologies and their benefits for the environment. In every village, he would stop for the night to recharge his EV. Unexpectedly, the locals often feared that Arkady would use all their power and bankrupt them! It is safe to say that this journey was a learning experience for all involved— the spectators, participants, and people they met along the way.

In 2018, you completed the first-ever EV crossing from Cape Town to Poland with a Nissan Leaf EV. The project was dubbed The Electric Explorer African Challenge 2018. Why the Nissan Leaf EV?

At the time of preparations for the trip, back in 2017, there weren’t many choices in regard to electric cars; only a few were available on the market. Before I made my decision, I tested some cars and researched many forums. I needed a vehicle with a range that allowed me to drive from one charging stop to another, with low energy consumption, and with a battery that I was able to charge overnight. I needed a car that wouldn’t break down in the middle of Africa. If I did have a major breakdown, I would’ve struggled to fix it in Africa. The classic first-generation Nissan Leaf with its 30-kilowatt battery seemed to suit my criteria best. Of course, there are many more choices available today. The journey with a modern EV across Africa would also look completely different.

Did you make any modifications to the vehicle before your departure?

None, except to remove the rear seats to make more space for baggage. The idea was to journey across Africa in a standard/stock electric car available at that time at any dealership.

What was your range, how often did you stop to charge, and was it difficult to find charging stations in most of West Africa?

My strategy in crossing Africa was to drive during the day and charge at night. Sometimes, if electricity was available during lunch breaks, I topped up the battery for an hour or two during the day.

My car’s range varied depending on the driving style. I often had to drive it on one charge for over 250 kilometers. The longest distance I drove was 278 kilometers on one charge in Angola. However, my strategy was not to deplete the battery entirely but to preserve some energy. During the entire trip, I successfully connected the car to an energy source 100 times. The charge time varied from 30 minutes to 30 hours.

Sometimes, I had trouble finding the correct socket that would withstand the overnight charging. I always offered payment for the electricity I was going to use. I once managed to connect and charge from a mobile phone mast.

What West African country was the most challenging?

The Democratic Republic of Congo. The first 40 kilometers in Gabon were the most difficult road of the entire trip in terms of its condition. I also had a lot of trouble in Mauritania and Western Sahara, with minimal sources of electricity and vast distances to cover between them.

What country did you find to be the most developed where electricity was accessible?

Morocco. After the city of Agadir, driving with dedicated charging stations along the way was relatively easy. I even managed to charge once from a fast DC charger.

How long did the trip take you, and how many kilometers did you cover?

I drove 15,176 kilometers from Cape Town to Tanger-Med, and the trip took 97 days, with a few longer stops in Yaounde, Cameroon, and Lagos, Nigeria. I also drove 2,100 kilometers from Barcelona to Poland, which took me three days. During the trip, I used 1,425 kilowatts of electricity which cost me $268. However, at some charging stops, I wasn’t required to pay.

Did you sleep inside the vehicle, in a rooftop tent, or a ground tent, or did you stay in accommodation?

Most of the time, I slept in hotels, hostels, and locals’ homes. At times, I slept in a ground tent near electricity sources such as a petrol station.

What mechanical issues did you encounter during your trip?

I didn’t have any trouble with the car, except for a damaged engine undercover. Considering the length of the journey, challenging roads, a less than adequate charging infrastructure, and the fact that I used a city car with its very limited range, little ground clearance, and standard eco tires, I think the journey was this car’s greatest achievement.

More Adventure Ahead

Of course, Arkady Fiedler isn’t done traveling the world in his minimalist style. He has big plans for the years to come.

You are planning on traveling down the PanAm in January 2023 with Maluch. What modifications will you be making to the vehicle?

I will start the expedition in Chile and drive south to Ushuaia and then to Colombia. Once in Colombia, the car will be shipped back to Poland. The North American leg will continue another time. No major modifications have been made to the car. I have changed a seat for a more comfortable one, the oil pan for an aluminum one (the car is air-cooled, so an aluminum oil pan will help with cooling), and the steering gear for one from a more modern Fiat 126, and improved the drive shaft joints.

Any tips or tricks for someone looking to drive a compact vehicle or an EV for an expedition?

Planning is an essential part of the journey. Taking an EV to remote places, you will need to know how far you can go and where you will have the possibility to charge your vehicle. Know your electricity standards and what sockets are used in specific countries. When you travel in a compact car, plan your route, as your vehicle may not be able to drive on rugged terrain. Have a backup plan and know the alternative routes that can take you to your destination. Don’t be afraid to turn around and retrace your steps.

Social media links:

YouTube – youtube.com/podrodze

Facebook – facebook.com/arkadyfiedler

Instagram – instagram.com/arkady_fiedler

Twitter – twitter.com/arkadyfiedler3

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Luisa Bell has always had a passion for travel, but she never imagined that she would travel the world, with her family, in a self-built Land Rover Defender camper. As the navigator, administrator, and penetrator of bureaucracy, she has led her family to over 65 countries on five continents. Luisa is the wife of Graeme, and their quarter-century together feels like a full century in overlander years. Her two kids and her dog are her pride and joy, and if she could travel with them indefinitely, she would. With a background in immigration law, she has the ability to make the impossible possible and has no plan of settling down or retiring her full-time traveler status. Follow her adventures at www.a2aexpedition.com