Q&A with Arkady Fiedler
Famous Polish traveller Arkady Fiedler has become the first person in history to cross the African continent in a completely standard Nissan LEAF. Louise Woodhams discovers more about his 11,116 mile expedition and what drove him to do it.
What did you do before taking on this challenge?
Travelling is my profession, and I produce films and write books (and sometimes articles) about my adventures, which help to fund them together with any sponsors I obtain. My more notable films, ‘In Maluch Across Africa’ (Maluchem przez Afrykę) and ‘In Maluch Across Asia’ (Maluchem przez Azję) were of when I travelled the whole of Africa and Asia in a Polski Fiat 126p, which is a cultural icon in Poland and has the nickname Maluch, meaning ‘The Little One’ or ‘Toddler’. I also organise overland trips for people who want to experience driving their cars in remote parts of the world, and occasionally I assist them.
Where did your love of travel come from then?
Grandad (my namesake) introduced traveling to our family – he was a famous writer and explorer, and organised over 30 expeditions all over the world during his lifetime. His memory lives on in his home-turned museum in Puszczykowo, near Poznań. I grew up looking at pictures and listening to stories from his travels, as well as reading his books. One particular book became part of the school curriculum in Poland. My father also travels and writes, so it’s in the blood. My environment and surroundings while growing up, gave me the sense that the world was there for me to explore. It definitely contributed to that feeling and so I never felt scared or hesitant to venture out of my comfort zone.
And, where did your love of EVs come from?
My first contact with an EV was in London where I lived for 11 years. It was 2011 and my neighbour had just bought a first generation Nissan LEAF. He struggled to use it as he lived in a flat and had to use extension leads out of his window to charge it and he would have to plan any long trip down to the smallest detail. Rather than putting me off, it got me interested. I looked at him as a pioneer – he was not scared of new technology. There always has to be an early adopter, and to me he was a modern explorer, discovering new ways of mobility. Obviously the infrastructure is now growing and it is becoming easier and easier for people to own EVs.
Just before all of this happened, an interesting journey got my attention. Ten engineering students from Britain tackled the Pan-American Highway – a 15,000-mile journey – in an electric car. The team were called Racing Green Endurance, and they had converted a Radical SR8 to battery electric power to show people that EVs can be quick, cool and go the distance. That expedition would later influence my own electric adventure
Talking of which, you drove a first generation Nissan LEAF with a 30kwh battery and a range of 250 kilometres (155 miles). Why did you decide on this particular model of EV, which is a car designed for urban driving?
I looked at many different cars while preparing for the trip in late 2016 and I had to consider a number of factors. One was the range, second was quality and reliability, and third was energy consumption. At that time, the Nissan LEAF came out on top – now obviously there is a bigger choice of models from other car manufacturers that would have perhaps worked better.
Tesla had just launched the Model X. It had a much better range but it was too expensive. On the other hand, Nissan does not consume as much energy as the Tesla. Also, it would be impossible to charge the Tesla’s battery overnight due to the size of the battery. In order to complete my journey, I had to charge the car almost every night and I would not have been able to charge a battery any bigger than the LEAF’s, as many times the source of energy was so poor. This particular car is a proven model and been manufactured and improved upon since 2010 with sales of over 250,000 worldwide at that time; the reliability of my vehicle was the most important factor for me. It was also the last hurrah for this model, before its successor arrived in late 2017.
Did you modify the LEAF ahead of your Electric Explorer African Challenge?
I bought it brand new in 2017 from a dealership completely standard and that is how it stayed. I like the idea of a journey that you do in a car straight out of the box – and an urban one at that, and prove that it works; you can take it anywhere if you really want.
Did you have any experience in doing long distance trips in the LEAF prior to your expedition?
My idea was to learn from the car to help me discover what I could do with it: how far it could go, how fast I could charge from different outlets and so on. My first test run was around Eastern Poland. Over seven days I drove 2514 kilometres (1562 miles), charged the car’s batteries 16 times, and it cost just 35zl (£7.06). On the last day of the trip (from Cisna to Puszczykowo), I travelled 724 kilometres (450 miles), charging the car three times (two of those to 100 per cent).
Every night I charged the batteries from a regular domestic power source at our overnight accommodation, and then topped up on the road during lunch breaks. The range of the car positively surprised me. When driving economically, at a speed of about 60km/h (37mph) and taking into consideration any elevations in the ground, I was able to reach the official 250 kilometres (155 miles) range on a single charge, with an additional reserve of 10 to 20 kilometres (6 to 12 miles). On average, during the test run, energy consumption was 11.1 kWh per 100km (62 miles).
It proved to be an interesting experience for me. At first, the differences were immediately obvious, with the lack of engine noise and no gearing, but gradually, these differences became an ally, and I found them enjoyable. I was learning about the car and I liked the ideology behind it – there are no tailpipe emissions obviously and it produces less noise pollution, so overall it’s much better for the environment.
How many kilometres had you clocked up then, before you left for your travels?
Just over 10,000km (6214 miles), during which time I mostly charged from zero to full, trying to use AC chargers or directly from a household socket to prolong the battery’s lifespan, and I was more than pleased with how it was holding up with no signs of degradation whatsoever. These kilometres gave me the chance to get to know the car, what to anticipate on the road, to gain confidence, to learn, in a sense how to drive, in order to reach my destination – all essential for my trip through Africa.
That aforementioned trip crossing the length of Americas got my attention. I had heard of EVs traversing Europe and Asia, but I did not know of anyone who had crossed Africa, so I thought it would be interesting to see if it was plausible.
I am very passionate about exploring, but in today’s world we follow other people’s steps, and while crossing Africa in a car has been done before, no one had driven it in one powered by electricity. To me, that was extraordinary, but it also meant I could not ask for any advice, I had to learn for myself.
On the one side, it was about the experience of doing something for the first time, but on the other side, breaking stereotypes about EVs – that they can work and it is up to the driver what he or she does with it. I thought it would also be interesting to introduce a differently fuelled vehicle to Africa – many people did not know such cars existed and I thought if they liked it, maybe it will spark an interest in their mind and that sometime in the future EVs will reach Africa. I think that is important. People in Lagos, Nigeria, were very interested and believed such a car would work there.
Did you have to plan the route in meticulous detail beforehand? What apps did you use to find EV chargers?
I spent over a year researching before embarking on my trip. When I did the test run in Poland I used a few phone apps – namely PlugShare and ChargedMap – that proved to be useful, however apart from two in Cape Town and the next one after 14000 km in Marrakech in Morocco, there were not any EV chargers on the way.
That meant I had to charge from a variety of sources. As many homes don’t have electricity when I was planning my route I was pinpointing towns within the car’s range that might have hotels. I looked at online maps, satellite photos and the location of electricity cables. I also had to ensure I did not completely deplete the battery, because if I only had access to a 6 amp socket, it would take over 20 hours to charge. I aimed to have 40 per cent at the end of each day but sometimes I had to cover long stretches, and on those days I would end up with zero range so I had to wait longer for it to charge.
What other preparations did you make?
The car required various documents such as a Carnet de Passages en Douane (CPD), which is a customs form that identifies a traveller's vehicle. I also had to research any insurance issues, as European policies are not valid in some countries. Fortunately, having already crossed two continents, I knew what I was doing when it came to paperwork.
Personally, I did not pack much, just two changes of clothes, same for the photographer, Albert Wójtowicz, who I hired and accompanied me for most of the trip. He had also previously travelled and worked with me during my first trip across Africa in 2014, and across Asia in 2016 and his role was to photographically document this journey, so he obviously had his camera gear, too. Other than that, I had 60 metres of different extension leads, charging cables and many different adaptors. In total, I was probably carrying an extra 100kg.
Were you not tempted to take a power generator?
No, although it crossed my mind in some of the places that I had pinpointed where I knew I would struggle with the charging infrastructure, but there was only five places like that, in Sahara desert for example. Besides, I would have to carry it around with me and the weight would limit the range, so it was not worth it. Instead, I decided to count on local power sources and hospitality. In one of villages, I used a local power generator, and in another a mobile phone mast.
What were people’s reactions to the car during your travels? Were they reluctant to let you consume their electricity?
From a distance, the car looked normal, but as I got closer, it was then apparently obvious it was not making a noise or emitting any fumes, and people wondered why this was so it sparked a lot of discussion.
People were surprised that I could not remove the battery to then charge in my room, and that I had to use metres of cable on some occasions. They thought it would cost them a lot of money and more than what I was offering – which for most part was almost three times more. Obviously, they don’t know that so they had to trust me, but every time I managed to convince them and the owner was happy. People were so generous and without their help, I could not have continued my journey.
The only trouble I had was in a hotel in Morocco. I had pre-agreed with the owner I was charging overnight and paid in advance but someone kept disconnecting the cable from the electrical socket throughout the night. The next day I had to sit next to my car and wait while it charged.
So, what was the infrastructure like in terms of how powerful the sockets were that you charged from?
On the whole, the infrastructure was okay – only once I tripped the fuses. My biggest challenge in terms of sourcing power was in Angola, sometimes I had to wait for electricity as during the day there was none, and even then, it would appear at 8.00 pm say, to then often stop working after an hour. It required a lot of patience!
Most of the countries in West Africa are French speaking so that was also a challenge at the beginning, but I did learn a few sentences that covered various topics about charging and EVs. Most people thought two to three hours was enough to charge a car, much like a mobile phone, so it was difficult trying to get them to understand that I sometimes needed an entire night, and that it was safe to do so.
Installations were very poor at times, I had to frequently charge from domestic sockets and unlike the UK, which use 13 amp, in Africa you are lucky to get 6 or 8 amp. Some were not earthed either, which the car did not like.
What was your strategy in terms of maximising range then?
I had to learn how to drive more efficiently, especially in conditions that would drain the battery but that were also in my control. The most important thing was to learn how to tackle any hills. That meant getting up enough speed as possible downhill, so that I could use the momentum to get me up hill, without killing the speed too much and range. This technique at low speeds was much more effective than using regenerative systems. Regenerative systems helped at higher speeds.
On many occasions, I managed to drive over 260km (162 miles) on one charge, with a record of reaching 278km (172 miles) on a single charge with some energy still left in the battery. When I topped up the next day to 100 per cent, I had 300km (186 miles) of range, which is all down to driving style. On a few occasions, I had no choice but to test the car to its absolute limit, fighting for every last kilometre of range to reach my next location.
Did you ever want to give up at times?
Yes, I had thoughts like that often – it was very tiring at times, especially travelling through one stretch of road between Congo and Gabon. It was only 280km but it took me four days to pass due to the rain, mud and lack of electrical grid. The road was challenging for 4x4s, never mind a Nissan LEAF and even the locals told me it would be impossible to pass with a car like mine. At one point, I was so close to giving up that I considered going back to the Dolisie in Republic of Congo, at the start if this long track, but then some people helped me to find a source of energy in their village and it gave me the strength to continue.
I also had personal struggles within myself in the scorching heat of the Sahara desert towards the end where it is difficult to reach anywhere. Looking back, I can now say it was all a great adventure as those struggles – which I overcame – will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Travelling must have also taken its toll on the vehicle – did you have to make repairs to it while on the road?
The LEAF suffered from a few dents and even more scratches, the under engine protective casing came loose, but other than that I had no issues. The quality of the car surprised me. I was so afraid that if something did happen I would struggle without the correct diagnostic equipment to connect to the car’s computer, but it did not fail me. When I came back to Europe, I had it serviced and the only thing they changed was the cabin filter. In total, I crossed through 14 countries in 97 days, covering 15176km (9430 miles) in Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Mauretania, Morocco). I charged the car exactly 100 times, used 1425 kWh of electricity on average 9.5 kWh per 100km (62 miles) and in total I paid around £178 for electricity usage. Additionally, in Europe I covered 2100km (746 miles) and travelled through Spain, France, Germany and Poland.
Any highlights from your travels?
Plenty, every day was a highlight, when you are travelling overland through Africa, especially at a slow pace as it allows you to experience the beauty of the landscape. Every single country is different, not just in terms of the scenery but the culture and people. It was such a fantastic experience. The feeling of reaching my planned point at the end of each day was so rewarding, knowing that my plan was working, and that would then push me on to the next destination. The biggest highlight was the genuine hospitality and kindness I received from strangers. It restored my faith in humanity.
How many kilometres does your car have now and are there any signs of degradation?
I have covered 30,000km (18,642 miles) and the battery is at 90 per cent, so not bad.
What are your top tips for anyone who wants to cover long distances in an EV?
It depends on where you are going. In Europe, the infrastructure is getting better every day. It is very important you plan your journey and think about your car’s limitations. Even with the newer models you still have to think about how much time you will spend charging, which will depend of course on the rate of the charger and if it is available. Some charging networks require RFID cards, so it can be quite frustrating if you find yourself at a charger without one. At least with an app you can download it at the charging point. The distance you want to cover between charges is important, too – learn how to drive so you can get to your destination. You have to change your driving style depending on how many kilometres – or miles – you want to cover, and adapt it to different conditions such as motorways or twisty B roads with steep inclines and declines, for example.
What was your objective in doing the trip?
To reach the end of Africa first and foremost, but I also wanted to break some stereotypes about electric cars. Talking to people before the trip usually had the same reaction – how are you going to do that in a car with a 60 mile range. Obviously, EVs today – and even then – have a much bigger range, and it goes to show there are still a huge number of common misconceptions about electric vehicles. People create their own barriers within themselves – the EV isn’t a barrier, it’s their thinking.
I’m delighted to be joining you on the EV panel at The London Motor & Tech Show from 16 to 19 May at Excel in London. Is that your next big trip? Do have any plans after that?
I am on the EV panel Car at show for four days and I will be making the trip down in my LEAF, which will be on display and look as it did when I finished my expedition – it’s 1300km (808 miles) which is my longest journey this year. Currently I am working on a book where I describe the whole journey in more detail. You can also expect a short film on my YouTube channel documenting my trip. Please visit my social media channels for updates:
And, one final question, will you ever own an internal combustion engine car again?
After several months of driving the LEAF, I have to say that the car won me over and I cannot see myself returning to a traditional combustion engine car. That excludes the Maluch, which continues to remain a huge part of me, but I mean a modern internal combustion car, which now seems to me to be a technologically outdated vehicle. I have passion for those cars but it is a hobby. For everyday use, ethics and morals – my next car will be an EV.
Driving in the city, and locally, my LEAF is simply unbeatable. During longer trips, driving can be a challenge, mainly due to a lack of fast charging facilities and having a far smaller range compared to the traditional car – unless you can afford something like the Tesla. The idea that I do not poison the environment wins every time, even at the expense of being on the road for a few hours longer.