Another year, another Spirit of Africa shootout in the red (or grassed, this year, after the good rains) dunes of the Kalahari. For a variation on the theme we followed the fortunes of a team from George…
The Kafue National Park is Africa’s second largest national park after the 36 000-square kilometre Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, covering more than 22 400 sq km and harbouring the greatest diversity of mammals of all the conservation areas on the continent.
Fouche Meyers could have kicked himself. There he and navigator Danie Folscher were, heading for a place in the finals of the 2006 Spirit of Africa competition, and then he blew it.
In the very last exercise of the day, the object being to go as high up a Kalahari sand dune as possible, he did not approach the run with enough momentum.
The Mitsubishi Rodeo double-cab 4×4 bogged down too soon and what could have been 100 points became a mere 30, the loss being just enough to move them out of the top 12 scores up to that point. The fact that a possible withdrawal among the finalists might see the pair from George move back in was small comfort.
“I would have liked to have earned it,” Fouche said. But he and Danie wouldn’t have missed the semi-finals for anything. That’s the spirit of the Spirit of Africa competition.
“It was excellent! Unsurpassable! Next year we’ll be there again,” said Fouche after his disappointment had abated.
The Spirit of Africa competition needs little introduction to regular readers. The brainchild of rally legend Sarel van der Merwe, it aims to find the country’s most accomplished off-road driver and navigator – with the support of Mitsubishi Motors and other sponsors.
“It is a challenge of skill and determination that will appeal both to the man in the street and the serious competitor,” Sarel said. “This year I made the driving tests about 20% more difficult. The driving needed to be more technical, and the obstacles were longer.
“There was also far greater navigator involvement. For instance, competitors got pace notes similar to those used in rallies for the faster sections, and there was greater use of global positioning systems.”
This year over 300 crews turned up for the national elimination contest in the Kalahari held in 2-day sessions between 22 May and 23 July, compared with 188 last year. All competed in identical Mitsubishi Rodeo Extreme double cabs.
The particular semi-final session Leisure Wheels visited was also attended by a group of friends from George. They might have been buddies, but that didn’t make them less competitive when the days of reckoning came… To put another slant on our article this year we decided to concentrate on one particular team. Car numbers were put in the proverbial hat, and out came number four – the team of Fouche Meyers and Danie Folscher.
It was a lucky draw from a reporting point of view. It was soon obvious that Fouche and Danie, winners of the first 4×4 Eco Challenge in 2004, were among the top competitors on the day and stood a good chance of making it to the finals.
Fouche, an independent financial adviser, and Danie, a surgeon, have known each other from the first day at primary school – some 34 years ago. Both are married with children, love the outdoors and off-roading, and jumped at the chance to do the Spirit event.
“I do the driving, and Danie navigates. He’s unperturbable, not easily stressed, and a diplomat.”
The group arrived at about 16h00 on the Friday at a game farm near Askam to be briefed on the sleeping and showering arrangements, and to receive their documentation from Danielle van der Merwe. After settling in, contestants met Sarel and the rest of the crew in the lapa to find out more about the programme for the next two days. To allow the teams to get used to the gearing, power and torque characteristics of the Mitsubishi Rodeos and the consistency of the dunes, the organisers led the convoy on a tortuous route. It included most of the conditions competitors would encounter, such as sharp corners followed by steep inclines, where you could not rely on pure momentum. Then it was off to obstacle number one:
As the name suggests, it was done in reverse, around a number of awkwardly placed poles (minus 20 seconds if touched) and up a sandy incline. Best time scores 100.
Danie hung out the window, shouting instructions. “The problem was that he was obscuring the side mirror in the process and I couldn’t quite see where I was going,” Fouche complained – without malice. After all, they had the fastest time behind their names…
With a tally of 80 out of a possible 100 in the second exercise, things were looking good, but exercise three, The Navigator, was to be a tough one. With the GPS set on its timer function, teams had to pass certain points on the route at exactly the right time – every second early or late meant penalties. We decided to join them and record the conversation: Danie: “We must just drive a good pace, and if we’re early, stop before the obstacle until it’s time.” Fouche: “Be careful that the GPS doesn’t fall off the dashboard. Rather hold it in your hand.” Danie: “You just concentrate on the driving.” Fouche: “I need to pee. Again…”
The first point arrives after the cut-off time, and it’s panic stations. “Nothing we can do now – just drive as quickly as possible to make up time,” Danie advises. Fouche tries a tad too hard, the Mitsubishi jumps the tracks and bogs down in the soft sand. They need to reverse for a second attempt up the incline. The score – 35 out of a possible 100. Teams one, two and nine were all wellplaced at this stage, and the suspense was tangible.
The next exercise, a race against time, saw our team in a confidence-boosting second place overall – 90 points the reward, but after the next Fouche is despondent again. “The handbrake was still on when I pulled off,” he says, rather sheepishly. “And I shouldn’t have listened to the advice of the official at the start of the stage. I should have done it in low range, which I’m used to in sand, instead of high range first.”
The next exercise bagged them 50 points, but after a best-to-date lap record in Whiplash, another pedal-to-the-metal test, Fouche and Danie were confident again. “It made up for all the other disappointments,” Fouche said simply. It’s hard to describe that sensation of accomplishment when you’ve beaten the best…
Confidence back, the team scored 80, 100 and 90 respectively for the last three exercises of the day, but were still 157 points adrift of the leaders, George automotive dealer Johan Engelbrecht and his navigator, Johan Campion. Going about their job quietly and confidently – and with obvious sanddriving skills and experience – they did not top-score in every task but scored consistently well, which is the key to success in this competition.
Four tasks remained on the Sunday, and with a possible 400 points to be had, anything could still happen. “And it usually does,” as famous Formula One commentator Murray Walker was fond of saying. In this case, though, it didn’t. The 30 out of 100 points in the last task cost our team a place among the final 12. They ended 152 points behind Engelbrecht and Campion.
The latter’s total of 1153 points placed them third in the overall standings up to that stage, pretty much ensuring them a place in the finals.
The semis were still in progress at the time of writing and the final results are still to be announced. The finals will be held in the Namib Desert, with the event starting in Kimberley on 28 August 2006.