The drama of the Spirit of Africa competition, designed to find the country’s best 4×4 driver and navigator, again unfolded in the towering dunes of the Namib. And again it was proved that a cool head and consistency far outweigh the occasional burst of brilliance
Text by: Johann van Loggerenberg
Photography by: Phillip van Zyl, Jannie Herbst, Johann van Loggerenberg
People might say that the 2006 Spirit of Africa winner, Piet Kotze, had a distinct advantage. After all, he grew up in the Kalahari dunes in the Northern Cape’s Olifantshoek region, where he still farms.
But then, as some of the favourites after the Kalahari semis found to their detriment, the sand of the Namib differs vastly from that of the Kalahari.
In the latter, traction is definitely better. And you could get away with a small mistake – low range instead of high, perhaps, or a momentary lift of the right foot when you needed to keep it down. The Namib, however, takes no prisoners. An error of judgment, a wrong line, a patch of soft sand, and forward motion stops.
Yes, he had experience of sand driving, but it was in different sand from that of the desert. The ace Piet had up his sleeve was that he was highly motivated. “I went out there to do well. I tried to keep a cool head, and to be consistent.” And it paid off for the winners of the grand prize – a trip to the 2007 Dakar Rally.
As before, the Spirit of Africa focused unashamedly on driver skills, and racing against the clock. Organiser Sarel van der Merwe makes no excuses about it. The tests are held in the shifting dunes of the Namib, where the wind quickly obliterates all tracks, leaving the desert as pristine as ever, so the contestants could unleash their offroad racing skills…
Despite a late start in the year, the Spirit of Africa competition attracted some 250 two-person teams to the semi-finals in the Kalahari. The top 12 teams earned an all-inclusive 12-day trip to the heart of the Namib Desert, during which they had to pit their driving and navigational skills against each other and the towering, treacherous dunes of the world’s oldest desert.
The Spirit also had its first all-black team, physiotherapist Zolile Mtimkulu from Pretoria and Durban’s Noel Stapelfeldt, who scored the fifth-highest points in the Kalahari semis.
The final event started in the diamond city of Kimberley, from where the convoy took the R64 through Griquatown to pick up the N10 to Upington and eventually Kakamas, where camp was made at the Khamkirri campsite and the competitors had their first bash at pitching the Campmor dome tents.
Campmor’s Tom Mellon designed new tents for this year’s final – they are now tall enough for a person to stand up in while putting his pants on! (Sure beats lying on your back to do so, or risking falling face first onto the floor when trying this manoeuvre from a crouched position.)
The following day the route continued on the N14 past Pofaddder – which few of the competitors had seen before – through Springbok and due north to the Vioolsdrif/ Noordoewer border post into Namibia.
The crossing went smoothly, and the convoy of 20 vehicles stopped at the BP service station (BP is the fuel sponsor) to refuel with BP Cleaner Diesel.
After a roadside lunch it was a short drive to Aussenkehr, where the overnight facility was the Norotshama River Resort.
Everyone was expecting the event to start in the desert, so there was a stunned silence, and a few ashen faces, when Sarel announced that the first challenge was to be held that afternoon, and that competitors had to unpack their vehicles as quickly as possible.
“No guts, no glory” was the name of the exercise, and the challenge was a dune. If the competitor didn’t make it to the top, he was eliminated until only four remained to earn the lion’s share of the points.
Top score went to Team 8 – Piet Kotze and his nephew, Coenraad.
The car numbers were in order of the points the teams scored in the Kalahari semis, and top of the log were two Namibians, Jurgens Liebenberg and Johan (Muis) von Wielligh, a farmer from Mariental and car salesman from Windhoek respectively.
They had met when Jurgens walked into the Mitsubishi dealership in Windhoek to buy a bakkie. Muis was the salesman, and they became friends. When the 2006 Spirit of Africa competition was announced, Muis convinced Jurgens to enter – and they ended up with the highest score of all the semifinalists.
Incidentally, not one of last year’s finalists who entered the semi-finals made it into the top 12 this year, emphasising the quality and skills of the 2006 competitors who had to face tasks some 25% more difficult than those a year earlier.
From Aussenkehr, a large-scale wine farm on the banks of the Orange River that exports grapes to Europe (part of the success story is that the table grapes ripen much earlier than those in the Cape and even Upington) the convoy continued to Lüderitz. This was the last overnight stop before going into the desert itself, and the last chance to sleep in a soft bed, at the Obelix Village in town.
Team 6 had reason to celebrate. Driver George Spies, a farmer from Harrismith, celebrated his 40th birthday and with no tasks planned for the next day, everyone (well, almost) joined in the festivities.
The next morning the convoy left for the desert, driving back towards Aus on tar for some 20km before turning north on a sand road, past mountains of solid basalt rock and into the dune straights – a hard-surfaced valley with dunes on either side running parallel to the sea.
Leading the charge was concession holders Coastways Tour’s Wittes Beukes, who loves to take the mickey out of Land Rover owners, and came armed with a wealth of information on the area.
We learn via the 2-way radio that the “renosterbos” is poisonous for all game except the rhinoceros after which it is named; that the red succulents spread over the valley are called “bloedvingers” (blood fingers) because they do look like that, and that the Namib recently had 140mm of rain in a week, compared to an annual average of 17mm (in a good year).
Which means the desert is probably greener than it will be in the next 50 years, with tufts of grass giving the normally barren earth a green sheen.
To get to Saddle Hill on the coast the convoy has to turn west again, and tackle the sand dunes proper. All signs of vegetation disappear and for most competitors this becomes a very steep learning curve. The Mitsubishi double cabs are heavily loaded with fridges, water, tents and food, and quite often a competitor has to reverse for a second try at the dune. Drivers soon learn the number one rule of convoy driving in sand: make sure that the vehicle ahead is through the obstacle before attempting it yourself, otherwise you may just fly over a blind rise and into the rear of a stuck vehicle.
It takes over five hours to cover the 145km to Saddle Hill, an old mining camp on the coast, the remaining buildings of which have been converted into a dining/cooking/kuiering area, and a couple of bedrooms and bathrooms.
Flushing toilets are a luxury (last year a pit latrine had to do) and the organisers have also rigged up gas-heated showers, so competitors were to live in relative luxury for the next four days.
On the Sunday morning Sarel and his team had to go out and plot new exercises, with the wind having played havoc. “In fact at a place where we wanted the vehicles to go over one dune, we found two dunes when we went back,” said Sarel. “The wind had blown a hole through the middle. Our markers were scattered all over the place.”
Fortunately the wind had subsided by the time the convoy arrived, and the breeze came from inland to provide quite pleasant evening temperatures. When it blows from the sea, the mercury can dip close to zero – and that doesn’t include the wind chill factor.
Four exercises were planned for the day, setting the scene for the rest of the 4-day competition in the desert.
The first, Road Runner, involved the navigator as much as the driver, and required logic and good forward planning. There were five controls en route, each of which had to be reached at an exact time – The first at the 16-second mark, the second at 46 seconds and so forth, with points deducted for each second early or late.
On downhills, the driver could stop and wait for the clock to tick away before passing the marker at exactly the right time, but the uphill sections posed a problem. If you didn’t have enough momentum you could get stuck, and if you had too much you arrived early.
Team 1, the Namibians, top scores with 70 out of a possible 100.
A race against the clock follows, with stiff penalties for touching markers. Wollie Wolmarans and Kobus Koch from Upington show the others a clean pair of heels.
Then there’s a hill climb, highest up wins. First place to Sedgefield’s Mario Ferreira and Henri Terblance. Another speed test, this time on smaller dunes. Again Mario and Henri. Overall the Olifantshoek pairing, Piet and Coenraad, leads at the end of the day. Is a pattern emerging? With three days and 10 similar tasks remaining, it’s hard to say. Consistency will be the key, as Piet Kotze and a team from George, Hennie Karsten and Maarten Venter, are already proving.
A recovery exercise the next day spells disaster for the only husband-and-wife team, Anthony and Anna Suter from East London, who have been doing well up to now.
Half of the vehicles get buried up to their chassis in sand, and the other six have to do the recovery with snatch straps. Quickest out wins.
In the rush they forget to move the seat forward so that Anna can reach the pedals to get power to the wheels, and the result is a dismal 30 points out of a possible 100. “I was so cross that I kept messing things up the rest of the day,” said Anthony, who eventually ended fifth.
The Sedgefield pair stay in contention throughout the competition, winning four exercises and scoring high in three more, but a couple of 20-pointers result in Mario and Henri slipping to fourth overall – 100 points behind the leaders.
The Nemesis for Upington’s Wollie and Kobus is a high dune, described as “Evil Knievel High Climb – one chance only”. Their score is nought, and in the end their possible fourth becomes a sixth place.
Jurgens Liebenberg was starting to find his sand feet (although a Namibian, this was his very first Namib driving experience), while Hennie and Maarten were breathing down their necks, vying for second place.
Having been in the lead after the second day, the George engineer admitted that towards the end he was simply trying too hard and driving too fast, touching markers and losing valuable points. He and Maarten had to be satisfied with third – although R10 000 in prize money did soften the blow.
In front Piet and Coenraad were moving into a class of their own from exercise seven onwards – scoring 97, 90, and four 100s in a row. Despite a 60 in the penultimate test and 40 in the last, a gymkhana on a slippery salt pan near Port Nolloth, the farmer from Olifantshoek emerges with a lead of 115 points over Namibia’s Jurgens and Muis, who won R30 000 for their efforts.
As mentioned, Piet and Coenraad won the grand prize of a trip to the start of the Dakar, and being a cattle farmer, Piet won’t find anything too pressing at work to keep him from taking up his prize, which he’s looking forward to very much.
Nobody left empty-handed. Apart from the absolutely extraordinary Namib experience and camaraderie, every team received a Warn M8000H winch to the value of R8550 with the compliments of Safari Centre and Warn.
The winners of the various exercises also received Safari Centre gift vouchers, which in total amounted to R2500.