Heading off into the great wild 4×4 yonder, several ingredients have to be mixed together to ensure that you arrive at your destination, and then safely home again. And one of the most important ingredients, especially if you go to a rough and tough place like the Namib Desert, is ground clearance.
Oh, what a beautiful, wondrous place the Namib Desert is. But navigating this spectacular but tough sea of sand offers some unique driving challenges; challenges that could turn your dream overland trip into a proper nightmare.
Some of the Namib dunes stand hundreds of metres high. The only way to scale them is by employing a generous helping of right foot. In other words, contrary to the normal 4×4 ethos of ‘as slow as possible, as fast as necessary’ the modus operandi of driving a 4×4 in the Namib changes completely: it’s often more a case of ‘as fast as possible, as slow as necessary’.
In some instances, you have to reach speeds in excess of 100km/h when you arrive at the start of a climb to stand any chance of reaching the crest, and successfully scaling the large heap of sand.
However, more speed equals more risk. Hitting the base of the dune at 140km/h there is inevitably an angle of sorts to negotiate as you start climbing. And at that speed your 4×4’s suspension compresses as you hit the climb, so the clearance between the front bumper and the dune becomes even less, increasing the chance of damage.
Rewind a few years back to the Namib Desert.
We were in a convoy of 4×4s, making our way through this amazing place. There were several soft-roaders in the line-up, including an Audi Q7 3.0TDI Quattro. With plenty of horsepower and torque, the near-standard Audi (it had all-terrain tyres fitted) did an exceptional job in the sand.
In some places, the limited ground clearance and not-so-flattering approach and departure angles caused the drivers to plot a route of less resistance through the sand, with plenty of right foot dragging the German SUV through the sand.
The Audi managed very well, it must be said.
At least, that was until a momentary lapse of concentration behind the wheel, and a skelm little dune, with a steep, hidden slip face. The Audi arrived at the dune too fast. Audi went over the crest too fast, Audi nose-dived down the slip face and hit the sand. Audi’s front bumper was ripped apart.
The long and short of it is that, if the Audi had had more ground clearance, as well as a better approach angle, it may not have picked up the same damage, despite the driver erring.
On a pukka 4×4, this can rectified by fitting an aftermarket suspension, which provides about 50mm more ground clearance. Of course, such as suspension also provides improved off-road driving performance. And, an aftermarket bull bar will greatly enhance any 4×4’s approach angle, which is a great benefit in the Namib.
That said, lifting your 4×4 by 300mm (so that it looks like a spider running on the sand) is also not ideal – a higher centre of gravity will mean your vehicle may be more inclined to take a rest on its roof if you get a fast turn wrong. So best find the ideal compromise for your specific vehicle between ground clearance, approach and other angles, as well as handling and braking performance.
And if you drive an Audi Q7? Then you can still go surprisingly far in the desert. Just watch out for those skelm little dunes.
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Ask your local 4×4 expert about the suspension solution for your specific needs and vehicle. Also remember, fitting a heavy bull bar on a bakkie with standard suspension will improve its approach angle, but it may also have a detrimental effect on the braking and handling performance of the vehicle.