Fancy aids and electronics aren’t always a good thing. In fact, in an extreme off-road environment they can become a real irritation. For this reason, I prefer an old-school 4×4 such as the Nissan Patrol.
Back in the old day, planes didn’t boast fancy navigational equipment, which meant that pilots were forced to fly by the seat of their pants – using their experience and instincts.
Venturing into the Namib Desert in a 4×4 always reminds me of those early pilots. As with an old plane, a 4×4 driver suddenly needs to call on his experience and skill when traversing high dunes. Modern aids and electronics are no help. In fact, these gizmos can actually be a hindrance. Things such as traction control, hill descent control and ABS can trip you up in loose sand. Even diff locks can cause you to lose a tyre in the dunes if you don’t know what you’re doing.
In my experience, all these fancy modern aids don’t serve much of a purpose in the desert. When it comes to serious off-road driving, only two things truly count: the skill of the driver and the fundamental 4×4 ability of the vehicle. The driver not only needs to know what he’s doing but he also has to be very familiar with his vehicle. He must know its strengths and shortcomings.
Many years ago, I drove a VW Syncro, and had plenty of fun exploring the Namibian landscape in it. The vehicle was surprisingly capable. It performed very well on gravel roads, and even traversed dry riverbeds without hassle. Its only real weakness was a lack of ground clearance, but a slight suspension lift and chunky all-terrain tyres fixed the problem.
This is something I’ve always struggled to understand: why do manufacturers hobble capable off-road vehicles with insufficient ground clearance and low-profile tyres? I’ve asked automotive engineers about this over the years (they often show up in Namibia to test their vehicles in the harsh environment) and they have always given me the same answer: the vast majority of owners will never tackle anything more extreme than a smooth gravel road, so setting up the vehicle for tar performance just makes more sense.
Of course, low-profile tyres are now more popular than ever, and I often have to go in search of odd-sized tyres in the middle of nowhere during my guided trips.
Thankfully, I have been driving a Nissan Patrol for the last few years. It is particularly well suited to the Namibian environment. Although it is plush and comfortable, it is also a basic “nuts and bolts” 4×4, with impressive off-road underpinnings.
The Patrol is considered a luxury SUV, but it is one of the few 4x4s that still boasts a solid front axle. Vehicles with independent suspension often “bottom out” off road because the wheels press upwards, leaving the undercarriage low and exposed. In contrast, a 4×4 with solid axles has the ability to maintain its ground clearance, pushing the chassis upwards as the axle lifts.
But it’s not just the Patrol’s suspension that makes it such a formidable off-road vehicle. It also boasts excellent ground clearance, a rear diff lock and a very robust chassis. It remains one of the best overlanders in the business.