Johan recently joined the Faces of the Namib trip with Uri Adventures and Live the Journey. There was a convoy of seven vehicles. The youngest member of the group was two years old and the oldest 74. Here’s what happened…
Seldom does one have the opportunity to visit the dunes of the Namib with such a diverse party. It was something quite special.
There was a Cruiser, an Isuzu, an automatic Hilux, a manual Hilux and a Land Rover Defender. I was driving the eight-speed automatic Amarok.
The composition of the group had its own challenges for guide Simon and his two assistants, Johnny and Johnny. How do you keep young kids interested without boring the older folk? How and when do you serve them meals? To what extent can you push everyone in the group to enable them to get the most out of the wonderful trip?
The Uri guides are masters at facilitating people. They are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Serving three meals a day, informing the party about the scientific issues of the desert on the two-way radios, digging in the sand to find a Namib dune gecko – all of this is part of a day’s work.
We were thoroughly entertained from the first evening at the Solitaire Guest Farm all the way to the last dinner at the Walvis Bay Waterfront. But that does not tell the whole story of a Faces of the Namib trip. The real issue, everyone will tell you, is about the performance of the vehicles in the dunes. And that begs the question – is it about the gun or the gunner?
The first issue is about the difference between petrol and diesel engines. But this is actually an unfair question, as there is no comparison in these circumstances. In the dunes you need petrol. All diesel engines will struggle. Yet most of the vehicles in our party were diesel!
The second issue is the question of automatic or manual gearboxes. This now gets a little complicated. Ten years ago it was not an issue – go manual. Leave the automatic vehicles at home. Is this still the case? How well do the new automatic gearboxes perform in the dunes?
A third issue is a little more problematic. Because of the nature of dune driving, and because of the challenges of the Namib, Uri Adventures don’t allow vehicles without low range to do the trip. This prevents vehicles such as the Kia, Evoque and Freelander from attempting Faces of the Namib, or the longer journey from Luderitz to Walvis Bay. A trip through the Namib is for serious 4x4s.
But what about the new Amarok? It has no low range. I recently completed a trip through some of the most difficult parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the Amarok. Those are roads that demand a serious 4×4. An exception was made.
Simon slowly introduced us to the demands of the Namib. Many drivers were tackling the dunes for the first time. Philip and his friend Dennis, who came all the way from Durban to do the trip, were under the impression that they would travel over a few minor dunes. Nothing prepared them for the massive slip faces and serious obstacles that a five-day trip from Solitaire to Walvis Bay would pose.
Frank and his father, Billy, knew that the Defender, with its 2.4 litre Puma engine, would struggle, yet they were prepared to give it a go in spite of an avalanche of Land Rover jokes that greeted them at the start. Then there were Calla and Annemi in their Cruiser pick-up with its Aha canopy; Ben with his Hilux D4D with an auto box, and Andries, his wife Carmé and their two young boys in their brand new Isuzu. None of them had even been down a slip face.
I had done some dune driving before. On the second Voetspore expedition, Voetspore op die Strand, we travelled from Luderitz to Walvis Bay. Later on I had a few more opportunities to tackle the Namib. But there is always something new. It requires concentration and awareness.
Simon allowed us to get used to the terrain, as well as to our vehicles’ response to the challenges of the Namib. He also judged the driving skills of the individuals so that he could challenge us to get the most out of our vehicles.
During previous visits I’d had no doubt that succeeding in the dunes was all about driving ability. Gear selection is crucial. One needs to make your decision on which gear will be best for a particular obstacle way in advance.
In the Namib, momentum is everything. Should you be in the wrong gear halfway up a dune, there is no opportunity to change into a lower or higher gear. You will lose momentum. You will not make it to the top, and a second or third attempt will be necessary. This is all about the “gunner”. He needs to know how to manage his “gun” to get the most out of it.
The guys with the manual gearboxes were going through all the options – four low, two high, three low for momentum, changing to two low at the foot of the dune… The automatic boxes were different. These gearboxes allow you to drive them manually, but only up to a certain level. Try to select a gear like second and charge a dune. Once the rev counter goes past 4000 the gearbox changes to third gear. If you keep on increasing speed in third gear and it once again goes past 4000 revs it will switch to fourth. The Amarok’s gearbox will not allow you to damage it.
This is when I decided to drive the Amarok in full automatic.
Dune driving is getting much easier. It is still all about momentum, but in an automatic, gear selection is taken care off. Anybody can do it. Gearing down happens so quickly you hardly notice it. There is very little, if any, loss of momentum.
There is one small issue: the gearbox cannot see ahead. It doesn’t know what is coming. In manual mode, one can change down a little quicker than you can in full automatic mode. But this is such a minor issue it became negligible on our trip.
So is it about the gun or the gunner? I am convinced that the gun is getting more and more important. New technology, such as that in the Amarok with its eight-speed auto box and no low range, is making it possible for more and more people to enjoy the wonders of the Namib, their driving abilities notwithstanding.