Sand paradise

Text: Danie Botha
Photography: Jannie Herbst

July, 2010. Walvis Bay, Namibia.

We are at Uri Adventures’ headquarters, nestled in the outskirts of the harbour town. Across the table sits Eben Delport, one of the most experienced Namib tour guides around. He’s a real go-to man when it comes to the Skeleton Coast and the desert. He’s seen it all, and done it all.

From past experience we know that Eben is an unruffled kind of fellow. He never gets overly excited, or loses his composure.

These are very good qualities to possess. Dunes standing hundreds of metres high are not challenges to be taken lightly. This can be a dangerous business, if you get it wrong.

Leading a convoy of 4x4s, some with inexperienced drivers, over these massive heaps of sand, demands that calm and collected demeanor in a tour guide.

And here is Eben, sitting across the table from us. Do I detect a nervous twitch in his left eye? He takes a moment to formulate his answer: “Bring them. We’ll get them through. Just, er? give me that list again?” He grabs a pen, and we give him another rundown of “the list”:

Audi Q7 3.0TDI quattro; GWM Hover 2.5TCi 4×4; Land Rover Discovery 5.0 V8 HSE; Lexus LX570; Mercedes-Benz GL500; Mitsubishi Pajero 3.2Di-D; Mitsubishi Pajero Sport 3.2Di-D; Nissan Patrol 4.8GRX Tiptronic; Nissan Pathfinder 2.5dCi LE; SsangYong Rexton 2.7XDi AT; Toyota Prado VX 3.0D4-D; Toyota Fortuner 3.0D-4D 4×4; And a Volvo XC90 D5.

“Mmm. That’s interesting. And how many of these vehicles have low-range gearing?” Eben asks, staring at the names in his notebook.

“Only the Audi and Volvo don’t have low-range,” we answer. “And we’ve asked all the manufacturers to fit off-road oriented wheels and tyres, and to leave the low-profile numbers at home.”

“Mmm. That’s interesting. Mmm? ja. We’ll get them through, even if we have to tow them all the way,” says Eben.
Jannie Herbst and I steal a glance at each other. What have we done? Have we over-rated some of the 4x4s in the group?

16 September, 2010. Walvis Bay, Namibia.

It’s 08h00. The parking area at the Protea Pelican Bay hotel is a hive of activity. People are scrambling around, sorting out camping gear, stocking up cooler boxes, packing their vehicles.

The 13 SUVs are all here. The Audi, the GWM Hover, the Landy, the Lexus, the Merc, the two Mitsubishis, the two Nissans, the SsangYong, the two Toyotas and the Volvo.

Swarming around are an assortment of adventurers. Some of them have never driven off-road before. Some are seasoned 4×4 drivers. But for the vast majority, this is their first venture into the dunes.

There is apprehension in the air, and uncertainty about what the next three days will dish up. But the excitement is starting to build, as the time to head to the dunes draws closer. Nervous smiles and laughter abound.

Eben Delport and his wife, Marita, calmly survey their charges. Parked next to Eben’s Toyota Land Cruiser 80 VX is a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup, with recovery expert Johnny at the wheel. Johnny also eyes the R8-million worth of shiny SUV hardware, probably identifying recovery points.

Eben has called in some extra support for this expedition. Uri Adventures director Fanus Oosthuizen and his friend Rex Brandt, are in an imported Toyota Land Cruiser Troopy D4-D V8. They will form the rear guard – the last line of defence. This will leave Johnny and compatriot Frans and the red Cruiser free to fall in line with the convoy of new SUVs, assisting where required.

08h30. Leisure Wheels contributor, 4×4 fundi and the backbone of RSG’s 4×4 club, Francois Rossouw, calls everyone together. Francois is a guest on this trip, partnering Toyota’s Pieter Klerck in the Prado. Francois’ 4×4 experience, humour and the horrible mampoer cookies he loves to dish out after the day’s driving have become part-and-parcel of our annual Big Adventure. He loves to tell jokes, to ease the tension.

“There once was this bloke?”

08h45. The convoy is rolling. Radios are checked. Eben leads us out of Walvis Bay and we head east, away from the Atlantic Ocean. About 10km from Walvis we turn right, onto a gravel road, leading towards Rooibank.

09h10. It is time. With the convoy temporarily halted, we deflate our vehicles’ tyres to 0,8bar. In the distance loom some Namib dunes – small ones. After the tyre deflation process is completed, we gather in anticipation.

Eben is going to tell us how to drive on dunes. All the ins and outs. Like a driver’s briefing, with 4×4 benefits.

“Right,” he says. “From now on, for the next three days, you should be in 4×4 mode. High-range preferably, but it depends on the vehicle. If you have diff locks, you may use them at times. Let’s go?”

And that was that. Let’s go… it was all he said. And so, we went.

09h40. We are, officially, in the Namib Desert! We follow in Eben’s tracks, and start adapting to the new driving style required on sand. Speed and momentum, combined with a delicate balance between too fast, and too slow.

09h41. The two-way radio comes alive. “We’re stuck!” Johnny and the red Cruiser bakkie race to the scene, and extricate the stricken Nissan Patrol. The big 4×4 is out in a jiffy.

09h43. The two-way radio brings more bad news. “Hang on there, lads. We need some assistance over here!” This time it’s the Lexus LX. Johnny goes to the rescue.

Blimey! If two of the most capable 4x4s have already needed extricating, what are the rest of us going to do when we hit the real dunes?

10h06. What a place! We are now surrounded by sand, as far as the eye can see. Oh-oh. A big-ish dune – and we have to go up and over it. Ahead of our Pajero Sport, Eben’s Land Cruiser puffs some black smoke as he powers the 4×4 up the dune. We power our way through the sand and make it to the top. One by one they scale the dune, some requiring a bit more effort, and second attempts. But they all get up. This was just a starter, as it turned out. The main courses were still on the menu. And dessert. In the desert.

11h00. We are now making better headway. The Flynns, driving the Lexus, have realised that the prescribed 0,8bar tyre pressures work much better than 1,2bar (as recommended by Lexus technicians). Ditto with the Volvo XC90 which, once the tyres were deflated to that 0,8bar, clawed its way up the dunes.

The ladies in the Patrol have realised that 4H works much better in the sand than the 2H (two-wheel drive) setting.

The GWM crew discover that keeping the Hover’s accelerator pinned to the carpet while spinning the engine at top revs is the only way to scale the bigger dunes. The Mitsubishi crews find that working the automatic gearboxes in manual mode is the way to go.

The Audi, Land Rover and Mercedes crews were getting to grips with the abundance of power at their disposal, requiring a more circumspect approach with the right foot.

The SsangYong and Fortuner crews relied on previous sand driving experience – and were doing a sterling job. The Nissan Pathfinder team also slowly but surely adapted to the challenges of dune driving.

And so, as the day progressed, novice dune drivers became increasingly competent in the business of dispatching dunes, which were growing in stature as the day progressed.

13h28. Eben halts the convoy. It’s lunch-time, and the crews swap stories about their endevours in the sand, enjoying ice-cold drinks and a lunch pack, courtesy of the Protea Pelican Bay hotel. The good, the bad and the funny stories.

The proverbial ice has been broken.

16h32. Eben heads towards a “street.” Or at least, that’s what one apparently calls the stretch of relatively flat sand, stretching between high dunes, on either side. Here we occasionally hit the 80km/h mark. It’s the fastest we’ve gone since early that morning, and it feels as if we are on a German autobähn!

16h59. Before we can head to our campsite, we need to cross some more dunes. Big ones. But by now most of the drivers are feeling relatively comfortable on the dunes. We are driving behind the Q7, with
RamsayMedia’s Neil Piper and Dean Dicks cocooned in the luxurious Audi’s cabin.

We see some of the Audi’s body parts before we see the SUV, as we approach an unexpected slip face. Moments later, Dean’s voice interrupts the conversation in the Pajero Sport: “Guys, we need some help here. We have a problem. We have stopped.”

Over the crest, after collecting a handful of Q7 parts, we see the Audi.

The Namib has claimed its first victim.

Misjudging the severity of the obstacle, the Q7 had gone over the slip face too fast. The nose had hit the sand on the touch-down – and the lower part of the Q7’s front bumper is, well, no more. The protruding body parts, which can’t be saved, are sawn off.

Soon the Audi is good to go again – sans a large portion of its bumper.

17h56. We arrive at the Olifantsbad campsite. We pitch our tents, sort our sleeping bags and, most importantly, pour a cold one. It’s been one rollercoaster ride of a learning curve for most drivers. This business of conquering Namibia’s dunes is a tough one.

It is also absolutely amazing.

Only a handful of 4x4s have not fallen victim to the sand on the first day. But this was all due to change over the next two days.

After a lovely Uri Adventures dinner, we hit the tents early.

We’re finished. We had covered about 150km, but it felt more like 10 000km.

17 September, 2010. The Namib Desert.

06h15. A strange sound interrupts a dream about the Pelican Bay hotel’s divine en-suite bathroom. It sounds like…music? In the desert?

Yes, it is definitely music. Brad Paisley’s Good morning beautiful, courtesy of Jannie and his special sound system.

Slowly the Olifantsbad campsite, nestled between big dunes, comes alive, as dreamy faces emerge from their tents.

Camping newbies Kevin and Merryl Flynn are especially chirpy this morning. Merryl, leaning against the big Lexus V8, mumbles to Kevin, in British: “You know love, camping is like giving birth. You leave your dignity at the door.”

07h57. With breakfast dispatched, and some fuel tanks replenished, we gather around Eben and Francois. They tell us that, since all the teams are now more comfortable driving in the dunes, the difficulty level will increase on today’s leg. This stretch will take us another 150km or so to the Sandvis campsite, closer to Walvis Bay.

Fuel economy has become a topic of discussion. Big power engines and small fuel tanks don’t go well together in the desert. The combination of too little power and small fuel tanks (where the accelerator has to be floored 98,5% of the time) is also not a fuel conserving one.

08h27. We hit the dunes. After the first day’s dune conquering, we are ready for anything. Well, almost anything.

09h37. Somehow the big dunes don’t seem so big anymore. The convoy makes good headway.

11h21. We have to go down a particularly steep and long slip face. Standing at the top of the dune, the 4x4s that have already gone down the slip face look like tiny Dinky Toys, and the people like miniature toy soldiers.

11h22. No! A too careful approach at the crest of the dune, and the Pajero Sport is stuck! Heeeeeere comes Johnny, in the red Cruiser pick-up. He tows us out of the predicament, and over we go. Holy dunes! This one is high!

Accompanied by the roar of the sand, we edge our way down.

At the foot of this big dune we watch the 4x4s amble down. Then it’s the turn of the Volvo XC90. After getting stuck a few times since entering the dunes, and losing a few pieces of Volvo-branded plastic in the process, driver Dolf Smuts and passenger Astrid de la Rey decide that this dune will not be the boss of the low-slung XC90, on its “racing” tyres.

So Dolf guns it over that crest. What followed was a very close brush with disaster, as the Volvo flew down that slip face at probably 50km/h. Good thing Dolf kept his wits about him, and didn’t attempt to apply the brakes. That would have turned the XC90 sideways – which, at that speed and in that sand, could only have resulted in a spectacular roll.

Dolf just kept the steering wheel straight, and let gravity do the rest. Phew!

Note to self: If you ever have to roll down a dune in a motor vehicle, make sure you are strapped into a Volvo.