OFF-ROAD TEST: Kalahari tough test

The annual Leisure Wheels Safari, where we take a fleet of 4×4s on an epic overland adventure, has taken in some spectacular settings like the Khwai River in Botswana, the Namib Desert in Namibia and the pearly beaches of Mozambique. This year, we decided to keep it local and to headed off to the heart of the Kalahari.

The Kalahari.
A place of absolute wonder, but potentially also of utter despair. Dry most of the time, its tough desert surface is scalding hot during the day and freezing cold at night. Luckily, it’s also extremely beautiful, in its unique, Kalahari way. Those who prefer their landscapes a little greener will be happy to know that there are smatterings of small towns surrounded by green trees, grass and vineyards. It’s usually in these towns you’ll find lodging, food and booze: the holy trinity of Kalahari survival. This is a story of one such trinity. And a convoy of 13 4×4s that took on this tough, beautiful place.


Day 1: Upington to Kakamas
The line of 4×4s awaiting their charges at the Upington International Airport made for quite a sight. Locals visiting the airport or dropping someone off wrung their necks as they drove past, pointing. Some even came over to have a closer look, and a chat. And for good reason… at the time of the test, several of the 4×4s baking in the hot sun had not even been officially launched in South Africa. This included the long-awaited new Nissan Navara, the face-lifted Chevrolet Trailblazer and an Isuzu KB.

After our guests arrived from OR Tambo and Cape Town International airports, and the respective teams were united with their rides, we hit the road to Kakamas. The drive from Upington starts off on a relative humdrum note, with only the amazing Khi Solar One solar-thermal power plant, which looks like something out of the movie Independence Day, providing some interest. As soon as the convoy hooked a right in Keimoes, aiming for Kakamas, the Kalahari – in the golden hour of last light – revealed its full splendour.The mountains slowly emerge from out of nowhere, not to mention the vineyards.

Upon our arrival at Vergelegen Guesthouse, we were treated to a stunning Kalahari sunset. It started off as a vivid orange, progressed to a deep purple until the sky eventually blacked out and the moon emerged from its hiding place. With Mother Nature putting up such a grand show, you’d expect the party to go on all night, but with a long day ahead of us, we all tucked in early.

Day 2: Tighten those belts
Riemvasmaak is a quaint little town near the Namibian border, steeped in history. About 1 500 people of the Xhosa and Nama tribes resided in the 74 000 hectares of arid, tough land. Between 1973 and 1974 though, the former South African Government forcibly relocated the inhabitants to the Eastern Cape (if their surnames were considered Xhosa) and Namibia, if their names were Nama-sounding. The land was then handed over to the Defence Force, who used it for various purposes, one of which was a missile testing range. It was only in 1993, with South Africa’s first democratic elections around the corner, that the plight of the original Riemvasmaak people became a national priority. The families who had been removed up to 1974 were moved back to Riemvasmaak, and the process of rebuilding their lives and fortunes started in earnest.


Of course, that is easier said than done; starting from nothing and building it into something is not easy. It took many years, but with famous Namas such as Norbert Coetzee (of Voetspore fame) running the tourism show, Riemvasmaak slowly but surely emerged as a spectacular nature conservation area, and tourist destination. And so the convoy of 4×4s made its way from Kakamas to the rough-and-tough Riemvasmaak 4×4 trails. In theory, this sounded grand. In reality, we were a little worried. With renowned 4×4 obstacles such as Remhoogte (Brake Hill) and Groot rem-hoogte (Big Brake Hill), and with some soft-roaders in the group, well… it could get rather interesting.

The first section up to Riemvasmaak Hot Springs gave everyone a bit of a confidence boost, as the tracks were pretty well kept and not that hard to negotiate. In fact, everyone kept on asking when the tough stuff was coming. Then the tracks got a little worse, and a bit of road building was even required in places to safeguard especially the low-slung Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento from damage. But then the convoy turned a corner and the tour guide’s vehicles stopped. But only for a moment; the driver had hooked up low-range. The Ford rental progressed forward slowly, then started bouncing from side to side. Obviously this was not a simple track anymore, but rather a rocky, much nastier business.

The rest of us parked our vehicles and walked closer to inspect the section. It was an exceptionally grim-looking stretch of around 200 metres. It started with a few ferocious axle twisters, a steep drop with some more axle twisters thrown in
for good measure and, finally, a tough climb up a narrow track lined with sharp volcanic rock. We weren’t sweating it too much in the Fiat Fullback. With low range engaged, we slowly crawled over the rocks and through the ditches. It was the same story with the Amarok behind us, but the Hyundai Santa Fe was, without a doubt, going to be reshaping its engine’s sump guard on a rock if we didn’t look after it. Ditto the Kia Sorento. The odds were stacked against the two soft-roaders. Soon everyone pitched in and in no time we had a semi-decent road built, lined with spotters standing by in the difficult areas. With some spinning, some swearing and some careful route plotting we, amazingly, got all the vehicles through.


Yes, the soft roaders picked up an additional underbody scratch or two, but they made it through. Incredibly. That, however, was not the most challenging obstacle. Worse was to come. But with the group in a resilient mode, we continued to build roads when necessary, reverse and take a new line and play pointsman if needed. In the end, we got all 13 4×4s through in one piece. We headed for the day’s final destination: the Augrabies Falls National Park. A sundowner team was at hand with ice-cold beer and wine, on a spot overlooking the massive waterfall. A few minutes later, we were rewarded with the most beautiful moonrise over the falls. It was a fitting end to a tough but amazing day.

Day 3: Hitting the dunes
Kalahari dunes are not like the ones in Namibia. In the Namib, some dunes stand hundreds of metres tall. In the Kalahari they are much smaller, but they are all little jakkalsies as they lure you into a false sense of security. But when you tackle that seemingly insignificant heap of red sand, it quickly puts you in your place. These particular dunes were on a private farm called Kopfontein and while the surrounding area was similar to what we had experienced the day before, our driving style had to change drastically.

In the rocks, we had to go ‘as slow as possible, as fast as necessary’ to avoid damage. When it comes to sand, the opposite is true. Momentum is key and it takes a fair amount of courage to keep your right foot planted when self-preservation kicks in. The first few dunes proved to be a struggle, but slowly and surely our guests caught on. Traction and stability control systems off, and full steam ahead. Soon all the drivers were ripping it up the dunes, and even though the clearance-challenged Sorento and Santa Fe had a slightly tougher time of it, they, too, made it up and over. Lunch was served in the bush, with a right proper braai. Sand, 4×4s and braai – things were looking pretty good. But there was a bit of a challenge scheduled for after lunch: a mine’s-better-than-yours dune-driving competition. Although there had been several dunes in the comp-etition pipeline, we eventually spent all afternoon at one particular heap.

This dune was not high – it was only about 30m from the base to crest – but it was a steep climb. Not only were there plenty of ruts, there was also a very tight turn near the crest, which needed to be negotiated at a reasonable amount of speed. This dune soon proved the nemesis of most of the 4×4s in our line-up. Half demonstrating the route (and half showing off his Toyota LC76 V8 with its amazing sounding free-flow exhaust) the farm owner made it look deceptively easy. Big horsepower and speed to get up the first climb, sand flying in all directions, tackle the tight turn, even more sand flying, and finally over the crest and down the slip face. Easy.

Err, not. The jokes started before the driving. As we’ve seen so many times before, bragging before you complete an obstacle is never recommended. But everyone, apart from team Chevrolet, had jokes. Mind you, the Chevrolet Trailblazer was mentioned in a joke, and called the Kalahari Ferrari, courtesy of the red hue and racy stripes. The Chevy lads disappeared to adjust the Blazer’s tyre pressures, while everyone else lined up to attempt the dune. For around 45 minutes they battled. Taking massive run-ups, team after team attempted the climb, with the Mitsubishi Pajero initially making it the furthest, hanging itself up on the sharp crest. Of all the vehicles, we must single out the brave little Mahindra Scorpio S10… nicknamed the ‘micro hybrid’ as per the badge on its rear door (a rather bold claim since it pertains only to the Scorpio’s stop-start system).

With a pilot so determined to show up the likes of the Everest and Fortuner, and with a run-up totalling about 2km, the Indian 4×4 came bouncing along the corrugated sand track at about 136km/h before hitting the base of the dune… to only just make it past that mid-climb corner. He tried again and again, but the micro hybrid, sadly, never made it over. The Mahindra was not the only one, mind. Attempt after attempt failed, accompanied by exasperated exclamations (that’s swear words, to you and me). And there was plenty of advice too, of course. “No man, you must leave it in Drive… don’t fiddle with the manual gear option. And keep it flat boet… you are lifting too soon.”

And so it went on, and on, and on. Eventually, a mood of disparity descended upon those assembled in the middle of the Kalahari dunes. Some were even mooting the point that it was only that powerful V8 Cruiser that can make it up there. Meanwhile the lads in the Kalahari Ferrari lined up. At least they weren’t throwing in the towel just yet. But then we pondered some facts: the same crew had taken part in a Leisure Wheels Safari in the Namib, so they have more experience in the sand than most of us. Would the Blazer be the first 4×4 in the group to conquer this dune?


The driver let rip and up went the Blazer, through that corner that caught everyone out, up she went… and over! They had done it! Back among the cheering group, the lads revealed that they had dropped the tyre pressures to a very low 0.5 bar, forgot about the term ‘mechanical sympathy’, and had just kept that right foot planted. Now, if you ever need to motivate a representative of car company ‘A’ to (yet again) try and conquer a seemingly impossible task, just let the representative of car company ‘B’ complete that task. It was as if the despairing group had been rejuvenated. Now all their 4×4s simply had to get up that dune. Come hell or high sand dunes. And first in that queue of redemption were the Ford Everest and Toyota Fortuner, the Blazer’s most obvious market rivals. With the Ford Everest 3.2TDCi’s automatic gearbox in Sport mode, and with all the electronics switched off, it let rip up the dune. At its second attempt, it also made it up and over. That obviously fuelled more ego fires.

The Fortuner 2.8GD-6 tried a few more times, but just didn’t have enough legs. Ditto with the VW Amarok, the Mahindra Scorpio, the Foton Tunland, the Suzuki Grand Vitara, the Mahindra Scorpio, the Mitsubishi Pajero and the Mahindra Scorpio. Another quietly observing team had been the Nissan Navara duo. With minimal fuss, and after letting some of the more, um, eager drivers have a go first, they finally lined up, observed with great interest by the other double cab bakkie teams. The Nissan, with its independent rear suspension system, aftermarket shocks and springs (it was a pre-launch test unit), and plenty of horses from the 2.3-litre twin-turbo diesel engine, garnered a most handy amount of speed on the run-up, hardly affected by the nasty ruts, and up and over they went, on their first attempt! That put a hush on proceedings, but it also caused the other double cab drivers to mount new climb-that-bladdy-dune campaigns.

In the end though, only three 4×4s made it up: The Trailblazer (twice), the Ford Everest and the Nissan Navara. The clock was ticking, though, and reluctantly we dragged the teams away from the dune. It was just a short hop back to the hotel for a quick shower, before heading out to a local wine farm for dinner. The mood, no doubt bolstered by alcoholic beverages, was soon infectious, with people forming groups and talking about their accomplishments and downfalls over the last two days.

That dune was a fitting conclusion to this trip, it seems. Our guests discussed the merits of diesel versus petrol and automatic versus manual at great lengths that evening, with many opinions shared but no great solutions or agreements reached. Very much as you’d expect from a group of brand-loyal car people. To each of them, their own products are the best.

Never mind those little heaps of sand.

Text: Gerhard Horn and Danie Botha
Photographs: Jannie Herbst and Deon van der Walt