The Namib desert – 82 000 square kilometres of sand, where man and machine are alien and can be overwhelmed by the unforgiving terrain. It’s a dangerous, spectacular, and other-worldly place. We took a batch of SUVs there for the adventure of a lifetime.
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.
The Namib desert, the oldest of its kind in the world, is a harsh and inhospitable place… but it is also a spectacular place. Here tour leader Eben Delport (in the Toyota Land Cruiser 80) leads the 13 spiffy SUVs through the heart of some of the biggest dunes in the world. Insert: The Dune Quest adventure took us to Olifantsbad and Sandvis campsites, past the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen ship, Conception Bay, through the sometimes daunting Langewand section where sand and sea meet, and past Sandwich Harbour.
“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 overrated 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 to 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.
Negotiating steep slip faces is part of the Namib experience. Nissan’s Sorita van der Walt and Veralda Schmidt soon got the hang of it. Insert, right: It doesn’t really look it on the photo, but this slip face was steep! Best thing to do is hook low-range, and let the sand and the engine do the braking while heading down. A combination of too much speed and turning the steering wheel can result in a roll-over.
“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 endeavours 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 slipface. 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 slipface 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: “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 slipface. Standing at the top of the dune, the 4x4s that have already gone down the slipface 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. They are very safe cars, Volvos.
11h47. Spellbound and mesmerised by the area we are driving through, close to the “town” of Holsazia, the SsangYong crew gets bogged down. Now only the Merc and the Fortuner have had a clear run, as even tour guides Eben and Johnny have both required some towing assistance – in the process of laying down tracks for the rest of the convoy, and rescuing vehicles. 12h14. The former
mining town of Holsazia provides an amazing backdrop for a lunch break. After some exploration of the area, we tuck into Marita Delport’s tasty cold lunch.
13h32. We are on the move again, and Eben takes another dune “street”, to make up some time. Driving the dunes in daylight is challenging enough – doing it at night is just not cool.
14h12. The radio is alive with all the banter.
“How are you guys doing in the Hoover?”
“Hover,” corrects Tanya Ramos.
“Hoover,” replies the voice. There are continuous updates, following obstacles of any size.
“Hoover,” retorts the persistent voice again.
“Hover,” insists Tanya, “Pathfinder clear, Pajero clear.”
After braving their first night in a tent, the Flynns were getting even more perky. Kevin has even become a bit of a dune driving expert, it seems, as he shares his new-found expertise with the Audi Q7 following in his tracks. “Neil, you need a bit of momentum for that one, then tap off at the top. It’s quite steep,” he says, in British accent.
14h27. We stop at the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen, which ran aground in 1909, in thick mist, at Conception Bay. Interestingly, the ship now lies several hundred metres from the sea, as the land reclaims its territory. Global cooling, maybe? Captain Jack Parow was in charge of the ship, we hear. It was not his first ship lost, so after the Bohlen disaster he settled in Cape Town and became a politician. Hence the suburb of Parow. Today the Bohlen provides a housing solution to a number of desert jackals.
14h37. We are driving next to the Atlantic Ocean. “Gangs” of seals live here on the beach, a few hundred metres apart. And for every seal gang there is at least one desert jackal, waiting for an opportunity to tuck into some seal meat. Amazing.
14h50. We tackle the infamous Langewand. Here you drive on the beach, with the Namib’s finest dunes on one side, and the Atlantic’s waters breaking against them. Thankfully it is low tide, so the going is easy. But the scenery… not even a Rembrandt could capture the essence and beauty of this place. It is stunning!
16h20. After heading back into the dunes, Eben makes a pit stop on what seems like just another very big heap of sand. There is some mist around, indicating that we are relatively close to the sea.
Then we see it: Sandwich Harbour, way down below. With the sun now making a retreat towards the horizon, the view from up here is spectacular.
17h13. We fall in directly behind Eben, after a brief stop, determined to take a photograph of the convoy as the vehicles arrived at the Sandvis campsite.
Eben goes over a slipface. Behind him, we employ the tried-and-tested “nose-over” method in the Pajero. It’s simple: just drive your vehicle over the edge, so that the nose starts dipping down on the other side. Then stop, and see what obstacles lie ahead, and if it’s clear to go.
It’s a great theory. In practice, it’s not so easy. I edge the Pajero forward, to get the nose over. But alas, with the Sport’s long wheelbase and a shortage of sufficient momentum, the Pajero hangs itself very snuggly on the crest of the dune. Ahhh!
Note to self: Just when you think you are invincible in these dunes, and know it all, the Namib shows you a hand and says: “pick a finger, me lad!”
We’ve all been stuck, at one point or another. Well, almost all of us. It’s just that Merc GL500 that remains “unstuck”, after the Fortuner also had a, er, moment.
17h39. We arrive at Sandvis Camp. Tents are pitched, and a cold one poured. The group is tired, but elated at what has been achieved. What a lot of 4×4 we had today! A few souls brave the shower at the campsite, while the rest bask in glory around the campfire. Cold one in hand. Of course.
18 September, 2010. The Namib Desert.
06h14. I’m in the Pelican Bay hotel’s shower. It is wonderful. They even play music for you in the shower… Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken, no less. Damn. They just play it very loudly. I open my eyes… I’m surrounded by canvas. There’s no soothing hot water in here! I poke my head out of the tent. Sand, sand and more sand. Oh well. It was good while it lasted.
08h24. Breakfast has come and gone, and fuel tanks have been replenished. Well, not entirely replenished. All the extra fuel is now finished. A few of the 4x4s have been quite thirsty in the sand – and we start the day with the Pajero Sport’s low-fuel warning light already on. For the first time on this trip Eben calls a proper driver’s briefing, and explains about massive dunes and extreme slipfaces, and what to do. And what definitely not to do. Then it is time for Francois and his jokes, to lighten the spirits. “There once was this bloke…”
08h33. We hit the sand. Although today’s drive is a relatively short one, at around 60km, Eben has a few surprises on the menu. He calls this last day of his trip the “rollercoaster day”. Mmmm. And there was that driver’s briefing…
08h37. Eben parks his Cruiser on a flat section of a very big dune. What’s this, then? “Welcome to the Graveyard,” he says calmly, pointing to an intimidatingly deep hole next to the parked line of SUVs. We all look at him with wide eyes. “I will demonstrate. But this is an optional exercise,” he says. “If you don’t want to tackle it, no problem. Here you need momentum to get out of the hole,” Eben demonstrates. With the now customary puff of black smoke from the exhaust pipe, he steers his Land Cruiser 80 turbodiesel around the outer rim of the hole, then dives in. He doesn’t spare the horses, and comes flying out again. Then he goes down into the hole again, now on a different track, and sends the Cruiser flying, up a very steep and soft incline. He’s out.
Some of the group members’ eyes are now even wider open than before. Greg Goodchild and Shirley Craig in the 285 kW Mercedes GL jump in first. Grreg does a perfect job but at the last climb, with a turn thrown in for good measure, it looks as if the Merc is bogging down. But he boots that V8 engine, and with the glorious sound of a stampeding herd of V8 horses reverberating off the dunes around us, the Mercedes powers its way out of there.
The same procedure follows with the Lexus V8, as its 270 kW engine comes to the party to haul the R1-million SUV out of the hole. The Fortuner is less spectacular, but doesn’t break a sweat. The SsangYong is going for it too. With Pedro Perreira at the wheel, and wife Sherene providing the dramatic sound effects in the passenger seat, the Rexton makes it. This rallies up the GWM Hover crew of Duane and Tanya Ramos to tackle the hole – and the least powerful SUV here, with “only” 80 kW of power, almost makes it out. But it is clear that a lot of grit and determination are at work in that Hover cabin!
And lastly, the two Nissan ladies, Veralda Schmidt and Sorita van der Walt, take up the challenge of “the graveyard”. The petite Sorita gives the big and powerful Patrol a boot, as the Nissan powers its way around the outer rim of the hole. Then… oh no! The Nissan takes the wrong track down the steep dune, with Sorita keeping her right foot pinned against the carpet! Sand flies in all directions, the spectators gasp in horror… phew! The Patrol gets bogged down at the bottom of the hole, courtesy of the wrong angle of attack, but at least the ladies are safe. That was a close call! Eben and Johnny assist in the recovery, and the Nissan makes it safely out of the hole. No one would have blamed the damsels if they had decided to call it quits there and then. But Sorita and Veralda do the unthinkable: they set off to complete the second part of the obstacle… and they make it through with flying colours! That took some… er, guts!
Note to self: Extreme dune driving is not only about sand, dunes, gears, engines and tyres deflated to 0,8bar. It is also about learning new things about oneself, and about pushing personal boundaries.
09h06. We’ve moved on again – and it finally happens! The mighty Mercedes GL500 is stuck on top of a dune! Now we have all officially been there, and done that.09h35. Eben calls it “wake-up call”. It doesn’t look very intimidating, or particularly difficult. You amble down a dune, over a slip-face – then Eben instructs calmly over the radio: “Now floor it! Floor it!”
This is because, after that slipface, the vehicle ends up at the bottom of a deep hole, and momentum is the only thing that will get you out of there. This challenge could have been much more intense though. The wind has blown the slipface’s edge too “sharp”, so the SUVs have to tackle it at a sedate pace. And then go hell for leather once on the slip- side of things. When that slip face is rounder at the top, you can go hell for leather long before reaching the “drop” – which sees the 4×4 literally flying, and touching down on the other side with the softest of landings. We all make it through.
10h48. Eben calls it “long drop”. It is the most exhilarating challenge of the adventure. The 4x4s have to climb up a long dune, in soft sand. Once at the top of the dune, they go over a slip face, and slowly negotiate the steep descent. Then, at a certain point Eben, who watches the proceedings from a vantage point at the top of the dune where the obstacle is finished, gives the order: “Now! Floor it!”
This instruction comes when the 4×4 is stitill heading down that slope at a precarious angle… It doesn’t seem like the right thing to do at all. But apparently, it is. Otherwise you won’t get out of the hole at the base of the dune, and up the other side. The Mighty Merc goes over first. The Audi, with its powerful TDI engine, roars up the dune, and goes over. One by one they head up, but the 4x4s that stood in the back of the line when power was dished out, struggle to get up to the top of that dune. Eventually Francois redirects the 4x4s via an easier access route, to the top.
11h51. We’re watching “long drop” at the finishing line. A 4×4 sticks its nose over the slip face. It’s the GWM Hover. The assembled crowd watches in silence as the Hover makes it over the sharp crest, crawls slowly down the slip face, then… Pilot Duane floors the GWM following Eben’s instruction over the radio, calling upon every one of those 80 kilowatts to come to the party.
Its engine spinning faster and harder than its designers probably ever intended it to, the GWM makes it out of that hole, and up over the next dune. To a man and woman we all erupt in spontaneous applause. The GWM, which no one had given a chance at the beginning of this trip, has successfully completed the toughest obstacle Eben had dished up. Duane’s victory was more than just that of a GWM conquering that specific dune. It was a symbolic victory for each and every person in the group, who had claimed their own respective victories, be they large or small. It was a victory over the Namib, and the elements. A victory against a sea of sand, and against all odds. A victory where complete dune driving novices had stared down the intimidating Namib, and risen to the challenge, whether they drove 285 kW mega 4x4s or 80 kW budget ones.
12h06. The convoy is on the move again, in the general direction of civilisation. There are a few last obstacles in the way. The familiar ritual follows: “Patrol clear, Pathfinder clear.”
“Lexus clear. Neil, stay to the right of the track, there’s a bit of a drop-off.”
“Thanks Kevin. Audi clear, Hover clear,” momentary silence follows, then: “Prado clear, Pajero clear, SsangYong clear, Mercedes clear; Pajero Sport clear, Volvo clear, Landy clear.”
All of them are clear. Under own steam.
12h56. We’re on the main track, on the way back to Walvis Bay.
13h25. Eben halts the convoy one last time on a solitary Namib dune, seemingly lost between a plethora of salt pans, dressed up in an eerie red hue. Reality is now just around the corner. Literally. It is the end of an adventure of a lifetime. An adventure that not only provided an ultimate driving challenge, but also one that touched the hearts and souls of people. This place called the Namib, this 81 000 square kilometres of sand… it is a place like no other on earth. At times it can reduce you to despair. Then, around the next corner, it picks you up and shows you its soft, beautiful, stunning side. This desert, this harsh place, this Namib is… out of this world. Yes, this is truly is one of the last frontiers. And it is spectacular.