Contest in the wilderness

It’s a truly spectacular sight — a convoy of 17 Ford Rangers with 20 eager contestants and a full complement of crew driving through desolate northern Namibia. This was Ranger Odyssey 2015, the third edition of an adventure with its own trials and tribulations, plus the drama of intense competition.

Building up to this year’s event, from an initial list of thousands of online entries, 40 contestants were chosen for a gruelling boot camp training and evaluation session in the quaint Karoo town of Prince Albert. Many of them had little or no 4×4 experience.

Just 20 contestants made the cut, including two Nigerians, one Angolan, two enthusiasts from the Ivory Coast, one from Mozambique and 14 South Africans. The competitors gave it their all in the hopes of becoming the next Ranger Odyssey winner, with the prize of an Odyssey Ranger for a year, plus R5000 worth of fuel every month.

For the first time there were two elimination phases in which five of the lowest-scoring contestants saw their dreams come to a premature end.

The challenging off-road adventure through the rough and rugged Damaraland and Kaokoland regions of northern Namibia became a reality for the finalists on 23 July, when they boarded the plane for Windhoek. They spent their first night at spectacular Spitzkoppe, also known as the Matterhorn of Namibia. It was goodbye to tar roads and hello to dust and gravel for the next 12 days.

Namibia is home to diverse wildlife, as well as a dazzling array of scenery and interesting weather patterns. While the days are usually warm in July, the nights tend to be chilly, as the contestants soon found out when they camped in a dry river bed beneath the Spitzkoppe. Once the sun had set behind the breathtaking granite dome, the temperature plummeted and it was a stark awakening next morning to find a blanket of ice covering the landscape. Even at the 07:30 departure time it was still one degree below freezing, and the awesome but unforgiving nature of the adventure hit home.

The task for the day was convoy driving and the route took the group via Uis and Ugab and into the Khorixas region. After quite a day, contestants finally reached Palmwag Camp Site, where they enjoyed a nature talk and a well-deserved shower.

On day three, the competition got serious. The convoy set off from Palmwag and entered the Otjiheka 4×4 Trail. The contestants were pushed to the limit in one of the most extreme driving challenges of the trip – the treacherous “dust mines”. The soft, powder-like dust holes challenged the contestants on every front. Most of the vehicles got stuck at some point and teamwork was put to the test as the group performed several recoveries. What initially seemed like a rather innocuous 4×4 test became a major task and it took more than nine hours to complete the day’s comparatively short 137km route.

The convoy arrived in Khuwarib as the sun set behind the towering mountains, and darkness added complexity to the task of setting up camp after a long, hard day in the scorching sun.

Despite the repetitive daily regime of setting up and breaking down camp, doing pre-departure vehicle inspections and maintenance each morning, serving two-hour stints at night on guard duty, competing in regular Round Robin-style vehicle recovery tests, navigating through a special Garmin GPS task, learning about celestial navigation, soaking in the theoretical and technical knowledge about the vehicles as well as the local terrain and culture – and still trying to catch some sleep – the atmosphere and energy was as vibrant on day six as it had been at the beginning of the trip.

The plan for the mid-way point was to drive all day and set up camp in the middle of nowhere when the sun went down! The convoy departed from Purros and travelled through the amazing Purros Canyon, Ganias Flats and on through the Hoarisib River.

By now, two contestants had already been eliminated and sent home. This certainly added to the intensity of the competition, but the 18 remaining contenders put that aside for a while as they enjoyed the spectacle of the wildlife in the region, including gemsbok, giraffe, springbok and the famed desert elephants. So far only the tracks of the desert lion had been spotted…

The route featured everything from soft river sand to steep, rocky ascents. Contestants were marked every day on their driving abilities, which counted for a significant portion of the scores, but also on communication and leadership skills, adaptability, camp etiquette and general demeanour. There were also other special tests and tasks.

The Ranger Odyssey is about more than off-road driving skills. Its aim is to empower ordinary people to venture off the beaten track and explore the beauty and splendour of the African continent. And, of course, to prove the capabilities of the “Built Ford Tough” Ranger, which is so well suited to a family-oriented adventure lifestyle.

The event also takes people out of their comfort zones, and a night in the middle of nowhere – or in the dry Hoarisib riverbed to be exact – did just that for the group. That it turned out to be the most spectacular and memorable night of the entire odyssey was beyond dispute, as everyone was entranced by the beauty and peacefulness of a night under the stars.

However, it remained a competition and the contestants had a short session about Africa, its countries and capital cities, after which they had to write a test on what they had learned. The scores showed that most of the contestants needed to brush up on their geography, as we all do!

Day eight brought the second round of eliminations, and a further three people departed. For the remaining 15, the next day’s route was simply awe-inspiring, heading to Twyfelfontein via the Valley of Desolation. Contestants arrived early evening at Aba Huab after driving through some of the most remarkable scenery of the expedition, and then immediately got to work setting up for the night.

Once again the grilling continued till late, as the contestants pitched their ideas for humanitarian projects they were involved in, or aimed to initiate. Every person had received a sum of “Ranger Odyssey Dollars” at the start of the trip that would ultimately be awarded to the winning concept.

Next day, the departure for Brandberg started early, with the convoy travelling via Goantagab River and the vast, ever-changing desert plains that characterise this area. It seemed as if the convoy was leaving one world and entering another as often as every half-hour as the terrain changed constantly — from barren red sands without a sign of life to a single narrow track through a minefield of tyre-shredding sharp rocks, and then suddenly an oasis of tall elephant grass that seemed completely out of place. The Namib truly has it all.

Eventually the convoy descended into the Ugab River where the technical driving tests really began. The Rangers were powered through the soft sand and then into numerous unexpected water splashes in this beautiful river. The water crossings were a delightful experience as the teams hadn’t seen anything but dry riverbeds until then.

An encounter with a female elephant and her calf made the day all the more special, and everyone arrived at the camp site below Brandberg – Namibia’s tallest mountain – completely elated and energised.

The contestants still had some work to do on the penultimate day of the Ranger Odyssey, and an early morning tug-of-war was just the thing to get the blood pumping – and raise the competitive stakes. This was followed by a tracking exercise in the surrounding area.

With the event soon coming to an end, everyone put on their game face and endured the final round of vehicle and recovery tests which challenged not only strength but stamina, skill and lateral thinking.

While the 12 days had been extremely tough, both mentally and physically, there was a bitter-sweet ending for the remaining 15 contestants when they said goodbye to their fellow contestants, who had become not only driving partners but friends, without whom the Odyssey would just not have been the same.

Besides the often daunting but always breathtaking 4×4 trails and chilly evenings, the Odyssey had been like driving through a painting each day. With ever-changing scenery and trails, there was simply no experience that could be singled out. Every day there was more to see, with each view as magnificent as the last.

Although there could be only one winner, contenders felt that just taking part had been a prize in itself. Everyone gained a new admiration for the outdoors, respect for the mighty Ford Ranger and, crucially, a longing and commitment to explore more …

Info boxes:

Liane is the winner

Liane van Dyk of Pretoria is the winner of the 2015 Ranger Odyssey. The dynamic and energetic 23-year-old computer programmer and part-time DJ beat 19 other contestants to the title and the grand prize of an Odyssey Ranger for a year, plus R5000 worth of fuel a month.

Tracey Delate, general marketing manager for Ford in Sub-Saharan Africa, commented: “We had a fantastic group of dynamic and very competitive contestants, and it was great to have five African countries represented this year.

“Liane was among the front-runners throughout, and showed consistently high scores in all categories, from driving to the general knowledge tests. Her energy and enthusiasm shone through, and we are delighted to see her win the 2015 title.”

Humanitarian project

During the 2015 Ranger Odyssey, contestants were given the opportunity to propose their own corporate social responsibility initiatives. Jacobus Muller, 28, won the humanitarian project competition, along with the combined pot of “Ranger Odyssey Dollars” from the contestants to get his proposal off the ground.

Jacobus will be helping to develop a crèche in Pretoria with a windmill system that delivers essential water and also provides power-generating capacity, making it energy efficient and self-sustaining – Angelique Hawes