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Ford Ranger Odyssey: Behind the Scenes

5 December 2014

Northern Namibia is undoubtedly one of the most remote and desolate places on the African continent… which made it the perfect destination for a tough test like the Ranger Odyssey. Colin Mileman joined the expedition

It takes two days of driving from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, to reach the far northern border of the country. Nothing but the mighty Kunene River, and the ever-present threat of  crocodiles, separates you from Angola. And that’s where the adventure really begins …

You have to be prepared for long days covering minimal distances because of the rough terrain, get your mind around several days without any form of communication and have sufficient fuel, water and food for the long haul ahead.

This was the setting for Ranger Odyssey 2014 – a shorter but much tougher expedition than the inaugural event last year. It covered 2500km across Kaokaland, which is every bit as arid and arduous as people say, but mesmerising and captivating in every way.

Building up to this year’s event, the online campaign for Ranger Odyssey had attracted an astonishing 8200 entries. These were eventually whittled down to 40 contestants for the Boot Camp training and evaluation session at De Rust Outdoor near Hartbeespoort Dam.

Just 18 South Africans and one contestant each from Angola and Mozambique made it to the final event for a true once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The contestants were randomly paired in teams of two and would compete throughout the Odyssey for the ultimate prize of an Odyssey-spec Ranger each for a year, as well as R5000 a month for fuel.

The event officially kicked off in Kamanjab with the team selection, then headed north via Opuwo – and the last stretch of tarmac for the next 10 days – and on to the stunning Kunene River. Temperatures in the 30ºC-35ºC bracket became the norm, and this was only September.

The route became more scenic and challenging to match the heightened level of competition. This included a punishing tug-of-war elimination between the teams in a dry riverbed that culminated in a painful 22-minute final round with no-one willing to give an inch, despite severe blisters and rope burns. The competition was now on …

Kaokaland boasts rich cultural diversity, most evident in the OvaHimba tribes that still live a traditional nomadic lifestyle, but also through the Afrikaners that traversed this challenging terrain. The Dorslandtrek Memorial near Swartbooisdrift pays homage to these Boer adventurers, who travelled more than 12 000km in their ox-wagons from as early as 1874 between modern-day SA, Botswana, Angola and Namibia, suffering malaria, drought and starvation.

It’s hard to imagine just how difficult the travelling must have been for ox-wagons, considering that the Odyssey’s Day 4 route between Kunene River Lodge and Epupa Falls took the convoy 12 hours – for just 90km! Despite the slow going, the Ford Ranger showed why it is regarded as one of the toughest contenders in the fiercely competitive LCV market. All 14 vehicles (Ranger Double Cab 4×4 XLT Automatics) made it through the rough terrain with ease.

The following day the teams were treated to an 8km rafting expedition along the Kunene, some even setting foot briefly on Angolan soil, but remaining ever wary of the large crocodiles soaking up the sun on the river banks.

There was also the opportunity to visit an OvaHimba village and learn about the indigenous people and their fascinating culture – and how they had become an off-shoot, along with the OvaHerero, of the original OvaChimba tribe that migrated from central Africa. As part of Ford’s annual Global Week of Caring, the Ford team donated water-purifying sachets to the local clinic, to help address cholera in the Epupa Falls area.

Following essential refuelling made possible by a pre-arranged fuel drop at Epupa Falls (there are no filling stations within hundreds of kilometres), Day 6 took the teams away from the river towards Otjihende.

The convoy worked its way through an extremely rough and rocky 4×4 trail in the Baynes Mountains that proved the toughest driving challenge yet. It required everyone to get “hands on” and build up the track with rocks and boulders in order to make it passable.

After a night under the stars at the very basic but alluring Van Zyl’s Pass Community Campsite, it was on to the main driving challenge of the Odyssey – the notorious pass.

The route starts innocuously enough, with some reasonably steep but long descents and climbs before emerging at the top of the area’s main viewpoint. The breathtaking scenery boasts towering mountains on one side and vast open plains stretching into the distance below.

Then it was straight into the most treacherous part of the trail as it scythes its way between sheer cliff faces on the right and terrifying drop-offs on the left. The sharp drops were teeth-clenching, white-knuckle stuff, particularly as the Rangers were often cross-axled and rocking back and forth while the loose rocks crunched and cracked. Nevertheless, the convoy made it through without incident, with the crew and contestants impressed at how well the Fords performed.

To commemorate the Odyssey having conquered the trail, the teams erected a metal plaque at the bottom of the pass, with each of the participants’ names laser-cut into history.

As the perfect way to round off an adrenaline-charged day, the convoy set up camp in the lowveld plains alongside the Khumib River near Orupembe, giving everyone the opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty and peace of Kaokaland.

Next day the 14 Rangers made their way down the Khumib River 4×4 trail to Puros. The adventurers saw numerous giraffe, gemsbok and springbok, as well as vultures and eagles – despite the lack of obvious water sources. The scenery was simply epic, ranging from vast mountain ranges to rock-strewn plains; dry grasslands to barren desert. The day ended at the top of the Jan Joubert koppie, just outside Puros. It was one of the most magical parts of the trip, with 360-degree views of this amazing and diverse landscape.

Over the ensuing two days the Ranger Odyssey explored the Hoarusib River 4×4 trail through the beautiful Puros Canyon, and resumed the competitive element with five special tasks. These included hand-winching, using a high-lift jack, spare wheel changing in the sand, vehicle maintenance and pre-trip inspection, as well as general knowledge tests. Another fuel drop kept the tanks full.

With the expedition rapidly drawing to a close, the convoy continued south along the Hoarusib trail and more conventional gravel roads through the Ganias Plains to Sesfontein and the overnight camp at Khowarib. Some of the group were fortunate to come across a herd of the elusive desert elephants, feeding calmly in the riverbed, but the region’s desert lions were nowhere to be seen.

There was a final sting in the Kaokaland’s tail on Day 11 as the group headed into the Khowarib 4×4 trail along the Hoanib River bed. The competitors faced off on their final special tasks of the trip, but then had to tackle the so-called “dust holes” between Umumbaaitjie and the Kamdescha veterinary control point.

The powder-like dust is so intense that visibility drops to zero when you are following other vehicles, and deep tracks are worn into the soft ground with trenches often hidden beneath the surface. It was no surprise when several vehicles got stuck, necessitating a series of unplanned recoveries. But eventually all emerged unscathed and made the final haul to the camp at Kamanjab, where the journey started 10 days before.

That the Ford Ranger surprised and redefined the teams’ perception of what was possible in terms of off-road driving was beyond doubt, as all 14 vehicles conquered the arduous terrain with ease, and without even a single puncture. The Ranger’s brand promise of “Built Ford Tough” was certainly tested and verified.

Although there will ultimately be only one winning team, all 20 contestants were enthralled by the astonishing scenery and rich heritage of the Kaokaland, and vowed to return.

After 12 amazing days, the teams bade farewell to Namibia with a sense that just being on the Ranger Odyssey had been a special experience and a prize on its own.