4WD enthusiasts Lourens and Karen Rautenbach have been driving over huge mountains for many years. But the ‘conquer a big old dune’ box remained unticked. Until December 2016, that is. That’s when the couple decided it was Namib Desert time. This is their journey on the Faces of the Namib adventure.
Dune driving has been on my 4×4 bucket list for some time. We’ve driven in extreme 4×4 competitions over rocks and up mountains, have conquered the infamous Letele Pass in Lesotho, and have been overlanding for many years.
The only sand driving I had done was a short stint in the dunes near Lambert’s Bay, in the Western Cape. But compared to the Namib dunes, the Western Cape ones appeared to be mere molehills – the only real way of comparing the heaps of sand was to head to Namibia and do it.
When we realised in July last year that we had no firm plans for a holiday in December, the perfect opportunity presented itself: joining the six-day Live the Journey Luderitz to Walvis Bay trip.
I’m a bit of a Jeep fan, so we use our Jeep Wrangler Rubicon three-door – which has been highly modified with 37-inch tyres, new gear ratios, trick suspension and so on – for the technically challenging 4×4 outings. One thing the Wrangler doesn’t have is space, so it wasn’t a practical option to tackle the long road to Namibia with.
Enter our Toyota Land Cruiser 76 V8 D-4D wagon. It has also been comprehensively upgraded with 35-inch tyres, rear air suspension, upgraded engine and clutch, bull bar, winch and plenty of other things, too. It is rather heavy, but we reckoned the V8 turbodiesel engine would be able to drag it up and over the dunes.
So the planning started. I knew I had to add as little weight as possible to the roof (to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible) so I added a swing arm for two jerry cans on the rear bumper. I later added three additional jerry cans (on the roof rack) to ensure that we could reach the expected total dune driving distance of 750km. In the dunes, they say, fuel consumption is effectively double what it is anywhere else.
Another addition was painting the Cruiser’s bonnet in a temporary black rubber paint. I battle with glare and in the desert, glare certainly is an issue.
And so we eventually arrived in Luderitz, armed with 230 litres of diesel, sun cream and plenty of anticipation about the week ahead. The Live the Journey crew broke the proverbial ice on the evening before we were due to head into the sea of sand with a dinner at a local restaurant.
I reckon this was a good plan. We got to know our fellow adventurers, and the crew also has the opportunity to impart some last-minute wisdoms about things you may have forgotten to pack that you really do need. And, we had the chance to ask questions about any uncertainties, which also helped to ease the nerves.
The mole’s hill
Our journey started the next morning, in a convoy of 4x4s that were all in touch via two-way radios. After about 35km on the road to Aus, southern Namibia, we turned into the desert, heading north on a dirt road for an hour before we reached the first dunes.
We had our first driver’s briefing. And I got my first sunburn. It was time to let some air out and we deflated the Cruiser’s 35-inch tyres to 1 bar. We still had some leeway to deflate a bit more, but I thought I’d keep some pressure in the bank.
We were advised to drive in low range. This is apparently the best option for most 4x4s. Low range gives you the ability to pick up revs fast and it’s also easier on your vehicle’s clutch.
I had packed all my recovery gear and it wasn’t long before I – gleefully – had the opportunity to use it. A fellow sand warrior got bogged down, and I pushed past, planning to recover him by pulling him further up the dune, out of the hole he had dug himself into.
But the guides were quick to correct my errant ways, by a full 180 degrees: always recover downhill, they said… it’s much easier. So that was how we did it, and it was indeed quite easy. Noted.
Meanwhile the scenery and information from the guides were keeping us entertained as we made our way through what we would later regard as a patch of sand, decorated with tufts of Bushman grass, with hardly any dunes.
We also made our first mistake. Cresting a heap of sand that would barely classify being called a dune, in the tracks of the 4x4s ahead of us, the heavy Cruiser’s slightly too-fast momentum dragged it out of the tracks, bogging it down.
Oops. We had seemingly managed to beach our Cruiser on a one-metre high heap of sand. There were still a few tricks on the reserve bench. Like the twin locking differentials. We engaged the rear diff lock, gave the V8 some revs and… the Cruiser effectively bulldozed that one-metre high ‘dune’ flat, pushing through the sand.
I only mention this incident because it was our first day of driving in the Namib and it had seemed as if we had won a bit of battle right there. By day five of the trip, after conquering many huge dunes, that original ‘battle’ seemed rather insignificant.
Our camp on New Year’s Eve was far from the coast but we were nevertheless in high spirits and relieved we had all reached this point without major calamities. With a glass of sparkling wine in hand, we each proposed a toast to 2017. It was a very enjoyable evening.
I must mention another big advantage of joining a trip such as this: the Live the Journey crew prepares three meals per day. So the guests only have to bother with their own drinks and snacks: fantastic!
Suzie, a real bulldozer and that darn wind
Our second day in the dunes saw us tackle bigger, longer and tougher dunes. But before we reached the tough driving challenges, we stopped at a landmark called Suzie: a vintage Ford lorry that was fitted with Dakota airplane wheels.
Back in the day, poor Suzie got stuck in the sand, and a bulldozer was dispatched to save her. But when the heavy bulldozer also sank into the sand, it was the end game for both vehicles. There was nothing in the desert at that time that could extract the vehicles from their sandy graves, so that’s where they stayed.
Next we tackled our first properly challenging dune: with an incline of about 20% and over a kilometre long, it was the biggest heap of sand we had to conquer (up to that point anyway). Trailing the vehicle in front of us by about 50m, we watched it stop and spin its wheels aimlessly.
I aimed the Toyota’s nose through a wee little hole and up the other side, believing the sand on that slight uphill was solid enough to affect a pull off once the 4×4 in front of us had been recovered. It was not. Eventually I – and the line of 4x4s behind me – had to reverse about 100m before we found a solid enough section of sand so the Cruiser could get a running start at the dune.
“Don’t stop if the vehicle in front of you gets bogged down. Use the radio to inform the driver of the vehicle that is stuck that you will pass him on the left or right, and continue until you reach a flat area,” came the advice over the radio from the guides. Noted.
In the end, most of the vehicles required up to three attempts to get up this dune. Later we reached the Atlantic Ocean, where seals and jackal live together in a macabre relationship of survival in this harsh environment.
That night, camping close to the ocean, our pop-up tent did not particularly enjoy the onslaught of the wind, especially when blasted on the sides. We eventually turned the tent’s bow straight into the wind, which helped. But we didn’t sleep too well.
When a 4×4 cries “enough!”
This day was a great driving day. Up and down we went, higher and faster. And with each new dune conquered, our confidence grew. Of course, there were several recoveries along the way, but that’s all part of the fun.
But a brilliant day of 4×4 driving came to an abrupt end with only one dune to go before we arrived at our campsite. The Land Rover Discovery 4, which had done quite well up to that point, snapped a side-shaft. This was literally 100m from the campsite. Eventually the guides, who were obviously busy recovering the heavy Land Rover and not making dinner, managed to drag the stricken Disco into camp.
Around the campfire there were, as you’d expect, plenty of theories about what to do with the Land Rover. More technically inclined people suggested fabricating a temporary shaft so that the Landy could drive itself to a nearby dirt road, and on to help in civilisation. The owner of the Landy was not convinced, citing any unauthorised technical meddling could have a detrimental effect on the vehicle’s warranty.
It was quite interesting to note that the guides let everyone have their say and opinions and theories. Clearly they’ve been through this process before – and I’m quite convinced they knew what the eventual outcome would be from the moment that side-shaft snapped.
The night was cold and misty. And inside the tent, the temperature was, finally, just right. We slept like logs that night.
Give a man a tow… or not
We had to tow the Land Rover Discovery on ‘an easy route’ to Meob Bay, from where a full recovery operation could be launched. This was the decision of the group the next morning. And it was also suggested that my Cruiser V8 D4-D was the best tow vehicle for the job.
Frankly, I thought the Cruiser would hardly break a sweat. So we hooked up the Landy behind the Cruiser and aimed for the first of several dunes that lay in ambush. This one was long, but with an incline of about 15%, I thought it would be no problem. It was a problem.
Towing the heavy Disco 4 in second gear low range, I managed to drag it 30m from the crest before the Toyota stopped in its tracks. I took a longer run-up, hooking third gear low range… but I only managed 10m more before spinning to another stop.
Obviously it was not going to be easy. At all. So we decided, much to my relief, to abandon the towing idea. And also to the relief of the owner of the Land Rover, I’m certain. The Land Rover mechanics would have to come to the Disco, and not the other way round.
As mentioned, I’m sure the guides knew that the Discovery would be left behind. But they left us to try all the options – it’s part of the adventure.
The group’s dynamic was very interesting. The Land Rover crew felt horrible for holding up everyone with the Disco’s mechanical issue. But the rest of us were not particularly bothered at all, ready to help when and where we could (expect towing maybe). Maybe it’s the animal pack mentality, where there is safety in numbers and where plans are aplenty. In the end, it was quite a disappointment for all of us to leave the Landy behind.
Anyway, back to the trip. With the Landy crew accommodated in other vehicles, we visited whale graveyards, the mining towns of Holsatia, Charlottenfelder and Grillenberger, and we drove through the former mining area. Visitors are welcome to take sand and stones. And diamonds? The guide will handle those…
That night we camped in the open, taking a chance on the wind not blowing us to smithereens. It didn’t. And we were quite happy about that.
A different type of wreck
The wreck of the Eduard Bohlen is a well-known landmark in this part of the world. It’s amazing to think this wreck once rested on the shoreline – it now presides hundreds of metres inland, far from the Atlantic Ocean.
There was action for the adrenalin junkies too: a massive hole in the sand. You have to go down a slip-face and then go as fast as your 4×4 can to make it up the other side. Give me rocks and boulders and 45 degree climbs up a mountain – this speed thing is not in my bones. So we watched from the sidelines as everyone had their fun.
Eventually, I went as a passenger in one of the other 4x4s. I screamed like a girl. No, even worse… I screamed like a 13-year old girl who had just seen Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street stalk Liam Payne from the band One Direction, ready to pounce. Nope, the speed thing was still not my cup of tea, thanks!
That night was our last night camping, and we did so in relative style at Uri Adventurers’ Sandwich Harbour campsite. There were showers and toilets in outbuildings. The luxury!
The last act
And so, after a night of a steady drizzle of rain beating softly on our wind-battered pop-up tent, it was time to head out of the desert. On the last stretch to Walvis Bay, which all the drivers handled like experts after earning their stripes the hard way in the Namib the previous week, we stopped at the famous Lange Wand.
From this lookout point, the Atlantic Ocean looks calm, friendly and inviting… quite contrary to the reality. They don’t call it the Skeleton Coast for nothing.
We could finally tick that ‘big dune driving’ box.
Taking a tank to a gunfight?
Our Toyota Land Cruiser 76 V8 made up for all my driver shortcomings and mistakes. A big advantage was the combination of the relatively short wheelbase, the ground clearance afforded by the aftermarket suspension, and the bigger 35-inch tyres. We never embedded ourselves on the crest of a dune.
We could always recover ourselves – and no doubt the power of the V8 turbodiesel engine also made it easier.
We carried a total of 230 litres of diesel, and eventually drove a total of 634km in the sand… the average consumption was 27.7 litres/100km (or 3.6 km/litre). The Ford Ranger 3.2TDCi double cab, which was heavily loaded, managed 25 litres/100 (four km/litre).
Interestingly, nobody had a single puncture or debeaded a tyre. Mind you, someone sang a dingy song about a tyre over the two-way radio. That was our only tyre trouble on the entire trip.
Lesson learnt – the hard way
When preparing for a trip you have not been on, there is a lot of guessing involved. These are some of the good and not so good lessons we learnt in the Namib Desert.
We took 50 litres. We used about 20 litres for kitchen duties, and we used 10 litres for showering per night. We used Front Runner water bags, which were packed in the footwells of the rear passenger seats. Once empty, they used no space. On day three, there was a stop where we could fill up with shower water. It’s not drinkable but fine for showers. The water is heated by fire in an old jerry can. It heats faster than finding junior in the dunes. I had 10 litres left at the end.
* Body wipes
We did not plan to shower every night. We took body wipes to wash with. It worked pretty well and saved 20 litres of water.
We took 230 litres. We ended up not driving the predicted distance, but I would have made it.
* Awning for shade
I was going to remove the Cruiser’s awning before the trip but luckily decided against it. We spend an hour per day parked in the sun for lunch. During this time it is crucial to have some shade.
The sand gets pretty hot during the day. I found it easiest to wear thick socks. Flip-flops are generally cool, but they don’t work for climbing dunes. That is when you burn the most because your whole foot disappears into the sand.
* Drinks and snacks
We took one litre of drinking water, Game powder for electrolytes, four sodas or juices per person, per day. We also took grown-up drinks, which helped a lot for all the excitement. We had three sodas and one water left over. The guides provide good coffee.
The temporary rubber paint on the bonnet (to prevent glare) worked so well that we replaced it with a more permanent sticker once we got back to Gauteng.
I took a small table along. Mistake. Never used it and a pain to pack.
More warm clothes. I thought: December + desert = heat wave. Wrong. It’s next to the ocean and at night there is a cold breeze. I only took a jacket but would take warm pants next time.
This is a sensitive topic. I think the guides provide facilities that are reasonable for them to carry. They put up a toilet tent and then put the Porta Potti (chemical toilet) in there. So there is one toilet for 30 odd people. My system does not work like that. It does not like being told when and where. So I needed a while to adapt. We have one of those fold up-toilet seats. Next time I will take that. When they prepare lunch I will drive behind a dune, set up my seat and… relax.
If you like being in control of your own schedule, bring your own, if there is space. The only issue is that you have to wait in a queue for the communal shower. Just test your own system at home to see how much water you use and if it works for you. This makes more sense if you plan on bringing your own toilet. Then the shower tent has a dual purpose.
Photos: Karen Rautenbach, Jehan de Lange & Lynette Engelbrecht
Text: Lourens Rautenbach