The Fish River Canyon is the largest canyon in Africa. It is 160km in length, up to 27km wide and, in places, more than 500m deep. This barren, rugged yet beautiful natural phenomenon is now partly accessible by 4×4, with tourists able to drive into the canyon for a unique new perspective of one of nature’s show pieces. Jannie Herbst paid a brief visit
Gotlieb Wilhelm Daimler was a true visionary. Why walk when you can drive, he reasoned. Or why ride a horse, or travel in a horse-drawn carriage, when you can drive. Steam cars? Bah! Waste of time, reasoned Herr Daimler, more than a 100 years ago.
So the German pioneered the internal-combustion engine and turned a theory into a practical solution that powers automobiles to this day.
You could say he was a man who thought on his feet, but since he preferred motor cars to walking, that would probably not ring true. Thinking in his comfy leather seat while flooring the gas pedal – that sounds better!
In the cabin of the Volkswagen Touareg 3.0TDI V6 Luxury, we get to thinking that Herr Daimler was indeed a brilliant man. Driving is so much better than walking. Especially in 42ºC heat – in a desolate, barren but beautiful landscape like the one we found ourselves in.
They say the Fish River Canyon, in the south of Namibia, is one of Africa’s most popular hiking routes, but in summer it gets so hot that the trails are all closed. People would melt in the heat – like soft-serve ice cream next to a fire.
Opening the Touareg’s door just a fraction creates the impression that you have parked next to a baking oven. Thankfully, the Volkswagen’s climate control was doing a splendid job of keeping us cool inside the plush cabin.
We were on a unique trail, operated by the Gondwana Collection group. Frederik Witbooi, a guide from the Gondwana Canyon Lodge, was taking us to the edge of the canyon from where you can drive down a 4km track to Koelkrans, on the canyon floor.
At Koelkrans there is a basis with seven rooms, each with two beds. Or you can camp out, with communal ablutions available.
The trail – which eventually winds down into the canyon – is located in the Gondwana Canyon Park, and we stayed at the stunning Canyon Lodge.
From the lodge it is a 110km drive to the edge. The last 30km is a slow business. Ever mindful of the sharp rocks that have a reputation for slashing all-terrain tyres, never mind highway terrain rubber, we took it easy.
About 7km short of our destination we arrived at the so-called mule station. This is where the hikers’ pack mules live. All the mules were lazying about in the heat, since the hikers won’t return until April.
Although the recently face-lifted Touareg is not equipped with VW’s Terrain Tech Package, which adds about R25 000 to the price, it does have the optional air suspension system. This R35 000 extra, along with the Touareg’s electronic Off-Road setting, adds up to 80mm extra ground clearance (standard clearance is 220mm) as well as a fair measure of off-roading prowess, despite the lack of a transfer case.
The Touareg’s V6 TDI engine deserves much praise for the vehicle’s ability to handle rough terrain. The three-litre V6 turbo diesel engine’s 180 kW of power and 550Nm of torque, available from 2000r/min, aided by the standard 4Motion four-wheel drive system, is just the thing for idling effortlessly over the Namibian boulders and rocks. And that’s while it sips about the same amount of diesel as a VW Polo TDi.
For more serious off-roading situations, the Touareg V6 TDI Escape with the Terrain Tech Package is the way to go. This Touareg comes standard with 18-inch wheels with more off-road oriented rubber.
Importantly, the Escape model is also equipped with VW’s permanent 4XMotion four-wheel drive system with a transfer case, as well as centre and rear differential lockers.
And so we slowly but surely made our way towards the canyon’s edge – and the last 4km track to Koelkrans.
Shortly before reaching the canyon’s edge, and after about an hour of driving over that last 30km, we arrived at the turn-off to Horse Shoe Camp. As it was just a few hundred metres away, Frederik suggested that we take a look. During the summer months when the hikers prefer not to be melted, the camp is unoccupied. There are eight concrete slabs on which tents are pitched. A kitted-out kitchen and ablutions complete the amenities at this place with its stunning view of the canyon.
Interestingly, this 4×4 trail is only open to vehicles when it’s too hot for the hikers to enter the canyon. In the cooler months the mules are used to transport supplies to overnight points for the hikers, and no 4x4s are allowed to visit Koelkrans.
The last 4km descent to the canyon floor is rough. And it didn’t look good for our Touareg V6 TDI Luxury. The rocks were bigger and sharper over those last few kilometres and sometimes… well, sometimes it’s better to quit while you are ahead. Dragging a heavy SUV with standard tyres (and only a “Marie biscuit” spare) down this rocky track would not have been a smart move. So we parked the Touareg and took in the vistas and aura of the place.
While we were doing our best not to melt, guide Frederik explained that the Canyon Lodge sends a guide-cum-chef with groups to Koelkrans, where you can stay over and enjoy a dinner under a million stars.
Unfortunately the trail ends at Koelkrans, so once you have arrived there at the canyon floor, you are not allowed to go driving around in the canyon. When all is said and done, you head back up the same track.
Later that afternoon we arrived back at the splendid Canyon Lodge, with all four Touareg tyres still in one piece and our bodies still in solid form, thanks to the VW’s climate control system.
Sitting on our verandah, with a cold one in hand, watching the sun disappear over the horizon, we concur that Gotlieb Wilhelm Daimler was indeed a man with great vision, and that he would surely approve of the VW Touareg V6 TDI Luxury.
Cheers Gotlieb. Cheers Touareg. Cheers all you brave people who walk the 80km canyon trail. Cheers to the mules and Koelkrans, too.
And so we raised our glasses in a toast – just as Mother Nature opened her display with a spectacular heaven, filled not with millions but billions of stars.
A long, long road
We left Randburg at an easy 10am, and made light work of the N14 to Kakamas, where we were booked in at the exquisite Vergelegen Guesthouse. This is the second occasion on which we’ve driven the 873km from Randburg to Kakamas without having to refuel. (The other time was in a Toyota Prado 3.0D4-D with a 150-litre fuel tank.)
The Touareg has a 100-litre fuel tank and was using so little fuel that we thought VW may have fitted a tiny four-cylinder turbo diesel engine from the Polo in the Touareg’s nose. But when we needed to overtake and the driver stood a little bit harder on the accelerator, the V6 engine propelled the Volkswagen forward with great power and grace. In this application, the engine provides stomping power and amazing fuel economy in one refined and smooth package.
After an awesome dinner, we headed towards Namibia the next morning. We drove west towards Pofadder on the main N14 road, and after 80km turned the Touareg in the direction of the Onseepkans border post, leaving the tarred road behind us. For the next three days the Touareg would have to contend with dirt roads only.
The border crossing was dispatched without incident and we reached the Gondwana Canyon Park later that afternoon
We had two days in which to explore the area. Besides the trail into the canyon, other attractions include the Canyon Roadhouse Lodge, famous for its antiques in a very special setting, and the Canyon Village where they use a donkey cart to get your luggage to your room. You can also visit Ai-Ais hot springs, about 75km to the south.
The Canyon Lodge where we stayed is rather special. Each luxury unit is different and the setting among the rocky outcrops is magical.
The swimming pool takes design to an even higher level. You follow a path between the rocks, and next moment, as you turn a corner, you are met with an absolutely splendid vista: green, green grass, topped off with a beautifully blue pool, framed by a typically Namibian vista of wide open spaces and rocky outcrops.
The lodge’s restaurant is also top notch.
Camping options are available in the Gondwana Canyon Park, and there are a few amazing look-out spots to take in all the magnificence of the Fish River Canyon. The Hobos look-out point is one of the most famous, but these days you have to fork out some Namibian dollars to enjoy its spectacular view.
After two nights at the Canyon Lodge, we headed back to SA, this time opting to use the Nakop border post that also proved to be a breeze.
Interestingly, we filled up the Touareg in Karasburg in Namibia, and drove the whole 1045km to Randburg (after sleeping over in Kuruman) with the same tank of diesel. And remember, this SUV can sprint from 0-100km/h in less than eight seconds!
In the end the VW Touareg V6 TDI Luxury had used an average of 9,2 litres/100km – a remarkable feat over the 2707km we covered. Herr Daimler would be proud.
Vergelegen Guesthouse, Kakamas: 054 431 0976. www.vergelegenguesthouse.co.za
Gondwana Collection: +264 61 427 200. www.gondwana-collection.com
We left Randburg with a full tank of diesel.
Randburg to Kakamas 73,53l 873km = 8,42l/100km = 11,87km/l
Kakamas to Karasburg 79,74l 784km = 10,17l/100km = 9,83km/l
Karasburg to Randburg 94,82l 1050km = 9,03l/100km = 11,07km/l
Note: On tar we mostly stuck to the speed limits but on Namibia’s excellent dirt roads (and with the absence of speed traps) it was easy to unintentionally drive at 140km/h and beyond.
Total fuel bill: R3 194.24
Vergelegen Guesthouse: accommodation, including breakfast, R880 per night for double room. (Pensioners pay less).
Canyon Lodge: accommodation including breakfast, R1200 per night for double room.
Volkswagen Touareg 3.0 TDI V6 Luxury
Standard price: R796 500
Fuel tank: 100 litres
Transmission: 8-speed Tiptronic
Service interval: 15 000km
Automotion Maintenance Plan: 5 years/100 000km
Warranty: 3years/120 000km