How To Drive Through The Namib In An Isuzu Pickup

“So you say you have done this before, right?”

“Sure I have. I have done plenty of off-roading and I have driven in two other deserts besides The Namib. I daresay I am quite good at this and we won’t get stuck”

“So why are we not moving?”

“Because we are stuck…”

Shoot.

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Four years ago I started an article with the quote “God doesn’t punish us, He only grants us lives long enough to punish ourselves.” This was in reference to the fact that while skillfully palming the wheel in the then-new Range Rover Vogue Autobiography in the northwestern fringes of the Sahara, I may have made light of a fellow driver’s misfortune of getting stuck in the sand; after which karma made her presence felt by getting me stuck on top of a dune exactly 90 seconds later. Well, history was repeating itself: I was in yet another desert, I succumbed to the sin of pride (again!) and gloated about how good I can be behind the wheel and I promptly beached the Isuzu KB300 DTEQ LX I was driving. Talk about being brought back down to earth, literally.

The instructions were clear: Maintain momentum at all times. Maintain a respectable distance from the vehicle ahead. Make sure the vehicle behind sees you making any turns. When stopping, try as much as possible to do it on a downhill gradient. Don’t saw away at the wheel like a Group B maestro and don’t powerslide the car. Either of these may cause the (intentionally) deflated tyres -as explained last week- to get torn off the rims. Traction control off, stability management off, transfer box in 4 High, transmission in gear, let’s go.

So we went.

It was not exactly my fault, but then again it also wasn’t the other guy’s fault per se. When powering up a gentle incline, spinning the wheels and spraying white rooster tails in the air, I made the mistake of getting off the throttle and back on it again. That meant two things: one, I lost momentum and two, I dumped all the (not insignificant) torque available from the 3.0 liter turbocharged and intercooled diesel engine through the four nearly-flat tyres at once and I started digging. Within seconds, we were knee-deep in the sand, having sunk up to the floorboards in the glistening mire. One more dab of the throttle and I might have struck oil. Where is that rescue team?

The reason I lifted was because perhaps my momentum was considerably more than that of the car I was trailing; either way my sense of perspective -very difficult to get accurately in the sea of constantly shifting dunes- told me that I was closing the gap between us real quick and if I didn’t ease off, I might start the next descent right on top of the car ahead. I had to cut the power, and when thundering uphill across the hot sand, the last thing you want to do is cut the power. The inevitable happened. Plumes of sand cascaded in the air like a fountain, the engine roared, the whole car rocked and it immediately became obvious that we were going nowhere fast. Neal, do your thing with the walkie-talkie.

Thankfully, the expert rescue team got us unstuck in short order and we were on our way again. Also, with my ego bruised and everyone mirthfully aware that the loudmouthed know-it-all from Kenya got served his just desserts (pun intended), extra care was now being taken. No way was I going to get stuck again, no sir.

Once you get the hang of it, sailing across the sand is actually a lot of fun. I call it sailing because it doesn’t feel like driving. The steering becomes inaccurate, the car is always sliding even in a straight line and braking creates a swash ahead of the front tyres, not unlike the prow of a massive ship traversing slightly choppy waters at full steam. Keeping the wheels inside the tracks left by the lead vehicle (another instruction we were asked to follow keenly) is not as easy as it may look, especially through the sweeping turns, and especially if you carry too much speed into the turn.

Day 1

This was an afternoon drive following the earlier briefing from our hosts. The idea was to get us familiarized with the desert environment, which for some reason was actually cold, as well as helping us get our sand feet, i.e honing our sand-driving mettle. Much as it didn’t seem like it, the dunes were less extreme, the slopes less steep and the twists and turns less dramatic. We drove around in huge circles, randomly getting stuck, dancing gracefully across the desert floor in a convoy of gleaming trucks and stopping every now and then to take photos, grab a snack, swap seats and such. It was during this drive that I beached my car not too long after the start. At the close of the day, the hosts cheerfully told us that what we had just done was child’s play compared to what lay ahead of us the following day.

Day 2

We arose at zero dark thirty to catch the sunrise next to the Atlantic ocean, followed by an interesting beach drive before we started inching further into the desert. I recall leaving the highway, making a right turn past an ATV racetrack before stopping at the foot of the biggest sand dune I had ever seen. It looked like a mountain and I strongly suspect the view from the top would allow one to see all the way to South America across the Atlantic. Or not. We were about to find out.

When they said the second day would be a lot more extreme they were not talking out of the side of their necks. The insanity kicked off with us powering our way up that sandy mountain with nothing but the sun in your eyes and the roar of the diesel mill in your ears as your back is pressed into the seat under what felt like twice the normal force of gravity. It became clear why the driver’s seating position had to be uncomfortably intimate with the dashboard (again, explained last week). One could easily and unwittingly unhand the vehicle controls, ceding your fate to the designs of geography and the laws of physics as you participate in what could only be described as the most spectacular accident of your life.

Power up the dune, crest it and immediately wonder aloud why no one is spotting for us (another off-roading requirement). The surprise that awaits you on the other side actually unsettles the stomach because you will instantly get an inkling of what it feels like to be in an elevator whose cables have snapped. The descent is crazy; it is even steeper that the ascent. The instinctive reaction is to slam on the brakes; but this is a serious no-no because the front of the car will dig into the sand, the back will rise into the air and you will descend to the bottom in a series of cartwheels.

The trick is to modulate braking (the DMAX does not have any of that fancy hill descent control electronic wizardry found in Land Rovers) and hold the wheel as straight as you can. This is because there is no time or opportunity to start downshifting for engine braking without the risk of over-revving and probably blowing the engine. Float down to the bottom atop a rapidly growing mound of sand which you have to be keen to power out of early enough otherwise you will bury yourself in it once you reach the bottom.

After expertly extracting yourself from that driving predicament, one pats oneself on the back, grinning toothily and thinking that was one heck of a wake-up call. All remnants of sleep have immediately cleared from the mind. Feeling inspired and chummy with the guide, I look askance upon him:

“Which way are we going now?”

“We are going that way”.

He points at an even bigger sand dune. Welcome to the desert.

Day 2 is not easy, I will grant you that. There is increased frequency of cars yielding to the treacherous sand. More and more people are getting stuck more often. Our average convoy speed is picking up fast. The gap between vehicles is increasing. There is drifting, there is understeer and there are powerslides as drivers become desperate to keep their compadres in sight.

This is important because our guide, in a pre-facelift branded vehicle, has a dark and diabolical sense of humor. As the slopes become longer and steeper, the crests become totally blind and he chooses these points to make sudden turns which nobody sees meaning there are several hair-raising moments that follow this. To make it up the slope, one has to go flat out. Shoot up the slope, fly across the top and you suddenly notice, while in mid-air, that the tracks have veered left as you continue plowing straight at full speed. This is quite the quandary because if you make a hard and sharp turn, you will either flip the vehicle (good Lord, please no!), you will rip the tyres off the rims or if you are feeling particularly lucky, you will understeer directly into a less viscous portion of the sand box in which case you will sink immediately and the rest of the convoy will hate you because that will mean another twenty minutes wasted as the rescue team exhumes you from your sandy interment.

The drive is as entertaining as it is unnerving. It is amusing to watch drivers react to the instant changes in topography as they drive unknowingly into the guide’s craftily laid out traps. The script is the same all round: watch a truck drive at full speed up a slope, then suddenly cut speed, the brake lights immediately glow and the car disappears from sight as the ensnared helmsman helplessly watches himself fall down a hole with very little control over his vessel. There are a few tense moments of dead silence after which the truck reappears a mile away looking for a place flat enough to stop and regroup. Nerves are shot.

The desert is unrelenting. The repetitive and monotonous dunes are starting to take their toll on everybody. The sun’s rays are melting the sand into a soft and gooey pillow that robs the cars of forward motion and captures those who forget the driving tips given the day before. It becomes trickier for the guide to find ground solid enough to drive on without doubling back on our tracks. In fact, things are becoming so technical that even the guides and rescue teams start getting stuck. We enter a chasm that becomes the pit of tribulation because the steepness of its sides, the blindness of its rim and the inconsistency of the sand means close to half the vehicles get properly stuck, with a very close call as one silver truck catches air as it enters the chasm and narrowly misses ramming into the back of a red truck that is stuck halfway down the slope. The tension builds and there are hushed words going round that perhaps we are now hopelessly lost in The Namib. Looking around, the length and gradient of those slopes make it fairly obvious that we don’t have enough horsepower to make our way to the top without grinding to a halt somewhere along the way. It seems like we are trapped inside the giant hole.

But we aren’t. The guide knows his stuff and he designs a winding route (with fewer surprises) that worms its way out of the chasm with zero casualties and a short while later we are on top of another massive sand dune with the ocean lying below us. The place seems familiar, as it should because this was the self-same dune with which we kicked things off earlier that morning.

The blast in the desert is over.

SIDEBAR:

The Sandstorm

As we made our way back to the hotel on the first day, we drove into a sandstorm. It is nothing like you have ever seen before. Haunting, wispy, spectacular, beautiful plumes of sand cascade across the road in an endless loop of gusts and dust devils, as you drive in an empty post-apocalyptic landscape that feels specifically crafted for a scene from a Star Wars film. The storm is so powerful and the dust cloud so dense one can’t see the vehicle ahead. Check your mirrors and realize you can’t see the vehicle behind either. The crosswinds are quite strong; you have to have both hands on the wheel, constantly adjusting your line otherwise the gale will blow you right off the road. The thickness and the whiteness of the sandy pea-soup and the quantity of sand being blown onto and across the tarmac means once you lose the road you will probably never find it again.

A lone bus appears from within the mists, full lights on, and thunders past. You try not to imagine what would happen if you saw it too late and drove under it. The whole thing feels surreal and unforgettable.

 

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