Driving the kids over the largest sand dunes in the world
Driving the kids over the largest sand dunes in the world, Namibia
Planning is something important especially if you don't want to miss out on unique experiences, so before we set off on our year trip I had booked the Faces of the Namib tour a 4x4 desert tour crossing the Namib desert from East to West, it's a unique five-day/six-night off-road tour through incredible desert, specially designed to incorporate dune driving adrenaline thrills along with other unique Namib Desert highlights. These include the Kuiseb River Canyon, ancient petrified dunes, haunting diamond mining villages and fascinating shipwrecks.
We get to Solitaire early as it's and short drive from Sesriem, we head for Solitaire guest farm the meeting point for the tour where we will camp tonight. When we arrive we find out we are the first to arrive from the group, the guy at check-in tells us that there are 9 children on the trip and we are all excited at the prospect of the kids having other children to play with. We decided to head back to the main area of Solitaire to get last minute supplies, fill the fuel tank and 3 jerry cans to the brim as we would need enough fuel for six days traversing around 550km of desert, in total we had 190 litres of diesel, 70 litres drinking water and 60 litres of non-drinking water for group camp use. We then head back to camp to enjoy the swimming pool to avoid the heat of the day, since South Africa we have been deciding on a name for the Landcruiser and we finally choose the name favourite with the Kids, Pumbaa. Pumbaa is the warthog out of the Lion King and reflects the sluggish temperament of the car. Ever since leaving Johannesburg we have been worried about whether the car would make it through the trip, we met a number of people in South Africa who had either done the Faces of the Namib trip or heard of it and they all gave us sideways looks whilst saying "In that thing". Concerned I emailed the tour company who replied and said that the car would make it. At camp we observe the cars one by one coming into camp, none have roof tents and all very nice new modern cars, again we start to worry.
In the evening we got the opportunity to meet guides and fellow travellers in the bar, Len was the head guide and he was supported by 2 others Luciano and Johnny. I am keen to talk to Len at the earliest opportunity, Edwina senses my anxiety and brings Len over to me, "Will she make it!" I blare out, Len starts to comfort me "we have had a number of 4.2 diesels on the trip before, but they are slow your going have to GUN IT to make it". Not entirely sure what "Gun It" meant we sat down for a briefing of what to expect in the next couple of days and started to chat with fellow travellers over dinner. The group was a mixed bag of 16 adults and 9 children, there were 3 families from Namibia Una and Agostinho with 2 kids driving a VW Amarok, Rebecca and Bazil with 1 child driving a Landcruiser 200 and Yvonne and Kenneth with 3 kids driving a Ford Ranger. The other 8 adults were South African, retired farmer Attie and wife Jana in a Ford Ranger, Peter and his son Wynard in a Hilux, Johan and son Johannes in a V8 Landcruiser and Pierre and Rossonie in a Toyota Furtuna and then us the foreigners from England.
Reflecting back this is not an adventure that can be captured since the vastness of the expanse, the beauty of the desert, the emotions of the participants and the adrenalin boosted exhilaration is simply lost in the flatness of the paper and limitations of the ink. It's something that you must have to experience for yourself but I will try to describe the trip.
In the morning each vehicle was fitted with a radio and after a radio check the train of 4x4's lined up on the road, we drive 35kms on the road north of Solitaire and entered the Namib Naukluft National Park of some 34,000 square kilometres, founded in 1907, which was to be our home for the next five days. Right from the outset it was clear that we were extremely fortunate to experience the Namib Desert seldom visited by the "normal" tourist. Around 1 hour in we stop to deflate our tyres to 1 bar, Len also tells us from this point to drive the whole way in low range to maximise the power of our 4.2 diesel engine. Len then proceeds with a safety briefing and code of conduct including that everything (including toilet paper) that is brought into the Park is taken out of the park, the guides even pick up the fire embers in the morning and transport them out. Len stipulates that we are all one family on the journey and need to rely and help one another in this very hostile environment. The first day is described as easy by the guides with small dunes to get the drivers used to the technique required to transverse the big dune desert some reaching over 300 meters high. We cross the Namib plains and the landscape gradually changes from the typical Namib Plains sand tracks into a colourful landscape of red sand dunes separated by grassy plains. On around the 2nd small sand dune we fail to make it up the dune even after serval attempts, this would be the first of many times that Luciano in the rear guide vehicle would help us out. "Are you in low range" comes over the radio, "Yes", "rear diff locks on", "Yes" I reply again. "You need to gun it", slowly it dawns on me that gunning means revving the hell out of the engine and making extremely quick gear changes without losing momentum, something I didn't master on this dune but somehow made it up. I was assured that the Toyota had a rev imitator and it could not be over revved, we had complete trust in the guides as our lives and the kids were in their hands and went along with their advice. In the afternoon we come to our first slip face a sand dune falling down to a dry river bed, I don't think anything can prepare you for your first slip face and am sure most people are terrified as am I. We watch the cars in front slowly going over 1 by 1, the car noses dip quickly exposing the whole underside of the car to viewers at the back, it looks steep. As we approach the edge we are told to put the gear into 2nd low range and don't press either the brake or accelerator and let the engine do the work. As we go over we are all thrown forward out of our seats and I am having to push on the steering wheel to keep in my seat, the slip face is long and I can't resist the temptation to apply brakes as the vehicle initially starts to accelerate. We are told by the guides later that the angle is 35 degrees which doesn't sound much, it feels a lot more in the car. We keep proceeding down the slip face knowing that if the wheels came out the tracks and went sideways there was a good chance we would roll the car. Eventually we make it down and luckily we gave our camera to the car in front who captured the moment of our first slip face. At the bottom we are told to inflate our tyres to 1.5 bar as we have a rocky section ahead, we proceed down the dry river bed for a while and then start the rocky climb up, I have experience of drive 4x4 on rocks so felt more comfortable on this section but with the limited power in our vehicle had to go up some of the rock faces at speed, we could hear scrape and bumps all the way up, hopefully nothing too serious was being done. When we got to the top it was flat and we drove to a viewpoint of the Kuiseb Canyon, it was getting dark and hard to photograph. Edwina and I were surprised that we then turned around and proceeded down the same rocky path, had the bumps and scrapes been worth the viewpoint, possibly a route we could have stayed behind and sentiment echoed by others in the group that night. We carried along the dry river bed and got to camp near Homeb in the dark, we had travelled 150kms today and I was tired, we set up camp and were then spoiled to a fantastic dinner made by the guides. All of the group speak Afrikaans except for us and a lot of the conversation on the radio is in Afrikaans and it makes it difficult to hear the word "Landcrusier" as with the accent it sounds like an Afrikaans word, I discuss with Len and he comes up with the name "white elephant" for our vehicle.
I didn't get a good nights sleep that night, talking to the guides describing the big dunes ahead and listening to stories of what can happen when things go wrong more often than not because you're not listening to the guides. Len does little to comfort me when I ask him about rollovers, "Yes, there is a possibility" he says, he does also tell me not to worry but I can't help it, if it was just me and Edwina maybe I would have been less anxious, but having the kids in the car puts the pressure on, the feeling of driving on the dunes is similar to the feelings I have had before doing other adrenalin activities like bungee jumping but this time it's in my hands, one mistake by me and we could have a terrible memory on this trip, don't get me wrong the guides were professional and extremely knowledgeable and I knew deep down we would be safe in their hands but it didn't help me sleep.
Day 2, after an interrupted sleep of dreaming of driving the car on sand, we pack up the tents and sit round the campfire for breakfast. The kids seem unfazed by the whole experience and are jovial and looking forward to the day ahead. We get in the cars and do a radio check, "White Elephant in car number 6", we continue down the dry river bed, not long after we hit the Namib Desert, the vista are an indescribable beauty and a photo just cannot capture the vastness of the place. Len would intermittently share his knowledge about the desert, its geology, fauna and the history of the area with us over the radios, the kids were most interested in knowing that the snakes are not the ones to be scared of as the worst you get from being bitten by them is a sore stomach, it's spiders you need to worry about especially the white lady spider which is aggressive and unlike other animals that generally go away from humans this one would attack. In the morning the dunes start small but gradually get bigger and I am get used to gunning the car and trying to perfect my gear changes, most of the morning we were able to make it up the dunes with comments from the other cars, "Looks like you gunning today", "that's the way to drive a crusier" which was a confidence booster. The dunes start to get bigger, looking ahead I can't see a path over the dunes and watch what Len does in front, "he is not going up there, is he", "he is, we will never make it" I say to myself. We follow and try to keep up as much as possible but we struggle to get up one of the dunes, after serval attempts and missed gear changes I let Luciano drive the car up the dune, he made it look easy. We carry on and improve with each dune, it's worth noting that we are not the only car having to make several attempts to get up some dunes and I remember what Len told me at the start it's not the car but the driver that gets up the dunes. We then get to a slip face with a bowl on the other side giving a limited run up for a car with little power like ours. We make our way to the top of the slip face without getting stuck, Len explains over the radio what to do, towards the bottom of the slip face we had to accelerate to make it up the other side. As we approach the bottom Len comes on the radio "GAS, GAS, GAS", I put my foot to the floor but don't make it up the dune. Len instructs us to reverse back down as quickly as possible, as we needed a big run up and had to reverse as far up the slip face as possible, the first time reversing up the steep incline was scary again being pushed out of our seats (the kids thought it was great just like RC racer ride at Disney), a number of attempts and we still didn't make it, we start to think that we will never make it out. Len was just fantastic with advice and showed true patience with us. Len changes technique and tells us to use high range 1st and 2nd gear, we make it to the crest of the dune but not enough to crescent it. Len comes over the radio "Low range, 1st gear, front and back diff locks on, slowly move forward, then reverse", slowly we make progress going back and forth and eventually make it over. It's hard for me to describe just how talented these guides are. The confidence gained in the morning had being taken away with the number of attempts on the bowl. We continue on and Len gets stuck creating a path at the top of a knife edge, Luciano pulls him back and then Len goes over. A knife edge is a dune with a steep incline followed by a slip face on the other side, you need to give it enough power to get up but not too much that you go airborne with the car with a chance of rolling it on the other side. I don't have much confidence at this point of making it over especially seeing other cars in front struggle. Pete in the Hilux comes over as we gathered in the queue to drive the knife edge, "have you done one of these before", "No" I reply, and proceeds to give me advice "Don't look in front as all you see is sky, look to the left when you see the knife edge pass you front wheel take the power off, also better you take it cautiously and get stuck and be pulled back by Luciano than fly over". Pete and his son were great the whole trip providing advice and moral support and telling us not to worry about holding people up. A number of cars in front got stuck, Luciano and Johnny were ready to tow them back. Eventually it was our turn. I position myself at the bottom, foot to the floor I accelerate as fast as I can, taking advice from Luciano on the radio, we make it to the top and hook our wheels first time, it was all a bit of a blur I am not sure if it was Peters advice in the back of my mine but somehow we did it, that was one scary dune. Small victory but it again boost some confidence that we did something first time that others didn't although they could have smoothed the track. We continue on the big dunes we struggle here and there as well as others but eventually make it into camp for the night, a patch of desert in the middle of two ridges of sand dunes looking like mountains front and back. A lot of lessons have been learnt today and we are all getting to know our vehicles better and tackling the obstacles with a bit more confidence. It was extremely hot today 45 degrees (even the AC stop cooling the air) and we drank a good chunk of our water and tried to find what little shade we could in the form of the trucks White Elephants' shadow whenever we stopped. We sit round the campfire relived to have made it and discuss the day with Pete and his son Wynard. Still nervous about the road ahead I head for bed.
Day 3 and more big dunes today, again anxiously I set off "White Elephant ready to go" I say over the radio. Len notices on the car that one of the spare wheel arms has a welding crack in it, the dunes have started to take its toll on the car. I strap it up in the hope to restrict the movement to stop it completely breaking away. We set off with Johan and Johannes in their V8 Landcruiser and Pete and Waynard following these guys gave encouragement and advice in the days ahead and stuck with us. We hit the big dunes early, today would be a hard day with lots of big dunes and a number of times we assessed the situation and thought as a family we wouldn't make it over, the first of these we make it first time, this gives me and all the family more confidence in the dunes ahead. In the morning we reach our second knife edge, we watch the cars in front go over some struggle others do it first time. Eventually it was our turn. I position myself at the bottom, foot to the floor, I accelerate as fast as I can, taking advice from Luciano on the radio, although I knew I had to keep power to crest the knife edge, fear takes over and I take the foot off the accelerator to early, I reverse back down and try again, reversing down we wake up a sidewinder snake and have to stop while the others take photos which builds the anticipation more. On the 3rd attempt we make it over and hook the back wheels and slowly make our way down the slip face. We stop for lunch and then proceed after again on big dunes for the afternoon, we approach a dune which initially doesn't look that bad but the sand at the top is very soft and need good momentum, this almost breaks me, it takes 6 attempts just to get onto the crest of the dune, Len then teaches me how to create your own track by rocking the car back and forth and eventually we get out. Later on we reach a slip face, towards the bottom we are told to give it gas as there is a sandy dune coming off the slip face that we have to go up. We come down and give it full gas and don't make it up the hill, I again can feel the confidence draining. Len drives down and I try several different techniques but don't make it up. Len says "can I try", "Sure I reply", Len reverses up the slip face fast to get as high up as possible and tries to get up the hill, he also doesn't make it, I turn to Luciano and say "well that makes me feel better" knowing that maybe it's not the driver just the car. Len then finds an alternative route spiralling up the dune. I get into Lens car and then surprised when Len lets me drive it up. WOW the power I fly up the dune with ease the difference is immense, it made me want to do the trip again but in a more powerful car. Late on just before camp we come to a slip face 160 meters long, again a terrifying experience, not helped by the roaring sound of the sand avalanching under your vehicle. We make it down and head to camp. It was a very hard day with the White Elephant spending most of its time at 4500 revs, I have started to get concern now that we don't have enough diesel, I warn Len on how much fuel I have, he suggests we get through tomorrow and see then. This camp will be home for the last 2 nights in the desert, along with the roof tent we pitch the ground tent to take everything out of the car to make it as light as possible for the next day, the whole car is stripped we must of lost around 250kg. We sit round the campfire beer in hand and enjoy another fantastic dinner prepared by the guides, braai chicken wings, pork chops, ribs and sausages. The camp is only 4km away from the sea and it's cold at night and need to get the thermals and jackets out, I am exhausted tonight and head to bed early and contemplate the day. Edwina stays up chatting with others around the campfire. Todays scenery was amazing big panoramic views which cannot be described or captured in a photograph, the vehicles just look like little white ants on the giant dunes. The whole experience is just fantastic to be part of, Edwina, the kids and I are loving it, but still part of me just wants to get out knowing we made it safely and car intact. Talking with the other drivers around the campfire most seem to have nerves and anxiety's, everyone is pushing themselves totally out of their comfort zones and as for the vehicles there are some pretty expensive trucks you don't want to breakdown or loose in the desert.
Day 4 and straight out of camp with hit a very sandy dune, it didn't look that bad but White Elephant struggled, after a number of attempts Luciano wants to give it a try, I let him and he gets it up first time, that was the only hiccup today. The first stop was a play area, a big bowl that requires a powerful car to get up the other side, its optional and Luciano signals we wouldn't make it in our car so we watch as the others attempt it. Luciano takes the kids and Edwina through the bowl in his car and I hitch a lift with Peter, great feeling just like a big rollercoaster. We move on getting glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean, a fantastic site and head for Conception Bay, the dunes where still big but more rounded and although soft sand in places mostly hard, the scenery had changed from large red sand dunes to large golden sand dunes it looked like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia a truly special place to be and boy we feel so privileged to see it first-hand. As we are driving to conception bay we hear over the radio "Watch the bumper", we stop the car as we think something is wrong with the wheel bracket that cracked a few days earlier, after a quick inspection and a chat with Luciano we determine nothing is wrong and continue, about 5 mins later we confront a big dune and I put my foot to the floor, we build up speed and suddenly we are airborne with all 4 wheels off the ground, later I say to Luciano "Did you see the elephant fly", "Yes, I guess that was the bump that they were warning us about" he replied. At Conception Bay there is a wooden hut which used to be a police office and post office it now houses a small museum of relics found in the area from the diamond mining era, the diamonds here are small around 6 stones for 1 caret and didn't make commercial sense so the government handed over the land to the national park, this meant every time we stopped the kids had to look for diamonds in the sand. From Conception Bay we headed to the mining settlement of Holsatia, now a ghost town, there are many mining settlements along the coast that were established during the heyday of diamond mining. No form of engine-driven transport was available during the first 15 years of exploration. Transporting supplies and mining equipment happened mainly by ship from Swakopmund or using the cutter, Viking, traveling via Sandwich Harbour, Conception and Meob Bays. Various shipping casualties occurred, such as when the Eduard Bohlen was stranded near Conception Bay in 1909. After lunch in Holsatia we head to the Edward Bohlen shipwrecks pausing for photos and then carry on along the beach making our way back to camp. Coming off the beach is a big sand dune that's sandy on top, I floor the car and manage to get into 3rd and back to 2nd, the gear changes were good but only good enough to get onto the crest of the hill, the radio is silence, I decide to use the rocking technique from the day before and manage to get myself free, over the radio I hear Len "Well done, Excellent, I see you have be learning", really happy with myself we push on and reach camp. We now have to pack everything back into the car and setup the roof tent. I look at the fuel tank with less than a quarter it doesn't look good, I go speak to Len and he supplies me with some more fuel, thank goodness. Whilst pouring the diesel into the car we leave the fuel cap off by mistake and only find out the next day mid-morning a complete w***, hopefully not too much sand has gone in the tank.
All the kids loved each other's company and great friendships over the past days had been formed, it is pretty hard on kids sitting in a car all day and every night when we reached camp there was the need to blow off steam all the kids use loads of energy up running, playing hopscotch, Frisbee, climbing sand dunes and running full pelt down them, fulling every pocket with sand and every other part of the body, hair, ear, our kids seemed totally unfazed by sand and where is was displaced nor in the lack of washing or showering for 5 days.
Being the last evening I get the projector we bought in Hong Kong and put on Hotel Transylvania 2 which keeps the kids quite until dinner a rest bite all the adults enjoyed. Tonight the guides cooked steak and chips another fantastic meal, we were intrigued how they cooked frozen chips on a gas stove and they just put them in a pot with lid with a little oil and something we can defiantly do. After dinner the conversation centred on vehicle brand competition and would continue on the radios the next day although all in Afrikaans we could get the gist, it was a battle between Ford and Toyota, Kenneth defending the Ford and Len for Toyota. We head for bed, leaving the debate around the campfire to continue.
Day 5 was bitter sweet, we loved the experience and wanted it to continue but also wanted the anxiety and adrenalin to stop knowing we safely made it out. First up was another play area, a bowl even bigger than yesterday. Len comes over the radio "On this one you must listen to me, when I say gas, you gas, you mustn't break else your car will roll." This I think made the group a bit nervous I already knew the white elephant couldn't make so we were quite relaxed. Only 3 of the cars attempted this one, Luciano again was a star and took the Cagol's through the bowl, it was steep and you had to accelerate the whole time but we all felt safe with Luciano. The rest of the day was more of a leisure day stopping at another shipwreck the Shawnee and then proceeding along the beach where massive dunes come straight down into sea. It was the only day we didn't get stuck or not make it up a dune, we enjoyed the last few dunes and slip faces and eventually hit the flat sandy road into Walvis bay and check-in to the chalets for the night. After check-in we head to the petrol station to fill up, inflate the tyres and after 5 days come out of 4WD. There is a final meal with the group at a seafood restaurant down by the water, Edwina was over the moon to see the tables laden with fresh oysters. It was a last chance to reminisce on the trip and thank the guides for their amazing discipline and shared skills, they are massively talented and genuine, Edwina and I spent the evenings astonished at their knowledge.
For me and Edwina it was the highlight of our whole year so far and one of the most amazing things we have done in our lives, it was scary, fun, adrenalin fuelled and some of the most amazing desert scenery we have ever seen, it is very additive dune driving and something we would like to come back and do another trip with a more powerful vehicle. But we are very pleased with our White Elephant and although it didn't have the power it made up for it in sheer grit determination and enabled us to learn techniques by being in difficult situations.
As for Maddalena, Arabella and Luca I'm sure they will look back on this in years to come and probably think mum and dad were totally INSANE taking them on this adventure, both Edwina and I have been amazed at how well behaved they were spending hours in the truck watching intently what was going on, giving encouragement, sometimes advice yelling at me to give GAS, GAS, GAS and having to be quiet so I could concentrate and listen to Len's briefings over the CB radio on the terrain ahead.
As for the Landcruisers name after looking up Pumba in Swahili (wasn't great) we decided to stick with the White Elephant.