Desert driving in Namibia

James Henderson braves perilously steep sand dunes and treacherous rocks in search of the black rhino

The Land Rover Defender TDCi
The Land Rover Defender TDCi | Image: Joe Hanlon

If in doubt, charge! It’s standard policy if you’re a black rhino. And there are times to take a leaf out of his book. Not always, of course, but it’s immensely satisfying when it’s just the right thing to do.

The world’s last remaining free‑roaming population of black rhino is in Namibia, but this wasn’t the main reason to visit. Instead, it was desert driving in the Namib. A third of the country is desert, laid bare by lack of vegetation and searing heat. The result is punishing terrain, layered with treacherously shifting sand dunes – the world’s largest – and machine-tearing rock. Driving in such places is surely a skill any bloke should have. I’m no petrolhead and I’ll be taking a vehicle to places I never imagined possible, testing rock and rubber – not to mention my courage – to their limits. But assuming we don’t get pronged by a rhino or barrelled by an elephant, this is going to be one thrilling experience.

Friday 1655

I leave London City for Frankfurt and from there to Windhoek. Namibia is good to get to. There’s no time difference, so you get two full days from a weekend jaunt and a decent sleep each way.

Saturday 0600

Descending the Damara metamorphic suite
Descending the Damara metamorphic suite | Image: James Henderson

Arriving to wide, open spaces and bright sunlight, I cross the airport to a small and bouncy flight to Damaraland. The country rolls beneath me patterned like a cheetah – blotches of dark on dry, yellow grass. Eventually, we reach the Namib.

Saturday 0900

At Omaruru, I am met by Caesar Zandberg and Zané Oosthuizen, who will be my guides. Where Zané is seamless logistics, Caesar, a guide for 20 years now, is a treasure trove of random facts about animals (oryx cool the blood to their brains by breathing; desert elephants can hold over their reproductive phase for years) and rocks. Omaruru is a lesson in Namibia’s curious history of German colonisation, with its Biergarten selling Tafel Lager, alpine hats with guineafowl feathers and a river called Teufelsbach. Very strange. I pick up my steed – a Land Rover Defender TDCi.

Saturday 1400

We reach the Brandberg (which should also be in Bavaria) – a massive rock that juts out of the desert, anchoring Damaraland to the map. We are now off‑road, so we reduce air-tyre pressure by a few notches. We skirt the Brandberg to the north, cruising over a gravel plain of limestone on granite. Grazers abound – steenbok, zebra and oryx.

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Suddenly, the surface breaks and we descend into the Damara metamorphic suite, where old granite has been brutalised into schist. It’s appalling stuff – angled shards of agonised, sunburnt rock – and ideal for some serious driving.

First, it’s down. Blimey. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. It’s like facing a mogul field on skis for the first time, but with a tonne or two of uncontainable momentum. Surely the vehicle will lose its grip and skitter down out of control, or simply forward roll? But it’s extraordinary what low ratio does. Heart in my mouth, I descend. They talk about traction, but this feels like a giant taking you in mechanical hand.

Then up. I mutter in disbelief at the slope. But with diff lock and still in low ratio, everything becomes more, well, orderly, and with wheels at gangly angles and me pinned back in my seat, the vehicle takes on the purposeful inevitability of a tank. We crawl up and up, crunching, pinging and lurching over rocks and ledges.

The track, an old prospectors’ trail, weaves through any vaguely driveable land available – ridges between porcupine spikes of rock and splinters seemingly caught in mid-explosion. Look closely though, and the schist has eroded into filaments, incredibly hard but as fine as a fish gill. I am beginning to like the Defender. After such exertion, the turbo engine lets out a satisfied aspirated roar.

Saturday 1600

A lone bull elephant at the Brandberg riverbed
A lone bull elephant at the Brandberg riverbed | Image: James Henderson

A serious sideways lean sends adrenaline thumping into my skull as my brain refuses to believe what is happening: a vehicle simply cannot lean this far to one side and not tip over and, in this case, continue barrelling down the rocky slope for another 50m. It’s probably only about 20º, but I am pushed right up against the window frame, while the offside wheels seem to dance in the air. Some sensations of risk I have learnt to enjoy; not this one.

Saturday 1700

After a final descent into a side-river bed, we pitch camp beneath an old tantalite mine. A single oryx bounds up the hillside as we approach. Camping is an art form in southern Africa. There is fold-out everything – chairs, tables, grills, carving knives – and considerable comfort. We start with chilli and coriander beef biltong, followed by grilled steaks, baked potatoes and South African wine.  

Clearly, I am worn out, albeit elated to have survived the slopes. Caesar teases me about an even worse section where he takes advanced drivers.

Sunday 0700

Setting up camp
Setting up camp | Image: James Henderson

We nose through thick vegetation and into the Brandberg riverbed, whose mainly sandy course has sections of dried mud – waterholes are good for spotting animals, of course. Guineafowl run and twitter in agitation. A hammerkop, a fantastically prehistoric-looking bird, perches on a tree and eyes us. In the brush, baboons on their haunches peer.

The sand, when it comes, is thick and gravely and an altogether different driving proposition. The vehicle is in permanent four-wheel drive anyway, but when we reach deep, soft sand, it is time to engage low ratio again. It’s all about traction to avoid getting bogged down. It is something I am grateful for a few moments later when we come across a lone bull elephant among the riverbank trees. We drive up to get a good view. Suddenly, he decides we are too close and all hell lets loose. He charges, smashing branches in his way and flapping his ears. Near to the bank, he screeches to a halt and sounds off with a massive trumpet. In the meantime, though, I have engaged reverse and moved back 20m, without a hint of wheelspin. We are out of the danger zone. This time the aspirated exhalation is mine – phew.

Sunday 0900

It is time to leave, so we climb out of the Brandberg basin. Little grows here – just tatty euphorbia, a mess of fleshy leaves, and myrrh, with its complexity of branches like a capillary bed. The Namib reaches right down to the Skeleton Coast. It’s certainly empty. In an hour, we pass just one car. Here, on more pedestrian terrain, the inevitable corrugation – dugga, dugga, dugga – threatens to shake the vehicle to bits. Some advise 40km/h, others 120km/h, at which speed the vehicle fishtails on the light gravel.

As the Brandberg recedes, I realise I have not seen a rhino, just spoor a couple of days old. But I am rewarded by meerkats, who tumble over one another in flight, but then halt to look back, popping up and down like trumpet keys.

The Toyota Land Cruiser descending a dune near to Swakopmund
The Toyota Land Cruiser descending a dune near to Swakopmund | Image: James Henderson

Sunday 1100

A bank of cloud, the product of desert warmth and the cold Benguela Current, hangs menacingly over the coast at 300m. We stop for a sandwich on the beach.

Sunday 1400

A driving trip wouldn’t be complete without dunes, particularly as the limitless stretch of sand south of Swakopmund has some of the largest in the world. Tyre pressure is down to one bar all round, as the sand is unusually soft – wind has blown it around and it hasn’t compacted. And it’s low ratio again. We’re in a four-litre Toyota Land Cruiser, which has been specially adapted for the dunes. We head west, climbing the wind-driven shallow surfaces, and then down the slip sides, which are impossibly steep. Route finding is key. At the lip of each dune, we scan the land, thinking two or three peaks ahead.

“I’d rather check a hundred times than get stuck,” says Caesar.

A room at the Desert Breeze Lodge
A room at the Desert Breeze Lodge | Image: Joe Hanlon

Then it’s my turn. Dune driving is a dance of momentum, direction and power, feeling the wheels forward, using any solidity you can find, but easing off the power before you become swamped.

I pause, horizontal, at the top of a vast slope and then nudge off. The nose dives 45º. I keep my foot on the brake and slide down in a sea of sand, which eventually moans like a foghorn. As you approach the foot of the slope, you set your direction – straight up, basically.

And here’s the golden rule from the rhino’s book. Once you’ve decided to go for it, you mash it – 4,000 revs or more. Charge, in other words. Ah, the flow of pure pleasure. We weave among the dunes, blasting up vertiginous, near-liquid slopes and sliding down the other side.

Sunday 1800

After a shower at the Desert Breeze Lodge and a blokish goodbye to my Defender, it’s 10 minutes to Swakopmund airstrip for the quick link back to Windhoek and the mid-evening flight to Frankfurt.

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Monday 0835

As I arrive at London City, I realise I am happy to leave the landing to the pilots, but there was something intensely satisfying in taking a vehicle to places I never thought I could make it go – and surviving. I may not have seen a black rhino but, in the dunes, he made his presence felt nonetheless.

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