Aircraft initially had few navigation aids and flying was accomplished by means of the pilot’s judgement without the luxuries of navigational and operational instruments at hand. Venturing into the deep Namib dunes, this becomes applicable as all the fancy controls and electronic features in some of the modern day luxury 4×4’s seams the render very little assistance of even could prove to be disastrous in certain conditions! Features that come to mind are amongst others ‘traction control’, ‘descent control’ and even safety features like ABS that could get you in trouble.
In difficult terrain in tight spots diff-locks could also, if used incorrectly, put you in a position were you could lose a tire. A further strange phenomenon is that a vehicle ‘wakes up in the dunes’ and starts to shows ‘character’, ‘personality’ and ‘attitude’. The driver has to really get to know his car and search for the perfect approach to get the ultimate performance given the strong and possible characteristics of the vehicle. They have to become a ‘team’ and the ‘pilot’ has to exploit or compensate for some of the characteristics. Let’s look at some examples of these vehicles ‘living’ in the desert.
Firstly there is “Brutus” – normally the big, bold, beautiful and powerful ‘monster’, dressed to kill with every accessory possible available in which the ‘brutal’ combination of man and machine would approach a dune with sheer brute force. With wheels spinning, sand flying, digging impossible holes in the tracks to the detriment of the ones to follow, and most likely this team will overshoot the crest of the dune to some extent.
Then there is the “meek and mild, gentle character” vehicle totally underpowered but with ‘never say die’ attitude. The ‘pilot’ would compensate by extending the length of the approach and approaching the dune with the engine almost redlining to get all the vehicle will give. They would change through the gears so smoothly and effortlessly that you would have thought it was an automatic gearbox. But ‘boy old boy’ – they have got character, and not to worry, they will keep up with the convoy.
Then we have the ‘Red head’ – small, nippy, overpowered, light weighted sports utility – sometimes with a matching character driver (male or female) – they would do it with excessive speed and manoeuvres that border close to being dangerous.
The ‘blond’ combination – makes every mistake in the book, believing that ‘the electronics are always right’ not really grasping the situation. Then my personal favourite – “the gentleman “the quite, powerful, comfortable and dependable “gentleman” a car that responds to your every need for performance in a quiet and confident fashion.
Being as it may – the experience of charging up a dune not knowing what is on the other side is for most people (especially first timers) a nerve wrecking experience and charging up a dune with you fellow travellers shouting “Wax it”, “Gooi hom” “Stich hom” etc. add to this an inexplicable “out of nowhere adrenaline turbo pump” does not really serve to build confidence. And the if only the manufacturers of the GPS’ could maybe teach the lady in the GPS to rather than doing a silly comment like ‘Recalculation” or “Ready to navigate” to come up with something like “We are the champion” because it is an incredible feeling once you have crested the dune – feeling it in the seat of your pants feeling! You will end up with a heavy shaking hands and legs, a smile that is all over the face – feeling on top of the world!
So what am I saying – for me the ‘perfect’ vehicle for the job needs to be as uncomplicated as possible and contrary to general belief that you need sheer power and all “state off the art gimmicks and features”. One would rather look for responsiveness and the performance characteristic that in the motor bikers would call ‘the power band’ and keeping it in the ‘power band’ to maintain momentum at all times. This combination when ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ and charging a massive dune has time and again proven to be the perfect one. I have over the years on various occasions ‘abandoned’ a run when the ‘feeling’ did not apply and I was certain that I was not going to make it under possibly due to incorrect speed, incorrect gear selection and lack of momentum.
Rather than having all of the fancy controls the ability to judge the terrain and to do the required gear change and/ accelerate before the revolutions drops (a visual understanding of the terrain and forthcoming challenges which no fancy controls could judge). Over the years in the Namib we have made use of quite a few vehicles – one model that we have used that impressed me by doing what is expected of it whilst carrying a massive load of supplies were the Safaris! We had initially – each with its own character, nick named: “Oubaas”, “Rooikappie” and “Gifappeltjie”. The bigger 4.5 petrol engines vehicles in the “Brutus” character in that they were unstoppable. Then there where the mid range ‘plaasbakkies’ by various manufacturers with an I’ll take what you give’ attitude!
The current range of new turbo charged diesel and petrol engines with the latest fuel injection technology really live up to the challenge should you get a pilot that understands his “steed’ and gets the the most out of it, they will go everywhere and take whatever challenge comes their way. Some of these remind me of the Namib Gecko darting light footedly over the Nimbi sand.
Driving in the dunes on a regular basis – how close can you get to ‘perfect’? In my 4.8 Patrol I found just that a no nonsense, powerhouse which is more than willing to respond to acceleration. The sound of the roar of the engine coming alive will definitely inject a fair amount of adrenalin in to the drivers contribution to the desired feeling of ‘flying by the seat of your pants’.