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Towing through the Namib

Towing through the Namib

Mar 2014

Words & pics Pieter Oosthuizen

The first words in what is regarded as one of the greatest adventure books of all time, The Worst Journey in the World, read: “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”

Let me start this story by saying that the prospect of towing a caravan in the Namib Desert seemed like the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.

In the end, though, everyone in our group of first-timers came to the same conclusion: it is possible to have a good time, once you know how to handle your rig – and yourself – in the most extreme sandy conditions that campers are ever likely to encounter.

Using only Conqueror off-road caravans and trailers was a blessing. Thanks to the brand’s reputation for solid workmanship and reliability, and its position as market leader, this trip was probably more about finding out if the ordinary guy could overcome the seemingly impossible odds.

Saying that, the Conquerors got another feather in their cap, thanks to the gruelling work they survived because of the steep learning curve drivers were subjected to during 200km of some serious dune driving.

None of us, including organisers Vivian Torlage and Martin Bezuidenhout from Conqueror West Rand and Zambezi respectively, and Isibonella Tours, expected anything like this on the five-day, 640km journey from Windhoek to Walvis Bay.

It was 37ºC when we got the first wake-up call. The initial venture was a short but testing climb into the red dunes on the southern bank of the Kuiseb River after 300km of gravel travel from Windhoek across the Khomas Hochland and Homeb Plains.

Little did we know that it was about to get screaming hot inside the cars, if you catch my drift… Because for many, including most of the five lady passengers, it was a “what-am-I-doing-here” moment.

The next morning Eben Delport from Uri Adventures spoke about the rules of driving in this wilderness and why we needed to stay in the tracks. It is about safety, ecology and keeping the environment as pristine as possible.

He also mentioned something about an experiment. We did not ask for an explanation. There had been many frail nerves around the campfire the previous night, and talk about the Sea of Sand at this stage was just not appropriate.

In retrospect, we were the perfect group for an experiment, but it was only when I asked Eben at the end of our trip about future towing safaris that he spilled the beans. “This was not a normal Conception Bay tour,” he said. “We wanted to see how people, their cars and the trailers and caravans performed in these conditions.”

Most of the wives were nervous when we started out. On day two some of them were terrified. Vivian's wife, Marianne, was in tears. “I was ready to go home,” she said. “The descents were very, very scary. But after Vivian told me to video them with our iPad, things got better.”

Eben's praises that night lifted their spirits. He said: “We have stretched you today and I am proud of what you have achieved.”

The wives would gradually settle down as the drivers became more confident. The most senior lady, Barbara Botha, said, “You need to trust your man.”

Trust kept her going, even though Oom Piet got stuck time and time again while getting to know his new Chev Trailblazer.

The extreme learning curve and the intensity of getting all the rigs through the obstacles was reflected in the use of three guiding and backup vehicles. The whole thing resembled a goat-herd with his dashing shepherd dogs, keeping the flock safe while on the move.

Eben, in a Nissan Patrol with wife Mariette, was supported by his son and the star of the show, Jacques, who was towing his own Conqueror Commander caravan behind a single cab Hilux D-4D, as well as Simon Wearne in a Cruiser bakkie, who carried a serious load of almost everything. Simon handed the chicken eggs for safekeeping to Adri Kemp, next to husband Sheldon in a brand new Land Cruiser 76 V8 Diesel.

While Simon and helper Johnny Shivute were sweeping from the back, Jacques helped to find the routes, and showed that apparently hopeless situations looked worse than they really are. That gave people a lot of confidence.

Explaining his amazing towing prowess, Jacques said: “I started with shorter caravan trips into the desert some time ago. Recently, we brought five caravans and trailers here to see if it could be done.”

My only off-road towing experience prior to this venture had been with an empty Conqueror trailer hooked to a Nissan Patrol on a tame 500km Lebombo Trail eight years ago, so you can imagine my relief to be driving a borrowed Ford Odyssey Ranger 3.2 TDCi with more than 500 Nm of torque. It was "chipped".

By the third day of towing, we would slide straight down the dune in first or second low, change into third near the bottom and stay in fourth and sometimes fifth all the way on any long climb. This vehicle turned it all into a simple routine, once we had found what worked best for us, and how easy it was to stay at 2000 to 2500 rpm.

All our “temporary immobilities” – being stuck – were caused by driver error and not because of the range of vehicles used by the group. Most drivers managed to get themselves out of their difficulties.

After that l-o-o-o-n-g second day, the convoy arrived at Olifantsbad Camp, 5km from the beach, under a sliver of a sickle moon and a bright Milky Way. Luckily, the next day was a “rest day”.

By then, little victories had become major achievements, even though a clear pattern had developed: drivers were struggling to get over a high, sharp ridge without hanging the vehicle's “stomach” on the crest, because it was so easy to forget that you still needed to pull your caravan up and over the top.

It was all in the mind, because it feels very awkward to keep going until you hang – with all four wheels – down a steep 110m slip face, using the wagon to anchor you.

All this made stopping a lot trickier. It also put a lot more emphasis on the fact that momentum is everything. Yes, it helps to apply the same logic and commonsense that a 4x4 driver needs in sand, but there are many, many more issues.

Towing all that weight exacerbates everything. Any flaws, any mistakes, any indecision will be severely punished by the Namib. The desert exposes every shortcoming, whether it is your vehicle, driving style or lack of experience and confidence.

That is why towing in the Namib teaches you all you will ever need to know about keeping it calm and smooth. We are talking right foot as well as hands, because excessive power and steering input as well as multiple gear changes are a big no-no. 

Said Eben at the time: “The biggest mistake people make, even when not towing, is to lose their cool and try to power their way out of everything. They also change down too often. You need to be smooth in the sand to keep momentum.”

One has to be ultra sharp about where you stop, how you pull away, when to speed up or slow down, reading the sand's texture, and understanding the inclines and a dune's summit. Running at 0.8 bar and lower tyre pressure brought the danger of driving a tyre's bead of the rim, like I stupidly did when the trailer slid into a hole.

While jack-knifing and roll-overs or breaking your rig in two are very real possibilities, wedging yourself into a completely irrecoverable spot is a constant worry. Once you reverse and get the caravan stuck into a sand bank while your vehicle faces uphill, you are not going to go anywhere soon.

Just imagine what six wheels a shot does to a dune track when people start reversing. Eish!

All in all, your anticipation becomes more crucial. If you cannot anticipate, you should not try the Namib’s sand. And never will you find a better place where tyre pressure and the way you balance the caravan's weight are the difference between failure and success.

The fact that all couplers survived was nothing short of a miracle, given the strain they were put under. Afterwards, we noticed at least one ball and another tow-hitch that were bent, while one coupler's high-tensile steel bolt snapped.

Eben got it absolutely right with his itinerary. The 100km round trip to Conception Bay and the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen on the rest day, when caravans were left at Olifantsbad, allowed drivers to “play” in the dunes. This helped us to better understand our vehicles and the concept of towing in the dunes.

While driving to our last overnight spot at Sandvis Camp on the fourth day, Eben remarked on the radio: “Looks like you have not only got it right with the Conquerors, but you have also conquered your fears.”

But there was one more potential scare: the Langewand – a 13km stretch of narrow beach, also called a "Doodsakker” where, like in an ambush, the high tide goes in for the kill and the dunes stop any effort to escape. We got there early to please the ladies, so there was no need for an escape.

The truth was that the real escape had been happening from the day we had left the city. Even though towing sometimes made life difficult, the Conquerors “gave back” when we arrived in camp. The luxury of settling in fast and efficiently, thanks to accessible equipment and having hot geyser water in the middle of nowhere, rekindled the team spirit.

We never lost sight of the bigger picture. As Vivian put it: “This place humbles you. It makes you realise just how small you are.”

Asked about future trips like this one, Eben said: “We can do 48 trips in this concession area, with 30 of them made up of longer Faces of the Namib trips. We also have 15 Conception Bay trips, so there is space for towing adventures.”

Our ordinary group of pioneers has changed the way people will think about desert trips in future. But the Namib stays the same, full of the beauty of life.

There are wonderful memories, like the sleeping baby seal next to the beach track that did not notice half the convoy going past, the flamingoes of Conception Bay, the tiny sand snake in Sandvis Camp, and the watchful dune adder (Sidewinder) at a lunch stop. Who could forget the gemsbok on the dune streets, and the little birds, dashing between tufts of grass, playing hide-and-seek with us?

The Worst Journey in the World is based on explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard's story of three men's remarkable feat a century ago in collecting Emperor penguin eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter. They learned a lot about the survival instincts of a comical bird, and of man.

We learned a lot about towing a Conqueror, without breaking the eggs!

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Source: Leisure Wheels

Leisure wheels