OUT OF AFRICA
If you think today’s SUVs have lost their off-roading roots, BMW proves that its X5 can still get down and dirty with its Driving Experience programme in Namibia.
Words and Photos: Sheldon Trollope
Roots, may be the name of Alex Haley’s award-winning novel and television series. But it also brings to mind where it all started for the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) genre that no carmaker can afford to do without today. Even the likes of Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce are on the verge of launching their first attempt at the SUV market.
Today, many SUV manufacturers count on the fact that over 99 per cent of customers never venture off road in their cars and as a result have been steadily dialling back 4x4 ability in favour of car-like drivability.
One of the first cars to show the world that you can have the best of both worlds is the first BMW X5 when it was launched in 1999.
Arguably, the first brand to introduce the concept of a luxury off-roader was Land Rover with the original Range Rover. But anyone who has driven one before the 2000s will tell you that body control and handling on tarmac was never its forte. Some would even go as far as to say they were agricultural.
Three generations on, the BMW X5 has lost none of its off-roading ability in spite of current trend for SUVs to be more road-focused than ever. An amazing way to prove this dirt track capability was by holding an 8-day off-road driving programme in Namibia.
This is just one of the many driving programmes organised by the BMW and MINI Driving Experience. Wholly owned and operated by BMW M GmbH – the German carmaker’s motorsports division – this outfit conducts a wide range of courses and experiential programmes around the world that range from simple defensive driving courses for complete beginners to professional programmes in order to be certified instructors.
In addition to conducting the courses on race circuits like the Nurburgring Nordschliefe or the winter proving grounds in New Zealand, the BMW and MINI Driving Experience also conducts its off-roading programmes in South Africa and Namibia.
Besides putting the BMW X5 and X3 through its paces, the programme is designed as self-drive tour to experience some of Africa’s best natural attractions first hand. evo Singapore was invited to the 8-day tour of Namibia.
The programme begins at the Okapuka lodge just outside the Namibian capital of Windhoek (say ‘Vint-ook’). This 10,000 hectare game farm serves as the base from which the tour sets off and usefully, the rugged terrain on its premises serves as a good place for participants to familiarise themselves with the BMW X5 and techniques they’ll need to learn to handle their cars over different types of terrain.
The cars used are the BMW X5 xDrive 30d version, which is powered by a 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder turbodiesel that’s capable of 258hp and 560Nm of torque. For extra protection, the cars are fitted with steel lower bumpers and exposed tow rings for easy extraction in case we get stuck (but never did) as well as some steel plating to shield the drivetrain and engine sump from smashing against rocks or overly deep ruts. Interestingly, winter off-road tyres are also fitted because of how some of the sandy and slippery surfaces react similarly to snow and ice.
As participants arrive from all over the world, the first day is spent with a short off-road tour of Okapuka. It doesn’t take long before our cars are crawling up rocky paths giving the xDrive four-wheel drive system as well as the suspension a real workout.
Traversing the rocky and hilly terrain also quickly gets us acquainted with the Hill Descent Control (HDC) function. When you’re negotiating steep downward gradients with loose surfaces, HDC takes the guesswork out of selecting ratios, differential settings or applying the right amount of brake pressure that would let the car make the descent in a safe and controlled manner.
Once pressed, all the driver has to do is simply steer the car and HDC will automatically brake each wheel as needed with the right pressure. The effect is that the BMW X5 feels like it’s crawling down a steep drop, one wheel at a time. When engaged, the speed of the descent can be changed via the cruise control toggle on the steering wheel from as low as 5km/h all the way to 20km/h.
Hill Descent Control first appeared on the original Land Rover Freelander to make off-roading more accessible without recourse to low ratio transfer cases and locking differentials that can confuse the uninitiated. Since BMW used to own Land Rover back then, the German carmaker was able to access the British outfit’s off-roading expertise and technology and combine it with its industry-leading knowhow of on-road dynamics and marry the two to create SUVs that offer the best of both worlds.
Technologies like this make it so easy in a modern SUV like the BMW X5 that someone with zero off-roading experience can jump in and take this car up and down a mountain in an afternoon. This lies in sharp contrast to expeditions I’ve attended just a few years ago where you had to be trained to know how and when to use a low ratio transfer gearbox and which of up three differentials to lock. Even so, quite often we would get it wrong and a winch or tow truck would have to be called in.
Another takeaway from the experience is that the BMW X5’s seats are some of the most comfortable and supportive in the business. No matter how much the Kalahari and Namib deserts jostled and bumped our cars about, day after day we could step out fresh as daisies with nary a back or neck ache to show for it.
Every day, we would drive for hundreds of kilometres at a time over gravel, rocks, dry riverbeds and sand dunes that take a toll on the suspension and drive train. Naturally, these conditions accelerate the wear and tear in the cars. Our X5 showed just over 50,000km on the odometer but off-road mileage is like dog years and it may as well have covered ten times the distance. Yet the turbodiesel powerplant remained impressively quiet and free of extraneous vibration while the eight-speed automatic gearbox continued to shift smoothly and without any hint of trouble.
With the exception of two tyre punctures on one day of the tour when we drove on the dry bed of Swakop River, the BMW X5 xDrive 30d ran faultlessly, allowing us to take in the rugged beauty that Africa had to offer.
The scale of Namibia is breath-taking, especially when you’re from our land-scarce Republic. On Day 3, we made our way to the 70,000-hectare Erindi Game Reserve – about the size of Singapore. To get there, you turn off the highway and drive for another 40km on a rust-coloured gravel road before you reach the main gate. From there, it’s another half hour before you reach the resort that boasts the most spectacular restaurant views you’re likely to ever see. Overlooking a large watering hole, diners get to see crocodiles, elephants, hippos and all manner of creatures coming to within a stone’s throw of us.
At sunrise and sunset, daily safaris are organised by the game keepers who will travel deep into the Savannah in open Land Rovers for shutterbugs to train their lenses on lions, cheetahs, giraffes and countless other species. Although our guides did well to get us up close and personal with the big game, animals like zebras and wildebeests could hear the 4x4’s diesel motors chugging from miles away and would disappear into the grassland. If ever there was a case for electric off-roaders that could approach in total silence, this was it!
If all we saw was just one of these creatures, like a lone bull elephant approaching our vehicle on a week-long tour, it would have been enough to make the entire trip memorable, but each day, time and again, one surprise after another would emerge.
While some of the accommodations were basic but comfortable at the very least, those accustomed to five-star hotels will find it in at the Strand in Swakopmund, the turn-around point of our journey.
This idyllic coastal town could pass for a European Riviera, while just a few minutes drive away laid the epic sand dunes of the Namib Desert. Apparently, it is the only place in the world where the dunes meet the ocean.
The diversity of wildlife that Namibia has to offer is nothing short of staggering. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a short boat ride off the coast of Swakopmund will give you a first hand encounter with seals that come into your boat as well as dolphins, pelicans and flamingos to name a few.
While nature buffs will be pleased no end, they can also see people in the buff at the San Living Museum in Erongo, Namibia. Here visitors can see a small community of bushmen living their traditional way of life as they have done since the dawn of mankind. Apparently, each group spends about three months at the living museum and the next community is rotated from the Kalahari.
Although it has been said that you should never meet your idols lest you be disappointed, a visit to Namibia will still bowl over even the most ardent wildlife documentary fan; while seeing it from a BMW X5 adds another incredible dimension to the experience. Although this tour doesn’t exactly come cheap; about 5300 Euros or S$8,455 (excluding airfare), it’s easy to see why the this and other longer and costlier African BMW Driving Experiences are mostly sold out until 2019.