BBC Autos

Tackling Namibia in the Amarok

HIDE CAPTION

Blasting dustily down a dirt road in the vast, deserted badlands of southern Namibia, the Amarok’s temperature gauge is reading 54.5C. In old money, that’s 130F.

It’s also, as meat enthusiasts will attest, the temperature at the centre of a medium-rare steak. So if we, photographer Wycherley and I, were to become separated from the Amarok now, within a few hours we would, quite literally, be cooked through. Cooked, delicious and eventually eaten by zebras.

Bumping along at, ahem, enthusiastic speeds, coolly cocooned within the Amarok’s air-conditioned cabin, I wonder if its temp gauge might be exaggerating. I lower the driver’s window, and am punched hard in the side of the head by a slug of brutal, dry heat, a fan-oven blast that sucks the moisture from my eyeballs and leaves me wheezing. I rapidly raise the window and conclude the Amarok is not exaggerating. Breaking down now would definitely equal lightly browned, charbroiled death.

Sure as hell no chance of a human finding us before we reached perfectly seared, pink-centred edibleness. We haven’t seen another car, another soul, for six hours. The last scrubby shack (deserted) we passed was 80 miles back, the last shop (closed) 100 miles before that. What do people here do if they want, y’know, stuff? “Just popping out for some milk, darling. See you in September.”

Phone for help? Not a chance. There’s no mobile phone signal here: even if there were, what would you tell the rescue services? “Hi, Namibian RAC? We’ve broken down. Badly. Where are we? Er, Namibia? More specifically? No idea, sorry. I can see… sand. And rocks.” There are no towns here, few signposts. And if your car has any propensity towards mechanical failure, these roads will find it: loose-dirt tracks that veer in an instant from thick sand to rock-hard corrugation, with nausea-inducing humpbacks and dog-sized boulders thrown in for good measure.

Welcome to Africa. The final frontier for carmakers. If you want to conquer the toughest of the inhabited continents, this is what your vehicles have to survive. If, specifically, you’re VW, this is what your new, shiny pickup has to survive to overhaul Toyota as king of Africa. Europe’s biggest automaker is quietly taking over China and South America too. But rural Africa is a rather slower nut to crack.

Cars aren’t a luxury here, a convenient alternative to catching the train or slipping into the Lycra for a bracing cycle. They are quite literally lifelines. Even in the wildest corners of the Scottish Highlands, if your car breaks down it’ll be, at most, a matter of hours until someone passes. Not days. Certainly not weeks. But if your engine goes bang in the middle of the desert, you will become a) dead and b) medium-rare.

Which means that – outside the big cities, at least – the car world’s relentless march of fashion, of newness and of technology all counts for bugger-all. Stop-start? Active suspension? Just another thing to break. Forget traffic alerts or DAB radio. Out here, reliability and indestructibility are all.

That’s why Africa is Toyota country. Since the Sixties, the continent has been dominated by, first, the FJ – Japan’s bare-bones answer to the Series 1 Land Rover, as driven by Hammond in Bolivia – and latterly the Hilux. Why? Because they simply refuse to break. All those tests that inspired TopGear to declare the Hilux the Most Indestructible Car in the History of Ever – the fact it’ll keep going whether drowned, burned or crushed under hundreds of tonnes of rubble – are exactly why Africa loves it so, why 40-year-old examples are still creaking round the deserts, savannahs and jungles after a lifetime’s abuse.

However, even the newest Hilux is far from the luxurious. It’s a great, gruff rhino of a thing, roaring lustily on the move, its utilitarian cabin designed to be wipe-clean in the event of, say, having to bludgeon a bloodthirsty leopard to death against the steering wheel.

Enter VW. The Amarok, hopes Wolfsburg, can bring a soupçon of car-like sophistication to a sector that regards digital clocks and electric windows as a bit nouveau. It’s available with Volkswagen’s latest, quietest diesels and a posh eight-speed auto ’box, as well as the firm’s full road-car options list. It’s quiet and passably sophisticated, holding pace on motorways without reducing your ears to pulp. Nice in theory, but quietness and posh kit counts for nothing in wildest Namibia unless the pickup they’re stuck to can survive a particularly nasty apocalypse. Prove you can take a beating, VW, then we’ll admire your smart leather and dual-zone climate control.

Which is why we have spent a week in one of Africa’s harshest corners, diligently trying to smash an Amarok to pieces. So far we have failed. This is not for want of trying. Short of tipping it off a cliff or getting dictatorial on it with a Kalashnikov, we have done everything in our power to break this pickup. Yesterday, I drove up the side of a 1-in-1 rubble canyon wall, breadknife-edged stones pinging off the tires and clattering into the Amarok’s underbody. This morning, I dropped the VW 500 feet down a near-vertical sand dune and squealed like a trapped pig all the way to the bottom. The Amarok handled both with unblinking, camel-like resilience. Sand, cliffs, rock fields, the Amarok has devoured the lot, and all on standard, fully inflated road tires. I am begrudgingly impressed.

And, between the boulder-scrambling and the dune-sliding, thousands of miles of the sort of slippery, bumpy track we’re piling along now, vapour trails of dust billowing a mile behind our truck.

Tackling these roads at a decent lick is not a relaxing job. The cambered surface shifts second by second, deeper sand dragging the wheels off the road, hard ruts bouncing the tires from the ground. Just to make things interesting, a 50mph crosswind whips sand across the road and batters the Amarok’s buff body. Feel the grip shifting from tire to tire, gently coax the truck back into line, don’t jerk the wheel. Most importantly, don’t crash.

In truth, I’m not exactly sure what the legal speed limit is here. It seems a little irrelevant. On these roads, the factor limiting your speed isn’t avoiding licence points, but a desire for self-preservation. No chance of another car springing up on you: you can see vehicles coming the other way from 10 miles off, kicking dust plumes high into the air. Humans? Not for a few hundred miles in any direction. If you get it wrong – sneeze and veer off the road, catch a rogue rock – you’ll flip for a few hundred yards, and then you’ll die. I’ve no idea what adrenaline and skill is required to wrestle an F1 car on a Q3 hot lap, but I can’t imagine it’s a patch on piloting a sensible diesel pickup down a straight African road.

On the subject of diesel, our Amarok’s got a good ’un – VW’s new 2-litre four-cylinder turbo making 178bhp and a chunky 309 pound-feet of torque. You’d never mistake it for a silky BMW six, but by the standards of ute engines, it’s a muted, smooth thing – and, most importantly, seemingly unflustered by its 50C roasting. A four-pot turbodiesel might sound pretty workaday in Britain, but down here it’s regarded as almost radical. Stopped for fuel a few days back in Kotzenshoop, right on the South African border, a couple of locals – both pink of face and khaki of attire – wandered over to peruse our pickup.

“Amarok,” grunted the bigger, more ham-like of the two, looking at the badge. He boasted a Seventies moustache and a strong Afrikaans accent, which makes even the most innocent utterance sound like you’re trying to start a fight. “Turbo, eh?”

Before I could answer in the affirmative, the pinker, marginally less ham-like khaki-wearer interjected aggressively. “And wha’s wrong with that?” He had, implausibly, a Scottish accent flecked with a hint of Afrikaans, which is precisely as weird as you might imagine. He gestured towards his battered Land Rover Defender 110, every panel of which appeared to have sustained a significant but very localised accident. “She’s got a turbo, and she’s gone half a million kilometres, no problems.”

“Stresses the engine,” replied Hamface authoritatively. “And can you fix it when it goes wrong?” He wafted a sausage-like arm at his faded, double-cab Hilux, so dented it made the Defender look showroom-fresh. “No turbo on that, 750,000km, tight as a duck’s arse.” Few great romantic poems have been written in Afrikaans.

“Aye, and what sort of consumption d’ye get from that?” snorted Afriscotsman. “Two point seven, is it? Lucky to get 15 to the gallon from that. Landie’ll get mid-twenties, easy. That’s the problem with you Toyota lot. You’re proud of shite consumption. What are you gonna do when you run out of fuel in the middle o’ nowhere? That’s the difference between life and death, that is…”

Leaving the khaki crew to their tiff, I snuck off to buy gallons of drinking water and a few kilos of biltong, a tough, jerky-like southern African snack made from the meat of cows raised exclusively on a diet of Jeremy Kyle reruns and Daily Mail comment pieces. When I tiptoed past 10 minutes later, they were still going strong.

Probably a good thing I didn’t mention our Amarok was packing not only a faddish turbodiesel but, even worse, an automatic gearbox. A fine one, too: the 8spd ZF – a transmission we’ve already seen and admired in the Touareg, Phaeton and others – is as good as torqueconverters get, shifting almost telepathically and refusing to be caught out on even the gnarliest boulder-crawls or dune-blasts. Adding complication to a desert-bashing pickup might seem a recipe for disaster, but VW says the auto ’box actually adds, er, simplicity: because eight ratios can cover such a wide spread, it negates the need for a low-range ’box. Apparently, the ’box has just five moving parts (which surely doesn’t seem enough), and, because it can keep the diesel in its sweet spot, reduces wear on the engine. Here’s hoping. I don’t fancy starring as the bloated, vulture-pecked carcass in the next David Attenborough documentary.

At least you’re unlikely to be savaged by lions or leopards out here. Such a barren, lifeless landscape can’t support enough prey to keep a big predator well fed, so Africa’s largest, toothiest maneaters tend to stick to the fertile savannah. Even so, a smattering of wild horses, springbok and zebra wander the canyons, and however peaceable the stripy-pyjama-wearing horses might look, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that, faced with the choice of crunching through a sand dune of desiccated spiny shrubs or a plump, juicy Englishman, they’d rapidly ditch their long-held vegetarianism.

Beware, too, the kudu. The kudu is a large, well-built deer with twisted, razor-tipped horns a metre and a half in length. A male kudu can weigh nearly 300kg, with all its weight balanced at windscreen height atop a set of long, spindly legs. As you may have guessed, you do not want to hit a kudu. Local wisdom dictates there are two strategies for avoiding this. It’s not simply a case of keeping your eyes peeled, because kudu are a) impressively camouflaged, b) very fast and c) easily spooked by cars, meaning they have a nasty habit of bolting from nowhere across the road in front of you. Strategy One is to drive very slowly, making sure you have enough time to brake to a complete stop, should a kudu jump out in front of you. On dirt tracks, this means limiting yourself to about 20mph. Everywhere. Strategy Two is to drive as fast as possible and hope you’re past the kudu before it decides to bolt across the road. TopGear, predictably, has adopted Strategy Two.

The problem with Strategy Two is that it does kick up rather a lot of dust. Fine as flour, the stuff gets everywhere, wedging its way into any nook or crevice, binding with any moisture to create gummy, grating paste. And I’m not just talking about on the car: the dust finds its way into corners of your body you didn’t think could possibly get dusty. I’m sensing I should leave it at that.

Between the scalding sun, the invasive dust, the dead earth, it’s tough to imagine how humans survive here. But they do, clinging onto existence in this harshest of landscapes. Yesterday, we passed through a scrubby settlement, a higgle-piggle of – what? – two or three thousand tiny reed huts perched against a scorched, dusty hillside. Hardly even huts, most of them, just flimsy windbreaks, a crude screen to keep the worst of the sun out. No running water, no sanitation, just basket-huts and few tin-shack shops – including, most interestingly, the ‘LIVING2GETHER BAR AND DRIVING SCHOOL’, unquestionably the most dangerous dual-function establishment since Barry’s Firearm and Magic Mushroom Mart.

I got chatting to a teenager called Albertus Seister. I know this is how his name is spelt, because he wrote it down and ordered me to mention him. Albertus told me – matter-of-factly as reciting a bus timetable – that his parents had both died, and he was supporting his sisters by collecting waste paper from around the town for a dollar or two a day. He regarded himself as one of the lucky ones, because he had a job. I know you don’t pick up TopGear for your monthly dose of social reality, but it’d be remiss not to note that when we talk about selling cars in Africa, we’re referring to the tiny, mainly white minority who can dream of affording a new one. Most of the trucks on the roads here trickle down through the system over years, even decades. Put it this way: it’ll be a long time before anyone in that town will be driving an Amarok.

But will the big VW still be going in the 2030s, clattering along with a seven-figure score on its odometer? I’d put money on it. A week of patented TG pounding across even the harshest desert can’t replicate 20 years and half a million miles of abuse at the hands of Namibian farmers, but this thing feels as indestructible as they come, capable of surviving whatever the continent can throw at it. Of course, not all of Africa is as dry and desolate as southern Namibia, but this is true of much of it: the roads are harsh and occasionally non-existent, and if you break down, it’ll take the AA a very long time to find you.

The Amarok seems up to the challenge. As it slithers up a long, dusty incline, it occurs to me how very good cars are at... surviving. Especially big, no-nonsense pickups like this one. Much better than humans, certainly. Stick a pickup in 50C heat or -20C cold, and it’ll soldier on regardless. A human will rapidly become cooked/frozen.

Over the rise, and from nowhere, the most astonishing vista unfurls before us: a monstrous, half-mile-wide chasm slashed straight across the landscape, dropping 500 metres vertically to a snaking river below. This is, I discover later, the Fish River Canyon, the world’s second largest after the Grand Canyon. There are no signs, no noticeboards, no warning you’re about to plummet into one of the world’s natural wonders, or even that it’s there. I like that. You’re on your own out here. Want to survive? Better make sure your car’s up to it. And watch out for the MurderZebras.

This story originally appeared in the March 2013 edition of Top Gear magazine.

Will the big VW still be going in the 2030s, clattering along with a seven-figure score on its odometer?