KAOKOLAND – The charter plane descends steeply towards the dusty Opuwo airstrip. The running gear nearly skims the sandy surface as we fly along to the strip to alert people and livestock who may have drifted onto the unmanned runway of our imminent arrival before the pilot pulls up the plane and banks it to the left. We make our final approach and I spot a fleet of glistening Land Rover Defenders waiting for the plane’s cargo of nervous journos to start an epic three-day trip across Namibia’s Kaokoland in the far northwest of this sparsely inhabited country.
DAY 1: OPUWO TO VAN ZYL’S CAMP
Known colloquially as “the land that God made in anger”, Kaokoland can be an unforgiving place once you depart from Opuwo on a course northwest towards the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass, which we’ll tackle tomorrow morning. First, though, we set course for Van Zyl’s Camp at the foot of the pass (arguably Namibia’s most famous … and its most challenging). My driving partner and I kick off our Kaokoland adventure in a Defender D240 S. Soon the drip-drip of other cars and trucks stops and we drive for hours along rutted gravel roads without passing a soul aside from the occasional Himba settlement. This is big country, all endless sky and fat baobab trees that provide just enough shade in the near 40-degree heat.
The Defender couldn’t feel more at home. Its new D7x monocoque platform and air suspension iron out the ruts, while the climate control, superbly comfortable seats and excellent refinement lull us into long stretches of silence as we take in our surroundings. It’s an early impression on day one, but I can definitively say the new Defender represents such a gargantuan leap over the old model to feel like a completely different model range. Will that irk Defender diehards? More than likely.
After hours of negotiating gravel and sand paths, we arrive at Van Zyl’s Camp to the instruction to carefully inspect our shoes and camping beds for scorpions. Creepy-crawlies reduce me to a whimpering mess, so there won’t be much sleep tonight… Thankfully the sauvignon blanc is ice cold and stars stud the sky.
DAY 2: VAN ZYL’S CAMP TO PURROS
Dutch explorer Ben van Zyl built Van Zyl’s Pass in the 1960s to link Okangwati is the far northwest with the Marienfluss valley. The pass is 1 200 metres above sea level and drops nearly half that distance into Marienfluss. Today we’re in a Defender P400 sporting an inline-six engine coupled with a 48 V electric supercharger. Soon after leaving the campsite (no scorpions, thankfully, but I’m nursing a headache from a late evening of fire-side chats with the warm-hearted locals … and more wine) at the base of the pass, we spot an abandoned trailer. Then a Toyota Hilux that rolled off the track and onto its roof further down the valley (the jokes fly that the discarded bakkie was an elaborate publicity stunt by Land Rover). We see more wrecked pick-ups and SUVs.
Right, no need to be alarmed. I switch the Defender Terrain Response 2 system to rock crawl mode and, thanks to a generous 291 mm of ground clearance, low-range and a locking centre differential, the P400 slowly but assuredly negotiates Van Zyl’s. It takes the fleet more than an hour to progress a few kilometres and, when we reach the summit of the pass and the Marienfluss valley stretches out before us, there’s a celebratory air. Van Zyl’s Pass is undoubtedly the toughest off-road route I’ve ever tackled but the Defender made it look effortless. I can’t think of another another vehicle that could repeat the feat with such ease and comfort. A Land Cruiser 200 or G-Class, perhaps? Perhaps.
Once we reach Marienfluss – one of the most strikingly beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen – our speed picks up and soon the Defender’s bobbing and weaving as its tyres follow the sand tracks at 120 km/h. We snack on sandwiches in a dry river bed under a big tree before tackling the final stretch of the day to Okahirongo Elephant Lodge, with views that stretch to the horizon and wonderfully friendly staff. I’ll sleep very well tonight.
DAY 3: PURROS TO OPUWO
I’ve always been fascinated with Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. More than a thousand shipwrecks line the 500 kilometres of shoreline yet very few people have been afforded the chance to visit this other-wordly, fiercely protected landscape. Of course, the intrepid Land Rover team managed to arrange access for our convoy to the Skeleton Coast National Park on the condition we’re accompanied by the park’s manager and a ranger. We cross dunes, negotiate muddy riverbeds, stop for a coffee and a bite in a ravine before following the path of a dry river.
We soon have to abandon this plan as out convoy leader is alerted to water building upstream following unseasonably heavy rainfall in the area for the first time in years. We dip out of the river and follow graded gravel roads to Purros, where we have lunch at the Manchester United bar, stop for banana bread at a coffee shop en route and arrive at our departure point, Opuwo Country Lodge. Both humans and vehicles are caked in mud and dust, but the smiles break through the dirt as we order beers and toast an unforgettable three days driving an accomplished off-roader in one of the most beautiful but desolate places in the world.