- D​efenders of the Skeleton Coast. Photo: Leon Poultney

Land Rover Defender does Namibia: the ultimate off-road test

Leon Poultney is a writer, driver, rider and lover of all things automotive, who writes for the likes of Wired, T3, Stuff, The Sun and DriveTribe.

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It might be stating the obvious, but Namibia is a massive country. In fact, you can squeeze England into its landmass almost eight times before things get a little uncomfortable.

In order to navigate such a vast surface area, the country has is some 42,500 kilometres of road. But a mere 12 per cent of that figure is paved in some way. The rest is a mix of dusty riverbeds, treacherous mountain passes and rocky descents.

Our tiny speck of an island we call home might feature some of the most atrocious roads on the planet, forcing various road testers to insist on driving a vehicle on their local pockmarked surfaces before passing judgement, but at least our network includes some 422,000 clicks of smooth (ish) Tarmac. Almost ten times that of Namibia.

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If there is one place on earth to put a new Land Rover Defender through its paces, it’s the wilds of Namibia's Kaokoland, the barren dunescapes of the Skeleton Coast National Park and the razor sharp rocks of Van Zyl’s Pass. When an opportunity likes this comes up, it would be stupid to turn it down.

The trip, which spans over four days, will see Land Rover’s most anticipated car in recent memory take on the best of this barren landscape. Pegged as the last true wilderness in Southern Africa, the jaw-dropping area of natural beauty is home to the largest sand dunes in the world, free-roaming wildlife and driving conditions that will test even the hardiest explorers.

It might seem a little at odds with the usual luxury hotels and banquet meals of traditional launches, but Land Rover is keen to highlight the fact its new Defender isn’t just a swanky SUV that plays heavily on its history for a new generation of school run parents (although it is a bit). This is one that reimagines this icon of adventure for the 21st Century. Cutting-edge tech meets undeniable all-terrain capabilities on a driving event like no other.

T​he sight that greeted us on arrival. Note the winches as standard. Photo: (Leon Poultney)

T​he sight that greeted us on arrival. Note the winches as standard. Photo: (Leon Poultney)

The land God made in anger

I must begin with a disclaimer: this isn’t going to be the article to read if you want reams of technical data or practical buying advice on the new Defender. I won’t be mentioning the number of interior USB slots (I counted six at one point), the practicality of the third front jump-seat (it’s not very practical) or the average fuel economy figures achieved while thrashing through desert terrain (terrible). There will be thousands of reviews of this ilk if you need them.

No, this is more about an adventure that starts in the comfortable surrounds of Windhoek and ends four days later with battered Defenders, bruised posteriors and seriously sweaty drivers. Sitting comfortably? I'll begin.

The first leg of the journey involves a small plane, which whisks us north towards Kaokoland. The flight takes around an hour but the plane has to make a low altitude pass of the makeshift dirt runway in order to scare off any wayward goats or worse, learner drivers, as the locals often use the place to practice parallel parking and whatnot.

B​ruised arms from snapping out of a window, an occupational hazard. (Photo: Nick Dimbleby)

B​ruised arms from snapping out of a window, an occupational hazard. (Photo: Nick Dimbleby)

In a very Bond-esque bit of bravado, a handful of new Defenders meet us on the dusty strip and transport us to our initial rendezvous point, where we grab some camping essentials (mosquito spray, factor 50 lotion and a head torch) and become acquainted with our cars, which will be known as 'home' for the next few days.

The new Defender 110 is large, more imposing than it looks in the pictures. The rear boot door is weighty and there’s plenty of room to stash kit in the back. These cars are also fitted with the Explorer Pack, which sees a bespoke roof rack mounted, a raised air intake fitted, exterior side-mounted gear carriers added and wheel arch protection on the bodywork.

Said roof rack is absolutely crammed with equipment, including pneumatic jacks, jerry cans, tools and spare tyres. According to the owner’s manual, this is capable of hauling 132kg, but it feels like we are packing much more.

With radios checked and a quick driver briefing, we head out onto the smooth tarmac of Opuwo, which lasts around five minutes before we make a right turn onto hard-packed sand. That’s the end of roads for a while.

The first leg of the trip involves a mad dash towards our overnight camp near the infamous Van Zyl’s pass, home of some of the toughest off-roading in the world. Although most of the terrain is a mix of gravel and loose sand, we press on, getting used to the various driving modes on the revised Terrain Response 2 system. We casually flick between Sand, Rocks and Mud & Ruts mode but they aren’t really needed. New Defender makes mincemeat out of this first leg with hardly any encouragement.

An all-new, purpose-engineered aluminium D7x architecture is a far cry from the box section ladder chassis of old and when paired with fully independent air or coil sprung suspension, it positively floats over most surfaces, allowing us to press on before night falls.

T​esting the 350kg static roof-load to the max. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

T​esting the 350kg static roof-load to the max. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

We get the impression that the experienced off-road specialists leading this expedition don’t fancy attacking these roads at night, even with modern LED headlights fitted.

Making the pass

The first night is spent in a campsite and the morning is punctuated by the sound of folk enjoying a lukewarm bush shower. We roll out early because our hosts inform us that today is going to be slow, as we traverse much more challenging terrain and really put the Defender through its paces.

The story says that Dutch explorer Ben van Zyl lent his name to the famous pass that traverses the two steep mountain ranges that run towards Namibia's beautiful Marienfluss region.

F​irst light brings treacherous conditions. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

F​irst light brings treacherous conditions. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

Van Zyl, along with a Model T Ford and a few hundred local Himba tribespeople, forged the dangerous route in the 1920s in order to connect two popular pasturelands. It’s too dangerous to drive back up, so it’s akin to the most hardcore one-way system in existence.

The terrain gets tricky just a few minutes outside of camp. The caffeine has barely had time to kick in and we're staring down sheer drops and rocks that look like they could slash rubber to ribbons. The new Defender’s 38-degree approach angle and 291mm ground clearance see off most of the drops, but the occasional scrape and swearword can be heard reverberating off the mountainsides.

During one particularly tough section, a brief glance out of the passenger window reveals a graveyard of wrecked cars - a brace of pick-up trucks that didn’t make it, crumpled bodywork stripped of any valuables.

The​ 4x4 graveyard during one tricky descent. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

The​ 4x4 graveyard during one tricky descent. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

Again, the punch offered by the 240hp 2.0-litre twin turbocharged diesel and abundance of clever torque vectoring technology makes even these treacherous sections fairly easy. Slip it into the correct mode and the Defender takes care of the rest. It’s merely a case of looking out for really big rocks and steering out of the way, something that’s possible with a merely little finger on the wheel.

Thankfully, the afternoon sees things pick up pace and it turns out the barren Marienfluss is also the perfect canvas upon which to test any suspension set-up. Achieving motorway cruising speeds across landscape that continually changes from bright red sand to white chalk and back again is a vision that will forever be burned into memory banks.

The only thing that could better this would be to round a corner of a dry riverbed and witness a herd of wild giraffe casually roaming the area. Namibia delivers the goods again.

Skeleton staff

Day two is long, hot and sweaty, the group arriving at the gloriously remote Okahirongo Elephant Lodge just as dusk settled in. The Defenders are caked in orange dust, a few sporting some battle scars from the previous day.

The crew dealt with several punctures and a couple of cases of wayward bodywork but all cars were brimmed and raring to go in the morning. Another early start and a hastily ingested breakfast would greet all, as the Skeleton Coast National Park is pitched as our main destination for the day.

Dust, dust and more dust litters the track that leads to this special landscape and visibility is nothing more than a couple of feet ahead. As a result, our little convoy is stretched out over several kilometres to avoid any prangs.

P​unctures were commonplace but the team had a rapid wheel change down to a fine art. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

P​unctures were commonplace but the team had a rapid wheel change down to a fine art. (Photo: Leon Poultney)

Again, the Defender impresses with its ability to traverse terrain at speed. At one point, my driving partner even manages to get some much-needed shut-eye, despite the craggy topography we are pounding – surely a testament to the chassis and suspension engineers. If Defender can handle this, it will be fine in Chipping Norton.

But above all else, the car doesn’t fail to raise smiles, even with a lack of fresh Flat Whites on offer. It’s deliberately playful in its handling, the chassis remaining flat around corners, the rear of the car occasionally stepping out for some all-wheel-drive drifts in the sand.

Only a select few get to experience the Skeleton Coast National Park, because it's typically off limits to everyone bar the rangers that keep it safe. Home of the largest sand dunes in the world, it is a 500km stretch of vast silver sands that have been blown into giant structural forms. Eerie, mind-blowing, like a set from a Mad Max movie.

T​he Skeleton Coast - as creepy as it is beautiful: (Photo: Leon Poultney)

T​he Skeleton Coast - as creepy as it is beautiful: (Photo: Leon Poultney)

The Portuguese sailors who frequently ran aground here called it the Sands of Hell, but luckily we are relying on horsepower – not wind power – to navigate the terrain. Still, the going gets tough during some particularly challenging sections. See, this terrain changes daily, so even the most organised planners occasionally get it wrong.

Recent rains have cause some of the inland riverbeds to swell. The speed at which we have to hit some of the stickier bits is immense but the Defenders relish it. Unfortunately, a wrong line through one riverbed sees our car become well and truly stuck in the mind. Despite a new 900mm wading depth and bespoke Wade mode (this recirculates air and tweaks the traction system) it is a case of winches out, full off-road mode engaged and a lot of elbow grease until we are eventually freed.

A photographer capturing the slightly embarrassing scene says it’s the closest he’s seen to the good old Camel Trophy days and although we aren’t floating these Defenders across rivers, the group collectively manages a plenty more sticky incidents, a couple of punctures and ripped bodywork. Nothing that can’t be fixed with a cable-tie.

The long way home

The past few days have been challenging and unlike any other event I’ve experienced before. The landscape, which was ever-changing throughout, is proof that there are still wilds remaining on this planet that are so far removed from our reality that it melts minds.

More importantly, the Defender managed all of this without once complaining. The monster P300 turbocharged petrol proved the most fun to drive, but the diesel was equally adept at dragging itself out of some seriously sticky situations.

Admittedly, this is a mad trip to properly assess the car as an everyday proposition, seeing as we spent about ten minutes on Tarmac, but it proved a hugely comfortable place to sit, the myriad technology – including Land Rover’s ‘invisible bonnet’ tech and trick video-feed rear camera – coming into its own during the slow-paced rock-crawling.

Sure, this isn’t a vehicle that enjoys its interior hosing down after a day tending to sheep, but it boasts a dual SIM, constantly connected infotainment system, a luxurious sound system and the ability to transform from a luxury everyday vehicle into a serious mountain conquerer. In this respect, it’s very difficult to fault.

Perhaps the design team could have provided more nods to the original in the styling, but then I’m among those who thinks it looks futuristically cool. That central front jump seat is a bit of a gimmick and we witnessed the touchscreen infotainment system freeze once. Old JLR gremlins rearing their ugly heads or just pre-production software? Who knows, but it’s not a big deal.

The fact that we managed to complete this expedition without a single casualty and all drivers were delivered to their overnight destinations feeling relatively comfortable is nothing short of phenomenal. Ignore the naysayers, this Defender does its tough-as-nails forefathers justice… and then some.

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