Words and pictures by Andrew Middleton
Remember the Camel Trophy of the 80s? A hard-core bash across some of the most arduous, vehicle-smashing terrain imaginable, it tested contestants from all over the world to the limit. Land Rovers were rolled, winched, caked in thick black sludge and driven over 2 400 km through the Trans-Amazonian Highway’s sticky, mosquito-infested jungle. Over the years, this hardcore event became less about mud plugging, and more about adventure. Contestants were selected according to their mental abilities, driving skill and athleticism − giving the Camel Trophy its nickname of ‘The Olympics of 4×4’.
Of course, the Camel Trophy came to an end in 1998, but it left a lasting impression on a certain Hardy De Kock from Ford’s off-road training division, who vowed that he would bring a similar event closer to home. And, just like the Camel trophy of yesteryear, Ford’s Ranger Odyssey stands for adventure and competition. Of over 8 200 applicants, only 20 remained after a tortuous three-day boot camp. The finalists were then randomly paired to create ten teams − each with an instructor. The instructor’s role was to score contestants continuously on various parameters − from driving skill, mechanical sympathy and vehicle recovery, to environmental awareness and tug-of-war challenges.
Under the guidance of the instructors from De Rust 4×4, and three members from last year’s Ranger Odyssey, the contestants began their journey into the desert. After the first night’s camping and 150 km of tar roads, they would continue the challenge off-road. For some of the contestants who’d never even driven gravel – let alone grade 5 trails − the coming events would be a shocker. The planned route would take the teams and their fully-loaded Ranger double cabs over a 2 500 km route which circled some of the Kaokoveld − Namibia’s most sparsely-populated area. Contestants would need to be completely self-sufficient, as towns were few and far between, and they’d have to contend with 35° heat. The vehicles ran stock-standard, bar the fitment of a set of Cooper MTs for added traction. Notably, not a single mechanical failure or puncture was recorded for any of the 13 vehicles – testament to the Ranger’s reliability and the Coopers’ toughness.
As the event wore on, it became progressively more challenging for competitors. The skills being taught would be continuously tested, and − right when everybody was too exhausted to move − they would be tested again. On day four, it took the convoy a full twelve hours to cover just 90 kilometres; but the hardest parts were yet to come. One of Namibia’s most notorious roads, Van Zyl’s Pass, is located between two jagged mountains in the Marienflüss region. From east to west, the convoy descended rock staircases, with rear wheels sometimes a metre in the air. Remember, only a handful of contestants had ever even driven a 4×4, let alone hung one off the side of a cliff.