As we pull onto the highway away from Windhoek, Namibia, the first car that passes the taxi is a red Honda S2000. My taxi driver scrupulously obeys the speed limit, and we're soon passed again, this time by a black BMW M3 convertible. Then another M3 convertible goes past. The dueling M3s are soon forced to slow down as a crowd of baboons crosses the highway. BMWs negotiating a baboon chicane: Welcome to Africa!
I made a conscious decision to avoid learning anything about Namibia before coming here, so the Bimmers and the primates are both a surprise. Usually you want to prepare for a trip by studying up on your destination, but how often do you get a chance to go to a place about which you have zero preconceptions? So here's what I know about Namibia: It's on the west coast of Africa, the next country up from South Africa. Its currency is the Namibian dollar, which is referred to as the NAD, and one U.S. dollar equals an impressive 7.5 NADs. Finally, BMW holds its X5 Driver Training program there.
The last item is the reason that I'm in a taxi in Africa listening to a local-dialect talk-radio show that sounds like a ping-pong match overdubbed with a lip-smacking competition. The X5 Driver Training program is BMW's way of showcasing the X5's off-road abilities, which is to say that it's BMW's way of showcasing that the X5 has some off-road abilities. Trips are held several times a year and are open to anyone who has roughly $5500 and a keen desire to spend a week abusing X5s in Africa.
When I arrive at our base camp, the Okapuka Ranch, I discover that I'm the last one to arrive and thus get last dibs choosing a vehicle. While there are V-8-powered X5s and twin-turbo-diesel X5s, I wind up with a single-turbo diesel. Boo. Well, how fast can you even go in Africa, anyway? I assume that the single-turbo's 235 hp should be sufficient. But you know what they say about assumptions: when you assume, you eventually get stuck in the sand dunes in Namib-Naukluft National Park because your single-turbo X5 can't pull second gear uphill with the tires aired down. But that's getting ahead of the story.
When we gather 'round the battlewagons the next morning, I find that our group is split between ten or so adventure-minded German tourists and the four Americans of Team Automobile. Photographer John Roe and I are joined by video producer John Jones his production assistant, Kerry. Jones and Kerry have an interesting professional dynamic, owing to the fact that they're married.
Over the course of the week, our route will take us from Okapuka west to the ocean, then north and inland in a broad loop that will eventually return us to our starting point. My right-hand-drive X5 has 14,000 kilometers on the odometer, and I ask Frank Isenberg, head of the BMW Driver Training programs, how long it's been in Africa. "Three years," he replies. All of these SUVs have been on this tour of duty since the revised X5 rolled out. Parking sensors dangle uselessly from bumpers. Rocker panels have been rocked. A crack meanders across my BMW's windshield. Inside, the iDrive screen flashes a succession of alarming messages - "4x4 system and DSC failed!" "No warnings from Park Distance Control." "Active steering inactive." Does that make it just "steering"?
"We've programmed the screen to show you every possible error message," says Isenberg. He's joking, possibly. Isenberg is in charge of the BMW crew, but the guide/Sherpa/fixer for the group at large is a fellow named Tim, a.k.a. Crazy Timmy. His family owns the Okapuka Ranch, and his dad looks like Ernest Hemingway. Tim never wears shoes and casually tells stories about riding sharks. Don't let your girlfriend meet Crazy Timmy if you ever again want her to think that you're cool.
We exit the ranch and head for the east/west thoroughfare that will take us to the Atlantic. Today is a distance drive, a couple hundred miles. The road is empty of traffic, so our string of X5s has no problem maintaining an easy 80 to 90 mph. Which would be boring except for the fact that there's no pavement. Yet doing 90 mph on dirt almost seems reasonable until we drop into a dry riverbed and launch out of it like a Baja trophy truck dropped into a Bouncy Castle. Even when we're not testing the limits of its bump stops, the X5 squirms and floats on the loose gravel, dancing between the ditch and the oncoming lane. It takes constant corrections to drive this fast, but it's also fantastically entertaining. At one point I hit 105 mph, and I reflect that maybe it's a good thing that I didn't get my hands on one of the V-8 vehicles.
As we drive, the landscape changes from desert to a serrated ridge of low mountains, and then suddenly to lush grassy plains. Ostriches mingle near the road. The sky is so crazily pure blue that I stop to take a photo, fully cognizant of the ridiculousness of what I'm doing - we have a sky, after all, at home. Yes, but somehow, it never looks like this.
A few hundred clicks into our drive, we pull over at Vogelfederberg, a vast, turtle-shaped hunk of rock that casts a mighty shadow over the surrounding desert. Much to my happy surprise, cold beer is produced. This is the glory of traveling with Germans - they're always prepared. And this, I must say, is a mighty fine place to enjoy a cold beverage. I climb an escarpment and gaze out over the desert while sipping my Tafel Lager. It's about 7000 miles from here to New York City, and it feels even farther.
After a suitable decompression period, we're summoned back to the SUVs, but we're not getting on the road just yet. That giant rock over yonder? We're gonna climb it. Not on foot, mind you. With the X5s. Which, as you may know, have no low-range gearing. Or locking differentials. Or any of the stuff that you'd like to have when you're about to scale the sheer face of a twenty-story slab of geology. As I point the front tires up the base of the rock, I feel like I'm on a roller coaster clack-clack-clacking its way up to its peak - intellectually, I know that this ought to be safe, but my inner ear begs me to abort mission. Sorry, instinct for self-preservation. You've been overruled.
The path up the rock begins steep and straight, but about halfway up it jogs right before continuing to the summit. And while I'm confident that the X5 isn't going to flip over backward like a Jeep CJ5 at Moab, turning perpendicular to the slope is a different proposition. I wince as I turn left to head back up the hill as the X5's left front wheel lifts off the rock, clawing uselessly for a moment before the traction control sends power over to the downhill side. Safe at the summit, Kerry, riding in the back seat, asks, "Can I open my eyes now?" I chuckle and act like I wasn't terrified.
The next morning, we rise early and board a boat to take us out in search of dolphins and seals. Our captain lives up to the international sea-dog stereotype by telling dirty jokes and possessing nine and a half fingers. At Pelican Point, we find a few seals. A few thousand of them. One jumps on the back of the boat and begs for some fish from Captain WhoopsieHands.
Around the corner from the seal orgy, the X5s wait on the beach, lined up with their headlights pointed out to sea. After lunch on the beach, we pile into the vehicles and set off for the dunes several miles south along the coast. To get there, we caravan along next to the water, the fleet of X5s zigzagging across the sand at 50 mph. I've wanted to drive fast on a beach ever since I saw the opening scene of The Goonies, so this is pure fun. The only obstacles are the occasional dead seals half-buried in the sand - Namibian speed bumps. You may think you know everything about the BMW X5 by now, but do you know how the suspension soaks up seal cadavers? Pretty well, I can tell you.
Eventually we head inland, toward the dunes of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. We're barely a quarter mile in when one of our drivers, too ginger with the throttle, buries his tires and sinks to the rocker panels. Rookie mistake, I think, until I, too, get stuck climbing a steep dune. I back down and try again in a lower gear, exploding over the top of the dune in a shower of fine sand. This earns me a reprimand from the BMW guys, who are a smidge sensitive right now about overcooking it on the dunes. On the last tour, a couple weeks ago, a Russian got a little throttle-happy out here and inadvertently kicked off his own private X5 Games, losing major points for failing to execute his front flip off the top of a sand mountain. He and his girlfriend walked away, but the truck is no longer much of a driver.
The X5, with tires aired down, proves amazingly capable of dune-running. Shifting manually and keeping the revs up is a hard lesson to learn, but not as hard as "roll up the windows before you rip donuts in sand dunes." And "don't apply petroleum-jelly South African sunblock before jumping off a sand cliff." I spend the remainder of the day wearing sand sleeves and 80-grit underpants.
Back on pavement, I'm looking forward to reaching the hotel and taking a shower, but Namibia's Ministry of Safety and Security has other ideas. I crest a rise in the road to see a cop leveling his laser gun, and he flags three of us to pull over. He tells me that I was doing 95 kph in an 80-kph zone - which began, by the way, about five feet from where he was standing. Great. I sit in the X5 and wonder what the penalty is for speeding in Namibia. A hundred bucks? Five hundred bucks? Three of my best goats and a month in the salt mines? I have no idea, but I'm worried about how long it's taking to write my ticket. They probably have to see which salt mine has an opening.
When a second officer finally produces the ticket - by which point the other two speeders have gotten bored and driven away - I see why it took so long. Namibian cops practically need Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ghost of Johnnie Cochran just to write a speeding citation. Scrawled on the ticket is the charge of "Contravening Sec. 7b(2) ii/W/17b(i).76(4).86.89&1001./W schedule 2 of R77R Aet 22/99.v/W reg." Or, as it's also known, fifteen over the speed limit. Fine: about $15.
During some downtime the next day, I wander into a local museum to learn about the history of the area. Inside, I find an exhibit sponsored by the giant mining company Rössing. The exhibit is all about how great it is to mine uranium. A placard on the wall reads: "Employees working in radiation designation areas provide urine samples regularly, which are analyzed for traces of uranium."
As I'm pondering the wondrously safe life of a Namibian uranium miner, photographer John Roe walks past and pauses at a photo in the radiation-safety exhibit. "Are those jars of piss?" he asks. Indeed they are. Rössing doesn't expect you to take their word for it about these urine samples - they've got photographic evidence they'd like to share. I walk to the next room and find, in a glass case, a trio of dog skulls on display. In the gift shop, I buy a postcard of a grader driving down a dirt road. It reads: "Namibia Road Maintenance." Urine samples, dog skulls, road maintenance - have I mentioned that the playground outside includes an authentic whaling harpoon gun painted in the same festive colors as the playground equipment? Museums, in general, are pretty boring, but this one pushes all the buttons for things that I think are fantastic.
But the road beckons. Our destination today, the White Lady Lodge, nestled in the shadow of a towering rock formation miles from the nearest sign of civilization, suddenly reveals itself. We drive around a corner, the X5 slewing sideways in the sand, and there's a low sprawl of buildings surrounding a lush lawn and a pair of swimming pools. It's Tafel time. Later, the African staff performs a few traditional songs. Well, they're not all completely traditional. One is called "Toyota Cressida." Tonight, the dinner table offers a type of barbecue sauce called Monkey Gland, as well as a towering bottle of Jägermeister that the Germans have bequeathed to Roe as a birthday present. It's nice, after a long day, to kick back with a little Jäger and some Monkey Gland and listen to songs about the Toyota Cressida.
Early the next morning, our bleary-eyed group jumps in the back of a Mitsubishi truck to go search for elephants. Our guide is a wizened old man who hates elephants. Or maybe he likes them, but he's afraid of them. At any rate, he's got lots of stories about elephants trying to stomp him, breaking the water pipes for the lodge, and generally acting like real ruffians.
After two hours of searching, we find our game. An elephant crosses the riverbed ahead of us and ambles into the bushes. Elephant Ahab lights a cigarette and says, "That one normally travels alone, so we probably won't see others." I'm satisfied to have seen an elephant in the wild and not been stomped by it.
Back in the BMW, I have a new appreciation for the X5's amenities. Mainly, the air-conditioning, which I actually shouldn't get too attached to, because we're going to drive up a dry riverbed to reach our next stop, the Ai Aiba Lodge. You can either get to Ai Aiba or have air-conditioning, but on this sweltering day, you can't have both.
The riverbed is loose sand, and maintaining progress requires a heavy foot. The V-8s and the twin-turbo diesels aren't working too hard, but I'm pushing my Bimmer to the limit to keep up. And it's not enjoying the situation. If you consider a worst-case hot-weather scenario, this is it: driving for two hours at full throttle in deep sand on a 95-degree day with the underside of the SUV covered by an exhaust- heat-trapping skid plate. The X5, to its credit, doesn't overheat. But it goes into survival mode, which means that first it kills its air-conditioning to reduce stress on the engine. We open the windows. Then the X5 cuts power until our top speed is 20 mph. We fall behind.
But we make it out of the river and back onto the road with all vehicles intact. The Germans yell at one another over the CB radio (angrily or triumphantly - it's hard to tell).
The Ai Aiba Lodge, I'm happy to discover, is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. The bar and restaurant are sheltered under an enormous thatched roof, all of it hard against red rocks that jut abruptly out of the plains. There's a swimming pool ringed by palm trees, and beyond that: Africa, probably as it's looked for the past 10,000 years.
We're staying at Ai Aiba for two nights, so the next day is a bit of a break from driving. We still go out rock-bashing around the grounds of the lodge, and I cut a tire on one of the jagged rocks littering the trail. Timmy and one of the BMW guys, Marc, change the tire in less than three minutes, all while making air-wrench noises. We stop next to look at some ancient rock paintings, and I ask Timmy what lives in the holes that are everywhere you look on the desert floor. "Rats, snakes, and scorpions," he replies. This inspires me to create a game called "Rat, Snake, Scorpion" that works like Rock, Paper, Scissors. You have to act out each animal (and, if you want to play at home - the rat eats the scorpion, the snake eats the rat, and the scorpion stings the snake). Rat, Snake, Scorpion, it turns out, is even more enjoyable after a few Tafels.
On the final day, we head back to Okapuka, stopping at one of Namibia's few wineries for lunch and a tour. By now everyone's got a major case of the sillies, as evidenced by a lunchtime experiment to find out whether it is literally hot enough to fry an egg. When BMW guys are letting people crack an egg onto the hood of an X5 to see if it'll cook (and it does, slowly), you know that a bit of mental frazzling is setting in.
Nonetheless, I'm sad when I park for the last time at the ranch. The trusty X5, whose only modifications were that full skid plate and non-run-flat tires, bashed along on beaches and dunes and riverbeds and triple-digit dirt roads and rocky trails for a week with no complaints. As a car guy, I enjoy a trip where a vehicle is put to its intended use - off-roading in a Jeep; hitting the track in a Porsche - but it can be even more entertaining to take a car out of its element. And that's the reward of BMW's Namibia program. Although you stay in posh lodgings and eat the finest schnitzel, each day is basically an extended lesson in driving improvisation - using what you've got to make it where you're going. And, with a bit of luck, back home to the ranch.