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.