When I was invited to experience a leg of the Ranger Odyssey, sponsored by Ford, and now in its second year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that it would involve lots of driving (for the contestants) and that I’d be camping (for the first time).
The Ranger Odyssey is an extreme 4×4 challenge that takes place in Africa. Last year it spanned across 6 countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and South Africa over 21 days covering 7860km. This year’s adventure is currently taking place across Namibia over 12 days, which should cover 2500km. It comes to an end on Thursday, 18 September. The main prize this year is the winning team getting to drive a Ford Ranger for 12 months with a R5000 fuel allowance each month. The Ranger Odyssey is *not* a holiday in another country and it’s not for the faint-hearted.
The gruelling challenge is designed to test contestants’ survival skills in addition to driving, attitude and endurance. While last year’s inaugural competition received roughly 1700 entries, this year more than 8000 people applied. Eventually, 40 contestants made it to boot camp, before the final selection process. The final 20 contestants range from students to full time employees to running their own businesses, all between the ages of 21 and 41. You can check them out on the Ranger Odyssey website.
Boot camp is such an important part of the competition; contestants are taught everything about the Ranger, which they have to apply during the challenge. Forgetting something that was taught at bootcamp does affect their daily scores. Additionally, they have to prove they have what it takes to get through the competition. So, it’s not just about knowing what to do with the Ranger, but having the right personality fit of sorts. If you’re the type to give up easily, it isn’t for you.
While last year’s challenge had 10 individuals going up against each other, this year has 20 contestants in teams of 2. The top 10 contestants from bootcamp picked names out of a hat to pair up – this ensured that there were no two strong people in the same team. Having said that, from my time at the challenge, it wasn’t just about being (physically) strong.
Each team drives a different Ranger every day, which has a driving instructor assigned to the 4×4. There are 10 instructors and 10 teams, and the reason each team has a different instructor daily is to ensure fairness in the judging process. The driving instructors are a great mix of people; some employed full time at De Rust, others who have experience taking people on 4×4 adventures and three of them were contestants last year, including the youngest – 22 year old student, Bernard, who I spent day 7 and 8 with.
The daily routine for all contestants went something like this: wake up from 4:30am onwards, take down the tents from camping each night, fold stretchers (provided to sleep on inside the tent; where sleeping bags were placed over), and then complete a pre-delivery inspection of the vehicles. PDI meant checking fluid levels (oil, water, diesel); air filters; tyre pressure; tightening of wheel nuts; cleaning the lights and general cleanliness of the vehicle. Contestants also had to check for any cuts on the tyres. After this, teams are ready to hit the road. Depending on the terrain, driving even 60km could take a day, with stops for coffee/tea, food or scenery.
Tasks and challenges have to be completed when assigned, usually when the driving is over. Thereafter, teams have to set up camp for the instructor they drove with for the day, before setting up their own. Kitchen duties and night time security shifts rotated between the contestants. Contestants get to sleep by 10pm or after. Each day is quite long.
My leg of the Ranger Odyssey started on Day 5 of the competition, which was a ‘rest day’ for contestants while media departed and arrived. There were activities and a challenge planned for the day – 8km of river rafting on the Kunene River, ending off at Epupa Falls; and visiting the Himba cultural village.
And later on a surprise challenge which was a 4.5km walk, with a 10 minute start time between teams. After that, teams had a task of refueling diesel into the cars which was loaded in drums. Despite finishing off after 8pm and having dinner, the contestants were thrown a “curveball” afterwards in a way of a quiz. They had to answer questions on information that was relayed to them during the trip, inside the cars, etc.
This meant that by day 6 of the Ranger Odyssey, everyone started treating it like the competition it really was. The curveball from the night before set a level playing field, as I was told by contestant Johan Retters. Some contestants who didn’t perform greatly in the physical challenges earlier in the Odyssey had a chance to bring up their score with the quiz. This meant that the competition wasn’t designed for the physically strongest to keep on succeeding. The best way to keep any challenge going is to be unpredictable – excellent planning from the Ranger Odyssey team!
We were headed towards Van Zyl’s Pass Community Campsite and covered some tricky roads, and also seeing the change in crops. The cut lines were distinctive from sandy to rocky and sometimes just bare bones. I sat with Team 5 (Seipei and Olivia) with driving instructor Gary, who mentioned we were driving through old military routes. Gary himself has decades of military experience, was a pilot, and is now employed full time at De Rust. I got to drive when we left Epupa Falls, so my route was pretty straight-forward driving, although I’d never actually driven in a convoy before and was also taught some basics of keeping a following distance so that the dust from the Ranger in front didn’t get into the air filters. Seipei and Olivia rotated between driving the challenging parts of the route. They were also quizzed on general knowledge questions about Ford, and Namibia.
Day 7 involved covering the most difficult and technical terrain of the competition – contestants were pushed to the limit. I sat with instructor Bernard and Team 7 (Johan and Oan) on this day. Bernard explained what the drive that morning would entail in the most simple way possible: to think of it as a video game because you want to go over everything in sight instead of avoiding it. For all of us who drive on regular roads, our instinct is to avoid anything we see on the road; but with the extreme 4×4 challenge, it’s the total opposite.
Before that, we stopped at the lookout point at Van Zyl’s pass, which was absolutely stunning!
The particularly challenging part was coming down from the infamous Van Zyl’s pass. Before passing, we all had to get out of the vehicles to see how it was done by Odyssey owner, Hardy. Driving instructors had to take the wheel here, which looked worse when we got out of the Rangers to see how it was done, than when we sat inside driving over it.
The team also made their permanent mark:
Later than evening we camped in the middle of nowhere!
Day 8 was spent with Bernard again and Team 9 (Chris and Mark). We covered the most beautiful scenery in Namibia, the arid Kaokaland. We left the Khumib River 4×4 trail heading south to Purros. We drove through rocky roads, dry grasslands and into completely barren desert; the roads here were mainly long stretches of easy driving. We also saw wild animals roaming freely – springbok, oryx, donkey, giraffe and ostrich. The elephants never showed up!
Our final destination and my last full day for this leg was at a lodge. Everyone got a chance to take a much needed shower and relax, before contestants had a surprise task. Each of them were dropped off in the desert with their camping chairs, about 200m apart from each other just before sunset, in solitude, to use the time to reflect. It was much needed alone time for most of contestants, while the Ranger Odyssey team achieved exactly what they set out to.
Day 9 saw the contestants carrying on with their activities for the day, while I prepared to head back to Johannesburg. I was given the most epic farewell by driving instructor Janco – donuts in the desert! Alas I asked too late to be shown how to do them on the Ranger.
The challenge comes to an end on Thursday, 18 September and the winner will be announced at De Rust in Hartbeespoort on 15 October 2014. Good luck to all the teams!
On a personal level, I was given an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity by Ford to go camping in areas of Namibia not explored by many. I may have asked if the 4×4’s were mobile hotspots because of the satellites attached to the vehicles when I landed, but I didn’t miss connecting to the internet like I thought I would. Having never camped before, I enjoyed my time with the Ranger Odyssey team and contestants. I learnt so much from the Mozambican contestant I shared a tent with every day – Lwana Lopes, also known as “Peppie”. She taught me how to pitch a tent, take it down, pack away our stretchers – everything relating to setting up camp. A couple days into it and I could do it in fairly good time.
A shout out to Odyssey owner Hardy who told me to trust him and go river rafting, despite being terrified of getting into the crocodile infested waters of the Kunene River. And other gems of advice along the way!