A small Panda Cross taking on the mighty Namib? Crazy. But not to Ferdi de Vos who recently took the small two-cylinder Fiat on an epic road trip to the magnificently beautiful Kanaan Desert Retreat in Namibia.
Ideally, one should not negotiate desolate, dusty Namibian dirt roads at the dead of night. The remote Namibian landscape is dark. Pitch dark. And deserted. So, the last thing you want is to be stuck next to the roadside with a flat tyre. But, with your vision reduced to headlight beam distance, it is difficult to evade those pesky tyre-busting rocks and unsuspected suspension-damaging dips and depressions in the road. Not to mention the very real danger of hitting errant wildlife …
On the first, very long day of our less than ideal start to our Namib Desert road trip with the new Fiat Panda Cross – a highly unlikely candidate for such an arduous trip – supported by the latest 2.4-litre model in Fiat’s Fullback pickup range, we heard the heart-stopping thump of a rear tyre bursting – but it was not the Panda’s.
After nearly 14 hours on the road and 1,300 km in the rear-view mirror, the Fullback suffered a puncture. Alone in the eerily quiet desert, one of my travel companions shone a torch under the body of the car – the other was standing sentinel to watch for free-roaming wildlife – while I got to work on changing the tyre. With our destination still over an hour away, we now faced a post-midnight arrival time. No, not ideal at all.
A Crazy Panda Idea
With the recent return of the Panda 4×4 to South Africa, we hatched the crazy idea to measure the all-wheel drive attributes of the diminutive Fiat against the might of the Namib. A mad idea? Perhaps. But not completely crazy. You see, in three generations (from 1983 to 1996, 2003 to 2011, and 2012 onwards) the Panda has established itself as a tough, sturdy little car and a quite competent off-roader.
Introduced over 30 years ago as the first small transverse-engine car with a 4WD system (from Austrian company Steyr-Puch), the Panda has completed numerous arduous expeditions in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Two factory-built versions, called the PanDakar, even participated in the gruelling 2007 Dakar Rally. Its biggest claim to fame, however, is the 2013 world record drive of 16,000 km from Cape Town to London, in either direction, by the British adventurers Philip Young and Paul Brace, with a Fiat Panda two-cylinder 0.9 TwinAir.
Planning our Namibian trip, the initial idea was to drive to Kanaan – an already formidable distance of 1,400 km – but as it turned out, Kanaan was fully booked. This meant we had to reach Neuras Wine Farm, a further 200 km up the road. And, my doubts about doing this distance in one day turned out to be well-founded … Our gear packed, and with an extra jerry can of fuel and spare tyre in the load-bed of the Fullback, we left Cape Town early and made good progress up the West Coast road. The more powerful Fullback kept up easily with the small two-cylinder Panda. It proved quite comfortable and quiet on the open road, only losing momentum on long uphill stretches, but with a reach of less than 400 km on a tank, we frequently had to stop for fuel.
Dust and Dirt
Following our seven-hour sojourn to the Namibian border, the spectacular scenery – barren, rocky stretches interspersed by dark, sunburnt kopjes – on the C13 towards Rosh Pinah made the dirt road feel short. But, by the time we reached Aus, the sun, at times obscured by a fast-moving sandstorm, was fast setting in the west. We reached Helmeringhausen in darkness, with another three hours of travelling still ahead of us. Things were beginning to look ominous for us. To make matters worse, without GPS (neither the Panda nor the Fullback has it as standard) we were now unsure of how far we still needed to go … and this, ladies and gentlemen, is when our tyre burst.
With the tyre changed, and turning onto the D850, we guessed that we still had about another 30 km to Neuras. In the darkness, however, it felt never-ending. With a blinky red fuel light setting the dashboard of the little Panda aglow, we decided to veer off our root to follow a welcome sign indicating: Zebra Lodge, 4 km. We arrived to a lodge that showed no signs of life (as any normal person would have been in bed by then). Of course, this did not prevent us from banging on the doors like unknowing victims in The Hills Have Eyes.
After knocking on just about every door we could find, we relinquished all hope of finding somebody who could give us directions, and decided to pull ol’ Jerry (the affectionate name we aptly gave to our jerry can) off the back of the Fullback so that we could quench the never-ending thirst of the Panda. For a moment, we thought ourselves rather clever for devising a funnel in true MacGyver fashion out of an empty bottle and a half-broken pipe to fill the Panda from the jerry can. It was a short-lived triumph, however. After all of our trouble, my wife jubilantly pulled out the real thing that had been stowed away in its breakdown kit all this time …
With still no guidance as to how far we still had to go, we reluctantly decided to sleep in the vehicles. Now, neither the small Panda, nor the Fullback really works as a bedroom, but we made do. We woke up cold and miserable (yes, it gets cold in the desert – something we had not anticipated when we dressed for our makeshift “bed” earlier that evening), and went in search of life. When we finally stumbled across the lodge owner, she informed us that we were just seven kilometres from Neuras. Seven kilometres! I would have kicked myself, but the night spent in the Panda had left me too stiff to make that possible.
A short trip later, we were warmly received at Neuras and treated to a hearty breakfast. After an informative wine tour (a story for another edition) we could at last relax. We later decided to visit Maltahohe, ostensibly to fill up the Panda (but really, we were going to watch the rugby test game). Four-up in the small Panda, we were about halfway through our 200 km trip on a bad dirt road when we suffered the second blow-out on our journey. Problem was, we had left the full spare tyre on the Fullback. Donning our MacGyver guises once more, we limped all the way to town on the “Marie-biscuit” space-saver …
After filling up (again) and fixing the burst tyre, we headed back (having missed the whole game and the whole reason for the trip), only for it to expire again two kilometres short of Neuras. Using the “Marie-biscuit” space-saver once more (and it would not be the last time either), we crawled back to the wine farm where we enjoyed a sumptuous supper before heading to bed (in an actual bedroom) after a long, eventful day.
Sossusvlei to Kanaan
The dirt road from Neuras to Sesriem was atrocious – even the Namibians complain about this road. Down to our last spare tyre, we drove carefully, trying hard to miss the rock shards and ruts. We grabbed some snapshots with the notorious Dune 45 along the way (how could we not?) and continued, skirting the imposing red Namib dunes, the Tiras Mountains, and some glorious, arid plains stretching endlessly into the distance. Our trip to Kanaan was (thankfully) uneventful. But the roads were still terrible, and with its narrow wheel track, the poor little Fiat rattled and shook badly over some of the undulations.
Kanaan (the Arabic word for the biblical land of Canaan) lived up to its name. In terms of magnificence and exquisiteness, it really is the Promised Land; if your preference is an untouched desert setting. After testing the small Fiat in the small dunes and sandy tracks of the property, we enjoyed splendid sundowners and a gourmet dinner before retiring for the night. The team at Kanaan looked after us exceptionally well, even offering extra fuel to ensure our Panda would reach the next fuel stop at Bethanie. But our trip, via the D707 and D425 dirt roads, had the proverbial sting in the tail. We joined the road just behind a road grader, and less than five kilometres further, my worst fear was realised: the road-rated spare punctured on the freshly churned up shards – and we still had more than 1,000 km to go … We had no other option but to fit the space-saver once more, and slowly make our way to Bethanie. Our companions went ahead in the Fullback to get the spare fixed. But, with no cellphone reception and no cash between the two of them (this small town did not accept debit cards, and all of the ATMs had run out of cash), suffice to say that the pair were more than a little relieved to see the tiny splash of red hobbling towards them through the main drag of the town after hours of anxious waiting.
And so, mechanic paid and spare tyre fixed (yet again), we started our long and luckily, trouble-free journey home. It was an eventful, yet unforgettable trip, and apart from four punctures and two destroyed tyres, the small Panda was up to the challenge, to the surprise of many …