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Desert Express

What started off as an idea involving a luxurious Lexus and an exclusive train trip in Namibia, had to at the last minute be amended to a speedy visit to the Green Kalahari … Luckily, the recently upgraded RX hybrid proved the perfect companion (and photographic model) to capture the beauty of an appreciative, rain-soaked desert …

It was supposed to be a bespoke excursion to Namibia with a Lexus model to herald the reopening of the Desert Express train service, including transporting the vehicle from Windhoek to Swakopmund, but circumstances beyond our control – including more stringent Covid19 measures – thwarted the idea at the last minute.

With the whole concept scuppered we had to find an alternative, quickly. The good rains in the Northern Cape Province luckily brought some reprieve, as we there and then decided to visit the Kalahari to see how the unexpected, unusually heavy showers have transformed the desert landscape …

Initially, we planned to visit the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park but reports of incessant rain, flooding, and washed-away roads compelled us to limiting our voyage to the so-called Green Kalahari – stretching from Upington to the far North of the Northern Cape Province just below the Kgalagadi and embracing a large tract of undulating red dunes, mountain desert, and grasslands.

The ‘Green’ in this case also refer to the extensive vineyards flanking the Orange River, tracing a lush, verdant line against the arid backdrop of hills and plains cloaked in autumnal colours. The vineyards follow the river for 350 km and cover over 17 000 hectares; making it one of the most intensively farmed areas in the country. 

Hybrid hero

For our journey, we had the flagship Lexus RX450h at our disposal – quite fitting, as the RX was a pioneer, and the first SUV from the Japanese luxury vehicle manufacturer to be introduced here in 2002. In 2009 it also became the first hybrid in the premium SUV segment to be launched here.

Recently updated, the changes are led by evolutionary styling that maintains the sporty appearance of the RX but also introduces elegant elements to create a coherent flow from front to rear. Details include the signature Lexus grille with a mesh pattern of three-dimensional “L” shapes, and slimmer, sharper LED adaptive high-beam system (AHS) headlights with BladeScan technology.

A revised side character line sweeps down from the floating roof to the rear, creating a coupélike silhouette, and at the rear lights, reflectors, underguard, and exhaust outlets arranged horizontally, emphasise its width. New rear LED combination lights have a mirrored Lmotif design that contributes to greater brand recognition.

Our trip from Cape Town to Vanrhynsdorp was quick and uneventful. The 193 kW of power and 335 Nm of torque delivered by the hybrid V6 powertrain was handy in the mountainous areas around Clanwilliam, and on the flat sections the new RX with its more rigid chassis just serenely glided along the N7 highway.

In Vanrhynsdorp we stopped to quickly visit the refurbished former Catholic Church in the beautiful Letsatsi Lodge; renowned for its remarkable church bell and the fact that Afrikaans Bible verses and canons are inscribed in the floor and on the walls … The old mission church is now popular as a wedding chapel.

On the road to Calvinia the comfortable interior of the RX, now with a new 12.3inch central display with touchscreen functionality and seamless smartphone connectivity, and comfortable leather seats in Noble Brown, again impressed. However, the Remote Touch Interface trackpad is still difficult to work and control.

Red Dune Route

Staying on the R27, we crossed the Hantam Karoo, passing through Brandvlei and Kenhardt on our way to Upington and beyond … on the Red Dune Route that covers the area North of the river town all the way to the Namibian border. Our destination? Goerapan – a 4×4 paradise and scene of many a Dakar Rally testing session and off-road adventures.

While our steed had permanent four-wheel-drive, we were not overly interested in any hard-core off-roading but rather to find a good location illustrating the beautiful red dunes and their now green surroundings … With wide, low-profile 20inch tyres, the RX struggled for grip in the sand, and it felt like a two-wheel-drive vehicle until we let the pressures down to get some traction.

Its ground clearance of only 195 mm and its weight of around two tonne made our route choices a bit difficult, but with the assistance of Piet Kotze, owner of the Kalahari Goerapan Lodge, we soon found a suitable spot and set about capturing the beautiful surrounds on camera – our rapid mission accomplished.

On our return trip, at a more leisurely pace (we even had time for the obligatory picture next to the big red post box in Calvinia), the RX consumed around 9.5 ℓ/100 km – much higher than the claimed 5.7 ℓ/100 km. However, at high average speeds the hybrid system is not as efficient as in city traffic. Still, we arrived back home silently – the last few metres on battery power only …

Text: Ferdi de Vos

Images: Ryan Abbott/Lexus South Africa