Category “Johnie does Saddle Hill”

Saddle Hill – Chapter 1

Friday, 23 July, 2010

[By Johnie Jonker]

[Adapted version published in Leisure Wheels, March 2010]


In 2006 I enquired as to the suitability of my 2001 Forester to be permitted on a 5-day Saddle Hill/Spencer Bay tour, departing from Luderitz. Don Nieuwoudt from West Coast 4×4 thought that this would be possible and subsequently put my name on his July school holiday tour list.

Not without reservations, though.  I was reliably informed that Don was heard saying: “Hierdie ou wil wragtag met sy Subaru deur die Namib!” (This guy seriously wants to do the Namib with his Subaru).

Other than varying routes, these kind of tours also come in a variety of themes, e.g. the manne tours (men’s tours), photographic expeditions, and then this one, which was more family orientated. Not that there was not opportunity for the “men to visit” or that there were not great images to be captured.  The daily routine was just quite laidback with latish starts after a good breakfast, so inevitably, no sunrise pictures.

Most importantly, the tour was fully catered. So other than clothing, sleeping bags, pillows, 25liters of water, snacks and drinks, required nothing else. Fuel was available at Saddle Hill at a R1 premium above ZAR prices, but as (South African!) fuel was 85c cheaper in Namibia than at home, this was a bargain. Therefore no jerry cans were required, being very good news for us owners of small SUVs, as together with the 25liter of water, where to put it?


Other than a completely destroyed tyre – a spare which had to be couriered overnight from Windhoek to Keetmanshoop – we had a pretty uneventful trip from Pretoria, overnighting at Upington (Die Eiland) and two nights at Ais-Ais.

From there we travelled via Aus.

We visited the tame horses of the Namib – it felt as if I had not moved off, a very inquisitive horse would have put his head through the car window, just to say hi. Then through those kamikaze birds en route to Luderitz. What on earth were they?

Not so lucky was one unfortunate expeditioner who had lost reverse gear on his vehicle en route from PE to Luderitz. He was however duly introduced to a local resident with a suitable vehicle, culminating in a private rental agreement which enabled Gerhard and Nicky to accompany the rest of us on the tour. The stricken vehicle was left in the care of the Obelix Village owner until our return.

Having arrived a day early to experience the sights of Luderitz and Kollmanskop – and we were blessed with an exceptional spell of good weather, with the bay calm as a dam – we had the opportunity to see the rest of the group file in towards evening of the next day.

This was, to say the least, somewhat intimidating, as with the vehicles filling up the Obelix Village Guest House yard, the Forester soon disappeared amongst them. This is an emotion to be expected, as you are so clearly the odd one out, or “what is wrong with the picture”. Perhaps not a bad thing, as when on edge, you tend to try harder.

The tour departed from said guest house, which provided excellent accommodation and dinner the night before – the latter being included in the tour package. The convoy being 15 vehicles large – in hindsight too large; should be no more than ten – took a while to mobilize following Don’s final briefing, as some late starters had to first go into town for last minute shopping the Monday morning, having to wait for the shops to open.

Departing eastwards towards Aus past Kollmanskop, the tar road is left after 35km, heading NE on a gravel road, amongst others used by the Namibian Water Board for pipe/pump maintenance.

At the point where this secondary road was left for the tracks and sand, the convoy waited for the mall stragglers, whiling the time away by deflating tyres to 1 bar.

So, how did it go?

From here, as a precaution, the Forester was placed second in the convoy behind the lead vehicle – a Landcruiser bakkie – in order to not have too deep tracks for the car with clearly the lowest ground clearance in the group.

The regular mispronounciation of Saboera instead of Subaru, was laid to rest with the car being nicknamed Platbekpadda (Flat Mouthed Frog? – sorry, idiomatically this translation simply does not work! – PGJ).

The Forester was advertised – and measured up after purchase – to have 190mm of clearance throughout. Modifying the central exhaust attachment bracket, an additional 10mm of clearance was gained. By further installing spacers front and rear, the ground clearance was increased to 210mm minimum. Prior to departure, the tyres were deflated to 0.8bar and a 15mm loss measured. It was still uncertain whether this would be sufficient, but at least now the limitation was known.

As everyone was issued with a radio, a light-hearted banter was maintained along the route, with each being addressed by a nickname – yours truly being Platbekpadda. Don ever so often issued warnings regarding the klein jakkalsies (small jackals)– sandy ridges crossing the route which, due to the almost directly overhead position of the sun casting no shadow, only became visible once you were virtually on top of them. This tended to re-arrange the luggage somewhat if caught unawares.

Frequent stops were made, as on the first day the goal was only to reach Saddle Hill, covering around 170km, more than 2/3 of it sand. Initially the dune highways running in a NNW direction are followed, but as the route approaches the coast, some dunes need crossing. These tend to be steeper downhill in the direction of travel, i.e. slip faces towards the coastline, easily negotiated with tyre pressures at 1 bar. On the return journey tyre pressures had to be 0.8 bar in order to float on top.

An exceptionally good rain season had preceded the trip, and in the road/sand transitional mountain area, the terrain was covered by a green tinge.

Driving the smallest car there, on a number of pit stop occasions other tour members were caught with incredulous (which later turned into admiration) looks on their faces when …

Saddle Hill – Chapter 2

Friday, 23 July, 2010

[By Johnie Jonker]

[Adapted version published in Leisure Wheels, March 2010]

Saddle Hill

Saddle Hill was used as base, with daily excursions departing from there, returning at around sunset. The idea was to do either the outward or return journey at low-tide, speeding up progress nicely, one way or another, at the same time being a great experience, sandwiched between the sea and dunes.

Accommodation was basic, with the quick getting dormitories with 4 beds (and mattresses), and the slow, dormitories without doors and window panes, but with a number of bow tents equipped with beds, pitched inside – weatherproof enough, just lacking in audio privacy.

There were plans to improve/develop the accommodation, but due to the Namibian government at the time granting tourist concessions (to Namibian citizens) only on a year-by-year basis, the risk was high that the operator could lose his investment should he not be granted the concession again the following year. As soon as a multi-year concession of say 10 years could be secured, these plans would come into fruition. I am not aware whether at this stage this may well already be the case.

Being very close to the sea, the borehole provides very bracken water for washing purposes, which,  if you’re early, is hot. But better to keep your mouth closed in the shower and brush your teeth with that bottled water you brought along.

The food was phenomenal. Festus and his son turned out cuisine beyond expectation, night after night. Especially memorable was the morning we collected shellfish from the rocks, resulting in a formidable seafood stew. Thanks, Festus!


In terms of things to see, there are of course the regulation/as per brochure stops and photo opportunities – the Bushman’s Candle, the rusted Jeep engine with the fan still tinking away in the wind, shipwrecks, the seal colony, deserted mining facilities, rusted equipment, Mercury Island, spectacular viewpoints, unusual geographical features and some sand.

There are however many other non-advertised sightings or discoveries which appeal to each one in a unique way – perhaps not grabbing the attention of the next person – making the experience memorable and special.

Often these smaller, non-landscape things, were the most fascinating. E.g. the flora, some mistakable for a yellow version of a Lavender Bush or a “mushroom” growing between the vehicle tracks, or water eroded indentations in rocks, or the silhouette of a rusted coco-pan resembling an antelope.

Early morning fog is a problem at times in terms of visibility, and on one occasion we had to turn back from our destination prior to reaching it, as the promised feature would not have been visible. Fortunately the tour program was flexible, with events being swopped out, adapting to the weather. In the end we did get to see the initial fog-veiled feature.

Then there are the gullibility checks. Like the directions to the petrified seal site, having everyone chasing up a steep dune on foot, with the tour leader nonchalantly staying in his vehicle. But even with no seals, you are rewarded with a view which you otherwise would have missed.

Likewise the endemic jackal, which has adapted itself to running along the dunes. The legs on one side are shorter than those on the other, so that it can remain level as it runs along the dune slopes. The drawback is, that to get back home, it has to run all the way round the other side of the dune, as it would fall over if it ran with the short legs downhill. We were constantly on the look-out, but unfortunately missed this little creature completely. Perhaps next time.

Sand Driving

Opportunities abound to determine your car/own abilities/risk profile and develop your driving skill, although the difficult parts are always optional.

One of these skills is how to drive along the camber at the foot of a dune. You are instructed to keep your speed up, with the steering wheel turned slightly upslope. Generally this means a speed of around 50 – 80km/h, depending on the gradient of the slope and density of the sand. Should you relax your vigilance and let the speed drop off to below this level, you will promptly be bumped out of the track, and no matter how much more steering input is applied, will keep on heading down the dune. It is uncanny.

As soon as you get the speed up again, it is easy to move upslope and rejoin the “railway line”. This is contrary to one’s natural reaction of first wanting to align the car with more or less the intended direction of travel before heading off. In this case, head off in any direction – guaranteed, it will soon be downhill – get the speed up and as steering control is regained, return to the track.

This happened to the Forester, after slowing down too much for a largish cross-ridge. Once back on track and watching in the rear view mirror what the vehicle behind was doing, showed that as it slowed down for the same obstacle, history repeated itself, and it also was forced onto the same detour. At least the tracks were now already laid down.

Some of the advice given in terms of dune driving will require interpretation in order to validate it for softroader application. For instance: Maintain momentum up the slope, but tap off before cresting to avoid flying through the air and possibly roll the car. This advice is given by the driver of an unstoppable 2.5 ton plus vehicle, with a large footprint and a ground clearance > 250mm.

Your little SUV, with its belly frequently playing touch with the sand and weighing a ton less – therefore with considerable drag and only 60% the momentum (remember, M = mv) – will get hung up on the dune crest if you follow that advice too closely. After getting stuck once, you’ll realize that more power than was originally understood has to be maintained for longer; else a rearward recovery will follow. This was also one of the two occasions the Forester had to be recovered throughout the duration of the tour.


Saddle Hill – Chapter 3

Friday, 23 July, 2010

[By Johnie Jonker]

[Adapted version published in Leisure Wheels, March 2010]

More Softroader

Rather than ground clearance, a bigger problem turned out to be front overhang and the resultant approach angle, which in the case of pre MY08 Foresters, is poor. As you attack a steepish dune, the bumper scoops up sand and deposits it onto the windscreen. Other than water, it does not run off easily, and using wipers would only scratch the glass. Your vision is often blinded to the extent that the only way out is to stop, wait for the sand to drain away, reverse down, and try again, this time with a more diagonal approach so you don’t hit the dune, but rather glance up it. For this reason a decent bash plate is required, i.e. structural, and not just bling.

What also sometimes helped was to go further back in the convoy, so that the front runners could blunten the approach to the dune somewhat. This did however have mixed results at times, as the sand was by then churned so loose, that traction was poor – bear in mind, no traction control, no LSD/diff-lock, only a front/rear viscous coupling on the Forester. So a purely mechanical drive-train.

Also important is the height the driver side window is wound up to. As the steering wheel is swung from side-to-side in order to gain traction up the slopes – and this was often necessary – the sand is spun through the open window, having you spitting every so often. Not nice.

In terms of the quasi-low-range of the car (1.41 ratio), this was useful to pull away over the sand ridge formed in front of the wheels when stopping, but without it, simply reversing along your own tracks and then moving forward over the hump would have been as easy. Where the low-range did help, was up the dunes.

On some of the optional steep dunes, you arrive at the foot of the dune at 80km/h in 3rd gear, changing down 3/4 of the way up. Due to a sticky second gear, sometimes refusing to go in, the results were more predictable (guaranteed, actually) to select low-range, rather than second gear at this point. This gives a slightly lower ratio than second gear (not on post 2002 Foresters, though – 1.2 reduction only) and did the trick every time. Of course this is only possible if your SUV/softroader has synchromesh low-range selection. Very few – if any – of the other pucker 4x4s in the group could do this. But then, maybe their 2nd gear wasn’t sticky.

Approaching the dunes at speed can be quite daunting, especially since you see mostly sky until the dune flattens out at the top. Spare a thought for your co-driver, who like yourself, is faced with the same uncertainty, but unlike yourself, is not in control of the car, and does not have a steering wheel to hang on to. The next best thing is then to put your hands on the dashboard with your head underneath it. Do not feel insulted when she considers your driving skills (what driving skills?!!) insufficient and rides shotgun with Ramon in UB40, the replenishment Landcruiser pickup that at times lead the convoy. This may not necessarily help though, as after one particularly vigorous waxing up a dune, Don enquired over the radio how my wife was holding up, with Ramon replying: ”She’s busy checking the fuses”.

This behaviour was not uncommon in the group, as after the 2nd day, quite a few companions had forsaken their drivers and remained in the camp, spending the day reading in the lovely winter sun.

Not my wife though. Here’s what she has to say:”My advice as a passenger to this awe inspiring place is NEVER stay at the base and read a book. Push your boundaries and go along. The scenery, the vastness, the sky and sea are magnificent. Nobody or any photo can describe it to you”.

What was to Rosemary more scary and dangerous was the “strafdoppe” (penalty shooters). Not the concept or vileness of the super hot chilli-spiced 3-tot mix this consisted of, but its timing. This was awarded after dinner to anyone who did poorly, anyone who performed flawlessly and everyone in between. By this time of day, being a group of mostly strangers who got along very well from the word go, extensive visiting had taken place by way of socializing during sundowners and dinner. This extra drink or more, although voluntary, was therefore enough to sometimes upset the balance. So you needed to pace yourself.

From peer pressure to tyre pressure: Prior reading and watching off-road technique videos had fearfully convinced me that the tyres were going to come off the rim, especially when deflated to 0.6 bar, which was necessary once to get up a particularly stubborn (optional) dune. In retrospect, I suspect this is a remnant from the days when 4x4s had a combination of small (15”) rims and high profile (80) bakkie tyres. On most recent softroaders the profile is 65 or less (70 on this Forester), allowing much less flex of the sidewall, better retaining the bead seal on the rim. As long as you didn’t drive like a hooligan, popping doughnuts, you were fine. This mishap did not happen to anyone this time round, but if the worst should happen, the tour leader will at any rate have the equipment to get you going again – possibly playing with fire in the process. It goes without saying that you need a full size spare wheel, as a space saver is completely unsuitable.

In terms of tools to take, a tire repair kit would be useful. I did not, so was dependent on a fellow tourist – thanks, Manie – to repair my puncture. Predicting which other spares would be required, would at best be a hit and miss affair, so ignore it and rather think on your feet when stricken.

If your softroader is still intact by the penultimate afternoon, do NOT join the “really difficult dunes” group, rather take the “softy” beach option.

Pretty semi-precious pebbles are being continually replenished by the sea, Agate being especially bountiful. And of course the sea itself is always beautiful. Not swimmable …

Saddle Hill – Chapter 4

Friday, 23 July, 2010

[By Johnie Jonker] 

[Adapted version published in Leisure Wheels, March 2010]

But hang on ….


Before rushing off and booking a place on the next desert tour for your softroader – Don was of the opinion that had it not been for the good rain season prior to the tour – and I do not know how good or how long prior – the Forester would not have been as successful, due to the otherwise more powdery texture of the sand. 

Being a novice, I cannot tell to what extent this may vary. What was observed was that at no point the sand appeared wet/damp, and on many dune slip faces the sand “roared”, which I understood to mean a very dry aerated composition. How about an expert explanation, anyone? 


In conclusion, the qualities a softroader should therefore have to be able to negotiate this terrain – intensively experienced over 5 days – in order of importance: 

  • Ground clearance: In this case 195mm after tyre deflation to 0.8 bar was sufficient.
  • Structural bash plate that can bounce you off the sand and be used as a sled.
  • Short front overhang, rear not as important. The sand is soft, so an extended towbar will just make a dent in it and not slow you down.
  • Full-size spare wheel, tyre repair kit and a compressor.
  • Calibrated tyre gauge. After 3 unsuccessful attempts by one of the – up to that point – very capable drivers to get up a dune, all gathered round to try and puzzle out why this was the case. It was discovered that although his gauge indicated a tyre pressure of 0.8bar, another showed the tyres were still pumped to 1.1bar. Deflation solved the problem. It remains a mystery how he managed to get as far as he did. Possibly because it was a Land Rover?
  • Good power to mass ratio. No judgement can be made whether petrol or diesel is better in the case of a softroader – as all the other vehicles were either 4×4 bakkies or hardened SUVs – but the 80kW TD double-cabs probably got stuck most often. In the case of the Forester (92kW, <1500kg), petrol worked well due to the ability to get the revs up and thus save on gear changes. Three of the other vehicles – both petrol and diesel – did not have the acceleration to get up one dune from a narrow stretch of beach, having to take the easy way back along it.
  • Be familiar with your vehicle. Some very capable 4x4s failed to clear obstacles on the first attempt due to the driver not knowing how to – or that he should – lock the centre differential, or whether he should be in low-range or not. Also know where the engine power band is and at what point down changes should be made to keep it there.
  • Off-road training course. No, not really, unless it was in a similar real-life environment. Training courses at facilities like Gerotek is of little use as the only sand training done there is through a 100m tunnel of level Kalahari sand, teaching stopping/starting. The flow of the dune technique – approach, enter, maintain momentum, down-change, swing steering wheel, tap off, crest and maintain drive to the wheels on the slip face – cannot be instructed there.


What is useful though, is to learn what inclines your car can handle and at what speed they have to be entered in which gear. The Forester was one of the few cars in the Gerotek training group which attempted and managed the 70% incline at the facility. 

  • Low range – not at all.
  • Subsequently learnt (expensively) from a softroader with traction control – ESP and HDC OFF. The ESP ON/OFF option is generally standard on most SUVs, but the HDC only on a select few. To have the brakes kicking in every time you just touch the pedal on a slip face, and then maintaining that speed until you accelerate again, makes for a jerky ABS-induced creaking/groaning push/pull driving experience, devoid of any flow.
  • Also subsequently learned from the same digital softroader above, on this terrain a supple suspension is advantageous in terms of passenger longevity. Not too soft, as this will bounce through as you get to the foot of the dune – hence the bash plate – though still preferable to a performance/handling suspension setup, as it will be difficult to maintain your speed with the continuous pummelling caused by a stiff suspension.
  • Pack lightly. Once at the camp, the car will be emptied of luggage and only contain the occupants and daily refreshments for the remainder of the trip. But you have to get in and out through the dunes with the car fully loaded. Once again, the Forester is the only softroader I know of which maintains its ride height at the rear due to the self-levelling suspension – and it works!. So ensure that you pack/distribute the luggage evenly to limit the amount of rear end sag and the resultant loss in ground clearance.


Even though this tour was a first-time sand driving experience for most drivers, having to initially be instructed the techniques thereof, all could apply them successfully towards the end. 

However, where some had to learn it by rote and then react mechanically to subsequent inputs, others were more attuned to their vehicles, having a feel for what was returned by way of acceleration, vibration, attitude, noise, steering feedback, etc and adapting to this. Here’s to hoping you are one of the latter. 

Thanks, Don! 

Team Subaru…. as they were then