A Rolls-Royce on safari

Victoria Macmillan Bell puts a Roller to the ultimate test. Can it survive all that Namibia has to throw at it?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This wasn't a ploy, a self-indulgent ruse to explore a country I have long wanted to see, it was about taking a car out of its usual habitat and unmasking it. The truth is I have never been fond of large cars, and when I first laid eyes on the new Phantom, built as it is at Goodwood, two miles from my home, I thought it was a vast block of shaped steel with as much aerodynamic finesse as a Chieftain tank.

Certainly, as it was parked in front of our hotel at the Waterfront, in Cape Town, this vast car sitting alongside lesser mortals, the reality of taking the Phantom into a country whose families through generations of income couldn't hope to afford such a car, brought up concerns about sensitivity and ostentatious conduct. But we were greeted with open arms wherever we went; there was no jealousy, no keys along the paintwork, just genuine admiration and awe from people whose lives are rich in simplicity.

Table Mountain and its tablecloth, as the veil of cloud that hangs just over the peak is known, fast became a dot in the rear view mirror as we headed towards the Western Cape, with its talcum-powder-white sand dunes.

At 6.20pm it was almost completely dark, tarmac roads were now a good 200 miles behind us and the focus of illumination in the distance was our first border crossing, into Namibia. Within 10 minutes, the border zone had morphed into a Rolls-Royce showroom with relations of the border guards filtering into the light and asking questions in rapid-fire rounds; how much did it cost, how fast, how much fuel and how had we come to be in such a machine?

I sat a couple of people in the back and drew apart the front-seatback covers to reveal television screens. Their eyes became dinner plates and their chins hit the floor. If only there had been time to take them for a run and let them see this car was more than a refined lounge.

Out of the checkpoint, we plunged back into the inkpot of African night. The road went on, dead straight for miles, and the stars glowed brighter and brighter with the moon dropping into the desert before us. With less light pollution down here than in the northern hemisphere, Africa is the ultimate spot for watching the night sky; take the 22 shooting stars that fell in front of us in quick succession. To take it in properly, we stepped out into the endless, lightless, nothingness, a black blanket that muffles any noise apart from a barking gecko and our CD of choice, The Orb and Little Fluffy Clouds.

A few hours' rest at a lodge on the edge of Fish River Canyon was all we had time for, but as good as it would have been to be shown the canyon from the air, we had ground to cover. Namibia is so beguiling that we were spending too long being astounded by daylight viewing and the canyon itself, which was immense. As a farewell note from this African take on Death Valley, both the Phantom and our back-up BMW X5 were hit with simultaneous flat tyres. It's hot work changing the wheel of a Rolls in 34C, but there's nothing like the circling of eagles above your head to hasten a task.

We had a lot of ground to cover before nightfall and needed some long straights to open up, as we planned to arrive at our next stop in time for vital sustenance and not too late for it, a habit that had begun to show signs of monotonous regularity.

The roads were graded and smooth and they encouraged some zealous speeds, until we were given our biggest all-terrain wake-up call yet, the juddering of a once-flowing riverbed which was now full of corrugated ruts. The delivery was less harsh than we expected, but it was effective and we exercised more caution subsequently.

At a refuelling stop we talked to a foursome in a 40-year-old Beetle who had driven from Cape Town and were planning on driving around Namibia, like us. Like us? It would probably have done me the world of good to get in the back of their car and sweat it out for a couple of days. It was enough even to think about it.

We veered off the main road to head west to Luderitz, a coastal town still bearing the hallmarks of its German heritage in street names such as Bismarck. It was a weird arrival via the old docks, appearing like the set of a Hammer House of Horror film set under the moon, but we had made dinner - just - and dined in a room surrounded by a mural of a tsunami with people scattering across a beach. Apparently the Boxing Day tsunami had hit these shores with higher than normal tides but no real damage.

By day, the scene was much brighter, with shops doing brisk business and pockets of tourists booking their passes to Kolmanskop, a neighbouring ghost town and a once-thriving diamond-mining centre. Perched on the edge of the vast Namib Desert, its houses, once occupied by prospectors and their families, are now filled with tons of sand, the result of westerly winds and the gradual but incessant movement of the desert.

The Phantom had also become a point of interest to the visitors - and where else but in a ghost town? But the show had to go on and, just out of Kolmanskop, we hit the longest stretch of tarmac yet, as far as the eye could see, dead straight and not a car in sight. Opportunity knocked and we took the Phantom to its maximum output of 155mph, a passing flock of emu forming a flat, black line against the lunar landscape. The power and delivery were awesome as we speared along, granules of sand glistening as they bounced off the chrome.

As dusk hit us, we fell upon a small, one-street community containing a bar with adjoining rooms and a petrol station, a waterhole for all concerned. Back on the road, a herd of kudu sprang across our path but the tarmac was now behind us and the dust was kicked up, annihilating for several minutes any forward visibility and motion.

My eyes were now sinking back into their sockets, but just when we talked of pulling over for a power nap, we caught sight of illuminated gates belonging to Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge and, fortunately for us, our place of rest for two nights. The lodge was heaven sent, for its setting, the accommodation, the food and the people who run it. I wanted to apply to be their writer in residence immediately. We met in the bar overlooking the waterhole and were offered a drink, but I would gladly have taken the whole bar with a large straw. Ten minutes later we were looking at the moon though the largest telescope I have seen and from the lodge's own observatory, with its resident astronomer, Dave, who hails from Ohio, his accent as wide as the state.

Dave was with us for the dawn game drive the next morning, knocking his usual daylight sleep on the head - it's not every day you see a Rand 4.4m car in such incongruous surroundings. Namibia has been, and will continue to be, used for hot-weather testing, but this was a first for Rolls-Royce. We passed oryx, Cape foxes and spotted hyena as we glided across the sand and rock, not once coming unstuck and with the winter sun already searing through the desert haze. And it was not even 8.30am. The hermetically sealed, air-conditioned cabin made this the best seat in the house bar none.

Our next stop was Swakopmund, via Walvis Bay, and the vast dunes of Sesriem, the oldest in Africa, and one so large it even has a number: dune seven. These colossal mountains of deep terracotta sand come to a complete halt at the South Atlantic above sea level, but continue under the sea and have caused the grounding of ships and the loss of lives farther up on the Skeleton Coast.

Sixteen hours after bidding farewell to the luxury of Sossusvlei, we reached Swakopmund and almost journey's end. Between here and Angola lies the most inhospitable part of the country. We were at the gates with skull and crossbones heralding what lay ahead and it lived up to the stories in every way. An eerie, thick fog washed around us mixed with the sparkling grains of sand, blurring the line between on and off road and any chance of maxing the car. We drove absolutely straight for an hour, lulled into a false sense of what lay ahead, and then, out of nowhere, we hit an enthusiastically tight corner at 100mph. You felt it load up and wonder when the balance was going to shift and then it came. Even on loose gravel, it put all its feelers out and sucked hard, all that weight, 6,710lb of it, delicately distributed to the centrifugal points. I didn't feel unduly worried, there was a second or two when the car got away from me, but then it came back just as quickly, power down and off we went, the potent V12 back at full chat.

We were now enjoying the last few hours at the wheel of this competent production with undoubtedly the best stereo system in the world. After one week living and breathing it, we were treating it like any other tool to get us from A to B; it seems such a total waste to hear of it being used solely as a means of transportation, albeit a luxurious one, when it is capable of so much more.

At the beginning of the trip I found the stick shift a bit of a fiddle but probably more the fault of the operator than the car, unlike the i-Drive system which operates climate control, satellite navigation and in-car media entertainment. I'm not sold on it among the BMW fleet and less so here, but no doubt I would get my head around it in time. That's just it, though; it's a question of having the time to pull over to sort through all the screens; it certainly couldn't happen while wafting along to the club for lunch.

What do I think of the Phantom now, after 2,100 miles? Yes, it's regal, it is an attention magnet and it induces a broad spectrum of emotions in people as it drifts along, but none more so than at a seal colony on the Skeleton Coast where the stench was so strong I chose to sit in the back seat, all windows up, with the table down, to write some notes. Our photographer was asked if I was Victoria Beckham. Surely not. I think she's brunette at the moment. And seals? Can't imagine her doing seals. But the back of the Phantom? Yes, definitely yes. I'm going with it.

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