GLORY IN THE DESERT
A THRILLING RIDE IN A DAKAR RALLY CAR – AND A JAUNT ACROSS THE DUNES IN A LIMITED-EDITION HILUX DAKAR – LEFT ME IN NO DOUBT THAT THESE WERE TWO OF TOYOTA’S TOUGHEST, MOST POWERFUL VEHICLES, ABLE TO CONQUER EVEN THE MOST CHALLENGING TEST TERRAIN
“WITH THE BONNET FACING SKYWARDS, THE TRACK BEFORE US MOMENTARILY DISAPPEARED, ONLY FOR THE CAR TO SUDDENLY DIP (MY CHURNING INTESTINES!) AND THEN ZOOM AWAY.”
For a second, I wanted to pinch myself in disbelief. There I was, in a rally car, with Giniel de Villiers, Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’S champion racing and rally driver, and a veteran Dakar rally winner. No, we weren’t traversing the intimidating deserts of Latin America – we were in an isolated test drive spot outside Upington in the Northern Cape. With its rugged. wide-open terrain, it’s a test venue that perfectly mimics the challenges of a rally route.
The interior of the rally car was far from being the “polished” cockpit you’d expect in modern vehicles. The dashboard seemed rudimentary, but it featured a wealth of components that reflect and track all sorts of performance data, including our (terrifying) speed. Between our seats was a monstrous gear lever that De Villiers continually and deftly changed, and I was reminded of Mad Max: Fury. At some point, though, I gave up trying to guess what each component was for and succumbed to the sheer exhilaration of the ride.
BRACE FOR THE BUMPS…
Although I had a helmet on and was firmly strapped into my seat, nothing could have prepared me for the tumultuous terrain, or the involuntary jerking of my head and body as we traversed the rocks, sand and dirt at bone-shaking speed. When the 10-minute ride was over, someone in the group remarked: “Imagine being in a real Dakar race and jerking around like that for eight hours every day for two weeks [the time it takes to complete the Dakar]. It’s commitment racing!”
That observation makes you appreciate the immense task resting on De Villiers’ shoulders as he and the team continue to aim for glory at Dakar, a race De Villiers won in 2009. As it turned out, the Toyota team also used our Upington outing as preparation for the gruelling Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race that was set to start in a few weeks’ time.
On this adventure track day, our short “race” was a demonstration of what skilful driving in demanding conditions is all about. I sat with my right hand glued to the rail above my head as the car went through the circuit and couldn’t help grinning like a Cheshire Cat at the thrill of it all. It’s not every day that you get to sit in a rally car flying at 180km/hour on dirt, slowing down just in time to navigate a sharp bend before regaining its balance and resuming its breakneck speed. At some point, De Villiers had to drive through a narrow gap between two gates. Any misstep and they would have been history! Before I knew what was happening, we were through them, without him even needing to glance sideways.
NERVES OF STEEL
Later, the car bounded up a hill at full speed and, with the bonnet facing skywards, the track before us momentarily disappeared, only for the car to suddenly dip (my churning intestines!) and then zoom away. Twisting this way and that on the surface, with a cloud of dust inevitably rising, created the impression of a car skidding on ice. Sheer poetry on wheels – and something I’m unlikely ever to experience again. So I sat back and savoured the moment. De
Villiers, sensitive to a novice’s fragile nerves, periodically enquired through hand gestures whether I was OK and I always gave him a thumbs-up. Half an hour after our thrilling ride, I was still exhilarated.
THE LIMITED-EDITION HILUX DAKAR
Also put through the test in Upington was the all-new Toyota Hilux Dakar. Based on the Raider models, the Dakar’s off-roading abilities were on display when we took a languid drive on the surrounding sand dunes. This time, I was at the wheel.
Our driving instructor had repeatedly pointed out that taking it easy – the complete opposite of what De Villiers had just done in the rally car – and accelerating at the right moment was the key to driving over dunes of loose sand. “If you get stuck, simply reverse and try the path again,” he advised. “Getting stuck is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Thus reassured, I avoided getting stuck on the trail, although there were moments when keeping the steering wheel steady on the loose sand was challenging.
With its tall build, the Hilux Dakar offers impressive ground clearance. Its rugged exterior left me in no doubt that the dunes would be conquered with ease, while its refined interior, complete with an LCD multi-information system, ensured a comfortable drive.
Even on the road back to Upington, the car handled confidently, delivering a smooth and majestic journey and showing off its strength, durability and capability.
FAST FACTS: THE LIMITEDEDITION HILUX DAKAR
• The focal point is the large, glossy black honeycomb grille, which incorporates two horizontal sections, creating an image of strength. • The inner grille area is bordered by a metallic grey surround with a three-dimensional appearance which blends into the LED headlamps. • Buyers can choose between the Xtra
or Double Cab configurations. • The car has a 2,8-litre, four-cyclinder
• Fuel consumption varies from
7,6-8,5l/100km, depending on the
• CO2 figures range from 199-224g/km. • It’s available in four exterior colours: Glacier White, Chromium Silver, Graphite Grey Metallic and Inferno Orange Metallic. Both rear-wheel and switch-onthe-fly four-wheel drive transaxles are offered, each available in either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission configuration – creating a matrix of four 2,8 GD-6 variants. •