That’s the spirit

Renowned for its challenging terrain and thrilling atmosphere, the Spirit of Africa challenge is the brainchild of local motorsport legend, Sarel van der Merwe. Described as one of the toughest 4×4 challenge in Africa for amateurs, this year saw the 19th edition of the event, run in partnership with Nissan for the first time. ANTON WILLEMSE SNR participated in the media challenge.

Photos by BRADLEY JONES

It was a chilly Wednesday morning when our group of 20 motoring journalists and influencers arrived at Doringbos 4×4, about 32km northwest of Bloemfontein. I was partnered with Willem van de Putte from IOL for the event and we set our aims high – we wanted to win!

Heading up the Spirit of Africa is South African motor sport-legend Sarel van der Merwe and this year saw the 19th edition of the event. It was also the first time that Nissan partnered with the famous off-roading competition and the Navara 2.5 DDTi PRO-4X 4X4 AT Double Cab, with 140kW on tap, was the perfect match for this challenge.

Sarel gave us a quick brief on how things would work. There were various types of stages, from speed trials to precision driving sections. Each route had red and white gates through which you had to pass. Touching a white gate would get you a five second penalty, ten seconds for the red ones. On some trails red gates could get you disqualified from that stage. And under no circumstances were the vehicles to be damaged… this would lead to automatic disqualification.

Willem was first behind the wheel of the Nissan Navara for the tyre tow. Dragging a giant tyre through a slalom course sounded simple enough, but with precision and speed being the key it wasn’t that easy. Too slow and you end up last. Too fast and the tyre swings too wide and hits the gates, losing you points and seeing you slip down the rankings. Willem decided to take a more cautious approach and although we weren’t slow, we were definitely not as fast as we could have been. However, no gates were hit, giving us a decent score and a good start to the competition.

Next was a series of speed stages. Each team started with 100 points. If you hit a white flag, you lose five points. Hit a red flag and it’s minus 10. Hit more than three red flags and it’s game over. First up was something representing an oval. Two teams started on either side of the track and had to complete two laps.

It was my turn to drive. As we pulled of, the Navara locked into 4H and we got off to a flyer. Out of the corner of my eye I could see we were quicker than the other bakkie and this pushed my adrenalin levels up ever so slightly. Coming around the last corner I overcooked it and hit a white flag, costing us five points. Luckily, I still had loads of momentum and was able to correct my mistake and finish the final lap ahead of our competition. Willem was less than impressed with the hitting of the flag and let rip with a couple of choice words that should rather not be repeated. I probably deserved it though, seeing that I’d asked him if he was driving Miss Daisy through the slalom.

Each speed stage got progressively more technical, with the gates getting narrower and the competition heating up. We may have started this day off as friends, but now the competition was heating up and everyone was pushing a little harder on each stage. Unfortunately for the team in car 11 the aggression came at a cost, and they lost a sidestep. Luckily for them the initial damaged had occurred during a previous round of the competition. They escaped a full disqualification but received a first yellow flag warning… another one and they’d be out!

The last stage for the morning was a drag race, and Willem got in behind the wheel again. We quickly devised a strategy and decided to opt for the automatic transmission rather than manual gear changes, with traction control on. Willem had been keeping his foot on the brake while pushing up the revs. The Navara twisted under the strain, wanting to release its power. The marshal counted down… 3… 2… 1! As the flag dropped the bakkie lunged forward in a cloud of dust. The first 50m felt like an eternity as the bakkie next to us pulled ahead slightly. Then suddenly our Navara got a second breath and edged past our competition. In about 20 seconds it was all over. We crossed the line about two car lengths ahead. Turns out the other team had opted for manual gear changes via the flappy paddles behind the steering wheel. They changed up too early and lost momentum as a result.

With eight stages completed, we headed off to lunch. Contemplating our success, or lack thereof, we gathered around the table with our fellow scribes as we chatted about the first couple of stages. Where had we gone wrong and which flags did we hit? There was a rumour that Willem and I were leading the competition by a healthy margin. Our confidence soared and we optimistically started thinking that we could win this whole thing!

After lunch we had four more stages to tackle – three speed stages and a single precision driving 4×4 route. It was decided, Willem would do the speed stages and I would tackle the 4×4 route. The organisers threw us a curveball though… each stage had to be completed within a certain time. Do it too slow or too fast and you lose a point for each second.

Always up for a challenge, Willem masterfully pushed the Navara through the first gate. At the second gate a gust of wind pushed one flag closer to us and it hit our mirror – minus five points already! We over-corrected and nicked the second gate with the rear fender flares… another five points gone. This wasn’t great news, but we could almost taste victory as we headed to the 4×4 section.

As I got in behind the wheel the marshal explained the rules. Apart from losing points for hitting the white and red flags, rolling back on the course would cost you 20 points. And then the kicker – the stage had to be completed in four minutes.

With Willem clutching the stopwatch and the ever willing and capable Navara in 4L we were rearing to go. Thirty seconds in we went through the first gate. Ahead of us lay a rutted incline and a sharp turn at the top, where we had to manoeuvre through another gate. Not wanting to damage the bakkie or hit any flags, I cautiously drove up and successfully manoeuvred around at the top. But now we only had two minutes left to complete the course.

As the stopwatch ticked past the four-minute mark, we could see our moment of glory slipping through our fingers. We were sure that everyone would struggle with the stage, though, and clung to the hope that we could still win. With a final speed stage left for Willem to do, we crossed our fingers and gave it all we had.

As the marshal counted us down for the last time, Willem once again revved up the Navara. The marshal counted us down and he dropped the brakes. We flew down the track. Willem’s driving was perfect, and we passed through the first two gates without incident. As we emerged around the last corner, a gate caught Willem by surprise but with swift manoeuvring and skills that would have made Sarel himself proud, we threaded the needle and finished the last round without a single mistake. All that we could do now was hope that we’d done enough to clinch the win and headed back to the communal hall for dinner.

On the menu was delicious lamb on the spit, and as we dished up speculation was rife. You could cut the tension with a knife. Finally, Nissan’s head of communication, Vuyo Quphe, stepped up and silence fell over the room. One by one the teams were called up to receive certificates of participation until there were only three teams left. The team in third place was called up… this was it… we were in the top two!

As Vuyo read out second place the room erupted. We were second, the team from car 11 pipping us by 20 points! Graciously we congratulated them as they basked in their glory.

This was my first Spirit of Africa and hopefully not my last. Willem and I have every intention of claiming the top spot on the podium next time around!

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