Most of us have got one car-related experience that we remember with a bigger smile than any other; something we’ll never forget for as long as we live. Maybe you’re lucky and you already have loads of amazing memories that you couldn’t possibly choose between, but if you’re still trying to think of even one… damn, you need to get on that.
The best thing I’ve ever done in a car involved a pre-production BMW X5, hundreds of miles of Namibian countryside and a whole spectrum of animals that would have quite liked to eat me. It’s one of BMW’s most amazing driving experiences, and it comes with a once-in-a-lifetime price tag. Needless to say I was lucky enough to have been a working journalist when I took the trip, so I didn’t have to cripple myself with debt to make it happen.
The best travel experiences – the ones you really remember – are the ones where the culture and landscape is mind-blowingly different to how it is wherever you come from. It didn’t take long for that to hit home when I approached my simple, outdoor hotel room building for the first night of the eight-day tour by walking past a grazing herd of oryx, a pair of warthogs digging holes in the irrigated ranch lawn and a lizard the size of my hand casually climbing the wall outside my door.
Our small group met our cars the next day; deeply scruffy pre-production German-plated X5s that had been left in the country by agreement after completing their hot-weather testing. Mine’s dashboard was lit up like a Christmas tree with warning lights, apparently because half of the systems weren’t actually connected.
Over the next few days we mixed driver training and the first stages of the journey across the rocky, salt-dry hills with close encounters of the apex predator kind, crossing paths with lions, crocodiles and cheetahs. It was a proper culture shock for an Englishman not just to be exposed to 40-degree temperatures by 11am, but also to be following dusty tracks through the savannah under the dopey gaze of about a million giraffes. By the third day, with ostriches, zebra, elephants and even rhinos ticked off the list of animals I never thought I’d see in the wild, I knew I’d never forget this trip.
The X5s were pushed to their limits. This was, thankfully, no nanny-state safety-fest. Riding on badly chewed-up road tyres and armed with nothing more special than their own xDrive systems and front bash plates to protect the engines, this was a genuine challenge. Clearly, people were going to get stuck. I beached it in deep sand, a rocky climb in the mountains proved too tough for a couple of Hungarians and someone else struggled when they stopped just in the wrong spot on another loosely-surfaced hill and couldn’t get it going again.
All things considered, though, the big BMWs did surprisingly well, aside from when mine kept cutting to limp-home mode and almost dying completely on a supposedly fast dash along a dry, soft sandy riverbed. The relentless sand bombardment kept blocking the air filter, but if we stopped, we’d have needed to be towed out of the deep, beach-fine sand by a car that was now well out of walkie-talkie range. I can laugh about it now, but at the time…
I saw some of the most amazing sights I’ll ever see. I drove some of the most remarkable terrain in the world. I drank cold beers with good people, at sundown, in the middle of land populated by things with very large teeth and claws. I had some of the best barbecue food I’ll ever eat. I sat by a watering hole watching hungry crocodiles eye baby hippos while another driver played Toto’s Africa through his phone speakers. I nearly destroyed the poor, tired X5 while pushing its limits in ways it was only kind of designed for.
All of this and much more came because of an adventure in a car. If I had the many thousands of euros it would take to do it again, I’d have already booked it. The price is clearly no obstacle to customers, mind you; the tour is so busy that BMW has had to introduce a waiting list. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to say that I know exactly why.
What has been your best in-car experience so far? And yes, before anyone says anything X-rated, we do mean with your clothes on. Maybe you’ve driven the full length of the Wild Atlantic Way, or done the Mongol Rally with mates. Tell us about your best car-related memories!