The Spirit of Amarok, now in its fifth year, is an international amateur 4×4 competition held annually in a remote location in Southern Africa. Each event sees a new location carefully selected with the objective of keeping routes from getting familiar to competitors; with this year seeing the region of Mbombela in Mpumalanga, along with its majestic Lowveld bush playing the welcoming host. Countries competing include Russia, Denmark, Australia, Germany, Botswana, Namibia, Czech Republic, Taiwan, China and South Africa. Each of which sees their own elimination feeder rounds where the winners go on to represent their nations and battle it out over three days to fight for the ultimate prize – the coveted Wolf Trophy.
As a curtain-raiser to kick off this year’s proceedings, 30 members of the media were invited to swop their urban landscapes for rural tented accommodation, pairing up to take on the grueling series of technical and speed courses designed and meticulously managed by South African track and rally legend, Sarel ‘Super Van’ Van Der Merwe. But more on Sarel later.
During the driver briefing we’re warned that this course would be tough, and tough it certainly was, bringing out the true character of both team and the Amarok, now for the first time using the 165 kW 3.0-litre V6 in the competition.
For the first half of the challenge competitors are expected to tackle technical sections where the gravel, loose stone and boulders are churned by Goodyear off-road rubber along twisty sections guarded by sentinel-like red and white flag poles leaving just enough room for a vehicle and two inches either side of the wing mirrors which, if touched, result in a points deduction from the allocation of 100 at the start of each stage. Add to that a countdown under starter’s orders and a race against the clock and now you’re beginning to got the Spirit of Amarok challenge. The aim of the game is to be slow and steady, as finishing well before the alotted time sees more points being deducted than after. Think of it like threading a needle while jumping on a jumping castle within an exact time. To add to the tense environment, any mistake is openly communicated across the radio frequency testing your big match temperament.
Up to speed
The second part of the competition gifted those feeling the need to channel their inner rally driver with the opportunity in the speed section through carefully curated stretches of jeep track, punctuated by 90-degree bends and sharp hairpins, all of which test your ability to engage and extract the best of the Amarok including its traction control and ABS systems, as well as calling upon this bakkie’s V6 turbo diesel shooting you out of corners with its ultra-smooth 8-speed auto gearbox.
Going in Blind
To add a spanner to the works, Volkswagen threw in a blindfold test at the end of the day, which challenged drivers to reverse their vehicle to an allocated bay, zig-zagging through a series of poles guided by the voice of your teammate using two-way radio systems. A challenge braced by team trust and a few brave marshals standing along the route.
What makes this competition uniquely exciting is that the format of scoring does not allow any live update as to your team’s standing at any stage throughout the day, with the points closely guarded by officials. A covert operation successfully executed as the only time anyone got to hear where you eventually ended up was when the final standings were announced around a roaring pit fire. To my delight a day of consistent application of skill and unearthing the seeming mountain-goat persona of the Amarok, I had achieved a convincing 335 points out of the 345 available, securing a win in the speed driving trials, which helped achieve second place overall.
Supervan’s retirement plan
While most retirees spend their days of leisure in seaside villages, going for morning walks and playing lawn bowls, Sarel, now 72 years old, chose the polar opposite. Whilst chatting to this him after the event, one can sense it from his eyes that like all racing car drivers, and especially those of Sarel’s calibre, the competitive spirit and desire to be involved in competitive motor sport still runs deep. That very essence then is embodied in the Spirit of Amarok and with any luck, in 2020, I’ll be back to improve upon that second place.
In a nutshell
Volkswagen Amarok V6 TDI
Engine: 2 970 cc, 6-cylinder, turbo diesel
Power: 165 kW @ 3 000 – 4 500rpm, 550 Nm @ 1 400 – 2 750 rpm
Performance: 0-100 km/h 8.0 sec, top speed 193 km/h
Tyres: 255/60 R18
Economy: 9.0 l/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 8-speed auto, four-wheel drive
CO2 emissions: 236 g/km
Starting price: R727 800