The deceptive properties of gravel roads

Facts on the environment in Namibia #2
January 3, 2017
Christuskirche in all its glory
January 5, 2017

Text Tim Osbourne | Photos Paul van Schalkwyk

Namibia is blessed with a fine system of roads, bisecting the country and connecting all the major cities. Once off this arterial tarmac highway, you will be on a gravel road. All the district roads marked as a ‘D’ with four numbers on the map and most ‘C’ roads are not paved but surfaced with gravel.

F ortunately the Roads Authority grades these roads on a monthly basis and, depending on the surface material and usage, they are mostly straight and smooth.

Driving on gravel roads can be deceptive. There is a tendency for visitors to be lulled into a state of complacency, then they hit a patch of road where the gravel might be a little loose and suddenly the vehicle starts to drift to one or the other side. This is where many overseas drivers who are used to paved roads could make a fatal mistake. They pull the wheel over sharply to get back into their side of the road, often causing the vehicle to over-correct in the wrong direction. With another hard pull to correct their mistake, they tend to spin out of control, ending up with a rollover of their vehicle.

All the hire-car companies warn their drivers not to exceed 80 km/h on gravel roads, but even at that speed, accidents can happen. Driving on gravel is like driving in deep snow or on ice for northern drivers. Once the vehicle starts to drift, the driver must let it go, then slowly try to bring it back into the correct lane. The fortunate aspect of the district roads is the lack of other traffic, so if you end up in the oncoming lane, there is rarely another vehicle coming toward you.

District gravel roads often don’t necessarily go ‘anywhere important’, but they still have an interesting history, culture and seldom-visited features you might miss by rushing past.

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An advantage of a large vehicle such as a Land Cruiser with its big tyres is that it can handle very deep, loose gravel before lane drifting occurs. The speed limit on the district roads is 100 km/h and I usually drive the limit with my Cruiser, but after all these kilometres, I still occasionally find myself drifting from side to side or suddenly getting pulled off the road. Slowing down always helps, as does a heavy load.

All the gravel roads in Namibia have one common feature—dust. While travelling at slower speeds, your windows will in all likelihood be rolled down. If the road is too busy, you’ll end up spending a lot of time rolling the windows up and down as each vehicle passes. If you’re following another vehicle, you need to have your headlights on to alert oncoming vehicles. And if you travel lots of these roads, the dust will creep in everywhere.

Once in 1995 I hired a car from Budget in Pretoria and travelled up through Botswana to Zambia, across the former Caprivi to Etosha. From there we went to the coast and then to Windhoek, where I used a friend’s air hose to de-dust the car as much as possible. We stopped off at Fish River Canyon before heading back to Pretoria for another 10 000 kilometres. The Budget attendant popped the boot to check whether the spare tyre was there. It took him only one look at the new collection of dust to comment, “I see you’ve been in Namibia.”

This article was first published in the Flamingo December 2010 issue.

Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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