How Nissan’s Navara pickup truck handles some of the highest dunes in the Sahara Desert
Photos: Nissan, Derryn Wong
Erfoud, Morocco – There’s a line from a song that goes “My sisters and I, have one wish before we die, and though it may sound strange, as if our minds are deranged.”
The weird request is also the title of the song, which is called ‘Tea In The Sahara’. Having actually drunk (Moroccan mint) tea in the Sahara, it’s actually quite nice.
Driving in the Sahara is a bit like the song as well, because if you asked most people, “Hey would you like to drive in the desert?” they’d look at you as if you were deranged. But while it may sound strange indeed, it is quite an experience – and one that would be a great addition to any bucket list.
Cups Full Of Sand
We’ve said much about the current crossover craze that’s sweeping the world. TL:DR – crossovers look off-roady, but can’t, so they’re really for people who want a hatchback only more space. If you really do want to go off-road then the selection of vehicles in Singapore are pretty limited: You could get an old Defender, or something crazy spendy like a G Wagen or the Range Rover Sport SVR we reviewed this issue. But in between there’s not much.
On the other end of the spectrum though, there are the sort of choices for people out in the ‘real’ world (that is, realising that most of the world isn’t city) who need to get stuff done in tough environments: Trucks.
That’s the reasoning behind Nissan Europe’s event, which involves driving some of its commercial vehicles in various situations here in Morocco. At the event we drove the NV300, which is a large panel van that’s not on sale in Singapore or the region, and the NP300 pickup truck, which is.
The NP300, called the Navara, is no pushover: It’s a big one, 5.3-metres long, 1.8-metres high and two-tonnes in weight. But it’s made for real work, and lots of it, being able to carry a tonne of stuff and tow a further 3.5-tonnes behind it. If you’re going to Ikea, that’s 263 of Ikea’s iconic ‘Lack’ bedside tables you could bring home, or 921 of them if you’ve access to a trailer. In other words, it appears to be a classic ladder-frame, diesel powered truck that’s efficient and tool-like. A truck’s a truck, and out where we were, the same thing seems to apply to the terrain: a desert is a desert, how much fun could that be?
While the Navara sounds like all work and no play, just like the place we’re testing it, that proves to be a big misconception.
Climbing up and into the Navara is alien to anything but owners of towering SUVs, but once embedded in the cabin it’s all pretty familiar: Switchgear and displays from regular Nissan cars are all over, from the AC to the driver’s info display. It’s all very normal – perhaps even a dash luxurious since the double-cab model we’re driving here has leather seats and a full infotainment system as well.
And despite this being a truck, there’s a smooth seven speed automatic gearbox to handle the chore of apportioning power between the wheels and engine, so pulling out from our Casbah-style HQ for the day’s drive into Erfoud’s morning traffic is surprisingly low-key.
Well, it helps that the only thing around was a man on a donkey, and that the roads around here are in superb condition. It’s not worth saying they’re better than Singapore’s roads, since our roads have somehow degraded into a patchwork mess that seems to have taken the dark side of the moon as its original model, but they far exceed Malaysian B-roads by being free of potholes, tumours and dead things.
Morocco’s roads are quite a sight for a first-timer. It being a French colony, the only theme I can spot is that of a prevalence of French cars, such as an old Renault 4, 90s Citroens and modern Dacias (Renault-Nissan’s budget car brand). There are also a number of curiously-packed VW Golf Mark 1s and Mercedes-Benz W123 ‘E-Class’ cars, the latter almost unrecognisable through age and wear. It turns out they’re the local version of Uber Ride – taxis only move off if they’re full, and can pick up others along the way.
Land To See
Off-road qualities like high ride, softer suspension and big fat tyres, lead to on-road characteristics that aren’t so nice, such as lots of body roll, vagueness and a general lack of ‘tightness’ that road cars have. The Navara has all that, but by no means in a large or intolerable degree – it feels no lazier than some SUVs do, truth be told. And soon enough when we leave the tarmac, all of the Navara’s off-road tweaks make a huge amount of sense.
Our convoy detours off a road in the middle of nowhere, and we’re also seemingly heading nowhere. It’s a plain punctuated by dark mountains on one side and bright orange hills on another side. Half an hour of driving doesn’t break the scene – it’s the same aside from differing mountains. But as Frank Herbert’s Dune novel, which kicked off based on the author’s experiences in Oregon’s coastal dunes and other American deserts, there’s a lot more to the desert than we think.
There are trees and low shrubs and grasses, we cross numerous dry river beds. At 11am, it’s getting warmer – it is winter here in Morocco, so night time temperatures drop below 10 degrees – but for now it isn’t too hot. The hills loom nearer and we slowly round one of the hills to come face to face with a large rocky outcrop, the Jbel Medouar. Flanked by crumbling man made walls, we drive into the a small valley to begin a short, but serious climb.
The Navara’s nicety extends to off-roading too: Once we left tarmac for hard clay and soil, we simply turned the knob from two-wheel drive mode (it’s rear-wheel drive, for those who wonder) to high-range all-wheel drive. Here, at the foot of our climb, we switch again to low-range AWD.
This cat has nothing to do with dune driving. But it does live in an oasis.
We amble along a narrow path cut into the side of a hill, it seems just about narrow enough to allow the big pickup through without toppling over the side. Just. The car’s 2.2-litre twin-turbodiesel engine helps a lot here too, one turbo is larger and the other smaller, each tuned for high and low revs. It gives the car predictable power delivery, which is terribly useful when you just want to inch the nose half-a-metre forward before you turn to avoid certain doom.
Nissan also makes a big deal of the independent multi-link suspension in the rear of the car (the front has double wishbones) and it does add hugely to the Navara’s overall prowess, no matter what the situation. In one like this, I’m just glad the rear wheels can sort themselves out, elevation wise, without making us pitch around too much.
It’s the pickup that makes all of this rather easy, really. It even has a front camera to peek over ledges when you can see nothing but sky from the driver’s seat. Sure, you could do all this in a properly-provisioned SUV, but I worried much less about scratching the truck’s side when choosing between stick-out bolder on the left and chasm of doom on the right.
A short ten-minute climb later and we’re treated to a magnificent view of the plain as it stretches out underneath us, criss-crossed by tracks and looking very much like some sort of rally has just blitzed across it, as we can still see vehicles kicking up dust plumes in the distance. As it turns out, that’s a little prophetic.
I’m The Captain Now
Erfoud is a popular tourist destination because it’s the town that is nearest to Morocco’s largest sand dunes, Erg Chebbi, and also used to be part of a special stage of the original Paris Dakar Rally which Nissan participated in.
The dunes are hard to miss – they’re the red ‘hills’ we saw in the distance, unmissable in colour since as almost literal mountains of sand they’re a sort of fiery red in morning or evening sun, and beautiful to see at a distance. Up close though, Erg Chebbi is stunning.
And our song at the beginning has a line for this too: “They would climb a high dune, they would pray to the moon.” We didn’t quite pray, but the near-full moon was fully visible, a pale white disc on the blue.
‘Erg’ means dune sea, and it’s a very appropriate description because dunes, like sea waves, ebb and flow with the wind, albeit on a much larger time scale. At up to 150-metres tall, these are some of the tallest dunes anywhere to be found in the Sahara desert, or the world.
Dune-driving isn’t difficult, but requires a few modifications to driver and vehicle. Once again we’re in the Navara’s AWD low-range mode, and the tyre pressures are lowered to widen the contact patch – just like a camel toe. Which are quite interesting to look at since they’re soft pads that spread out to maximise surface area to prevent sinking in.
The idea behind that extends to driving too. Our instructor is four-time Dakar Rally driver Javier Herrador, of Portugal, and he says, “You need to do everything gently so you don’t get stuck. If you brake hard, you’ll dig the wheels in forward, if you turn or work the steering hard, you’ll also dig a hole – you need to move like a snake over the sand.”
Being gentle and progressive with the controls is the best thing for driving anywhere – tarmac, snow, dirt – but here an element of forward planning is needed too. The shifting sand means lag is inbuilt into the controls, and with the ups and downs of dunes, momentum needs to be managed too. Get on the gas on the uphill, but let it off before you peak or else you’ll crest heavily over the top, get on the gas as the car starts rolling down, rinse and repeat. For cornering, sharp turns make the car dig and buck, almost as if you’re hitting an obstacle, so wide and gentle arcs are the way to go. Getting stuck isn’t the end of the world either, and usually only happens if you fail to maximise momentum on the climb: you just need to reverse and roll backwards and try again.
Once you’re in the rhythm of it, it’s easy and very fun, cresting the dunes like waves then dipping into the troughs, the pale azure, intensely blue sky slipping in and out of view. From the inside of the Navara, it’s almost serene, the hum of the diesel engine, the soft susurrus of the sand under your wheels, you get the urge to turn to your passenger and say, “Look at me. I’m the captain now.” Which is entirely the point of a great pick-up truck, in the end.