We are well and truly alone.
Before us lay a seemingly endless gray desert moonscape. Our trifling caravan was rolling along the western coast of Africa, the only sign of humanity our silver specks of overland-loaded 2020 Land Rover Defender 110s dancing over sand dunes, splitting the horizon with the churning South Atlantic Ocean.
I snapped back to reality as my Land Rover’s nose aimed skyward as we struggled up a dune. Throttle in, the engine roaring, we rocketed up the crest. Suddenly floating over the desert floor, we heard a thunk from all four corners of our air suspension—signaling we’d temporarily left earth somewhere over Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
It’s not often a new Defender comes around—the same holds true for a new Jeep Wrangler or Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Yet all three of these legendary overland-ready off-roaders have been revised during the past three years: The Wrangler was new for 2018, the G-Wagen for 2019. Now it’s the Defender’s turn.
Wedged between Angola to the north and South Africa to the south on Africa’s Atlantic coast, Namibia boasts about as much land area as Texas and Arkansas combined, but it has the second-lowest population density in all the world, with just 7.5 people per square mile. That paucity of inhabitants hints at why Land Rover chose Namibia to launch the 2020 Defender 110. There’s perhaps no place as remote, environmentally diverse, and challenging to traverse as this vast place.
Over the next three days and 500 miles, we would conduct an expedition through Namibia’s northern Kaokoland in the Kunene Region, an underdeveloped area populated mostly by the nomadic Himba people. Our route would take us from the regional capital of Opuwo, over the treacherous Van Zyl’s Pass, through the Marienfluss Valley, down the Skeleton Coast, and then back to Opuwo.
Terrain would vary wildly, from sandy two-tracks and riverbeds to rocks, gravel, mud, and water crossings. The only sort of terrain that would be in short supply would be asphalt—just two of the 500 miles we were traversing would be paved. In other words, Land Rover would be pulling no punches with its new Defender.
The Defender should be well suited for the task. With a lineage tracing to the original go-anywhere Land Rover Series I, the new Defender is a drastic departure from the generation preceding it—perhaps hinting at why Land Rover chose such a remote region for the Defender’s launch.
Look underneath: The live axles, manually locking differentials, and even body-on-frame construction Land Rovers are known for—all features hardcore overlanders want in their off-roaders—are gone. In their place sits a thoroughly modern and capable SUV, one that challenges the conventional notions of the off-road world.
Its unibody D7x platform can be sized in both short-wheelbase two-door Defender 90 or long-wheelbase four-door Defender 110 form, and it’s both lighter and three times stiffer than a traditional body on frame. Its independent suspension gives the Defender up to 11.5 inches of ground clearance, up to 12.5 inches of articulation, and improved ride quality both on road and off, especially when equipped with optional air springs. It also features an automatic center and rear differential—both capable of functioning as limited-slip and fully locking units—and an electronic brake-based front “differential.” Land Rover’s latest Terrain Response system is responsible for tying together all the hardware and software.
Powertrains are a departure from the Defender of yesteryear, too. A P300-badged 296-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 is standard for the U.S. market; a P400-badged mild hybrid with a 3.0-liter turbocharged I-6 and an electric supercharger is optional. The hybrid powertrain makes a healthy 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque.
All Defender powertrains are paired with an eight-speed automatic and permanent four-wheel drive. The Defender 110s Land Rover brought to Namibia were all P400 and D240 models, the latter a not-for-America optional high-output 2.0-liter turbodiesel I-4 making 236 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque.
Central Opuwo, Kunene Region: –18.045029, 13.833661
Our gaggle of Indus Silver Defender 110 P400s and Pangea Green Defender D240s looked properly African, sitting in the lot of our starting point, smack dab in the middle of bustling Opuwo. Kitted out with Land Rover’s Explorer Pack (which includes an expedition roof rack capable of supporting a dynamic load of 370 pounds, a snorkel, and a side-mounted ladder and gear carrier, among other things), off-road tires (factory optional), and a Warn winch kit (available at your local Land Rover dealer), our group of five Defenders were primed for anything Namibia’s desolate interior could throw at us.
Yet as I dodged goats, Toyotas, and more goats leaving Opuwo in our fancy hybridized Defender P400, I couldn’t help but feel just a little bit skeptical of the whole enterprise—could a cushy, air-sprung unibody SUV really stand up to the abuse Namibia was about to throw at it?
In the invitation to the event, Land Rover described the expedition as including “intense off-road situations not for the faint of heart.” This from a company that had taken on the challenge of two decades of intense Camel Trophy treks with typical British understatement. I wondered what, exactly, I had gotten myself into.
With the low, squat city disappearing into the Rover’s ClearSight video rearview “mirror,” I’d soon find out. With mountains in the distance and sharp, thorny trees scraping the sides of my Defender, these northern reaches of Namibia stretching toward Angola reminded me a lot of the Arizona–Utah border. The trail consisted of narrow, rocky tracks, sand, and wide washes in what would be rivers if Namibia weren’t in the middle of a six-year drought.
Despite our remoteness, signs of humanity were everywhere. Every half hour or so we’d stumble through a Himba village, usually little more than thatched huts near a water source. Or they’d stumble upon us, popping out of nowhere during a driver swap to look curiously at our Defenders—or more often than not, at us, with our weird Western clothes, hair, and tattoos.
The currently undemanding conditions allowed me to take stock of the Defender. Throttle response from the electrically supercharged and turbocharged I-6 felt a touch laggy at first, but I quickly grew used to both it and the way the engine pulled hard once it was spun up. The transmission, meanwhile, shifted imperceptibly in the background. Ditto for the light effort required of the brakes despite being difficult to modulate smoothly at low speeds. The Defender’s steering and ride need no such adjustments; steering is light, linear, and accurate, with little if any impact transmitted up from the tires to the steering wheel. Ride quality was as supple as a Ford F-150 Raptor with cushy Fox Shox.
We pulled into camp as the shadows grew long. Our very Scottish Land Rover trail guide promised things would only get harder. Good.
East of Van Zyl’s Pass, near the Marienfluss Valley: –17.657700, 12.696840
We rolled out of camp early the next morning and immediately dropped our Defender’s transfer case into four low as we began the slow, tedious climb up toward Van Zyl’s Pass.
Linking the inland to the Marienfluss Valley, the pass was cut haphazardly by a Dutch explorer, a Ford Model T, and a hundred Himba in the 1960s. It first climbs up to about 4,000 feet before dropping 2,000 feet via a 35-degree slope into the Marienfluss. Slick with loose rock and steep drop-offs, the jagged path is punctuated with carcasses of Toyota Hiluxes that had gone over the side.
With Rock mode engaged and the air suspension raised and making full use of the Defender’s ground-view camera (which looks like a view through an invisible hood at the surface the front tires are currently traversing), we slowly ambled down the pass.
Here, the Defender’s cross-linked air suspension displayed its excellence. Capable of adjusting ride height at each corner independently, all four corners together, or any combination thereof, the suspension mimicked a solid-axle vehicle as we made our way over the pass’ deep rocks and ruts, quickly dropping any airborne wheel to the ground, maximizing traction at each corner. That’s not to say the Defender didn’t occasionally have a tire in the air, but the Land Rover’s electronics did a fabulous job at helping me navigate effortlessly down the pass and onto the valley floor.
Louis L’Amour once wrote, “You can’t fight the desert … you have to ride with it.” And although his tales chronicled the American West, he might as well have been talking about the Marienfluss.
Ahead of us sat a seemingly endless two-track, with the occasional colored oil barrel serving as a waypoint, the sand’s changing tan, red, and brown hues broken up only by fields of skull-sized rock that seemed ideally placed to ruin your day.
We found ourselves in a monotonous dance through the valley. First, we charged hard and fast across the soft sand, the Land Rover’s Sand mode giving the Defender more aggressive throttle response and, equally important, less restrictive traction control intervention. Then, it was heavy on the brakes as the rock fields snuck up on us. Emerging from that, it was down into Gravel mode for its more aggressive differential programing as we picked our way through the rocks. Then Sand mode again.
After repeating this dance for the umpteenth time—and after I ran off the trail looking at the screen while changing drive modes—my drive partner and I agreed to set the Defender’s Terrain Response system into Auto mode, which seemed uncannily adept at conforming to the changing landscape faster than we could.
Ten hours and a mere 93 miles later, we rolled into our digs for the night on an elephant conservancy just outside of the town of Purros. Weirdly, I felt pretty good—I have enough off-road miles under my belt to know that I usually feel in need of a stiff whiskey and a couple aspirin after 10 hours straight of bouncing over rocks, dirt, and sand. This time, not so much. The Defender’s comfortable cabin deserves some of the credit, but the suspension deserves even more.
I’m usually in the anti-air suspension camp because vehicles equipped with them ride harshly in their off-road ride heights and lack articulation. But Land Rover’s team has worked wonders on the Defender’s setup. Like Ford’s Fox Shox on the Raptor, the Defender’s air springs have an uncanny ability to control ride quality, provide ample articulation, and virtually eliminate impacts from intruding into the cabin—even, say, massive drainage ditches or “surprise” boulders. Or jumps off sand dunes, as it would turn out.
The Skeleton Coast: –19.060560, 12.598150
To return to our opening tale, gravity married our heavily loaded but still airborne Defender with the sand soon after takeoff, none the worse for the wear. Laughter filled the cabin as we gunned the gravelly diesel engine and chased the leading silver Defender hard by the watery graveyard of Namibia’s Skelton Coast and into the Hoarusib River.
We were initially pretty stoked to have traded our trusty Defender P400 for a Defender D240 that morning—mostly because, well, it was green and came equipped with 18-inch steel wheels, versus the lighter but larger 19-inch alloys on the P400 we’d been piloting. But we quickly missed the power of the I-6, especially in soft sand—leading to our momentum-saving jump over the dune. I missed it even more a few hours down the road as we cut through the mud, muck, and washes of the Hoarusib.
Each vehicle in our convoy, spaced and spread out as we made our way up the river back toward Opuwo, made its own line as we attempted to avoid getting stuck. It quickly became clear that the P400s were having an easier time than we were. With all of 236 horsepower on tap and a redline just over 4,000 rpm, the diesel Defender frequently ran out of power, or worse, cut it with an early upshift or refused downshift at the most inopportune times—like mid water-crossing—making the trail far more difficult than it needed to be. It wasn’t a surprise that the first Defender that needed a winch out of the brown, knee-deep river was a D240. Thankfully, it wasn’t mine.
The race to the finish: –18.873170, 13.258970
Muddy but no worse for wear, we cleared the Hoarusib in the mid-afternoon and sprinted back to our Opuwo start/finish line via the colonial German outpost of Sesfontein and Namibia’s loose gravel-packed “roads.”
As the desert gradually disappeared behind us, the lush mountains and bush surrounding Opuwo loomed into view. Our convoy of battered Defenders pulled into our final stop a little over 30 hours and 500 miles after we departed.
As I shut off my Defender’s engine for the final time, I couldn’t help but reflect on its accomplishment. There are, perhaps, a handful of factory-built off-roaders that could’ve handled the complicated hash of terrains these Defenders navigated. But I’m not convinced that many could have done it as comfortably and capably as the Land Rovers did—especially those outfitted with the more powerful I-6.