It’s hard to describe the feeling of approaching the Tankwa Karoo National Park to someone who has never seen it before. A voice crackled over the radio; “Is it just me or is starting to look a lot like Mad Max country out there?”

LibeRebil’s, Niyaaz took the words right out of my mouth; ‘Mad Max Country’ is as close as I’ll ever get to describing the dry, dusty landscape that surrounded us. We’d been driving for hours through the Karoo and the definite slow disappearing of trees, shrubs and signs of life was becoming impossible to ignore. The front windshield of our Ford Ranger Wildtrak made a lovely frame for the arid semi-desert landscape that lay before us. A sea of golden waves that appeared to have no beginning and no end.

Sights of the Karoo.

I could feel the excitement bubbling up inside me at the first sight of those desert dunes. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. For most of the crew in our 8-car convoy, it meant an end to a long day of driving and the experience of spending a night in the national park made famous by the annual Africa Burn festival. For me, it meant one more sleep until I got to drive the Ford Ranger Raptor.

It was day one of our 4-day road trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg, using nothing but dirt roads, and I was determined to spend the second day drifting out of the Tankwa in the Raptor’s infamous Baja mode. My unrelenting fear of missing out aside, getting the opportunity to do something like drift a Ford Raptor in a desert was the reason I agreed to go on this road trip in the first place.

A raised front-bumper, 33-inch tyres, meticulously-tuned engine, and wildly-dynamic traction, control coupled with subtle creature-comforts make the Raptor feel like you’re driving a rally car (badly) disguised as a bakkie. The Raptor is made for this kind of terrain and there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to drive this rugged beauty in its element.

Tankwa Tented Camp

Good morning Tankwa

There’s no need for alarm clocks in the desert. Sleep tends to escape you when it’s as hot as hell and you’ve got an incentive to be up before everyone else in your camp to nab one of only two Raptors in the convoy. I usually loathe smug early morning-risers but the next morning I was up at 5am. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I skipped through the camp and tossed my suitcases in the back of a dusty red Raptor. I placed my trusty cowboy hat on the driver’s seat to mark my territory — just in case the suitcases hadn’t made my intentions abundantly clear — and waited for everyone else to crawl out of their tents for breakfast.

A few hours later, stomach’s full and fingers itching with anticipation, we rolled out of Tankwa Tented Camp… Baja mode firmly engaged. This was my first taste of driving this legendary bakkie and while the vehicle has an intimidating appearance, inside it’s nothing but fun. While other cars’ sports modes often only leave a little extra room for play on the high-end portions of the car, Baja mode seems to transform every aspect of the Raptor into a performance vehicle, from the moment you touch the accelerator to how the car handles. Suspension softens, traction control eases up, and a lower gear-ratio gives you a light and lofty feel, tight steering, and tons of power. It’s essentially the ‘fun mode’ button that reveals to you the real Raptor hiding beneath its bakkie façade.

But it’s not just Baja mode that’s impressive, this things handles like an absolute beast on the roads. From drifting around corners on loose desert sand to tackling corrugated gravel roads, the Raptor’s handling makes driving difficult terrain feel like child’s play. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much trust in a car, especially on spicy gravel roads where surprises wait on every treacherous corner. This impressive handling is all thanks to the Raptor’s Terrain Management System (TMS), which offers various settings – with everything from your low-gear ratio rock mode to hill-climb, making it an all-terrain marvel.

Unleashing the beast

While the performance iterations of beloved SUVs and bakkies are often splashed with some in-your-face vinyls, this iteration of the Ford Ranger has been simplified, giving consumers some fantastic colours – blue, grey, red, black, and white – with some graphite-looking finishes to give the car a well-polished look, but one which screams “take me to the farm” too. The interior leans on that notion, with a clean and minimal dashboard, surrounded by hints of racing pedigree – from the bucket seats to the bright red centring-strip on the steering wheel.

The early bird catches the worm – laying claim to my Raptor.

So, what’s under the hood? The Raptor houses a new innovative 2.0-litre Bi-Turbo diesel engine, whereby the two turbos work sequentially to deliver huge power and torque, combined with a state-of-the-art 10-speed auto transmission that keeps changes quick and leaves little to no drop in revs. While there are bigger, meaner engines on the market, it really is a somewhat jarring experience to feel how tightly-tuned the Raptor’s Bi-Turbo is. While some vehicles in this class do have a slight delay on their turbo kicking in, the Raptor’s feels ‘always-on’, providing you with immediate feedback from every feather of the pedal and showcasing the grunt of what the vehicle is able to achieve.

If you’re all about adventures off-the-beaten-track then the Raptor is your kind of bakkie. There’s no denying that the Raptor isn’t an ‘every man’s car’. It has a specific purpose, and its breadth of performance tricks will inevitably come with a price-tag. The entry price sits at R786,400, which comes standard with a 4-year /120 000 km comprehensive warranty, 5-year/unlimited km corrosion warranty, 3 years of roadside assistance, 6-year/90 000 km service plan with intervals every 15,000 km.

While the price-tag may seem steep to some, you’re essentially getting to park a rally car in your garage every night, and that’s not a bad way of justifying the number.

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