Makgadikgadi Pan, Botswana - Ever been so close to the stars that it feels all you have to do is reach up and grab one, or seen the Milky Way the way that our forefathers would have done before the advent of big cities and their lights?

The Makgadikgadi Pan in Botswana is such a place, and apart from the magnificence of the stars, the silence is almost surreal as you lie on your back under the bedding, counting falling stars. It’s bigger than Switzerland but is impossible to drive across unless you have a land yacht or light beach buggy with fat tyres that won’t break through the crust and suck you into the mud till your chassis.

Personally, the Pan was a bucket list ticked for me and it came courtesy of Ford, who launched their new Everest SUV across the border in an environment that the Everest and similar vehicles call home.

Flying in from Maun over the Delta to Khwai in a single-engine plane set the scene for the next few days as we drove the Everest through a variety of terrains. Built in the Silverton plant in Pretoria, Ford has tweaked the exterior with a refreshed grille, redesigned lower bumper and a few other changes that you have to look closely at to notice any significant changes.

Under the bonnet, though, is where the majority of changes have been implemented with the introduction of Ford’s new single and bi-turbo engines, also locally built in Port Elizabeth and connected to Ford’s 10-speed automatic gearbox. On test were the XLT and the more upmarket Limited, although both are powered by the same twin-turbo engine and drivetrain.

The 2-litre oil-burner pushes out 157kW and 500Nm of torque, which is an improvement of 10kW and 30Nm over the existing 3.2litre TDCi engine.

Not to worry though if you still haven’t been convinced by the 2-litre engine, Ford is still offering the 3.2 five-pod in the XLT 4x4 version of the Everest. 

Interestingly, though, Ford executives are reporting a big swing towards the smaller turbocharged engines as prospective buyers weigh up their options and even hardcore big engine fans are being converted. It’s largely driven by better fuel economy but also the realisation that bigger isn’t always better. 

The new model also has significant reduction in noise levels as we found out driving rough and dusty dirt roads. The same undercarriage changes made to the Ranger have also been incorporated into the Everest. The front-mounted stabiliser bar has been stiffened and moved to the rear of the front axle, improving roll control.

This has allowed a reduction in spring rates, allowing for a more comfortable ride, while the jounce bumper has been relocated from the lower control arm to the damper rod at the top of the suspension.

A number of other tweaks and changes mean that the maximum towing capacity of 3000kg hasn’t been tampered with on the 2.2 TDCI and 3.2 TDCi, while the bi-turbo is able to tow a 3100kg braked trailer and with trailer sway control it’s an important consideration in this segment.

What the trip to Botswana did do was give us an opportunity to drive the Everest in conditions that an average overlander would experience on any cross-border adventure.

Driving to the Makgadikgadi Pan via Maun the route was exclusively on dirt. It hasn’t rained for months (the Delta is only now starting to flood after late rains in Angola) and as a “main thoroughfare” to the town vehicles using the road range from bicycles to large cross-border trucks and buses.

It wasn’t as bad as some of the tar roads in Mpumalanga, but you know what I mean as dust swirled around the convoy.

The roads are covered in fine white powder the same consistency and colour as cement and there was more than one occasion that a large dip appeared out of “nowhere” and the suspension was tested properly as our luggage bounced around in the back on top of the extra row of seats.

Throughout it all, though, the Everest kept its course without any hesitation, bearing in mind we were the second rotation and there was still a third waiting to replace us the next day.

We set the cruise control to the speed limit, but unlike the Limited model had to occasionally brake while those more spoilt relied on the adaptive cruise control.

Over two days we averaged out at 9.4l/100km - not bad considering much of the route was completed in 4H.

Technologically and safety-wise the Ranger has an impressive list of features including load adaptive control, hill descent control and roll over mitigation. The tried and trusted and easy-to-use SYNC 3 infotainment system has Tracks4Africa maps included and gives you access to maps of 20 African countries. Ford says that with the new Everest they are also tackling the likes of the Toyota Prado, but realistically it’s only the Fortuner that is its competition, while the Isuzu MU-X and Pajero Sport also make a cameo appearance.

The Ford Everest with its new bi-turbo engine, suspension changes and 10-speed gearbox has raised the SUV bar significantly and it will be interesting to see what the sales figures will show over the next few months.

Pictures supplied by Justin Lee @JustinLeePhotos and Neil Jansson @NeilJansson

Model Range and Prices:

2.2 TDCi XLS 6AT 4x2 - R499 900

2.0 SiT XLT 10AT 4x2 - R584 900

2.0 BiT XLT 10AT 4x2 - R624 100

3.2 TDCi XLT 6AT 4x4 - R644 000

2.0 BiT XLT 10AT 4x4 - R687 700

2.0 BiT Limited 10AT 4x4 - R761 200

All models come with a four-year/120 000km warranty, three-year/unlimited distance roadside assistance and five-year/unlimited km corrosion warranty. A six-year/90 000km service plan is also included.

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