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The 4×4 wizard from Oz

29 November 2016

John Rooth is for the Australian 4×4 fraternity what Kingsley Holgate is for the South African 4×4 community: a bearded, charismatic legend who cooks, drinks rum and travels his 4×4 all over the place. We chatted to the legendary Roothy about his 4×4 life and adventures.

John Rooth, or Roothy as he’s more commonly known, is an Australian who has been an active member of the 4×4 fraternity Down Under for decades. At one point he was a ‘mere’ mechanic, but from there he moved on to work as a tour guide, a magazine editor and, eventually, as a presenter of his own TV show. These days, he travels the globe to give motivational speeches and guide off-road expeditions. In-between, he also managed to find some time to write and publish cookbooks.

We caught up with him on his most recent visit to South Africa to ask a few pertinent motoring- and adventure-related questions.

When and where did you first get a licence?
In a small country town (no traffic lights) in 1972. I rode my home-made Matchless 500 to the police station and was told to drive around the block. When I came back after much arm wave-style indicating, the sergeant had gone. I went inside and he handed me my licence, saying, “I know you can drive, as I’ve chased you twice. And I’m only giving you this because you won’t have it for long…” He was right.

What car did you have back then and how long did it last?
My first car was a 1949 Holden ute, what you guys call a ‘bakkie’. I built it to fetch the motorbikes I built at home after they broke down. I put a later model Chevy drivetrain in, but didn’t do anything about the brakes and suspension, which is why it lasted only a couple of years before a ditch bit it.

What is the favourite 4×4 that you’ve owned?
Milo, my 47 Series Cruiser. Built from an ’83 FJ Troop Carrier, I shortened the body by a metre, fitted a four-cylinder 13BT truck motor, low-range transfer, eLocker diffs, piped everything through to the roof and put over 800 000km on her in the last 20 years filming outback tracks and adventures. It’s a very tired old truck now, but I’ll never sell her. I’ve lived a big chunk of my life under that chopped fibreglass roof.

How did you get into a life of adventure?
My brother and I went prospecting in the 1970s and, for about a decade, didn’t settle anywhere long. After that, I ran a trail bike touring company, tested motorcycles for magazines and started building four-wheel drives for fun. Coming late to the family life helped here.

Out of your many adventures, which is the one that has stayed with you over the years?
Getting stuck on the beach in the Gulf, far north Australia. We’d driven through mud pans and swamps, cutting a track to a spot on the coast where nobody had ever been. It’s an incredibly shallow sea up there and the tide plays tricks, something we found out when, after not shifting for over a day, it went up two metres in a couple of hours.

The trucks started sinking where they stood and it was only thanks to a dozen MaxTraxs and a lot of winching that we managed to get them back into the scrub. The isolation is incredible – about two hundred people in a space as big as Kenya – but with fresh fish and cold beer to wash it down after the excitement of almost losing everything, life couldn’t have been better.

How do you keep motivated, especially on longer trips?
These days, it’s podcasts and audiobooks downloaded before I leave home. With headphones in and tractor earmuffs over the top, I can find out all about Cretaceous period fossils, medical marijuana or why American ‘democracy’ has been beaten to a pulp by two of the most unpopular people in the land.

There’s also a handle on a couple of rubber straps I use to exercise shoulders and arms on the go and all my trucks have a hand throttle so I can practise my Highland fling leg movements. A ‘transit’ day here in Oz is often a thousand kilometres or more, so early starts and a decent midday break seem to work best.

What has been your scariest moment so far?
I’ve rolled a few trucks, including Milo, twice, but it always happened so slowly I had time to duck. But there was a late night slide off a twisty mountain track in Tasmania when I was going too fast around a corner.

Milo slid sideways off the track and down into heavy forest, belted a couple of trees with her sill bars, spun around and somehow wound up back on the road facing the wrong way. All I saw was trees and mud and in that country that’s usually hiding a few thousand feet of cliff. Milo’s passenger door is permanently hard to open and I’m very glad I had canvas seat covers.

What has been the happiest moment?
Err, I can’t answer that in case my beloved Handbrake (wife) sees this interview. But for the most part, not much beats rolling out of the swag (one-man tent) to an awesome outback sunrise and yet another different view.

Any dream adventures you still want to complete?
Yes, I’d love to go off-road across the top of China one day. I bicycled into Tibet in the 1980s and would have kept going, except the army put me in a truck and took me back to the border…

What defines an adventurer?
Someone who’s not afraid of what’s around the corner.

Any words of advice for armchair travellers to get them motivated?
Yes, sticky tape your bankcard to the dash and go do it! It’s a big world, nobody’s got enough time to sit back and watch.

If money wasn’t a factor, what car would be in your driveway?
Money isn’t a factor. I’ve got a shed full of old Toyotas and a 1950 Mk5 Jaguar for special family occasions. I don’t want or need any more wheels in my life, unless you have a Vincent Black Shadow (a classic motorcycle) I can borrow.