Text: Danie Botha
“Three weeks. That’s how long the Hilux engine ran, without once being switched off. If we had switched it off, it probably would not have started again.”
It’s a hot summer’s afternoon in Sandton, and Icelander Gisli J?nsson’s pale skin is tinted in a slight red hue. His face is framed by a neatly-trimmed beard.
There is a bit of Viking in Gisli. You can see it in his eyes. You can hear it in his voice. He is a big man, with a lot of steely resolve deep in that neat and university-trained countenance.
“In temperatures of minus 50C, people who live in the Arctic regions are evacuated. Planes and helicopters can’t fly. Blizzards decrease visibility so you can’t see your own feet when you are standing upright. The vehicles are under severe strain. Engine and drivetrain lubricants freeze, and the radiator’s coolant can freeze, too.
“Differentials, which run at a temperature of around 150C, are constantly exposed to the extreme cold. At times like these you just want to park the vehicle, and take a break with that bottle of vodka stashed in the truck. But that will be frozen too, so you can’t even turn to drink to ease the burden!” jokes Gisli.
In such extreme conditions, it is inevitable that things go wrong. When they go very awry, the easiest solution would be to leave a stricken vehicle behind. The cost of recovering a vehicle is massive. However, abandoning one in the middle of a massive glacier, for instance, is not on the cards. What goes in comes out, says Gisli. No matter the cost.
“We’ve had lots of experience with these vehicles, so we carry as many spare parts as we can. In the early years with the current Hilux, the rear half-shafts were a weak point. So after replacing a few in the snow, we manufactured upgraded shafts, and since then we’ve not had problems. Similar, upgraded half-shafts are now fitted as standard to all new Hilux bakkies, manufactured here in South Africa.”
But what happens when you don’t have the correct spare part handy?
“We improvise as best we can. On a recent expedition, the radiator coolant in one of the Hilux vehicles froze, and burst the bottom row of tubes. We didn’t have a replacement radiator. We had an extra radiator waiting at a nearby base, but it had to be flown to us, which would have cost in the region of R700 000. And that’s for a radiator. But because of the cold, the planes couldn’t fly,” says Gisli.
Then Gisli’s brother, who was on the expedition as a driver, came up with an idea. He had brought along a discarded batch of old epoxy-type glue (Araldite) that had been replaced with new adhesive materials at the prosthetics company he works for.
“We removed the radiator, and set to work. In such extreme temperatures everything is colder than cold. We first had to heat up the glue before tackling the radiator tubes. Then we had to wait for the glue to cure before tackling the next part.
“It was a long and tedious process, but 12 hours later the Hilux was ready to roll again. The engine had not been running for a very long time by then, so we hooked up four batteries to its starter, and cranked it over for 45 minutes, non-stop. Finally, the D-4D engine started, and our crisis was no more,” says Gisli.
When it comes to the Antarctic, R700 000 for a replacement radiator to be flown to a stricken crew would be small change. When an engine expires there, it is a much more costly exercise to get a new powerplant transported to the scene.
A new engine, for example, would have to be shipped from South Africa to Antarctica. Then it would still have to be flown to wherever the crew is stranded. So a new engine could potentially cost millions of rands – even more than the Arctic Truck itself!
How do you cope with the extreme temperatures and the blizzards? Surely you can’t drive when you can’t see anything?
“If we are on a known and plotted route, we don’t stop, even if we can’t see anything. We simply follow the GPS waypoints, but we obviously don’t do 80km/h, either. And the human body has an amazing ability to adapt to prevailing conditions.
“On one occasion, after several days of enduring extremely cold weather, below minus 40, we descended the Arctic plateau, and set up camp for the night. The next morning we woke up in our tents, hot and sweaty.
Outside the tents it was hot, too. We all agreed that the global warming phenomenon was really getting out of hand.
“It was only later that we checked the temperature. It was minus 25C. And we were walking around without gloves and jackets, as though it was summer!” laughs Gisli.
And practical matters, such as water?
“Water is a major issue on our expeditions. This is funny, really, since the Arctic is the biggest cube of frozen water on the planet! We have to melt snow to get water, and 10 litres of snow makes one litre of water.”
And the driving itself? How difficult is it, really?
“Sometimes you can do 100km/h without a worry. Other times, if you average 2km/h, the going is great. The environment, weather and conditions are constantly changing, so it all depends.
“On a recent trip I drove non-stop for six hours, with my right foot planted on the accelerator, pedal-to-the-metal. Yet our speed rarely exceeded 30km/h. So you never really know what you are going to get. You just have to adjust to the prevailing conditions,” he says.
And what about fuel supplies?
“We’ve reached a happy medium between the Hilux 3.0D-4D and its five-speed automatic gearbox, and fuel economy and performance. We obviously take a lot of fuel with us on the expeditions. The 6×6 Hilux carries more than 600 litres, while the 44s have 280 litres of diesel on board. Sometimes, on longer expeditions, we will have fuel delivered by an air drop.
“In Antarctica you are constantly surrounded by 400km of nothing, all around — just flat expanses of snow, as far as the eye can see, 360 degrees around you. There aren’t any truck stops where you can buy some fuel and a glass of non-frozen vodka, either,” jokes Gisli.
Driving the Arctic – think BIG
Ready to take the old Landy 110, the Toyota Fortuner or the Audi allroad quattro for a spot of snow driving, Arctic style? Well, there’s some bad news? if you get farther than about two car lengths before getting stuck, in that snow, you will have done brilliantly.
Flotation is the key, explains Gisli. That’s why their trucks have big wheels, with specialised tyres that can operate at 0,2bar.
This allows a wider and softer footprint on the soft snow, effectively allowing the Arctic Hilux bakkies, which can weigh as much as five tons when fully loaded, to float on the snow instead of sinking into it.
Gisli says the big tyres compact the flaky snow into a more solid and wider base – and this allows the big Arctic Trucks to ride on top of the snow, rather than in it.
A normal 4×4 with normal 4×4 tyres, says Gisli, will just sink up to its axles in the snow. If you hit the soft snow at 150km/h in your 4×4, you will at least get to five car lengths before you are stuck. Maybe six. And it will look rather spectacular, with snow and possibly car parts flying all over the place!
Another super important factor, says Gisli, is ground clearance. If you take your normal Hilux into the snow, and drop the tyre pressures to 0,2bar, the ride height will be compromised. With the specialised Arctic suspensions and the big wheels and tyres, the Hilux 44-inch has up to 400mm ground clearance, with the tyres inflated to normal operating pressures. Deflate the big tyres to the 0,2bar required for snow, and you will lose 60mm ground clearance, which still leaves you with 340mm clearance.
But sometimes, when the snow is extremely soft and deep, there’s only one thing for it, even if you drive a 44-inch Hilux: Charge the soft snow at the best possible speed, and use the front bumper as a plough. When the bank of snow stops the Hilux, you back up the vehicle in the tracks you’ve made, as far as you can, and let rip again.
“You just keep on ramming it. Wham! Wham! Wham! Eventually you will get to firmer territory,” says Gisli, demonstrating the ramming effect with his Viking-sized fist.
It all depends on the conditions though. In other situations, where there are more solid pieces of ice that could damage the expensive vehicles, you don’t go slamming into snow banks at high speeds. That’s the time when all the differentials the driver can lock are locked, and he just feels for traction through the accelerator pedal, the steering wheel, and the wheels. Slow, slow, slow, feel, feel, feel. That’s the motto here.
They are the biggest danger on over-ice expeditions. In fact, it is like driving through a minefield, says Gisli.
“Crevasses, which are formed as the snow mass moves, are extremely difficult to identify. Impossible, mostly. When we are on a previously plotted track, we sometimes have an idea where they could be. But they are on the move too, and the conditions make it near impossible to be sure.
“It could have snowed the previous night, and now the 6m wide and 80m deep crevasse is hidden below a thin layer of snow. You just never know for sure,” he says.
Crevasses and tragedy, unfortunately, go hand in hand.