Ah yes, my first 4×4-trail experience: the opportunity to spend a few relaxed hours sitting in the comfort of my air-conditioned car, tackling obstacles that the car handles effortlessly. The opportunity to enjoy my car enabling me to scythe through gorges, man-handle hills, make mincemeat of rivers and impress my friends with my legendary driving skills. The opportunity to deflect nature’s challenges with deft touches of the steering wheel, subtle adjustments of the throttle, and well-timed braking.
Well, no. Not really. Not for me at least. After spending a few hours on my first trail I came to realise that my car’s off-road capability was rubbish and that off-roading on a trail is actually pretty hard work.
Okay, that is a very, very harsh thing to say about my car and I feel guilty about saying it, but when I can’t seem to get to the top of the hill, it simply HAS to be the car’s fault. My massive ego won’t let me even consider the fact that I am probably the world’s most useless driver.
Coupled with my ego was the fact that I had built up my and my car’s 4×4 prowess to such an extent during the week that it really hurt to feel completely useless: blaming my car was the only option! I had made a lot of effort sending goading emails to my friends, telling them to pack extra recovery straps so that if one broke when I rescued them from the first mud pit they got stuck in, I would be able to use the spare ones to pull them out of the second mud pit they got stuck in.
The only problem was that the mud pits were at the top of the FIRST hill and I couldn’t even get to the top. In fact, I couldn’t even SEE the top of the first hill because of the white smoke billowing out from my spinning wheels and enveloping my car, as the only wheel that was touching the ground dug itself a hole.
My friend tried to explain why this had happened. It was something about “cross axle” situations, with cars that have no front or rear differential-locking capability. Because my car only has a centre differential lock, it apparently only distributes traction amongst the four wheels, but no locking of either axle takes place. This means you sometimes get stuck in these “cross axle” situations.
I wanted to remember more of what he was saying, but midway through his conversation I noticed my head had splayed to one side, drool was leaking out of the corner of my mouth and my left eye had glazed over. I was also struggling to hear him over the sound of my bellowing engine as I stamped on the accelerator in a fit of rage, determined to get up the hill or die trying.
In all honesty I don’t understand a lot of the intricacies of 4×4 technology, but I thought that if a wheel was off the ground, even with a car with only a centre differential lock, it should not be spinning madly like a Catherine wheel. I thought that was the whole point of differentials. So, I would love someone to explain that one to me. (Watch the video on differentials on www.leisurewheels.com – Ed.)
And as for lounging back in my padded driver’s seat whilst negotiating obstacles? Well, that didn’t happen either. For those of you who have not driven a 4×4 trail before, prepare to be out of your car more than you’re in it.
First you’re out of the car checking the obstacle and planning your route. Then you are out packing rocks under tyres that won’t grip. Then you are out guiding your friends over their obstacles. Then you are out checking why the car is not moving at all in any direction. Then you are kicking the front tyres in hopeless frustration. Then you are getting the first aid kit out to bandage your damaged toe nail…
Of the four hours we spent on the trail I think I spent about 6 minutes actually driving. The weather didn’t help matters either. It was absolutely scorching. I arrived at work the next day and people were asking if I had intentionally dyed my face that “weird-looking red colour”. I smiled and laughed and spoke about the cricket game I had played. I couldn’t look them in the eye and tell them that I had failed to make it up the very first obstacle on my very first off-road course, but spent an hour lugging rocks around in the sun.
So it was great fun, but hardly relaxing. I had to work almost as hard physically as I had to work containing my jealously while watching the other cars do the same obstacles I just couldn’t do. It’s hard to clap and laugh and say “well done mate!” and give the old “thumbs up” when your car is at the bottom of the hill, squatting in a hole that it dug by itself, and your friend’s car is sitting triumphantly at the top of the hill gleaming in the sunlight, the Jeep badge glinting mockingly.
A 4×4 trail really can be a humbling experience. I tried to loosen the Jeep’s wheel nuts to even the odds, but sadly its driver noticed the sabotage while they were lowering tyre pressures for deep sand. I tried to proudly show them the still-tight wheel nuts on my Toyota, but it was still at the bottom of the hill and they couldn’t see that far…
I guess we all have to try everything for the first time and I can honestly say that I learnt a lot and had immense fun. Even in the space of a few hours, with the right guidance, you can improve immeasurably as an off-road driver. Learning about momentum and throttle control and the fact that sun cream is really, really important will all go a long way towards making your next off-road excursion that much better. In fact, I may have to make my next one the whole weekend instead of a few stolen hours on a Sunday morning.