We’d been looking forward to the Camp LA Sport 4×4-weekend at Mabalingwe Nature Reserve for months. It was the first time a full ladies team had entered and that Leisure Wheels would be represented by a girls’ squad at such an event. It was also the first time that any of the Bush Babes would participate in a real 4×4 gymkhana and on a genuinely challenging mountain trail, and without a Jannie, Danie or Gert somewhere in the background making sure that everything was okay. We were on our own.
Text and Photography: Leilani Basson (and a few bystanders)
It was with great excitement that Patricia (Delicia) Oliver, Nadine Harmse and I left Johannesburg in our Bush Babe branded Nissan Pathfinder on Friday, 23 September (thanks Jannie!). The logo and new slogan looked super cool.
“Be a babe. Go Bush.” it read in a red strip with white lettering across the top of the back and front windows. There were three of us, and sure as hell we were planning to “go bush” this weekend — our first official Bush Babes 4×4 challenge.
Jannie and I had hoped to get in a practice round at Hennops 4×4 trail so I could get the hang of the Pathie and know it better by the time I had to navigate it over or through obstacles. The last time I’d driven it was on our treacherous Bush Babes trip to Lesotho when our nerves (and some parts of the Pathie) suffered significant damages. But due to hectic deadlines and incompatible travelling schedules, we never got round to it.
Thankfully, the Pathfinder was put on a mini steroid boost by LA Sport’s Lionel Lewis shortly after its near fatal stint in Lesotho. Its suspension was upgraded, it was fitted with four rough and tough all terrain tyres and those damn costly, ever so fragile and always in the way side steps, rock scrapers or what-you-may-call-its, were taken off. Thank heavens!
So, after a quick “which button is for what” instruction from Jannie in the minutes before departure, I was as ready as I was going to be. The Pathie looked like a million dollars and we felt like a million dollars in it, so off we went — for a weekend of rubbing shoulders with the bona fide 4×4 gurus of the industry, and staying in the luxury and splendour of Mabalingwe.
We reached our destination just before 18:00. Lionel and Annalie Lewis from LA Sport welcomed us. The paperwork was done and introductions were made to the LA Sport team from across the country. We enjoyed a drink and a burger and departed to the campsite for a brief ken-mekaar around the campfire and a mini pyjama party on our army beds in the dome tents, which were pitched on elevated wooden decks. We had a lot to discuss…
There was plenty of excitement at the gymkhana from very early the next day as participating vehicles fell in as they arrived, or as they got a gap. Children were having a ball, scooping up as many floating balloons as they could with fishing nets as Daddy navigated through the water hole. In childless vehicles, it was Mom’s job to hang out of the windows and catch the balloons. Spectators abounded and it was really a festive occasion.
When we eventually had enough photos and video material from the obstacle course, we decided it was time to get started. There was a long day ahead of us. We were the very last vehicle in the queue. Eish!
At the first obstacle – a winding snake-path of soft sand and impossibly narrow corners – we encountered our first problem of the day. There were no marshals. I got stuck in the sand when I misjudged the first bend. The Pathie settled herself in the soft sand like a beached whale, while a few bystanders – with specific reference to the “nice” girl we’d asked to video us on Patricia’s Blackberry — was wailing with laughter. (Her hysterical giggles were, however, only discovered when we viewed the video afterwards.)
Forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards, flooring the petrol, massaging the pedal. Nothing was working. There was no traction, and no one to make any suggestions or guide us in the right direction. I eventually got out of the vehicle and moved a marking pole out of the way, just to get a bit of grip on the grass. Not nice, but it worked.
Around the next bend, again misjudging the Pathie’s turning circle and sheer size, I turned too wide. Delicia and Nadine were pretty, well, quiet. It was Nadine’s first trip with us. It seemed and felt – and probably looked — as if I’d never driven a 4×4 in my life. This could not be happening! I’d been so calm and confident when we started off. We did laugh from time to time, but more from hysterics and embarrassment than anything else.
Again there was no way of regaining traction. A young guy witnessing the Bush Babe spectacle with the giggling girl eventually came to the rescue by bending one of the poles back so the Pathie’s bumper wouldn’t push it over. I could only go forward, so I took that very disgraceful gap. Luckily, there were not too many people around that obstacle.
By now I had lost all faith in myself and the Pathie. “I told Jannie that this car was going to set me up for failure,” I kept thinking. “This is the car of all disasters. I’ve only ever had bad luck with it. This car is cursed! And it’s cursing me.”
The water hole lay ahead, like a dragon that needed to be conquered in a children’s fable. The only difference was that I had no super powers.
Delicia got out to video us. Again there were no marshals when we started off, so I decided to take a shorter turn than the previous vehicles I’d watched. My reasoning was that the mud under the water must by this time be sludgy and mucky, and I had to get a fresh grip. Wrong logic. The whale refused to make a shorter turn. How I wished at that moment for a smaller, more compact vehicle. A Vitara, a Wrangler, a Jimny, a Defender 90. Anything a tad nippier than the mail ship I was now forced to get out of this mess.
Reverse. Ja, right. I was in the tracks of the other vehicles I’d been trying to avoid. I gunned it and tried to climb out of the muddy, 79-cars-before-me slush-trodden incline. I only made a few inches. I rolled back, trying to stay calm. If I’d had any choice, I would have got out and run away.
This time a marshal came to the rescue, giving me a few pointers. He peeped inside the vehicle to see if I had engaged all the functions that needed to be engaged. Duh! I might look dof, but I was doing everything right here, Mister. It’s not my fault if I floor the damn thing and nothing happens. And yes, there is no diff lock. I recall that I struggled with the very same lag in response from the engine in Lesotho. If I drove the Pathie more often, or if it was my own vehicle that I’d got to know and love – like all the other contestants and their cars – I might have been able to manipulate the Pathie and operate her in the “correct” way to get the best out of her. But she was – if anything – a stranger to me.
“Go back, make a bigger turn so that you catch some dry sand on the right, and gun it,” instructed the marshal. I did. The only trouble was that it took a while for that message to be relayed to the engine when I put my foot down. When I started spinning, I rolled back.
“Do it again, but keep going! Floor it this time,” shouted the marshal.
Okay. I reversed a bit more, determined to give it gas this time. One, two, three. Go! I went up a little higher this time before the wheels started spinning. “Go, go, go!” the marshal shouted. So I just kept digging deeper.
The Pathie kicked up a huge cloud of sand, but I was following instructions and persisted. Out of nowhere a faint breeze swept in and pushed the billowing curtain of sand into my open window. Hardly able to see, I just kept going, grinding my teeth on grains of sand.
All of a sudden the Pathie shot up over the hill, swaying from side to side in the muddy tracks and dongas, going berserk like a mad woman.
“O KOEK, DAAR’S ’N BOOM!” I shouted to no one in particular when a tree suddenly appeared from behind the disturbingly high bonnet and steep angle I was emerging from. “PASSOP DIE BOOM!” the marshal and other bystanders (undoubtedly enjoying the spectacle) screamed from below.
I regained control just in time and managed to pluck the car to the right – avoiding a crash by centimetres.
“It just jumped out right in front of me!” I retorted, attempting to recover my self-control (and composure) with a sense of humour.
Delicia approached slowly to record the sorry sight of myself and the Pathie, completely covered in sand. It was everywhere. Oi-joi-joi. Nadine was also showered in sand, but to a much lesser extent.
On the video it looks as though I’m wearing a lacy top. When Delicia zoomed in, however, you could see it was actually sand, strewn all over my sleeves, shoulders and back. There was sand between my legs on the car seat, on the dashboard, in-between the gear levers… sand in every nook and cranny.
When I stepped out of the car, heaps of sand ran down my legs inside my jeans – back to where it came from!
Taking off my sunglasses, I looked like a racoon. Nadine was shell-shocked at this stage. But Delicia was in stitches. The group of women and young girls at the next obstacle just stood there glaring at me, and a few men came over to inspect the damage and meet the clown behind the steering wheel.
“At least you girls are providing entertainment for the day!” Eina, that hurt.
I was laughing, but felt like crying. I had done so well on previous occasions. At Noordkus Spore’s family day, I made it up a hill where many men failed. On all the girls’ training, I was a star performer. I was so in control and so calm. It was the Pathie! I said to myself. I hate this Pathie!
When we reached the start of the rocky mountain trail, it all of a sudden occurred to me that I hadn’t checked the tyre pressure before embarking on the gymkhana course. The thought of puncturing a wheel on the rocks somehow brought this fundamental, elementary, check of all checks back to me. O gats!
One of the marshals did a quick check. 2.5 bar. Holy crap! It’s a miracle I’d got out of the sand and mud at all. I’d got so used to someone else checking the tyres for me, or at least reminding me to do so, that here, in the man-void wilderness of Mabalingwe, I hadn’t given it a thought.
With tyres deflated to 1.5 bar, we were ready to roll and the rest of the day, with Delicia behind the wheel, was relatively incident free, apart from getting lost from time to time. A lovely team of Noordwesters – consisting of a Trooper, Fortuner, Hilux and Jimny — took pity on us and never let us out of their sight.
At the most daunting part of the mountain trail, the much-feared Rocky Ridge, it was time to restore my dignity. Rocky Ridge is a 38-degree decline with loose rocks, offering a great opportunity to roll your car if you don’t do exactly what the marshals tell you.
While taking photos from the bottom of this treacherous decline, I saw many a close encounter. One of the marshals was nearly taken out by a runaway Land Cruiser. Some vehicles turned back and many women passed me on their hike down the hill, refusing to accompany their husbands in the vehicles. Two women were crying and shaking with fear. It was really, really daunting.
“I may not be able to do sand and mud, but I sure as hell can do rocks,” I told myself as I got in behind the wheel. Only Patricia and I were in the vehicle. Nadine opted to walk down, too. I was calm and let the Pathie do its thing — creeping down the sliding rocks while braking from time to time. Going downhill, I could see over the bonnet perfectly and was confident that I would spot a tree contemplating to jump in front of me.
Every few steps, another marshal took over. It is too steep for them to walk up and down. There might have been five or more marshals. I followed their instructions to a tee and carefully navigated the – at times airborne – whale to safety.
The men were really impressed. I was the only woman who drove down Rocky Ridge, and made it in one piece. Pathie, you biscuit! I knew you could do it!
As Murphy would have it, though, there was almost no one to witness my comeback after the morning’s circus in the mud pool.
Luckily, one of our Northwester friends took a few pictures and a video, which is sure to go onto Facebook, just for the record.
Admittedly, the success of Rocky Ridge hasn’t an ounce of the entertainment value of the sand curtain. That really is worth watching. If you don’t manage see it on Facebook, Delicia is convinced she’s going to win a prize on Cygnet’s Kwela – an Afrikaans version of America’s Funniest Home Videos.
If you are having a bad day and need a good laugh, go to Leisure Wheels Magazine on Facebook and witness the Sand Sisters in all their humiliated – and eventually elevated — glory. Eina!