Can you drive a modern-day 4×4 for 24 hours no stop on a sandy off-road track. There was only one way to find out.
Here at Leisure Wheels we tend to come up with some crazy ideas. In an effort to portray and test vehicles in a unique way we are always looking for something different to do with the ever-increasing flow of new models that make their way into our parking lot.
During one particular quiet afternoon spent trawling the Internet we realised that there was a bit of a hole in the list of world driving records. There are the normal land speed records across a variety of surfaces, but not much pertaining to off-road driving. For example, there was also no particular record for the furthest distance driven off-road. While this would not mean much to most people, it went only one thing to us. We had to set a record.
The furthest possible distance driven off-road in 24 hours is dependant on a number of factors. What is the definition of off-road driving really? Does it mean gravel roads or trail driving? South Africa has an extensive network of good gravel roads and we could have easily found a route that would of allowed us to average over a 100km/h and clock up well over 2000km in 24 hours. But we wanted a real challenge. We settled on a sand-driving route. We thought this would give us the best of all worlds. It is real off-road driving because you need a proper 4×4 with low-range and a diff lock. We also figured that the sand would be a bit kinder to the vehicle than a rocky 4×4 trail would. And like it goes in the record setting business, we wanted it to be a challenge and the resulting distance to be something that would take a lot of effort for other teams to match or better.
With the basic challenge formulated in our heads, we needed to decide on a suitable vehicle. Sand driving requires a specific driving technique as it is imperative to keep up your momentum to prevent getting stuck and a more powerful vehicle generally makes this easier. We also needed a vehicle that would remain comfortable while traversing rough terrain over long periods of time.
We recently spent quite a bit of time behind the wheel of the Land Rover Discovery on the sandy tracks of Mozambique and came away mightily impressed, so we knew it had the ability. But the Discovery is also jam packed with electronics that control all the systems in the vehicle, how would these computers stand up to 24 hours of abuse.
With bucket loads of power, air suspension and a luxurious cabin, the Discovery offered the perfect combination of real off-road ability and driver comfort.
Many have criticised the Discovery for not being a real 4×4. Off-roading die hards seem to think that this large SUV belongs in Sandton and not Sodwana despite the best efforts of adventurers like Kingsley Holgate trying to convince the public otherwise. 2019 is also the 30th anniversary of the Land Rover Discovery and what better gift than a world record.
So we had a couple of things to prove. Firstly, how far we could drive on a sandy 4×4 track in 24 hours and secondly that we could do it in a stock standard Land Rover Discovery.
Land Rover was on board with this attempt and a Discovery was made available for the record. The Discovery was stock standard apart from some genuine Land Rover accessories in the form of aluminium front and rear skid plates and some seat covers. The particular vehicle was also devoid of luxuries like 21-inch wheels and a Tyre pressure monitor.
Instead this particular model was fitted with the optional 19-inch Goodyear Eagle F1 SUV that are offered to customers when they order their Discovery. Their bigger sidewall allowed us to drop the tyre pressures and create a nice footprint, while the absence of the tyre pressure monitoring system meant that even though we would be dropping the pressures well below the recommended pressure, we would not have a computer thinking that we had a flat tyre. However we would also have no way of knowing if we were losing pressure along the route and had to keep that in mind.
Under the skin is a 3.0 V6 diesel with two turbochargers. Power would not be a problem. This Landy churns out 190kW and 600Nm. Transferring this power to the ground is a permanent 4WD system with a transfer case that is controlled by the latest incarnation of Land Rovers famed Terrain response system and that is coupled to the air suspension system that alters ride height depending on conditions. Mechanically the Land Rover is as strong as anything but would the fancy electronics and computers survive 24 hours of abuse?
There are a couple of sand driving routes in South Africa that we could have used for this challenge but we wanted a location that would be both challenging, exciting and allow us to keep up a fair average speed.
We eventually settled on the Vleesbaai Dune route near Mosselbay. This 4×4 play park is located on the coast and offers a variety of challenging sandy tracks through the dunes. We marked out a route of around 10 kilometres, which was manageable logistically while also being entertaining enough that it didn’t become tedious.
Sand driving is one of the most challenging yet rewarding forms of off-road driving. It requires a unique skill that marries momentum and precision. So we needed some drivers. We have a number of professional drivers in our telephone book, but we wanted to show that it was possible to attempt a record like this with a variety of drivers, from he average joe to the seasoned pro.
So teaming up with me behind the wheel was the very experienced Philip Kekana and professional driving instructor Michele Habig. Kekana started his career as a hearse driver and fills his days as a driving instructor and stuntman, who has worked alongside the like of Idris Elba and Paul Walker. He was also the first black South African to win a production car championship. Michele Habig keeps busy as a driving instructor at the Jaguar Land Rover experience centre, where she ensures that owners of these British icons know exactly how to extract every last bit of potential out of these cars.
Driving for 24 hours is going to burn some fuel. Driving for 24 hours in the sand was going to burn a lot of fuel. We weren’t exactly sure how much though. Fortunately TopUp, a local Western Cape fuel chain sponsored a bowser full of 50ppm, so that worry was taken care of.
As any race team will know, preparation of the vehicle is key to a successful event. All we really had to do was ensure the tank was full, the tunes were loaded onto the iPod and the tyre pressures were set. We started off by dropping the tyres to 1,5 bar. This would give us a good combination of a larger footprint to float across the sand, but with enough pressure to ensure that we could still drive briskly without the risk of the tyre leaving the rim.
As the clock struck 16h00 we set off at a modest pace. The trick was to drive swiftly but also cautiously as we needed to look after the vehicle too, 24 hours is a long time and our primary goal was to reach that mark.
Taking inspiration from 24-hour events like Le Mans and the Nurburgring we started in the late afternoon and would drive in stints of a round two hours, before pitting to swap, add some fuel and check tyre pressures. The air filter was also changed every 8 hours as a precaution. The other two drivers could then get some shuteye in our luxury motor homes. Just like those of professional drivers. Ok, not quite but a 20-year-old Jurgens is mighty comfortable after 2 hours behind the wheel.
Driving in stints across the 24 hours, it was interesting to see how the condition of the sandy track changed. We started off on a route with no tracks but lap after lap the ruts started developing and it got trickier and trickier. As night fell we had to drop our speed slightly to compensate for reduced visibility and this in conjunction with the track that was now rutted out in places meant that as a driver you had to constantly assess the track, drive too slow and you get stuck, drive too fast and you risk pulling a tyre off the rim or worse, get up close and personal with the local shrubbery.
Then it happened. Often one would get slightly stuck but a quick reverse and a repeat with a bit more loud pedal would see you on your way. Not this time. The Landy was properly stuck in a severely rutted out section that needed to be taken with caution as it was immediately followed by a 90-degree right turn. A bit of digging, ok quite a bit of digging and the Discovery managed to free itself and we could continue. We then decided to drop the tyre pressures a bit more, the track was deteriorating and digging out a Discovery in the darkness is no fun. But with the tyres now close to 1 bar we had to drive with extra caution because changing a tyre in the sand is just as much fun as digging in the sand.
The graveyard shift from midnight until around 3am was the trickiest. The sleep monsters came and the track got worse with every lap. But as dawn approached it brought with it considerable dew and moisture from the ocean, The ruts remained but the sand was quite a bit more compact, making the driving slightly easier.
Fortunately or rather remarkably it was soon evident that the tyres were happy at around 1 bar and we could press on a bit. Dawn brought rejuvenation among the team and the end was in sight, or so it felt.
But we still had 9 hours to go. Would the Landy make it? We plugged away, the track was getting deeply rutted and the Disco was scraping its belly in the sand, even on its highest ride height setting. But the Landy remained happy, skidding along, the engine very under stressed even on the steep climb dubbed Langduin, all the while transporting its driver in utmost comfort.
Our final pit stop at around midday was the longest one. Skidding and scraping through the ruts had filled the under body protection with sand and our technicians had to remove those and clean it out as a precaution. The drivetrain and electronic components need airflow to work optimally and we weren’t going to risk the vehicle this close to the end.
The final stints were interesting. The track was rough as anything. Suspension and braking bumps started taking their toll on the vehicle and the drivers, the speed slowed, the volume on the TouchPro infotainment system went higher. All we had to do was keep circulating, the end was in sight. A record was in sight.
As the clock returned to 16h00 in the afternoon the odometer clicked over to 533km. We had managed to do 533kms in the 24 hours or 53 laps of the Vleesbaai 4×4 route. That figure is negligible, most importantly we drove a brand new, stock standard Land Rover Discovery for 24 hours, in sand, without major incident, in comfort and on the same four tyres that we started. Quite an incredible achievement we think.
Over the course of the record run the Discovery averaged around 30 litres/100km, using just under 160 litres, which is actually not bad at all, given the conditions it was subjected to.
Was it hard work, yes most certainly. Could we have pushed the car harder and gone a bit further? Probably, but breaking cars is no fun. That evening we reinflated the four tyres, deployed all seven seats and drove to dinner and the following day we did the return 400km trip to Cape Town. The record setter morphing back into an impeccable highway cruiser.
530km might not sound like much, it is less than a trip from Johannesburg to Durban, but that is on a highway. This is in sand. And driving in sand is a whole other ball game.
What we have done is set a set a benchmark, by doing something that we are not sure has ever been attempted. We drove for 24-hours on a tough sandy, 4×4 route, where we could have got stuck hundreds of times, but we got stuck once. Is it a crazy idea? Probably. Can the distance be improved, Maybe. I would love to see other teams and vehicles try. Over to you.
Text: Reuben van Niekerk. Photographs: Peet Mocke