Motorsport

Mud, sweat and gears

Taking a car to its limits on an all-terrain course is huge fun, even if you’re not an off-roadster like Simon de Burton.

June 23 2010
Simon de Burton

It’s well known that the vast majority of those town-bound Range Rovers, Porsche Cayennes, BMW X5s and other luxuriously equipped four-wheel-drive vehicles rarely encounter any terrain more dramatic than a badly repaired pothole or a slightly-higher-than-normal kerb during an advanced pavement-mounting manoeuvre outside Dolce & Gabbana. As a result, most owners have little idea just what these oft-maligned machines are really capable of when put to the test.

But for those who want to find out, several car brands have established off-road driving schools that feature eye-popping descents, waist-high water crossings, rock-strewn gullies and, of course, plenty of glorious mud.

Off-road king Land Rover was the first to see the potential more than 30 years ago when it began staging demonstration events in the dramatic landscape of the Eastnor Castle Estate at the foot of Worcestershire’s Malvern Hills, which today serves as the global HQ for Land Rover Experience (LRE) centres around the world, eight of which are in the UK.

As the owner of a decidedly shabby “classic” Land Rover from the era before items such as heaters and wind-up windows were fitted as standard, I enjoy the occasional off-road foray (sometimes unintentionally). But, having learnt from experience that even the most innocent-looking stretch of terrain can quickly reveal itself to be a grimpen mire from which an embarrassing extraction is only possible with the grace of the nearest tractor driver, I have always wanted to find out how to do it properly – and what can be done, if anything, when things go wrong.

And so to Eastnor where Land Rover offers a series of half-day and full-day courses catering for anyone from the complete beginner to the more experienced off-roader. Some who enrol are simply there to learn the basic all-terrain functions of their new Range Rover, Discovery or Freelander. But an increasing number of pupils are relying on the course to teach them all they need to know to be properly equipped to set off on their own transcontinental expedition, where there is a good chance that they’ll find themselves stuck out in the wilderness with no one to guide them through.

Without exception, the LRE instructors are either former military or have extensive experience of hardcore off-roading. For our one-day event, we were provided with a range of high-spec Land Rovers and split into teams. These are usually made up of two – an instructor and a participant – but ours had three as a photographer accompanied us.

The potential of the Hervey-Bathursts’ Eastnor estate as a vast and varied off-roading area was first discovered by Land Rover in 1961. It was used for extreme development testing throughout the decade and now comprises endless miles of carefully managed yet entirely natural trails that can be used to replicate virtually any real-life “expedition” situation – so I was pleased that my fellow passenger was a former army officer.

The day began with the seemingly simple task of getting to the start of the course, but torrential rain during the night meant that the first vehicle created a pair of deep and slippery ruts that became more and more difficult to traverse with every tyre that touched them. Already there was a technique to learn: keep the wheels dead straight, keep the revs low and allow the Land Rover to find its way. Remarkably, it did.

With that we were in the woods where it was crucial to follow a predetermined route. Otherwise, we could end up on a long-forgotten trail that could easily stretch for half a mile, only to end in impenetrable undergrowth that would require reversing all the way back. Despite lots of ultra-tight turns, almost intractable surfaces, heartstopping gullies and a water crossing that (unexpectedly) came almost up to windscreen level, we made it through the first part of the course relatively stylishly, save for an ill-planned attempt at tackling a pair of high humps in quick succession.

That time we were left with the Land Rover suspended by its bumpers with both rear wheels several inches off the ground, providing an excellent reason for the LRE boys to whip out their on-board spades, high-lift jacks, tow ropes and ramps while we amateurs who had caused the trouble skidded about pathetically in the glutinous mud. There followed a long and excruciatingly tricky test that is designed to help novices learn the importance of being able to “place” the vehicle correctly in order to set it up to tackle the next obstacle as easily as possible. This involved having to manoeuvre the Land Rover around a tight and hilly course through the trees, some of which had tennis balls suspended from their lower branches – the aim of the game being to lightly touch the ball with one of the wing mirrors, a task that requires the utmost finesse and forward planning.

In fact, the main discovery of the day was that off-road driving is nothing to do with making macho, high-speed assaults on innocent tree roots but about care, forward planning, deliberation and a delicate touch on the controls.

“All types of people come on this course. Only today I have been teaching a footballer’s wife how to handle her Range Rover Sport in the sort of relatively modest off-road situations that she thinks she might encounter as someone who goes hunting and shooting,” explained senior instructor Martin Gregory.

“Equally, we have customers who are making specific overland trips and who want to learn everything they need to know about all-terrain driving, as well as how to prepare the vehicle, what equipment to take, how to navigate and where to find fuel. Taking part in such a trip should, of course, be great fun – but if you’re alone in the middle of nowhere, things can turn very serious very suddenly,” said Gregory.

The importance of taking such a course before embarking on any serious off-road adventure is echoed by Stuart Foley whose company, Foley Overland, has been building and preparing expedition Land Rovers in the UK and Africa for more than 40 years. “We regularly rent out fully equipped Land Rovers for people to drive from London to Cape Town in what we call our ‘trip of a lifetime’ package,” said Foley. “But although the Land Rovers have everything from roof tents to fridges, we would always recommend that customers take an off-road driving course so that they can see an expert take the vehicle to its absolute limits in order to give them the confidence that they will need should they find themselves in a difficult situation.”

Land Rover’s lead has been followed by several other luxury four-wheel drive makers. Porsche runs an off-road driving course for its Cayenne models at a purpose-built track within the Silverstone complex; BMW holds its X5 All-Road Training programme in Munich; and Mercedes-Benz offers a one-hour training course in its ML series cars at Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey.

The only problem is that once you’ve had your first taste of mud and sand, you invariably want to go back for more – as Christine Pasquier, a PR consultant, has discovered. “We were having dinner with a group of friends back in the late 1990s and everyone was complaining about their lives,” she recalls. “Suddenly, someone said, ‘Let’s drive around Africa.’ So we went out and bought a pair of Toyota Land Cruisers, fitted them out and set off on the adventure of a lifetime. We kept the vehicles and have since been on another tour of Africa, an eight-week trip across Europe and through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and on another expedition to Mauritania. We have found it to be a superb way of showing the world to our children and a great way for them – and us – to learn to be practical in ways we don’t need to be in our normal lives. It’s just important to be properly prepared before you set off.”