Going Offroad? You Can Keep It.

Posted: 31/12/2010 in General

There are many people who derive inexplicable pleasure from taking their 4WDs offroad for its own sake, just for the hell of it, with no other end in mind. They call this Adventure. The beautiful, beautiful irony is that if they encounter something out of the ordinary….a breakdown, getting bogged, etc…..they suddenly stop calling it Adventure (interp: “Something fun and, yes, intrepid that we can do that involves peeking slightly beyond the bounds of the cotton wool society we so totally enjoy being ensconced in, and about which we can brag at parties for 12 months hence….but what do you *mean* we can’t get cellphone reception???”), and start calling it Nightmare. These people have either conveniently  forgotten, or were totally ignorant of in the first place, the real meaning of the word Adventure, which, when you get right down to it, probably best translates as something like “Jesus H. Christ, we only just got out of that one – bandage that up and let’s get the hell out of here.”

I don’t go 4WDing with people any more. Not recreationally. If we’re going fishing or camping or something and need the fourbees to actually get to somewhere, great, brilliant. But I take no pleasure in getting into a 4WD and heading out bush for the sake of it. 4WDing is no picnic. That’s the bit they don’t tell you. That’s the Big Lie. Real off-roading (ie, Having By Necessity To Get To Places Where There Are No Roads) involves getting bounced around mercilessly as a passenger to the point where your lungs hurt, and as a driver, being forced to concentrate to the point of popping a temple-vein *and* hanging on for dear life because you’re also getting thrown around violently even at walking pace (and knowing that if you get it wrong, you may be coming back another day for your vehicle with a tractor). You get to be an expert at oscillating madly between arse-cheeks on the seat in an effort to maintain some sort of positional stasis. Occasionally it is hard to prevent your motion relative to the inside of the cab affecting the direction of the vehicle because you are hugging the wheel so bloody tightly to stay with the ship.

Case in point. Years ago, in a previous professional life, I was a passenger in a vehicle crossing a wide, dry creek bed up north, miles from anywhere. The creek had steep sides, and the creek bed was populated entirely with rounded boulders grading up to about the size of a soccer ball. We had been told that it couldn’t be crossed. This had the predictable effect as soon as it was uttered, the end result of which was me having to wind down my window (no mean feat of coordination in itself, under the circumstances) to stop myself being concussed. But we crossed it.

In the end, and this is the biggest problem, I invariably end up helping to dig someone else’s vehicle out, or to otherwise recover it. This is not Recreation, this is Hard Work. And I am sick to death of it. It would be okay had I been the one that bogged it, that would be a fair cop. But people never want anyone else to drive their vehicle. Again, beautiful irony.

I’ve had some fascinating experiences offroad:

–  A friend & I went on a tour of central Australia a few years back with a busload of European tourists in a 4WD bus with an expat Dutch girl as the driver-cum-tour-guide. She was mostly pretty competent with it until she decided to get a closer look at some camels and donkeys off the side of the road in, without a breath of exaggeration, The Middle Of Nowhere. As luck would have it, it had rained the week before, and the vehicle got bogged1. Guess who had to get it out. I decided to intervene before she had successfully rested the diffs on the ground.
On the same trip, I watched as a middle-aged German woman was almost literally shaken to bits as we drove along a bush track. She looked bloody miserable.

Digging out the tour bus.

–  A guy I was working with once decided to cross the bottom of a deep, somewhat steep-sided, sharply V-shaped gully with half of the bottom of it washed out. I refused to even be in the vehicle during the attempt, as it looked unnavigable to me, and I feared a rollover into the ditch at the bottom. The vehicle was unable to get across the bottom of the gully, and unable to reverse back up the track, it being so steep that the rear wheels just spun, and in so doing slid ever closer to the edge, past which was fresh air for about 15 feet straight down1. The only way we could prevent it from rolling sideways down the hill was to completely unwind the winch rope and to route it around the downhill/passengers’ side of the vehicle and the tray, then take the hook up the hill and secure it to a tree in order to pull the rear of the vehicle sideways away from the precipice. We broke 5 of the 7 strands of the winch rope in so doing.
In the end we had to completely reshape the bottom of the gully with pick & shovel to allow the vehicle to cross in safety. 4 hours’ digging and shifting-of-big-rocks later, we were out. By which time I had completed the sampling task on the far side of the gully for which we wanted to cross it in the first place (2km of walking involved) and so we promptly turned around and drove back out again.

Our usual field accommodations on the job, with the submarine Landcruiser just in left of picture.

–  We1 were driving along a concrete causeway across a gulf river which was under about two feet of flowing water at the end of the wet season when the front of the vehicle dived down into the water, and I thought we had plunged off the end. Water surged up over the windscreen. Just as I was getting ready to exit through the sunroof at speeds not achievable with conventional propulsion (and if it hadn’t had a sunroof, it was jolly-well about to have), the bow of the ship rose out of the deep and we were back on the causeway. Somehow a pothole big enough to swallow an 80-series Landcruiser had developed in the causeway. Thankfully the sides weren’t vertical. We stopped on the opposite bank to watch the vehicle following us have the same Adventure.

–  The piece de resistance: We got bogged1 at an old abandoned alluvial gold mine bloody miles from anywhere3http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=-17.210431,144.161101&spn=0.003295,0.005681&t=h&z=18
It was 9:30am on a Monday morning. By lunchtime, despite our best efforts, the driver’s side of the ‘cruiser had sunk down to the doorhandles1, while the passenger’s side stayed on the surface………so:

  • We dug mostly with our hands because the stuff we were bogged in was too gluggly to get onto the shovel, and too sticky to get off it once it did get on there;
  • The hole filled with water and diff oil, and the mixture was nauseating;
  • There were no trees or anything else to attach the winch rope to. We buried the spare tyre, but the hole kept collapsing when we were trying to winch the vehicle out because the ground was too soft. Eventually this hole had to be engineered such that the front wall was angled as an overhang so that the spare tyre couldn’t just fly out, PLUS there had to be a deep notch in this front wall to accommodate the winch rope, PLUS the front wall had to be reinforced with two cross-hatched layers of sapling logs;
  • The vehicle kept sinking because the ground was too soft;
  • So we had to dig a hole the full length & ½ the width of the vehicle and 3 feet deep, plus a ramp in front of it about 15 feet long to enable the vehicle to roll up & out;
  • We had to cut down 45 saplings with a blunt axe2, then cut them up into pieces, and cross-hatch them so as to act as reinforcing for the ramp, the bottom of the vehicle hole, under the high-lift jack, and the hole for the spare tyre;
  • We jacked up the entire driver’s side of the vehicle by the front corner of the tray and then winched it forward so that the wheels essentially fell onto the timber reinforcing, which then gave us support and traction of a sort;
  • In the end we pulled the vehicle out of the hole by gaslight at 7:30pm on the Tuesday night. By this time I was vomiting and seeing double, and I rather suspected that I had burst a couple of blood vessels in the back of my throat, because swallowing stung a bit;
  • And THEN, in order to get back to town, 4 hours away, we had to negotiate a the first km or so of the track out, which was a washed-out, rutted idiot track with sheer drops into massive gutters on either side, some of which actually crossed the road, etc etc – I had to walk in front of the vehicle for that distance, telling the guy driving where to put his wheels in order that we not *really* put the thing beyond our reach;
  • After that, it was a 30km drive on a 2-wheel-track goat track through the trees back to the corrugated dirt cattle-station road that would get us back to town, a further 25km or so away. We got back to town about 3 hours after we had become overdue in the middle of the night – they were coming looking for us in the morning.

We got out due to our sheer bloody-mindedness and the fact that the bloke I was working with was a physical superman relative to me. The day after all of this we took a day off to recover and to clean the vehicle, which consisted of jacking the entire driver’s side up with the high-lift jack, taking both wheels off, and hitting the entire thing with a high-pressure hose. Out of fatigue I hosed my own bare feet twice. This hurts like hell. Don’t do it. I literally counted my toes both times.
We had a beer in the one-of-two pubs in the same small bush town the following year when we went back to continue the fieldwork. We had a chat about the old adage that you eventually look back and laugh at most things. Neither of us were. I’m still not. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.

I don’t go 4WDing with people any more.

1. NB: I was not driving at the time.

2. I will be eternally grateful I had steelcaps on *that* day, I can tell you.

3. Before anyone starts piously banging on about lack of preparation, unnecessary risk, etc etc, let me say that we were supremely well prepared. We were a 2-man exploration/reconnaissance crew with a fully-expertly-prepared vehicle, heaps of water (there was plenty of water around the place anyway), a winch, recovery equipment, two first aid kits, a HF radio, and people knew where to find us had we become seriously overdue. A second vehicle on this occasion was simply not an option. The way this unfolded was due to us being very bloody determined to get out under our own steam. And we did.

  1. Duncan says:

    Never done it. Never want to (ref. ‘…bounced around mercilessly…’). Quite like the current layout of my bones and internal organs. Took a Falcon to a family gathering in the bush one year; getting down the access ‘road’, with its ruts and boulders was more then enough for me. Can’t have been far from bottoming out in places. Thanks for organising that one, Sandy.

  2. Gekkor McFadden says:

    Please post more fried chicken stories please. If you don’t have any more, then it is OK to post some fried turkey stories. Thank you!!

  3. Brilliant!

    Unfortunately, knowing your *love* of the Falcon GTHO, I could counter the “Why would anyone go out in a 4WD for fun?” sentiment you have here with: “If a 4WD is just a device for getting from A-to-B, isn’t that somewhat contradictory to someone who owns a fast car when the quickest you can go is 110?” (I just thought I would throw that out there 🙂

    As far as I am concerned, I tend to think like you: A 4WD *is* just a utility vehicle for getting to places in order to perform a task and then leave. Going out and destroying expensive suspension components for fun – isn’t. Going out in a fast car *is* fun and doesn’t require the use of a kidney belt even when travelling a little faster than walking pace.

    I too have done the digging and the walking in front of a vehicle because the owner thought that their skills outweighed mine. Digging their wheels out of wet clay is now THEIR job. It’s THEIR car and they want it out? THEY dig…. I will walk or ride a horse.

  4. Lucinda says:

    Experiences like yours in 4WDs makes for great books. (I laughed out loud at my lappy more than once while reading it – thanks for the chuckle)

    You reminded me of some “mountain” 4WD “Adventures” I have went on when living in the Rocky Mountains.

    We soon learned to watch which direction storm clouds moved while hunting/fishing or camping. If up the creek when a storm moves up the valley, we were really up a creek when the dirt roads turned to mud that tended to suck tires into it until they disappeared, thus rendering the concept of 4WD useless. More than once, we have tossed (without regards to organization) all camping, fishing or other supplies into the vehicle and hightail it to lower ground before the clouds dumped a river on us.

    Storm clouds moving from the top of the moutains downward got us a little wet, but nothing major. We normally stayed put for those.

    Crossing creek beds (that were not dry) also proved a challenge when all four wheels spun in place spraying water, but not moving the vehicle. I loved it when the driver (I wasn’t old enough to drive yet) paused at the top of a hill with a creek bed below running across the narrow road. He gripped the wheel, put it in gear, and revved the engine, then released the clutch. We bolted forward towards the creek bed with intentions of sheer momentum being the force that would cause us to land on dry ground again. Wrong. It actually caused the vehicle to go deeper into the creek…and stop cold.

    You really should put all your blogs together and publish these. Your “adventures” are great! Makes me want to see Queensland firsthand.

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