Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Baboons Pass experience was not only thrilling; it was an eye-opener as well.

Earlier this year I came up with the idea of asking and answering the following question: Can Southern Africa's roughest public road be driven using a standard luxury 4x4? Discovery-4 was my choice.

Baboons is recognized as probably the roughest and most challenging public road in Southern Africa. It is indicated on more than one map as a vehicular track, but it’s more of a donkey trail than a road. Providing its distance is irrelevant as the going is so slow, it is better measured in time. A large section of the trail has been upgraded and we found evidence of a mechanical digger. This, I was told, saved us well over and hour. The improved section could be regarded as a grade-three trail where one averages about five kilometers per hour. When the grade four and five sections happen, they happen with a bang. Drivers are confronted with the inner thought, ‘How the hell am I going to get over that?’ But over you go, one rock climb, switchback, at a time, inch by inch. Speed often drops to half a kilometer per hour.


I was supported by two Defenders, a 110 and a 130. As it happened, at no time did any have to pull me, although the lead vehicle’s winch was used to remove a huge bolder that had fallen in our path. Significantly, both Defenders were equipped with 33-inch tyres deflated to about half-a-bar. By contrast, mine were 19” rims with low profile all-terrains pumped at three-bar. To prove my point, I needed to run standard, approved wheels and tyres, and pumped them this hard to protect them. For grip, the Defenders relied on front and rear diff-locks, while I relied on the Discovery-4’s traction control. My biggest concerns before the trip were that the Disco’s clearance would not be enough, and that while its traction-control is good, it would have to be truly brilliant to keep traction, considering the huge disadvantage I had with my tyres, especially if it rained. And it rained!

The other frustration was the over excitement of my helpers. I would, quite often, get conflicting opinions from those directing me over the rock obstacles. Sometimes I had two people simultaneously shouting directions and at others, differing advice about how I should drive. Shouts of “Go for it!,” or “Give it stick!’ frustrated me a bit. From inside the cab, more often than not my reaction was that because mechanical damage would mean failure, traversing any obstacle at speed was just not an option. As a result, I might have scraped off some of the Disco’s newness, but the undersides and machinery remained unharmed.

New revelations

Before this trip, if I had been asked, what do you prefer, traction-control or diff locks, I would answer without hesitation; diff locks. That’s because for me, until now, no traction control has been able to match the grip of lockers. But not all traction-controls work this well. Perhaps I can illustrate this with an anecdote. One of the final obstacles on Baboons Pass was a turn over a smooth, wet rock, at an angle of probably 30°. From the driver’s seat, I had to get my front wheels into the rock before applying power. Too much speed to early and the wheels would hit the base of the rock with such a knock and bounce, that traction and momentum would be instantly lost. Now, as the front wheels lifted, I applied firm accelerator, But almost nothing happened. That V6 diesel is no slouch, but at this time it barely ticked over. I pushed my right foot as far as it would go, but still nothing… the Discovery creeping ever so slowly up and over. Video footage from the outside later revealed what was happening. The wheels were spinning, ever so slowly. The traction control limited the power seemingly knowing that any more power would result in slip, and probably a slide backwards. I mounted the obstacle with consummate ease, and my crew all clapped, thinking, completely wrongly, that my superior driving skills had done such a good job. This Discovery made me look very good – not something that is very easy to do.

I also learnt some tricks of the Discovery that they didn’t tell me about at the Land Rover Experience training. (Perhaps I should have done the advanced course) Its suspension can lift to provide extraordinary clearance, if you know how to ‘trick it’. I needn’t have worried.


The Discovery-4 is brilliant – for more reasons than I ever gave it credit for. On the open road and in town, it is competent, comfortable a very easy to live with. That’s where 99% of it will be appreciated. But it can, if asked, tackle very difficult off-road terrain - and this is significant - even by inexperienced drivers. With minimal training, it can make a novice look like a seasoned expert.

But don’t let this make you think the Disco breezed over the pass. It was a real challenge for the vehicle and me. But the lasting impression is that this is an astonishing piece of kit, and the minds that thought it up, must have been a very clever bunch. In addition, I have now concluded once and for all, that solid axles are not necessary for really outstanding off-road ability.

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy a Disco if their prime objective was to find the most difficult terrain and drive it. The Defenders, once having done Baboons ten times, will probably suffer no more than some worn bushes, but the Discovery, not being built to tackle this kind of terrain day after day, would no doubt feel the pains of battle rather sooner.

It will make a great TV episode. Expect it from October on Ignition, DSTV Ch 265. A teaser on Youtube will follow.

Monday, 19 March 2012

I think I’m going to buy a new 4x4 – part-2

About three years ago I wrote an article for Leisure Wheels, mentioning that I had had a near head-on smash and that I didn’t think the compromises in safety with vehicles like the Defender and Land Cruiser 76 were worth it. At the time I considered vehicles like the Pajero and Prado. I was accused of going ‘soft’. I like to think of it as going ‘sensible’. Then I drove the Pajero and realized I might be heading in the wrong direction. Then I drove the Fortuner and thought that IFS front suspension was really very good, and that I needn’t insist on solid axles.

Now again, I have the same dilemma. At the time I chose a Land Cruiser 100 GX. It has much better brakes, ABS and airbags, things that at the time no heavy-duty solid-axled 4x4 were offering. While that has changed to a degree, the handling of all 70-series Land Cruisers and the Defender is diabolical, when compared to say an FJ Cruiser, Discovery, Prado and even Fortuner.

So the big questions remain: is IFS good enough for what I do, considering that while the 4x4 routes I travel are tough, they are not ‘challenge’ tough? And, must it be a station-wagon?

The Discovery expedition up Baboons pass will no doubt answer some questions. Its on-road performance is outstanding. What has surprised me the most, that it’s a bit better on-road than the Land Cruiser 200VX. It’s quieter, smoother, has a nicer interior. Is it as good off-road? Because the LC200 isn’t great in standard form because it can’t take much of a load and it’s too low.

But right now my eyes are avariciously turned toward the FJ.  But it’s too cute to be a serious expedition 4x4 – or is it? I don’t want a Jeep. I don’t want a Ford, or Isuzu. I like the Nissan Patrol, but the diesel is a bit of a dog, and the petrol uses more fuel than a 747. I will wait for the V8 Land Cruisers, as these could add vehicles that right now, are not part of the choice.

So if you don’t hear from me for a while, know that it’s because I’m off answering these questions – and shooting my TV show in the process.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

I think I’m going to buy a new 4x4

It’s my luck that over the past two weeks I’ve driven four 4x4s I’ve never driven before: Nissan Navara, Range Rover Evoque, Toyota Land Cruiser FJ and a Discovery-4.

The Navara was LA Sport’s green ‘HULK’, a highly modified version of a vehicle I regard as extremely boring, with an overly hard ride, bland interior but with nice engines. LA Sport’s version, with its huge clearance, certainly makes it much more interesting, but my drive in it was completely overshadowed by the Land Cruiser FJ. This one was also one of LA Sport’s creations, with replacement shocks and springs, wheel arch flares and an ever-so-nice winch-bar and rear bumper.

These two were taken for a spin on the Atlantis dunes. The FJ sped up the dunes like a frightened rabbit. And then I tried the Discovery. What amazed me was, despite the 19’ rims and low profile tyres, it handled the dunes extremely well. I was a bit taken aback. It’s times like these that my understanding of four-wheel drive can be rattled. Why did it do so well? I witnessed BMW X5’s with the same sized tyres fail completely on the Lamberts Bay dunes. Yes, the sand was softer then, but the Disco did so well, I am left to ask, was it the traction-control system that made it so good, and if not, what? I didn’t hear the TC working, nor did I notice the TC light on the dash come on. So I really have no answer, except to know; low profiles are going to hinder progress off road. That’s logical. But the Disco’s performance still baffles me a bit.

Driving these ‘modern’ vehicles, I think it’s time for something new. I am a little tired of the chugging Toyota 1HZ. I mean the FJ is pure fun! No 1HZ vehicle can ever be that. My Land Cruiser 105 is still in my hands despite trying to sell it for a while now, but what will I replace it with? An FJ? It’s too youthful for me, isn’t it? What about a Hilux? Far too ordinary. Fortuner? Too boring, despite being fantastic. Nissan Pathfinder? Yuk. Pajero? After the last time I drove one, (the owners wanted to string me up), it’s the very last I would ever consider. Besides, it’s old and boring and out-performed by every vehicle in its class. Patrol? Ugly, but it’s a good thought. Mercedes G? I just couldn’t, even if I had the money, bring myself to spend that much on an empty tin box. Jeep? I just can’t see myself in one. Discovery? To pricey for me, but even if it wasn’t, I can’t put on smaller rims and fatter tyres. Then I have to ask, does this really matter? I am yet to be convinced, and this month’s trek over Baboons Pass will do doubt answer some more questions.

So, if you had up to R500K to spend on a 4x4, bearing in mind you want to go on off-road expeditions with it, what would you buy?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Overwhelmed at the Land Rover Festival

During the record attempt to beat England’s puny 384, Craig Dutton and his team obliterated this record by assembling an unconfirmed 1007 Land Rovers! What a great effort and it shows the spirit of LR, that only the most single-minded, uni-brained individual would not be impressed.

But for me, not being a Land Rover owner, meant that I needed a disguise. So I slipped into an Evoque. It’s a lovely car, and I say car, because to call it a vehicle might suggest it could be used for any other purpose than to be comfortable in the city traffic and entertained whether moving or not. But one thing that the Evoque does, in my view, better than any in recent years, is to look good. This is a very beautiful car, and is unusual in that no matter from what angle it’s viewed, it’s gorgeous. Inside is no different. It welcomes you; the seats are sporty but not too much so, and the driving position is a clever mix of sports recline and upright SUV.  I had it for almost a week and at first was stunned by its feel and performance, but that feeling faded a bit. Superb steering feel is unlike any SUV except maybe the Forester, but the mixture of turbo-lag and the auto box meant that I concluded that if I was to buy one, no ways would I consider the diesel. And why the one-piece tail-gate? Split tailgates are far more practical and that’s why Range Rovers have always had them… until now.

But my week’s highlight was the Land Rover festival. I was greeted by warm conversation, invited into the inner-sanctums of Landy clubs, offered beer, wine, boerewors, cokes, lunch, dinner, etc. I was asked to sign tee shirts and flags, given key rings, and was made to feel like a long lost brother. This, despite the last two TV series spanning three years, I have been driving another brand almost to the exclusion of others. True friends, and I thank you for a brilliant weekend.