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.
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.