From the horse’s mouth
In fact, speaking in an interview back in 2004, Range Rover designer Charles Spencer King took direct aim at buyers seemingly using SUVs, and even the very vehicle he designed, as a fashion statement, remarking, “Sadly the 4x4 has become an alternative to a Mercedes-Benz or BMW for the pompous, self-important driver. To use the 4x4 for the school run, or even in cities or towns at all is completely stupid”. Ouch!
The early years
As someone who spent a lot of his early years doing exactly this on trips in South Africa and across the border in Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland, a recent invite to take part in the fastidious Bridgestone 4x4 Club’s annual outing to the Wolwekloof off-road course outside Pretoria in a fully kitted Mitsubishi Pajero received an instant thumbs-up from yours truly.
The biggest challenge of this event was the complete unfamiliarity of the terrain I was to face, the short wheelbase Pajero I was entrusted with, and going up against seasoned competitors in modified Suzuki Jimny’s, Toyota models such as the Fortuner and Hilux, the ubiquitous Jeep Wrangler and even Pajero’s like mine.
Nerve wrecking with lots of apprehension best described my state of mind rolling up to the scrutineering point to have the various aspect of my Pajero checked. Minutes before, the obligatory driver’s meeting and explaining of the rules had me questioning why I said yes to this in the first place.
Those of you who have seen a Bridgestone 4x4 Club event on television or attended in person will know of the strictness associated with each obstacle presented, where points from the initial 100 at the start of each stage are deducted depending on how many times you reverse (five), stop (five), touch a marked post (25), take a second try (50) or argue with any of the highly trained marshals (100) along the route.
Scrutineering done, tyre pressures lowered to around one-bar and my nerves and confidence now fully shot to pieces, I entered the course with my assigned navigator Mike Britz, a seasoned 4x4 veteran, seated next to me.
Approaching the first stage, my heart literally sank as we took our allotted three minute course walk to discuss entry and exit. The persistent rains of the past month had left the deep gully a thick mud bath with the presence of the strategically placed bollards and course officials not helping.
Low range selected and diff-lock engaged, I gingerly coaxed the shorty Pajero forward, missing the first two bollards but then finding myself in a world of trouble as the slippery mud began to take hold.
Not wanting to bog down and as per my navigator, I floored the accelerator but getting up the muddy incline with millimetres left proved too much, resulting in an instant rollback. The second attempt also failed and although I got out on the third, it was an instant zero.
Once out of the muddy hell and on-route to obstacle number two, a fellow Pajero competitor came over to discuss the route, before pointing out what could only be describe as a basic 4x4 schoolboy error on my part.
Being an automatic, I failed to select Neutral first before engaging low range, instead activating the latter with the ‘box in Drive. In short, I was never going to make it up the first time as the Pajero was never in four-wheel drive properly. Supressing my anger at forgetting such a basic principle, we tackled the second stage which was a double pull-in, reverse out obstacle flanked by those pesky golf-ball topped bollards.
I will be brief; it did not go well partly because I misjudged my reverse angle badly and had to go forward, and secondly because I stopped within the course confines due to the gates not being properly aligned. Despite not knocking over any bollards, stage two ended with another naught.
At this point, the thought of going home with zero points on the scorecard and eight stage remaining hit home very hard. Surveying the third stage, a cambered uphill with a sharp turn replicated on the adjacent side, did not help despite Mike explaining the ideal point of entry and exist, as well as cautioning with regards to a sharp embedded rock on the other side.
Nevertheless, I aimed the nose of the Pajero at the first part, but took it too slowly and nearly bogged down, just managing to get over the hump with a dollop of throttle. Going down for the second bit, I just decided to nail it as points deductions for slowing down or stopping became to prevalent.
Frankly, how I manged to miss hitting any of the bollards or come down hard on the aforementioned rock I still don’t know, but the short of it was, 40 points in the bag and a huge relieve for me and Mike.
Brimming with confidence, we approached stage four, with Mike guiding me from outside, I approached with caution, safely passing the first two bollards and then bracing as the Pajero began sliding on the decline towards another post mounted on the outside of the incline. Now at an angle, I just managed scrap to pass both but clipped the last one, sending the golf ball flying and points lost.
The fifth and final stage of leg one turned into the complete disaster right from the start as the rollercoaster downhill descend mixed with a series of sharp bends, another earth bank and slick mud left the Pajero perched on a knife edge.
Turning in sharply to avoid the bollards and use the earth bank to ride upon, the gooey mud grabbed hold of the front-end and refused to let go. With a bollard impaled bank on the left, the Pajero standing motionlessly at an angle with its wheels pointing to left and no chance to crest the mound of dirt in front where the now removed post had been, we decided to forfeit the stage.
Five stages down and with only 50 points out of a possible 500 so far, things were seemingly going from bad to worse. Read what happens when we tackle the remaining five stages next week.