As explained last week, the strictness of the rules, never ending pools of mud, obstacles designed to test my off-road experience behind the wheel to the limit and the apprehension of scoring zilch, had left me with only 50 out of a possible 500 points as we headed for the remaining five stages in the mountains.
There was a sigh of relief when we arrived at the first stage, an apparent easy slalom course with nothing but dry sand to contend with… or so I thought. Aside from the layout being tight, which would count in favour of our short-wheelbase Mitsubishi Pajero, the surface had become cut-up by competitors who traversed this section first instead of heading off to mud-city central.
With the mandatory three-minute course survey done and angle of attack by my assigned co-driver, 4x4 veteran Mike Britz suggested, we went into battle, knowing that the time to bag some much needed points had arrived.
The go-ahead given, it became a case of matching adequate amounts of speed with just enough steering input as the broken sand began to have its way with the Pajero. More wary than ever of those irksome golf-ball topped course bollards, I made it through the first corner safely only to enter the second with a bit too much speed as the dirt-mount placed outside post became more prominent.
Lifting off the throttle for a moment but quickly back on it to avoid losing points, I crested the incline at the base of the pit and the finish of a fun but demanding stage. The result was more points in the bag and the 100 mark breached in the overall competition.
Our confidence boosted, we headed to stage number seven which turned out to be challenge in itself thanks to all-too-familiar foe. As it was located some considerable distance from the sixth, the still tractable gravel route became a nightmare as we rounded a corner with nothing but mud, glorious mud, preventing forward motion.
To make matters even worse, the saturated earth had clearly thwarted the attempts of a number of competitors before us, making what little hard ground remained to gain traction virtually impossible.
I will be brief; after three attempts, diff-lock engaged, endless wheel spinning, keeping the revs high and mud covering every corner of the Pajero, we eventually had to “create” our own route next to the original, which posed additional threats in the form rocks and ditches. Fortunately, none of these played a part as we continued to the stage start.
Arriving at said leg, a tight left-right-left between two trees and up a rocky incline, we decided to take it easy at first before upping our pace thereafter. As such, manoeuvring between the trees again flanked by posts on either went well, until we noticed the sight of a golf ball lying on the ground as we finished the stage.
Failing to retract the Pajero’s mirrors had seemingly played in a part in the ball flying, but we again bagged big points as the clouds above became ever more threatening.
More rocks and bumpy rides inside the Pajero later, we arrived at stage eight; an uphill obstacle with bollards on either side and nothing but flat rock to crest. Diff-lock engaged and with a steady flow of momentum, Mike and I sailed through without a hitch as the mud-covered Pajero never even came close to breaking a sweat. The result though was even more pleasing and a huge relief for me especially; no stalls, reverses or bollards knocked over and tehrefore 100 points!
Now without the pressure of potentially recording the lowest points haul in the club’s history, we gingerly made our way through the rock strewn route leading up to the ninth stage, until the old saying of what goes up must come down became apparent.
With a sheer drop on my left, a solid rock face on the right and a road made-up of slippery earth ready to punish over-zealous use of the throttle, we inched down slowly, contending with protruding boulders ready to puncture the Pajero’s tyres.
Splashing through a water logged section of the road after making the descent in one piece, it was time to get back in competition mode for stage nine; a cambered obstacle laid out in a gully with the potential danger of a taped-off deep ditch at the end.
A bit alarmed by this, surveying the course with Mike’s assistance helped put my nerves to rest somewhat as the go sign from the marshal was given. Steadily moving over the cambers, again embedded with posts on either side, I realised that the slow approach had resulted in us moving with not enough momentum to avert a possible reverse and chance falling into the aforementioned ditch.
Upping the power a bit, we safely avoided the danger point and made the finish, but with the bollard on the inside of the final bend now at a horizontal angle. Despite this, more than 50 points were again posted.
Everything came down to this then; the tenth and final stage back at starting point again in a gully but with the added hazard of water, a very tight left-right chicane at the finish, and something I had dreaded since the start, an audience ready to focus on those unable to make the final hurdle.
Having come this far and unwilling to forego the experience I had picked-up during the past nine stages, I tried to take-in as much of Mike’s pointers as we walked the stage for the final time. Setting myself up to miss the bollards on either side but so as to get a good enough entry into the next uphill corner without knocking anything over, a reverse for the next tight right hander leading into the mud pool was unavoidable even with the Pajero’s short wheelbase.
Safely through the water and faced with a slippery climb as well as the chicane at the top, I decided to apply a little more throttle than normal and despite the final outside post flying, I had finished potentially one of the most nerve shattering experiences of my life. The best was reserved for last though, a final point score of 395, way more than I had expected.
Granted, while my overall class position was less rosy, it had been an incredible experience which once highlighted what vehicles can achieve when tasked with the job they were designed for.