Spare time: Motorised mud-wrestling

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The Independent Online
You need high mud tolerance, a willingness to spend all day in second gear, and an ability to obey three rules. Eric Kendall goes four-wheel driving.

Speed is exactly what off-road driving is not about: "If you think you can take your brain out and put the boot in, you should try bumper cars," was the gist of the briefing session, during which I learnt the three rules: 1) always keep your thumbs in a "thumbs up" position while grasping the steering wheel; 2) don't touch the foot pedals unless specifically told to do so; 3) don't stick your arm out to brace yourself if the vehicle rolls.

And you probably thought the ability to drive a car was going to be an advantage.

The rules make sense when you start to appreciate what you're in for: gripping thumbs can get broken by the spokes of the spinning steering- wheel as it kicks; indiscriminate use of the accelerator, brake and, most of all, clutch pedal can have unusual effects away from Tarmac; and, finally, the roll cage and harnesses are there to stop you being crushed or falling out - any limb that is sticking out will snap off in a similar but more serious way than the thumbs in rule one.

The only problem is that, like the rules, most of the practice of four- wheel-driving is counter-intuitive to anyone acquainted with driving on the road. Some of the mechanical differences are obvious: power is supplied to four rather than two wheels, and the tyres are big and chunky.

But the hidden differences, such as the long engine stroke and hefty flywheel, mean that it's practically impossible to stall the engine. Once in gear, that's where you leave it. You certainly shouldn't slip the clutch, even as you slow to a halt; with the drum brakes full of water most of the time, the engine serves both for going and for stopping.

It's astonishing, and a mighty relief, the first time you try "first gear, no brakes" down a small cliff. It was only at the end of the day that I realised I hadn't once used the footbrake going downhill - not even a dab. And these are inclines that would make Franz Klammer's hair curl.

But you've got to get up there first. Mud, trees, troughs as deep as the vehicle, rocks and pools of water, are all connected on the steep hillside by a track of sorts.

Just powering all four wheels to provide traction isn't the whole story. A mixture of driving techniques is essential: exploiting the weight transfer from front to back, then forward again by punching the accelerator; reading the terrain to ride over obstacles such as slippery rocks and roots before bringing the power back on; using the steering to rock the vehicle from side to side, increasing grip alternately from left to right. It may sound improbable when they describe it to you, but it works.

The driving sensation is direct and physical. Unless you've got power steering, the wheel takes some turning, and when it kicks (thumbs up) as you drop into a big rut, there's no question of stopping it. The ride is as you would expect, only worse - lurching and rolling, with the occasional bang from below as the vehicle "bellies out".

Progress, both across the ground and in driving technique, comes by degrees. The various stages, from Mickey Mouse and the Graveyard Run, to Shooters Alley, the Stump Run and Figure Eight higher up the hill, get ever harder. Each one mixes new tests together in a tighter area, with less breathing space - a confidence-building way to learn. By the time I'd knocked over a small tree half-way through the afternoon, I felt in total control, master of my machine and the environment (a sapling is planted for every tree mown down).

I knew I was ready for the Dragon's Back, the final trail which blends insane drops with tight turns, obstacles and deep water, never allowing a moment's slack. By the third time round without a stutter, I was really enjoying myself, and I'd devised my own off-road driving rules: trust the instructor, trust the machine, and trust your thumbs to do as they're told.

The hardware

"Ergonomics" wasn't in the dictionary when they built the Series One Land Rover; whatever the technical reasons for minimal use of the pedals, they're such hard work that you won't feel inclined to use them at all. On very steep stall-starts - the only time the foot-brake was used - I got just enough downward force on the pedal by bracing my knee under the steering-wheel for extra leverage.

Modern-day four-wheel-drives are a different story, though for serious off-roading, early Land Rover models have a strong following, due in part to the use of bodywork in tight manoeuvres. Based on extreme London parking techniques, this involves using every corner of the vehicle to contact obstacles when necessary, levering round trees, using the side of the vehicle as a pivot.

Learning about how a four-wheel-drive works and confident talk of "diff locks" and "transmission wind-up" is, for many, a less appealing aspect of the subject. In practice, having enough theory to understand how the machine transmits its power to the ground under varying conditions is fundamental -and doesn't require prior knowledge of, or even interest in, motor sport.

Courses

Unless you want to bring your own 4x4, all you need for a day's off-roading are old clothes, waterproof jacket and trousers, boots, and a high mud tolerance. The best machines have no windscreen or windows, so be prepared for the elements. In dry summer conditions, dust and (surprisingly) reduced control are major factors. It's extremely unlikely that driving will ever be cancelled owing to weather conditions: when off-road, adverse equals better. Whatever the time of year, you'll spend all day never getting out of second gear.

One-day introductions to off-roading at the Baskerville Challenge in Herefordshire are available through Acorn Activities (01432 830083) who can provide a complete package including accommodation nearby. They also have off-road locations in Shropshire and Wales. A more serious two-day course for professional four-wheel-drive users such as mountain rescue, police and fire services is also available. (My thanks to Don Clarke, senior instructor at the Baskerville Challenge, and his 1952 Series One 80-inch wheelbase Land Rover.) The Land Rover Experience (0121 700 4619), based on a track at the Solihull Land Rover factory, offers courses at various levels for recreational and specialist professional drivers.

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