Matthew Brace gets behind the wheel for an exhilarating drive through the Herefordshire 'jungle'
THE LACONIC Brummie instructors from Land-Rover had warned us that our driver training day in the beautiful Herefordshire countryside would involve getting mucky and heaving a stricken vehicle out of thick mud. They had not mentioned that we would roll it dramatically on to its side before performing the task.

The blushes on their faces told us the crash was an accident. One of my group, while having his turn at the wheel, forgot the four-wheel drive technique he had learned minutes before during a pep talk and took a bend too fast, tipping the vehicle and sending us in the back sprawling on top of each other. "These are great vehicles when they are upright," joked one of the instructors.

The incident was not life threatening and it certainly helped to break the ice in our group. It also provided us with a perfect dilemma: how to right the thing in a tight, rutted gully. If we had been in the jungle our lives would have depended on it. Courses like this, run by Land-Rover Experience at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, are ideal for intrepid, would-be explorers planning expeditions to far-flung countries where road conditions leave something to be desired.

Teams organising forays into the rainforest through the Royal Geographical Society, for example, are encouraged to go on the course to brush up their driving skills for the dirt tracks of Sumatra or Cameroon. Having recently returned from a conservation project in a remote sector of East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo which involved daily 12-hour drives and no shortage of near-death experiences, I can think of at least two local drivers I would willingly fund to do this course.

The course is also useful for those working on the land with off-road vehicles on a daily basis, and for a third group who do not own four-wheel drives but want to experience some hair-raising driving in a controlled environment. You don't have to be a Land-Rover owner, but you do need a full driving licence.

We had rolled on to the driver's side scraping the paintwork and bending in a couple of windows. Mercifully, they did not break and shower us with glass. Once we dusted ourselves off we stood staring at the vehicle as it lay on its side like an injured white rhino waiting to be helped to its feet.

A couple of us eagerly came up with some rather far-fetched ideas - such as trying to heave it upright using our bare hands and levering it up using planks of wood or big sticks. The instructors raised their eyes to heaven and said they would pray for us should we ever venture further afield than Herefordshire in one of these vehicles.

Eventually, we called by radio for a second vehicle and, manoeuvring it into place, used its winching gear mounted on the front bumper along with some ropes from our vehicle, which we tied to the strongest points on the chassis. We hauled and winched and slowly it rose to its wheels, shaking off the dirt with a shudder. Somebody else drove the next section.

The day at Eastnor Castle is the second part of a Specialised Training Course that includes a compulsory, preliminary Familiarisation Course (held at Land-Rover's base in Solihull), where trainees learn how to judge gradients and ground conditions, clearance beneath the vehicle and the basic workings of the engine.

Each part of the programme is a day in length and runs on weekdays, so you could build a short Midlands break around them, starting in Solihull for the Familiarisation, then taking a lazy couple of days to wind your way across south Warwickshire, stopping at the picturesque and historical towns of Stratford-upon-Avon or Warwick, and arriving at Eastnor in time for the second stage. Accommodation is not included in Land-Rover's package, but they can give you lists of places to stay in Solihull and Eastnor.

The Eastnor day is split into three parts: jungle driving, trailer pulling and winching. Without doubt, the jungle driving is the most exhilarating and is what a lot of participants come for. The course is demanding, with almost vertical slopes running with water and mud, up and down which you must manoeuvre the fully-loaded Land-Rover. The slightest incorrect tug on the steering wheel could send you crashing through the woodland on either side of the track.

After heavy rain, some parts of the course are thigh-deep in mud and there is, as we discovered that autumn day, a real chance of tumbling the vehicle unless you take it slowly and try to read the route ahead.

My turn at the wheel also had some hairy moments. "Too much gas!" the instructor screamed at me as we slid towards the bulk of a beech tree and clipped the back bumper on its trunk. Next, I was being sluggish. "More gas!" he shouted as I struggled up a steep incline, wheels spinning frantically to grip in the mud. "Don't over-steer, keep her straight, now push the accelerator." It had looked so easy from the back seat.

After a day at Eastnor I had begun to feel my way through the mud and read the vehicle's jolts and slides. But was I any good? "Honestly? I wouldn't put 20p on you winning a rally," said my instructor, "but you might just get yourself around a farmyard one day."

FACT FILE

off-road

Get behind the wheel

Land-Rover Experience runs off-road driving schools on weekdays throughout the year. The Familiarisation Course takes place at Land-Rover's base in Solihull, West Midlands, and costs pounds 150 (plus VAT), not including accommodation. The Specialist Course takes place at Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire, and costs pounds 250 (plus VAT), not including accommodation. The Specialist Course can be done only after completion of the Familiarisation course. Call for further information (tel: 0121-700 4619).

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