Now is the time to right a terrible wrong. Not the closing of Guantanamo Bay correctional facility, even more important. Two issues ago, we offered you the 10 best places in the country to go four-wheel driving, which is fine – if you’re an experienced four-wheel driver. But most of you we realised, probably aren’t.
Recent research suggests that 98 per cent of vehicles with the ability to actually drive all of the wheels at once, never go off-road. In fact, other recent research (me driving to work) suggests that most of you are putting junior in the back and driving him to school in it, and that’s about it.
But this must change; you’ve got a beaut motor in your possession, one that can gobble up hectares of dusty wide brown land. So, in the words of that model with the fiancé who plays cricket, where the bloody hell are you?
You can learn how to drive your car off-road. There are people to teach you, and one of the best is Vic Widman, who wrote that 10 Best piece for us, and now wants to help you get out there – and get back. I took part in the two-day course at his bad-ass property in southern NSW (but there are courses and schools nationwide, see box), and after two days with Widman re-learning how to drive, I recommend you do it. I’ve concentrated on the driving bit here: there’s also a heck of a lot on equipment, safety, communication and vehicle-rescue procedures that you should know, as well. But no Alpha reader would just jump in a car and head out back of Bourke with nothing but a bottle of Mount Franklin, a bag of pretzels and his half-charged Nokia. Would they?
Know your vehicle
I’m in a Hyundai Santa Fe automatic, an AWD, which means it’s a car that tries operate as well on-road as off, and succeeds pretty well. Others on the course are more serious off-roader types, driving big Holden Colorados and the like. They all operate in different ways (see box), which Widman illustrates by driving two of them onto a simple obstacle that lifts two wheels off the ground at each corner. It doesn’t look too testing, but one is stuck straight away and can barely manage to reverse out, while the other can feed all the power to the wheels left on the ground and gets through.
You should also know how big your car is. The worst sound in the world is the sound of your own car hitting something. Throughout two days, as the Santa Fe tips down hills, scrambles over humps, across river beds and through mudholes, every slight noise makes me more and more aware of every inch of overhang back and front, and clearance between the ground and the vehicle’s vulnerable guts.
Assess the terrain
Vic Widman’s kindy exercise, first-up, is driving over small, brightly coloured rocks embedded in the track. All you have to do is hit them, front wheel, then back wheel. Sounds simple, no? No. Urban driving makes you care about the outer edges of your car, but in the bush what matters is wheel placement. You need to gain a sense of exactly where your front wheels are all the time, and make sure that you drive dead straight over obstacles so the back wheels follow the front precisely.
With every new test, like all other outback drivers in a spot, I find myself craning my neck to see as much of the obstacle as far ahead as I can, mentally sorting out the right route and putting the whole car through it as carefully as I can. Think back to those ads where your favourite 4WD roars confidently about at breakneck speed. Nonsense. I barely get above 25mk/h all day.
I stand at the bottom of a rutted track. It’s not as steep as some of the others Widman has built into his property, but it looks plenty steep to me. Running through my mind are his three golden rules: “Can my car do it? Can I do it? What if (it goes wrong)?” At the moment, my answers are, “I don’t know” times three. I accelerate upwards, but at half-way stop in a wheel-churning fury and begin to slither back down. As I’ve been taught, I throw the Santa Fe into reverse, and using my side mirrors (don’t swing around to look back, as you’ll lose even more control), outpace the slide and drive back to the bottom.
If going up is daunting, coming down can be more scary. Widman shows me his prize steep hill: a 35-degree precipice you can just about walk; the thought of me disappearing over the edge in a vehicle seems amazing, but advanced drivers can do it. Instead, I try something a lot gentler, in the lowest possible gear, feathering the brake like a human ABS. Most of the time I’m under control, when I’m not tobogganing down in a minor panic.
Here is a special official Government warning: Do not think your 4WD can go anywhere and do anything. You are in a car, not a Sherman tank. Confronted by an especially boggy bit of trail, the temptation is to accelerate through it, which is why most weekend warriors drive home covered in mud, and wonder why they’ve got a maintenance bill through the roof.
Widman takes me to his skidpan, which has turned into a shallow lake, handy for four-wheel driving. Then we do what you’re supposed to do when confronted by an obstacle you’re not sure about: we get out and have a look. We poke it with a stick to test the depth at every point the car will encounter. If it was a river, we’d have to walk the river.
Only then do I drive slowly and steadily across; when I feel myself getting bogged, I vibrate the wheel left and right to shake it free. If I stop completely, the trick is to reverse back and try and again, instead of grinding myself a deeper and deeper hole. It’s not too deep, so none of the mud churns up into my engine and differentials. I make it to the other side.
To make up for all the crawling carefully through obstacles for two days, we are rewarded with a hoon around the dunes. The trick with the sand is to ditch everything you’ve learned and drive like you’ve got a pair. First up: lower the tyre pressure to between 15-20psi, so more rubber is in contact with the ground and you’re less likely to sink into it. To help yourself along, don’t turn too sharply, and drive more aggressively, accelerate into corners and power up dunes. And if you get to a hard corrugated bit? Accelerate, obviously. Go fast enough and you’ll float across the bumps, instead of lurching around like a fishing boat on a bad day in the Bass Strait.
[breakout] The Wheel Deal
What can your car really do?
A car’s ability to put driving torque through all four corners is just the start. Some are purely designed to give you better traction on the road, others are good for the occasional trip off a sealed road, but not much more, while all-wheel drives like the Hyundai Santa Fe blur the line between these and the 4WD heavyweights, which are designed to go over more varied terrain and tow the largest boats and trailers. The types of drive they produce to which wheels and under which conditions gets smarter and more varied every year, so make sure you know exactly what yours can do before you head off.
See this as a PDF: