Beyond the confines of tarmac and concrete jungles, there lurks another kind of petrolhead who prefers to keep his car off the road as opposed to on it.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the 4×4 enthusiast.
In many ways, they are the complete opposite of their tarmac loving brethren. Aerodynamic splitters are traded in for radiator bash plates; cone filters for snorkels; lowered suspension for raised suspension. Regardless of the differences, one thing unites them – the pure love of motoring.
Our playground for the day was the Koeberg Nature Reserve. Due to its proximity to the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station and the sensitivity of its ecosystem, the reserve is completely closed off from the public for 364 days of the year. However, for one day in each year, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) hosts a fund raiser and grants a limited number of vehicles the privilege of traversing the dunes within the reserve.
We were one of those lucky few.
On such a day, your weapon of choice makes all the difference. However, just like in any form of motorsport, if the driver does not know his vehicle well enough he might as well stay at home. Our weapon was a stock standard 1996 Land Rover Defender 90 packing a whopping 107hp and 265Nm. Yes, it does lack the power of its rivals, but boy were we determined to squeeze out every bit that the old Landy had to offer.
Looking at the assortment of vehicles present on the day, a strong pattern emerged – the older and simpler, the better. Older Toyotas, Isuzus, Mitsubishis, Fords and Land Rovers with a side order of Suzuki Jimnys made up most of the field.
I can understand why most new SUVs never go off-road. Quite frankly, they don’t belong there. You will find it hard to spot a BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne or Merc GLE present on such days. Modern traction control systems cause havoc in the sand as they constantly cut power to wheels which struggle to find grip (which occurs 99% of the time). Unless these “aids” can be switched off completely, you are guaranteed to have a hard time in the soft dunes.
That is why old school 4x4s reign supreme in this regard. A good amount of power, proper ground clearance and diff lock are the main ingredients for success. Anything else is just a nuisance.
After a formal driver’s briefing, groups deflated their tyres to a recommended 0.8bar and headed out in convoy to attempt the multiple dune obstacles on the route. Our little Landy had some serious company. Toyotas and Jeeps fitted to the teeth were there to do business, but we were not showing any signs of performance anxiety.
Momentum is key when traversing a dune. Standard procedure is to carry enough speed as you hit the foot of the dune and keep your foot planted all the while working the steering to find as much grip as possible on your way up. Reaching the crest of the dune is accompanied by applause from bystanders and a massive boost to your ego, while getting stuck on the way up results in a walk of shame as you reverse back down to try again.
The obvious solution is to carry more speed into the dune, but this can come at a price. The obstacles are aptly given names such as “Plastics for Africa” and “Radiator King” as over-eager drivers hit the dunes with too much speed and leave an assortment of body panels in their wake.
Because our Landy was lacking in power, momentum was going to have to do most of the work. This meant bolting for the dunes at silly speeds and hoping physics would do the rest. Thanks to its angular design, you can drive up anything short of a brick wall and because it doesn’t have any plastic body panels, there are no plastic panels to fall off.
This strategy paid off as it overcame (almost) every obstacle presented to it. The only failure was a multi-level dune where the Defender ran out of power halfway up. The only vehicle in our convoy to overcome it was a heavily modified Wrangler, so no shame was felt there.
The day ended with a spectacular sunset over the dunes.
Vehicles left carrying an extra 5kgs of sand and some loose body parts for the unlucky few. Regardless, everyone left with smiles on their faces. One can’t help but admire that, regardless of the terrain and vehicle, a petrolhead is a universal creature. Whether at the race track or deep in the sand, the fun and camaraderie experienced with like-minded individuals adds to the appeal of driving cars at their limits.
Going off-road in a proper 4×4 is something every petrolhead should experience at least once. Just remember to pack a shovel.