Offroad driving techniques Content:
Off-road driving is a bit like piloting an aircraft: regardless of how big and heavy it is, almost anyone can fly one provided the flight path is straight and level. However, it is when changes in direction, or landings, or emergencies such as snowed-under runways come into play that things get tricky, if not impossible to handle and so it is with off-road driving as well.
Many drivers have driven their 4WD SUV’s on gravel roads and some may even have had to negotiate small mud puddles and/or sand patches and the like, and while this constitutes a sort of off-road driving, it is similar to flying an aircraft straight and level. Serious off-road driving equates to successfully landing a 400-ton Boeing 747 in a gale force cross wind, and in the dark too. Nevertheless, just as pilots learn to land 747’s in gale force cross winds, so can average drivers learn to become expert off-road drivers. All it requires is dedication, a 4WD suitable vehicle, some free time, and lots and lots of practice.
However, this article is only an introduction to a series of articles about off-road driving and the techniques that will (for the most part) prevent 4WD vehicles getting stuck in sand and/or mud, or getting hung up on rocks or other obstacles, or even worse, being swept away in the flash floods which Southern Africa, or most of Africa for that matter, is famous for. However, if the worst came to the worst and a 4WD was stuck, these articles will teach inexperienced off-road drivers how to get out of holes without breaking anything. Other articles in this series will more fully deal with off-road driving in sand and/or mud, how to approach rocks, and how best to cope with ruts, grass, snow, water crossings, and sand dunes, among other seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Nonetheless, some 4WD vehicles are better suited to the extreme off-road conditions of Africa than others and so for the purposes of defining a 4WD vehicle that can survive a Cape to Cairo off-road trip without suffering lasting damage, this article will exclude the handling characteristics, durability, and off-road capabilities of all luxury SUV and crossover type vehicles, regardless of their advertising hype, or where they were made.
There are many good reasons why this type of vehicle is not considered “proper” off-road vehicles by seasoned off road drivers; among them are the facts that these vehicles generally do not have low range gear sets, that their suspensions do not have sufficient travel, and that they have no, or a very limited load carrying capacity, all of which are indispensable features on a proper 4×4. While there are other, equally compelling reasons, these are sufficient to exclude all SUV’s and crossovers.
However, the aim of these articles is not to bash SUV’s: these sometime-4WD vehicles fill an important market niche, but they are just not suitable for the kind of serious off-road driving that Southern Africa, or the rest of Africa offers. The serious off-road driver in Africa is dependent on his 4WD vehicle to get him to his destination; in Africa, there are frequently no repair facilities within several hundred kms of any given spot on the map, but worse, the bad or non-existing roads are for the most part just waiting to destroy the delicate suspensions of soft SUV’s.
Nevertheless, there are some notable exceptions to the no-SUV’s-in-Africa rule if one discounts as a requirement the capacity to carry up to a ton of fuel, water, recovery equipment, tools and spares, camping equipment, food, and other miscellaneous survival equipment.
While some Toyota, Mitsubishi and particularly Range Rover models have the ability to go where most other proper 4WD vehicles routinely go, and might perhaps even survive a Cape to Cairo trip through the worst off-road conditions in Africa, these vehicles have a distinct advantage over conventional off-road trucks in that they do not have to carry the same loads as trucks, and this being the case, their proponents might be tempted to argue that there is no advantage since SUV’s are generally heavy, but then, so are off-road trucks that are sometimes also required to tow heavy off-road trailers in addition to their own loads.
Towing is one area in which SUV’s cannot compete with proper 4WD vehicles; while they are generally able to successfully tow caravans and bush trailers on good dirt roads, their electronic driving aids are for the most part not programmed to deal with the extreme off-road conditions of Southern Africa when they are towing heavy off-road trailers.
However, every rule has exceptions, but even on SUV’s with dedicated settings for extreme off-road conditions, like on some Range Rover and Mitsubishi models, brute force might not be enough to haul a 750 kg (or sometimes heavier) off-road trailer through long stretches of thick mud or sand: brute force needs to balanced by durability, which soft SUV’s do not have a lot of, particularly in the harsh off-road conditions of Africa. And even more so if the SUV in question has a CVT transmission, which is a hybrid between an automatic and a manual transmission in which the best qualities of both got lost in the translation; this type of transmission was simply not designed to be able to cope with extreme loads and conditions, and should not be used for anything else but carting the weekly garden refuse to the local dump.
The first rule of off-road driving through Africa is not about seeing who gets there first. Instead, it is about getting there in one piece by using off-road driving skill, the intelligent and effective use of the power and electronic driving aids of a modern 4WD, by observing basic safety rules and practices, but above all, consideration for the environment by not deviating from existing roads and tracks, no matter how bad they are. For example, apart from the fact that taking a short cut over some dessert areas leaves tyre tracks that will often persist for decades, indiscriminate dessert driving frequently destroys micro-ecosystems that are sometimes centuries old, such as lichens and entire populations of small (sometimes microscopic), succulent plants.
As a case in point, the authorities in South Africa banned beach driving because of the wholesale destruction to ecosystems and the breeding spots of marine creatures such as turtles and crabs by the large numbers of shore anglers using 4×4 vehicles to get to remote fishing spots.
But for all that, aficionados of powerful luxury SUV’s might be tempted to prove a point by attempting an off-road trip through Africa, but it must be stated that while going up and down the Sani Pass in Lesotho on heated leather seats is one thing, traversing the Trans-African Highway, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is something else altogether: this section of the “highway” network has degenerated into water logged bogs and swamps that can swallow entire 18 wheeled trucks, and the only reason proper 4WD vehicles almost always make it through this section is because they were designed to do just that- handle the worst off-road conditions that Africa has to offer, which luxury SUV’s are not.