Well that was a busy week. the Van went in to have its final tweaks on Monday, then Tuesday we made our way up to Eastnor Castle in beautiful Herefordshire for the rearranged Driver Training at the Land Rover Experience. We arrived at our campsite late in the day. We were staying at the friendly and hospitable Marlbank Inn, that conveniently has a few pitches in its grounds. The journey up was the first chance to test the retro-fit cruise control. I had a lot of trouble trying to get it to engage at first. It needs coaxing on, and sometimes several attempts. It also drops out on occasions – with no clear reason why (even on the level). I still haven’t managed to get the increase and decrease speed to work without it dropping out too! It sounds like a bit of a disaster doesn’t it? – But in effect it achieves what I need, a chance to break from holding the hand-controls in a flexed position for hours at a time. All in all its probably OK – we have a few more runs planned over the next few days so this will tell for sure. The tail-lift has been adjusted to a perfect speed too.
Anyway, on the Wednesday we drove the few miles to Land Rover Experience , ‘The Bothy’ on the Eastnor Castle Estate, arriving in good time at 0830. We were greeted at the gate and directed to parking and reception. We were then met by our instructor for the next couple of days, the incredibly knowledgeable Mike Chambers. As it happens Mike has much experience of working in North and West Africa, and in his role as Lead Instructor, was able to offer us much information on overlanding as well as actual driving skills. His style was subtle, but we quickly realised that there wasn’t very much that he said that wouldn’t be useful. I noted in my diary, “started 0900, now 0920 and have already learnt loads, and that’s before the slides have started!”
The two day syllabus was based on the course that Land Rover Experience provide for RGS Driver Training. It started with an outline of 4×4 theory and the effects of differential locks and loss of traction. The slides covered approach, cresting and departure angles (the latter being particularly relevant to the Azalai). This helped to lay the foundations towards developing a clear understanding of the principles of four wheel drive systems and how to exploit these to make safe, efficient and reliable progress both on-road and off-road. The syllabus also included ground reading and obstacle recognition skills and daily checks and maintenance requirements. The whole thing is underpinned by Land Rover’s Fragile Earth Policy. As you can see its a lot to cover in two days – but cover it we did. A humbling lesson in what can be learned and what there is yet to learn.
The bulk of the course is spent behind the wheel. With the delegates doing most of the driving. Land Rover Experience had arranged for Lynx hand-controls to be fitted to the automatic Discovery 4 that was our vehicle for the two days. However I couldn’t really get on with these due to the degree of dexterity needed; given my paralysed right hand. Not a problem as there is enough room in the Disco to revert to left foot driving, unlike in the Defender!
The terrain lends itself nicely to mud and ruts. Mike explained how “ruts are your friend” – and with that counter-intuitive statement off we went. We both baulked as (in a bid to make the vehicle behave as much like our vehicle as possible) without any of the terrain electronic programmes switched-on, the car was manoeuvred around various tracks and obstacles. Nothing can prepare you for your first cross-slope traverse when you find yourself looking down at your front-passenger. Yet by day 2 it all seemed rather normal. Much of the expedition prep seems to involve an adjustment of norms!
The other lesson that we took with us was how terrain might easily and erroneously be considered rather benign, until it bites you. I think we are much more likely to carefully assess the path ahead now. Mike explained his ’3G’s’ approach in considering likely risks.”Grip, Gravity and God Willing” The second two come into play when you lose the first. Gravity is a reliable constant and God Willing accounts for everything else. The pace was as slow as you need – if that makes sense, which means that the sense of exhilaration comes not from any speed of passage, but entirely from the sense of achievement and realisation of the capabilities of the vehicles if used sensitively and sympathetically.
I’m not going to be able to recount everything that we covered – but I do know now that we have significantly reduced the chances of self-inflicted vehicle damage and of getting stuck. We are also better prepared to appraise recovery options should we get stuck. One thing we did determine was that we are not going to take a Hi-Lift jack. Mike and Alf (of Eastnor’s ‘Alf’s Hole’ fame) went through the pros and (dangerous) cons of this versatile piece of kit – but on reflection we decided it was not for us. (Note how in one of the photos Rachel has to put her head in line with the jack handle’s arc to operate it – potentially fatal if the ratchet doesn’t engage properly) We think we are covered by the shovel, some lorry ratchet straps, strops and shackles, jate rings and a thermos (according to Mike this last piece of equipment is the most essential!)
All I can say is if you are planning any off road – expedition or domestic, do book your self some Land Rover Experience Training. It really was fantastically good fun and incredibly rewarding – intellectually as much as anything else. The Land Rover Experience centres really are a super resource.
Thanks to the IPF, Ed Dawes at the Fast Track Agency and Land Rover Experience – for what was probably the most useful training we’ve completed to date – Special thanks to Mike Chambers, Lead Instructor and absolutely brilliant trainer.
We’ll give Mike the last word, “Ask yourself is it safe to fail? If so try. If you do fail, recover yourself and then try something different. If you can’t afford to fail, steer carefully and precisely – or take another route.” Useful for life as well as Land Rovering methinks.