One could be forgiven for thinking four-wheel driving is an easy and inexpensive way to travel. Most drivers have taken their cars onto unsealed roads at some point and labelled it ‘off roading’. But there’s a lot more to four-wheel driving than jumping in a big car and driving away from the blacktop – and it’s certainly not cheap.
So it was time I kicked off my heels, strapped on my driving boots and joined a group of new Toyota Land Cruiser Club (Victoria) (TLCCV) members for the club’s driver awareness course. With limited four-wheel driving experience, the program was the perfect opportunity to see just what happens on a 4X4 beginners course and how much this fun-loving city chick could learn in just one weekend. And as I discovered, there was plenty!
The TLCCV course was conducted in two parts – a three hour theory night and a two day jaunt at the club’s property in Yarck, about two hours north-east of Melbourne. It was like learning to drive all over again, only there’s a lot more to four-wheel driving than ‘green means go’ and ‘red means stop’.
For those with little or no four-wheel driving experience, the terminology sounds like a foreign language – cross axle, diff lock, LSD, wind up, full-time, part-time, hubs, ruts, corrugations, and whoop-de-doos. Huh? A ‘Dummies’ Guide to Four-Wheel Driving’ would have come in handy. Thankfully, by the end of theory night, the lingo started to make sense.
This first night acted as a prelude to jumping behind the wheel of a 4WD, and it gave a good indication of what to expect when venturing off the beaten track. The mechanics of the vehicle and the driving methods for hill descents and ascents, crossing slopes, various terrains and recoveries were all included in the session. So, with our brains overloaded with off-road know-how, it was time to put the new information into practice.
Six vehicles attended the practical weekend at Yarck, including our press car, a Toyota FJ Cruiser. Driving into the property didn’t look too overwhelming and the tracks looked simple – unsealed roads and no sign of rain, a beginner’s dream.
After spending the night on the property, it was rise and shine early Saturday for a quick briefing followed by vehicle inspections. A Prado and a Troopie were driven onto a hoist so we could check out the underside – a view of a vehicle most of the attendants had never seen before. Uh-huh, so the wheels are connected to the axles which are connected to the drivetrain. Got it! Following a demonstration of a winch and strap recovery, it was time to ‘hit the slopes’.
Standing at the bottom looking up at a steep hill is quite daunting for the inexperienced. One by one, each vehicle conquered the mounds, and confidence levels grew. Most students even attempted the frightening Whoopsey, an optional steep, rutted track. Then it was my turn. As the FJ’s nose protruded over the hill, the ground disappeared for what felt like hours, and my heart sunk with it. I started to wonder if I was actually driving Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – at least, I hoped I was because that car could fly. But what goes up must come down and I knew at any moment the nose of my car was about to dive.
There was a lot to think about and my brain went through the process – don’t get your wheels stuck in a rut, try to keep the car as level as possible, break with your left foot, accelerate slowly with your right foot, don’t over steer, diff locks, low range. Don’t… lose… control. Help! Bang, the wheels hit the ground and then, before I could go through the list again, it was over. It wasn’t too frightening after all. Let’s go again.
Suddenly, having conquered Yarck’s Everest, everyone was eager to move on to the following challenges – ruts, steep hills, whoop-de-doos, bog holes, water crossings and sand driving. Four-wheel driving was not as simple as many of us had believed, but thankfully, with the aid of our experienced instructors, nothing throughout the day was too overwhelmingly frightening – well, that was until Mother Nature played her hand.
Sunday morning greeted us with the sound of rain and thunder, fused with flashes of lightning. The wet weather dampened our excitement as the roads became more like Slip ‘n Slides than beginner 4WD tracks. This was both a blessing and a curse, as it hardened the sand but cut up the tracks.
The eternal optimist in me figured it was a good opportunity to improve my skills in different weather conditions. The coward in me disagreed.
The wet weather certainly threw a spanner in the works. The tracks were slippery, steering was harder and if we thought the slopes were difficult before, well driving them in the mud was a whole new ball game. When losing control of a vehicle, our instinct is to brake, but everything you ever learnt goes out the window when wet weather arrives. Word of the wise, if you are driving downhill in slippery terrain, do not brake. Use your gears to slow down the car because when those wheels lose traction and lock, you’re in for one hell of a ride.
By the end of the weekend, the member who asked: “What do you do about the thing, when the other thingy gets caught in that, you know, thing?” was talking like a pro, and the lady whose hands were shaking with fear every time they called her name started discussing future trips to the Red Centre. Those of us who walked in with no idea drove away still inexperienced – and maybe a little bit hesitant – but more confident and excited to travel the roads ahead.
Not only is a four-wheel drive training course an opportunity to meet some new, like-minded people – and have a lot of fun on a maintained course – but it teaches (almost) everything you need to know about off roading. Even when Mother Nature unleashes her wrath.
For more on the Toyota Land Cruiser Club’s driver training programs, go to TLCCV.com.au.
This article was originally published in 4X4 Australia July 2014.