PEOPLE are naturally competitive, so it’s little wonder that, like explorers of old, four-wheel drivers tend to lay claim to finding things first, crossing things first, climbing things first and descending into things first.
The only thing I ever did first when four-wheel driving was to be part of a team that busted through the scrub in the Gulf of Carpentaria and rediscovered one of Carruthers and Wells’ 1886 mile markers, but all credit for that experience must go to Ron Moon, who did all the planning for the trip and led the expedition.
Of course, if a ‘doing it first’ achievement is out of the question, then you can always lay claim to something else, such as travelling the farthest, climbing the highest or descending the deepest depths.
Now, I’ve done some pretty big trips in my time, but I’m certain a three-day drive from Mount Isa to Sydney or a another three-day run from Sydney to Perth is not nearly as far as many of you lot have travelled (although, the drive south was in a Land Rover Defender and the drive west was in a Frontera, so both seemed much farther than they were).
The longest I’ve gone without seeing another vehicle off-road is a week or so along the Madigan Line in the Simpson Desert. But when it comes to four-wheel driving at altitude, I’ll definitely have a few of you licked.
How does a short-of-breath 4500m sound? Yep, at this altitude, breathing can be a bit of a task, especially if you’ve driven to these lofty heights in a relatively short period of time, not allowing your body to acclimatise.
And so it was back in 2006, when I started feeling quite dizzy after visiting San Vicente, Bolivia, a town of 104 hardy souls who live at an altitude of 4502m. So dizzy, in fact, that I had to hand over the keys of the Rangie I was driving to current 4X4 Editor Matt Raudonikis and slip into the relative safety of the passenger’s seat.
The interesting thing about San Vicente is that it’s supposedly where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in 1908; although, on hearing this, William A Pinkerton dismissed it as ‘fake news’ and the Pinkerton Detective Agency never called off its search for the two outlaws.
San Vicente truly is an inhospitable place, with the high altitude, strong winds, barren landscape and sub-zero temperatures combining to make it somewhat less than comfortable; it’s little wonder it has such a modest population. I kept a close eye on the altimeter as we left town, counting down the metres as we returned to a more palatable sub-4000m.
I’m sure that some of you can lay claim to having driven higher than 4500m. According to that wonderful source of all things true, Wikipedia, there are several drivable roads that run through passes higher than 5500m, most of which are between India and Tibet. But if you’ve not four-wheeled outside of Australia, you’re at least 2500m shy of experiencing a seriously high-altitude track.
As for driving at low altitudes, I’ve gone just about as deep as you can go on land. In 2007, I joined a few mates on a drive through Death Valley in California. At its lowest point, Death Valley drops to an impressive 86m below sea level.
“Wait!” I here you say. “I’ve driven lower than that.” Well hang on. So have I.
Back in 2000, I drove down near the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan at an altitude of 430m below sea level. As the Dead Sea Depression is the lowest place on earth, I’m pretty certain no one has driven a four-wheel drive lower than I have … at least on land.