A lesson learned

Could this have happened to you?  As told to me by a now rather more experienced offroader:

“We were staying at a farm with some friends. On Sunday we decided to drive into the State Forest for a little exploring. After a pleasant hour-long bushwalk we got back to the vehicles around 4pm and decided to drive back ‘the other way’, which looked simple on the map. Our vehicles were a Pajero and a Discovery II. It had been raining quite a bit and the track was muddy but not too bad until we took a left turn where we thought the map indicated.

Then it quickly got steep, rutted and really slippery – low range 1st still felt out of control in the gluey mud; frequent bursts of throttle required to keep it straight but of course then you’re going faster than you want to.

We got to a level bit and stopped but my friend had by this stage gone sideways and was stuck against a log. After half an hour of track building with rocks and sticks the Disco was back on the track so we continued to descend with a few alarming moments. By this stage it was dark.

After dropping about 300m, according to the altimeter in the Paj, we got to a ‘T’ where the right hand track had a sign saying ‘private property’ and the left hand track looked next to non-existent. We tried it with the Discovery in front but after a few hundred metres came to a stop with a large tree across the track. So we reversed back to the t-junction (no fun in the dark with trees and hidden rocks on both sides of a slippery track) and then tried to get back up the track we came down. But the Disco only got about twenty metres up before sliding to a halt; no traction and hard to see the sides of the track which has rocks and logs in hidden thick vegetation on both sides.

I did not bother trying in the Pajero as I assumed it would be the same. We left tyres at road pressures so they would “cut through” to the firm ground under the mud. I suggested that it would be safer for us and the vehicles to spend the night rather than attempting a bad climb in the dark. After a walk down the ‘private property’ track with a torch showed even worse conditions we all agreed that we should stay put until morning. Of course mobile phones did not work and we had only had a packet of chips, an apple, some muesli bars, a few litres of water for food. We had no substantial warm things apart from a few picnic rugs, the clothes we were in and a large number of green cloth shopping bags.

Attempts to light a fire were thwarted by another shower of rain and a very uncomfortable night was had by all. The temperature dropped to 5C and we had to start the engines and use the heater for a few minutes every now and again. It did not rain any more in the night and next morning we had another go. After a few attempts and some more track building we got back to the top, and out. Nobody was hurt and there was no damage apart from a lot of mud to clean.”

With the benefit of 20/20 vision, here are the lessons:

Hard stuff first. Experienced 4WDers will smile at the mention of the “four o’clock track”. That’s the one that is legendary for landing you in trouble, because there’s no contingency time and people are tired, complacent and focused elsewhere.

Be sure you can return. Never drive down an unknown track if you’re not absolutely sure you can drive back up. If the track deteriorates, get out and check it. Reverse out if necessary, or send one vehicle down first – this is where UHF radios are handy for communication.

Get trained. In this situation lower tyre pressures, say 20psi, would have been ideal and may well have got them out. But they were relying on the myth of “high pressures cut through”. Lower tyre pressures would have mean less need for “frequent bursts of throttle”, and in any case you should be gentle with the controls in slippery conditions. They knew enough to use low range, but were they revving hard in first low, spinning wheels, when perhaps second or third low would have meant less wheelspin and seen them up the hill? Did the Disco have its centre diff locked?

Prepare. Always have communications gear, some survival blankets, water and a first-aid kit. It’s cheap and doesn’t take up much room. A tyre pressure gauge would have been handy too.

Know when to quit. One very good call was staying the night. Inexperienced people desperately maneuvering 4WDs at night in slippery conditions can easily lead to injuries. However, the vehicles provide shelter and, with sufficient fuel (more preparation!) warmth. While hungry and thirsty they weren’t in any danger when inside the cars.

4WD exploration is a lot of fun, but it is amazing how quickly that fun turns to panic when the vehicle can’t move. With the proper preparation and skills incidents like this can be recovered from, or avoided entirely.


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Robert Pepper

Automotive journalist, 4WD owner, driver trainer, author and photographer.