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First Four-by-Four Training Course

To help their clients get the best out of their new 4×4’s, Mitsubishi sponsors a one-day training session at a special track and venue.  So it is that I find myself outside a hanger on Windhoek Farm outside Darling in the Western Cape on a fresh Saturday morning in March.  I’m here to do an introductory 4×4 driving course.  There’s theory all morning, followed by practical training through a few obstacle courses in the afternoon.  My fellow course participants stand chatting in a circle, having coffee.  Introductions follow.  These are Real Men, men who are engineers and printers and machine operators and builders, masters of tough tactile stuff.  There isn’t an interior decorator in sight.  These are Men who have Wives and Women and more and who reek of testosterone and musk and all things male and masculine, even macho.  I could swear one or two are wearing diesel – the fuel – as after-shave.  No place for a metrosexual, this, but I’ll adjust my scarf, deepen my baritone and stand my ground.

Coenie is the course leader.  Coenie has devoted his life to 4x4s.  He has worked for many car manufacturers, but now runs courses and organises trips on 4×4 trails around Southern Africa.  His features betray a life spent in The Great Outdoors and his hands itch for things mechanical.  Coenie tells us that he hasn’t worn a pair of long pants in decades, even in freezing cold.  Neither does it seem that a pair of formal shoes have shod his feet since school.  As I said, this is the realm of Real Men.  We are seated at desks in a corner of the cavernous hanger, course leaflets get handed out and we’re soon into the meat of things.

Coenie says it’s a fine thing we’re here, as research shows that only 7% of 4×4 owners use their cars for what they’re meant, viz. heavy off-roading.  The other 93% use their vehicles only for seeing the Big Five.  The Big Five shopping centres in the bigger cities, that is.  In being here we’re doing the right thing, says Coenie.  4×4 driving will open a whole new world for us.  For example, his company Cederberg 4×4 is organising an outing to the Namib desert over the New Year.  If you want to see in the New Year under desert stars, you can only do that in a 4×4.


The most important thing is to know your car, says Coenie.  Every vehicle is different, you cannot extrapolate the capabilities of one 4×4 to the next.  Furthermore, the car’s dynamics, centre of gravity and capabilities change under various conditions and loads.  Every vehicle has to be properly equipped for off-roading, and the driver needs proper training.  4×4 driving can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Coenie follows the programme.  It gets technical at stages but luckily, I now and again silently confer with the smart Indian guy seated next to me who seems to know what’s cutting.  He mistakenly thought this was the advanced 4×4 course weekend, realised his mistake, but decided to re-do the introductory course seeing he had come all the way.  And here he was, seated right next to me.  Good karma.  Coenie tells us about diff locks.  Do you know what a diff lock is, a d-i-f-f-e-r-e-n-t-i-a-l lock, gentle friends?  Neither did I.  He tells us about centre and rear diff locks, about motoring in different terrains, about stability control, deflating tyres, approach and departure angles, water crossings and how to avoid mud if we can.   In mud, you have to hope for the best as the worst comes anyhow.  He teaches us about water crossings and how to always walk it before you drive it, and not to start our cars should they submerge in water as it’ll finish the engine.  He talks about approach angles and inclines and tipping points and warns us not to ‘over-do it’, but rather to ‘do it over’.  He has other homilies, such as ‘as slow as possible, as fast as necessary’, ‘take the line of least resistance’, ‘always turn towards the slide on a camber’, etc.  He tells us to drive with the window open and the radio off in difficult terrain so you can better hear the car and tells us to use the route with the fewer stops when having a choice, as this is easier on the clutch.  Coenie teaches how to optimally sit in your car, how to hold the steering wheel with your thumbs on the outside and to ensure that your knees are bent, not locked, while driving.  He goes through the accessories to always have with you when in the bush and insists that we always take our spare keys with us.  Most of all, we had to have a good recovery set, and had to know how to use it when the car gets stuck.  He ended off discussing the grading of 4×4 trails and going through some rather technical driving procedures such as the reverse stall incline start.  That’s the one where you reverse with your hand brake on whilst running your accelerator at 1200 revs/minute and controlling your foot brake…  You don’t want to know.

After lunch we tackle the practical part of the course.  The cars get divided into two groups.  One group tackles the donga, the hippo holes and the jagged rock bed.  The other does the balancing exercise on a giant see-saw and a controlled ascent and descent down a hillock followed by a sand bed.  I look at the obstacle course and my heart sinks at putting my new car through this.  But this is it.  The donga looks deep, the way to do it is to approach it slowly and at an angle.  The hippo holes are quite bad.  They are a set of deep parallel staggered holes through which you must drive.  Upon seeing this, some of the Macho Men quiver and blanch, yeah, whereas your metrosexual glosses over it, calm as you know me with my fresh facial from Urban Man in Greenpoint and all.  In the hippo holes, two of your wheels can be in the air at the same time.  In this situation, stepping on the accelerator in normal driving mode makes the tyres with least resistance spin, the ones in the air, not much of a help.  To literally dig yourself out of this hole, dear friends, you must shift to 4-wheel low gear mode and engage the rear… ‘diff’ lock.  Yes!  This locks the car’s wheels so that they get the same power, and you extricate yourself slowly from the morass.  It’s quite hair-raising the first time, but I get the hang of it after the third passage.  Here’s the thing:  When in a bind, engage the ‘diff’ lock.

We then do a water crossing and a 25-degree angled camber drive, followed by ploughing through a sand pit.  My compact Mitsubishi ‘Mouse-in-a-Slipper’ does well.  The steeper part of the sand pit proves difficult to get up without deflating one’s tyres – only one car out of ten manages.  Ouch.  In the last exercise of the day, we practise the tricky reverse stall incline start on a rock face.  As I said, technical stuff this.  Apply foot brake – hand brake up – select reverse… foot on accelerator… must control the speed lest you tip over, etc.  You have to talk to yourself while doing this.  Despite having driven for decades, I am nowhere near the level of competence to carry this out, and I must admit, cheated a bit.

My new car is so different from the zippy sports car I used to drive for fifteen years.  But the 4×4 bug has bitten me.  I’m getting into it.  To this end I’ve enrolled on a bush mechanic’s course and am signing up for a few 4×4 trips.  I’ve also read my car manual from cover to cover and have discussed technicalities with knowledgeable friends.  I’ve even been watching 4×4 YouTube videos and have acquired accessories from specialist shops.  There’s much to learn.  On the practical side, I’ve done three extensive gravel trips thus far this year.  With a bit of luck, I may just see in the New Year under the stars in the Namib Desert.