Readers Write

Seems you can easily modify the 4×4, but you can’t modify driver behaviour

In the interests of full declaration, I must confess to only being a partial rev head and 4×4 nut. 

I’d rather be a chardonnay sipper at a beautiful spot only accessible by a 4×4 than spending the whole day winching up the side of a mountain to get there. And as I get older, fatter and balder my desire for extremes diminishes.

And I have never owned a modified 4×4.  I have owned three Suzuki Vitaras, a Ford Escape, a Subaru Forester, Sa Subaru Outback and a Nissan Navara. All standard setups with the biggest changes being AT tyres, nudge bars, lights and radios. But with these vehicles I have seen a stack of stuff that you couldn’t see with a daily driver sedan. Unless it’s a company car of course.

I started off in my three-door Vitara going places that I was told I shouldn’t go unless in convoy, but always seemed to come out again without issue. Sure, I got stuck a few times but I always retreated before it got to the point of no return. It’s amazing what a shovel, rocks and sticks can do.

I then took a giant leap and joined the All-Wheel Drive Club of Victoria [now defunct, nearest equivalent is the Subaru Club of Victoria – Ed].  Now, I am not really a club guy but I really enjoyed trips with the club.  Really good people, mostly families just wanting to see the world in their X-Trails, RAV-4s, Suzukis, CRVs (well a CRV is really a 2 wheel drive wagon but it got let in) and even a Territory. The great thing about the club was taking the vehicles to places you wouldn’t think an AWD could go and learning new driving techniques for off road driving.

The consistent reoccurring response from the jacked-up-4WD brigade was. “How’d ya get that up here?”. The response was “We drove up the track”. As we sat eating our cucumber sandwiches and letting the kids run around the area getting filthy, the real off road trucks would race off like we were carrying the plague. And often we would see them later in the day on another track. To their disbelief.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We couldn’t go up the serious tracks. Matter of fact some of the vehicles struggled with water channel humps on moderate tracks. You know, the big humps you go over as you head up a track. 

I remember there was this one time when the CR-V in front of me stopped after going over the hump on quite a steep track.  It then rolled back into it. After waiting a while I got out and asked the driver what was going on. “It won’t go,” he said.  “Show me,”  I replied. He pressed the accelerator and it revved and not much happened.  “Put it in gear,” I said.  “It’s an auto,”  He said. “Boot it,” I said.  Boot it he did and it didn’t move. I nearly fell over laughing but managed to hold it in based on the look on his face.  A few of us got behind him and with some serious people power it started moving again.

I then jumped into my Vitara. Popped over the hump in low-range second-gear and kept going. The more off road driving I did, the more I learned.  Amazing that.  Then I took a big step. I went and got some serious 4WD driver learning at the Werribee training ground. Well Yee Ha. Now that was fun.  I did bend the Escape though. Oh well, its only money.

Now since the “ye olde” days, I have done a stack of driving on 4×4 tracks around the Victorian high country in my AWDs and the 4x4s. I’ve traveled down the Oodanata Track, then into Dalhousie (the bones are still shaking from that one), the Bungle Bungles, Kakadu, Gibb River road and surrounds, Tanami, Birdsville and Big Red. So I’ve done a bit.  Not as much as many but enough to have a vague idea of what I am doing.

Now the point of all the pontification is to outline the fact that you don’t need a jacked-up LandCruiser with ninety-nine inch muddies and a four-foot lift kit to see the world. And also to outline one very well kept secret and bloody simple fact. Here it is. Wait for it. Don’t get too excited but this might change the world for you.

Driver skill is more important than the vehicle.

Yes, folks. There it is. Shocking isn’t it. Now I know us blokes like everything big and shiny but it’s more important to know how to use what you have rather than worry about the size of it.

If you want to go climbing up the side of mountains you will need your lift kit, muddies and definitely a winch. I would also throw in some snatch straps and Maxtrax just for fun. But still more important is knowledge.

Why do I say this. Well, I am just getting tired of seeing jacked up vehicles on 4×4 shows beat the crap out of tracks needlessly. Or, when I am out in the bush myself watching people deliberately take the part of the track that means they just chew it up for the next driver. What is the 4WD Victoria Mantra “Tread Lightly”

Here’s a classic case in point.

Many moons ago I was doing the Oodnadata, Plenty Highway and Birdsville tracks in my Ford Escape with a mate when we decided to go out and do Big Red at sunset. No, I didn’t take it across the Simpson Desert. That Escape drank more fuel than an alcoholic and I would have needed a 10,000-litre fuel tanker following me to do that.

So out we went. My mate (who will remain nameless) in his Defender TD5 lined up Big Red. And drove up. No drama. Very little wheel spin. Just drove up. Boring!

I then lined up the Escape. Tyres down to 20 PSI. 150kW of raw power and 250Nm of torque ready and up I went. NOT. Got about half way and just wheel spun. Stopped straight away. Back down.  Lowered tyres to 16 PSI. And up I went. NOT.

My mate got on the radio and told me to lower my tyres to 11 PSI. Not likely I politely replied. I was worried about peeling my tyres off. So dropped them to 13 PSI. Lined up the mighty Escape and up I went. YES. Up she went. A bit of wheel spin but pretty easy.

We parked the car. The kids got out and we all marvelled at the view. That was until Larry, Moe and Curly showed up. Larry driving the Land Cruiser lined up Big Red and strolled to the top.  Nice. Moe lined up his Patrol and after a couple of goes popped up as well. Then came Curly.

Now, Curly had a brand new 2009 Pajero. Very pretty. Lots of power and driving assistance. So, Curly lines up the Pajero and up he comes. About half way. Backs up a little and tries again. And again, And again, And again. And again. I can’t remember how many goes he had, but in the end he was backing up about 300 meters.

Needless to say the track was being destroyed. My kids came over and asked what was happening.  “Dinner and a show,” I replied. I told my mate, who knows a lot more about off-road driving then me, to get on the radio and tell this guy to lower his tyre pressure and choose the right gear. Eventually, he got on the radio and gave the guy some tips. A whole stack about turning off this, setting this to that, as well as what gear to use, tyre pressures etc.

But did Curly listen? NO. He just screwed up the track a bit more and then announced to his mates he couldn’t make it and was going to take the long way around to the other side.

At this stage I jumped on the radio. “Hey Pajero driver,” I said. “I drove a 2005 Ford Escape up here.  Lower your tyre pressure and use second low and it will make it easy”.

The car stopped for about 30 seconds. Thinking. Thinking. Reversed back and drove off. Not into the sunset.

So, all you off-road newbies. And some of you off-road oldies. Make sure you spend some time and money on education before you go out and spend lots of money on mods and lots of time recovering yourself. Why. Because all of us off-roaders without the lift kits and muddies can’t get through once you have buggered the track. Thanks.

And also.  Tread lightly.


  • Andrew Riles

    Great article….my first fourby was a first gen Grand Vitara with some light modifications (rock sliders, stock size ATs and 35mm lift at rear) and I regularly suprised myself and others as to how far I could go offroad…

  • Shannon Mulholland

    This reminds me if a recent day trip to toolangi with my local 4wd club. We were on our last track of the day (not much help track from memory), with around 10 in our convoy (mostly new drivers, who had never been 4wding) when a group of others pushed past as they didn’t want to wait. We caught up to this group at the second to last bog with one of thier patrols stuck, reving its guts out, waiting for a snatch from their mate. Our group trundeled up and we all got out and checked lines through the area, we decided to take the same line as they did. This other group came down the hill to “watch” only to be very disappointed that two very stock, late model pajeros crawled through the exact same spot that they got stuck. There was no reving the guts out, just good driving and proper set ups (lowered tyre pressure, good spotter’s) that got our group through.

  • Peter Sapiej

    Great article Geoff. I certainly had some fun and adventure in my xtrail in the AWD club. My most memorable trips were the completion of tom groggin and davies plain tracks in the north east of Vic. The xtrail was recently written off by someone backing into it and forcing it into the kerb whilst it was parked. Replaced it with a series 1 PA Challenger with some payout cash to spare for a suspension replacement / upgrade. I hope all is good in your world.

  • Benn0

    Nice article, I often come across people online asking what 4wd they should buy for a bit of beach and dirt track driving. So many keyboard warriors insist only a landcruiser/patrol, or a ‘real 4wd’ with locking diifs will do. Just isn’t the case anymore, just need to know how to drive it.

  • mAllo

    Brilliant! 🙂

  • JaiNormosone

    The second-most important point of all was made in the article: Driver skill counts for more than purse vehicle. This fact is proven time and again with people in sports cars who cannot take corners or people who throw bags of cash at a Holden ute and cannot drive in a straight line. Another perfect example is the who buys an R1/CBR1000RR/Hyabusa/etc and rides in t-shirt & shorts but think they can out-ride everyone else because they have a $2,000 replica Mick Doohan helmet on a $10 head.
    So many think that their skills are beyond contestation and that the vehicle is where the modifications are needed.
    So many people are so very, very wrong so much of the time.

    Think back to when Jack Absolom drove the Simpson in a Morris Major (if i recall the story correctly) while those in more ‘suitable’ vehicles couldn’t keep up.

  • trackdaze

    Experience is about knowing you coukd always use more experience.

  • Anthony Johns

    A fantastic read, driver education and training is a vital part of trip preparation. Also being involved in the All Wheel Drive Club in it’s latter years I gained the confidence in my xtrail to participate in and lead trips to local forests and National parks. Since these days iv’e continued exploring further areas with a close friend from the previous club. Recently upgraded to a 4wd, now just searching for a club or group who cater for the touring market with a relative stock vehicle without the appetite for extremely steep, muddy rutted tracks.

  • Steve Bekkers

    well said, maybe old mate “Pajero driver” forgot to bring a compressor?

  • Territory46

    Good points, Geoff. I had a similar experience a few years ago at Big Red. Went out there with a mate, he in his stock standard Isuzu D-Max, me in my stock-standard Discovery Td5. We sat at the bottom of the hill for a while as a number of vehicles came down from crossing the Simpson, then a group of 5 “modified” 4WDs (Nissans and Toyos) from Vic raced up behind us and attempted to climb the dune. Lots of sand spraying and little forward momentum. Then, while they sat around to try to work out how to get up the dune both my mate and I just drove sedately up to the top and took in the view! When we left to return to Birdsville they were still trying to get to the top!

Geoff Lines

Geoff Lines

AWDs and 4WDs. All good to me.