Every year for the last few decades 4x4 enthusiasts have loaded up their gear and headed towards Rust de Winter to challenge their off-roading and mental prowess.
Now in its 42nd year and sponsored by Toyota for the 30th consecutive year, it’s become a landmark event on the calendar for family and friends, whether in massively modified rigs or stock standard daily drives.
My partner and I competed for the first time last year in a Hilux courtesy of Toyota and were this year allocated a Fortuner.
Staying in caravans arranged in a laager with outstanding catering and hospitality, my partner jumped at the opportunity when I asked if she wanted to compete again because, you know. Glamping, not in a rooftop tent with only solar power, batteries and bush toilets.
Although there’s a really competitive side to the Toyota Rust de Winter Jamboree, it’s not just about the 4x4 challenges and prizes, it's a really fun weekend away with family and friends.
The camping area has child minders and dedicated areas for the kids to keep themselves occupied, there are stalls selling a variety of goods and at the gymkhana with 10 different obstacles if you have kids in the car they have challenges too.
And of course in true South African style when the action is over fires are lit, drinks are poured, meat is braaied and conversations are had about the day's activities.
Before the sun is up there’s a traditional Fish Eagle call over the loudspeakers to rouse participants and after a shower and hearty breakfast, I pushed the start button on the 2.8 GD-6 4x4 Fortuner and lined up across the road with our media colleagues.
The gymkhana has 10 obstacles with a time limit and at each one you start with 100 points losing 10 points for hitting the tape, a rollback or stopping for longer than four seconds.
Most obstacles also have a fun activity for the navigator like puzzle building, tyre and ring throwing over a pole or traffic cone, transporting a bucket of water and placing tennis balls over strategically placed pegs all done while driving.
Our first obstacle was a steep descent into a donga with an axle twister and into a horseshoe bend filled with muddy water. Oh, there was also a “Barbie” option that skipped the mud but I had aced it last year against all odds so what could go wrong?
With the rear difflock engaged I stormed into the bend using all of the diesel engine’s 150kW and 500Nm of torque but managed about 10 metres before all four wheels were churning mud at an alarming rate and promptly sunk down to the chassis.
A recovery was called for, my legs were sucked down to my knees in the mud and our score sheet showed zero points. Not a great start.
In my defence though for the rest of the day not even big modified V8s with huge tyres could manage to complete the obstacle.
Still, there were nine more to make up the shaky start and after a shower and a reset we carefully continued on our way.
While competitors were waiting at obstacles we carefully analysed what each challenge held and saw what worked and what didn’t including where to engage and disengage the difflock and the most important being that three minutes was more than enough time so slow and steady was the order of the day, giving my partner enough time to finish a puzzle, balance four marbles each in its own hole, throw rings or balance a bucket of water without spilling.
Slowly we were rebuilding our tally and when we got to the challenge involving pulling a sleigh with the navigator on the back through thick mud that only three cars had completed by the afternoon we all decided that our standard Hiluxes and Fortuners wouldn’t have a chance.
With some luck and an enthusiastic but very nervous navigator we aced the speed section so things were looking up.
A fantastically prepared evening meal, lots of banter and a tough but ultimately disappointing loss by the Springboks to Ireland rounded off a tiring but satisfying day.
As they say: A bad day on a 4x4 route beats a good day at the office.
Day two saw us compete on a mountain route along some rocky river beds, steep dusty inclines and tight corners using all of the Fortuner’s 29 degree approach angle, 25 degree departure angle and 279mm of ground clearance.
Along the way there were stops to challenge our craniums with general knowledge, some 30 seconds shenanigans, flora identification and observation highlights.
Here credit must go to the Fortuner doing the type of off-roading that I prefer with lots of technical driving and natural obstacles that makes you carefully select lines and avoid panel damage or getting stuck.
For a large SUV It’s easy to manoeuvre and stock standard sans the running boards very capable in tricky situations.
Also, in 33 degree heat the air conditioning works a treat and driving along the highway it goes along with its six-speed automatic gearbox unfettered while dodgy farm roads are easily dispatched.
There’s a reason why it’s South Africa’s top selling family SUV.
Heading back to camp we reckoned we may have been in with a chance, at least in the top three despite the dubious start but what mattered more was a blerry lekker sunny weekend with friends (foe on the track), new acquaintances, testing your 4x4 skills, communication between driver and navigator and the overall competitive but ultimately friendly rivalry between more than 150 competitors.
Winning, they say, isn’t everything but I can tell you… queue drum roll and cymbals, it’s a damn fine feeling.