The author's heart-in-the-mouth moment negotiating a deep donga.

Trust. Can you trust someone you’ve barely known for two hours? Can you trust him not to damage the car you’ve owned for just two months? If I have time, those are questions I might thinking of asking. If I think rationally, I shouldn’t be doing this.

None of that enters my head. All I care about is what Alan Pepper’s hands are doing. Slightly this way. Whoa. A little bit the other. Stop. Now full lock. Then a gesture which says come, but very, very slowly.

As I ease my foot off the brake, I feel the nose of the car start to plunge down over the edge of what looks like an impossibly high ledge. As the front wheels head down, the left back wheel compresses right up to the shock absorber stops and I feel everything tilt as the back right wheel heads skywards. The angle gets more outrageous as I inch forward and down and I feel as though I am being shoved into the door panel, squashed into a painful angle. It feels as though the car is about to tip over (Alan says later that the angle we’re negotiating is only about 25 degrees and it would have to get to least 50 before my Subaru would fall over, because it has a low centre of gravity, thanks to its horizontally-opposed engine, which sits low in the chassis).

Importance of a good guide

Then, as slowly as it starts, it is all over. The front wheels reach the bottom and first the left and then the right back wheels follow. I have not so much as scraped a millimetre of my Forester and that is as much down to Alan as it is to the vehicle itself. The experience proves what Alan – the 4x4 guru at Bass Lake Adventures, just outside Henly-on-Klip, south of Joburg – says is the most important accessory for an off-road vehicle… a good guide.

“You would be surprised how far you can go if you know how to read the terrain and if you get out and walk it – and get someone to guide you across.”

The obstacle we have just done proves Alan’s point about the correct line. It is impossible for the Foresters and other Subarus in our group to just drive straight down, even with their better-than-average ground clearance of 220mm.

But by putting the front and back wheels in the correct places as shown by a guide, you can increase the ground clearance of your vehicle dramatically in certain areas at a time, allowing it to conquer seemingly impossible gullies.

Wheel placement

On another obstacle, Alan shows that by placing one front wheel exactly along a ridge, the vehicles can clear a massive gully on one side and a hole on the other. He tells us that, when he did the “recce” for the Subaru Owners’ Day event, he used a Subaru Outback station-wagon, which is a lot more capable offroad than it looks.

When he arrived at the obstacle, a group of hardcore off-roaders in Jeeps with 36-inch wheels, disconnected sway bars and crawler gear low range were muscling their way up the huge gully.

“They asked me what I was doing there. I said: ‘I am going up – when you get out of my way.’ When they got to the top they parked and came back to look. They were laughing but not for long… the Outback got up easily.”

My wife is at the wheel of our car to tackle this obstacle and my heart is in my mouth. A Forester before her slipped off the ridge (driver not following Alan’s instructions exactly) and ground its nose. It got out – thanks to the efficacy of the Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD, but I didn’t fancy seeing our new car following suit.

My wife, though, followed orders exactly and got up easily. She was amazed – both at the fact she had done it and of the ability of the car.

Alan says women are better at taking instruction when it comes to 4x4 courses. “They listen and they don’t try and beat everything into submission like some men do.”

Patience and understanding

Off-roading, according to Alan, is all about patience and about understanding. “If the obstacle is too difficult or if you don’t have the confidence, then don’t do it.”

He points to a notorious hill climb at Bass Lake where many a Camel Man has gone at it like a bull at a gate – and got stuck halfway up and then rolled back into the bush and trees. “Have a look,” says Alan, “You’ll see quite a few bits of mirrors and indicator lenses in that grass there…”

Alan is a former commercial diver who set up one of the first hobby dive schools in the country in the 1980s. He then included 4x4 instructing, based on his decades of experience in the field.

Bass Lake Adventures offers a diving venue (in the disused quarry) as well as a number of adrenalin options. You can drive the 4x4 sections yourself or go for a training course in your own vehicle or in one which Alan can supply.

If you have an all-wheel-drive “softroader” or even a full-on hardcore 4x4, spending time with Alan is well worth it. In our case, my wife and I come away even more amazed about how good a Forester is offroad. It will give us even more confidence when we are travelling off the beaten track and the road suddenly gets rough. I also take a Ford Kuga over the course (yes I have to do some obstacles twice – the ones which scare my wife) and come away impressed with its off-road ability. I also learn a few things from Alan which are invaluable.

Some handy tips

Firstly, no one is taught – either by on or off-road instructors – that you should “drive your rear wheels”. Alan says that under-standing how your rear axle will track is invaluable when off-roading (so many people cut corners short and get into trouble), as well as in doing things like parking in a shopping centre car park.

His clear explanations also help me to understand the value of having all wheels driven all the time – particularly on gravel roads. This is for additional stability at high speeds. He notes that Subarus are some of the best in the business when it comes to stability on dirt. That I know, though...

But, if you have invested your money in an AWD, then it is a good idea to learn how it performs – what it can, and more importantly, cannot do – in a safe environment with someone who knows what he is doing. And it’s good fun, too.

Website: www.basslake.co.za

Saturday Star

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