“4×4: an IQ test for the driver”

land_rover_3When I was in my early 20s I spent a year of my life driving down through Africa – from Manchester to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania – in a Series 3 Land Rover. The Land Rover was more than just a means of transport – it was a home that carried with it all the provisions necessary for long stretches away from civilisation during crossings of desert or jungles where shops were nowhere to be seen.

On an expedition like this the Land Rover becomes a key focus of the trip – with it you can go almost anywhere and carry all you need to get there. But, if it breaks down, or you get stuck, it becomes nothing more than a big metal box with far more stuff in it than you can carry.

land_rover_1There is also a psychological aspect to travelling in this fashion: the car is like a cocoon, a safety zone from the unfamiliar, that creates (a sometimes welcome!) barrier between you and what is beyond the windscreen… whether this is a good or bad thing will depend on what you want from the experience.

There are some interesting parallels between expedition travel by car and the ultralight backpacking approach:

Heavy loads require heavy duty carriers:

Expedition travel with a vehicle means you can bring in more ‘stuff’ (which is good), but a lot of the ‘stuff’ you need to bring with you is for the vehicle itself (spare parts, tools, recovery gear, fuel etc) and it all mounts up until the car springs are groaning under the sheer weight of all this ‘stuff’ you’ve got. As a result you need a heavy duty vehicle that can cope with this heavy load.

In the same way, those who carry in heavy camping equipment need a more rugged (and heavier) rucksack than can cope with the load.  Equally, if you are carrying a heavy rucksack you will probably need to use stout walking boots to give your feet and ankles more support – with a lighter load you can get away with light shoes.

The temptation to over spec

We are all prone to over-spec the equipment we need – a Land Rover isn’t necessary for an expedition that, in reality, never leaves the tarmac (a camper van will suffice).  I’ve come across overlanders here in Asia in super-kitted out Land Rovers who have never gone properly off-road.  Why? –  because you can cross Asia without going off road (did no-one tell them?), but maybe it’s just as well, as their cars are generally so overloaded that they’d break down under the strain of any real punishment off road.

In the same way, military spec equipment isn’t really necessary for a day walk into the jungle on a well used trail.

land_rover_4The ‘what-if?’ factor

Expedition planning  evokes the ‘what-if?’ factor: what if the car breaks down and there’s no garage around? What if I get stuck in the mud? Or have to cross a river where there’s no bridge?  Before you know it, the car is kitted out like a camel-trophy Land Rover and loaded down with everything but the kitchen sink (sometimes with that as well!).

The same ‘what-if’ fears plague the jungle trekker. What if my lighter runs out of fuel? What if my tarp rips? What if I run out of food? …and this is where a little junglecraft can avoid the need to carry all those spares-of-a-spare in the knowledge that, even without all this gear, you can still light a fire, find water or food and build a shelter.  Junglecraft skills give you the confidence to travel a little lighter.

The best off roaders I came across here in Malaysia are masters of bush mechanics and find ingenious ways to fix vehicles that have broken down in the jungle – a broken fuel pump? Rig up a jerry can on the roof and gravity feed the fuel. Radiator leak?  – time to break out the eggs. They carry less spare parts simply because they have the skills to repair a vehicle with less.

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The lighter you travel the further you can go.

The more you overload a vehicle the more it will struggle off-road – not only will the weight of the car sink it into the mud , but the weight of the vehicle will strain suspension and shocks and force the engine to work harder (creating overheating issues).  A stripped down Suzuki Jeep (what is called the Jimney over here) can outperform a kitted out (but overloaded) Land Rover, simply because it is so much lighter.

land_rover_5The same is true of the jungle trekker with a 50 kilo back vs his companion who is carrying a 7 kilo pack….the latter can go further and will tire less.

A scrambler can go where a 4X4 cannot; a mountain bike can cross obstacles that the scrambler can’t (you can simply pick the bike up); you can climb a hill that would defeat you on a mountain bike…but of course, like every rule, there is an exception and that is elephants who weigh the most and go pretty much anywhere they like but are not, unfortunately, a mode of transport that is available to the majority of us.

So, one of the points I am trying to get across in this video is that, before you spend a huge amount of money on an off-road vehicle, ask yourself whether that is really the way you want to travel.  Is your real interest off-roading or is it being out in the jungle and getting ‘close to nature’?

None of which is to say that I have anything against off-roaders (after all I am one myself) and it certainly has a lot of advantages…but these days I prefer to walk.

Nor do I have much time for the argument from bushcraft ‘snobs’ who complain that those who camp next to their cars are in any way camping in an inferior fashion…as far as I am concerned everyone is free to camp exactly the way they like and there is no ‘way’ that is more right than the next. The fact that people get out into the jungle and develop an appreciation for the outdoors is good enough for me and how they choose to do so is entirely up to them.

Which, finally, brings us to the subject of damage to the environment and all the flack that off roaders get from the green crowd.  I have met off roaders who have absolutely no respect for the environment nor for the other people around them – but then I have  also met backpackers with an equally disrespectful attitude to nature.  On the other hand I’ve met off roaders who are passionate about saving the forest.  It is not the activity that determines a person’s attitude to nature (unless they’re poachers!) and the damage done to the forest by off-roaders is much less than people think.

But let me put this into context…

As I write this the haze outside my window is so bad that visibility is less than a km. If I go outside my eyes will smart and I’ll be coughing in minutes. What is going on?

In Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra a massive slash-and-burn operation is in progress that has resulted in forest fires that are now out of control.

Land was being cleared of the shrubbery that was left (the large trees had already been cut down) in preparation for more of the rain forest’s arch nemesis that is the palm oil plantation….the easiest way to do this is to pour petrol on the ground and set it alight (which is, apparently, the Indonesian definition of an ‘accidental forest fire’). The result is more eco devastation and clouds of smoke that have choked Singapore and Malaysia. Perhaps we deserve to choke and suffer alongside nature for allowing this to go on, year-after-year, for nearly two decades.

My point? It’s all relative…any damage done by off roaders is as nothing compared to the wholesale destruction of the forest by palm oil companies. What the forests here needs are allies and friends who will hopefully (one day?) lobby the governments on behalf of the forests….and off roaders should form part of that lobby group as they too have a vested interest in protecting the forest.

The other point about off-roading is that off-roaders (despite what the name implies) need roads – they’re not charging through virgin rain forest but are, instead, using disused roads left by the timber companies. The damage, if you like, has already been done and the culprits were the timber companies. These disused roads present a far greater eco-problem than the off-roaders in that they create easy access for illegal poachers.  The more they’re used by recreational visitors (be they off roaders or trekkers) the less easy it is for the poachers to operate with impunity.

So, while the outdoor community factionalises and debates which is the right ‘way’ to enjoy the forests, the forests themselves are literally being burnt down.

And here’s the thing, if you are a trekker who doesn’t like off-roaders being in the vicinity, the solution is easy: simply trek up a hill, somewhere without a path, and camp there…

The off roaders might want to follow you… but they can’t.

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