Saddle Hill – Chapter 3

[By Johnie Jonker]

[Adapted version published in Leisure Wheels, March 2010]

More Softroader

Rather than ground clearance, a bigger problem turned out to be front overhang and the resultant approach angle, which in the case of pre MY08 Foresters, is poor. As you attack a steepish dune, the bumper scoops up sand and deposits it onto the windscreen. Other than water, it does not run off easily, and using wipers would only scratch the glass. Your vision is often blinded to the extent that the only way out is to stop, wait for the sand to drain away, reverse down, and try again, this time with a more diagonal approach so you don’t hit the dune, but rather glance up it. For this reason a decent bash plate is required, i.e. structural, and not just bling.

What also sometimes helped was to go further back in the convoy, so that the front runners could blunten the approach to the dune somewhat. This did however have mixed results at times, as the sand was by then churned so loose, that traction was poor – bear in mind, no traction control, no LSD/diff-lock, only a front/rear viscous coupling on the Forester. So a purely mechanical drive-train.

Also important is the height the driver side window is wound up to. As the steering wheel is swung from side-to-side in order to gain traction up the slopes – and this was often necessary – the sand is spun through the open window, having you spitting every so often. Not nice.

In terms of the quasi-low-range of the car (1.41 ratio), this was useful to pull away over the sand ridge formed in front of the wheels when stopping, but without it, simply reversing along your own tracks and then moving forward over the hump would have been as easy. Where the low-range did help, was up the dunes.

On some of the optional steep dunes, you arrive at the foot of the dune at 80km/h in 3rd gear, changing down 3/4 of the way up. Due to a sticky second gear, sometimes refusing to go in, the results were more predictable (guaranteed, actually) to select low-range, rather than second gear at this point. This gives a slightly lower ratio than second gear (not on post 2002 Foresters, though – 1.2 reduction only) and did the trick every time. Of course this is only possible if your SUV/softroader has synchromesh low-range selection. Very few – if any – of the other pucker 4x4s in the group could do this. But then, maybe their 2nd gear wasn’t sticky.

Approaching the dunes at speed can be quite daunting, especially since you see mostly sky until the dune flattens out at the top. Spare a thought for your co-driver, who like yourself, is faced with the same uncertainty, but unlike yourself, is not in control of the car, and does not have a steering wheel to hang on to. The next best thing is then to put your hands on the dashboard with your head underneath it. Do not feel insulted when she considers your driving skills (what driving skills?!!) insufficient and rides shotgun with Ramon in UB40, the replenishment Landcruiser pickup that at times lead the convoy. This may not necessarily help though, as after one particularly vigorous waxing up a dune, Don enquired over the radio how my wife was holding up, with Ramon replying: ”She’s busy checking the fuses”.

This behaviour was not uncommon in the group, as after the 2nd day, quite a few companions had forsaken their drivers and remained in the camp, spending the day reading in the lovely winter sun.

Not my wife though. Here’s what she has to say:”My advice as a passenger to this awe inspiring place is NEVER stay at the base and read a book. Push your boundaries and go along. The scenery, the vastness, the sky and sea are magnificent. Nobody or any photo can describe it to you”.

What was to Rosemary more scary and dangerous was the “strafdoppe” (penalty shooters). Not the concept or vileness of the super hot chilli-spiced 3-tot mix this consisted of, but its timing. This was awarded after dinner to anyone who did poorly, anyone who performed flawlessly and everyone in between. By this time of day, being a group of mostly strangers who got along very well from the word go, extensive visiting had taken place by way of socializing during sundowners and dinner. This extra drink or more, although voluntary, was therefore enough to sometimes upset the balance. So you needed to pace yourself.

From peer pressure to tyre pressure: Prior reading and watching off-road technique videos had fearfully convinced me that the tyres were going to come off the rim, especially when deflated to 0.6 bar, which was necessary once to get up a particularly stubborn (optional) dune. In retrospect, I suspect this is a remnant from the days when 4x4s had a combination of small (15”) rims and high profile (80) bakkie tyres. On most recent softroaders the profile is 65 or less (70 on this Forester), allowing much less flex of the sidewall, better retaining the bead seal on the rim. As long as you didn’t drive like a hooligan, popping doughnuts, you were fine. This mishap did not happen to anyone this time round, but if the worst should happen, the tour leader will at any rate have the equipment to get you going again – possibly playing with fire in the process. It goes without saying that you need a full size spare wheel, as a space saver is completely unsuitable.

In terms of tools to take, a tire repair kit would be useful. I did not, so was dependent on a fellow tourist – thanks, Manie – to repair my puncture. Predicting which other spares would be required, would at best be a hit and miss affair, so ignore it and rather think on your feet when stricken.

If your softroader is still intact by the penultimate afternoon, do NOT join the “really difficult dunes” group, rather take the “softy” beach option.

Pretty semi-precious pebbles are being continually replenished by the sea, Agate being especially bountiful. And of course the sea itself is always beautiful. Not swimmable though, being West Coast in winter.

The reason for the above advice is that by day 4, you are quite hyped up about your newfound capabilities and how well it went so far. Going in a group with like-minded guys, without a co-driver gilling to slow you down – and let’s face it guys, this may well have been the saving grace that kept your vehicle in one piece thus far – spells trouble. Research into soccer hooliganism has shown that crowd IQ drops to around 50 – 60. Now 8 people is not exactly a crowd, but be very wary of instant self-appointed motivational speakers telling you: “Yes, you can!”.

A lot of time was spent that evening/night to remove one of the bakkie radiators and repair the crack which was caused when hitting a dune at too high a speed. With all due respect, the repair was effected, the radiator replaced and the occupants arrived safely back in civilization, after which skid plate, bull bar and bumper repair/replacement was to follow.



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