Saddle Hill – Chapter 4

[By Johnie Jonker] 

[Adapted version published in Leisure Wheels, March 2010]

But hang on ….


Before rushing off and booking a place on the next desert tour for your softroader – Don was of the opinion that had it not been for the good rain season prior to the tour – and I do not know how good or how long prior – the Forester would not have been as successful, due to the otherwise more powdery texture of the sand. 

Chuffed Platbekpadda owner

Being a novice, I cannot tell to what extent this may vary. What was observed was that at no point the sand appeared wet/damp, and on many dune slip faces the sand “roared”, which I understood to mean a very dry aerated composition. How about an expert explanation, anyone? 


In conclusion, the qualities a softroader should therefore have to be able to negotiate this terrain – intensively experienced over 5 days – in order of importance: 

  • Ground clearance: In this case 195mm after tyre deflation to 0.8 bar was sufficient.
  • Structural bash plate that can bounce you off the sand and be used as a sled.
  • Short front overhang, rear not as important. The sand is soft, so an extended towbar will just make a dent in it and not slow you down.
  • Full-size spare wheel, tyre repair kit and a compressor.
  • Calibrated tyre gauge. After 3 unsuccessful attempts by one of the – up to that point – very capable drivers to get up a dune, all gathered round to try and puzzle out why this was the case. It was discovered that although his gauge indicated a tyre pressure of 0.8bar, another showed the tyres were still pumped to 1.1bar. Deflation solved the problem. It remains a mystery how he managed to get as far as he did. Possibly because it was a Land Rover?
  • Good power to mass ratio. No judgement can be made whether petrol or diesel is better in the case of a softroader – as all the other vehicles were either 4×4 bakkies or hardened SUVs – but the 80kW TD double-cabs probably got stuck most often. In the case of the Forester (92kW, <1500kg), petrol worked well due to the ability to get the revs up and thus save on gear changes. Three of the other vehicles – both petrol and diesel – did not have the acceleration to get up one dune from a narrow stretch of beach, having to take the easy way back along it.
  • Be familiar with your vehicle. Some very capable 4x4s failed to clear obstacles on the first attempt due to the driver not knowing how to – or that he should – lock the centre differential, or whether he should be in low-range or not. Also know where the engine power band is and at what point down changes should be made to keep it there.
  • Off-road training course. No, not really, unless it was in a similar real-life environment. Training courses at facilities like Gerotek is of little use as the only sand training done there is through a 100m tunnel of level Kalahari sand, teaching stopping/starting. The flow of the dune technique – approach, enter, maintain momentum, down-change, swing steering wheel, tap off, crest and maintain drive to the wheels on the slip face – cannot be instructed there.


What is useful though, is to learn what inclines your car can handle and at what speed they have to be entered in which gear. The Forester was one of the few cars in the Gerotek training group which attempted and managed the 70% incline at the facility. 

  • Low range – not at all.
  • Subsequently learnt (expensively) from a softroader with traction control – ESP and HDC OFF. The ESP ON/OFF option is generally standard on most SUVs, but the HDC only on a select few. To have the brakes kicking in every time you just touch the pedal on a slip face, and then maintaining that speed until you accelerate again, makes for a jerky ABS-induced creaking/groaning push/pull driving experience, devoid of any flow.
  • Also subsequently learned from the same digital softroader above, on this terrain a supple suspension is advantageous in terms of passenger longevity. Not too soft, as this will bounce through as you get to the foot of the dune – hence the bash plate – though still preferable to a performance/handling suspension setup, as it will be difficult to maintain your speed with the continuous pummelling caused by a stiff suspension.
  • Pack lightly. Once at the camp, the car will be emptied of luggage and only contain the occupants and daily refreshments for the remainder of the trip. But you have to get in and out through the dunes with the car fully loaded. Once again, the Forester is the only softroader I know of which maintains its ride height at the rear due to the self-levelling suspension – and it works!. So ensure that you pack/distribute the luggage evenly to limit the amount of rear end sag and the resultant loss in ground clearance.


Even though this tour was a first-time sand driving experience for most drivers, having to initially be instructed the techniques thereof, all could apply them successfully towards the end. 

However, where some had to learn it by rote and then react mechanically to subsequent inputs, others were more attuned to their vehicles, having a feel for what was returned by way of acceleration, vibration, attitude, noise, steering feedback, etc and adapting to this. Here’s to hoping you are one of the latter. 

Thanks, Don! 

Team Subaru…. as they were then



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