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Issue 3 - Off-road trip

Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Off-road trip

You're used to enjoying the stability and safety of your own 4x4 on tarmac, but have you ever considered its ability off-road? Jon Walsh headed up hill and down valley to find out...Photography: Peter Burn

We took a slow drive along the tarmac lane then turned right onto a rough rock-strewn gravel track. “So this is off-roading,” we thought, slipping the Mitsubishi L200 pickup truck into low-ratio four-wheel drive mode before bouncing out of another water-laden pothole. Kinnaird House disappeared into the corner of the rear view mirror as our train of off-road virgins reached the hill crest. In the lead car was devout Yorkshireman Brian Hartley, a renowned 4x4 and off-road guru. He didn’t bother indicating as he turned right off the track and onto the heather. That’d kick-in road rage on the school run, but not today.

Is he going to pull over and have a chat about what we’re doing? Is this the ‘how to drive off-road’ bit? No, we carried on, past the sheep enjoying their mineral feeds and past a slightly bemused and bearded shepherd steering his quad-bike clear of these ‘daft city folk’.

We popped up over another crest and the vast beauty of the 9000-acre Kinnaird Estate unfolded in front of us. After covering some seriously rough ground at the breakneck speed of almost 6mph we stopped, looking up a pretty steep slope. Brian gathered us around advised us on how we could make it to the top. He didn’t instruct, he gave us the options, which route to take, which sort of rocks to avoid and which to drive over, which grass we don’t want to slip on, what speed may be needed and how much bottle we need to summon up. We needed to call on a little confidence in our cars too. From then on it was up to us. We walked the line and looked at where we’d end up at the top, checking for somewhere safe to stop.

One by one, the Mitsubishis nailed it up a gradient we’d have difficulty walking up. No, scratch that – scuffling up. Selecting second gear, we covered the run-up at pace, then hit the slope. Such was the angle, the windscreen was now filled with sky and the only way to see exactly where we were going was to lean right out of the side window and check for our intended target. Save a couple of wheel spins and scrabbles, the 4x4s made it with ease. As we gathered together in a group and looked down the freshly conquered slope, we realised exactly what was happening: we’d learned about driving a new type of road. A road which didn’t actually exist – until we made it. “This off-roading lark” we agreed, “… it’s not bad at all, is it?” We’d all burst our off-road cherry and we were hungry for more.

“This is real freestyle off-roading” Brian was vocal in our triumph “From here, we want to get up there” he stretched and pointed to a small spec on a hilltop a couple of miles away. It was uphill all the way, save a few streams and troughs and, more importantly, there were no tracks. The Kinnaird Estate was huge and we were hoping to see most of it from up there. “There’s no right way and there’s no wrong way. If you get there, it was one of the right ways. That’s the beauty of freestyle,” Brian told us. “And it was down to the driver.” These cars can make it across this terrain with ease, but only if they’re handled properly – that’s where the driver and training comes into play.

We learnt some key tips from Brian through the course of the day. Most notable is the description of ‘lush green grass’: “That’s bad stuff.” It seems that ‘lush green’ means it’s well watered, usually the water is still there, meaning bog and hellborn marshland. There’s no traction on marshland and a sinking feeling will follow should you head for it. Just behind Brian stood en expanse of the soggy foe waiting to be crossed.

A mixture of speed and deftness on the accelerator would take us over it. As soon as the wheels spin, we’d need to be quick and lift off the throttle a little. If not, the tyres would spin faster and dig-in up to the axles. It wasn’t all plain sailing as a couple got truly stuck. The special kinetic rope (which sits alongside the winch and a set of ladders to cross streams in the off-road toolbox) was hooked up and stretched between two cars. With a bit of throttle, the sound of a cork springing from a prize bottle of red (or single malt) signalled the release.

It’s a pretty relaxed affair. As one unfortunate found out, not knowing someone has slipped the vehicle out of low-ratio four-wheel drive and into useless two-wheel drive can be very funny for the onlookers. Especially when said driver is about to attempt a full pelt assault across a sodden bog. Lucky the rope is warm.

We dismounted and almost at once sniffed the air …

“What’s that strange smell? Ah, fresh air.” I plucked the flask of Kinnaird’s home brew ‘Heather Heater’ from my inside pocket, drew more of that strange fresh air and took a gulp. All the time, taking in the view across the loch and its tranquility, the untouched land and us – a motley crew of raw off-roaders in vehicles we were seeing very differently. We’d tested the Mitsubishi Shogun and L200 on the road and they’ve coped well. Not the greatest road car in the world, but they get you from A to B and you enjoy the experience. Now they seem to be able to cross any terrain from A through to B via everything but sea.

I looked at the mileometer and then my watch – swift calculation followed and I couldn’t help blurting out “Erm, we’ve only covered five miles in four hours. That’s 1.25 miles per hour!” We could have walked it quicker, so what’s the point?

Brian, palms up, asked the same question. “What is the point? What’s the point in going to the moon? What’s the point in going to the North Pole? What’s the point in anything? Because we can.” You have to admire his retort, but underlying that reasoning is the feeling people get when they cross virgin territory. The pure never-seen-a-car, never-even-seen-a-footprint, heather-strewn, undulating land was there for the taking. That’s where we come in, stage left. Our terra firma of heather, rocks, mud, streams and the occasional water-logged bog might be far removed from the school run, but it’s the spiritual habitat of the 4x4. We’d survived our first real cross-country attempt with a hunger to do it some more.

Undoubtedly, the scenery amplified the whole experience. Where else in the UK can we claim to have so much lush undulating territory? Brian summed it up in his Yorkshire lilt: “I’m doing most of my work up here now. It’s the best place to be. Not too busy, since not everyone has discovered it. The land is proper.”

You could do worse than getting in touch with these guys.

David Heaton
All over the UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1264 710080
This is the recognised association linking all knowledgeable, well-trained and fully insured off-road driving centres. Check out the web site for full details.

Graham Clarke
The Steading, Dunkeld House, Dunkeld, Perthshire PH8 0HX
Tel: 01350 728700
Take your pick from using your own vehicle or their specially prepared kit. If you want to give your vehicle a stretch, the fun starts for as little as £25 an hour. You can make your way across the 280-acre site laid out ready to explore. Costs top out at £150 for a whole day’s mud-plugging with your own vehicle or £275 in a supplied 4x4. If you go for a whole day of fun you’ll also enjoy an inclusive light lunch at nearby Hilton Dunkeld House Hotel.

Walter Alexander
Glentarkie, Strathmiglo, Fife, KY14 7RU
15 minutes from Perth and Kinross, 10 minutes from the M90. 1 hour from Edinburgh or Glasgow
Tel: +44 (0) 1337 860528
They prefer you to use the school Land Rovers to tackle this course. The hilltop site affords stunning views, but you’ll not be taking them in. Glance away from such obstacles as the Oblivion, Devil’s Toilet Bowel or the Terminator for more than a second and you could be, literally, stuck in the mud. These names tag the ‘severe’ off-road obstacles, but you could easily be distracted by the array of local wildlife or view down the Tay Valley.

Drew Paton
Auchleand Farm, Wigtown, Dumfries & Galloway DG8 9TQ
Tel: +44 (0) 1988 402213
Drew’s off-road experience is more of a course to trek round than a free-for-all. The course is set in 40 acres, although there’s 500 acres overall to play with on the quad bikes, should the 4x4s not prove enough. It’s preferred that you use your own vehicles for this one.

Mike Norton
Rothiemurchus Estate, Aviemore
Alvie Dalraddy Estate, south of Aviemore
Tel: Rothiemurchus: +44 (0) 1479 812 345
Alvie Dalraddy: +44 (0) 1479 810330
HV run the courses at bothestates. Prices kick off at £35 per person for an hour, minimum two people. You can arrange to bring your own 4x4 if you like.

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