Off-road, on track
In Europe, you don't hear people talk about off-roading at the weekend or while they're on holiday. Never in my experience in the UK, at any rate. The 4WDs I used to see were hardly ever mud-splattered, having been used to drive into town (Guildford) or along the (sealed roads) of the North Downs. The nearest most of them ever got to off-road was a few metres of gravel driveway. And tradies drive white vans, not utes.
I came to dislike the image of 4WDs. They looked pretentious, especially used in the wealthy inner suburbs of London for taking one posh offspring to his or her private school just a few kilometres from home. 'Gas-guzzling Chelsea tractors' were the most hated road-users.
You can drive off road in places, on 'greenlanes', which are tracks or trails – officially byways or unclassified roads. Only six per cent of these unsurfaced rights of way are open to vehicles, and ramblers groups would like to see that figure reduced to zero*. This conflict is symptomatic of a nation where too many people compete for space on too little land and is an unthinkable notion in Australia, the big country. If 4WDrivers don't relish the ire of stick-wielding ramblers, there are 'pay and play' sites, where they can practise mud-plugging, rock-crawling and hill-climbing to their heart's content without any road rules to worry about.
When we first came to live in Australia and had to choose a car, I was persuaded that, when necessary, we could hire a 4WD, and, for driving the long distances we intended to cover, an Audi saloon would be more comfortable, economical and environmentally friendly – not necessarily in that order of importance. As we ticked off more and more of the easily accessible must-see places, I was occasionally heard to mutter, 'We can't go there because the road's unsealed'. The last time that happened was on the way home from the Bunya Mountains last November. When I plan a route, I like to return a different way from the outward journey. On this occasion, I was thwarted by 70-80 kilometres of the unsealed, annoyingly ridged Kilcoy-Murgon Road. I was not happy. I had also been convinced, on the two or three times we had hired a 4WD or taken an organised trip in one, that they really can reach the parts other vehicles simply cannot.
Unbeknownst to me, my friend started to do the research, and, to cut the proverbial long story short, we now have a 4WD. At a stroke, our driving has become more expensive and less environmentally friendly. We can alter our driving style (softer breaking, slower acceleration, driving at optimum speed) and week-to-week running practices (not using aircon, buying better-quality fuel, keeping up maintenance) in order to reduce these effects. A huge positive, on the other hand, is the fact that we have entered a new phase of our great Australian adventure.
Being sensible, pragmatic people, we decided that, prior to a visit to Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island, we should take some instruction in sand driving. Now, I have to tell you that I never thought the day would dawn when I would be part of a 4WD convoy headed for soft-sand practice along the surf beach at Bribie Island early one beautiful Sunday morning. It was not a matter of swallowing pride as much as confessing that things I'd always said were highly unlikely to happen, had: like eating scallops; or going shopping in shorts.
The course we did was very helpful. I now know all about washouts and troughs; appropriate tyre pressures; assessing and crossing a creek; maintaining momentum in soft sand; high tide-low tide 'windows'; wheelbase and track; the three depths of embedment; 'shovel, tunnel, unload'; rocking; max tracks; anchor points; snatch recovery; the two-metre rule; bow shackles; and impressed current corrosion protection. Impressive, eh?
There's no stopping us now.