IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST challenging sections. A long, steep, rutted descent. So steep that Don, in his little Suzuki Jeep, said he wasn’t going down, because of the chance he’d flip over end-for-end! That didn’t inspire massive amounts of confidence in me, so I politely declined. A couple of others had a go, though, and it was impressive seeing their trucks lurch down the hill in a semi-controlled fall!
The other day, while satisfying my inner petrol-head, I was perusing the auto section of the paper and came across an article listing the top 10 selling vehicles in New Zealand. It made for some interesting, and slightly surprising, reading. Of the 10 vehicles listed, five were utes (including the top two) three were SUVs, and only two were your traditional car. While some of the utes sold were two-wheel-drive, the majority were four. And, according to my in-depth research, the majority of those four-wheel-drives never actually get to do what they’re made for: driving, with all four wheels engaged, off-road.
Now, let me be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with owning a 4WD vehicle that never gets put into four-wheel-drive. Aside from their off-road capability, part of the attraction of owning a 4WD ute or SUV is (amongst other things) their perceived safety, higher seating position, more spacious interior, greater towing capacity … and let’s not forget their looks! I’m sure some men feel more ‘manly’ driving around in a jacked-up 4×4 with large tyres and shiny bling! And of course, utes are incredibly practical vehicles for tradies and the like who need to move lots of gear around.
One of the problems for many 4WD owners is that a large proportion of them live in cities. And, in a concrete metropolis, there are few opportunities to engage four-by-four – apart from the odd slippery boat ramp, or extra-high curb in central Auckland.
But even if you’re a city-dwelling 4WD owner, all is not lost! If you’ve got a hankering to see what your truck can really do, there is a way you can satisfy your curiosity. And satisfy it in a way that’s safe for you and your occupants, safe for your vehicle, and safe from the potential embarrassment of getting stuck on your back lawn as you attempt four-wheeling for the first time.
Enter the four-wheel-drive club …
These clubs are found in every city throughout the country and cater for 4WD owners of all types – from the highly modified, competition truck owners, who love nothing more than dropping their vehicle into a sloppy mud bog, to the shiny ‘Remuera Tractor’ owners, who aren’t too keen on getting their Range Rover scratched and dinged, but enjoy taking them on easy-going off-road adventures.
Over the years I’ve owned a fair few 4WDs and had a fair few off-road adventures – from heading into remote hunting spots to exploring the South Island back-country. These days, aside from driving around the country checking beehives (which does involve a lot of four-wheel-driving), it’s been a while since I’ve done it for funsies.
So, when I heard the Auckland 4WD Club had organised a trip into the crown-owned Waiuku Forest (on the northern side of the Waikato River mouth), I was keen to tag along. It was graded an ‘intermediate’ trip – suitable for all ‘standard’ four-wheel-drives, and judging by their online description below, it sounded like a whole lot of fun …
The conditions in the forest include easy tracks with firm gravel, as well as dirt and soft sandy tracks with small sections of slippery clay in the winter. There are some additional challenging options for the more adventurous, but they can all be easily bypassed.
My kids were keen starters – so a plan was put in motion. Unfortunately, my wife and eldest daughter had something else on, so there were just four of us left to take on the forest … and me to load the ute and organise the kids.
After an early start and our much-anticipated stop at Macca’s for breakfast (it doesn’t take a lot to get small-town kids excited!) we met up with the Auckland 4WD Club at the end of Wilson Rd South, in the northern block of the Waiuku Forest. It was just after 9am, and around 40 four-wheel-drive vehicles were ready to ‘lock-into-low!’ From shiny new SUVs to hard-core competition trucks, and everything in-between, it was a ‘who’s who’ of 4WDs!
The club leaders organised us into four groups of around 10 vehicles – each group heading to a different part of the forest. Our leader, Don, was a keen four-wheeler and drove a nice-looking, modified Suzuki. He was joined by a couple of other experienced club members, their vehicles well-prepped in case any hapless driver needed rescuing. Along with me and my three, there were other families, couples, young guys, older folk, teenagers and kids – all proof that the people who love four-wheeling are just as diverse as the vehicles!
Anyway, after a quick safety briefing from Don, we hopped into our trucks and began exploring the forest proper. We followed Don, snaking and weaving between the trees, while keeping both the vehicle in front and at back in our view to ensure no one took a wrong turn. It was mostly easy-going to start with – following forestry roads, old skid tracks and the like. But it didn’t take long before we met our first challenge: There are some additional challenging options for the more adventurous …
One of the great things about a well-organised trip like this is that it’s been designed for all types of vehicles and drivers. So when we came across a steep, off-cambered, muddy hole – with a real possibility of scratching or denting a panel – those of us with more ‘shiny’ vehicles, or vehicles without good protection, could opt out and let the more hardcore trucks have a crack. And have a crack they did! A couple of well set-up vehicles made it through unscathed, while another had to be winched out with some new scuffs to the paintwork and a blown tyre. The rest of us drove past the offending hole with our trucks (and pride) still intact!
We had a couple of fun hill-climbs that challenged truck and driver – all easily negotiated in reverse if you couldn’t make it up going forward! The pine forest was planted (for the most part) on sand dunes, and the sand base was pretty forgiving on the vehicles, unlike the rocks in some parts of the country.
Here’s a quick tip:
If you drop your tyre pressures (down to around 20 psi) when on sand, you significantly increase the size of your tyre’s footprint, enabling your vehicle to climb up on top of the sand, floating on it, rather than digging in. Just don’t forget to pump them up again when back on the black top!
We stopped for lunch in the middle of the forest in an area with a bunch of hill-climb challenges. Under the watchful eye of Don and a couple of the club’s experienced drivers, we all had a go at the different tracks – in-between eating sandwiches. At least, we would’ve been eating sandwiches if I’d brought them. Unfortunately, because I’d organised the trip, and my lovely wife stayed at home, me and the kids survived the day on a small packet of crackers and a bottle of water … “Good one Dad!”
Anyway, we continued our adventure late into the afternoon – winding our way through the trees, up and over obstacles, and into a few mud holes (to the delight of my passengers!) It was great fun – lots of yelling and screaming (mainly from my daughter!) and plenty of laughter – and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. With darkness encroaching and and our tummies rumbling loudly, it was time to make our way out of the forest …
… and find some food.
IF YOU OWN A 4WD AND WOULD LIKE TO TAKE IT OFF-ROAD IN RELATIVE SAFETY AND HAVE A GREAT TIME DOING IT – CHECK OUT AUCKLAND 4WD CLUB AT WWW.AUCKLAND4WD.ORG.NZ. IF YOU LIVE IN ANOTHER PART OF THE COUNTRY, CHECK OUT WWW.NZFWDA.ORG.NZ/CLUBS/ – THERE’S BOUND TO BE A CLUB NEAR YOU!