That time I got it all wrong...

It was time to face facts.

It was time for our beloved Range Rover to go. The list of jobs needed to get it in a state I was happy with was getting too long, it was starting to get tatty inside and out from the sort of usage it was getting. With other numerous ‘project’ cars I needed something that was reliable and I could just service twice a year. Out of all the vehicles it made most sense for this to be the 4x4, so the Rangie had to go.

WARNING! This is long and wordy with not so many happy snaps, if you are bored easily move along...

But what to replace it with? Friends had their opinions, I had a budget, some of which I really wanted to use for stuff on the other cars. I was keen to do another season of motorsport in my M3, and that was going nowhere after doing this

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at our local track trying to keep up with this

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[Incidentally, the Exige was driven by an ex-pat American who lived in Darwin (hence the plates) and was in Adelaide to compete at the event being held at the track the next day, he had just driven from Queensland where he had been competing at a track there, after driving there from Darwin. He was then to drive back to Darwin from Adelaide. A breezy 5000 miles round trip, no AC, no radio, R-spec tyres, and no padding on the seats in the Exige.]

Good LandCruisers and Patrols were up near the top of my budget. Could I go another Land Rover? D2’s were in the right price range, I asked a mate in the industry to find out what was thought about them. The answers that came back were not encouraging, the advice was at all costs find the money for a D3, which I had but you guessed it, it was right at the top of the budget... I decided to think outside the box, Ssangyong? Honda MDX? Subaru Outback? I was trying to convince myself I didn’t need ‘proper’ 4wd drive capability, there isn’t much difficult 4wding in South Australia anyway (this is true), but these guys were a little bit too soft.

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Mitsubishi Pajero. This was still classed mostly as a proper 4wd, alright it had independent suspension all round, but it had been that way for years now and it still got coverage in the 4wd media, it must be at least half decent off road right? How many times had Mitsubishi won the WRC and Dakar? Lots. Japanese reliability too. Most importantly significantly cheaper like for like than the Cruiser/Patrol. Sorted.

I found a decent looking Paj at a used car lot. I had a good look over and under, it seemed a straight and honest car that someone had thrown a few dollars at, at some point. I had LPG fitted to the Range Rover and it made that just about viable as an everyday proposition, the Pajero had the more expensive LPG injection already fitted. It was missing it’s service history file, but i could see evidence of it being serviced, my mate came and had a look as well for a second opinion. We agreed a change over price with the Rangie, the deal was done and away I drove.

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It was pretty much a full year before I managed to do a trip with the Pajero, a combination of a busy year at work and a couple of major problems with the new truck. In it’s defence (and mine!), these were both a consequence of having the LPG on it, the Rangies under-stressed and uncomplicated V8 never seemed bothered which fuel it was on, the Mitsi V6 was a different story.

We eventually managed to get it packed and head out for an easy trip south, down through the Coorong to the Limestone Coast, spending most of our time in the pretty coastal escape town of Robe. I was planning a couple of light off road detours on the way down and having a crack at the Robe to Beachport track while there. It was just going to be a seaside get away with a bit of light exploration thrown in.

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You can just shoot down the main roads to Robe, but as usual I had plotted a cross country route, down through Strathalbyn, then a short car ferry ride at Wellington (who doesn’t love a car ferry?) and another at Narrung, to skirt round and join the top of the Coorong.

The Wellington ferry .

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Waiting at the Narrung ferry.

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Many things in Australia are strange.

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Eventually the ferry came and I asked the operator just to confirm the road I wanted to take went where I thought it did (the average Australia map is way too small scale for effective detail navigation), she then gave me a rather thorough grilling as she thought I wanted to drive across the bottom of Lake Alexandrina to the land on the other side (this is marked as drive-able on some maps, such as the red lines on the map below), I insisted I didn’t but I don’t think she really believed me. Maybe she just thought I was a bit of a city wanker in my purple shirt and safari coloured pants, she’d probably be right, but that outfit was comfortable!

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Anyway she took us across, but was still a bit frosty to say the least. Not the norm for people you normally meet in country Australia I might add!

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Soon we were on the dirt and all was good. The day was clear and Coorong looked awesome in the sunshine.

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As i said, things are strange over here, meet Mr Skink.

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We drove round this dirt road at the top of the Coorong, but eventually it spat us back out on the bitumen. This was no bad thing as we did still have some k’s to do to get to where we were going and I wanted to do a bit more dirt on the way there.

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The Coorong consists of various lakes, tidal estuaries, sandbars and beaches. I could see on the map that the last 1/3 of the drive there was a dirt road the ran parallel to main road and down through the sand dunes, with various tracks coming off that and leading out to the coastline proper. I managed to find the start of this (completely un-signposted strangely) and it was a good choice, picturesque and an well surfaced road. We drove past some of the coastal tracks (which were signposted....) and I chose one called ‘Shipwreck Track’ and sort of had a vague idea of driving out on this one and if the beach was in good condition, drive down that and then link back with one of the tracks further down (where we were was off the bottom of this map, but hopefully you get the idea).

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The track was pretty straight forward, a few scrapes from the fully loaded Pajero but we were getting through fine. I came upon a medium hill, it wasn’t steep but did have a few lumps and bumps in it. Following the mantra of never driving down something I wasn’t sure of getting back up (not knowing the how driveable the beach was at the end of this track) I got out and had a walk down it just to be sure. It was fine, I saw nothing that would present a challenge if we had to come back this way. Sure enough we got down easy enough, a bit of left foot braking/judicious accelerator just to keep it straight, no worries.

I hadn’t really liked the sand driving I had done before, but I was quite enjoying driving through the dunes now. Eventually we got to the end of the side track and there was a short steep dune before the beach. Again I walked it, mostly to see if the beach was driveable, if not there was no point tackling this last dune.

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I took these snaps from the top of this dune, looking back. We were less than 5km from the main track, less than 20km as the crow flies, from the main road, and yet, in Australia you don’t have to go very far to get a long way from everyone else.

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The other side was the Southern Ocean.

One of those times where the vista was just too wide to take in, despite all the tyre tracks I got a real sense of being alone here.

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I decided that with the beach pretty soft and chewed up, and the tide coming in that it wasn’t worth the risk driving down the beach. We would just head back the way we came and get to the campsite with plenty of time to get set up.

N snapped me walking back.

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When travelling our dogs have their own special camping home.

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Coming back to the lumpy hill, I advised N we should put them in there as we would probably need to use a bit of momentum to get past the lumpy section. When I first got the Pajero I had jacked up one front and one rear wheel at a time to see what the articulation of the independent suspension was like, pretty impressive as it turns out (articulating up anyway...), so I had no doubt we could clear that section, even if it took a few goes to judge the momentum.

I drove it like I would have done in the Rangie, relatively slow speed and let the suspension do it’s stuff. It didn’t work, we ground to a halt pretty quickly. No bother, I’ll just hit it a bit harder and we’ll just bounce through the larger holes but maintain enough momentum to keep going. Yah, that didn’t work either.

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We were getting stopped in the same spot each time and stopped properly, more speed was just going to mean more chance of breaking the vehicle or one of us. We would just have to do it the hard way, a bit at a time. I’ve been in situations similar to this before and a bit of continuous effort will normally get you through.

I really wanted a set of Maxxtrax before this trip, but fixing the issues with the Pajero and bolting on a new set of BFG AT’s had meant it just wasn’t in the budget. I had borrowed some boards my mate had, that were supposed to be similar sort of device, plastic grated tracks covered in an abrasive coating.

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I had accumulated numerous types of recovery gear over the years but knowing the terrain we were going to most of it just wasn’t applicable (a winch is not much good if there is nothing to winch off) so most of it was in the shed at home. With hindsight none of it would have made any difference, so not bringing it was the right decision, the Paj was already struggling with the load as it was. I did have a long handle shovel, snatch strap and weight bag, my mates boards, some old towels and my compressor.

I got to work digging out the worst sections that the Paj was catching on, as I said, the wheels could articulate up a decent way, but they ran out of travel real fast articulating down. Coupled with the fact that the independent suspension arms had to come a long way down in comparison to the wheel (for the bottom ball joint at the bottom of the hub) meant that these were dragging as they snagged on the sand that built up in front of them on and lifting the wheel up away from the traction surface, awesome.

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Just for extra giggles the sump for the auto transmission was doing a good job of demonstrating just how bad our current breakover angle was by resting it’s lazy self on the sand at any opportunity.

Of course I didn’t take any pictures of the predicament as I was somewhat occupied with getting it sorted. I worked with a combination of the towels, borrowed boards (which tended to disappear into the sand due to the crated design, while the BFG’s just stripped off the abrasive coating when they did press down on it properly) and shovel to start making progress. It was painfully slow, and backing up and having another go just started it all over again. N, who normally knows just to hang tight and let me get it sorted, knew that after about half an hour we weren’t going anywhere. There have been very few times in our relationship where we have made the situation worse for each other, and this wasn’t going to be one of them either. She just said “right, what can I do?” I knew by then it wasn’t going to be an easy fix, so I said “take this knife and start getting some foliage that we can use to put under the wheels. Don’t cut yourself, keep drinking water and keep your hat on” it wasn’t hot by Australian standards but you have to make sure you keep yourself from getting in a state if you’re going to be at it a while.

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Digging, towels, boards, shrubbery (sorry SA) were all used. A towel on each wheel gave a good indication of which were turning and therefore had the least traction, and then were we had to focus our efforts. Somewhat concerning, sometimes after arranging the towels on each wheel ready to try and move forward another few inches, I would jump in and click it into drive and gingerly press the throttle and go nowhere, only to jump and and all the towels were still on top of the wheels, meaning that we were getting NO drive at times. This was making me worried, I didn’t think N would notice when this happened so I just kept my mouth shut and kept at it.

Why didn’t you just drop the tyres to 10psi? I tried letting down the tyres more, this just exacerbated the suspension dragging issue, less pressure meant less sidewall height, meant less ground clearance. We were making progress but it was random and slow, the section we had to get through was maybe 10-15ft. But we were literally inching forward. However we were moving forward, so we kept at it. After about 3 hours, I stopped for a bit and tried to have a bit of a re-think, sometimes you just have to toil but sometimes you have to recognise that there is a limit to how long you can toil and is there a better way to apply your effort.

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I knew I needed to drop the tyres more for traction, but to do that I needed more ground clearance, the only way to get that was to get some weight off those springs and increase the suspension angles. So I decided to take everything out of the car, tent, fridge, tools, water, anything with any weight. In fact N did this while I had a real good go with the shovel and cleared as much sand out from underneath as I could, I wanted to basically have a big effort and prep as much as possible to try and get us up there once and for all.

We spent close to an hour on this stage, I managed to get the tyres down to about 15 psi with no immediate clearance issues. I told N to stand behind because if it hooked up I was just going to mash that throttle with no mercy! We moved, not just inches but feet! Stuck again but with renewed effort we dug it out again, another good dose of progress. Dug again, this time we were close to the end of the holes, it bounced and then hooked up and I just buried the throttle, all manor of mechanical mayhem noises, bucking and wheelspin ensued but I kept it in all the way to the top.

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We were out. 4 hours to conquer a ‘medium’ hill. We started dragging our gear up the hill, only when we had taken most of it to the top did I think that maybe taking a few photos of the spot of our ordeal might be a good idea, for relaying the story to friends. Literally up until then I had no thoughts for photos, I wouldn’t be any good at photographing the Alien invasion/Zombie apocalypse when it happens...

Looking down.

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Looking up. Doesn’t look that bad, does it? notice the fine covering of sand on the recently dispatched gear, from the wheel spinning, and the by now decimated towels.

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We re-loaded the car and drove out. The Pajero had an electronically operated low range switch, I had been pressing that button furiously over the last 4 hours, convinced at times we weren’t in low range, still majorly bugged by the apparent no drive situation. When we got back to main track and I stopped to air up, being attacked by the mother of all mosquito clouds for good measure, the thing wouldn’t go back into high range. I checked the auto trans fluid on the dipstick, from recently changed pink it was now dark brown, we were not the only ones to have had a bad day... So we had to drive the rest of the day in low range, top speed maybe 50km/30mph, this crystallized the thought that this wasn’t the truck for me.

N and I talked all the (slow) way back to the main road. I knew I had made a mistake, many times I had turned down an unknown trail with her protesting, always to get through no worries. I had totally under-estimated the lack of basic capability the Pajero had. As a touring vehicle it was fine, for what we wanted to do/had previously done, it was woefully inadequate.

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We were set to camp that night, but when we eventually got the the next town, we bailed into the first motel, got take out, drank wine and slept well.

The next day I drove the Pajero round for a bit until it decided to finally come out of low range, the rest of the trip was going to be spent only in high range, We still had a nice seaside break, I will definitely head back to the region again.

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But the damage with the Pajero was done, I spent most of the rest of the trip researching the replacement and going down the rabbit hole of LandCruiser model codes, tempted by the V8 but not willing to give up my beloved live axles we ended up with FJZ105R, traded the day after we got back, the LC coming in at approx twice the price of the Pajero, similar age and miles. The M3 hasn’t moved very far since, regrets? None mate, the Battle Cruiser is a engineering revelation, and we’ve been plenty of cool places already.

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Learning to acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake is a great part of growing up, and analyzing these situations afterwards is a great learning experience for me.