Always wanted to explore that remote valley but been put off by the rough access track? Mark Wilson has some advice on the vehicles that will get you there
‘Accessible by 4WD or company car’ is a tongue-in-cheek South Island expression that captures perfectly the dilemma for a vehicle owner deciding whether to drive that gnarly ski field access road or the river track to the start of a tramp. Yes, you might make it in a 2WD vehicle but not without considerable wear and tear.
That’s wear and tear on the track as well – a 4WD driven with care will cause much less damage than a slipping, sliding 2WD.
Not all 4WDs are created equal
Many cars have 4WD but are still not designed to go off-road. That’s because they are missing two other key attributes: high ground clearance, and low-range gears. Suspension that sits the vehicle well clear of the ground allows you to drive over rocks and other obstacles without scraping on them. Low range allows you to crawl down a steep slope using only engine braking, or move ahead at very low engine revs without stalling.
What to buy?
Land Rover and Jeep owners would never own anything else, but they also pay a premium for their brand loyalty. Conversely, the lingering effect on our market of Japanese imports means we get great value on second-hand Toyotas and Nissans, and when it comes to reliability, they can’t be faulted.
There is a reason some older vehicles seem such a bargain — their leaf-spring suspension dates from the era of the horse and cart. Made with several lengths of steel stacked on top of each other, this robust suspension technology is great for 10-tonne trucks and fine for short trips but after several hours bouncing up a riverbed you will wish you had spent more to get a vehicle with a modern suspension set-up.
Unless you are mechanically capable and are keen on restoration, don’t be tempted to buy an old Land Rover or FJ40 Land Cruiser. These will have old-style drum brakes which are less effective than modern disc brakes, especially when they’re wet – like after you’ve driven through a waterhole and need to brake for a tight bend ahead. Better to buy something less iconic but with more advanced technology.
You don’t need to spend thousands on winches and snorkels. What you will need is a 4WD recovery strap and tow hooks, a fire extinguisher, a decent
first-aid kit, and a spade. And company – the single most useful tool when you go off-road is another truck to tow you out of trouble.
The first thing I was told when I started off-roading 20 years ago was to grip the steering wheel with my thumbs up, clear of the wheel’s spokes. The wheel can spin from lock to lock in a flash if a rock gets in the way, and if your grip is wrong, you can easily break a thumb or even forearm.
– Mark Wilson is the author of 4WD South: 115 Off Road Adventures in NZ’s South Island