4x4 Adventures Ltd Taunton, Somerset
DRD Weekend – David Bowyers/Bampton - 5th/6th April
Words and Pictures by Richard Watson

With the recent unseasonably good weather fresh in my mind and a pair of shorts and sunglasses (amongst other far more useful things), chucked in the car, I set off on the short drive to the Waie Inn, just North of Crediton. Already settled in the pub were a number of others who had enjoyed or endured, depending on your viewpoint, far longer journeys than me from halfway across the country.

Others arrived over the next 15 minutes, followed by James, Tim and David who had spent the morning at David Bowyers site creating a few new tracks and testing the depth of some of the deeper water sections. Food soon started to arrive - the benefit of James's excellent organisation and pre-ordering food - and other than a spare salad everyone ended up with what they'd asked for.

James ran through the format of the weekend and explained that everything was optional and that if you weren't happy with any part there were bypass routes available. With vehicles ranging from a standard 110 on All Terrains through to caged 90's on large Fedima and Maxxis tyres, with a number of 90's and 110's on Mud Terrains in-between, it was clear that most of us would be taking some of these at some point in the weekend. Driver experience also ranged from those who had enjoyed a few greenlaning trips and wanted to find out more of what their vehicle was capable of, through to those who have competed in a number of off road events and just wanted to get out and have a play. The overall aim was to have an enjoyable, social weekend which was a step up from greenlaning, but still within the capabilities of a standard vehicle.

Having been to both sites before a number of times I had a good idea of what we were in for, but ground conditions vary so much throughout the course of the year that you can never be sure of exactly what's in store for you.

David Bowyers training site doesn't cover an enormous area but is well designed and features a number of climbs, descents, axle twisters, side slopes and a decent helping of mud and water. The underlying ground is pretty solid but a few areas get quite muddy and are more than capable of trapping a vehicle, or compulsory parking as I prefer to call it.

After crossing my fingers that my wading plugs hadn't fallen out, we set off through the long entrance trough which is kept at a constant 50cm depth, although as the track dips and the bow wave rises it sometimes feels like more than that! We started off on a tour around the site, James leading, then Jon and Dan in their 110, Shane and David in their 110's, Steve and his parents in their 90's, Tony and Becky in their smart 90, Kevin and Jason in another 90, then Jeroen in his 90 which has surely seen every part of these sites by now. I tagged on at the back in my 90 to avoid holding everyone up as I took photos, and so I didn't have the honor of being the first one to get stuck!

Jon was making good progress considering he was the only one running All Terrain tyres but one newly created track next to the river caught him out, and after a few attempts but forward progress remaining out of reach, James's rear winch was pulled out to inch him out of the hole. The rest followed and all managed to pull through with a shunt or two and the benefit of Mud Terrains.

Once we'd completed a lap we were free to explore the site as we liked. Steve Gooding was encouraged to test the waterproofing on his well-prepared TD5 in one of the deeper holes which he was assured had a solid base and he wouldn't get stuck in. Having seen Jeroen attempt the same back in January I knew it had a solid base but I also remembered how his heater and headlights filled with water, so decided I'd keep out of that one! Steve dropped in gently and kept the water below the bonnet so the heater inlet stayed dry this time. The 90 pulled itself out the far end and, Land Rover door seals being as they are, the door was swung open to let the water rush back out of the footwell. It didn't take much encouragement to get Steve to try it in the other direction for the camera, and having seen Steve safely make it through Tony was keen to follow as well.

Some of the steeper climbs provided a good challenge - I was really chuffed to make it up one of the harder ones (twice!) that had defeated me back in January and the January before, but unfortunately it wasn't third time lucky and that would of course happen to be the one time that everyone was watching. After two or three attempts, each followed by a brisk failed hill climb and bounce to the bottom I gave up and left that one to those with lockers and more aggressive tyres.

Quite a few of the climbs got harder as time went on as the surface became more polished, with descents becoming progressively more exciting as well. Luckily the ruts are well defined and it's just a case of trusting first low to hold you back, and accelerating gently to keep the wheels turning fast enough, although it's often easier said than done when you're heading towards a steep step partway down!

After a discussion on the benefits of Land Rovers over Horses (which could only end one way on an off roading weekend...) I decided to try one of the newly created tracks in the opposite direction to how it had been driven earlier. This was going reasonably well, the tyres finding a surprising amount of grip and clawing their way forwards through the mud, until the front and back wheels dropped at the same time into deep holes, 90 degrees to the track. No amount of shunting back and forth made any meaningful progress, so I sheepishly wandered back over to the group and pointed out what a wonderful place I'd chosen to park. Luckily Kevin and ? had a working winch and easily dragged me out of the predicament I'd got myself into. As the saying goes, "if you haven't got stuck then you weren't trying hard enough"!

Once everyone had had enough we formed up and headed out of the site; normally an easy task but Shane? managed to pick up a branch and wrap it around his rear axle through the water section which apparently took some work to clear, although no lasting damage was caused.

A quick stop in Tesco to stock up on food for the evening and a 30 minute drive got us to Bampton and our campsite for the evening, thoughtfully placed at the top of a hill so it wasn't flooded, but unfortunately well placed to take the brunt of the wind, which seemingly changed directions every five minutes! Having set up my tent and parked the 90 to try and block as much of the wind as possible, we put up Tims tent next to his motorhome which provided respite from the wind. With some time left before dinner and Jeroen’s 90 down on power, James suggested stripping down the fuel pump to find and hopefully fix the problem; after all, what's the worst that could happen in a windy field with a basic toolkit? Keen to figure out how the pump worked without destroying my own in the process, I got in the way and occasionally held a screwdriver as James and Jeroen pulled the pump apart and found the pin that controls fuelling had seized in place - resulting in it over fuelling at idle but running lean when on boost. Judicious use of WD40 and a hammer allowed the pin to move but unfortunately didn't allow full removal of the shaft as it should do. With the pin now moving and light fading, it was decided to put it all back together and, after dropping a few essential bits on the grass and crawling around trying to find them again by torchlight, everything went back together and the engine reluctantly spluttered into life. A bit more fiddling to get the idle speed right and Jeroen went for a test drive up the road, returning shortly reporting a decent improvement in performance.

After some food and a good chat in the tent we all headed off to bed hoping that the rain may stop tomorrow.

The previous night’s wishes were granted with a mostly dry morning and after a bit of breakfast we gathered around for a talk from Dave Gunning of Bush Mechanics on basic survival skills. Dave is one of those people who you imagine is always prepared and has a solution for any situation that arises, so it was particularly ironic that his Discovery was the one with a flat tyre and no spare as that had been punctured a few weeks before! No problem, he had a compressor and plenty of things that could plug an air leak, but that was a job for later on.

We positioned two vehicles in the field back to back about 5 metres apart and with the wind gusting across the hills demonstrated the need for shelter first. Para cord was strung between the two and a shelter unfurled and pegged out. With somewhere dry to sit, the next thing was fire. I've seen a number of TV shows demonstrate how easy this supposedly is but was always skeptical that they had a number of takes and a firelighter hidden underneath, however Dave proved that it is possible with just a fire stick (two pieces of metal that make sparks when struck together) and some fungi typically found on Ash trees. This had been found previously, dried and brought with him but it ignited straight away and started burning slowly, ideal for getting kindling going and apparently also good for keeping insects away. We were shown a number of ways to improvise using just what you had with you - the most impressive being wire wool which, with the help of some jump leads from my battery, immediately glowed bright red and would easily set light to some dry kindling, or anything else that happened to be nearby at the time!

With fire sorted the next thing you need is water and again improvisation is key. Clothing, seats, air filters, all could be used to filter dirty water if you had nothing else. If you have fire then the water can be boiled to kill off germs and make it safe to drink. Food is probably the most complicated as it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to be able to say what's safe to eat and what isn't - I was certainly glad that McDonalds was on the way home and that I didn't have to find an edible mushroom!

The talk really demonstrated the need to have a small kit with you if you're heading out into the wilds. A tarpaulin, a small amount of dry fuel to start a fire and some Iodine for purifying water could easily make the difference between an uncomfortable night out and not making it through the night at all. The talk was an excellent introduction and I'm keen to learn more about the vehicle side of things on the Bush Mechanics courses.

When Dave had finished we were put into two groups and set off. James and David led, followed by Jon and Dan, Jeroen, John, Shane and myself bringing up the rear. We started following a farm track the same as many of the old greenlanes in the area and into some woods. Some soggy tracks led onto some steeper descents to get us acclimatised to the conditions, probably best summed up as slippery! Running at the back the tracks had been wiped of what little grip they started with and even on mud tyres the wheels locked under light braking so it was a case of leaving it in first low and keeping it between the trees. Probably a case of feeling far more exciting behind the wheel than to those watching but a few drops got my adrenalin flowing!

The woods brought us back out onto the road and then into a steep wet grassy field which didn't prove much of an obstacle unless the wheels started to spin, when it suddenly became impossible to go anywhere but backwards. We all made it to the top and round to Warrens? woods. We all got out to watch James head down the first drop, give it some welly through the mud and up the other side, then drop down a long curved slope with the wheels turning far slower than the car was going. Shane and Jeroen followed and each slid down the toboggan run in the same way. The ruts kept the vehicles on course as long as you didn't try to over-steer out of them but it always makes me hesitate before lifting the clutch when sat at the top of the hill!

On one climb Jeroen didn't quite build up enough momentum to make it to the top of the hill and slid back and sideways, being stopped by a small conveniently placed tree. By the time James had got into position Jeroen had his winch rope out and it was just a short pull to the top. James offered Dan a ride around and after sliding down the steepest descent he calmly reported "that was easy dad" - the benefit of not being able to see fully over the dashboard I imagine! Having done a few runs around this area, almost getting stuck in one hole and just clawing my way through, we headed back through the field to the woods for lunch.

Jeroen and I took a little trip through the river before following James up to the top of the hill. By this time it had started raining again and the ground was getting even slipperier. The first half of the descent ended with a steep drop back onto the track and my bumper just hit the ground as I bounced down. The second half felt even faster as I slid towards the river. It's hard to fight your instinct to jump on the brake and instead to accelerate to match wheel speed to your speed over the ground and let the engine do the braking, but it does work to a point. The problem is, once you have some semblance of control you want to hit the brakes again to slow down even more!

Most of the 110's skipped the second drop here as they couldn't turn on the track to get into the ruts down the hill. They joined us further round once we'd gone along the river, carefully avoiding a tree that had previously dented Shanes roof. We regrouped on a byway that takes you up to some more woods, where Jeroen and I split off to take a more 90 sized loop with some good drops, dips, puddles and bumps to test the suspension to its limits. The 110's took a different route around to avoid squeezing them down to 90 size then we all headed through "snaky sideways" field and along to the river drive. This is a favourite of mine as it's quite surreal driving through a sunken river, twisting and turning with it and with the odd dip into a pool that's been eroded by the water. Luckily it's been driven plenty of times and is Land Rover sized, but is a nice technical challenge and there's no danger of sliding into anything as it's all relatively flat. The river is rocky underneath so there's plenty of grip

Underside well and truly washed by the river, it was time to head back to the campsite and clear up before heading home. The last we heard over the CB as we dismantled the tents was that the other group were still in the first woods they'd gone to in the morning and seemed to be getting a good bit of winching practice in, but that's a story for them to tell...

Some pictures from the day