4x4 Adventures Ltd Taunton, Somerset
4x4 Adventures Summer Offroad Weekend
19th/20th Jul 14, Llanthony, Wales
Words and pictures by Jon and Daniel Swatton

Daylight was fading rapidly as we rocked up at the farm on Friday evening. After saying a few quick hellos, setting up camp and grabbing a quick bite to eat, I joined Mark, Tim, Jeroen and Paul for a quick night cap and chat, much of which was centred around the forecast rain storm due in the early hours of the morning. If the forecasts were accurate, we would get a fair amount of rain early on Saturday but then that should blow through, and then the weather should steadily improve with even a chance of a bit sunshine on the Sunday! The itinerary had been developed in such a way that the timing of the activities were flexible and could be rescheduled around the prevailing weather conditions.

For once, the forecast was pretty accurate and it was at around 2am that I heard the first rumblings of distant thunder and then around 6am when the heavens really opened. I made the mistake of leaving one of the bulkhead vents open on the 110, so was greeted with decent sized footwell puddle when I subsequently opened up the driver’s door.

Following feedback from last years event, this year, all the activities were centred around the farm and there was a greater participation level for all, co-drivers included! Some of the skills learnt or refreshed during the weekend would be put in to practice, so full attention would be beneficial but the guys would always be on hand to explain or go back over anything that was unclear or if, for example, you fancied ‘sense checking’ your plotting of the grid refs of the punches. Equally, as with all the guys events that I’ve attended, all elements were optional.

At the morning briefing, James was keen to ensure that everyone was comfortable with the capability of both themselves and their vehicles as we had a broad range of driving skills from LRE instructors to challenge event competitors to people like myself, with some green laning and limited off-road experience under their belts. There was absolutely no pressure on anyone to do something, just because the vehicle in front had done it. Participating vehicles ranged from stock Discovery, 90, 110s and 130 running ATs, to an MT shod stock 110, to a challenge competing MT shod 90. Perhaps an early special mention should be given to Mark’s bob-tailed Discovery challenge truck running Nissan axles and a recently fixed locker, which would feature at some stage during the weekend.

Overall, all the tracks and routes had been designed to be well within the capabilities of a standard vehicle running ATs, accepting that ground conditions could be variable given the amount of rainfall. The original plan was to start with part of the drive round route but to give the ground a chance to recover from some of the recent deluge, the programme was shuffled around so that we looked to do that in the afternoon and brought the basic navigational working groups forward.

The navigational training centred on three core elements. Navigating by compass bearings, working with and plotting grid references and finally navigating tracks via tulip diagrams/crow’s feet. Two of the three I had had some distant past experience of but it was safe to say I’d forgotten most of it. We were split into small groups of two or three vehicles and then rotated around the workshops.

Initially, James gave Daniel and I, together with Paul and his young son Jack some basic instructions on how to navigate via compass bearings and pacing distances and then we were set the challenge to navigate between a number of wheel rims set out in reasonably close proximity in the camping field. From the start, each rim had a bearing and distance and the challenge was to navigate to each rim, make note of a code and then take the next bearing and distance and so on. The ultimate aim being to arrive back at the start. A couple of the rims were spaced in such a way that a slight error in either pacing the distance or picking a forward spot for your direction of travel meant that you would easily end up at the wrong one. After having it quietly re-explained to him whilst I rummaged around for a pen and paper Daniel charged off with me behind saying things like ‘are you sure that’s right?’ and him replying ‘YESSSSSSSS’, after he adjusted his pacing to arrive at the rim he thought it was, rather than the one the pacing told him it should be. Still, we did make it back to the beginning, only to find out we failed at the first hurdle by not making a note of the code in the tyre at the start... DOH!

Mark then took us through the basics of the UK mapping and the grid reference system and then introduced us to our driving challenge for the following day, which was to seek out fifteen punches hidden around the farm. The location of which we were given the grid references and a small clue for and then it was down to our plotting, map reading and driving skills to get us to the punch. We didn’t have the time to plot all fifteen punches there and then, so this was something we’d have to find the time for prior to the off tomorrow. We were also given an aerial image of the general area of where the punches were located and we were encouraged to transpose our plots from the map to the aerial image to give us a better feeling for what things looked like on the ground.
Over to Tim with our vehicles for the final workshop, which was learning to interpret tulip or crow’s feet diagrams combined with the assessment of distances between instructions. The task was to navigate a specific route through the mown grass track network, whilst making a note of the codes that we may pass on our left. Some folk had walked the course, pacing out the distances but both Paul and I were encouraged to drive it as assessing the distances travelled in a vehicle would be a touch trickier. After a brief wait whilst David and Lindsay got mixed up on the route, prompting a degree of banter along the lines of ‘good job he’s a survival specialist if he gets lost this easily’, it was soon our turn and then I started to feel some empathy to wards David and Lindsay as we too got to a point where it was a case of ‘that can’t be right’. A reverse retrace of our steps to a known point and our error was quickly spotted and we successfully completed the course even with a small doubt that, with a box left on our card, we’d missed taking down a code, which, it transpired, was a deliberate ploy to cast doubt. It worked!
On to the next re-arranged element which was a full group task, of a familiar theme to those of us that attended the previous year but let’s just say it had been cranked up a notch or two. Armed with nine non uniform tree trunks, some ratchet straps and a shovel, we had an hour to build two log bridges across a much more significant ditch to last year (as in, one you wouldn’t be driving out of) and guide all our vehicles over. The entry and exit angles were such that probably all wheel bases would need to shunt once across the first bridge before tackling the second bridge. Enough work for a 90, let alone Allen in his 130. So, in true leaderless fashion, we collectively appointed Jeroen’s 90 as the ‘let’s use a truck to measure the width between the logs’, which meant, he had to go over first! Two bridges successfully constructed with the view that the route across the river was fixed and then we’d tailor the return bridge to suit the postion of each vehicle. It was at that point we were told that in fact, there was no way we were going to be allowed to risk our own vehicles on this task, and so Jeroen was handed the keys to Mark’s challenge truck and Paul successfully guided him across. I don’t recall anyone saying it out loud but I think most of us were thinking ‘thank heavens for that’ ... or words to that effect.
With the weather having remained dry all morning and brightening up significantly, following a spot of lunch, we organised ourselves into two groups for the drive round course. James and Tim would lead our group in James’s 90tdi? HT (Rear door glass optional after an over zealous closure by Mark), followed by Daniel and I in the Td5 110 SW, Allen and family in the Puma 130 DC, then David and Linsday in the Discovery 1 and finally Jeroen in his Tdi 90 SW. Mark would lead the other group in his One ten HT comprising of Kenan and Annoushka in their Puma 110, Paul and Jack in their Td5 110 and David in his Tdi 90. Although the rain had long since passed, the ground was still reasonably wet in places, so we’d need to stay alert.
James and Tim led us through a few gentle tracks to settle us all in and on occasion, sent Jeroen off down a trickier section that was more suited to his vehicle, whilst the rest of us looked on.
We were making good progress early on but one or two of the gullies were causing the 130 some difficulties but this may well have been due to some reported issues with getting the central differential lock in. During one brief pause whilst the rest of the group caught us up, James suggested I could have a quick play in a long grassy type stuff (technical term that mind) rutted gulley. It was a quick play indeed as no sooner was I into the gulley ruts that I encountered a deepish hole that I couldn’t get over and so proceeded to make it a touch deeper. Reverse and another go and yes, an even deeper hole. No more time to make more of a fool of myself as the rest of the guys were back with us. Onwards and upwards into the higher fields traversing a number of gullies and gentle ditches and all vehicles finding plenty of grip over the slowly drying grass and through some gentle ruts. Back down the track negotiating a drop affectionately labelled ‘Kiss the screen’, past the ‘Ruts of doom’ and we’re back into the camping field next to a mini digger for the next of our individual challenges.
The “digger challenge” was pretty simple in theory. Pick up a small section of tree trunk from taped area box A and place it in taped area box B. Never used a mini digger in my life before, as was the case for some others in our group but after some initital instructions from Tim, we all managed it, with varying degrees of speed and finesse and it was a nice fun way to break up the driving and get us out of the cabs and chatting.
Back into the vehicles for another section of drive round further up into the top fields which resulted in us reaching a reasonably long side slope that I recognised from last year. In the bone dry conditions of 2013, there were no dramas at all crossing this slope but this time around, in the wet conditions, I had a bit of a moment as the back went light and we slid at an angle off the slope. Discretion being the better part of valour we decided to bypass the rest of the slope, along with a number of others, although I’m pretty sure Jeroen followed James across successfully. A steady descent then down a fairly steep slippery slope and into Wallace’s field for the first of two challenges.
First challenge, to drive along around thirty or so metres of axle twisting undulations. Easy enough I guess, but... there was a twist! Your co-driver/ passenger was given a measuring jug full of around two litres of water which, from once moving they should hold at the bottom with both hands and try not to spill over themselves or their driver. A combination of a steady hand from the co-driver and smooth progress over the ground from the driver was needed. By a minor miracle and despite me having to reverse at one point to gather momentum to get over one section, we only spilt one tiny drop. More down perhaps to the multi axis gimble like properties of my son, rather than my smooth driving I suspect.
Others weren’t so lucky. Lindsay appeared to chuck the water over David after he may have driven deliberately roughly so some of it spilt on her. I’m not sure about Allen and Kim as I think we were doing our next challenge when they took their run but neither looked like they’d wet themselves so I guess they were all good. For Jeroen, without a co driver, we volunteered Daniel to sit in the middle seat of the 90 and hold the now brimmed jug of water, with me in the passengers seat. Another really good run with only a very small amount spilt.

Next challenge was a repeat of last years blindfolded driver negotiating a series of five gates from basic instructions from their co-driver. I guided Jeroen through and then it was my turn to drive with Daniel guiding and Jeroen walking alongside for safety. As with last year, we clipped a couple of gates but all was fine. It’s a very surreal experience driving totally blindfolded, even at these low speeds and at times, when Daniel wasn’t giving me much input, we came to a halt even though I still felt in my mind we were moving.

After the challenges, we continued on the drive round and got to perhaps the trickiest part of the route. Last year this presented no problems, but this year, with the rain and indeed, the other group having already passed through it would prove to be more of a challenge. The first element was a sharp right turn around a tree up a bank over a large root. As with last year, the shorter wheel based vehicles could manage this without a shunt but the 110s and 130 weren’t so lucky. We got into a pretty good position pre shunt and then successfully around without any dramas. From memory, the track then dropped into a watery hollow prior to a reasonably steep climb whilst bending slightly to the left. Our first attempt we almost made it but lost momentum right at the end. In the slippery conditions, the brakes wouldn’t hold the slope on the hill and so my efforts to engine brake back down were thwarted by me not being able to engage reverse from second. Back we slid to the hollow and another try… pretty much the same result, almost but not quite and failing to get it into reverse to control the descent. Once back at the bottom, we bypassed the slope, with me learning something new about my gear box and the need to effectively double de-clutch to get from a forward to reverse gear in those situations.

Having bypassed that section, we were left with a more gentle pull up a fairly rutted slope, which required effectively, a new high line left hand route into the trees before a sharp right turn at the top of the track. I’d spotted the line but didn’t commit to it for long enough and dropped back into the claggy area and found myself going nowhere quickly. A quick winch out from Jeroen and all was good. Allen in the 130 behind me committed to the tree line for longer with far more successful results, which left me looking sheepishly at Daniel... Still... only one way to learn I guess.

We steadily made our way back down towards the camping field, going through the long grassy type stuff rutted gulley from the opposite direction and flattening out a blooming big hole someone in a Td5 had enlarged earlier. We paused only momentarily for us to all have a go at seeing how far up ‘The ruts of doom’ we could get. A small amount of pride restored as my first attempt was okay, Much better than the second effort in a lower gear.

Once back at the campsite we congregated by Mark’s farm quad bike with trailer attached for our final challenge of the day. I’ve never ridden a quad bike in a forward direction, let alone try and reverse a trailer around a series of gates and park it in a taped garage area. After a brief explanation of the controls from Tim, we all took turns and like the earlier digger challenge, we all managed it with varying degrees of finesse and speed.
No more driving for the day and so we took the opportunity to grab a brew / beer ahead of listening to David Gunning of Bush mechanics do a talk on basic survival skills, centred around fishing. Somewhat apt seeing as there was a river about ten yards behind us. Fishing lines were manufactured from one strand of an old synthetic winch line and more fascinatingly, from the flexible outer stem of a stinging nettle. Hooks were furnished from safety pins or hawthorn thorns. A basic rod itself was furnished from the branch of a birch(??) tree. As with the other previous short talks I’ve heard David do, it really is quite a fascinating and indeed vast topic and David and I were kicking some ideas around about some bespoke days perhaps combined with James and driver/recovery training... One for another day.
We had a little bit of time then ahead of the barbeque and so Tim kindly guided Daniel during a go on the mini digger, whilst David Bowyer tried to light the campfire with his laser vision and Paul and Jack raced (literally with Jacks thumb controlling the throttle) off to get some more firewood
The food was soon ready and was as good as I remembered last year. Delicious lamb kebabs, burgers and sausages, all from locally reared livestock. Super salads and delicious puddings. Many thanks again to all involved for a such a wonderful spread.
After the barbeque, there was an opportunity for the youngsters to accompany Mark in his challenge truck on a section of the farm where standard vehicles would not venture. Both Jack and Daniel took up the opportunity of being ‘Pikey’d’ and had a great time in the passengers seat.
Time then to relax around the campfire and reflect on what had been a super full on day that the weather hadn’t really affected at all. It had steadily improved all day and the forecast for Sunday was for sunshine and good temperatures. Maybe we’d need the suncream after all.
Sunday dawned and the forecasters had it spot on, what a beautiful morning.
I’d finished plotting my punches the previous day so took advantage of being up early to transpose them over to the aerial view whilst soaking up the sun and the views.
From our re-arranged itinery, our morning was to be spent with the two Davids (Bowyer and Gunning) having a practical demonstration of vehicle recovery by both an electric and (at mine and Allen’s request) a hand winch. David Bowyer was setting himself up on solid ground at the top of the ruts of doom and James asked me to go and get myself stuck in the ruts for a live example of vehicle recovery.
David firstly ran through some of the winching basics and it wasn’t long before he hooked up to my 110 and with me in the vehicle trying to keep the wheels turning, he pulled me through the ruts, firstly on a single line pull and then a double and triple line pull.
After the electric winching demonstration, the hand winch (David’s equivalent of a Tirfor) was attached to a sunken ground anchor and then in the growing heat and sunshine, it was pointed out that as it was my vehicle and I’d specifically asked to experience hand winching, that it was clearly my responsibility to winch two and bit tonnes up a slope, (fortunately, not through the worst of the ruts). Incredibly hard work but we pretty much got there with a number of us having a go and attacking it in bursts. It was good to experience what I would be letting myself in for before shelling out any money but David will get an order for hand winch soon!
The rest of the day was pretty much over to us. It was late morning and we had until 1530 to go and collect as many or as few of the fifteen punches as we wanted. There was no pressure from the guys to do them. They were on hand to assist if we got stuck.

David Bowyer gave us a quick talk on some basic off-road driving techniques and then we trotted back down to the camp field with some people plumping for an early lunch but Paul and I, with two stir crazy kids decided to go and bag a few pre lunch punches. With one punch card attached to the passenger grab handle of the vehicle and the other attached to Daniel’s wrist, off we went. With the movement on the punches themselves limited to the length of cord they were attached to, you had to get the vehicle reasonably close to stand a chance of punching your card.

Paul had set off a bit earlier than us and grabbed one in the next field up and so we both arrived at the same punch in the corner of the camping field at the same time. This punch specifically had a warning of a risk of grounding and so there were waffle boards placed to assist us over the ditch. Paul and I guided each other across and back and then went on our separate ways.
We bagged another six punches before returning to the camping field for lunch. One of which had a bonus element of a secondary punch that was achievable by following the specific compass bearing and distance found at the primary punch location. This one caused us problems as we had the right bearing, walked the right distance but nothing. I was in the one side ditch ferreting about for it. Daniel was on the other side doing the same but no luck. We got a bit of a clue from Mark and then on our third visit to the punch found the bonus with Daniel commenting ‘I must have been looking straight at it’. God knows what we were doing wrong. I blame the compass!
With lunch out of the way and the sun cracking the flags, we were heading off for the next run when Paul came back in to the field having done as many as he and Jack fancied. We stopped to swap a few stories which ended with him saying ‘Don’t try punch five, I had a bit of a moment there’. Good enough for me, will leave well alone.
We found four more punches including the cunningly swapped around punch numbers one and two and the sneaky bonus hide on punch four, which we went straight to. Decent compass on that one! With time almost running out we headed up in the general direction of punches five, six, seven and eight with a view to trying to grab one more.
Punch five was out so we bimbled around trying to locate punch six. We drove past what we thought was the gate for the field for punch six but were facing the wrong way to get through, so we carried on to find a turning place and then found ourselves at the top of the slope that I’d been winched through the previous day, which then suggested we were in the vicinity of the steeper slope that we slid back down twice. (It was only afterwards that it dawned on me that I may have been able to reverse into the next field..... DOH!)

So we now had a bit of a dilemma, as we had to turn around to access the gate from the right direction but that would mean tackling either one of the two failed climbs from yesterday. After a bit of debate and turning around at the bottom of the bypass route of the steeper of the two climbs, we decided the ‘winch slope’ was the lesser of the two evils provided we committed ourselves more fully to the tree line. Equally, the slightly drier conditions would probably work in our favour, so I was reasonably confident we’d make it.

It’s amazing the difference in tackling an obstacle with a little bit more knowledge from a previous failure. No dramas whatsoever and we’re up and through. At that point, I didn’t really care about punch six but we had a quick half hearted look as we made our way back down to the camping field. Eleven punches and two bonuses. Happy with that for a first attempt, although, as punch hunts go, I bet that was quite possibly one of the friendliest!

Time then for us to leisurely pack up camp, say our goodbyes and make our way home. It was a fantastic weekend and the weather didn’t really cause the problems that were first feared. It was nicely balanced so that there was a sufficient challenge for the more experienced drivers but equally, the less experienced drivers never felt inferior nor outside their comfort zones.

Many thanks to James, Mark and Tim for the organisation and running the event and their support throughout the weekend. Thank you also to both Davids for their input and support.

As we drove from the farm, after a few miles we got a momentary mobile signal and a text from my wife popped up from the previous night saying ‘Hope you’re having a good time. There’s been a stabbing in the village!’. I nearly bloody turned around and went back to the farm!