I had been a passenger on four-wheel drive off-road trips on a number of occasions, lastly near Porto (post here), and I had known for a long time that I wanted to learn how to actually drive off-road myself.
Last week I used a Buyagift.com voucher for £98 (I topped up for an extra hour at additional cost) to do a driving course at True Grip Off Road’s Eastwell Park site. They hold a Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence and out of 1,244 reviews, 1,184 are ‘excellent’, 90% of the rest ‘very good’.
From St Pancras, London, a high-speed train takes you to Ashford International in just 40 minutes. From the train station, a cab will set you back another £12 or so for the ten-minute ride (best to pre-order).
Guy, the friendly owner and chief instructor, greeted me upon arrival. After a quick five minutes of paperwork and a few signatures we sat down in the Toyota Hilux.
He was driving, while explaining to me how to drive a vehicle off-road. How it was important to forget everything I knew about driving a car. To be frank, I was thinking, how different can it be. You just got to get the momentum going, put the foot down, and up you go those little hills.
Luckily I’m an extremely nosy person, otherwise I would never have found out about Guy’s illustrious past. He used to be travelling the world for 25 years with Her Majesty’s army’s paratroopers, even knew the unit of mountain troopers, where I had served my 12 months of obligatory military service in the Bavarian Alps. He told me that during all this time, more of his comrades died in vehicle accidents than jumping out of planes or from enemy fire. What a fun fact, I thought.
Besides their main business of showing amateurs like me a good time, True Grip now provides off-road driving training to the army, the police forces, and the fire department. Guy gives them special rates. Just last week, during a training session, a soldier managed to do a quadruple twisted reverse somersault with one of his trucks (no one got hurt).
All photos up to here (c) True Grip Off Road, rest and feature photo (c) BSqB
We arrived at the site and switched seats. I turned the car from regular gear to off-road mode, meaning that the wheels turn much slower, but with much more torque. You don’t use the hand brake. You slowly lift your left foot from the clutch until you feel a slight vibration signalling that the clutch is starting to gain traction, then you slowly and gently push down the gas pedal while simultaneously letting go of the clutch altogether.
You always drive as slow as possible and as fast as necessary (where momentum is required), which, for someone like me, who likes speed, took some getting used to. Even more importantly, you operate the controls and steering as smooth as you can. Never change the gear or brake on a critical section. Let the low gear do the braking for you. Always keep both hands on the steering wheel.
The next ten minutes were spent just passing up and down the easier, more straight-forward tracks, starting to get a better feel for the vehicle, 90% in the lowest off-road gear.
Then Guy asked if I was ready for some fun, and I said yes. I was told not to think, but simply to follow the instructions closely. We stopped in front of what looked like a vertical wall. Guy told me to keep an eye on the RPM indicator and to always keep the motor rotating at around 2,000 to 2,500rpm. I was almost certain that the front of the truck was going to lift and we’d find ourselves dangling upside down in our seat belts, but it went just fine. You just see blue sky during your ascent. As soon as the car started to crest the hill, but way before we were on level ground, I instinctively eased the pressure of my foot on the gas pedal, and we nearly would have made our way back to the valley in a spectacularly uncoordinated manner. After the steep ascent, being at a 25 degree angle just felt so like level ground. Lesson learned.
Guy seemed slightly displeased with me as a student and explained in very polite but no uncertain terms that for me to be let loose on the fun parts of the course he’d have to be able to trust that I follow his instructions immediately and to the letter. He asked me to not even look at the track, but to focus purely on his instructions and the RPM indicator, as we did the same exercise five more times, until I finally managed to pull it off.
We had stopped at the level bit at the top of the hill. Guy looked at me and said, you probably know what’s coming, don’t you. I smiled back and said yes. He reminded me not to brake and to let the truck do the braking for me. I put in the reverse gear and boy oh boy was that a strange feeling when you’re going backwards over the crest and lose sight of the ground. A whole ton of fun, too, though! I did alright.
Now we were heading for the really rough bits of the course. We always stopped about ten metres before the tricky bits and Guy verbally walked me through the important aspects. For example, where the track was worn out, you’d drive on the far left or far right, even if that meant that one side of the truck was partially outside the track. You’d take into account line of sight, the fact that you don’t want to go down a descent diagonally, if you can avoid it, and so on. I was having a ball.
The bit that according to my instructor, freaked out his clients the most, ended up feeling quite plain in comparison. You drive along the bottom of a hill and go closer and closer to the hillside, so that the one side of the car starts lifting. I’m afraid of heights, not afraid of weird angles. I will say, though, that I was amazed we didn’t turn over on our back.
On the way back we stopped a few times, so I could take photos of the beautiful landscape and the medieval buildings on the estate.
Once I’ve found a new day job and I’ll be making some good money again, I’ll definitely return for another off-road training lesson with True Grip. 5 out of 5 in my book.