You’re sitting at the top of a nearly vertical incline. Through the windshield only empty space looms. No terra firma except what you can see far below in the distance. Forward movement looks to result only in a huge lurch to the bottom, with possible somersaults in between.
Instead, as the Land Rover resumes forward motion, the vehicle crawls sure-footedly down the steep and slippery dirt hill, until, reaching too much momentum, it gains speed and sails safely to the bottom.
This is just one of the many thrills that await you in “The Land Rover Driving Experience,” an off-road adventure that takes place in Manchester, Vermont, (as well as California and North Carolina). This particular center started in 1997 and is part of a global group that includes 34 locations in other countries. The centers are open all year, in any weather. The experience is something we at Eastern Hay are proud to offer as a prize to winners of the Hunter Derbies we sponsor at the Vermont Summer Festival, Lake Placid, Princeton Show Jumping, and Monmouth at the Team.
In Vermont, the experience is held on a five-mile course covering 80 acres (the teaching campus, where obstacles are concentrated in a smaller area) just outside of town, and the Class Four roads on the mountain behind the Equinox. These roads are publicly owned, but not maintained, and consist basically of rough dirt trails through the woods. And although the obstacles don’t change, the experience changes constantly with the weather.
Initially, your instructor drives, teaching you about your vehicle and how to handle the different obstacles. The Land Rover comes with Hill Descent controlled and uses the ABS system for walking down hills without locking the brakes, while the height of the carriage can be raised to give the car more clearance over rough terrain and then lowered for the high performance needed on a highway. Different gears can be used for highway driving, towing, or for off road use. An easy-to-use knob can be turned to different settings for mud ruts, grass and snow, sand (this setting promotes wheel spinning to keep traction in the deep footing) or rock crawling.
You are also taught “shuffle steering,” a technique taught widely in Europe, though not so much here. It is particularly important in the age of air bags and can prevent broken bones in the arm and hand.
Now it’s your turn. “You’ve got to trust the vehicle more than you trust yourself,” I was advised by Land Rover Instructor John Kurland.
This experience is not a race. Billed as “the most fun you can have at two miles an hour” by Land Rover, it is about control, learning new skills, and judicious use of the throttle. For the most power and the most control, I was instructed to “go as slow as necessary.”
Several obstacles were encountered, from precipitous hills to mud ruts (these are not paltry ruts here, we’re talking colossal ruts that laid the vehicle nearly on its side), water crossings, and gravel (we didn’t do any rock climbing but that is included in the longer drives).
Each needs to be approached in a particular way. For example, when driving through water, I was told to “use throttle to keep up the momentum and ride the wave that you’ve created.”
While this was my first off-road experience, even advanced off-the-road drivers “have a sense of amazement” over what these cars can do, and over what they learn to do while navigating the course. “Hopefully they can translate that to how they operate their vehicle,” says David Nunn, Location Manager for Land Rover in Manchester. “The physics of driving don’t change too much from off road driving to on.”
Asked if anyone had ever scared him, he replied, “I think they scared themselves.” I can certainly attest to that as I thought we were about to flip over when I steered the wrong way going over the mammoth “ruts.” But the instructors are very well trained as to how guests may react. “We challenge their comfort level but never push them beyond it. They develop trust in their own ability and their vehicle’s ability. We haven’t lost one yet,” he quips.
New instructors learn through both classroom training and drive time, and there are several levels of qualifications. Each satellite operation has the same global design and all operate at the same standard.
The drive finishes with a timed challenge through flags placed close to both sides of the car along a course. Obstacles have to be navigated while leaving the poles upright…well at least that’s the idea. An off-road trip to Peru awaits the person who is clean with the fastest time.
I used the skills David had taught me as we drove, and although I certainly didn’t come close to flying off to Peru, he said I did a good job. I had started the day quite apprehensive (after seeing some of the extreme photos), but finished it exhilarated over a great time and the satisfaction of learning new skills.
By Ann Jamieson
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