dirty work



SO THERE we were, me and Gordon Shaw. Between us we’ve done a bucket load of hard four-wheel driving in Australia; Gordon in his heavily modified 20-year-old Opposite Lock Defender and me in Milo. Maybe that’s why we kept picking the Kia Sorento, neither of us could believe how comfortable the bloody thing was!

Fully adjustable leather seats and airconditioning that tamed the worst Africa could throw at it. The thing also had a bucket of zip happening somewhere under the bonnet, too. Thanks to the Front Runner fit-out we had a water tank behind the seat, an Engel in the back and a roof topper on the rack.

Not that either of us bothered with the topper, we’d both opted for Front Runner’s quick chuck-down tents and a night spent closer to the ground. First time we heard a lion roaring I think we both wondered if that’d been the right decision.

A quick recap. We were in Africa to test the locally made Front Runner vehicle accessories. Gordon, who’s had more experience with Front Runner gear than anyone in Australia, is a total 4WD nut.

He’s squeezed some incredible trips from his old Defender, proving that good preparation is the key to really getting to out-of-the-way places. But then he’ll admit to loving his wife Loraine’s little Suzuki Jimny, too – at least since he’s barred it out with OL gear.

Front Runner had decided to equip a bunch of soft roaders to prove that good, lightweight aftermarket clobber can make even a soft roader a useful weapon off-road. Then they’d picked a 10-day route through the semi-arid Kalahari Desert, taking in Botswana and parts of Namibia.

This is savannah country, not dissimilar to parts of our Pilliga scrub and the run-up country before the Simpson. Certainly there were plenty of sandy tracks and corrugations to deal with.

Vehicle-wise we had the Kia Sorento, a Jimny – making Gordon feel right at home – a shorty Pajero, as well as a winched and tyred-up Jeep to act as recovery vehicle. If you’d have asked me before we left which vehicle I’d prefer, I’d have said the Pajero or Jeep for sure. However, as it happened,

things didn’t turn out that way at all.

The Pajero had the worst case of dash rattle I’ve ever seen. It only had to see some corrugations to start shaking as if it was going to drop the lot in your lap any second.

Vibration and the lack of dust sealing made the Mitsubishi pretty sad. It was competent enough, but in stock off-the-floor condition enough, but in stock off-the-floor condition it really wasn’t pleasant to drive. No doubt some decent suspension and better tyres would have made a difference here, but you could say that about any vehicle.

What did make it work was the Front Runner rack. Being all-aluminium and super strong with tailor-made fittings for the MaxTrax, an axe, water tanks and a shovel, it also wound up carrying a fair bit of our load. Some of that load was clothes and food, and thanks to trip leader Jaco Nell, a lot more of it might have been drinks.

Jaco is a self-confessed Suzuki nut, and we had to prise him out of the Jimny most days because, to be honest, the little Zook was absolute fun to drive. Even loaded to the gills – it’s amazing how much clobber you can carry on a good rack – it ploughed through the sand drifts and was so nimble that even in stock-standard condition it was super competent. Maybe those Suzuki nuts are on to something.

those Suzuki nuts are on to something.

The Jeep? Well, with suspension, tyres and a winch, the only problem with the Jeep in this pack was it wasn’t overly challenging.

Anyway, the one vehicle Gordon or I didn’t have much to do with was the new Sorento.

On the surfaced roads out to the desert it was definitely the fastest and most comfortable. Knowing the Kalahari was in drought conditions I liked the idea of the big water tank behind the seat – although, Gordon did happen to mention that most of the grog was tucked back there, too.

So while we took turns driving everything, Gordon and I kept gravitating back to the Kia partly because we figured it’d be the first vehicle to chuck in the towel.

Some fair-dinkum Aussie-style testing in someone else’s car in another country. We joked about leaving a burnt-out wreck buried in a sand hill somewhere as we jetted back home.

As it turned out the first time the Kia got bogged we weren’t even driving it. One of the guys stopped to take a photo on a slight rise of soft sand and that was that, instantly bogged to the belly pan. The Jeep made quick work of spinning around and reeling out its winch, but after looking at the only ‘recovery point’ up front of the Kia, both Gordon and I scotched that before it did a lap in anger. A couple of MaxTrax – Front Runner’s mount for our Aussie designed Maxxies is a beauty – and with plenty of oomph and a bit of a push the Kia climbed that hill, but not without some serious jagging to the cardboard-like underbody wheel panels. A few sand hills later and we’d collected the entire lot in the back of the little wagon. Not that they were worth saving, but at least the Kia guys could see we cared.

Using plenty of pace was the answer for soft sand in the Sorrento, but that meant the occasional ploughing of the front grille, too. After one belt Gordon lifted the bonnet, inspected the damage and then put it down slowly saying in his soft Scottish drawl “oh dear...” It didn’t stop, but that radiator was running awfully close to the fan.

Then the scissor jack collapsed trying to get one of the two ply tyres off for a plugging after it got sliced on a rock. Yes, we were running about 16psi. It’s amazing how quick you can sort something out, though, when there’s big cat footprints close by.

All said and done the Kia was really out of its depth, but I’m pretty sure an owner wouldn’t even bother going where we went. What was proven was that even a soft roader – perhaps with better tyres and a smidgen of lift – can make for some awesome touring if it’s running the right sort of accessories.

Okay, next month we’ll be back hammering away at Milo Two. Talk about chalk and cheese.