Lost In France

Originally Published: January 2015

When your first ever off-road experience is described as ‘a bit of a play in the Land Rover,’ there are certain things you don’t expect. One of them is almost certainly a three-day drive across France for another three days of hardcore rock crawling. And another is having to do it in torrential rain…

 Words - Robbie Strong

Driving through France is something I’ve done a lot. I used to work for a company that had a factory in Lyon; they gave me a fast BMW and a tight schedule, and I got used to bombing up and down the autoroute from Calais every other week.

That was a lot of years ago, fortunately, because these days I don’t think I’d stand a chance with the French speed cops. Still, when my mate Derek asked me if I wanted to join him for a trip to the south of France ‘for a bit of a play in the Land Rover,’ it sounded like a great chance to revisit the old days.

My trips back then were like clockwork. I’d take the same ferry every time, set my cruise control to 160km/h (just under a ton in old money), stop at the same service stations and hit all the same junctions at the same time of day. Easy.

Derek’s idea was a bit different and involved two overnight stops on the way. I’d have been sacked for that! But it didn’t take me long to come round to his way of thinking. I was agitated by the slow pace for the first couple of hours after Calais (though to be fair, the scenery here is boring enough to get anyone chewing their knuckles before long), but once I’d realised that we were actually on a jolly here, not a business trip, it all started to make sense.

Reims was the turning point. It’s where the view from the navigator’s seat starts getting less tedious, for one thing. And it was our first stopping-off point, which was great because Derek had booked us into an old-world hotel across the road from an enormous and similarly old-world café where they served the best steak and chips I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot. The local beer wasn’t too shabby, either. Again, I’ve had a lot.

The slow pace was something I came to understand is part of the whole Land Rover experience. I’ve been in plenty of Range Rovers, and none of them ever seemed to travel at anything less than warp speed, but Derek’s Defender 90 didn’t look anything like one of those, and it certainly didn’t drive like them.

In fact, we cruised through France at about sixty, and even that felt pretty fast as the noise in the cabin started gathering as soon as we got above town speeds. By the time we stopped in a village near Saint Etienne for our second dose of quaint hotel rooms and hearty French cooking (if you’ve never tried snails, you really should), I’d got quite used to chugging along with the roar of the 300Tdi engine and the hum of the Mud-Terrain tyres as our constant companion. We never put the stereo on once, either, and the conversation never flagged – this did mean we both ended up with slightly sore throats from shouting to make ourselves heard, but not to worry.

I’ve spoken a lot about the journey through France just to get to where we were going, but it was definitely part of the adventure. Though it was still nothing compared to what was waiting for us when we arrived in Chambon sur Lignon, a village in the Haute-Loire province which you might have heard of as it became a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in the Second World War.

These days, it’s one of those places where you wonder if the locals even notice anymore that they’re surrounded by the sort of scenery the rest of us would walk over burning coals to live among. It’s also the home of the 1000 Rivers, a kind of off-road rally which starts there every autumn and runs for three days of very full-on action.

You might have guessed by now that I was a complete novice at off-roading. Derek is an old hand, though, and had done the 1000 Rivers once before, so he knew what to expect and reassured me that it’s actually one of the tamer rallies they run in France.

So I’m not sure whether it was him or me that was more taken aback by what was waiting for us a few miles into the first day’s route. We started off following the roadbook on what Derek said were fairly tame tracks skirting the sides of densely forested valleys, which gave me a chance to get to grips with reading tulip diagrams without having to hold on for dear life at the same time. But it wasn’t to last.

All at once, we came to a turning off the road and down what looked to me like a boulder field with trees growing wherever there wasn’t a rock. I noticed a few 4x4s parked at the top, which Derek said was normally a sign that there was going to be something hairy ahead. And how right he was.

It appeared that the 4x4s had been left there by marshals whose job was to guide us through the trickiest bits, standing bang in front of the oncoming vehicles and signalling to their drivers as they picked their way from rock to rock. But even with their help, we found ourselves leaning crazily to one side, almost pressing up against a tree and at the same time hanging forward in our seat belts. This was steep.

And then all of a sudden the cars ahead of us came to a halt. People started getting out, running around, shouting and waving their arms in the air.

To me, this looked much like the average lunch break at the old factory in Lyon, but Derek wasn’t so sure. We weren’t exactly going anywhere, so we decided to get out and see what was up.

A Toyota Land Cruiser was what was up. Or down, actually. Some Brits in a Jeep told me they were just a couple of cars behind when they saw it perch on its nose and fall right over on to its roof. The people who’d been inside seemed okay, from what we could tell; they were surrounded by onlookers, so I didn’t want to ask, as far as I could see there were two possible causes of the shunt. One was that the Land Cruiser was on such enormous tyres that its centre of gravity was now too high to control, and the other was that as it had a Belgian number plate, its crew probably hadn’t ever had to drive down a hill before.

It was around now that I asked Derek if he’d known what he was doing when he described the 1000 Rivers as ‘a bit of a play in the Land Rover.’ He was quite non-committal in his answer, I found.

All the same, we did make it to the end of the day, via more tracks ranging from insane to merely very silly. As dusk was gathering, we found ourselves in another queue, this time to tackle an innocuous looking mud run on the way into a pine wood. In my mind, this is probably what I’d been expecting off-roading to be like, and I’ve got to hand it to Derek for his skill in blasting through the ruts without getting stuck when most of the other vehicles waiting their turn needed to be towed or winched out the other end.

The mud run led into a forest which took us a while to get out of, but finally we were back on the road and cruising into La Bastide Puylaurent, the quiet little mountain village where the roadbook ended. It had been quite an introduction to off-roading for me, and Derek admitted to having been taken aback by some of the stuff we’d been asked to drive, but we’d made it in one piece and now I was ready for a hearty dinner and a good kip.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because Derek had booked us into what seemed like the only hotel in town, but this time the food was very average (the menu had two choices: like it or lump it) and we ended up in a shared room that felt more like a prison cell. Still, a lot of the other teams appeared to be settling down for a night in their cars, and there wasn’t any shortage of honest local plonk at the bar, so you’re not going to hear me complaining.

The severity of the off-roading had been compounded by the angry, grey weather on day one, but we woke to bright sunshine – which turned out to be quite appropriate, because the morning’s roadbook was a much easier drive on a set of long and beautiful trails along the sides of a wooded valley that seemed to go on forever. It wasn’t all plain sailing, especially for the driver of a Jeep Cherokee we saw stranded on top of what looked like a landslide, but there was nothing to compare to the tortuous rocks we’d seen the previous day.

That was until the very end of the afternoon’s roadbook, at least. We’d set off late in the morning and had to miss the last section out, but Derek seemed secretly relieved about that when we got talking to some other Brits at the finishing point in another of those villages in the middle of nowhere. They had just been through it, and their eyes were still wide with a mixture of adrenaline and fear. One of them described a loose, rocky and very wet climb up a sheer hillside, with ninety-degree twists on the way and sheer drop-offs behind you if you got it wrong and rolled backwards. It sounded like the worst of the tracks from the morning before, only this time going uphill in failing light. Scary.

Not as scary as the final morning, though. Once again, Derek had found us somewhere to stay, and we threw open our windows to see sheets of rain plummeting out of the sky. At the day’s briefing, the organisers were giving out stern warnings about the ground conditions, and a lot of crews seemed to be pulling out.

It gave us a dilemma. We hadn’t come all this way to shirk the challenge,  but at the same time we knew the Land Rover had to get us home again. I have to admit that I was very apprehensive about what might be waiting for us if we gave it a go, but Derek finally made a very good point. ‘When you’re on your death bed, are you going to look back on your life and proudly say “at least I did two days of the 1000 Rivers before chickening out?’” And with that, we took our roadbook and jumped aboard.

To be fair, it did turn out to be moderately terrifying. Early in the route, we were on one of those mountain roads that seems to cling to the side of the valley, when the roadbook told us to turn right on to a track – which appeared to simply drop off the edge. I wanted to get out and take a look, but there were a couple of marshals waving at us not to block the carriageway, so Derek just shifted it into low range, put it into first gear and grunted something about having life insurance, and over we went. It turned out to be less scary than it first seemed, though with all the rain the surface was very slippy and there were times when we seemed to be going sideways before the Landy’s tyres once again found enough grip to keep us under control.

Grip was definitely the theme for that final day. I’d have thought the soil-covered forest floors would be the areas worst affected by the rain, but how wrong I was. Every rock we hit had our wheels spinning violently, sliding us this way and that as we fought to find traction; by the end of the day, Derek had explained to me what a locking diff was for – and vowed to fit a pair before his next adventure.

Where that adventure might be, and with whom, is another story. I can say for sure that I’m up for anything now, though. I’ve come late to the off-road game – but after this amazing introduction to the joys of Land Rovering, how could I possibly want to stop now? 

One of the great things about  off-roading in France is the variety of vehicles you see. Where else would you find a G-Wagen, a YJ Wrangler and an Auverland in close convoy?

 Days two and three provided some serious contrast in terms of the weather and the off-roading alike. The first was spectacularly scenic and mainly easy to drive, though the Grand Cherokee seen here needed a tug to get over this mound. Towards the end of the day, though, the terrain became much tougher – a foretaste of what was to come in the morning, when it was all about wet rocks and dense, misty woodland

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