I wasn’t sure if I was safer inside the vehicle or out, but I reasoned that at least if I was inside, they’d know where to start looking for my body if this all turned bad. I got back inside, and the four of us drove over the cliff.
I wasn’t sure what off road 4wding would actually involve, and as Sarah, Hamish and I drove out West, I was a little apprehensive of what we’d agreed to. Previously my experience of vehicles off the roads had been the odd time my grandfather let us kids sit on the back of the Landrover. But this would be quite a different adventure from bumbling around the farm.
One never knows how to dress for unknown adventures, so Sarah and I played it conservative, in hoodies and trainers. We were outclassed by Hamish, who looked positively Country Chic, perhaps with a touch of the Sloane Ranger, in his Hunter Wellingtons and safari inspired gilet. We were always going to stick out though, amongst the crowd gathered around their 4wds at the Woodhill 4wd Adventure Park, near Murawai. They’d dressed for warmth, and if it wasn’t covered in mud it soon would be. After standing around looking apprehensive and a bit redundant as the vehicle was prepared for the course, we were politely ushered back into the 4wd by our host, who’d probably lost all street cred (Forest cred? Mud cred?) by being seen with us. With the atmosphere now a bit ‘Please keep your hands in the vehicle, no sudden movements, the animals may bite’, we were told that now was the time to make sure our seat belt was clicked in.
Buckle up and hold on – did we ever. I’ve never appreciated seatbelts more than as we hurtling over the logging tracks and down the hills. I proved numerous times that my seatbelt could take my full bodyweight as we head down a near vertical descent. Very handy indeed.
There are only so many times you can say ‘oh gooooooooooooooooooooooooood’ as you drop down again, or only so much nervous and relieved laughter that can burst out as you come to slightly more solid groundand your body parts become realigned. I quickly became quite quiet, partly out of fear, but more out of awe and respect for the driving skill and strategic thinking required for hurtling ‘safely’ up and down mudding banks. As someone who avoids parallel parking, it was humbling to see the drivers manoeuvre big vehicles out from between two trees, or take on a ridge at just the right angle for a safe passage. There was a real sense of camaraderie and teamwork amongst those taking part that night. We stopped to help other vehicles (‘we’ meaning our host while we tourists looked on) and offered thoughts on the best spot or route. This was boys with toys, with skill.
A couple of hours into our 5 hour off road safari, the sun set. Night felt a little bit unsettling in the forest, as there were periods when the only other sign of life was the odd flash of a headlight in the distance. As we rumbled along in the 4wd, I half expected Sam Neill to jump out of the bushes and tell us to floor it as the T-Rex wasn’t far away and otherwise we probably wouldn’t get off this island alive. Thankfully, not even the smell of our chips and Subway sandwiches could lure any prehistoric life from its hiding. I wouldn’t have wanted to take bets on which of us would have been left standing for the final scenes of any impromptu Jurassic Park re-enactment, but as I was the blondest of the group, it probably wouldn’t have been me.
The evening’s highlight was when our vehicle becoming stuck almost, but not quite, at the crest of a very steep hill. The safari tourists watched on from a safe distance as the drivers roped and winched and revved at engines, and judged just how much the tree could take before it would snap. It was an exercise in physics and mathematics, played out in mud and broken tree branches. It took some time for the right equation to be found, and the right answer to fall out. When we successfully made it over the cliff, in one piece, our host summed up the victory in the succinct and understated ‘Yeah mate, we did it.’
As the 4wds began to rumble out of the forest and away into the night, I felt we’d taken part in something out of the ordinary, even if the most helpful thing I did all night was pass the torch.
Photos by Hamish Coupe