We take on 20 teams of 4wders in the biggest amateur off-road driving competition in the world…Oh yea, in a brand new Volkswagon Amarok 4×4!
Welcome to Spirit of Amarok, the only amateur 4×4 championship with international status. Pitting regular 4WD enthusiasts against each other, it sees true blue teams take on one of Australia’s most demanding 4×4 proving grounds. The prize? An invitation to represent Australia in the Spirit of Amarok International Finals, held in Africa’s unforgiving Kalahari Desert.
Expect mud, sweat and some killer gearshifts.
Pumped and ready for the day (after a couple of large coffees), my team mate Cale and I waited for the event to begin. After an introductory presentation from Pat Callinan and a quick rules briefing, the 21 teams were split into three groups. Teams are made up of a driver and navigator, but roles could be switched at any point.
The event is broken up into three sections – Technical, Rally and Regularity. Each section is made up of three different challenges, each with its own set of headaches.
We were thrown straight in the deep-end on the Technical course. This section was all about low-range control. The aim? Successfully complete the course within the allotted time of 2.00 – 2.05 minutes, while avoiding penalties. Points were deducted for infringements like stalling the car, striking white or orange poles/bollards, wrong turns, reversing and arriving early or late to the finish zone.
Now, it’s worth noting that I usually drive an automatic GU Patrol wagon. A bit different to the brand new, manual Amarok Core 4×4, I was about to pilot around the course (My left foot wasn’t exactly thrilled at being dragged out of retirement).
These low range challenges involved an array of tight turns, steep accents and careful vehicle placement. One particularly gnarly section involved stopping precisely between a set of poles, while the navigator retrieves a flag without removing their seatbelt.
Then comes a steep, slippery hill decent with a tight U turn right at the bottom. Taking care not to strike any poles, I swung the Ute around and hit the loud pedal to accelerate back up the hill. The hardest part was stopping on the hill to let the navigator (my good mate Cale), replace the flag on the opposite side.
I’m now faced with every auto driver’s nightmare – an impossibly steep hill start in a manual vehicle! To my surprise, I nailed it! (Having not driven a manual in about 2 years, I was pretty stoked!).
We scored maximum points on this round, which meant that combined with two decent performances on the other two low range tracks, we were off to a good start.
Next up we faced the Rally section, with a time trials format.
Each team drove the track one at a time, in a race against the clock. 100 points were awarded to the team with the quickest time, 90 points for 2nd and so on. As with the technical event, there were penalties for infringements.
Teams would have 5 seconds added to their time for each of the following, jumping the start, striking a course marker and over shooting the stop zone. The penalty for taking a wrong direction was instant minimum points! (This put a lot of pressure and responsibility on the navigator).
Having never driven on a rally track before, Cale and I were both bloody excited! Cale took the driver’s seat for the first challenge. My job was to navigate, but with one wrong turn set to cost us heaps of points, I don’t mind admitting I was pretty nervous. I studied the pace notes carefully, reading them aloud over and over.
It was a good drive by Cale, who pulled it off with no mistakes. We didn’t incur any penalties, and I successfully navigated us around the course.
Next up it was my turn to take the wheel. The adrenalin was really pumping when I pulled the Amarok up on the start line. Only one thought was going through my head – “Don’t stall the bloody thing”.
We were off to a good start (what a relief). The speed of the little 4-banger diesel really took me by surprise. It was quick off the line, and by the time the twin turbochargers were spooled up there was heaps of power on tap. It handled bloody well too, after the first chicane I had the confidence to really throw the big Ute into the sharp corners.
Luckily, Cale was on point with the navigation. This was the trickiest course of the day, with more than half of our group taking wrong turns.
The last Rally course of the day was the reverse of the first course with an extra section of track thrown in to try and catch out lazy navigators. Cale was back in the saddle for this round.
“3-2-1, GO!”…. Stall! (Oh bugger!)
A quick restart and we were off at the second time of asking. We absolutely smashed our way around the course, and in an effort to make up lost time Cale pushed the Amarok hard the whole way. Maybe too hard, because we overshot the end zone and copped a 5 second penalty. Doh!
Our last section of the event was Regularity. The aim of the game is precision speed management and car control. We had to obey speed signs on the course and tackle obstacles at the designated speed, aiming for an unknown target time.
I drove the first two challenges. The first was slower and more technical with various speed limits to follow (5,10,40 km/h). The second was a rally style course with a constant speed limit of 50 km/h. I felt both challenges had gone pretty well, but we had no way of knowing for sure.
The last event was a bit different… Cue the reverse slalom. Basically, complete the course in the quickest time possible without hitting any of the bollards. Another driver swap saw Cale step up to the mark. (After all, the bloke can back a B-double; this should be a piece of cake…)
“3-2-1, GO!”…. Stall! (Yes again!) I actually lost count of the number of times the truck stalled on this track; I think it was about 4. (Did you notice the auto driver didn’t stall once? Here’s to small victories aye).
All joking aside, it was a top drive. We navigated the course with me frantically shouting instructions, “right hand down! Chase hard, straighten up!” Despite a few stalls we nailed it, some how managing to avoid hitting any bollards.
With the event finished, all that remained was for the scores to be revealed and the winners announced. When event organisers eventually took to the stage they announced that this had been the tightest day of competition in the event’s history, with only 10 points separating 1st and 3rd place.
In classic dramatic fashion, 3rd place was announced, followed by 2nd place, followed by literally a 5-minute pause (ok maybe not literally). “In 1st place and going to Africa to represent Australia… Team Ned!”
Wait, did I mention our team name was Ned? We only bloody won!
We were honestly blown away and totally shocked to have taken it home. It’s all a bit of a blur after that, but I do remember being asked by the interviewer (to an eruption of laughter), “Is that a performance enhancing flanno your wearing?” Who knows, but you can bet your ass I’ll be wearing flanno in Africa!