Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Gearing up for the trek

Another old tale in the Blast From The Past series, leading up to the longest and most demanding overland trip that I've ever had the privilege to be a part of - the Petronas Adventure Team's Trans Sahara 2004. This article was published in The Star in the run-up to the event proper.

THE average family car travels 15,000 to 20,000km in a year. The typical Petronas Adventure Team (PAT) expedition covers about the same distance in around six weeks. While the difference may not seem too dramatic to some, consider that your car rolls over smooth bitumen all the time whereas the PAT like to venture off the beaten path.
In addition to the difficult and often unpredictable terrain, the adventure-seekers can expect no outside help if anything goes wrong, or when equipment breaks down. There are no spare parts shops at hand where they go to play, no AAM to call for assistance, no petrol stations, no 7-Eleven stores, nothing. Out there, nothing is certain, other than Murphy’s Law, which pessimistically prophesises that “if anything can go wrong, it will”.
Reliability is the most important factor when choosing equipment for overland treks to places far, far away from civilisation, and the adventure begins with the choice of vehicle. It has to be reliable; it has to be rugged, and spacious enough to carry up to three occupants and their essential gear in reasonable comfort for many days at a stretch.
Four-wheel-drive (4WD) is a must, given that the trail will surely serve up challenging obstacles such as soft sand or gooey mud or steep inclines. The ability to spread the engine’s power among all four wheels instead of just two means that each wheel on a 4WD vehicle is less likely to lose traction and spin, and thus, is more capable of making it through difficult terrain than a conventional 2WD vehicle.
The most popular choice among PAT members is Toyota’s big Land Cruiser, favoured because of its legendary reputation for ruggedness and reliability and its capacious cabin, which can hold all the stuff – camping and cooking gear, clothing, spare parts and tools of all shapes and sizes, plenty of food and water – needed to survive several weeks in the wilderness. It also has a big, stout six-cylinder diesel engine displacing over four litres to lug all that weight around.
When there is a sufficient “critical mass” of Land Cruisers, it becomes logical for newcomers to choose the same make and model to simplify maintenance and repairs in the field. The mechanics on the expeditions become familiar with the Toyotas and have an inventory of spare parts for a single type of vehicle.
Such is the reputation of the PAT trips as an excellent test of vehicle reliability that Ford Malaysia promptly agreed when invited to be a sponsor. It will be sending two Everest SUVs and a Ranger 4X4 pick-up, along with adequate spare parts, as official vehicles for the Petronas Trans Sahara 2004 expedition.
“This is a tremendous challenge that will test man and machine to the limit, and we are absolutely thrilled to send our 4x4 vehicles along to help ensure the event is successful,” said Ford Malaysia managing director Mike Pease.
History buffs will be thrilled to learn that Ford 4X4 light trucks, such as the F30, have performed with distinction in the Sahara as far back as 1941. They were the mounts of the British 8th Army’s Long Range Desert Group, better known by their acronym LRDG, during their daring behind-enemy-lines raids that were such a thorn in the side for Germany’s Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel.
Ford’s modern 2.5l turbodiesel 4WD vehicles have proven their worth in everyday use in Malaysia, but the Trans Sahara will be a different ball game altogether because no vehicle in standard form is capable of surviving what the PAT has in mind, not even the Land Cruiser.
“There are a number of modifications that are compulsory for all vehicles,” says PAT’s technical co-ordinator Stiven Sim, who has over a dozen years' experience in the 4X4 equipment business.
Taking on the vast expanse of the unforgiving Sahara is an endeavour not to be taken lightly (no pun intended). All the necessary equipment add up to nearly two tonnes, Sim says, so the vehicle’s suspension must be upgraded to cope with the extra weight as well as to give better ground clearance and wheel travel.
From past experience, he says, the constant pounding over hours on end would cause standard shock absorbers to overheat and fail within a couple of hours.
It's going to be very hot where they're going so the vehicle cooling system must be upgraded.
Every vehicle has to be fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank to boost capacity from the standard 70-80 litres up to around 150 litres of diesel because of the great distances between fuel stops. It also needs to have two extra jerry cans for another 40 litres of fuel; one jerry can for water; heavy duty bumpers front and rear as well as side steps; shovels, high-lift jacks, and a robust roof rack to hold the assorted gear.
Even 4WD vehicles can get bogged down. If they don’t get stuck at all, the adventurers will probably complain (at least during the early days, when everyone is fresh and energetic) that the track is too easy. So, each vehicle has to carry a comprehensive array of equipment and tools to get stuck vehicles mobile again.
A useful bit of kit on any off-road vehicle is the electrically powered winch, usually bolted solidly to the front bumper. Since a winch draws large amounts of current from the vehicle’s 12V battery, prudent off-roaders often install a second battery, just in case.
“To do up a vehicle up to the minimum specifications for an expedition can cost RM25,000 to RM30,000,” Sim reckons, “but there are people who have spent more than RM50,000 ... they have fridges, TV screens and DVD players built in.”
There are a couple of dedicated service vehicles crewed by experienced mechanics and stocked with tools and spare parts. But each vehicle also has to carry its own spares, including fuel, oil and air filters, inner tubes, hoses, shock absorbers, fan and timing belts, bulbs, clamps, fuses, prop shaft ... and the list goes on.
There are also items deemed essential for personal survival, as well as navigation and communication equipment. These include GPS (Global Positioning System) units, two-way radios, goggles and headscarf (for protection in the event of sandstorms), first aid kit, torch and whistle. For the Sahara trip, the expedition doctor has advised every participant to drink at least five litres of water a day to ward off dehydration. So each vehicle has to carry 60 to 100 litres of potable water, sufficient for three people for up to seven days.
If the average family car is akin to a jogger who runs two kilometres a day for three weeks, a PAT vehicle is the Olympic marathoner who covers the same distance – 42km – in just two-and-a-half hours. That’s the difference.