Surrey Off-Road Specialists Limited

The mission was to find a family orientated off-road day out. Along for the trip would be my wife, her brother, his wife and their two children aged six and three. As always, in these situations, Google is your friend and before too long I'd turned up a link to BOFA 4x4's website. 'Bofa 4x4 is not just for the lads, it is also for the ladies too', excellent starter for ten. 'This is a day out for all the family, even bring the dog', great, sorted, well except for the dog... I don't have one! 'There is no need for any special equipment i.e. Mud tyres, Winches or vehicle lifts', ah, got all of those should be easy then, right?

On the allotted Saturday morning we left home around 7 o'clock and headed north in order to be at the meeting place by 9 am. Oh yes, I forgot, the meeting point was the local Pine Café, where there was the promise of the biggest cooked breakfast this side of well erm, anywhere I've been before. Better make sure we got there in plenty of time for that then! We did arrive in good time and whilst I found Colin from BOFA 4x4 and signed in, breakfast was ordered. What was the breakfast like? Well actually, I confess, I didn't go for the full monty version. Having seen the size of it, I settled for the medium size version. Either way it was a great way to start the day. Bill, also of BOFA turned up to collect the money and shortly afterwards we were headed back to the 4x4's to head off to site.

The site in question was over 60 miles of off-road tracks in the Cannock Chase Forest. There was a bit of confusion as we left the car park, partly due to the fact that there were two and also the time it took to get everyone back in the car (this was to be a bit of a recurring theme throughout the rest of the day). Anyway, whilst wondering which way to go at the exit road, with another 'family' and their dog in a standard Discovery, another of the BOFA 4x4 team showed up. After a quick session for anybody new to off-roading to practice a failed hill climb on a slope at the edge of a clearing in the forest we convoyed up to head off. Much of the early driving was on forestry/gravel tracks but it wasn't long before Colin (leading our group in a Series Landrover) headed off up into the trees and on a much narrower dirt trail. Now the fun begins, I thought, and it did in spades! This was mainly for two reasons; one because it had been raining steadily on and off for the last few days and two because my 'truck' is a LandCruiser wagon. The result, a track that was very slippery in places and a truck that seemed to have an affinity for trees. At least that's how it seemed.

Much of the 'off-roading' was nothing but gentle and just required you to follow the, not too deep, ruts. Where I was having fun was getting it round the corners in close proximity to the trees – still, we missed them all somehow! Now, they always say that you should check the track ahead and assess whether you know how to drive it, the route you will pick and what you will do if it doesn't work out the way you planned. On top of that you are taught to consider if your 4x4 of choice is capable of traversing the terrain. However, with a guide in front it was easy to ignore the training. If your guide is going to make it so are you, right?! Well except that the guide knows the track like the back of his hand and he's driving a different vehicle to you. That said he was always on hand to point out any 'tricky' bits, but it's still a good idea to check where you are going unless you like surprises?! It's a lesson you are quick to learn and before long even the guy in front, who was new to off-roading, was hanging back and letting Colin clear anything that looked tricky before attempting it. This turned out to be good practice when Colin ended up sliding backwards into a tree on the slick trail. After winching out he directed us down the track in the other direction. Hmmm, I though this hasn't been driven in a while, best we have a look first. In the end it wasn't too tricky apart from the bit where I couldn't get the big Toyota back in the ruts and ended up turning down the side slope back on the main track to prevent what felt at the time like an imminent 'roll-over'. Apparently from the outside it didn't look anywhere near as exciting - isn't that always the way!

So, how was 'the family' enjoying it? To be fair it was a bit of a squash for the adults and what might be vaguely comfortable on the ‘tarmac’ was anything but on the lumpy, twisting tracks and even worse on the side-slopes. The children, well the youngest was 'loving it' and giggling away like it was her favourite fairground ride. The older one however, was more concerned about her lost sweets and banging her head as the going got rougher. At one point on a steep downhill track I'd completely missed the ruts somehow. Note to self, God invented window winders so you can wind down the window and check where your tyres are pointing... Anyway, having somehow left the safety of the ruts I was now headed for a tree slightly to the right of the trail. Even with the diff-lock in (rear) I wasn't going backwards so at the advice of our guide I carried on hoping to regain the track again. Yep, we made it but, it was a close one. In the midst of it all a voice pipes up from the back – “Mummy can I have another sweet please”!! That diff-lock came in handy a couple of times - not because the terrain was overly extreme but because it simply meant I could take things easier and not have to use momentum to overcome slippery sections. It especially came into its own when trying to climb a tight slippery track up between the trees. Too much momentum here could have had us bouncing into them.

Lunch was an impromptu picnic on the side of a main-track. Chatting to Colin, he told me about the other events BOFA get involved in. These include the Mac 4x4 Challenge in aid of the Macmillan Cancer Support Fund and the BOFA 4x4 Rally European Charity Drive, which is run in conjunction with the Landy Rally. It was shortly after lunch that we took the decision to quit and head home. This was after a track which is probably best described as a 'staircase' and the bouncing about was getting a bit too taxing. Colin let us out the nearest exit and we headed home via the nearest jet-wash which of course wouldn't entertain muddy 4x4's. Actually despite the rain the Toyota was remarkably clean and no cause for concern. In some ways I was sorry to have missed the rest of the day as I'm sure it would have been entertaining but, sometimes it pays to quit while you're ahead. Did we break anything no, just a slight 'kink' in the rear bumper - something to do with a rather lousy departure angle. A few minutes with the bottle jack had that pushed out again. Even seemingly the mildest terrain can cause damage and there was some of that here, with the usual side steps and lights get knocked about. On the whole it was, ‘a big thumbs up’ from the ‘family’ and I for one would certainly go back - just maybe without the children!