Roaming the range in Land Rovers
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As the other participants in the Above and Beyond Land Rover experience enjoy their lunchtime helicopter flights, I settle back in the comfortable cabin of a Range Rover HSE, and reflect on the spectacle provided by the three previous days.
The helicopter feels surplus to my needs because this event has fully lived up to its Above and Beyond billing. We had already seen lots of high-altitude views on the adventure, but without ever leaving the ground.
Now, here we were at Leaning Rock, 1600m above sea level with a view ranging all the way from Wānaka to Ranfurly, from Aspiring to Aoraki, from pinot noir country to sauvignon blanc. Who needs a helicopter when there’s a choice of either a $149,900 Range Rover Sport SDV6 HSE, or a $115,900 Land Rover Discovery TD6 SE to access such a breath-taking panorama?
The two four-wheeled luxury cart-horses of the Above and Beyond event represent just two snapshots of a Land Rover New Zealand range that offers a bewildering array of no less than 52 models, yet they took on some challenging terrain and won every encounter.
In four days, I saw only one lose forward momentum as it got stuck in some soft stuff in the upper reaches of the Ashburton River, but as soon as the driver reversed, the Landie quickly freed itself of the quicksand.
The way the Discovery and the Range Rover could combine huge reserves of on-road refinement with mountain goat-like agility and traction in the mountains was nothing short of inspiring.
However, there was a far bigger star on this event than the vehicles that supported it. It was our landscape, presented from a similar viewpoint to that of a soaring kea.
Most participants were from Asia, with the largest contingents coming from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Many had won their seats in the adventure-seeking Land Rovers by displaying their skill in low-speed driving challenges back in their home countries.
Vietnam was another Land Rover market that took part in the #trailtonz challenge, but when the winners could not get visas to visit New Zealand in time, it left some vacant seats for the grand finale of the exercise. These were quickly filled through the issuing of 11th-hour invitations to the media, including a photogenic pair of social culturists.
Sitting in the leather-clad cab of the HSE while the latter filled the storage banks of yet another global server with their unbridled digital narcissism, it felt a privilege not only to view the landscape from such a bird-like angle, but to share the reactions to it of people who are usually confined to large Asian cities.
We don’t know how lucky we are, sang the late John Clarke, while wearing his Fred Dagg drag. When it comes to the access that we all enjoy to these spectacular wide-open spaces, that’s especially true.
Singapore-based event manager Sonja Piontek first discovered the chosen trails during the adventure riding motorcycle events she took part in during her previous working life here in the early 2000s. Her company is called Unforgettable Experiences and New Zealand is a favourite destination because of its potential to fulfill that promise.
“We come back at least once a year, and these are all tracks that I first got to know while riding motorcycles.”
Having often ridden in the same events as Sonja, I can confirm that it’s a lot safer to traverse these tracks by Land Rover. The last time I went near Leaning Rock on two wheels, I ended up in Lake Dunstan Hospital — handily at the foot of the steep climb to the feature — with a broken ankle.
Above and Beyond kicked off at a far lower altitude, running from Mt Somers along the valley that was formed by the Ashburton River.
The steed-du-jour for this day was the Discovery and after we were granted access to Lake Heron station by leaseholder, Philip Holder, a run through the river bed created an opportunity to experience how Land Rover has refined the adjustable air-bag-sprung suspension that made its debut on the Discovery 3.
Four-by-four purists may not trust air springs to retain their pressure in extended rough use, but no one can complain about the ability to float serenely above the river goolies, rocks and ruts of the South Island wilderness.
Also impressive: the Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tyres fitted to the Land Rovers.
These tough “shoes” would complete the event without a single puncture, the strengthened sidewalls resisting multiple encounters with sharp-edged rocks, while also adding to the body-roll control in tarseal corners. The lugs at the outer edges of the treads of the Goodyears improved traction noticeably during the off-road sections at the expense of only a minor increase in road noise when back on the hard-granite chips used to seal roads in the South Island.
The Disco would be my partner’s and my drive over the first half of the event, and the swap into the Range Rover shifted our affections to the more upmarket Land Rover product.
As the comfort level was lifted by the swap into the Range Rover’s more digitally enhanced and lounge-like cabin, the trails we encountered become tougher. This cemented the bond.
The spectacularly bleak and tree-less hills of the Oteake Conservation Park provided 11-degree climbs that would be surpassed in steepness only by the Leaning Rock track the following day. Yet the Rangie, with its 2-litre diesel pumping 700Nm of driving force into an eight speed gearbox and adaptive all-wheel-drive system, made the steep gradients feel as tame as those of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Our reward at the top of the climb was a panorama stretching across the MacKenzie country to Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The conservation park took us to St Bathans, where a number of quaint Airbnb locations accommodated the overflow from the historic Vulcan Hotel.
It seems the hotel’s famous ghost, Rosie, murdered there in the 19th century, has finally found some peace. Either that, or the Above and Beyond folk staying there fully caught up on any sleep they had lost the previous night during a windy camp on the shores of Lake Tekapo.
The helicopter returns from its flight, and it’s time for the final descent of the event, from Leaning Rock to Cromwell.
There are some gnarly parts that the Land Rovers take without breaking a sweat, and a neat new feature of the HSE is an off-road cruise control that will strictly maintain the vehicle at a selected speed no matter how bad, or how steep, the terrain.
Meanwhile, I prefer the old-school way of descending and the lowness of the transfer case gearing makes it easy to confine the range Rover to a safe speed with engine braking and gears.
It seems more relaxing and smoother than all that Hill Descent Control palaver.
As we reach civilisation again, the Land Rovers shrug off their off-road conquering personas and become highly-refined on-road beasts again.
The shape-shifting vehicles wear their accumulated grime with pride on a victory lap of Arrowtown, and their drivers know that their more ordinary life is about to resume.