Land Rover Experience Tour, British Columbia
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Story and photos by Tony Whitney

There’s an oft-mentioned statistic, never really substantiated, that SUVs only get driven off road about three or four per cent of the time. If that IS the case (and I’ve never entirely believed it) then British Columbia SUV owners in particular are missing out on some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. You may not feel like taking your new set of 4X4 wheels out into the bush, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with some amazing experiences.

The joys of off-roading were brought home to me recently when I joined a group from Germany on a demanding expedition with Land Rover products in the B.C. interior. The circumstances surrounding this event were interesting to say the least and the trip reinforced my faith in these amazingly capable vehicles.

The German distribution division for Land Rover organizes its Land Rover Experience Tour each year and the core of the event is a national competition. Entrants from all over Germany compete at various levels for one of just six places on the expedition. Entrants (and there were 9,000 of them) didn’t have to own a Land Rover product, but they needed to be fit and have good driving experience, though not necessarily off-road. As with so many European countries, Germany has few places to enjoy off-road driving and there are even commercial operations which operate locations where SUV fans can enjoy at least a taste of “rough stuff.”

To battle their way to the contest final, entrants faced a wide range of tests, some of which bordered on the “extreme sport” category. Land Rover picks an interesting and demanding country for each “Experience” event and locations have ranged from Asia to Africa and points in between.

Europe may deprive SUV owners of good off-road opportunities, but B.C. has no such problem. One estimate underlines that the province has something like 350,000 km of unpaved backroads for 4X4 fans to enjoy. Most of these routes service the forest industry and the reason so many of them are highly demanding is worth explaining. When an area of forest is ready for harvesting, roads are built so that log trucks can access the timber and haul it out – often to the nearest inlet where it can be boomed for transportation by water.

Land Rover Experience Tour, British Columbia
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Once the logged area is re-planted, the access roads are left unmaintained until the timber matures and is ready for harvesting again. In the years between planting and harvesting, these roads provide enthusiasts with some of the best off-roading on the planet and many can be demanding in the extreme. Huge gullies have to be crossed, streams and rivers forded and steep grades covered with loose rocks climbed and descended.

That the Land Rover people chose B.C. for its tour this year was both a tribute to the demands of the territory and a useful boost to the province’s tourism industry. The six finalists, two women and four men, were equipped with three Land Rover Freelanders and a group of German media people were allocated either Range Rovers or Land Rover Discoverys. As the only Canadian journalist on the first five-day leg of the trip, I had use of a very capable Discovery (which actually belonged to Richmond Land Rover dealer Ryan Cowell).

The six contestants “blazed the way” for the rest of us using maps and GPS systems. Two nights involved wilderness camping and almost a day and a half was on the endless trails of the sprawling Douglas Lake Ranch – largest working ranch in Canada with 22,000 head of cattle scattered over a huge area. For the contestants, it wasn’t all driving Land Rovers. Special tasks included rappelling down a cliff under a spectacular waterfall and riding in a rodeo ring, though thankfully, not on anything that would buck. It’s hard to say exactly where we were much of the time. We did touch briefly on Revelstoke and part of the Okanagan Valley, but the vastness of BC’s mountainous and remote interior swallowed the small group up for hours at a time. The scenery that far off the main routes is spectacular and the sheer quietness of the valleys and mountainsides is reason enough to venture into the bush – and a good reason for buying a capable SUV.

Land Rover Experience Tour, British Columbia
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Some of the obstacles that had to be crossed would have challenged a tank, but the best of today’s SUVs can handle amazingly difficult terrain. My Discovery was probably the top Land Rover on the trip – mainly because of its excellent “approach and departure” angles, aiding the chore of getting in and out of deep ditches and stream beds. Though we were tallying about 300 km a day in very severe conditions, there wasn’t a single mechanical problem during my stint with the group.

Towards the end of the trip, I took over a Range Rover that was being used to carry the tour doctor and his medical gear. The big luxury SUV was surprisingly refined even on very rugged surfaces and could certainly tackle the same kind of terrain the smaller rigs were bouncing over.

Perhaps we take our endless backroads for granted in this country and that’s perhaps why those “time spent off-road” percentages for SUVs quoted earlier are so low. I can only say that anyone who ventures into these areas with their SUV will garner an unforgettable experience – and often, you don’t have to go that far to get into the bush.

Of course, no excursion into the back country should be tackled without proper planning. No driver should think of trying it without taking a few basic necessities along – the kind of gear experienced hikers would pack for a longish trip into the mountains. Remember that you won’t find gas stations out there and that any vehicle is likely to use more fuel across rugged terrain than it would on paved roads.

Land Rover Experience Tour, British Columbia
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When you purchase an SUV, you should check what level of off-roading it’s suitable for. Automakers are perfectly honest about this and will advise you without hesitation whether your choice of vehicle is built for serious back country terrain – or whether its off-road use should be confined to gravel or dirt roads.

Most of the roads we travelled in the Land Rovers are available for public use and are out there waiting for you if you want to get away from the crowded main routes with your SUV. Just be warned though, that active logging roads should always be avoided. A truckload of logs descending a steep grade is not an easy thing to manoeuvre or stop – I know, because I’ve tried it. As with all forays into the back roads, safety should always be the major consideration.

I’ve no idea yet who won the Land Rover Experience Tour contest and certainly wouldn’t like to have the job of sorting that one out myself. They were six extraordinary people and after their lengthy stint on B.C.’s forest backroads, they became pretty good off-road drivers too.

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