4 x 4 Australia - - Front Page - DEAN MELLOR

IRECENTLY drove down a lit­tle-used track that was slowly be­ing re­claimed by the bushes and shrubs that once resided in its fer­tile soil. It was ini­tially a lit­tle tricky try­ing to avoid some over­hang­ing ‘scratchy’ trees, but the first cou­ple of hun­dred me­tres didn’t present much of a chal­lenge. Then, as the den­sity of the fo­liage in­creased, the track it­self started to de­te­ri­o­rate un­der the ve­hi­cle’s tyres, with hid­den washouts and fallen rocks strewn across our path.

As we rounded a bend, it be­came abun­dantly ob­vi­ous we couldn’t pro­ceed. Orig­i­nally cut into the side of a very steep hill, a sub­stan­tial land­slide had now made the track com­pletely im­pass­able. There wasn’t enough space to safely turn around; I’d have to re­verse back up the treach­er­ous track.

My usual co-driver on such ad­ven­tures wasn’t in the pas­sen­ger seat; he was about 300m away on the other side of a ridge op­er­at­ing a UAV that was film­ing our lack of progress. In­stead, his 17-yearold son Timbo sat be­side me, mak­ing jokes about his “years of ex­pe­ri­ence” of off-road driv­ing.

“Well, Timbo, it’s time to prove your met­tle,” I thought, as I in­structed him to jump out and di­rect me back up.

I’ve worked with Timbo’s old man for more than a decade; I do the driv­ing and he takes the pho­tos. Over the years we’ve man­aged to safely put some four-wheel drives into some very ex­treme sit­u­a­tions, all in the name of chas­ing that ‘per­fect’ shot. In do­ing so, we’ve de­vel­oped a pretty good sys­tem for ma­noeu­vring ve­hi­cles in tricky spots, through a com­bi­na­tion of hand sig­nals and talk­ing on the UHF. In fact, we’ve done this suc­cess­fully so many times now I no longer need to watch where I’m go­ing at all; I just keep my eyes on his hand sig­nals and lis­ten for his in­struc­tions over the air. Ba­si­cally, I do as I’m told.

Now young Timbo loves his four-wheel driv­ing. He gets be­hind the wheel of his dad’s rig when­ever he gets the chance, then as soon as we stop some­where to set up for a shot he’s up on the roof rack grab­bing his RC crawler out of the gear bag and driv­ing it up some moun­tain some­where ’til it’s time to press on to the next photo op. Like his dad, he seems to have a knack for off-road driv­ing.

Bear­ing his en­thu­si­asm in mind, I thought he’d make a pretty de­cent navi, re­gard­less of his lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence. Pre­par­ing to back out of our cur­rent tricky predica­ment, I dou­ble-checked the po­si­tion of the mir­rors, en­gaged re­verse, glanced at the re­vers­ing mon­i­tor and awaited Timbo’s in­struc­tions. Noth­ing. “Timbo!” I called. “You ready?” He stood there, mo­tion­less, not quite sure what to do.

“Mate, I need you to tell me what’s be­hind me,” I said. “Just let me know if I need to turn left or right and keep an eye out that I’m not go­ing to back into any­thing.”

“Okay, back her up, she’ll be right,” he mum­bled, not in­spir­ing much con­fi­dence.

I reckon we’d re­versed about 50m when I no­ticed the right rear wheel was about to fall into a mas­sive washout. I hadn’t heard any “left-hand down” calls or seen any hand sig­nals at all, de­spite the fact Timbo could eas­ily see the hole in which I was about to fall. It was as though he was frozen with fear.

I jumped out of the ve­hi­cle and had a quiet word with him. “Mate, all I need you to do is tell me to turn left or right,” I said, but he im­plied that he wasn’t at all con­fi­dent is­su­ing those in­struc­tions. This made me won­der what I’d feel like as a 17-year-old kid, di­rect­ing a vastly more ex­pe­ri­enced (read: much older) four-wheel driver back up a track that we should prob­a­bly have never driven down in the first place. Was it fair of me to place such a bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity on this young bloke?

Re­gard­less of the rights or wrongs, we had to some­how get back up the track. We went for a wan­der on foot and even­tu­ally agreed upon a suit­able spot to turn around. Tim as­sured me he wouldn’t let me drive over the precipice to a hor­ri­ble, fiery death and, even­tu­ally, we man­aged a rea­son­ably safe 30-odd-point turn and made our way back to the main track.

“He’s pretty handy with that RC crawler,” I told his old man. “I thought he’d be a good navi.”

“Have you seen how many times he’s crashed that thing?” laughed his dad.

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