4x4 trail review
Carnage Canyon is not the sort of trail where you can pitch up, pay an entrance fee, and spend a leisurely Sunday driving some obstacles. It is arguably the toughest 4x4 test South Africa has to offer.
Carnage Canyon isn’t your typical trail. You can’t find it on a map and it isn’t truly operated by anyone. Even its exact location is a secret. All that can be said is that it is in the Limpopo Province, less than 100km from Polokwane. What you’ll also quickly notice by studying some of the local 4×4 forums, is that Carnage Canyon is a phenomenally difficult trail. It is 6.2km of extreme off-roading in a riverbed that features massive rocks, thick sand and loads of water. To make matters even worse, it’s a ‘one way in, one way out’ sort of trail; once you’ve completed it, you need to find your way out via the same route that you just travelled. A service road runs next to the trail for much of the distance, so escape is a possibility at certain sections, but this is the sort of trail where you need to commit for the long haul. There are no traditional escape routes or ‘chicken runs’. The last 500m is particularly daunting. It provides the toughest challenges of the entire trail, and no service roads run next to it. If you get stuck there, you’re properly stuck. Completing that section of trail with a small convoy of vehicles
can easily take five hours.
Ronald Hairbottle, owner of 4×4 Traction in Polokwane, is one of the custodians of the trail. He takes people out onto the route and organises weekend excursions. “We stumbled on it while playing in the river one day. The more we explored, and the deeper we ventured, the more we realised that this was a phenomenal off-road challenge. We keep its exact location a bit of a secret, since we don’t want it to be overrun with people, and we also don’t want people to tackle it if they don’t know how challenging it is. It’s not as daunting as Letele Pass, for instance, since it’s not as dangerous. It’s very challenging from a technical standpoint, but you’re not going to roll your vehicle,” he says.
If death or injury is unlikely, however, vehicle damage is practically inevitable. “If all goes well, you won’t wreck your car, but there will be dings and scratches. A rock is going to touch something, somewhere.”
More serious damage is also possible, which is why Ronald recommends taking along spares like axle shafts, U-joints for front axle shafts and propshafts, diff oil, power steering fluid, sealant for diff covers, fuses, relays, electrical wire and a good set of tools.
Good recovery gear is equally essential. Things like a compressor, tyre repair kit, hilift jack, solid recovery points, bow shackles, a snatch strap and a winch can help get you out of a tricky situation.
From the above, it should be clear that this is not a trail to tackle in a standard 4×4. “You need at least 33-inch tyres, though 35-inch ones are better,” says Ronald. “You also need diff locks, preferably on both the front and rear axles, and you need to make sure that your vehicle is sturdy and reliable. If any component is acting up, you want to have it sorted out before tackling the trail.”
In addition, you want to fit your vehicle with protection. Ronald suggests diff, steering and belly protection, as well as rock sliders. Ground clearance is obviously crucial, so you don’t want any of these to massively reduce clearance.
Once your vehicle is ready, how long can you expect to be out on the trail? “It takes the average group two days. It’s a slow and technical process. However, it can also be a fun and social affair. The service road allows for spectators to follow the action and cart along camping gear, so when we take people out to Carnage Canyon, we camp right on the trail. It’s tough but very enjoyable. If you have the right attitude, it will be one of your fondest 4×4 memories.”
Main and above left: Carnage Canyon features some large and intimidating obstacles. It’s not the sort of trail you can tackle in a standard 4x4. Even heavily modified vehicles need occasional help. Recovery equipment and a winch are crucial. Right, top: This 6.2km trail should be tackled in convoy. Going it alone will result in disaster. Right, bottom: Carnage Canyon is a massively technical test of your off-roading abilities.