1. WORDS
    LIAM WILSON
    PHOTOGRAPHY
    JOHN WYCHERLEY
    PUBLISHED ONLINE
    18 AUGUST 2015
    • The Range Rover Evoque has proved itself on the city streets, but what about off-road? Verifying its Land Rover credentials, seasoned off-road driver Liam Wilson takes the vehicle across Oman's toughest terrains.

      My foot is flat on the floor and the steering wheel is straight – but I’m going sideways across the orange dune.

      The sand is so incredibly soft, and all the time I’m thinking about the car. If I accelerate too hard, I could spin the rim inside the tyre, and if I turn too aggressively, the tyre could climb right off the rim. But, hell, this is amazing. I want to scream with excitement.

      I fly into Muscat, Oman, a city that feels so foreign to a Jo’burg boy like me, with its low white buildings and taller, grander mosques. The first thing that hits you is the heat – the moment you step off the plane, it smacks you hard.

      The plan is to drive down from Muscat to Ibra, where I can put a Range Rover Evoque through its paces over the dunes of Wahiba Sands and, if that isn’t enough, then head north to Jebel Shams to test the car in the rocky Al Hajar Mountains.

      Highlights of Liam's off-road adventure in Oman

      This kind of driving is why I work as an instructor at Johannesburg’s Kyalami Land Rover Experience Centre. With them, I’ve travelled all over South Africa, to Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia and I’ve just been driving the all-new Range Rover through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. But up to now, my sand driving was mostly in Mozambique, so when the opportunity to visit Oman came through, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

      The opportunity to do it in a Range Rover Evoque was also a big pull. It’s a great car; to date it has collected over 160 international awards. On-road, the Range Rover Evoque is really comfortable, has great sportiness around bends and you feel absolutely confident in it. The suspension design on this car is excellent, it feels incredibly solid. But off-road? Well that’s what I’m here to see, and I hope I’m going to show everyone that you can go off-road in style.

      I spend a night in Muscat, where once you get used to the heat you can pay attention to the regular calls to prayer and eat really tasty food – probably the best chicken kebabs and hummus I’ve ever had. But, truthfully, I am champing at the bit, I’m here to drive.

      Early the next morning, I wake up to the sound of loud rain. According to the locals, it’s the heaviest in years.

      Left
      Right
      Oman's terrain provided a tough test for the Range Rover Evoque and Liam Wilson

      All this way to the desert – and it rains. The Range Rover Evoque, of course, is undaunted and we set off for Wahiba Sands. Driving west towards Nizwa, Oman’s original capital, I hit really heavy traffic. We are at a standstill and ahead I can see the jam stretching for miles. There are obviously kindred spirits here, because a few 4x4s ahead of me start turning off the road, heading on to a very rugged track. I don’t need a second prompt. I follow them over a mountain pass that I swear I have seen on an old Star Trek episode.

      When we finally meet tar again, I see the cause of the snarl up: the road is flooded by an overflowing river. You can’t be completely gung-ho when it comes to driving through water, you just never know if you’ll hit sharp rocks or an even deeper patch. So I inch forward, with the water flowing strongly against the Range Rover Evoque’s wheels. I know that we have 215mm clearance, so we’ll be fine if we are careful, but usually I advise anyone in this situation to get out of your car first and test the water level with a stick.

      Once through, I can finally pay attention to the surroundings and the huge number of locals who have made a day trip to see the flooding from the freak weather. Some have even brought a picnic.

      All this way to the desert – and it rains. The Range Rover Evoque, of course, is undaunted.

      It takes seven long hours but we finally reach Wahiba Sands. The sky is enormous with such bright stars. I’m not just impressed by the beauty of it – the clear sky also means a dry day for the dunes.

      At 8am the next day, I check the Range Rover Evoque’s thermometer: 35ºC. This is going to be interesting.

      Dune driving requires a lot of planning, otherwise you can damage your car, no matter how good it is. You need to deflate your tyres before you hit the sand, though remember, low-profile tyres need less deflation. This is a careful balancing act because you can’t go too soft on the tyres, this might cause the rims to spin.

    • That’s it, I’m ready. I shift Terrain Response into the sand programme, and slowly head out into the dunes. It is beautiful. It feels untouched, as if nobody’s been here before. Soon, the sun above me is the only reference point I have. According to the satnav, I’m on an unnamed road, so I drop a waypoint to trace my journey. Waypoints act like breadcrumbs, so you can find your way back, very useful when venturing off-road.

      Driving on Mozambique’s beaches taught me the benefit of switching off Dynamic Stability Control, which I do here. I really rely on the paddle manual shift, too – staying in first gear as long as I need to, before shifting to the next gear. This means maximum control as I tackle the enormous dunes around me.

      The first lesson comes quickly. I spot fresh tracks heading up one particularly impressive dune, and obviously, if they can do it, I can too. So to gather momentum, I head for the tracks and floor it. Big mistake. Because the sand in the tracks has already been churned up, it is incredibly soft. Soon I’m sliding sideways, so I quickly aim for unmarked sand to gain traction. And up I go. The nose of the Range Rover Evoque is so high I can’t see the ground beneath me. The cabin hears a few loud shrieks of excitement.

      The Range Rover Evoque uses Hill Descent Control to tackle a dune

      And now I start to really enjoy myself. I throw the Range Rover Evoque across the dunes, totally carving them up, and the beauty of it all is that when you return 15 minutes later, the wind has covered your tracks.

      The Hill Descent comes into its own down the steepest dunes and the day flies past. The sun is already setting when I realise I need to head back to camp.

      The next day, well before dawn, I pack the car, ready for the Al Hajar Mountains. With Dynamic Stability Control back on, it’s a smooth ride. Once we hit gravel, I start to see the enormous wadis – valleys – that the area is known for. Dark grey rocks and very high outcrops, I’m sure that the Star Trek set designers were here, too.

      Thanks to the earlier rainfall, water still flows through the wadis, and I have to check a few path options before I choose to drive into Wadi Khabbah. I need all my concentration here as the wheels sink into the soft riverbed. This is much harder than driving in the dunes. To gain sufficient traction, I accelerate hard and the Range Rover Evoque takes me deeper into the wadi, and closer to the rocky Jebel Shams mountain.

      The Range Rover Evoque has a wading depth of 500mm

      Out of the valley, I hit tar again and drive past more families en route to their picnics, hundreds of date palms and clusters of identical square cream-coloured buildings.

      It isn’t long before these signs of civilisation fall away and the jagged limestone height of Jebel Shams come into view – all 3,000 metres of it.

      The incline comes quickly, but you need to drive very slowly over these types of rocks. This is pure technical driving. There’s a good chance you’re going to get the wheels up in the air, which is always fun, and remember to keep an eye out for sharp rocks – they might not look too threatening, but if they cut the sidewall, your tyre’s finished.

      For any rock driving, it’s always best to get out of the car and see what you’re going to be heading over. A gap of about five centimetres can make a huge difference when you’re manoeuvring over rocks. And if you ever need more clearance, grab a rock and place it underneath one of the front wheels. You’ll get a lot more lift like this.

      Loose rocks are one of the trickiest terrains. You’ll be tempted to hit the accelerator to gain traction, but don’t. You could flick rocks up that might damage the undercarriage of your car – or hit the vehicles behind you.

      The Range Rover Evoque on the rocky Al Hajar Mountains

      Like sand driving, tyre pressure is important here. Too hard and you might puncture the tyre; too soft and the weight of the car will be on the rim, and you might pinch the sidewall and the rim, which will cause a snakebite puncture. You need to underinflate just to the point that it has a bit of give, just a little leeway over those rocks.

      However, unlike sand driving, this is not a terrain to tear around in. At every point, I have to be on top of my game. Driving up these rocks needs to done with complete concentration, attention given to all four wheels. You need to remember that the back wheels sometimes take a different route from the front, so if you turn too early, you could damage the side skirts and the sensors. To help me over the rocks, I choose a lower gear to give me lower speed control.

      And that’s it. I have reached the peak of Jebel Shams. From here, at one of the highest points in the Gulf, you can see steep rocky valleys and gorges that seem to stretch forever.

      It’s magnificent – and the Range Rover Evoque has been fantastic. It wasn’t built to spend its entire life driving off-road, and yet it handled beautifully. Good thing too, I still need to get down the mountain…


      This article was first published in 2013
  2. WORDS
    LIAM WILSON
    PHOTOGRAPHY
    JOHN WYCHERLEY
    PUBLISHED ONLINE
    18 AUGUST 2015

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