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This is the single-news section of the news "Offroad & Motorsports". To see all news please use the link under the article or navigate with the left main-navigation.

4x4 Eco Challenge Semi-finals currently underway in the Kalahari

It’s the trip of a lifetime: a spectacular two week long off-road adventure in the most remote corners of Mozambique. And it’s the carrot dangling at the end of the string for over 100 teams currently competing in the semi-finals of the 2006 4x4 Eco Challenge. Only ten will be chosen.

As off-road competitions go, the 4x4 Eco Challenge is truly unique. The brainchild of 4x4 enthusiast and conservationist Gerhard Groenewald, the event is unusual in that it places considerable emphasis on Earth-friendly driving, as well as appreciation and understanding of the environment.

Now in its sixth year, the Toyota and Goodyear-sponsored challenge has been staged in some of the most beautiful and unspoilt locations in southern Africa, including Zambia’s Luiwa plains and the golden dunes of the Namib Desert. This is the first time the Eco Challenge finalists will be crossing the border into Mozambique.

Each year the finalists get the opportunity to participate in a different environmental research project specific to the area they are visiting. Past activities include tagging Bronze Whaler sharks on the Skeleton Coast and data collecting for the Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment.

This year the contestants will assist scientist Priscilla Swart, who is currently researching the ecological links between Mozambique and the neighbouring island of Madagascar. The team will also be joined by herpetologist Marius Burger and ornithologist André Botha, both of whom are hoping to discover rare and possibly even new species as they travel through what will be largely unexplored territory.

Selection for the finals is currently taking place on a farm near Upington in the Northern Cape. Here, the two-person teams have to prove that they have the right combination of off-road driving skills and eco-awareness to secure a place in the final.

Once again the semi-finals are being held in the red Kalahari sand dunes, but this year Gerhard and his team have done things a little differently from before, shifting the focus from competitive heats to a more instruction based course.

"It was clear from previous years that many people actually needed more practical training for deep sand driving," says Groenewald. "So now we give them proper instruction on driving techniques." All participants are requested to do 4x4 driver training at Goodyear 4x4 accredited centres before they arrive, and at the end of the semi-finals each contestant is awarded an Advanced Sand Driving certificate. "We believe this will automatically ensure more environmentally friendly 4x4 driving."
For many teams the highlight of this year’s 4x4 Eco Challenge semi-finals has been the opportunity to drive Toyota’s new Fortuner SUV. A fleet of 12 identical diesel 3.0 D-4D Fortuners has been supplied for the duration of the competition, with another six Hilux double cab bakkies providing additional support.

And it turns out the Fortuner is a natural in the thick Kalahari sand. "The vehicle is very capable in the dunes," enthuses Groenewald. "That new diesel motor has loads of power."

Almost too much power, it seems! "With the Fortuner kicking out 120 kW there would simply be no challenge if we made the contestants drive up and down steep dunes, so we had to build a really technical track to try and keep things interesting," says Groenewald’s son P.G., who is assisting with the off-road driving instruction on the semi-finals.

Despite the tricky course, praise for the Fortuner has been coming in thick and fast from the contestants. "What a great vehicle," raves Mike Gazzard from Johannesburg, who was blown away by its incredible performance on the dunes.

The Eco Challenge staff have also been very impressed. Says P.G.: "The Fortuner climbs the dunes easily thanks to its generous power band and excellent weight distribution."

Of course, you can have the best 4x4 in the world, but if you haven’t fitted the correct tyres you won’t stand a chance of getting up those dunes. Goodyear enjoy a very close relationship with the 4x4 Eco Challenge, having been a principle sponsor since the competition’s inception in 2001, and yet again Gerhard chose to use Goodyear tyres on all the vehicles. "Goodyear is in a class of their own," he says. "They make a tough African tyre for African conditions!".

This year they have fitted the Fortuners with Wrangler ATRs, an all terrain radial tyre offering a good split between off-road and on-road capability. "The ATR is a great all rounder," says Gerhard. "It’s versatile in a variety of conditions, from tar to mud to rock, and - of course - sand."

Contestants Brenton Ashby and Sipho Aziza agree. "These tyres are incredibly versatile," says Brenton. "And they are particularly good in sand," adds Sipho. "The tread pattern is not too aggressive so the tyre can float over the dunes, rather than digging in."

Apart from proving their mettle on the technical course, teams also have to participate in a number of special tasks. Here they get the opportunity to demonstrate other skills, such as team work and understanding of GPS.

One of those tasks is the "Blind Drive", where one of the team members is blindfolded and has to drive the Fortuner through a technical course with only the help of voice prompts from his navigator. This challenge is one of the favourites with contestants, and while it might just seem like fun and games, Gerhard and his team watch the guys very carefully to see how they operate under these conditions. "This task really tests team work and communication," smiles Gerhard.

Perhaps the most demanding test of all is the "Slow Drive", where contestants have to drive their vehicle as slowly as possible over a section of sand dunes. Sound easy? It’s not! Trying to find the right balance between going slowly, yet still having enough momentum to climb the dunes, is incredibly taxing, and according to P.G. Groenewald this is where many of the teams crack. "We’ve had some of the top guys lose it here...and lose a place in the final."

For some, however, this is not the end of the world. "With the format of the semi-finals now changed, everybody who visits us gets something out," says Gerhard. Teams now leave with new driving skills, a greater understanding of the environment, plus the privilege of having experienced something of the spirit of the 4x4 Eco Challenge.

2006/06/22 I 10:35 CET I Editor:

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