THE MAC 4x4
MACMILLAN 4X4 CHALLENGE 2004
By Mike Stapleton
Friday the 5th March – 13.15 Milometer 48884.1
Left Cambridge at 13.15 to collect my navigator David Kent from my office in Ely. Opened one or two letters containing cheques and waited for a last-minute personal cheque delivery and left Ely at about 14.45pm in sunny weather.
Friday the 5th March – 18.07 Milometer 49089.8
Arrived at the Hopbine Hotel, as in 2003, once again our resting-place for the night. Having had a bad meal at the Starting Gate (the rendezvous pub) last year, we had a very good meal at another pub just down the road. We then ‘dieseled up’ and went to the Starting Gate. There we met up with organiser Peter Rowland and, main man and route setter, Selwyn Kendrick (who, having had one OJ too many, was a little loose lipped and gave away one or two hints, which helped us to prepare for what we were about to receive). We struck up conversation with too ‘first-timers’, Mark Thorne from Luton, and Colm Holland, an Irish chap, who now lives at Crewkerne, Cornwall, where, coincidentally, David had recently been working. Over the weekend we spent a fair amount of time with these two (Car 42). We also met up with two old friends, two guys who’d been on our table at the dinner the previous year and who we’d got on well with – the ‘big guys’, otherwise known as Dave Ridout and Steve Harrison (Car 15). After a pint and a bit of a chat we retired to our B & B.
Saturday the 6th March – 05.30
Not quite sure why we got up this early (David said we got up at the same time last year) it meant we were ready, after I’d bathed and shaved, almost an hour before breakfast was served at 07.00. Breakfast – our last meal for, it turned out, 32 hours.
Saturday the 6th March – 08.00 Milometer 49093.5
The event started from the same garage as last year, but in the interim it had changed from being a Toyota main dealership to a Hyundai main dealership.
We immediately spotted the white Defender 90 (Car No. 4) we’d spent a lot of time with last year, and a few other old faces. It transpired that there were about 6 teams doing the event for a second time or third time, so we were old hands, seasoned campaigners, sought out for advice by the novices.
The whole signing on process was more professional this year as was scrutineering – First Aid kit, warning triangle, ropes, spade, insurance and so on. Quite a few competitors had to sprint to B&Q for a spade! Eventually, it was all done, we had our numbers, we were Team/Car No. 5 this year (Team 7 last year), a Polaroid camera and our road book so we started to plot our route.
The driver’s briefing came round all too soon and then at 10.05 we were on our way! We made our way via one or two 'photo opportunity' passage checks, including 'Arthur's Stone', (to check one really went there) to South Wales.
The organisers and route planners for the Macmillan 4x4 Challenge 2004 had 'turned it up several notches' this year with a lot more real off roading. Last year we spent about 15-20 minutes 'off road' at a site at Tong near the M62, this year we would spend more like 7 hours off road! We were also kept pretty busy so I didn’t make so many notes and thus have not been able to put as detailed a report together as I did last year.
We arrived at our first rest, Craig-Y-Nos Castle at Glyntawe in the Brecon Beacons (OS Landranger map 160), at 11.35 – and we were the first competitors there! This is a large Castle-cum-Hotel, which apparently is the only Hotel with its own Opera Hall in the country/Europe/World. It was at one time owned by an opera singer, who had it built. The whole building is having a 5-year rebuild. A quick coffee and then at 12.35 we were given our 'tulip' road book for the ‘Orienteering’ event (which we came 22nd in).
Mike looking relaxed and quietly confident, munching a Mars bar, just prior to entering the military training grounds and still with a clean Land Rover!
This led us to, and through, the military training grounds a few miles north, where we went into the Danger area – avoiding, where possible, the squaddies hiding in bushes and ditches along the side of the road. Not to mention being held up by an uphill infantry assault, complete with acrid smoke, banshee screams and firecrackers, which closed the road in front of us for a while.
We spent about 4 hours in the military training area, driving some of the toughest terrain we encountered all weekend – and the most demanding scenery my Defender has ever seen. At one point David had to retrace our tracks up a steep track we’d just come down (second picture below), to look for a number board we'd missed, he found it difficult to get up the track, but did find the board.
The highlights of this part of the event included driving along one grassy track and through several very large 'puddles' marked ‘deep water’ (should’ve closed my window first) and on another, water free, track – travelling at 40mph – realising, too late, that there was a ditch running across our route. Needless to say we dived into the ditch, flew out the other side (literally) and landed a few metres on. A quick check found us both undamaged and when I got out to survey the wrecked front end, found no outward sign of the impact.
Looks like a nice drive in the country – apart from the sharp turn and 1 in 3 descent at the end!
This was taken dropping down a very steep track, difficult to stand upright on – to get an idea of the angle, look at the trees in the top left of the photograph.
Having finished in the Brecons we made our way South to the M4 en route to the Salisbury Plain area, having to take photographs (Philadelphia, Canada, and so on) and find various answers to obscure questions (What can fly here?) on the way.
Saturday the 6th March – 21.55 Milometer 49442.6
We arrived at the night halt at Thruxton racing circuit (OS Landranger map 184), at 21.55, and were told to collect our night navigation instructions at 00.05, we were then to then plot our route, and be ready to leave at 01.05. We were in a field with no lights and a 'burger van' for catering – thus my Saturday evening meal was a bag of chips – the only 'vegetarian option' – and a pretty foul cup of coffee!
Once I'd sorted out the results of our airborne adventures – spare tyres and tools boxes all jumbled up – and we'd helped car No. 4 locate a vital oil plug he'd been cleaning and dropped in the grass, it was too late to get any sleep. We rested our eyes for 30 minutes before collecting our route instructions – 38 map references (OS Landranger maps 184 and 173), to get us across Salisbury plain and back to the Leigh Delamare Services on the M4.
Sunday the 7th March – 01.05 Milometer 49442.6
We set off at 01.05 and made our way on to Salisbury Plain. We, like many others, made a few initial mistakes, and had to reverse back down a couple of narrow tracks. We were supposed to follow a byway across the plain, but the area we were in comprised a few stands of trees, islands in a sea of featureless mud. There are no byways once tanks have been playing! At one point, early on, there were about a dozen vehicles all on the edge of the open area, not entirely sure which way to go. David made a decision and off we went. Several vehicles followed us at first, but one by one they hesitated and their lights dropped away behind. One set stayed with us, then they too stopped. We went on alone – apart from one or two large (white?) deer crossing our path.
Pitch black, trying to avoid the deepest of the ruts and water filled ditches, we carried on. At last David decided we'd gone too far so we reversed 100 yds and turned right (we knew we had to turn right at some point). We continued and soon saw one of the letter boards we were looking for – we were in the right area! We don't know if we'd missed any, or if there were any more in the vicinity, but we decided to 'cut and run', and pick up the course a bit later on.
Easier said than done – all around us, some close, some far away, were headlights, bouncing and dipping in the night. We headed straight for a distant belt of trees which seemed to offer a way out. Several other vehicles seemed to be heading that way too.
Once through the trees there appeared to be less of a mud bath, but still no real clues as to our destination. We drove on and I spotted a light ahead against the blackness of another belt of trees. As we approached the light seemed to be getting closer, but was still very dim. It turned out to be a torch in the hand of a 12 year old sqaddie (well, he looked about 12) he was also cuddling an automatic rifle. 'Evening Sir' he said. I asked him if he knew where we were, he didn't (comforting!), but his driver (another callow youth materialised out of the darkness) might. He didn't really either, so we just continued in an easterly direction. Eventually we saw real lights and dropping down a very steep track with tank sized ruts through the woods, we emerged on a road, next to a high fence surrounding a military camp (it turned out to be Tidworth Camp). In the trees along side us were the silhouettes of tanks sleeping under camouflage netting.
Turning left we followed this military road until we found a civilian country road and we followed this until we could work out where we were. We then were able to leap back on to the Plain to do battle again (getting poetic ain’t I?). The plain here was less well trashed by tanks and there were actual trails to follow. We travelled along quite well for some time, then came to an area which didn’t quite match where we thought we ought to be. Judging by the headlights sweeping about several other competitors were similarly confused. We continued and came once again to a civilian road. David said he recognised it – and yes, we realised we had arrived at a point immediately opposite the track we’d taken to re-enter the Plain. We’d gone round in a perfect circle!
Time to ‘cut and run’ again (a rallying term apparently). So we rejoined the public highway and skipped over the next few map references, picking the route up at a map reference further north west on the map. After that David was on fire – I told him afterwards he sounded like a mad driving instructor ‘I want you to take the next left’, ‘straight on at the next cross roads’ and so on. We fairly flew through the lanes – scattering foxes in our wake.
At the side of one track we found one of the marshals waiting, I got out to see if we needed to get our time card signed, but apparently not. His presence was soon explained when, a few hundred yards further on we found that the track – one with a sticky clay surface – had several very, very deep ruts. I put the near side wheels on top of one, with the offside wheels in the bottom of one particularly deep rut. It was a bit scary and felt as if we’d tip over at any moment, but no, we made it through. Eventually we reached the M4 motorway services which marked the end of the Night Navigation section. The marshall collecting our sheet with letter codes in the relevant (we hoped) box, told us we’d done well. Although David felt he’d really ‘cocked up’ this section, and we must have earned a time penalty, we actually came tenth on this, the most difficult part of the challenge.
Sunday the 7th March – 07.30
Back on to the M4, headed again for the Brecon Beacons, and a rendezvous just off the A645. This proved to be another real challenge as we, and we were soon joined by Car 4, were looking on the wrong bit of road. The road in question travelled in a big arc and joined the A645 at two points. We were searching on the westerly arc but should have been on the easterly one. Eventually the penny dropped and we found the site we were looking for.
Sunday the 7th March – 08.00
This was an old mine working area that had been turned in to an off-road site. We were there to do a ’scatter’. Another new one on us. We were given a, quite detailed, map on which were marked about eight locations – where again there would be number boards – and alongside their ‘value’ – basically the more difficult a place was to drive to, the more points it was worth. The easiest was worth 20 points, the more difficult 75. One of the 75 point locations was not on a track at all – it was a situation of get out and walk (or climb) to reach it.
We got the scatter all wrong, we got the first, easy one OK, but then couldn’t find the next (comparatively) easy location. And once you’ve lost your location on the map, you can’t go anywhere – except back to the start to re-orientate yourself. So this we did and then went straight for a 75 pointer – but we couldn’t find it, even though we were absolutely sure we were at the right spot.
Oh yes, this was all against the time as well – we had one hour which was now fast running out! We went for another location – and found it – and then had to rush back to the start/finish to avoid a penalty. We came joint 27th on this event.
That was it – it was still quite early on Sunday morning and the Macmillan 4x4 Challenge 2004 was all but over. We now had to make our way to, via two ‘passage checks’ to the Hotel at Warrington.
Our next challenge however was to find some diesel – we found some, eventually in Merthyr Tydfil and then retraced our wheel tracks on to the A470, heading North.
Sunday the 7th March – 11.00
We left the A470 here and took the B4518, a very nice drive through mid Wales, via Llanidloes and on to the village of Pennant. Here we had to again answer the question ‘What can fly here? Now you have to appreciate that the section of OS map shown in our road book very cleverly missed the village name off and we didn’t spot it as we entered the village. We arrived at the map reference – a small crossroads in the middle of the small village. We looked around, and quizzed one of the locals, who could only suggest Hang gliders who jumped off a nearby high point or Red Kites, which he sometimes saw.
At this time we were in company with Team 42 (Mark and Colm) and Team 17, Sarah Munson and Simon Atkins, these last two were awarded the ‘Spirit of the Event’ award for taking part in their ex-military Land Rover 130 ambulance – a bit of a monster! It was then that Colm spotted something on the sign post which pointed to Llanbrynmair – he leapt up and covering the first five letters (Llanb) and the ‘m’ made it into ‘ryn air’. We really didn’t think it was right but we all took photographs of each other covering the relevant parts – well, we thought if we all did it!
On to the last Passage Check – ‘What’s on plaque on the double garage doors? – at Cammaes Road, back on the A470. We found various double garage doors, but none which had a plaque on, we found various ‘plaques’, but not on double garage doors! We made do with ‘Danger High voltage’ and that was that.
Well we were finished, yet it was still mid morning and a beautiful sunny spring-like day in early March. We had two choices. The first was to head straight to the finish at the Hotel where we would arrive around lunchtime. David and I had stayed there in 2003, so we knew what to expect. Once we got there, what then? – sleep? – unthinkable!
As it was such a nice day we decided to take the other choice – the ‘pretty route’ – up through the centre of Wales and Snowdonia. We invited Team 42 to join us, which they happily did. We continued on the A470 towards Betws-y-Coed, this route offered spectacular scenery – Mark told us afterwards that he had had to ask Colm to stop continuously pointing out the ‘fantastic colour of those rocks’. We were delayed because they were having overheating problems on some of the longer climbs and because the road was rather well endowed with road works where they are blasting a wider road through the mountains just south of Betws-y-Coed.
After Betws-y-Coed we took the A5 so that we could have a late brunch at The Pinnacle Café in Capel Curig. We continued up the A5 so we could pass my favourite mountain – Tryfan – and joined the coast road, the A55 at Bangor. Traffic was a bit heavy at Conwy and it was about here that we were both telephoned by the organiser, Peter Rowland, to check that we were all right as everyone else had already arrived at the hotel – having taken a more direct route.
Sunday the 7th March – 16.00 (or was it 17.00??) Milometer 49903.7
We arrived at the hotel, having driven 810 miles since the start in Hereford, and handed in our road books – that was it for another year.
Made it! Having just arrived at the hotel at about 4 o’clock on the Sunday afternoon.
Mike (left picture) and David (right) still looking fit and raring to go! The Land Rover
looking a little dirtier than when we set off.
We unpacked the Land Rover, checked in and after a hot drink, went for a 20-minute relax in the hotel pool.
The evening’s Awards dinner went without incident – I was very careful not to drink much this year! Again it was difficult to recognise people ‘out of uniform’ having exchanged their fleeces and jeans for suits, shirts and ties. We sat with Dave Ridout and Steve Harrison, as we had the previous year. Lynn Bowles (the Radio 2 Traffic reporter) helped with the auction – and a good sport she turned out to be. There were lots of goodies on offer, but everything I fancied became a bit expensive as people got carried away in bidding. And so to bed at about 00.30.
Monday the 8th March – 07.30
David woke us up early so that he could give Sheryl her morning alarm call – well some people had to go to work! I could have done with a bit longer in bed – but I was determined to eat a very big breakfast this year having missed out in 2003!
After breakfast David and I discussed taking part again next year and, before I could curb his enthusiasm, David had whipped out his cheque book and paid our entry free for 2005. We were the first team to give Peter, the organiser, a cheque for the entry fee for next year and, having done so are guaranteed that we'll be Team 5 again (my choice – we could have been Team No.1).
We decided to travel back in convoy with Team 42, in case they had overheating problems again, but first we went into Warrington to find a jet wash so that Mark could blast out his radiator. He thought that having lots of mud in the fins might be causing his problems. Well, he flushed out lots of mud, but as we found, once we got on the M6 that hadn’t been the cause of the problem.
We soon had one of two unscheduled stops on the hard shoulder of the M6, not much fun with the amount of heavy trucks ‘thundering by’. After the second stop – which included tearing the innards out of their Land Rover’s thermostat – we were able to enjoy an untroubled run the rest of the way. This included a run down the recently opened M6 toll road – all but deserted – so much so that we were able to travel side by side taking photos of each other.
We waved ‘goodbye’ to car 42 at the A14 turn off, fairly confident that they would be able to get back to Luton without further trouble. We continued to Ely arriving there at about 15.30 in the afternoon.
I dropped David off and headed down the A10 towards home – now it was time for my own heart stopping car trouble. I’d just blasted past a line of traffic which was being held up by a tractor when there was a loud ‘pop’ and the Land Rover became very sluggish. I swung into a lay by on the right and jumped out expecting to find a burst tyre. There was no apparent damage so I tried setting off – no guts! Stopped again looked under the bonnet – nothing apparently wrong. Set off again, still absolutely gutless, wouldn’t pull the proverbial skin off the proverbial rice pudding. Stopped again and phoned David to see if he had any ideas – he couldn’t suggest any remedy. So I set off to Cambridge, hoping to get to Marshalls Land Rover dealership before they closed.
When I got there someone whisked my Defender away – they seemed to know what the problem was – apparently a hose had popped off from the turbocharger which explained the lack of ‘go’. They’d put it right and I was on my way home within 15 minutes.
And that was the end of another fine weekend!
The weather was fantastic – apart from one sleet storm lasting about 10 minutes on Saturday night, we had sunny days and a clear night.
Overall – Cambridge – Macmillan Challenge – Cambridge we did 1228 miles, 810 miles on the event itself.
We came 25 out of 43 teams taking part (down from sixth out of 38 last year), but were tenth on the Night Navigation exercise which was by far the hardest part of the whole event. I think our main problem was getting penalty points for always finishing late!
And not so trivia
We raised £2008.00 (up from £1505.00 last year).
This year's Challenge has raised £44,000.00 so far. Once all pledges are received, this should reach £60,000.00, and based on last year's figures could top £70,000.00. The highest individual sponsorship raised was £8000.00, the same amount raised by all 8 teams in the first event (2002).
So we achieved one target – more money, but failed on the other. Naturally, we shall have the same two targets next year!
Post script – and a happy ending
David (Kent), my navigator, had a 'massive' heart attack in the early hours of Tuesday 23rd March, two weeks after the Challenge. (According to the doctors, his partaking in the Challenge played no part in this medical event and having recovered there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be fully fit and able to take part again next year.)
e was in Reading, working away from home, at the time, which rather complicated matters. I visited him in hospital down there on the following Friday. Although feeling pretty unwell, David was still very keen to do it again next year – and has got agreement for sponsorship from his employer for 2005.
He travelled back from Reading on the Saturday (27th March) spent some time at home recuperating, and after a visit to Addenbrookes was given the all clear and started back at work (three days a week) on the 18th May.
(I went to Reading as a bit of a detour on my way to Wales and destroyed a tyre after a blow out at 80mph on the M25 so spent the weekend without a spare. We carried two on the Challenge but I’d gone back to the more usual one by then.)