Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Time with the Gents Part 2

So, today was yet another day of jollies - and this time Fisher came along to join in the fun, too.

After a strange dream, where I actually experienced lunch with Wheeler and Castor at a very funky pub which was one of Fisher's & my favourites (open fire, long wooden tables, real ales) save that it was a complete figment of my imagination, I awoke. I was less than rested, having stared at the clock until 3.45am, and despite my best efforts I couldn't get back to sleep again. Strangely, I felt almost like I was due to take an exam or something. Very odd. I wasn't nervous about the day to come, just excited - but maybe my fevered, disturbed little mind now refuses to interpret excitement, instead saying: What is this? It is a 'feeling.' Hmm. I don't recognise it. She doesn't get it very often. Oh well - let's just stick it down as 'nervousness' and go and have a beer.

Unable to get back to sleep, I read some more of Kept, which I'm quite enjoying save for DJ Taylor's overindulgence with adjectives and a narration coming from so many different angles it's like listening to two people speak at once. Then I got up and checked my email. The Cheese Board is trying to sort out Christmas 2008, which we've decided to spend together in a big ol' country house. Ruth sent out some excellent options, which some of us chose from - but this was the usual signal for others to point out all the flaws and there followed a flood of emails the like of which I haven't seen since ... the last time we tried to sort out a holiday.

Don't get me wrong - this is part of the reason I love them, but why can't it be simple? Just once!

Anyway, yesterday was an exercise in frustration in that every place we looked at either had too few double rooms (some people don't want to even entertain the notion of a twin), were too expensive, or simply didn't fit the bill for whatever reason. Then, when we all agreed on a place, this morning Fisher announced it was booked for Christmas '08 and we couldn't have it. Therefore, I decided I'd have a proper going over of the internet, and managed to come across a website we hadn't seen before, which had several options. I didn't have time to go through all of them, though, before it was time to set off and meet Wheeler and Castor at the Bein Inn for lunch.

I like the 'Famous' Bein Inn. I've never been there for a music night, for which it's apparantly famous (on the folk scene, anyway) but it's in a lovely little spot and serves half decent grub at a reasonable price. I wasn't really in the mood for food, having woken with the merest suggestion of PT - probably due to lack of sleep and the coldness of the day - but enjoyed the slightly unusual nachos, served without melted cheese (!) but with rather good chilli. I could only eat half, but that was quite enough as it was relatively hefty.

After lunch, it was time for the star attraction - so off we pootled, Fisher and me in Keith the Land Rover (blame Phid for the name) and Wheeler & Castor in Wheeler's car. Where were we off to?

The Scottish Off Road Driving Centre!!


I was so excited, having wanted to off road from the moment I bought the Drover. After all, it's what I got it for - pegging about on Coll when visiting Seonaid, carting dogs up mountains, going camping in daft places ... and of those things, we have managed to do precisely one. Well, ok, so we went to Tiree as well and did some bouncing about on the bents there as well as on Coll - but it's hardly the same as what we did today!

On arrival we were greeted by an almost elderly man, whose accent I just couldn't place. It was either Welsh or Irish - and I'm generally pretty ok at placing people! I spent the whole day trying to figure it out, and what he made of my intense glare of thought whenever he spoke, I do not know.

He was great. Really friendly, very reassuring, speaking to me in the same voice my mother uses on frightened horses. And was there any preliminary waffle? There was not. Basically, it was a case of "sign this piece of paper saying you understand that off-roading is almost certain to cause injury, if not death, and at the least will totally knacker your car, but that you don't care and it sure as shite ain't our fault" and we were good to go! I asked if it was all right if we all had a turn at driving (Fisher insisted she would NOT drive, not over her dead body - until I pointed out that, considering the recently signed waiver, that was all too likely), and our instructor agreed that it was. But when I asked if Castor could also drive, he very firmly said he could not. Nine years old is no time to be off-roading.

Fair enough. But as we turned to go out of the reception hut, he dropped me a massive wink.

Off we went, me driving, the instructor pointing the way. It all seemed relatively straightforward. We bounced over a couple of stones, but I was feeling pretty good ... and then I realised we were still on the road, and hadn't actually reached the off-road track yet. When we turned off the tarmac, things got a little more interesting - but it was still very straightforward. We obviously hadn't arrived yet. Meanwhile, in the back seat, Fisher was looking around at the gentle rolling hills and fields, and said:

"Well, I haven't seen anything too daunting just yet."

At which point we rounded a corner and saw an almost verticle dirt track in the distance, with scuff marks and tyre tracks all over it. Fisher's gulp was clearly audible from the front seat. As we bounced our way along, Castor's eyes grew bigger and bigger as we passed various rugged tracks, ponds, holes, dips, hills, rocks and - frankly - what can only be called small cliffs.

"Are we going down that?" he'd squeak, followed quickly by "are we going up that?"

It soon transpired that, yes, we were going both down that, and up that, and that I'd be driving, and perhaps this was all a terrible, terrible idea after all.

The instructor (of uncertain origin) took me through some points of interest - like what the hell diff lock was (no, I didn't think the lever was to hang a handbag on. I don't own a handbag. It did, however, make a very handy hook for a dog lead) and how to use it. Then it was a case of pointing the car at a bumpy, muddy hill, and going for it.

The car lurched, the engine revved, the instructor told me which gear to use and when to put it into diff lock ... which I found extraordinarily difficult for such a simple task ... and we bumped and swayed our way up the hill. Then we went down the other side. It was all I could do to stop myself whipping off an imaginary cowboy hat and shrieking 'yeeeeeeeee-haw!'

It was so much fun!

And that was just the start of it. We went over three foot humps, three all in a row, and struggled to keep our lunch down.

We plunged into a pond and slooshed our way out the other side.

We rumbled, skidded and rocked down a slope that almost had us on our nose (at one point the instructor swore the back wheels left the road) and I learned what cadence braking is.

We listed sharply down a track, leaning at a 15 degree angle one way, then a 23 degree angle the other way.

We shimmied through mud, like a hippo on ice skates.

And after almost an hour of rip-roaring fun, we drew to a halt and the instructor said:

"Right. Who's next?"

Then followed another tour of the tracks - with some new ones thrown in, like the one with two-foot ruts on either side. And the drop into the pond that smacked the tow-bar off the rocks and sent waves of muddy water rippling up the sides of the Drover as Keith waded his way to the other side. Wheeler was confident behind the wheel and, unlike me, didn't stall on any very steep hills (but I did learn how to safely reverse down a hill after stalling in diff lock. You turn the engine off and put the car in reverse. Then you take your foot off the clutch and watch the gear stick twitch to show it's in gear. Then you turn on the engine - having checked there's no-one behind you - and the diff lock sends you safely back as you apply the brake where necessary). It was fun riding in the back, too, getting jounced and bounced and watching the road either disappear from sight as the car rears back and points at the sky, or fall away beneath you as you all topple forward like a plane in a nose-dive.


Once Wheeler had done his round, it was time for the next driver. We all cheered and joshed until Fisher relented and took the wheel, saying she wouldn't do anything difficult and would stick only to the easy bits, please. The instructor did his 'talking to a skittish pony' routine, Fisher calmed down ... and off we went, jolting and bouncing over the same tracks as before! Fisher had a moment or two of 'interest' - like managing to slide sideways down a muddy slope - but otherwise was brilliant! She was a little pale to begin with, and I mentioned to Wheeler that the last time I'd seen anyone's face look like that was when they were hanging onto the side of a horse, in the process of falling off at high speed. But she had no reason to be nervous. Her clutch control was great, and the instructor praised her at the end.

We all thought that was that - when the instructo turned round and, to Castor, gave a grin and said:

"So, are you going to have a turn young man?"

"I can't!" Castor squeaked in awful hope, eyes like saucers.

"You can!" we all bellowed, cheering, and into the driver's seat he slid!

"I can't do all that stuff you guys did," he protested, but he was already clutching the steering wheel and peering - as best he could - at the road ahead.

"Do you know about the pedals?" the instructor asked.

"Yes," he nodded. Then: "What does the middle one do?"

"That's the brake!" I choked. "You'll need that one!"

"And the one on the right?"

"The gas," the instructor replied. Then, hurriedly: "Don't touch that one."

Having established that Castor really didn't know how to use the pedals, the instructor put Keith in gear, diff lock on, and turned the key. Off we went! Cas steered admirably as we crept smoothly along. I hoped, but doubted, that the instructor would give him something fun to do. A little hill, perhaps? Maybe one of the puddles?

Not a bit of it.

We did the whole course.

We crept along, up steep slopes, through the pond, over humps, and along the listing road. It was incredible! When Cas couldn't steer fast enough the instructor did it for him, guiding him through, but mostly Cas did all the wheel work himself, peering over the dashboard like a mole from its hole. He got to go up the incredibly steep hill where all you can see is sky and the nose of the car and you just have to keep the wheels straight - which is not for the faint hearted. He didn't bat an eyelid when he took us through the deep pond - despite the Land Rover roof just visible above the water line which the instructor solemnly informed him was, indeed, a lost Land Rover and not at all just a joke. Cas's eyes were big as soup plates!

After Cas's ride was over and his grin like a slice of melon, I got a second turn - and then it was all over. I felt guilty that Wheeler didn't get to have another go - but all in all, it was one of the best afternoons I've had in a long time!

God Bless the Scottish Off Road Centre, and our instructor of unknown origin. Wheeler is scouring eBay as I type, looking for a hefty, four wheel drive replacement for his station wagon. He also wants to take his motorbike over the course and hopes the owner will let him - and I want to learn to ride a motorbike and start off-roading on that, too!



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