Ice ace!

Ice ace!

A jaunt to Iceland highlights the off-road prowess of the Hilux, if not the capability of its driver, CHARLEEN CLARKE…

It helps to have a sense of humour – and a ready supply of beer – in Iceland. We all know about their economic crisis and THAT volcano. “You mess with Iceland? We shut down all your airports,” the locals comment, always with an ashen (sorry, couldn’t resist it) expression.

But, much more importantly, consider the extremes. During summer, residents are treated to 24 hours of sunlight. And in winter? “It’s dark 24 hours a day here. That’s why we drink so much,” our Icelandic guide, Aaron, comments.

Given their high level of alcohol consumption, it’s hardly surprising to discover that many Icelanders believe in elves (really, promise).  Certain roads have even been rerouted to avoid disturbing areas where elves are thought to live.

But, generally speaking, steering clear of elves is not a concern of ours; we have come to drive off-road. In the mother of all off-road vehicles. Specifically, a convoy of specially modified Hilux bakkies, including the Seriously Famous Hilux that travelled to the North Pole while being commandeered by (gasp) Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson.

Ice ace!It’s all about celebrating the 40th birthday of the Hilux in South Africa. And what a birthday party we’re about to have. We are going to travel to the foot of that volcano (it’s called Eyjafjallajökull; Icelanders say it was named by a person who fell asleep on his keyboard). We’re also going to traverse the Vatnajökull glacier, which measures over 8 300 km² (we won’t cross the whole thing, clearly).

But first we travel to Arctic Trucks, which is where these magnificent off-road vehicles are brought to life. The company takes standard Hilux bakkies and, 45 to 55 hours later, they are transformed from mundane to magnificent. A number of modifications are performed but, in the case of the standard and most basic AT35 derivative, the company begins by removing parts (such as fender flairs, front fenders and wheels). Then the technicians go to work on the suspension/drivetrain, body and frame to make space for the larger (35-inch) tyres. The 3.0-diesel common rail motor remains relatively untouched, by the way. Then it is time to assemble the Hilux again; fitting larger fender flairs, and the bigger tyres and wheels in the process. The modification, which costs just over €10 000, is completed with a short test drive, adjustment of the speedometer, and a quality inspection.

While its business nose-dived last year (as did the economy of the country in general), Arctic Trucks is world famous for offering motorists a luxurious and comfortable option to the snowmobile. Its vehicles have not only graced the screen of Top Gear; they are also being utilised throughout Iceland and Antarctica. Arctic Trucks will be working with Toyota South Africa to convert six South African-built Hilux pick-ups for use in Antarctica. Of these vehicles, two will undergo full AT44 conversions. Another two will be converted to AT44 specification, but with a full 6×6 configuration. These four Hilux vehicles will operate as back-up vehicles in the gruelling Antarctic Ski Challenge to the South Pole, to be held at the end of the year as part of the Extreme World Races series. The fifth Hilux, also to AT44 specification, will be built for the Indian National Centre Antarctic and Ocean Research, while Hilux number six will be built to AT38 specification. There’s also talk of these vehicles becoming commercially available locally.

While its owners and management team underplay their successes, it is widely acknowledged that Arctic Trucks is a world leader in its field. And heading off-road only served to confirm this opinion. In fact, the Arctic Truck Hiluxes are so capable, they make pretty much any off-road drive look like a Sunday school outing.

Ice ace!Our first significant port of call was Eyjafjallajökull, and we tackled this leg of the journey in what the chaps at Arctic Trucks call the AT44 (so named because of the monster 44-inch tyres on its paws). It’s a complete nightmare to drive on the tar road, especially between 60 and 80 km/h – you have to wrestle with the steering wheel, which judders viciously from left to right.

But, take it off-road and this Hilux truly comes into its own. It has masses of ground clearance; so you can conquer absolutely anything. It’s so big that it feels more than capable of driving over a Corolla or two. Maybe you’d have to downshift but, other than that, you’d be okay…

The actual volcano is a bit of a letdown. It looks like… well, err… nothing. No grey ash or torrents of lava. Neither a hiss nor a gurgle. And the 44-inch Hilux isn’t even slightly challenged by the rocks, rivers and dongas that we drive through.

The next day turns out to be quite different. It’s time to tackle the glacier, and this time we’re in the one and only Top Gear bakkie. The dashboard of this Hilux, which is shod with 38-inch rubber, looks like it has been mauled by a rabid Arctic fox; it’s full of gaping holes where the television equipment was installed. Other than that, it’s similar to the 44-inch model – and we’re fairly comfortable in the near-standard interior.

At first, driving on the glacier doesn’t appear too challenging, although we’re constantly warned about crevasses (giant cracks in the glacier), which are supposedly hugely dangerous. “You can disappear in one of those; so can your Hilux. They are life threatening,” Aaron warns, over and over again. “Stay in the tracks of the lead vehicle and never, ever, get out of your Hilux and wander off. We don’t want any fatalities.”

I think he’s being hysterical about nothing – driving on the glacier is like driving on a hard sand road. Sure, we spy a crevasse or two… but they look as harmless as an Icelandic sheepdog.

Ice ace!As we play in the snow, I feed the journos in my Hilux copious quantities of beer, knowing that they will be banned from driving (drinking and driving is streng verboten in Iceland). My intentions aren’t exactly honourable; I know I will be the designated driver, and I am thrilled at the prospect.

Minutes later, they regret the decision to quaff beer. We’re en route back to civilisation, and I am having the time of my life. I have passed most of the convoy, including the AT44 we were driving the day before.

Then I do it. I drive slap bang into a crevasse.

My colleagues are panic-stricken; they jump out of the vehicle and run away shrieking in horror. I get on the radio and plead for help, which arrives immediately (I am winched out of the crevasse and do not plunge dramatically to my death).

As the AT44 drives past, one of the locals sticks his head out of the window. “So. The 38-inch Hilux has speed. You pass us. That is good. But we have winch,” he notes.

As I mentioned, it helps to have a sense of humour in Iceland. It also helps to have a vehicle that can get you pretty much anywhere. Like a Hilux.

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