"Two-foot driving," called out Jim Swett, Camel Trophy veteran and Land Rover driving instructor. "Left foot on the brake, and gently squeeze the throttle with your right foot." Following this verbal instruction, Swett's hand signals directed me first to steer left, then a little more left. Next came the edict to steer right; and, finally, a sequence of squeezed fingers along with a downward motion of his arms, helped me to guide the nearly 3-ton Land Rover to the bottom of a rugged and steep rock face. Now, switching this 4x4's Terrain Response system from rockcrawl to sand mode, I played follow-the-leader through a deep sand wash that snaked in and out of a redrock canyon that stretched high above to an indigo-colored sky.
We were now two days and mucho kilometers along some of the hot, dusty trails in northwestern Argentina on a quest to drive a passel of Land Rovers along sections of the legendary Ruta 40 across the highest roadway on the South American continent. Our model was the diesel variant of the midsized LR3. Outsidem of North America, it is known as the Discovery 3, with the popular diesel version marketed in many countries around the globe. Good news now comes to the U.S., as we will get a version of this diesel model in 2009.
We were on a five-day adventure joining in the Argentina "Road to the Clouds" trip, which is now one of Land Rover's Experience program locations, open to clients throughout the world. The ever-changing landscape we were motoring through looked like patches of Utah, Arizona, northern California, and even the Baja, as the terrain morphed from vineyards to sand dunes, rock formations to endless fields of cactus, with the magnificent peaks of the Andes forming the backdrop.
Our group was a collection of auto writers from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Uruguay. Meeting at the airport in Buenos Aries, we took a flight on a northwesterly vector across the Andes in a Lilliputian 18-seater aircraft that bobbed about like a bass plug on wind-whipped waters. It was a great way to connect with some wellknown -along with a few new- colleagues, in a Survivor-like task that had us supping on local delectables and hydrating for our upcoming high-altitudepass adventure, while bonding around the fact that there was no bathroom onboard.
After three hours of white-knuckle air travel, the change in pitch in the engines' sound signaled that we had arrived in the Calchaqui Valley, in the northwest region of Argentina, known for its natural beauty, wine growing, and archeological sites. At first, it seemed impossible that we would survive the landing, as our dual-prop dove straight toward a small patch of tobaccocolored dirt, like a hawk zeroing in on its prey. To heighten the excitement, we could see the flashing lights of fire engines on stand-by that punctuated our airstrip arrival. Suddenly, the dirt opened to a paltry patch of tarmac and we bumped to a stop, and saw the happy faces of the staff that represent this British adventure brand welcoming us to the small city of Cafayate, situated in the mile-high "Enchanted Valley."
True to Land Rover form, we were sent pretrip reading material to help us learn about the region's archeological sites and settlements, such as the hillside ruins of a pre-Columbian fortress in Quilmes, a ruined city that hails as one of the most important archeological sites in Argentina -although many Argentines associate the name with a well-known lager. Also, of note, are the pre-Columbian rock-art sites and fossils of the Parque Nacional Talampaya, and the deep canyons of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quebrada de Humahuaca. And, upon our arrival in the area, there were field trips offered by Land Rover staff to see the nearby natural and man-made wonders.
After an overnight stay at the Patios de Cafayate Hotel, a spa for the ber-rich (this is a Land Rover trip, after all), our caravan of vehicles began its journey northward toward the mountain pass, Abra del Acay, the world's highest suitable roadway for vehicles. Motoring through twisting canyons, across waterways, and crawling up and down huge boulders and vertical cliff faces, we followed the hand signals of our guides and soon grew trusting of the vehicle's electronics.
We drove along a variety of surfaces ranging from pavement to 4WD farm tracks, using the best terrain and tracks for the season, and following Tread Lightly! guidelines. Leaving the main routes of travel as often as we could, we engaged low-range and began to experience this SUV's trick technology that allows you to select for a variety of different driving conditions, with a general driving program; one for slick and slippery surroundings, or grass/gravel/snow; and three distinctive off-road modes-mud and ruts, sand, and rockcrawl. Smarter than a Baja Trophy Truck racer, Terrain Response controls the locking and unlocking of differentials; ride height; throttle and gearshift response; braking of select wheels; and Hill Descent Control limits downhill travel to 2.5 mph, all with the twist of a knob or the push of a button.
This collection of vehicles-and the staff that drove them-was a comfort throughout, but particularly as our second day of travel came to a close, deep in the pockets of the backcountry near Colome, where we set up individual tents and gathered as a group under a panorama of twinkling stars. True to Land Rover form, our cadre of canvas tents contained thoughtful and well-appointed washrooms, a dining area with linen-clothed tables, as well as a collection of locals cooking a gastronomical potpourri of meats over an open fire, others strumming Spanish guitars and crooning, and a gaucho horse whisperer to entertain us after our meal's end. At the close of the evening, the cooking of s'mores around a bonfire was them cross-cultural equalizer.