The weather is undeniably an important part of the mystique that is associated with Scotland. An old castle looming in grey drizzling rain looks more mysterious than the same structure on a clear summer day. The most mysterious Scot of all time, Nessie (who resides in a certain loch), only gets her monstrous features when she raises her head just above the low fog, which hangs over the calm waters of her ancestral home. Combine these scenes with the low wail of bagpipes drifting aimlessly through the valleys, and it surely will give even the bravest amongst us a case of goosebumps.
But the mystique of Scotland has many faces. Take the checkered kilt. What is to be found under it? Something or nothing? Scots whiskey becomes mystical in your head after a few glasses (and the whole world seems a mystery if enough is consumed). Despite the numerous mysteries of whiskey and folklore, there is also clarity to be found in Scotland: the Argyll Forest Challenge, for instance, which according to its organizers is the toughest four-wheeling challenge in Scotland, if not the entire UK.
We haven't been able to see all competitions held in Great Britain, but after this one, we're convinced about the assertions. The Argyll Forest Challenge, which takes place in a beautiful, wooded area, is absolutely tough. The Argyll Forest is a national park located about 120 kilometers northwest of Glasgow. The whimsical coastline, together with the rain and melting water of the Scottish Highlands, are littered with a number of bays and lochs (lakes). Situated in the eastern section of the Argyll Forest is Loch Lomond, one of the larger lochs that attract numerous tourists every year.
The majority of the competitors at the Argyll Challenge are British, but an Irish team found its way across the Irish Sea, and there were also a Polish participant and two Dutch teams in the fray. Travelling with the Dutch team, we took the ferryboat from Holland to Newcastle, and roughly followed the path of the famous Hadrian Wall, the barrier the Romans built in ancient days to keep the "barbarian" Scots outside their doors. The first competitors arrived on a Thursday afternoon in late August, two days before the competition. Some of us sought shelter in a little local hotel, but most settled on the only campsite that could be found in the nearby surroundings of the Argyll Forest.A camp was set up, and the competitors fortified themselves with some good food and drink-then spent the rest of the evening trying to keep the midges off of their bodies during the rest of the evening.
Indigenous to Scotland, the Highland Midge (a relative of the mosquito) is small in stature, measuring only up to 4 mm in size, but it has a fondness for human flesh, and its bite is rather painful. Only the females sting, but they can appear in such numbers that they can form a real plague. These little monsters are attracted to body odor, and possess some sort of "radar" that allows them to track down the nearest human from rather large distances. If you find yourself in an area that is inundated with these vile varmints, there's no need to worry since a plethora of over-the-counter remedies are available to make yourself gastronomically less attractive for these pests.
As Friday evolved, the remaining participants dribbled in. By the end of the afternoon, competitors had checked into the village of Arrochar, which gave us the opportunity to take a look at some of the competing vehicles. The portal axles of the Volvo Laplander are increasingly popular on UK vehicles, though a number of wheelers eschew them since they unavoidably raise a vehicle's center of gravity. Another new development, found on the Dutch teams' rigs, were specially modified winches that have been upgraded by adding a second motor to the Warn 8274 winch. Jim Marsden of Gigglepin 4x4, a UK off-road shop, developed a new housing at the top of the 8274, upon which he mounted a second 6 hp motor. Since this motor drives the same gear as the first motor, Jim had to strengthen the front axle to compensate for the added stress. Besides its robust good looks, it functions tremendously as well-that is, when it hasn't succumbed to the wear and tear brought on by the extra horsepower. (During this Argyll Forest Challenge, it became apparent that the cog-wheels of the motor were wearing out excessively. The problem is more profound in the older prototype models, so Jim is now busy trying to solve this "little" problem.)
Saturday morning, it all started. In all, 24 teams comprising two cars and four competitors each were presented-but not without casualties: One English team, compelled by necessity, withdrew immediately because the water pump on one of their cars gave up while driving the car off the trailer.
Twenty five tasks involving driving, winching, and orienteering awaited the participants. At every stage, a marshal is present to accompany the teams and to watch if everyone is playing by the rules, e.g., that tree straps are being utilized when winching, or ladders are being used when crossing tiny streams and rivers. Most tasks (or stages) are shaped roughly in the form of a loop, which means you pretty much end where you started. Finishing a stage with both cars collects two points, while finishing with only one car means, of course, only one point. Every team starts with the task which corresponds to their registration position. (Because the ever-efficient Dutch filed their registrations quickly, they started at Stage 1.) Participants are allowed to refuse a stage if they think it is too difficult. Automatically they proceed to the following stage.
As it turned out, Stage 1 was the only task which was not formed like a loop, but stretched itself in a straight line over a length of about one mile. This task started with a steep descent, immediately followed by a sharp left turn entering a pitch-dark forest following a tiny little stream. Rather quickly, it became clear this is just the beginning. The ground in this forest was soaked with water and as tricky as a swamp. The Dutch teams' rigs sank into the mud above their axles and very soon needed the help of their winches. This part of the stage is about 100 meters long (110 yards) and it is fantastic to see the men struggling through it.
Shortly thereafter, the team arrived at a small opening in the forest canopy, which gave way to a clearing of grass and moss. The tiny little stream disappeared into nothingness-an ominous sign. Yours truly allowed himself to be mislead by the appearance of the ground and stepped unsuspectingly onto the grass-only to sink into the ground to the small of his back. (It even happened to the marshal and to the Dutch co-pilots.) With mud this thick, the use of the winches and ladders became indispensable. It took easily an hour just to traverse a few meters.
At the end of the clearing, the teams were faced with a steep descent into the forest. Suddenly, the engine of one of the Dutch team's vehicles shut off and could not be restarted. Ten minutes later, they discovered that the timing belt had broken. (Unfortunate and remarkable, since the engine only ran about 47,000 miles.) The Dutch left the disabled rig and piled into their remaining vehicle to ensure they could collect one point.
Some four and a half hours later, the gentlemen emerged from the forest. The longest stretch they actually drove was about 20 meters; the rest it was a matter of winching, winching, and again winching. Afterwards, this turned out to be one of the more difficult stages, maybe even the most difficult. (During the entire event, only one other team attempted this stage, and they gave up half way through.)
Stage 1 may have been tough, but there was another that deserved a collective Wow. Stage 14 was held near the end of the event, and only the winners, the English team of Bryn Hemming/Ross Langford and Peter Whitman/Simon Butler, were capable of driving it.
The meanest part of this stage came at the end. Arriving there, after some sharp turns between the trees, the British team was confronted by a steep downslope of at least 45 degrees. Pete hadn't used his rear winch throughout the whole competition to lower himself, but he didn't dare tackle this slope without the help of his trusted Warn. Bryn took the lead, going down the slope, and at first, wasn't a big problem. Then a huge piece of rock blocked their way. Since this was situated on a steep slope, the hole behind the rock was horrifically deep and perpendicular. As an added bonus, behind the hole lay an enormous, uprooted tree that left a deep hole in the terrain. Normal people would have given up, but this term does not exist in the vocabulary of these two gentlemen. Going down the slope onto the rock succeeded, but then Bryn's Land Rover stuck itself on the huge rock. From here, it was backwards, and then another try from a different angle. Several further attempts turned out to be nothing, but then, suddenly, there was movement in the rock. Bryn grasped his chance, and by using his Range Rover as kind of a tank, together with a lot of strenuous pushing with the feet of co-pilots Ross and Simon, succeeded in pushing the rock off the slope. It was still a tricky descent, but finally they managed to get down and leave the stage successfully.
The Brits' efforts did not go unrewarded. They finished the Challenge at the head of the pack, and at the end of the competition, they were rewarded with a blue-colored trophy resembling a certain part of the male anatomy, signifying that they were the only team with "the balls to drive this section." They were deserving winners, but to give you an idea how tough the Challenge really was, even they haven't managed to drive half of the 25 tasks.
Interested parties can find a complete table of results and information about future challenges at www.aryllforest challenge.co.uk.