Atacama desert, Northwestern Chile
Spanning some 70,000 square miles across the driest terrain on earth, the great Atacama Desert of Northern Chile provides endless fun for sand-runners and trail blazers alike. The region beckons anyone with a passion to go fast or far. Each year, several rally-style events happen in the region. Because the Atacama is home to the second largest sand dune in the Americas, it will challenge even the most experienced of drivers. Check out "Raid Atacama" videos on YouTube to see just how popular the region is.
Australia's Top End: Cairns to Darwin
The basics and what to see: Australia's Top End provides a uniquely wild experience. Six-foot Goannas wander the bush, there are more rivers than roads, and more crocs than people. Trek 600 kilometers of bushland from Chillagoe to Normanton. Hike the river in Lawn Hill NP, kayak the Katherine Gorge and toss back a few stubbies in the historic pubs enroute. Finish up with a few days in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks.
Logistics and Gear: I've had good luck renting a 4x4 with Swiss Aussie Holidays. Book a 78-Series Land Cruiser with a pop-top tent, stocked with camp and cooking gear, two spares, Hi-Lift, small tool kit and dual tanks. A sat-phone is a good idea (arrange with Swiss Aussie). Aside from small general stores enroute, Cairns is the last place to shop.
Resources: Explore Australia by Four-Wheel Drive is an excellent overland guide (ISBN 0-670-88114-7). Check Hema Maps (http://www.hemamaps.com.au) for detailed maps. Check RACQ for current road conditions (www.racq.com.au). Passports and visas (or ETA) are required and check the CDC for immunizations (www.cdc.gov).
How to get there and when to go: Simple---just head to your local airport and pony up for a ticket to Cairns, Australia. The dry season is the best time to go (May-Sept). Roads can be flooded and impassable during The Wet (Nov-April).
The Route: Doing right and avoid the pavement by taking the developmental roads. Plan two weeks to cover the 3500 kilometers (one way). From Cairns, the pavement ends enroute to Chillagoe SR1 to SR27 (S17-09-22, E144-31-20). Get fuel from Tom Prior, a toothless old Ford collector, before starting the 600km Burke Developmental Road to Normanton (S17-40-12 E141-04-45). Follow the Savanna Road to Burketown, Doomadgee (take side trip to Lawn Hill), Hell's Gate, Wollogorang and Borroloola. Head west at the T in the road (S16-03-30 E136-18-26) to Roper Bar and the Roper Hwy to civilization. Then North to Katherine Gorge and Darwin
Precautions: Australia has spiders, crocs and venomous snake, all of which can end your trip in a hurry. 150-foot road-trains haul booty and don't slow down, and any emergency can be a life-or-death issue. Use extreme caution in this part of the world.
Camp Six Road, near San Ignacio, Belize
Location: Approximately 20 miles south of San Ignacio, at approximate GPS waypoints 1754.000N, 8837.617W
Length: 12 miles.
Time: 3 to 10 hours, depending on conditions.
Experience level: Advanced.
Points of interest: Well, wheeling through a tropical rain forest is pretty interesting in itself, but if you want some history, the magnificent Maya ruins at Caracol are only a few miles to the south, at the end of Chiquibul Road. A former rail line that was used to haul out mahogany in the 1920s, Camp Six is a sticky-clay two-track that meanders through broadleaf forest in western Belize. This place is straight outta National Geographic---miles away from civilization and littered with branches and logs, with jaguars, howler monkeys and iguanas to keep you company.
What you need: Besides a few loose screws, a 4x4 that's set up for serious mud, and expert winching techniques. Belize's western regions average 180 inches of rain per year, so this trail is almost always a greasy bog. Engine power will only get you so far, so consider a strong-pulling winch and all the gear you need to go along with it---dual batteries, HD alternator, straps, gloves, clevises, tree savers, the works---as well as a set of the nastiest mud treads and the most unbreakable lockers you can afford. Relocated vent lines and a snorkel wouldn't be bad, and don't forget the bug spray and heavy boots . . . poisonous snakes, y'know.
Information: Belize Tourism Board, www.travelbelize.org
Coillte Forest, Ballyhoura Mountain Range, Southwestern Ireland
In traditional Irish style, Coillte Forest is surrounded by lush green hills and Guinness-toting leprechauns. Well, maybe we made that last part up, but this appointment-only venue is worth checking out if you ever find yourself in southern Ireland. Because all public land is off-limits to 4x4s in Ireland, this private park provides a much-needed release to those who favor challenging terrain. Though most of the wheeling is deep two tracks followed by bottomless bogs, the area is also quite entertaining to travelers who enjoy rare Euro-spec 4x4s. Check out www.munster4x4.com to learn more.
Location: About twenty miles south of Karlovac, Croatia.
Length/time: Total eight days event, held by the end of April, beginning of May. Open for four wheel drive cars or ATV teams (one team = two ATV's). Every day you are driving approximately between 30 - 75 miles. On Trophy Day it's a little less.
Wheeling Experience: Mainly you are driving in wooded mountains. A lot of very muddy timber tracks, but also steep ascents and descents, swamps, river crossings (if the water level is not too high), some rock-crawling, extremely muddy canyons, dirt roads, river beds and sometimes an old railway track. On Trophy Day you have to drive/work with three other teams.
Points of interest: The stainless steel and nowadays dilapidated monument of Petrova Gora near Vojnic. The Plitvice waterfalls in the Parque Nacional Plitvicka are about 60 miles south. This park is on the World's Heritage list since 1979 under the protection of UNESCO.
What you need: A true well prepared off-road car like Jeep Willys/CJ/Wrangler, Land Rover Defender or prepared/modified Discovery/Range Rover, Mercedes G, Toyota LandCruiser, Suzuki LJs, Samurai or Jimny. Your car has to be street-legal with a valid insurance. The car also has to be equipped with at least one winch (two or three are much better), roll-over cage, high air intake, safety belts, helmet, trip master, tree protection straps, ground/mud anchor, one fuel canister, appropriate car jack, drinking water canister, first aid kit and fire extinguisher. Ladders are not a must but very advisable, as are spare parts for your winch and car. Immunizations are not necessary, but a passport obviously is.
Contact info: www.schmitzheisler.de
El Pico de Orizaba, near Tlachichuca, Puebla, Mexico
Location: 125 miles south of Mexico City,
Length/time: Plan on spending a week in the area.
The wheeling experience: Easy trails to hard core four wheeling. The main object is to place a vehicle as high on the mountain as possible. Mount Orizaba is the third highest mountain in North America at 18,490 feet. Numerous trails lead up to and around the mountain. The town of Tlachichuca is at 9200 feet.
Points of Interest: Climbers from all over the world come to tackle El Pico de Orizaba as the ascent is similar to that of Mount Everest. The town of Tlachichuca is a center hub for a wide variety of agricultural products grown in the area. However, it retains the heritage of a Mexican town from the Pancho Villa era.
What you need: At least two vehicles, winch, winch anchor such as Pull Pal, and very tough sidewall tires. A lot of the hillside above tree line is made up of loose shale. November through March are the dry months and most likely the best for an ascent on the mountain; however, the trails below tree line will be quite dusty. You will also need to check for current entry regulations into Mexico.
Contact: You will need a guide as there are no maps of the area and it is quite easy to get lost. One source would be to check out www.servimont.com.msl as they offer rooms, meals, and great information.
Location: Northwest Russia, Karelia and St. Petersburg region.
Length/time: About 750 miles (1,200 km), 9 days (7 competition days) held the first week of June.
Wheeling Experience: The Ladoga Trophy started in 1997 and is one of the best, most respected and most challenging off-road events in Russia. The race track is drawn around one of the biggest sweet water lakes on Earth, the Ladoga Lake. Each year the direction of movement of the convoy is changing: one year clockwise, next year counter clockwise. Last years number of participants reached 500 teams! There are three big categories: "Sport", "Raid" and "Tourism". In turn, teams in "Sport" category are divided in subcategories (TR-3, TR-2 and Proto) according to the level of their vehicles. About 1/3 of the tracks are extreme special stages, including bottomless swamps and a lot of river crossings. Competition also includes two traditional races, the "Beach Race" on the shore of Ladoga and the "Dune Race" in the sand dunes nearby.
Points of interest: St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities of the world with a lot of art and architecture.
What you need: To participate in the Ladoga Trophy you need a well prepared 4x4 vehicle, and there is nothing to do without a winch and M/T tires. Your car needs to be prepared for fording and moving in deep swamps. Sometimes your car will be submerged in the water up to the roof! Each team is recommended to have a trip master, a set of sand tracks, winch cable extenders, tree-saving straps are obligatory. Each day the base camp moves from one place to another, so if you do not have a support vehicle, you'll have to carry all your stuff with you. But even if your tents and main food supplies are carried by a support vehicle, each team is highly recommended to have food and drinking water for at least 2 days, as well as sleeping bags. If your car will get stuck or broken in the middle of a big swamp, it's recovery may need at least a couple of days, or maybe even more. The only dangerous endemic disease in this region is the tick encephalitis, so it's recommended to be vaccinated against it and have proper clothes. Being in the base camp, it's strictly forbidden to burn an open fire on the ground, but you are free to use something like the BBQ grille. To enter Russia you need to get a visa from the Russian embassy or the nearest consulate.
Mission Santa Maria, near Catavina, B.C., Mexico
Where is it: Approximately 290 miles south of the U.S. border, from Mexico Hwy 1 at Catavina.
Length: Approximately 15 miles.
Time: 1 1/2 days to drive, 1 day to hike in the surrounding hills.
Wheeling experience: Advanced.
Points of interest: This could be the famed "treasure Mission of Baja". It's a very remote location, with steep canyons, no flat areas to farm, and not on the Mission Trail. This indicates that the mission could have been the storehouse for church treasures that the Jesuits did not take with them when they were expelled from Mexico in 1767. The mission itself is a small building with two standing adobe walls, and abundance of date palms, and numerous natural ponds to make this a true oasis in the desert. Lots of petroglyphs can be found in the mountains. Traces of gold can be found when panning. Hike to the top of the large hill to the east for a super view of both the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Check out the very dangerous and mysterious caves on the hill side.
What you need: Two vehicles, a winch, lockers, and 33-inch tires. Gas may be available at Catavina, but not always. Ask directions to the Mission at the ranch house---you have to cross private property to get to the trail. Be sure to check with AAA as to what current paperwork is necessary to enter Mexico. You will also need Mexican automobile insurance.
Information: Baja State Tourism Secretariat, www.discoverbajacalifornia.com
Mike's Sky Ranch Road, near Ensenada, B.C. Mexico
Location: Approximately 45 miles east of Ensenada, from the intersection of Buenavista Rd. and El Coyote Dr.
Length: 16 miles.
Time: 2 hours.
Experience level: Intermediate.
Points of interest: If you've ever been interested in desert racing, this is a gotta-go destination. Built in the late '60s along a part of the original Baja 1000 race route, Mike's Sky Ranch has been a longtime waypoint/watering hole/rest stop for generations of Baja legends, and the walls of the hotel/cantina are a living museum of off-road racing history. The backcountry drive is also a pleasure as you wend your way through mountainous San Pedro de Martir National Park, wheeling gradually uphill to an elevation of over 4,000 feet.
What you need: For starters, concentration----the trail's a mecca for dirt bikers, and they can come swarming out of nowhere quickly on blind curves, so keep to a safe speed, even on the easy stretches. For equipment, a stock 4x4 could probably traverse this trail since it gets graded every few years. But when wheeling in Mexico, you never know what you'll find on any given day---washed-out roadbeds with three-foot drops, felled trees, dead cows in the road---so a modestly modified 4x4 running a mild lift, 32s, some limited-slips and rock sliders would be advisable, as would a winch. The San Pedros can be blanketed with snow in the winter, so warm clothing is recommended too.
Information: Mike's Sky Ranch, (011) 52/664-68-15514 (reservations); San Pedro de Martir National Park, www.conanp.gob.mx
The basics: Unworldly and macabre flora survives in some of the most arid climes on the planet, and exotic wildlife is abundant from the mega and macro form. Visit the expansive Sossusvlei dunes, seal colony at Cape Cross, camp in the wilds of Damaraland and Kaudom, and witness abundant wildlife in Etosha NP. You could spend two years exploring Namibia's backcountry. Plan on three weeks for this suggested route.
Precautions: Much of Namibia is off the beaten track, distances between points are significant and help may be days away. Use caution---many of Namibia's fauna can be dangerous: Elephants, venomous snakes, jackals, hyenas, wild dogs and rhinoceros. Check with the U.S. State Dept (travel.state.gov) for political issues affecting tourism, and travel blogs for current local issues. Lastly, rent a rig with a rooftop tent; it's pricier, but reduces your risk of becoming part of the local food chain.
Resources: Get a Lonely Planet for general planning. Buy country maps in advance (www.maps.com) and Shell regional maps in-country at petrol stations. Read accounts of personal travel on travel blogs like: www.travelblog.org/Africa/Namibia. Passports and visas are required. Check the CDC for immunization requirements (www.cdc.gov).
When to Go: Namibia boasts over 300 days of sunshine per year. Temperatures are more pleasant May to August (winter), while November to April (summer) is hot.
Gear and logistics: Namibia is literally on the other side of the planet. Fly United or Lufthansa to Johannesburg, then to Windhoek (approx 23 hours). We've had good results booking 4x4s with Camper's Corner (http://www.campers.co.za/default.htm) (Book six months in advance). Rigs come with camp and cooking gear, dual spare tires and a Hi-lift jack.
Where to go: Plan three weeks. From Windhoek, head to the Namib Naukluft Desert and the Sossusvlei Dunes: Then to Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast and inland to the Kunene region. Do a loop along the Hoanib and Huarusib rivers (amazing). Spend two days in Etosha on your way to Tsumkwe, home of the Bushmen and the Kaudom Reserve (very remote). Head back to Windhoek via Shakawe, Toteng and Gyhanzi in Botswana. I have trekked and GPS'd these routes, but detailing the GPS coordinates would take pages. Get your maps; search Google Earth before you go.