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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Offroad with Hugo - nothing is impossible... or is it?

Updated: May 29, 2023

South American road conditions are tough - a 4x4 vehicle pays off
Our off-road training was worth it - we know what Hugo can do
River crossings, steep slopes and mud terrain - conscious usage of the off-road techniques
Into the Brazilian jungle - Hugo takes us to the loneliest corners
Towing with a lasso - does the gaucho technique work?

There are always beautiful places on our journey that are not so easy to reach. At least not on a paved road. This is more often the case in Patagonia than you might imagine. Most of the time, however, there are dirt roads (of better or worse quality) that any vehicle can actually manage. It's rather annoying for the passengers because it shakes everything up and you can't drive faster than 20 km/h. However, a few places can actually only be reached via “real” off-road tracks. And that's exactly why we're on the road with Hugo. Because these places are usually very special and less frequented.

Vanlife Offroad Toyota HZJ 79 Bush Taxi Peninsula Valdes Argentina South America
The most beautiful places are usually difficult to reach

Already during our first weeks in South America, traveling in Brazil, in the Pantanal, Hugo proved itself. Officially, no off-road vehicle is required for the Transpantaneira, a 147 km long natural road. However, road conditions can quickly deteriorate due to heavy rainfall. So it is more a question of good conscience to have a four-wheel drive vehicle. On the sandy slopes to Bahia Sia Mariana, on the other hand, we would not have gotten any further without 4x4 drive.

Speaking of which, four-wheel drive isn't everything when it comes to off-road capability. Equally important is the size of the vehicle. With a width of 1.98 m and a height of 2.35 m, we are quite compact. Most tracks are no problem. And should a liana get in the way, the co-driver just has to remove it :-) We've learned that the weight also plays a decisive role. Many bridges are limited to a maximum of 5 tons, some have no official weight limit at all and look rather fragile. At 3.5 tons, we are more of a “lightweight” among the overlanders. Anything the locals drive with their vehicles, we think is doable.

Bridges Offroad Transpantaneira Resilience Pantanal Brazil Toyota
Happy to be lightweight...

Many trailheads too are only accessible by 4x4. In other words, if you don't have one, you hike longer. For example in Parque National Patagonia, Chile. The Mirador Doug Tompkins is only accessible via a several kilometers long off-road track. We have a clear advantage with our Toyota Landcruiser. The access road is not exactly a highlight. We prefer to save the energy to hike on site. In addition, driving off-road is really fun!

Often we specifically choose off-road tracks. The road to Monte San Lorenzo is one of them. The first part is a "normal Patagonian" dirt road. A four-wheel drive vehicle is only required for the last 10 kilometers. The paths are impassable, over stones and scree, with a decent rise or fall. We drive in four-wheel drive with low gear. This is a transmission variant that allows you to have more revs at less speed. We often only move at idle - at around 5 - 10 km/h. The focus is not on the speed, but on the safety of driver and vehicle. Normally there is no mobile phone reception on such tracks to get help, and you usually don't meet anyone.

Monte San Lorenzo Offroad Toyota Land Cruiser Chile South America Panamericana 4WD Experience
An absolute dream route to Monte San Lorenzo

By the way, our four-wheel drive can be switched on. We insert the type of transmission with a second gear. In addition, we still have to close the free hubs. This means that the wheels are no longer decoupled from the drive train of the front-wheel axle and the power is actually transmitted to the wheels. That means getting off the vehicle. And everything that involves getting out is the passenger's job :-)

Before we shipped Hugo to South America, we did an off-road training. We spent a whole day learning what our vehicle can do. And that's some. Some things you don't want to exhaust at all. For example, it feels extremely uncomfortable as a passenger when the vehicle is in a lateral position. Driving off-road also is more difficult than you might initially think. Just because we have a four-wheel drive vehicle doesn't mean we can drive off-road. The most important lesson Jörg, our trainer, taught us is “Forget the coupling”. And indeed, it is one of the most dangerous "tools". We only use it only for starting and changing gears on safe terrain. Operating the coupling at the wrong moment can put you in unexpectedly difficult situations. This is especially true when driving downhill. Then the braking force of the engine is no longer effective. When in doubt, it is better to let the engine die than to operate the coupling in the wrong moment. Then quickly restart the engine (and engage the gear without coupling), otherwise the vehicle can no longer be steered. Sounds so simple, but it is really essential. Once you feel a 3.5 ton vehicle spinning out of control, it's a whole different experience. We deliberately went through some extreme situations to prepare for them.

Of course, the passenger has to get out of the car on difficult passages to explore them by foot. Often one does not see how the track continues. This is essential before blindly navigating into difficult terrain. If necessary, stones or other obstacles are cleared out of the way. And when crossing a river, you can't do without getting off. On the way to Fundo San Lorenzo, we had to cross the fast-flowing Rio Tranquilo. The water is not very deep, a maximum of 40 cm. In addition, the soil is solid, with gravel and stones. That means no danger of sinking. Still - it's our first river crossing outside of the Offroad Park and I'm a little tense. In hindsight it was super easy. We know that we could also cross much deeper waters with our Toyota. The driver's cabin is watertight and as long as the water level does not reach the engine, no problem. However, what must not happen under any circumstances is that the engine stops. Then the water penetrates through the muffler - and that's it.

However, things don't always work out as expected. In Chile we want to shorten the hiking trail to the Puyehue volcano - with a 4x4 vehicle you are supposed to drive another 5 km towards the trailhead. It goes up a muddy path, we drive relaxed in four-wheel drive with low gear. Until there is a steep section with an incline of about 25° and we're not moving any further. I can see from the passenger window that the right front tire is spinning. We start an attempt to drive off, this time with differential locks. That's it. When we get out, we see the full extent of the desaster: we have "buried" ourselves in the mud with three out of four tires. We sit up in the back, we're almost 50 cm in the dirt. All ground clearance of our Toyota is gone. Maybe I should have gotten off earlier... Our only solution - dig our way out. A tiring affair for Micha. We take turns. After about 2 hours we try to move out backwards - no way.

Suddenly a Gaucho comes riding up. And a few minutes later a jeep approaches from the trailhead. Our rescue? They're trying to pull us backwards down the hill. On the first try, the lasso breaks after a few seconds (no kidding, that's gaucho style :-)). Without further ado, the two drive away in the jeep, the horse stays with us. With a tighter belt, they come back. New try, new luck. And - yeah - we move. Unfortunately, we slide so badly sideways that we are about to move the rear tire into a ditch. We don't feel like laughing anymore... And we can't even think about taking pictures - there's too much at stake. We have one more try forward. It has to be in 100% exact - we are only about 20cm away from the ditch and must not slide any further back. The jeep pulls and we actually make it onto a straight lane. Phew! When asked whether we want to continue towards the trailhead, we don't have to think twice. We park our car on the next leveled grass. At first glance, everything seems intact. And we have learned from that experience!

Help is at hand in the form of 1 horse power - and no, we weren't towed by the horse

It is important for us to slowly approach independent off-road driving. And that we both gain experience. Practice makes perfect! Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to practice in South America :-)

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