Welcome to the Jungle
We travel to Central America to test Land Rovers in their element.
Should we mention we're miles from the nearest semblance of civilization? We're in the jungle, baby.
Land Rover, maker of luxury, high-end SUVs wanted to demonstrate that not only do its vehicles carry passengers in great comfort on the paved streets of America, they can do the same thing in locations where paved roads are a rarity.
The Adventure Begins
So Land Rover had flown us to Belize City, Belize, in Central America. But that wasn't far enough off the main roads, so we hopped on a small single-engine prop plane and headed west into the Mountain Pine Ridge region and landed on a dirt airstrip cut out of the dense jungle. There, our rides for the next few days awaited us: the Land Rover Range Rover, Land Rover Range Rover Sport, and Land Rover LR3. (The all-new LR2, just introduced at the British Motor Show, won't be brought to America until sometime next year, so it was not part of our little expedition.)
We spent the night at a place called Five Sisters Lodge. The sisters don't refer to a family, rather five distinct waterfalls all flowing together into the Privassion River just behind the lodge. Normally the pools below the falls are crystal clear, but the falls and river were muddy from recent, heavy rain.
The rainy season in Belize started strong this summer, with locals telling us that this has been the worst rain in decades. This fact would have considerable effect on our planned drive route.
We started the next day in the back seat of the LR3, Land Rover's entry-level vehicle for U.S. customers. Our destination: Caracol, the largest Maya archeological site in Belize. The LR3's rear seat is roomy and comfortable, and even over rough roads the ride is smooth. With the air conditioning keeping us cool in this hot, humid climate, it was a pleasant way to relax, get acclimatized and take in the scenery.
Not long after we started, we came across an older military-style Land Rover Defender accompanied by four heavily armed men wearing camouflage. Before arriving in Belize, we had heard reports of tourists being held up and robbed while out in the country, so Land Rover was taking no chances with journalist security. The four men were members of the Belize Defense Force (BDF) and would be our escorts for our entire trip. Thieves wouldn't want to mess with these guys, so all of us felt fairly safe.
Our caravan of Land Rovers proceeded on through the Pine Forest until we crossed the wide Macal river and entered the Vaca Plateau. Almost immediately the surroundings transformed into a more dense, tropical jungle, with the vegetation growing thicker as we got closer to Caracol.
Maya Archeological Site
One of the largest Maya archeological sites in Belize, Caracol was discovered by loggers in the late 1930s. The site covers more than 30 square miles, with more than 35,000 buildings identified. The Mayans began living in the area between 600 and 900 B.C., with the first structures built around 70 A.D. By 650 A.D., more than 140,000 people lived in Caracol—a population larger than Belize City today.
The most impressive structure at the site, Caana (meaning "sky place") is a massive pyramid towering 140 feet above the jungle. It remains the tallest man-made structure in Belize.
Land Rover has been involved with restoration work at Mayan sites on several occasions. In 1994 the company helped cover the costs to create a replica of a stela (a stone slab used to commemorate an event) that had been previously taken to the University of Pennsylvania for restoration. The replica was transported back to Caracol on the top of a Land Rover Discovery. Currently Land Rover is underwriting the cost of preserving a number of sculptures and artifacts discovered at Caracol.
We left Caracol after lunch and headed to Camp Six road. Calling it a road is a bit of hyperbole. This trail through the jungle—seldom used even during fair weather conditions—had been transformed by the weeks of rain before our drive into what most would consider an impassable and impossible bog.
Into the Jungle
Our entire caravan turned off the main road around noon. Our friends from the BDF led the way, followed by an LR3, the Range Rover Sport we were driving, another LR3 and a Range Rover. A third LR3 followed behind with supplies and Land Rover's photographers.
The Range Rover Sport we were driving is the newest model, designed to provide a sporty on-road ride with a standard 300-horsepower V8 engine, a six-speed automatic transmission and an available Dynamic Response suspension system to improve on-road handling. It is also available with a supercharged 390-horsepower V8.
For our purposes, however, we were more concerned with Land Rover's new Terrain Response system. Land Rovers have a number of settings that can be adjusted for various road surfaces—ride height, transmission shifting, locking differentials, stability control and traction control. With Terrain Response, the driver only needs to turn a dial in the center console to the appropriate condition, and the vehicle attributes are automatically adjusted for that terrain.
Before heading off into the jungle, we shifted to four-wheel-drive low, and turned the dial to "Mud/Ruts." Other options are Grass/Gravel/Snow, Sand, Rock Crawl and General. The setting we chose gets the air suspension to its maximum height, changing ground clearance from a standard 6.8 inches to an extended 8.9 inches. And we would need every inch of that clearance as the day wore on. Traction control and stability control were turned off to allow the wheels to spin freely, and the center and rear differentials were set to automatically lock and unlock as necessary.
The only non-factory item on our jungle Land Rovers were the tires—which were designed for deep mud.
Off-Road Driving Education
On previous off-road outings we had always been taught by the experts that the key to off-roading is "slow and steady." This method is completely appropriate when climbing rocks or traversing steep ravines. However, we soon learned the key to operating in several feet of mud and water is momentum. Get moving as quickly as possible and keep moving forward; slowing or stopping at the wrong time can leave a vehicle in a spot that has no traction for getting started again.
The Land Rover's all-wheel-drive system continually impressed—just one tire needs to have traction to get the vehicle moving. When driving through the deep mud, a vehicle's tire treads will get completely packed with mud, reducing traction to almost nothing.
However, by quickly wiggling the steering wheel back and forth about a quarter turn each way during acceleration, the sidewalls of the tires can bite into the sides of the mud ruts just enough to get the vehicle rolling and get that momentum back. It was quite common on the trail for us to hear instructors yelling "Wiggle! Wiggle! Wiggle!" to coach a wary journalist out of a slippery situation.
We had ample opportunity to try this technique. The heavy rains had created a gooey mass of thick mud under standing water on Camp Six road. But the Land Rovers performed impressively. Most SUVs in America will typically never leave the pavement, and if they do it will be to go into the mountains for skiing or down a dirt road to a summer cabin. But Land Rover has never turned its back on its tradition of building vehicles that are capable of handling just about any terrain.
While our caravan of Land Rovers was incredibly capable, grappling with every bit of traction they could obtain, there were a number of occasions where traction was completely lost. Many sections of the trail were literally several feet of mud covered in two to three feet of water (a Range Rover Sport can officially wade through 27 inches of water), or in ruts more than three feet deep. At one point our driving instructor tried to get out of our vehicle to help the vehicle in front. His door wouldn't budge because the side of the rut we were in was above the door sill. He climbed out the window.
So when the traction went completely away, we did not have to abandon the vehicle by any means. The LR3s were equipped with factory winches on the front that are capable of moving 9,500 pounds. In addition, each vehicle carried tow straps that could handle up to 30,000 pounds. Of course, if a vehicle was just barely off solid ground a good old-fashioned push worked, too.
Granted, the six journalists on this adventure are amateurs when it comes to off-road driving, so in many cases the vehicles became stuck because of driver error or inexperience. Because we were learning as we went, it was especially thrilling when we were able to traverse a particularly bad section of the trail under our own power.
While we never got into a situation where a vehicle was permanently stuck, it did take considerably longer than planned to drive down this 10-mile stretch of "road" because vehicles had to be winched, towed and pushed more often then expected. We had planned on getting to the other end around 3:00 p.m. We ultimately turned off the trail around 10:30 that night. After more than 10 hours on the trail we were pretty exhausted; however, it was worth the experience of being in the jungle after dark.
Standing in an open area of the trail offered amazing stargazing. The jungle was extremely loud with all sorts of frogs, insects and who knows what else—we tried not to let our imaginations get the best of us. Because the air was so dense with moisture, the halations of the following Land Rovers' headlights could be seen in the sky well before they arrived in our location. A truly magical scene.
After our harrowing trail drive, we took stock of the vehicles. One of the LR3s got a flat tire from a sharp rock. Our Range Rover Sport suffered two issues. One particularly deep, narrow mud rut caught the plastic side molding and stripped it right off the door. The only other issue was the electronic emergency brake, which was overwhelmed by the mud and would not release. We had to find the manual release, which entails pulling out the cupholder and reaching in with a pair of pliers to release the cable. Once we did this we had no more problems.
And even though it was hot and humid outside—and we were working the engines pretty hard with the air condition running the whole time—there was never a problem with stalling or overheating, even going through water that likely exceeded the vehicles' advertised maximum depth.
Environmental concerns aside, it's unfortunate that most Land Rover owners will keep their luxury SUVs pavement-bound and never experience the true capabilities of their vehicles. For these owners, the knowledge that their Land Rover can handle roads in the jungles of Belize is enough for them.
The Adventure Winds Down
After our long day of jungle trekking, we made it to the Lodge at Chaa Creek in the Cayo District of Belize around midnight that night. The lodge is a beautiful resort along the Macal River; however, we didn't have a chance to see much of it since we were gone early the next morning for a second day of driving.
During our last day in Belize we drove the Range Rover on unpaved dirt roads, but these seemed like freeways compared to the previous day's exploits. The Range Rover is the top-of-the-line Land Rover; however, the Range Rover Sport features a newer-looking interior and so makes the Range Rover seem a bit long in the tooth.
We drove north though the largest section of unbroken canopy jungle in Central America to Gallon Jug. Our destination that evening was Chan Chich Lodge, which was built inside the plaza of an ancient Mayan city. Deep in the jungle, we awoke the next morning to spider monkeys swinging in the trees.
A short drive that morning took us to the Gallon Jug airstrip, where we thanked our Land Rover hosts and incredibly patient driving instructors for showing us this exotic locale and the true capabilities of their products, and shortly thereafter we were on our way back to the urban jungles we had come from.
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