Into the green abyss
Land Rover's elite SUVs are about more than looking good
Hence, an expedition to face the challenge of la selva maya
Jul. 29, 2006. 01:00 AM

CAYO, BELIZE—A cocktail of sweat, DEET and sunblock poured down my forehead and stung my eyes as I violently swung the 2006 Range Rover HSE's steering wheel from side to side as fast as my aching upper body could manage.

We were axle deep in Camp Six Rd. — a slippery, deeply rutted mud track that cut through the densest of jungles in this tiny nation surrounded by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean.

Any person of sane mind wouldn't even set foot on this 16-kilometre mucky mess, but here we were in the big HSE, a Range Rover Sport Supercharged and two LR3s, our convoy of premium sport utilities pressing ever deeper into the green abyss.

(LR3 is the North American name for the latest version of the mid-size SUV formerly called the Discovery. Discovery 3 is used elsewhere on the planet. Ford bought Land Rover from BMW in 2000 for $2.9 billion U.S.)

The appropriately named Jim Swett, my instructor and off-road guru, barked orders from the passenger seat.

"Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle! Stay with it! Good. More wiggle! More wiggle!"

For those not hip to the "wiggle," it's a technique used to gain traction in the slickest of conditions. By turning the front wheels a few degrees side to side very quickly, the side walls find extra purchase in the ruts. Yelling obscenities helps, too.

So I was a wigglin' and cussin' fool. Then bang! The Range Rover was yanked to a dead stop. We slammed forward against the seatbelts.

"Okay. More throttle. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle!"

The SUV inched ahead for a metre or so and that was it.

"Good. Back up and do it again."

I'm here in Belize on a Land Rover media expedition intended to demonstrate the true capabilities of these heritage-rich utilities.

While many owners may not negotiate anything more treacherous than a mall speed bump, the Ford-owned luxury brand wants to assure Yolanda Yoga of Yorkville that, yes, her new-for-2006 Range Rover Sport Supercharged, with its 390-horse, 4.2-litre V8, can indeed take on the worst jungle track she can imagine.

Except we ran into a slight problem.

About six kilometres into our trek, what sounded like a rifle shot coming from the lead LR3, was in fact an air suspension hose bursting. Not good.

A slammed LR3 might look cool in a rap video, but in the jungle a Landie on its "bump stops," as the team termed those suspension underpinnings, turns into a major liability.

Land Rover off-road team leader Bob Burns announced that our serious off-road journey was now an even more serious recovery mission. We had to turn back and drag the stricken LR3 out before nightfall.

The jungle turns into a wild party at night, when the creepy-crawlies come out and start to boogie. This was one party we didn't want to crash.

Luckily, we had a couple of things going for us. First, the ailing LR3 had a winch and, second, the crack team that Land Rover assembled for this adventure thrive on this type of work. These guys made Indiana Jones look like Little Orphan Annie.

First, they broke out the "snatch straps" — broad, woven bands stress-rated for more than 13,000 kilograms. Our HSE became the official tow vehicle; if you're wondering, the only difference between these utilities and the ones you buy were the 18-inch mud tires.

The technique of snatching involves generating as much speed as possible in the tow vehicle before the strap snaps taut.

It stretches about a metre, storing kinetic energy, which then yanks the towee forward. In this demanding situation, we were strapped to the Range Rover Sport ahead of us on steeper grades for extra tug.

Every now and then, we'd get extra grip on some stony ledges that were actually ancient Mayan terraces. Many centuries ago, this dense jungle was, unbelievably, open farmland.

When the proceedings ground to a halt, Swett would grab his machete, which was parked on top of the wipers, and hack into the jungle to find a strong tree on which to attach the LR3's winch.

At this point, we'd drive up the incline and wait while the team winched the low-riding rig.

Time was spent swatting bugs and discovering all kinds of huge, brightly coloured caterpillars, millipedes and centipedes that crawled on the jungle floor.

When not on tow duty, it was astounding what our Range Rover could do and the abuse it could take. The display on the dashboard LCD screen, which showed wheel direction and articulation, proved invaluable.

It pained me to see the lovely cream leather and satin wood interior of a $99,900 luxury ute gradually get smeared with mud and grime as the day wore on.

After nine hours, we emerged from the jungle as night was falling. Casualty list: one snapped snatch strap, left-side lower body cladding ripped from the Range Rover Sport and, of course, the LR3's air hose.

Burns, who works with Land Rover engineers on the development of these off-road systems, said the hose failure will be rigorously scrutinized.

Day two of the three-day trip was less dramatic but equally fascinating. We negotiated much more passable roads to the Mayan ruin of Caracol, Belize's largest archeological site.

Evidence of Mayan civilization here dates from between 600 and 900 BC. By AD 650, Caracol maintained a population of 140,000 and covered 10 square kilometres. The Caana pyramid (meaning Sun Place) rises 43 metres above the jungle floor and is still the tallest structure, modern or otherwise, in Belize.

We met Jamie Awe, a Belizean who once taught archeology at Trent University in Peterborough and is director of the Institute of Archeology of the Government of Belize. Along with 100 other workers, he spent 380 days excavating Caana. The view from the top is spectacular.

The buildings and temples here were once covered in plaster and gaudily painted. Awe showed us a court where captives from other tribes were forced to play a game with a large rubber ball while the city's nobility observed. No red cards here. The losers were sacrificed.

Land Rover is sponsoring the preservation of one of the few remaining large relief sculptures at Caracol.

Since being excavated, weather and insects slowly eat away at these magnificent art works, so a technique is being pioneered here that involves making an exact clay model of the carving, from which a cast is created and then a fibreglass replica.

The facade is painted and placed over the original, thus protecting it as well as keeping the site looking original.

My last night in Belize was spent at the spectacular Chan Chich Lodge in the heart of la selva maya, the Mayan forest or jungle, said to be the most extensive, moist tropical forest in Central America. The lodge, which has 12 cabanas and a central villa, sits in the plaza of an unexcavated Mayan city.

Belize (population around 263,000) was known as British Honduras from the 17th century until 1973; it became independent in 1981. The inland capital is Belmopan.

We flew into Belize City on the coast, then took a light plane to the Cayo district in western Belize, landing on a dirt strip.

I learned a lot about jungle off-roading on this trip. A couple of Swett mantras really stuck: "Go as slow as possible and as fast as necessary" and "Technique before technology."

So don't try to impress me with your fancy HSE or Range Rover Sport unless you've got a winch up front and a machete on the hood.