Just imagine: you may try out for a good week a complete Land Rover Discovery 300Tdi of 1.5 years old, just to see whether such a Discovery is indeed the family car that I have in mind. And that I have a business appointment abroad in Belgium, on the last day of that good week, makes it only the more fun, as that at least is a seriously long ride.
Because our appointment in Belgium is rather early in the morning, Rob de Leeuw and I, Wim van Dorst, decide to drive the evening before, so that we can travel leisurely. To get a good hotel referral, I ask a Belgian colleague, Erik Damman, for an address. And knowing that he drives a Toyota Land Cruiser and really uses it too, I let drop that we'll be coming in a Land Rover. `Oh, that changes things,' says Erik. `Give me a day, and I'll let you know.'
And indeed, the next day, a fax comes in with a reservation for hotel rooms in the Manoir de la Motte, a castle annex hotel in the Belgian Ardennes, close to the French border. Plus decisive indications not to arrive in the evening, but to be there at four o'clock in the afternoon. Erik will be there too, and then `we will do a tour of the area.'
With a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and some cans in a big bag, we leave around midday from the centre of the Netherlands, and go south, down the A2 motorway. Without much ado, we pass Liege, direction Namur, and finally we even find the `square' curve (this is Flemish for a 90 degree turn). This turn leads to a small road, leading at right angles on provincial road to the right, to the little village Boussu-en-Fagnes, hidden behind the hills.
There the lady of the manor awaits us, with bare but clean rooms in 16th century style, and with a Matich, a local beer. At least for Rob, as I can't drink because I have some more driving to do. We change into some more sturdy clothing: we guess suit and tie are probably somewhat inappropriate.
Half an hour later, Erik also arrives in his Land Cruiser. He is completely fitted out in mud-resistant clothing, which puts some thoughts in our minds: what is he up to? After having made the dinner time appointment with the people of the hotel, we leave threesome in the Land Rover. The first hundred metres are easy, as we're only driving out of this street. Then we have to go to the road that says: only suitable for agricultural vehicles. It is hard topped, but only one car wide, and it goes along for several kilometres through woods and fields. In its own right a beautiful route, but it is nothing yet.
We cross a somewhat larger road, and it goes over in an unpaved road. A little bit further on, Erik starts to laugh, and says: `It looks like it you're driving a deluxe BMW. This kind of small puddles and potholes is small fry, you know. Just go straight-on, and don't brake or divert. This is child's play for a Land Rover.' Alright, I accelerate and speed on (mwoa, 40 km/h) over the curving forest road with puddles of 2 metres long, and fortunately not so deep. Erik is right: of course that goes nicely, and I really love it altogether. And immediately we strike lucky: there are about three swine piglets walking besides the forest road. We drive on very slowly, and when the car has approached the piglets up to ten metres, they quickly disappear in the forest.
Somewhere, some kilometres further on, we turn left, onto a similar path that comes dead-ended against a hill, and continues to the left and to the right. I ask Erik: `Are we going left or right?' It would be obvious: we go straight-on! Actually, I am rather surprised that my car drives up that hill, just like that. It is by all means a more than 45° slope (1 metre ahead, and at least 1 metre up). We now follow a trail from which it appears that before us only one other car has ever been there. Rob has turned very impressed by the performance of the car and especially by the beautiful scenery around us. Between jumps in the back seat, he makes several very nice pictures.
We're here on territory very familiar to Erik; he has lived in this area for all his live, and he regularly hunts in these woods. Therefore sometimes he indicates that I should drive slowlier, because then we are possibly in the neighbourhood of game. We don't see anything of that yet, but the trails, roads, and paths that he shows me to drive lead to gorgeous views over the Belgian Ardennes, far away from civilization. And the goings of the Land Rover outdo the highest expectations: Off-roading is fun! Then, suddenly, when officially we're on the way back, there we see a roe and her fawn, just along the forest road. We watch how the deer, that isn't afraid of the car at all, slowly walks away with her fawn, into the forest.
Rob and I appreciate that it has been a tremendous adventure, but Erik is not satisfied yet. He proposes to go again after dinner. `What could possibly trouble us?' Rob and I think, knowing full well that driving by night through a forest is not void of danger. Yet we have by now complete confidence in Erik's knowledge and experience. `Of course we will be delighted to go again.'
Back at the castle, we enjoy our dinner, naturally opened with an entree of Ardenner ham. As if we were Belgians of Burgundy, we also do honour to the main courses and dessert, which is accompanied with a nice glass of French wine; for Rob and Erik, that is, as I have some more driving to do. Clearly I am quite happy to forego drinks with the prospect of the ride. During the dinner, the storm that has threatened us for several hours finally bursts: Rain pours down, and the wind howls. Yet, we are pleasantly engaged in the late-mediaeval castle, which stands up to this weather with aloof. When the coffee is being served, the storm has quite settled down, and after coffee we can go out without rain.
Before the dinner, Erik phoned a gamekeeper to announce our ride, because a Dutch Land Rover driving through the forest will definitely be stopped and fined. We were kindly allowed, too, to borrow the gamekeeper's bright searchlight, which we pick up after dinner, from his house deep in the forest. Then we drive on. We see the road is still wet and leaves and tree branches are scattered about as a result from the storm of the last hours. For the rest this is an easy drive, I thought. Until Erik says: `You should go left here.'
It is pitch-dark, and to my left the only things I see are trees. `Erik, there is no road here on the left.' Erik smiles, and points to two trees in between which there is a smaller tree. That small tree is the middle of the trail, and luckily it easily gives way to the Land Rover. The branches of the trees above us gently caress the car roof. Rob aims the searchlight into the forest to our right, and a little further on something moves: two large wild swine. Erik whispers: `a full-grown male boar of about 90 kilograms, and a female that is slightly smaller.' We pull back a few metres in the Land Rover, and thus we have a beautiful sight on the swine. They even walk towards us, and eventually pass in front of our car on less than ten metres. Of course now we are really impressed.
We drive on over paths, roads, and specially over trails. Sometime Erik and Rob get out to clear a tree out of the way, which has fallen in the storm of tonight. Then we move on again. Then, while riding a nearly invisible trail, kilometres away from anywhere, dead dark, somewhere in the middle of the forest, every tree looking like the other, and without any orientation point that I can see, Erik indicates: `Watch it; next there'll be at thick tree which you should pass on the left, and behind that tree there is a big, sharp stone close to where the wheels pass by. That's where you'll have to drive carefully.' And naturally we are mightily impressed when about 50 metres further on, that stone is actually just behind that tree. Erik is really at home here.
Now it is midnight. Next there's a muddy piece of trail, of which we aren't sure whether we will be able to pass. Erik adds to the occasion by indicating that things aren't that bad yet, as his car is only 5 quarters of an hour walking away. `Yes, Erik, in a totally dark forest, without paths?' Luckily the Land Rover doesn't let us down, and I can drive the car to the right of that shrub, there. Erik said I had to go on the right side. He himself normally hangs on left, because then you wade through a very deep puddle where the water gushes so nicely over the car hood. His fellow hunters also always choose for the right trail...
Going on for one o'clock, we are back in the
inhabited world, and we drop Erik off at his own car. Rob and I
return to the castle, and park the car on the court. In the lighting
of the castle, you can see that the Land Rover got `some smudges on
it.' Happily I don't have to wash it before returning it the next day,
back in the Netherlands.
Text and editing Copyright © 1999 Wim van Dorst
Photographs Copyright © 1999 Rob de Leeuw