Voyage Of Discovery In The Andes

When you hear the words “Land Rover expedition,” what instantly pops into most minds is a legendary image of a convoy of the vehicles switchbacking up a remote mountain or trekking across an isolated desert.

There is always great use of shadow and light and dust.

When I was asked if I wanted to partake in Road to the Clouds, a Land Rover adventure in Argentina last week, I said yes for two reasons:

I find those images a curious mix of power, desolation and something almost romantic.

Like most people, I have an urge to explore the edges of things – the highest, the lowest, the farthest – to better understand the centre.

Land Rover could take me there; I wanted to be in that truck.

“There” was northwestern Argentina, with a route traced through the remotest, rockiest section of this spectacular country. “That truck” was a Land Rover Discovery TDV6 HSE.

I had never been in either.

The turbodiesel Discovery won’t be available in North America (where Discovery is called the LR3) until 2011. A 2.7 L V6 is under the hood, attached to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

The five-day trip was designed to give a dozen Canadian, American and Mexican journalists a preliminary taste of the diesel and demonstrate Discovery’s capabilities in general.

Covering about 160 km a day, it was to culminate in the convoy arching over the Paso Abra del Acay. At nearly 5,000 metres, this is the highest pass in South America negotiable by vehicle. Land Rover has been doing this kind of thing for decades.

From Toronto, three flights were required to land me in the middle of nowhere, the town of Cafayete, where the expedition was to begin. Final destination: the city of Salta.

The morning of the first day, I was sitting behind the wheel of a nice, but still strange to me, Land Rover.

Our convoy consisted of an ambulance truck, fully decked out with equipment and a doctor and paramedic; a lead car with two experienced guides, and a middle and rear car with more experienced staff, parts and equipment.

The six rigs in between each contained two journalists, a Land Rover instructor and a Land Rover staff person.

The brand’s team has been all over the world in every condition. As they swapped stories of treks through Iceland and Zimbabwe, laughing and reliving some of the World’s Most Harrowing Moments, I silently thought of my new Pontiac minivan sitting at home in my driveway. Somehow it didn’t seem my key into this club.

My instructor, Ken Cameron, calmly asked if I’ve driven off road before. Not on purpose. Had I driven a Land Rover? Nope. As he shoved the short straw he had drawn into his pocket, we started off.

The klicks started on tarmac, through lands first settled by indigenous tribes centuries before. I even had time to absorb information coming through the radio from Rodrigo, a member of our party from the nearby city of Salta, who kept a running historical commentary coming to us as we drove through the various regions.

Terracotta spikes of rock towered over the road, and I soon realized how often the word “breathtaking” is misused.

After half an hour, the tarmac thing was over. The road narrowed dramatically, the sides fell away, and it would be days before we even saw anything close to pavement again. Our trail was navigated partly through riverbeds, where deep sandy trenches threatened to bog the trucks down.

You do not stop. Sudden lurches up the sides of rocky mountains presented themselves around many blind turns.

Each truck was equipped with a navigation device on the front dash. It charted the course map, displayed the elevation and kept track of upcoming obstacles and terrain.

The elevation number was of prime importance; our bodies weren’t used to the altitude, and by 2,000 metres I could already feel the oxygen beginning to thin.

After a driver switch, from the back seat I saw the road disappear up ahead as the convoy came to a halt. If the road disappears, we should turn around and go home, went my thinking, but I was informed that with Land Rover, you never turn around.

You go over, around and through. Especially over. One by one, the instructors hopped out and led each driver down a sharp, rocky incline.

The trucks were standing on their noses. I stood to the side, ostensibly taking photos but mostly clutching my heart.

I debated how long I could plan the driving changeovers to keep me plowing through sand (I seemed to have a knack for that) rather than billy-goating up rock ledges I wouldn’t walk on, let alone drive on.

Ah, but these lads were way ahead of me. After the next shift change, the convoy picked its way through a steep rock cradle. At the end, an insanely steep cliff was directly in front of me.

The truck had to be driven straight up, twisted to the left at the top, and with the front tires hanging off the apex, carefully put back down and descended to safety on the other side.

Everyone was out to take pictures, though I had finally figured out that “take pictures” is just a euphemism for “run for your life” as Land Rovers head up rock walls.

I glanced at the navigation device on my dash. Under the area tracking upcoming obstacles, I noted the word “impossible.” The truck was telling me this couldn’t be done.

I leaned out my window, and gestured to the instructor. I politely informed him the upcoming offering was impossible, and I wasn’t making that up. My truck did not want to do it.

With a charming smile, he laughed and told me to engage the transmission in something called “rock crawl,” follow the instructors’ hand signals and to enjoy myself.

And then, I did it. And I realized all the cheering and clapping was for me. You can be part of Team Land Rover with good humour, a generous spirit and a willingness to live farther outside your comfort zone than you thought possible.

While I will cop to being wildly impressed with the LR3, I was secretly much more impressed with myself.

Our first night had been at a five-star spa resort. Our second night was in tents part way up a cold mountain, where brilliant stars kept watch as I climbed into a tent for the first time in my life. I slept better in the tent.

At 7 a.m. George Michael blasted us out of our sleeping bags beseeching us to wake him up before we “go go.” The trucks have great sound systems.

Altitude sickness was common; nights were tough, with several of us sucking on oxygen provided by the good doctor. We stopped in many small towns for food and coffee, and the Argentines couldn’t have been more wonderful.

The Land Rover convoys (there had been several through in previous weeks) were a highlight for the locals, not just for the economic boost they brought, but for the interaction between members of such varied cultures.

We were travelling through the most remote parts of the country; I knew this was the only way I would ever see it.

The roads in and out of the region, if they can be called roads, are mostly covered by donkey and foot. The Land Rovers don’t tear it up; they inch over and around. As we started our final ascent, nearly 4,000 metres up, the convoy stopped outside the house of someone they call the Llama Lady.

Living alone with her young child, she apparently travels with a llama to town on foot every few weeks. I watched as the instructors unloaded boxes of food brought especially for her, our last outpost on the way to the top.

In the final hour to our destination, we had a glorious view of the softly folded mountains that did indeed reach up to the clouds. Our road cut back and forth, but llamas and sheep ignored us.

I realized I was doing what I’d long associated with the bravery and adventure of somebody else.

I went to Argentina to learn more about a truck. I came home with a whole new understanding of myself.