by Colin Argent


It was mid March, foot & mouth was at its height and the Nationals had just been cancelled - things were looking bleak from a 4x4 viewpoint. I was clearing out some paperwork (I subscribe to the chaos filing system - I know where everything is, give or take 6 feet!) and I came across a brochure from a group called Nord Raid Organisation (NRO) detailing their 2001 events. NRO are a commercial organisation who arranges off-road raids in France and elsewhere - they are similar to GRM who organise the Croisieré Blanche and other events. NRO just happened to offer an event called the Malgre Tout over the same weekend as the Nationals and from my rudimentary French, it appeared to be in the North of France as well (OK they mentioned the word Calais!). I could feel a plan coming together - all I had to do was find a suitable candidate to accompany me.

The next weekend was Russ's 40th birthday and so, armed with some copies of the brochure, I began my quest! Russ could not make it and Mark couldn't get an exit pass so things were looking bleak when from behind me up popped a voice "That looks interesting" - it was Chris Brown. Now without being nasty to Chris, he would be the first to admit that his navigational skills are not his strongest forte - indeed there are rumours that Stevenage Borough Council have had to put signs up for him to find his parent's house but I'm always up for a challenge! A French speaker at work phoned the organisers to see if they would accept a British vehicle, given the F&M crisis - they would and credit card numbers were duly exchanged.

Preparations for the event were a bit slow to say the least. My contract in Glasgow was coming to an end so I had to find a new job and I was also in the middle of moving house so the event was not exactly the top of my priorities. Finally about three weeks before the event, Chris and I sat down to plan. We were taking my TD5 90 which was already pretty well kitted out so only a couple of jobs were required such as extending the breathers up to the snorkel and swapping the rear Dixon-Bate plough for a NATO hitch. Wheels and tyres were easy - we left the standard alloys on which are shod with BFG Mud-Terrain. A spares kit was arranged (a fuel filter!), tools were sorted and a tent was borrowed. We were ready!

The night before we left, I was checking my email and thought that while on the Internet, I would see if I could find any information about the event. Typing Malgre Tout into a search engine took me to www.worldoffroad.com, which had reports on both the 1997, and 1998 events. One of the reports was entitled "Forget sleep, you can get all the sleep you want when you are dead" Sounds ominous so I read on a bit further to learn that Chris and I had unwittingly entered an event which was supposedly the toughest off-road raid in France with huge mileages and tough driving. Too late to worry so I printed them off for Chris to read.

Wednesday 23rd May

We knew we did not have to rush today as according to Autoroute, we only had a journey of 230km - the event was closer than the Nationals would have been! We were booked on a 1pm crossing from Dover with Hoverspeed who, confusingly, do not hover any more - they aquaplane! We arrived in plenty of time to visit St. George's cafe for a traditional greasy fry-up and a mug of tea. The crossing was uneventful and soon we were on the wrong side of the road, destination Hesdin (pronounced Hedin) We had decided to avoid the autoroutes and go the direct route cross-country, testing my navigation skills as I was driving as well. On the way we also calibrated the Terratrip into km and allowing for my tyres. A Terratrip is basically two additional trip meters, which display distance down to 10-metre intervals. The device is user-calibrated according to the vehicle and tyre size fitted. The more accurate the calibration, the easier the navigation.

We arrived at the village near to the campsite in plenty of time and spent about 15 minutes driving round in circles trying to find it. Eventually we bumped into a Belgian TD5 also lost but who spoke French and had a mobile phone. A quick U-turn and a right and we found the camp. The tent was erected and we went to sign on which comprised paying a deposit and getting lots of stickers. Next was scrutineering who were more interested in the location of the stickers than in the condition of the vehicle! The only check they made was to ensure that we had a rope, a shovel and, since we were on the red route, that we had a winch. The deal with the event was that they provided all of the food and also washing facilities. We were expecting the usual cubicles that we get at the Nationals but we were in for a pleasant surprise - there was a proper shower block with real plumbed in toilets and even a bar. It turned out that we were at an off road centre which attracts lots of club events. However, tonight they did not provide any food so we set off into the town in search of a restaurant and fuel. We were struggling to find either, since the supermarket was shut and their unmanned pumps only accepted French credit cards. We were on the point of giving up when we came across a cafe with two ancient pumps outside. Not only did the pumps still work but we also bought a toasted cheese sandwich and a beer!

Thursday 24th May

6am and the PA system screams into life playing what sounds like gypsy folk music. We struggle out of our sleeping bags and get dressed and go in search of breakfast in order to make the briefing, which is at 8am sharp.

We had the traditional breakfast of half a baguette with ham, cheese or jam and a cup of strong coffee. Turn up at the 8am briefing prompt in order to get our carnet stamped - organisers show up at 8:45 for the introductory chat which lasted until about 10:00! Finally we are lined up in number order to be given a superb packed lunch and as we set off we are given the roadbook. We left at 11:30, 51/2 hours after we were woken! From the first glance I thought we had been given the route for the whole event but closer examination revealed that all 43 pages were for today!

The scoring on the event was made up of several components:

There was a short prologue-type event around the off road course which featured lots of mud and some wicked cross axles - I am seriously considering removing the anti-roll bars! It also gave Chris a chance to understand the navigation although there were a few problems with the arrow thingys! Once out onto the main sections we settled into a routine. Much of the driving was along unmade tracks with stretches of single-track road linking them. The tracks were very dusty but seeing how slowly we were progressing through the roadbook, we had to press on and suffer the dust. We had elected to drive the red route, which was described as more challenging. Every now and again, the route would split with the red one way and green another. Approaching one such section we joined the rear of a long queue of vehicles. Walking ahead revealed the problem - a 200-metre stretch of muddy water about 3 feet deep. The event is open to any 4x4 and in this case a VW Synchro (albeit on Diamond tyres) had bellied out in the water and a Mitsubishi was trying to extract it. Eventually it was pulled free and the next motor had an attempt and also got stuck. We met up with a British couple in a Cherokee and were pondering what to do. We decided to deviate and follow the green route. This proved to be a wise choice as the Cherokee drowned and burnt out the clutch as well as filling up the interior with 6 inches of muck! Back at the campsite that evening we discovered a Range Rover which had hydrauliced his engine fortunately without severe damage.

One characteristic of French off roaders is that they favour large tyres, my 235/85's looked quite diminutive. The main consequence of this was that there were some very deep ruts. My TD5 still has standard springs despite the roll cage, bull bar, winch, recovery gear and two fat blokes which all meant that my gearbox cross member sits closer to the ground than intended! This we discovered when we were in some ruts over 300 metres from a tree with no ground anchor! The Suzuki in front reversed up closer (he didn't even fit in the ruts) and we attached the winch and pulled him even closer! At the end of the ruts was a marshal with a Toyota but he would not come and help. Time for plan B and out with the shovel and the high lift. We jacked up the vehicle and pushed it sideways and managed to drive forwards about a foot before stopping again! Plan C. This is where I discovered an alternative use for my rollcage as I must have had about 15 Frenchmen rocking the motor from side to side and another few pushing - eventually we broke free although this was not our first encounter with ruts.

We were beginning to work out the difference between Green and Red - the terrain was only slightly harder but the lane had not been cleared. My rollcage was proving to be invaluable in fending off the undergrowth and I was cursing myself for not fitting brush wires between the bull bar and the cage since in some areas I could not see where I was going. After one particularly tight section I noticed that the snorkel had twisted and the cyclone on the top was missing. We pulled off the track and retraced our steps to search for it without much confidence as several vehicles were following us. Amazingly Chris found it in the ruts where at least 3 vehicles had driven over it but, rather than squashing it, they had simply pushed it down into the mud. The following morning we hosed it out and put it back on.

By this time it was starting to get dark - it was almost 22:00 and we were on page 30 out of 43 in the roadbook and we had driven 285km and used 2/3 of a tank of diesel - thank god I didn't bring the V8!. Now we understood the reference to sleep. Checking Russ's GPS we realised that we were still over 100km from the campsite. Being a pair of wimps we thought s*d it and headed off in direction of home, stopping off at McDonalds, refuelling before climbing into our sleeping bags at 23:30.

Friday 25th May

Bloody PA system again, this time at 6:15, guess that must be their idea of a lie in! Discovered that some competitors had not returned to the campsite until after 2am!!

The roadbook was positively slim today - only 35 pages and we managed to get away at 10:30 - heavens, we might finish! Most of the route in the morning was on tracks which we were driving between 40 and 50 mph and incredibly dusty. Not sure where we were going, we were somewhat surprised when we came out of a side road to find ourselves in Calais in a filthy stickered Land Rover amongst all the tourist traffic! We were soon heading out of Calais and up onto the cliffs where we could see the ferries crossing the Channel and yes, there amongst the haze, was good ole Blighty!

We were soon heading south again and into some woodland and more ruts and guess what - yep we stopped - must remember to repaint the cross member when we get home! This time the extraction was easy, a short tug with the winch and we were free. Ahead of us was a long stretch of mud where a Rangie was onto his third winch pull. Once clear and not wishing the same fate, I pretended that I was in the V8 and floored it, bouncing and slithering our way through. I do find I miss the V8 in these circumstances, normally I would put it into low 3rd and it would fly through. Without a run up the TD5 will not get the turbo working enough to pull low 3rd but we made it nevertheless.

Before we knew it we had reached the second checkpoint and were heading back to camp. We had even answered most of the questions and found 5 letters! We arrived back at 19:30 having covered 286km.

Saturday 26th May

6:15 alarm call again! Tonight we have a Grand Sorieé in a local village hall so they are anxious to get us away. We are on the road at 9:30 with only a 30 page roadbook. We fill up with fuel and discover that we are getting 27mpg as we are driving at 40 - 50 mph. That is better we go on the drive down!

The day starts off with lots of dusty tracks of which we are beginning to get very tired although we are getting used to sliding the vehicle around the tracks at 40-50 mph!. I dread to think what state the suspension will be in when we get home as we hit the bump stops again - I wonder if the warranty will cover it? We soon hit the red routes and some more deep runs necessitating another short pull on the winch. We come across some motorbikes which are struggling in the ruts and they literally have to pull them through with ropes - makes a change for us to be held up by them as they are normally weaving all over the rear of us trying to get past. The bikes were not as much of a nuisance on this event as on the Croisieré since our speeds were much higher. However two bikers were hospitalised during the event, with us coming across one accident where the bike had clipped a 4x4 during a particularly optimistic overtaking manoeuvre.

Once clear of the bikes we were soon onto another red section, which was predictably overgrown. Coming to the end of the section at the normal sedate speed that was typical of the event, we slid into a rut created by something much larger than us and came to a very abrupt halt with the inside wheels off the ground. The traction control did its stuff and we reversed out with no drama. However, once out on the tarmac, I noticed the fuel light on which was strange as I had over half a tank. We stopped immediately, fearing we had split the fuel tank, but on inspection we found no problem. Turning off the ignition seemed to reset everything and the gauge returned to normal. Chris, by now well into the navigation guided us home, arriving at 17:00 - 245km today.

After the 3 S's we headed off to the hall where we had been told to assemble at 20:30 prompt. What are the 3 S's, well two of them are Showering and Shaving and the third I will leave to your imagination! At the hall, we collected our event souvenir (a T-shirt) and found a table by the stage. The programme indicated that there would be some speeches but we were not prepared for almost 3 hours of waffle in French - now we know why there was a hundred year war, one year of fighting and 99 of speeches! The food arrived at 11:30 by which time we were a little jaded to say the least. However at midnight we suddenly felt invigorated again when the stage show started. In true French style it consisted of two pretty young ladies dancing in very small swimsuits. They then dragged some of the audience onto stage -OK dragged is probably a bit OTT and the girls returned on stage wearing Sailor outfits and proceeded to strip! This was of course, totally un-British but we couldn't upset our hosts and leave so we had to watch - the pictures were taken purely for evidence! Although we are already a 'dirty' website, we cannot post them as we might lose our family friendly rating! Gives me an idea for a new venture www.4xxx4.com? Before I upset the ladies, a 'very nice man' performed the Full Monty! Finally back at the campsite at 1:30

Sunday 27th May

Wow, a lie in, 7am!! Worryingly I find myself humming the folk music! The roadbook today was only 12 pages and we were off by 9:30. We were warned that there was a river crossing on the red route today and that we were to have our winch cables unspooled before attempting it! Expecting some excitement we arrived to find the 'river' to be only 8 feet wide and the reason for the winch was that there was a 3-foot step to climb out. Even less impressive was the queue waiting to cross so we went round. The route today took us towards the West Coast today and we were directed towards a nature reserve. Unusual for such an establishment, they were going to lead us round in groups. The site was all sand, deep sand - third low and plenty of revs - it was superb fun. Driving on sand requires a different style, as wheelspin with mud tyres will simply cause the vehicle to descend rather than proceed. The trick is to keep a reasonable momentum and if you do have to stop, try and do so on a downhill slope. After leaving the sandpit we had another river crossing which I did three times, once to drop Chris off with the camera, then in reverse and then again forwards for posterity - OK, so I'm a tart! Soon after I began to have doubts as to Chris's navigation since the track we were on had not clearly not been driven recently. However I should not have doubted Chris (?) as we soon came across a Check Point who informed us that we were the first vehicle through! Quite how we passed everyone else is still a mystery. We were back at the campsite by 2pm after 138km.

There was a mud run which would earn us additional points but having got this far without breaking it we decided that discretion was better than valour! We headed off for the jetwash and got rid of the worst of the mud so we were at least legal. Walking round the campsite, it became apparent that nothing was going to happen that afternoon, indeed, most people were striking camp and heading for home. Being new to the event, we were not booked to return until the Monday. In the end we decided we would risk getting on a crossing and packed up. We arrived in Calais with plenty of time to fill up with beer and Hoverspeed let us onto a crossing leaving at about 8pm. Despite falling asleep in the queue and having to be woken by the operators, we finally made it back to Hertfordshire by 10:30.

Monday 28th May

Having gained a day, Chris kindly volunteered to give me a hand to clean the Landie, which had dust everywhere. We emptied the vehicle, hosed it out, took all the wheels off and removed at least a wheelbarrow full of mud. As for damage, the final toll was a bent snorkel, a new air filter, one split tyre, two new anti-roll bar mounts and bushes and lots of scratches. The mounts and bushes were not covered under warranty as they had apparently been damaged off roading!!! As for the scratches, I took the extreme option for replacing those on the hardtop - I cut out the sides and fitted windows!

Finally, thanks again to Chris for his superb navigation (it's true) and he is thinking of getting a Terratrip so he can find all the trials sites!