It'll be alright on the night

LRO editor Neil and workshop editor Martin take on the military in Autumn Leaves

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I squint into the darkness to my left. My headtorch picks out a signpost in the gloom. ‘Turn left,’ I tell Martin. We overshoot the corner. He selects reverse and the Land Rover slews round on the wet grass, pointing the way I think we should be going. Bright driving lights turn night to day and the sign becomes legible, as does a faint track on the ground. ‘That’s the one – straight on!’

We’ve been driving for forty minutes so far, but are starting to lose time. We’d stopped on the previous phase of the Army Motorsport’s Autumn Leaves navigation rally and crawled into the time control because we were running too early, but a couple of navigation errors on this phase have cost us minutes. And the going is tougher.

Navigating across Salisbury Plain in the daytime with GPS is one thing; at night, against the clock and with no electronic assistance, it’s a whole different ball-game. Time is ticking away and we can’t even go quickly to make up time – the ground is too bumpy and throwing our competition-prepared Defender 90 all over the place.

We reach another junction. I know where we are and we could cut-and-run along it, but it crosses a ford, and I don’t know how deep it will be. And being off the route, we’re not likely to be found for a while if we get stuck. So we continue to follow the route, skipping round the river.

Three other vehicles are now ahead of us and there’s another behind. There’s nothing for it, we’re past our scheduled time at the control – we’ll have to go straight to it. The others turn right – we go straight on, followed by another crew, arriving at the control ten minutes late.

And we’re off again. ‘Turn left,’ I call and we shoot up an unsealed road onto the training area. It opens up, but this is a false junction – the one we want is further along. Martin spins the Defender round and we pick up the correct route, peering out for small 10cm square boards with letters on them – control boards to show we’ve followed the correct route.

More twists and turns see us in a village and at a manned passage control. A local wanders across the road to us outside the pub. ‘Turn left just there, mate,’ he tells Martin. He reeks of beer and continues: ‘I’ve seen the route – that’s the right way.’

My plot shows straight on, then turn left. We politely thank the man and continue down the road, then turn left, but we find no markers. I re-check the plots and the guy was right – we should have turned left.

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We’ve lost time, so we accept the penalties for missing the boards (1 point per board) and continue – we don’t want to lose too much time as well, or that will be more penalties. Now we know we’re scoring, we back-off a bit. I’m hugely competitive, but it’s still more about the fun than winning. We could stick to tarmac and cut down on travel time to the next control, or we could enjoy the greenlanes. We choose the latter.

Arriving at the time control eight minutes late, we’re racking up the penalties.

A long tarmac stretch follows and we follow another Defender along for a while before dropping back and giving them space. We catch them soon enough, though. On top of the Plain mist is forming, reducing the visibility. We dip beam and slow to a crawl. Not only is it tricky to see the road, the code boards are only visible for a few seconds in the beam pattern of the lights.

The other crew miss a junction in the fog and we almost do as well, but luckily catch sight of a kerb ending – the only indication there may be a road joining. We nip down it and along another byway and check in at the control right on time.

The final phase is right across the middle of the Plain – somewhere you could wind up the speed if you wanted to. Except that there is a 30mph limit on the tracks, and there are marshals with speed guns about. I’ve been caught speeding in competition in events before and it has always cost me trophies – you can miss code boards and make navigation errors, but speeding penalties are avoidable.

On the ‘fastest’ section of the track our lights illuminate a marshal who flags us in. We’ve been clocked at 25mph – well within the speed limit. With plenty of time remaining, we dawdle into the final time control and hand in our cards. It’s been a great night’s driving – but we haven’t done as well as we’d hoped.

But it’s not all over until all the score cards are in and though we haven’t done fantastically, everyone else has struggled more – and we’ve finished as First Experts, and are overall winners.

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The 90 is in one piece, we haven’t argued and we’ve got some glassware to take home. Not a bad night out!

Want to get involved in Navigation events? Army Motorsports runs them throughout the year and the next one is GEMM 4x4 Mudmaster, based in Glasgow on 27-28 October 2018. You don’t need to worry about having to beat me on this one – I’ll be marshaling and running one of the phases.

See you there!