‘It’s like shooting fish,’ laughed the army officer manning the secret control in Devilla Forest at dusk, ‘they come in and we pick them off one-by-one.’
‘So, have you got a man hidden in the woods with a speed gun calling the speeds out?’ I ask. The officer looks a bit bemused, but nods, and off we go.
‘Did you hear that?’ I ask Phil Griffiths, my driver, ‘there’s a soldier out in the woods somewhere!’
‘I know,’ Phil replies, ‘he was standing next to my door. I only noticed him when he turned to look at me.’
We’d been clocked at 14.1mph, lower than the 15mph speed limit on the forest sections, but it seems like quite a few weren’t keeping an eye on their dials.
We’re competing in GEMM 4x4 Mudmaster 2015, a multi-venue navigation and driving skills event run by the British Army Motorsports Association (BAMA) and based at 154 (Scottish) Regiment RLC in Dunfermline. We’d competed last year and finished in 10th place after dropping 15 points. This year we were after the overall win and that meant some modifications to the LRO 90 were in order.
The rules are that a ‘Challenge’ class vehicle cannot take first overall and as the LRO 90 is quite modified, we had to bring it back a notch or two. So, as well as disabling the rear locking differential, I removed the trick suspension. If we were going for the overall win, we’d go for it fairly. This isn’t an event that is won by the person with the biggest budget.
In fact, it’s a remarkably cheap event to enter – just £60 plus £25 insurance for a full day and a half of competition, covering some 210 miles. And the fact that it attracts crews all over the UK shows it holds great appeal.
It’s really two events in one. The Land Rovers and other ‘small’ 4x4s compete on one route; the 7.5 tonne trucks use a different route. And if you don’t want to compete, but just want to have a gentle bimble along the forest tracks which have been opened for the day, you can sign up for the ‘greenlaning’ run. It’s a big event with a huge amount of organisation required.
That’s not restricted to the organisers, though, navigators get the pre-plot information a couple of days before the event and have to mark up the Ordnance Survey maps with the site locations and the routes they’ll need to use to get to them. And instructions need to be read and understood – you don’t want to pick up any penalties if you want to do well.
‘Remember, this is not a race,’ advises Donald Urquhart, secretary of the event at crew briefing at the Dunfermline HQ, ‘slow and steady is much better. There are driving standards observers out there and we have six speed guns – so you have been warned.’
And they’re off
Martin and Mhari Duncan are first to set off. They won the 2014 event and ease out of the regimental HQ and onto the Scottish roads. Spaced at one minute intervals and wearing number 10, we set off nine minutes later, arriving at the first site just as Martin and Mhari are leaving.
It’s an autotest – navigating around some cones and into ‘garages’. Fairly simple in a 90 station wagon, not so easy for the soldiers competing in Wolf 110s with their full length hard tops.
We head for site two. The speed limit on normal roads is 60mph, but we stick to around 40mph. We need to spot every code board (about 100mm square) placed on the verges we can. Careful navigation – and having plotted the route correctly in the first place – is the order of the day and we pick up a couple which would be missed by navigators taking short cuts.
Two trial sections await us and Phil negotiates the 90 between the canes to clear both sections. Now it’s my turn to get us round the orienteering. With 25 minutes allowed, my spotting will have to be good. I say where we need to get to; Phil picks the route. We hand our card in, fully completed, after 19 minutes. Liam Challis and Helen Knott are not so lucky in their 110. They’d driven up from Oxford to compete and misread the ground, bogging down their 110. Arriving at the finish late, they pick up 14 penalty points.
Another site has a pair of trials sections and then the next road section has a couple of wrinkles in the route where we’re sure there’ll be code boards, but we can’t find any. We do a double check, but they definitely aren’t there. A shame as two other competitors fly past us having gone the wrong way. That could have given us a point or so advantage.
Last year we didn’t do well in the orienteering at Glenhove. This year it’s dry and we’ve a couple more trial sections. They would probably be classed as ‘family vehicle trial’ sections: not damaging and with wide gates, but still with the potential to catch you out. We clear them and head to the quarry at Twechar, west of Cumbernauld for some more orienteering.
We can’t find the first code board, even though I’m certain where it is, so hoover up the rest – if there’s a manned position we’ll have to accept losing a point. We collect eight more before arriving back in the right area for number one, but still can’t find it, so collect all but the last one and, as we’ve seven minutes left, we have one final look. The code board is exactly where I said it would be. We just hadn’t gone round a pile of logs far enough to see it.
Are you sure we’re right?
The afternoon route is slightly unnerving. We don’t find a single code board until we’re on the Carron Valley stage. We’re speed checked and well within the limit, but the boards are few and far between. I know Brian Hartley and his crew have set this one. And I know how devious Brian can be.
We spot a couple on trees, another on the end of a wood pile and some you’ll only see at the last minute, but not knowing how many we’re looking for, we don’t know how we’ve done.
There’s a traffic jam at the end as we wait for some horse riders to clear the tracks. Because the marshal has been delayed, the first vehicles catch up with him before the stage is fully marked – so they have the advantage of seeing where the boards were being placed.
Another forest track just south of Callander sees another speed check and we drive through the lovely town to a local quarry for another orienteering section. A camera crew is there filming the event for a BBC Alba motoring show (we’re not sure when it will be aired yet), so Phil drives more enthusiastically than normal to try and get on the telly. Half of the section is in the quarry, the other in forest on a separate map. I insist that the 15mph limit applies, but another competitor roars past. We carefully build up the speed, but stay around 15mph, just in case. And finish with just a minute to spare.
Stopping at Stirling Services for a 15 minute break, we’re surprised to see one of the military crews arrive. How have they caught up with us?
‘We cleared it really quickly, it was such a small site,’ remarks the navigator, showing us the aerial photo of the quarry.
‘Didn’t you do the forest section?’ Phil asks.
‘What forest section?’ comes the reply – they have missed the second map and the nine code boards in the forest…
We cross the River Forth using the Clackmannanshire bridge and pull in to Devilla Forest. We get caught by another team and pull over to let them by. They get caught by the speed gun…
Code boards seem to have fallen out of the route organiser’s vehicle towards the end of the section – three boards in a row with an extra semi-hidden one have me scribbling frantically to get them in the right order.
We pull into the final checkpoint of the day, hand our scorecards in, and retire to plot the following days’ route.
Many of the competitors from further afield – from both England and the Scottish highlands (one driver was in Stornoway at 8am Friday morning…) are staying at the Premier Inn, so we discuss the day over a beer. I think we’ve done well; it just depends on whether others have done better.
It all starts to go wrong
Day 2 has six sites running simultaneously with 10 vehicles allocated to each site then moving on to the next one when you’ve finished that section – something that seems to work exceptionally well.
We kick off with an orienteering section in a quarry and the marshals have the overnight scores. ‘I don’t want to know,’ I tell Phil and manage to avoid most talk of points, but when Brian Hartley says: ‘We’re going to have to call you Mr Smarty Pants,’ I know we must be doing okay.
But each time I’ve done well in the first half of an event, I’ve thrown it later. And as I go back to the Land Rover to study the aerial photo, I can’t find it. It’s not on my clip board or in the footwell, or in the back. I had it a few minutes before, but it’s gone.
In panic, I run over to Phil. ‘Have you seen the photo sheet?’ I ask. ‘Yes – you handed it to me just now,’ he replies… Phew. I’d memorised the board locations, but wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint them without the map.
Then I can’t find our score card. The pressure has got to me.
Fortunately Phil keeps his cool and I locate it just before our due time, settling down as we pick out board after board, clearing the section in half the allocated time.
Two trial sections at one site followed by one other are cleared before we get to the second autotest. There’s a three minute bogey time so we study the route card and drive the section slowly and carefully, clearing it in just under two minutes.
The next site’s trial section is a bit flat. It turns out the land owner didn’t quite understand what the organisers were after and went through and flattened it. Still, it gave us another clear, so I’m happy.
The line of mud to the gateway of the final site is ominous. Many of the competitors are running extreme tyres and we’ve been lucky that it’s been so dry, so the tyre type hasn’t really made a difference, but we’re the last competing vehicle and if 50+ vehicles have dug the course up we may have problems.
Fortunately, though, the mud was just from the exit route; the trial sections are dry and though fairly tricky, we got round. ‘The recovery guys are missing the rain,’ jokes Alex Lindsay, chief marshal, ‘they’ve had nothing to do today!’
I’m happy, though. Unless we’ve picked up any unknown penalties we’ve gone clear today. We just need to get back to HQ and see what’s what.
‘Okay,’ I ask Phil after handing our scorecards in, ‘how did we do yesterday?’
‘We’d dropped two points,’ he replies, ‘and were leading. Assuming we didn’t get any penalties today, we’ve won!’
And the winners are…
It’s a nervous wait until the final results are published. We’ve won! Martin and Mhari were just two points behind and Ewan Sanderson and Dave Low have dropped a total of five to take 3rd.
Some of the other top crews are way down the rankings – they messed up the second autotest and have been hammered with a whopping 40 point penalty – ouch.
Result of the weekend, though, has to be from Nick Johnson and Maddy Corbin, competing in their roofless 80-inch Series I. They pick up just 11 penalties and finish in 7th. If they’d spotted a few more code boards on the road they could have had the win.
We’re awarded the Mudmaster trophy by Colonel of the Regiment, Col Rt Hon Adam Ingram. This is the first perpetual trophy I’ve ever won, so our names will be added to the engraved list of winners.
And, of course, we’ll have to be back in 2016 to defend our title. See you there!
To get on the mailing list for next year’s event, email Pam Norrie : email@example.com
For BAMA events go to to: http://www.armymotorsports.co.uk/Disciplines/4x4-Navigation
Full results are here: http://www.scotresults.co.uk/MudmasterOct2015results.pdf