Belgium National 2001 - Dave White

Our small convoy of members vehicles, picture taken on saturday... from front to back, Matthew and Dave in Matthew's 110 (it's blue underneath that coating of mud) Neil and Ian in Neil's 90, Billy and his dad, Ian in Billy's 90 and Dave Barker in his 90

This is an annual event that offers an unusal and mostly none-competitive chance to drive off road both in Belgium and Northern France. The event this year started on Friday afternoon so our small convoy of vehicles set off to catch the ferry from Hull on Thursday night. We arrived at the chateau late Friday morning and soon had our tents pitched in what appeared to be one of the remaining dry areas of the camping fields. This was only in relative terms as the majority of the fields were completely waterlogged. The single track that wound its way through the main camping area was already showing signs of the problems to come with 6 inch deep ruts developing throughout most of its length.

Almost immediately after pitching the tents and having had a cup of coffee the heavens opened and we were treated to a deluge complete with thunder and lightening. After an hour or so of this the skies cleared again and the sun put in an appearance. We then had the chance to watch the procession of vehicles arriving, some with trailers and caravans. These were having the hardest time as over the course of the afternoon the ruts deepened and the added weight of the trailer/caravan was halting many of them in their tracks. Several of the caravans were being towed along on their axles by two vehicles as their wheels failed to touch the bottom of the ruts. By the end of the afternoon anyone on tyres smaller than 7-50x16's were struggling to move along the track as the combination of hundreds of vehicles and waterlogged ground had the inevitable effect.

One of the features of this event is that from arrival on Friday to departure on Sunday, everything except fuel is supplied by the organisers. This includes all meals so after signing on and putting the mandatory sponsors stickers all over the vehicles (using the supplied diagrams) and being "scrutineered" (this involved checking each vehicle has a tow rope and the stickers have been put in the correct positions !) we set off to the marquee for our evening meal. The meals were obviously of a european flavour and consisted primarily of breads, cheeses, meats etc... but the quality was good and the caterers coped very well with the 1000+ diners.

After dinner the event began proper with the night run. Due to the problems with the track through the camp site the first problem of the night was to force our way into the queue of traffic, then we sat in the queue for nearly an hour as painfully slow progress was made towards the exit of the camping fields. Talking to several people the following day revealed that we were lucky as many vehicles took over 2 hours to get out of the camping field ! Bobcats were being used to try and fill the ruts with hardcore but despite their hard work many of the vehicles needed towing out of the field onto the exit road. Once we had made our way to the exit gate we were given a road book that contained the route using tulip diagrams with intervals given in metres.

After the first few junctions we were getting used to the style of the tulips and working in metres and we were soon travelling along unsurfaced tracks of all kinds as we headed through the south of Belgium and into northern France. Most of the lanes were gravel or well drained so could easily be negotiated in a normal car. Towards the end of the run we were given a choice of hard and soft routes. Obviously we followed the hard route and found the only noticeable difference was the increase in undergrowth. The final part of the run before heading back to the chateau by tarmac road was a "trial" somewhere in northern France. This was an off road course with choices of hard and easy routes at various points along the way.

Once again we chose the hard route and were immediately stopped to help rescue a dutch 110 that had managed to slide sideways into a boggy area. Matthew soon had him pulled out and he chose to go back to the easy route while we continued down the hard route. After a while we arrived at a large water filled bomb hole in the track. I got out and had a scout around and thought we should go to the left of the hole as the entry and exit into the hole looked very steep - experience told me it was a very deep hole ! We set off and while squeezing the 110 between a tree on the left and the end of the hole on the right, the back right wheel of the 110 slid into the hole effectively cross axling us. As we were the lead vehicle we could only be pulled out backwards, unfortunately as Billy pulled us back with his 90 the right hand side of the 110 dropped completely into the hole leaving the left hand wheels on the high bank and most of the drivers side submerged under water.

Pulling the 110 further back would risk a complete roll over so I wandered up the track ahead to find a group of Land Rovers and drivers from Malta. They were very helpful and the last vehicle (a 110) reversed back to pull Matthews' 110 forwards from its' precarious position. After a series of snatches the 110 eventually emerged from the hole and after some discussion the Maltese group told us that they were discussing turning around as they had been waiting there for nearly an hour. Further up the trail was a section that had become unpassable and every vehicle was having to be winched for about 100 yards. Matthew decided that with Billy on the other side of the hole he would turn the 110 around and go back through the hole, this time going straight through the hole. My initial suspicions about the hole turned out to be correct. Immdiately after dropping into the hole the 110 had to be dragged through with the bonnet at one point disappearing completely underneath the water. The V8 was starting to sound extremely lumpy at this point and was lacking in power which we assumed to be caused by the engine being submerged. An hour later and with the assistance of a winch equipped Discovery the 110 was finally free of the hole and we eventually exited the site via the easy route !

By this time a thick fog had descended and this combined with the dark led to a few missed junctions but we were soon on our way back to the chateau. The 110 however was showing no signs of improving and was still not running on full song. Half way back we pulled over onto the hard shoulder and checked the fuel filter - water and mud had leaked into the tank through the vent on the filler cap and had blocked the fuel filter. This was soon cleaned out and we were back on our way again. We got back to the site at around 3.30am, had a bottle of beer and collapsed into our sleeping bags.

Saturday morning and after breakfast in the marquee we set off for the Saturday run. This was once again a route book marked with tulip diagrams and covered similar terrain to the previous nights run. All went well until mid afternoon when we got a radio message from Neil and Ian in their 90. An engine related noise was worrying them and they had pulled over, we all headed back to see what the problem was. A quick investigation showed that the alternator was failing and the noise that they were hearing was one of the bearings. With no spares available we removed the alternator and tried to fill the bearings with oil to try and ease the problem at the same time loosening the drive belt to take some pressure off the bearing. We set off again hoping that the alternator would hold together until we got back... it was not to be, within a few miles the alternator seized solid.

After removing the alternator we fabricated a short drive belt to keep the water pump spinning using a couple of tie wraps and I plotted the most direct route back to the chateau. Surprisingly the first set of tie wraps lasted all the way back to the chateau, around 40km in total. We tried in vain to find either a spare alternator or an emergency fan belt and in the end resigned ourselves to returning to the ferry using tie wraps.

Sunday morning saw some of us feeling the worse for wear after sampling a selection of Belgian beers on saturday night, as we were going to have to leave early to catch the ferry (especially with the sick 90) most of us spent sunday morning watching the trial at the chateau. This was a competitive trial that used, what seemed to us, a strange scoring system. All the sections were man made but they gave a real challenge for the 300 or so competitors with steep drops and climbs, water splashes and even a log bridge crossing.

The trip back to the ferry was a bit of a stop start affair with the tie wraps giving way whenever we had a major change in speed. Sometimes they would last 20km or more sometimes just a few metres, We tried various techniques including combinations of gaffer tape and tie wraps but in the end the tie wraps on their own seemed the most reliable and eventually we got to the ferry. Billy and his dad, Ian had managed to find an emergency fan belt at the last filling station before the ferry so the plan for Monday morning was to fit the belt as soon as we exited the ferry and give the battery a boost. In the end the tie wraps were more reliable than the emergency belt so the remainder of the journey back to Leeds was done using tie wraps.

All in all it was an enjoyable weekend, especially given the lack of green laning in the UK this year. The organisation of the event was "minimal" and finding out what was going on at any given time was near impossible but somehow it all seemed to happen anyway. The catering was good considering the quantity of hungry, muddy people that descended on the marquee every mealtime. The "facilities" were appalling with 4 portaloo cubicles on the camp site, all of which were "over full" by Sunday morning. For this reason the first service station on the way home was "a great relief" !

We'll be back again next year and hopefully we'll get the bookings sorted out quicker so we can get everyone that wants to go over there (this year the expected 8 vehicles had to be whittled down to 4 in the end due to the late booking). A great Land Rover weekend as long as you are prepared to do without some creature comforts.

For one reason or another I didn't manage to get many pictures but what I did get are shown here.

Dave W.

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