Belgium National 2001 - Ian Campbell

Personal Recollections of
The 2001 Belgium National
by Ian Campbell

It was 10 o'clock in the morning on Wednesday 19th September, and as I struggled with the arcane complexities of the Inland Revenue's Tax Forms the persistent ring of the telephone interrupted my concentration. With mixed feelings of reluctance and relief at being torn away from my task I answered the phone. "Neil here" said the voice at the other end of the line. "I understand that you might possibly be interested in going to the Belgium National Land Rover Event"
I had in fact considered the possibility some time previously, but had discounted it for a variety of reasons, not the least of them because I felt that my Discovery was still rather too precious to use competitively on such an event, and the old Series II V8 was getting a bit long in the tooth for overseas events.
"Doesn't it start this Friday?" I said.
"Yes" Neil continued, "I realise it is very short notice, but Arthur has slipped a disc in his back and has had to drop out, which means I am now going alone unless I find a navigator/co-driver, and Dave Barker suggested I contacted you."
" When do you depart and how soon do you need to know?" I asked
" We are catching the Ferry from Hull at 5pm tomorrow, and I need to know by 12 noon today latest" he replied.
" I will phone you back in 15 minutes" I said.
I had already decided that this was too good an opportunity to miss, however the domestic authorities needed to be consulted and a four-day pass negotiated. The price usually exacted for a pass of this duration is a visit to a certain establishment where female fashion attire and household goods are sold at bargain prices, at least that's what I am led to believe. Negotiations successfully completed I phoned Neil back to confirm and finalise arrangements.

We arrived at Hull about 4-30pm on the following day, and met the other members of our small group in the queue waiting to embark on the ferry. Dave White and Mathew Sykes were in the V8 110 truck cab. Little Billy and Billy, otherwise known as Darren and his dad Ian, were in a normally aspirated 90 Diesel. Dave Barker was driving his Defender 90Tdi, with Neil and myself in the V8 90 CSW completing the group. Dave Barker handed out the T Shirts and from then on we became unofficially "Team Land Rover Enthusiast." Several other Land Rovers were parked on the dockside and it was not long before we were talking to several fellow enthusiasts, and old acquaintances from the North East Rover Owners Club all heading for the same destination.

With good food and a selection of Belgian Beers to sample, a most enjoyable and relaxing evening was spent in the company of fellow Land Rover enthusiasts, as we were transported overnight to Belgium. The crossing was relatively smooth and uneventful, with Neil's novel new remedy to prevent seasickness fortunately proving successful for him. I was also pleased about this since we happened to be sharing a cabin. After a hearty breakfast we disembarked at Zeebrugge at 8.30am and made our way south out of the town calling at the first truck stop to fill up with cheap fuel. It was an easy drive down the motorway to Tournai, and we had plenty of time in hand to visit the local Supermarket to stock up on Beer, Wines, Spirits and Tobacco, before making our way to the Château de Ramegnies-Chin, the venue for the weekend's event.
We were quickly registered, and set about finding a suitable spot in the designated camping area. Shortly after pitching our tents we were hit by a violent thunderstorm lasting about an hour, which deposited a large amount of rain onto an already very soft surface. As ever more vehicles arrived, the ground very quickly became a mud trap testing the ability of drivers to maintain forward progress, particularly when towing a trailer or caravan. As we watched people struggling in the steadily deteriorating conditions it was difficult not to feel a degree of Schädenfreude. By the time the majority of campers had arrived our tents were on an island, surrounded by a sea of mud with deep ruts, in conditions more associated with the Battle of the Somme. In some places just walking across the field without falling over was quite an achievement. In spite of the conditions spirits were high and we were all eagerly looking forward to the start of the event. There was quite a large British contingent present, with several groups from Southern England having crossed the Channel via Dover.

The first item on the programme after registration was "Stickering of the vehicles and technical control." Greater emphasis seemed to be placed on the correct positioning of the sponsors "stickers" than the technical control aspect, with a roving Scrutineer walking around the site with a clipboard briefly checking that the vehicles had a towrope and somewhere to attach it, and placing a square blue adhesive sticker with a letter onto the vehicle windscreen. Each of our group had the letter "N" except for Neil's vehicle, which had the letter "A". The significance of this letter was not explained and did not become apparent to any of us until the following morning.

The official opening ceremony took place at 6pm and included a competitors briefing, followed by Dinner at 7pm. The "Night Adventure" consisted of a Road Book with Tulip Diagrams, which was scheduled to start at 7.45pm, with vehicles departing at half- minute intervals, and Onion soup being provided from 11pm to 2am for returning competitors. Unfortunately the ground conditions were so muddy that many drivers had difficulty just getting out of the camping field to the start point, and consequently the whole event was subject to considerable delay. Some competitors did not manage to leave the start gate until after 10pm. Based upon his experience on a previous years event Neil suggested that he and I should give the Night Adventure a miss, on the grounds that we would be too tired to enjoy the Saturday event. This turned out to be a wise decision for those of us who admit to having past 25 for the second time round. Being a light sleeper I heard the last of our group return about 3-30am, with many others returning rather later accompanied by much engine revving, shouting, and door slamming as they made their way through the treacherous mud to their Bivouacs. As Neil and I went to the dining tent for Breakfast at 8am we met one British Competitor who had only just returned an hour beforehand!

The "Night Adventure" had certainly taken its toll, with many participants slow to rise from their slumbers and looking decidedly tired and worse for wear in the morning. Many who had taken the "Extreme" options on the off road sections sustained some vehicle damage. Mathew and Dave had found a mud hole so deep that it had not only covered the whole bonnet up to the windscreen, but had come over the rear of the tailgate into the truck bed as they had driven out of it, or were they recovered from it?

After Breakfast we collected our packed lunch and joined the queue of vehicles waiting to start the Saturday event. This consisted of another road book with tulip diagrams similar to the Night Adventure, only this time you would see what you were driving into. Because of the amount of mud deposited on the highway the night before, the local police closed the exit road from the Château until it had been cleared. This delayed the start of the event by at least an hour. As we arrived at the start gate we were handed our road book and drove down the road a short distance to wait for the rest of our group. It was at this point that we discovered the significance of the letter on the blue sticker placed on the windscreen by the scrutineer the previous day. Neil and I had a different road book to the rest of the group! It transpired that because Neil had been on this event on a previous occasion we had been given a more extreme route to follow.
All the distances in the road books were in Kilometres and metres, and our Odometer recorded Miles. Since we were not equipped with a Terratrip or GPS this meant that as navigator I would have to constantly recalculate all the distances as we went along. Not a problem using a programmable calculator, but an additional task to be performed whilst trying to keep us on track. Fortunately there were no time penalties to contend with. After a brief discussion it was decided that we would all travel together as one group rather than follow our different books. This left me in the situation where I had no road book to follow, so I just kept track of where we were going on the map as we followed the others and enjoyed the scenery. Dave and Matthew took the lead and with the aid of a GPS unit Dave did an excellent job throughout the day as group navigator with only a couple of missed slots, which he instantly spotted and corrected. The route took us over a variety of tracks and surfaces, across private land and through some unexpectedly picturesque villages and scenery.

The morning had started off rather cool with low cloud and mist, but by lunchtime had changed to a pleasantly warm sunny day. Our packed lunch was consumed whilst parked in the market square of one of the villages where several other participants had also stopped. Having two fuel-hungry V8's in the group meant that we needed to find fuel fairly urgently by early afternoon. Unfortunately we had overlooked the local custom of the two-hour lunch break from 12noon to 2pm, and so had to backtrack to a village we had passed through previously and wait until the local garage opened. The garage owner was almost overwhelmed with the amount of unaccustomed business he was doing, since many other Land Rovers apart from our group stopped to refuel as they passed through the village. Whilst we were waiting for the garage to reopen after lunch, Darren decided to change the front disc pads on his vehicle since one of them was so worn it was causing a problem. The vehicle was quickly jacked up in the market square on the Highlift Jack and the whole operation took only a few minutes to perform.

Fuelled up once more we proceeded on our way, and by 4.30 pm had completed about three quarters of the Road Book when our 90 CSW started to make strange noises from under the bonnet. We discovered that the noise was coming from the Alternator front bearing which appeared to be on the point of seizing. Attempts were made to lubricate it, but to no avail. We knew that there was enough charge in the battery to keep the engine going long enough for us to get back to the campsite without the Alternator working, but we needed to use a shorter fan belt to bypass the Alternator pulley and still drive the water pump and viscous fan. Unfortunately none of us had a suitable length belt amongst our spares, and were wondering how we should proceed when Darren's dad Ian suggested using several cable ties linked together as a temporary fan belt. He happened to have a supply with him, so this was quickly done and to our relief it appeared to work. Neil and I decided to leave the group and head directly back to base by the shortest route, however the rest of the group insisted that they would accompany us in case of any further problems. We made it back to base via the motorway, and providing a constant speed could be maintained then there was no problem, the extra stress caused by acceleration and deceleration seemed to be too much for the ties causing them to break, and within a short distance the radiator boiled. With a few stops to replace the cable ties we made it back OK. Attempts to obtain a replacement Alternator or temporary fan belt were unsuccessful and therefore we had little option but to risk the drive up the motorway from Tournai to Zeebrugge using the cable tie fan belt on the return journey on Sunday afternoon. If all else failed then as a last resort one of the other vehicles could give us a tow.

On the Saturday night after dinner we walked the short distance in darkness from the campsite to the trial site, which had been prepared for the Sunday event. A brief choreographed display of Land Rovers was performed by the Belgian Importers on part of the trials course with background music and lighting effects, and we were shown a video of the event so far on a huge screen. The Grande Finale of the evening entertainment was a most impressive Fireworks display, which illuminated the whole grounds of the Chateau for many minutes. Returning to our campsite a further session of Belgian Beer sampling took place before we finally retired for the night. I have a vague recollection of hearing someone stagger past our tent during the early hours of the morning to say hello to Ralph & Hughie!!

Sunday morning the weather was bright and sunny and was spent watching the trials competition. The course had been specially constructed using both natural and manmade obstacles. None of our group had entered this event, although some of the NERO members had. Watching the competitors it was apparent that many of the continental drivers were unaccustomed to competing in this type of event, although a couple of Dutch competitors, one driving a 109 Stage 1 V8, and the other a 110 Tdi put in very creditable performances. The NERO members showed themselves to be well up to the task putting in very competent performances in their 90s, and a group from the Malta AWDC seemed very determined competitors. The scoring system was based on the accumulation of penalty points as in standard ARC trials, however shunts were permissible for any vehicle, but incurred penalty points each time. Competitors were allowed three attempts at any part of the section before they had to withdraw from the section. There also appeared to be a class system to separate the competitors by vehicle type or equipment fitted. The extremely muddy conditions for the competitors made the event entertaining to watch, and we reluctantly had to leave before the event was fully over to catch the Ferry.

We managed to make it back to the Ferry Terminal at Zeebrugge with our improvised fan belt in time to catch the Ferry despite several stops en route to replace sets of cable ties. Our arrival was also memorable by the fact that we could not find our return tickets, fortunately the very nice lady at the Ferry Check-in found our details on the computer and we were allowed to board "Sans Billet". Surprisingly no one ever questioned the fact that the name on my passport did not match the name on the booking! Darren had stopped at the Truck Stop and had managed to locate an adjustable emergency fan belt for our vehicle, which we planned to fit immediately we disembarked at Hull. Most people retired fairly early after dinner on the return crossing, with the effects of participating in the weekend's events and the lack of sleep beginning to be felt by everyone.

Monday morning at 8-30am we disembarked at the Hull docks and within a short time had managed to fit the emergency fan belt. Soon we found ourselves caught up in the morning rush hour traffic when we found our radiator coming to the boil once more as we queued in the traffic. The emergency fan belt had stretched and come off the pulley and needed shortening. Temporary repairs were once more completed and we set off again, this time to our relief we managed to get all the way back to Neil's house in Leeds without further incident. Mathew and Dave followed us most of the way back just in case we needed further assistance.

It was a most enjoyable weekend in the company of friends sharing a common enthusiasm in spite of the minor trials and tribulations caused by the weather, muddy conditions and mechanical problems. The camaraderie and the help and support from the other group members was most impressive, particularly when we had our mechanical problems, and both Neil and myself were most appreciative for the assistance. Thanks to Neil for the unexpected invitation and opportunity, and my Best Wishes to Arthur for a speedy recovery.
Would I do it all again? You can bet on it. See you there next year.

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