With places like the Pyrenees, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Iceland already on the list of places we’d been for an off-roading holiday my girlfriend Ana and I were looking for somewhere a little out of the ordinary… and World 4x4 Adventure’s Arctic Russia ‘Ends of the Earth’ expedition seemed exactly that! The photos on the website looked almost too good to be true but we had one big question, would our RR3 be suitable for some of the quite rough looking tracks? Well, by tracks, I mean up rivers, over treacherous bridges, through big rivers and over the tundra. “Don’t worry,” joked Robb Pritchard. “Just bring a tow-rope and then we can take you anywhere!” The laid-back attitude was something we liked straight away as well as the fact that Robb and his Russia-based partner Frank are more than happy to tailor each tour to make it exactly what people want… and as a few people pulled out at the last minute it looked like we’d get exactly what we wanted. But all credit to Robb and Frank though because of all the time we’d booked off and the ferries we’d booked on they were still prepared to go even with just one car!
The way north was pretty uneventful with a ferry from Germany to Finland and then a car train from Helsinki to Roveniemi where we met the only other vehicle on the tour, Richard and his Malaysian wife Poo in their Jeep. Crossing the border was happily a lot easier than we expecting, easier even than getting the visas in the first place, and then straight away we were in a different world. There is no other border in the world with such a difference on each side and I would not have liked to have been there alone without a tour guide… and one of the best things about this tour, and something that made it stand out from all the others we’d done, is just how flexible Frank was with the route. The first evening in Russia we huddled around his big military map while he suggested different routes, explaining what we could expect on each one. Because of the big 5 litre engine in Richard’s Jeep we couldn’t be away from a fuel station for more than 3 days, even with all the jerry cans filled with petrol for him, so that was one limiting factor. He also wasn’t all that keen on mud. On the other hand, because of the electrics, I didn’t fancy deep water but wanted to be in the mountains in search of snow. Another option Frank had was a massive Gaz 66 bus which he uses on tours where the cars aren’t so well prepared and might need pulling out. He decided that ours were well enough equipped for him to be able to go in his Mk 1 Disco.
So mountains it was and the adventure started straight away. In the pouring rain up the side of a barren mountain a couple of wet and cold hikers flagged us down because one of their friends was hurt further up. Could we help? There was no chance of a mountain rescue service in this remote place so of course we said yes and made our way up a rocky road for about an hour, gave out some hot drinks and then drove everyone back down to a mountain station in the middle of nowhere, although Frank knew where it was.
Frank has lived up in the Kola for more than 10 years and is undoubtedly an expert on the trails. He could select routes for us over a huge area that were just right for us and because we were such a small group with quite similarly capable cars there was no weaker one from stopping us choosing the harder trails. We did a quite lot of pretty serious rock crawling and one great thing is that over a couple of days we all became quite experienced at picking good lines and guiding each other through... On the rocks I was very impressed with the electronic mod for my RR's Electronic Air Suspension which allowed me to lift it an extra 3" above the already high ‘off road’ height for the hardest sections. Frank’s Disco got stuck a few times on some rocks which gave Richard an opportunity to use the winch on his Jeep, which he was quite chuffed about! And I have to say that we all absolutely trusted Frank with wherever he took us. To be doing such rough tracks so far from anywhere takes a very good guide and the only places I would have been worried about, like a few of the deeper water crossings and some rickety bridges, he went first.
We did cross a lot of pretty deep rivers. Occasionally a bow wave would come over the bonnet, even being in super extended height setting, and it was the same for the slightly lower Jeep and Disco. But apart from drowning my headlight wiper motors the RR did wonderfully! We were in the absolute wilderness though so of course it was impossible to go and check the water levels and they changed depending on the rain in the catchment area so a few were too deep to try and we had to look for an alternative route, which was fun in itself!
At the end of another amazing trail, several hours of really challenging rock crawling and slipping around on wet moss covered semi tracks up the side of a barren mountain, Richard said something like, “I can't believe your Chelsea tractor got up here so easily. I'm well impressed!” I didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not! But the views from the massive cliff at the End of the World were far too stunning to worry about that!
The next day we took a route that Frank hadn’t done before between the side of a small mountain range and a huge lake with numerous rivers coming down from the mountains to cross. We tried to drive on the old logging trail but if a crossing was too deep for us we could back-track and get up on an old railway line that was running kind of parallel, inch over the bridge (Frank first) and then get back down to the road again. It was great to make decisions like that rather than just following the leader! And that night we camped on the shore of that lake and that’s where the reality of just where we were sank in. We hadn’t seen a single other person for the whole day but when we were chain-sawing a dead tree up to make a big fire with I kept expecting someone to pop out of the trees to come and shout at us. But no, it’s truly remote up there, an absolute wilderness and it wasn’t just a feeling, we really were a day’s drive from another human being. Sitting by that amazingly tranquil lake with the very late sun was incredible and I’d never felt that sense of being so far away from civilisation on any of the trips I’d done before. The edge of that huge cliff is what Robb calls the End of the World, but for me that campsite was!
And I guess Russian off-roading is not complete without some good mud! Richard with his difflocks and massive mud-terrain tyres got through easily but Frank would struggle through, even with his difflocks and BF Goodrich A/Ts… and then he would get out with a big grin and tell us how much fun he was having compared to when he goes out in his big Russian army truck which goes easily through pretty much anything. And then there was me on my LTZ (road biased all terrains). But with the amazingly effective electronic traction system and the fact the independent suspension system meant that there were no diffs hanging down, sometimes I have to admit that I was amazed at what it could do!
There was some sand as well and I loved the day we had to drive fast along the endless beach after the last of the tracks had finished so we could get to the remote huts that Frank had built himself. The tide was coming in and it is much easier to drive on the wet sand near the surf than it is on the incredibly soft stuff up the beach. It was hard to drive there even with aired-down tyres.
And the best thing for me was that for all of the 9 days all the off-roading we did was real! I love green-laning in the UK but in the back of your mind you know that you are never all that far from an A-road, whatever you are doing it is mostly having fun, kind of playing at having an adventure. In Arctic Russia though though it’s the opposite way around, it’s the tarmac roads that are few and far between and you are constantly trying not to have an adventure! Really, everything you ever dreamed of on a green lane or a play site, it’s right here! Everywhere we went in and around the Khibiny mountains it was only us that could get there, apart from the most determined hikers, oh, and the insane Lada Riva driver we saw one day with no idea at all how he got there. Every track we drove, every view we saw, it felt like we were discovering it and if it ever got a bit ordinary all we had to do was zoom out on our GPS and there would be our little marker a couple of hundred kilometers above the Arctic Circle almost at the end of the world!
So why a Mk3 RR for such tough off-roading?
“I wanted a £10 – 15k 4x4 that doubled as a daily commuter and a capable vehicle for overland trips to places like Morocco. After a bit of research I was drawn to the advantages offered by variable suspension height EAS systems so I could on-road stability as well as at the touch of a button higher clearance off-road. A perfect compromise. Disco 3s were unfortunately out of my price range which is why I snapped up a 2003 Mk3.”