Off-roading expeditions often take you to some stunning places, but in my experience hard-core winch challenges normally burrow around forests and bogs a long way from any sensitive environment. It’s a very rare event indeed that has you scrambling up sheer goat paths, inching over boulders in river beds and then makes you pop out overlooking a world-famous tourist attraction. But the Pindos Trophy is no ordinary event, its incredible route took teams around the UNESCO protected monasteries of Meteora, central Greece.
Plans are easy to perfect, people unfortunately less so. For the pilot event an invitation only 20 places were reserved but for one reason or another people pulled out to leave the entry down to just 5 cars. For anyone else it would have been a disaster, but guru-calm, event organiser Spyros Katsimalis said that he had no more pretensions than to be able to run a highlight event to show next year’s teams what they can expect. In that sense, I can say that all went to plan.
One lonely looking guy sitting on the hotel veranda had just had his co-driver pull out… so Robb here had a brilliant idea. “I know how to winch, operate a Terratrip and read a roadbook,” I said. “The stage is 95km long, so how hard can it be!” Silly me.
Dimitrios’ car had the chassis and engine of a Suzuki Vitara with the body cage of a proto. It looked mean and fit for purpose… but sadly the same cannot be said of me… The first two helmets they found for me were far too small and only one that fitted had the thermal properties of a Russian winter hat! Not so much fun in the harsh Greek sun!
We watched the others head off at the start which was down the steep front lawn of the hotel and over the perimeter wall. I love little touches like that! A big issue was soon apparent though as Dimitrious spoke almost no English… Hand signals were the only way to go… Not that we could really hear each other through our thick helmets and over the sound of the short exhaust right behind us anyway…
The book was quite easy… for the first 2km. Then Spyros had a little surprise for us. It led the way to the side of the hill but instead of a tulip diagram to direct us where to go it just gave us a bearing and a distance to head to which was a random spot in the trees where we needed to make another calculation. I guess this sort of orienteering works well in the featureless desert, but down a steep hill covered in prickly bushes with a sheer drop on the side wasn’t so much fun! Oh, and the car acted as a magnet for the compass on the hand-held GPS so the only way to get a good bearing was to run for a few meters in a gentle curve through the prickly bushes… All the others were having the same issue though so we kind of just threaded our way blindly downhill following some rough goat track. A Suzuki in front almost tipped over and while they were sorting it out I climbed on top of the car to have a look around… and saw a group of spectator’s cars in the valley below next to a junction that was obviously the next tulip. Forget the orienteering, all we had to do was head straight down the hill… except I couldn’t explain myself to Dimi. I was pointing another way to where the others were heading but he didn’t seem in the mood for exploring… and so we just followed them down.
And then things started to get fun. With the huge helmet I was starting to seriously overheat and the roadbook was leading us to some seriously random places. Where the tulip was pointing straight ahead we eventually learned that you have to find whatever landmark is drawn there and turn the book around 90 degrees to re-direct ourselves. While trying to work that out Spyros had to actually phone us to explain that we were so far off the course!
I’m aware that when I say we were off-roading in a Vitara it creates a scene in your mind of a girl tootling down a gravel driveway on the way to work at the hairdressers, but this little beast was actually extremely capable! We got to one little bank ahead of everyone else and I pointed at a tree ahead that I was going to get out to hook the winch to. Dimi looked at me confused and slapped me on the chest to stay where I was. Low box, difflocks in, loud revs of the little engine topping out, a view of the sky, a feeling that an astronaut experiences on take off and then we were scrambling up through the trees.
Again, I saw people ahead, all standing on a huge rock a few hundred metres further up and about 10 tulips further in the book it said ‘Stop at viewpoint’. It seemed obvious that all we had to do was head straight up there but again Dimi wanted to follow every single tulip… right with to everyone else. I suppose that’s fair enough as we’d only met so maybe he didn’t trust me to lead him down some random path. I got a little frustrated though and got out to run ahead waving hoping that he would follow. He did and we came out at the stunning view in front.
Then there was another strange re-orientation in the book. The arrow said straight on but there was a symbol for ‘down’. The others carried on but I convinced Dimi to go down the side of the hill and the track came out into the glade that looked exactly like the sketch. Excellent. The others were still heading up the wrong way so we had a good chance to make a break… except that the way the book wanted me to go was straight off a cliff through some impenetrable trees. I couldn’t even walk down there so I figured that there must be some mistake. I showed Dimi the book and he agreed, so we started driving around trying to find a way down. Nope. For about 15 minutes we were going around in futile circles until the others worked out their mistake and joined us. We all had a bit of a conference but they decided that the book said down… so knocking some trees over on a 1 in 1 drop they went. I struggled to put my belts on properly as I went down with Dimi and I could feel the back wheels lifting up. With only the front tyres gripping we slewed sideways and bounced off a tree before slamming down onto the next track.
Next we filed down into a gully, the whole field together and I ran ahead thinking that I should spot Dimi over the big rocks, but no, he knew exactly what the car was capable of. In big clouds of dust and rocks those ahead of us scrambled up the next hill and then Dimi lined himself up. The others had all driven up without too much trouble so I got in… but our run ended in furiously but uselessly spinning wheels. We backed down for another run up but again where the others had gone we were definitely stuck. The little winch wasn’t up to much but as I waited by the tree I could see a sad sight. Not only was one front wheel not turning it was also pushing dirt up the hill. Something had snapped in the axle. I stood in front with my forearms crossed. It was over. It’s always sad to retire from an event but as I learned here, retiring from the lead is a special type of disappointment.
We eventually got back to the hotel, winched the Vitara on to the trailer and I watched Dimi drive home despondently. I waited by the pool for the others. Had lunch. A beer. A bath. A walk. Watched the final of Breaking Bad on the laptop and then saw the sunset… but still the others hadn’t come back. Another beer… and then I went to bed. The next morning, feeling totally refreshed and bright I went down for breakfast and found some seriously tired Greek off-road drivers. The first car had got out that stage at 9pm. The others closer to 2am!
The second day was more of the same. 65km of serious toughness in the gorgeous Greek landscape. Aris Kosmas driving a beautifully tubeframed Samuri spoke the best English so it was him I interviewed, especially as he had the most interesting stage. “It was a beautiful day climbing up and up the valleys and tracks, but we got lost many, many times. I was racing for some years but this was the first time in my life that I actually stopped the car to take a photo. The view was that amazing. We had a couple of problems, like splitting the locker tube and for some reason the battery swelled up like a balloon. But the most fun was rolling on the roof. It was a steep gully and we were on an angle. I heard my co-driver shouting something… but, you know, he’s always shouting. A log or a rock or something on the inside tipped us over…”
The other vehicles were a pair of proper bastards. One used to be a Kia Sportage but now has and exoskeleton cage, G-Wagon axles, a Mazda van gearbox and Nissan Navarra steering. “To be out racing for 16 hours was really hard, much tougher than we were expecting,” said Kostas Pappas. “But once we learned how to do the book and GPS and it was really good fun. The whole race was really well organised and we are ready for the next event with this format! The route was shortened because we were still out when it was dark but Spyros and the marshals were waiting with a camp fire. It was a brilliant evening!”
The Samurai had a Toyota Supra engine, a Hi-Lux transfer box, Trailgear axles, home-made 4-link suspension and Land Rover trailing arms… George Stergiou impressed everyone by doing so well in his first race. “I guess it would have been better for us if we were in team rather than individuals but I liked the ‘game’ with the GPS and racing in the mountains was just brilliant. The views from in the stages were incredible!”
The winner though was a deceptively standard looking Wrangler which after three days of seriously tough off-roading hardly had a scratch on it.
“He’s not like us,” laughed Aris. “He doesn’t get his hands dirty, he just gives the car to the workshop and tells the guys what to put on it. I bet he couldn’t tell you everything his Jeep has!”
The Wrangler has long front drop arms which are mounted 25cm further forwards to make the approach angle better, Dana 44 Currie axles and tubed wings but not all that much more. “We won because we were the first to learn how to read the roadblock, how to play Spyros’ game,” said owner Manolis Ntais. “Anyone could have won this race but the key was a good car and good luck. This was a really great event, stages that start in the river and then go up to the top of the mountains 1400 m high, just beautiful. And the organisation was perfect.”
Even though for the last two days I wasn’t racing I still got to follow the race and have to say northern Greece is perfect off-roading territory. The dense orange-hued forests on the lower mountain slopes give way to pines and rocks and high up the scenery looks very much like Romania to me; rugged and wild. Spyros is also some kind of crazy off-roading genius. At times I thought it was tinged with a bit of madness, but the Pindos Trophy was definitely his masterpiece! And besides, Greeks were the original Olympians so maybe it’s right that they have such a hard and testing event.
And although on the map that looks like it’s an incredible journey to get there, there’s actually a ferry service from Italy, so in real terms of miles driven it’s not that far at all. And the 2014 Pindos Trophy is going to be well worth the trip!
I would like to say a big thank you to the lovely Katarina Vrettou for taking me from Athens and back, and for the amazing honey!!