These days it’s become the norm for a dealership to throw in a driving course to try and clinch the deal on a car, be it a fast streetcar or a capable off roader. For those shopping around for an affordable 4x4, it’s pretty much a guarantee that Suzuki’s diminutive Jimny will end up on the shortlist, and in 9 out of 10 cases these buyers will end up at a Suzuki dealership. If you’re based in or around Jo’burg you can pretty much rest assured that a 4x4 course at Bass Lake will either be recommended or offered - this is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because driving off road has its own set of rules and regulations that you simply must learn, and it’s bad because once you’ve taken a Jimny out on a 4x4 trail you WILL want one. The picturesque Bass Lake is located on the Glen Douglas dolomite mine in Henley-on-Klip and is a mere 45-minute drive from the Sandton CBD. Over and above being a 4x4 training facility, Bass Lake is one of the top dive-training spots in the world thanks to a 23-metre deep, 10-hectare lake fed by clear water from a natural spring.
While all 4x4s are welcome at Bass Lake, it is the de facto training ground for Suzuki Auto South Africa’s off road models, which explains the fleet of Jimnys and a Grand Vitara or two you’ll see around the venue. These super capable little 4x4s are used when you attend one of the various 4x4 courses on offer at the lake, like the full day’s 4x4 training that comprises of Level 1 (Introductory) and Level 2 (Intermediate) courses. You can use your own vehicle if you prefer, but we highly recommend using the Suzukis, if not for any other reason than to blow your mind at how amazingly capable they are. Over the years some of these Jimnys have racked up nearly 20 000km of pure off road driving with the only item needing attention being a tear in one of the driver’s seats – another reason to use them.
The main man behind Bass Lake is Alan Pepper, a well-travelled outdoorsman who’s forgotten more about 4x4 and off road driving than I could ever hope to learn. Alan stepped into the world of 4x4 before I was born back in 1975 and over the years has been instrumental in training over 9 000 local and international drivers to handle themselves off road. He’s the kind of man you want on your side when that zombie apocalypse happens, he’s been there, done that and has a closet full of T-shirts to prove it. Not only is he the boss, he’s also hands on and will be the one giving instruction and training during the offered courses. We were there for the aforementioned full day course that kicked off with Level 1, which covers the basics of 4x4 driving and includes explanations of the various terms, a breakdown of how a 4x4 system works and what that means for the way they handle on and off road. What I like about this first part is that Alan manages to teach you all the relevant bits without getting too technical, yet nothing is really left out either – many a schoolteacher could take a lessons from Alan.
It’s the second part of the instruction where things get fun, the Level 2 part of the course sees you head out on to one of a few trails scattered around the 75-hectare property. These range from “mild” to “no thanks” and a stock-standard Jimny can pretty much handle them all, which usually catches most people by surprise. The Jimny only has the basics in terms of creature comforts, but this just shows you that it was built with a singular purpose – to go anywhere. If YouTube were anything to go by you’d swear a 4x4 needs a thundering V8 with a few hundred horses saddled up, but the Suzuki Jimny makes use of a 1300cc, 16-valve 4-potter that produces just 63kW and 110Nm of torque. With a dedicated low range available at the push of a button, it works out to be more than enough to cross a continent without using tarred roads. One of the things that makes the course more interesting is that Alan insists that it’s done with the tyres at street pressures, because if you’re in the middle of nowhere and you let the tyres down to help improve traction you don’t always have access to a pump to get things back to normal – and that can leave you stranded.
Before you know it you’ll have covered up to 7km of off road terrain and hopefully learned to read the land to pick out the best route to follow, how to approach and traverse obstacles and how to do it all while also looking after the 4x4. One thing I battled with was letting go of the clutch and using the accelerator or engine resistance for control, but of course the automatic Jimny eliminates this problem – even Alan reckons the auto is at least 10% better than the manual. One thing to note is that some obstacles the Jimny can manage with ease will actually be harder in a bigger 4x4. The little Jimny’s short wheelbase and 4.9m turning circle means it can do things that can often see longer wheelbase 4x4s beach themselves.
The best part of the trail is when Alan announces that you’re headed to an obstacle called Instructor’s Revenge – trust me, like you’ll have to trust the Jimny, it’s brilliant. In a sort of cross-axle turn to go down a steep ledge, the driver’s side rear wheel lifts as high as a meter off the ground – before Alan gives the car a shove to show you that it won’t fall over. Look at the size of a Jimny, and now imagine just how high a meter is in relation. If you can do this without swearing, you’re a better person than me. The course ends off with a demonstration of how a car behaves on gravel roads when power is directed at just the rear wheels as opposed to all four wheels. If you think these cars can fall over thanks to their low weight and tall ride height, this is the section you really need to see. Suffice to say, the Suzuki Jimny isn’t just a capable 4x4 - it’s downright exceptional!
If you’re in the market for a 4x4, even if it’s not a Jimny, the Bass Lake 4x4 training courses are a must. There are various courses and levels available, and they can be booked directly with the venue over at www.basslake.co.za. It’s a great idea for corporate team building days too, and the facilities are top-notch, as is the lunch that’s included in the price. You’ll also receive a certificate to prove to all your mates how awesome you are - I have two now, and in another two years I'll add another one to the collection. A huge shoutout goes to Suzuki SA’s Megan MacDonald and Brendan Carpenter for arranging a spot on the course for me - and of course to Alan Pepper and the Bass Lake crew for another amazing experience – thanks guys! Oh yeah, you can catch an album of pics from the day over on the Chris Wall Media Facebook page, but you know that already.