Words by Grant Spolander
It was shortly after cramming 14 tyre repair plugs into one puncture that I first started thinking about tyres. We were on a game-counting trip in the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. Back then (I think it was 2008), the reserve was quite wild: wild in the sense that it was overgrown and mismanaged, and wild in that many of the roads we were exploring seldom saw visitors.
We were driving a brand new Nissan Patrol at the time, an incredibly capable off-road vehicle, but throughout our trip we were picking up punctures faster than you can say “pfffft”. After exhausting my super-jumbo pack of tyre repair plugs, I then turned to begging for more (plugs) from fellow travellers in our convoy.
Eventually, there were so many plugs protruding from the Patrol’s tyres that they looked as if they’d been infected by some kind of intestinal worm. But repairing the tyres wasn’t what bothered me. Sure, having to remove a wheel and tyre (every couple of hours) from a 2.5-ton vehicle, on uneven ground, in blistering heat, was an understated ball-buster, but what really stressed me out was not knowing when the final blow would come. When would we run out of tyres to fix?
I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that the ‘Mighty Patrol’ could be brought to its knees by its OE-fitted marshmallow tyres. Here was a vehicle well known for its over-engineered strength, now limping through the bush like a declawed lion.
That trip taught me two things: A 4×4 is only as tough as its tyres, and, nothing ruins a holiday quite like worrying about when your tyres are going to strike out.
The above-mentioned trip was not an isolated incident; in fact, it was a recurring scenario that played out countless times for me and my co-workers at SA4x4.
You see, as writers of an off-road-destination magazine, it was our goal to explore new and remote places every month. Generally speaking, we would arrange to borrow a brand-new 4×4 from a vehicle manufacturer, then fly to JHB, collect the vehicle, and hit the road straight away. But, because we were flying, and because the vehicle was generally new, we were always ill-prepared.
Aftermarket accessories like long-range fuel tanks, drawer systems and dual-battery power were seldom an option. Even our camping gear was restricted to what we could take on a passenger plane.
Nonetheless, we learnt a great deal about the vehicles we were driving, namely, that most modern-day 4x4s are adequately engineered to withstand the rigours of off-road use. Sure, things like aftermarket suspension and bull-bars certainly serve a purpose, particularly if other modifications have been made to the vehicle; but, for the most part, a stock standard 4×4 is usually up to the task. However…
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS…
The Achilles heel of just about every 4×4 we ever tested were its OEM tyres. Time and time again we lost tyres to sidewall damage, chipping and chunking… and even had entire tread blocks flying off. Of course, this seldom impressed the vehicle manufacturers, but what could we do? The magazine was dedicated to remote African travel. And, the more remote the region, the more damage to the tyres.
Over the years, this became a reaffirming fact; however, on many occasions we would join safari tour operators or even well-known explorers on their African journey, and in every instance, these so-called “occupational” overlanders would suffer very little, if any, tyre trouble. The contrast was undeniable, and the only difference was their use of an aftermarket product.
And so my quest began to understand, learn and observe tyres; so much so that I eventually became more obsessed with reading tyre tracks than I did noticing animal spoor. While most people spent their safari mornings looking for predator prints, I had my nose to the ground sniffing tread patterns, and describing the vehicular species and its passing foot pressure. Sad, I know.
So, now that you know all about my rubber fetish, perhaps I can share the single most important thing I’ve learnt off-road. Here it is:
No matter what vehicle you drive, and how capable it may be, your tyres have the final say. So, let them speak of strength, and not weakness.
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