Etiquette. Bit of a poncy word, isn’t it? What does it have to do with the rufty tufty world of off-road driving?
Etiquette doesn’t just mean passing the lettuce the right direction at a fancy dinner party. It means manners in general, and if you think manners don’t matter out in the bush you’re dead wrong. A lot of people are just discovering how much fun getting out in the landscape can be, maybe because they bought one of the new generation of crossover cars that like the occasional walk on the wild side, but some of us have been doing it for decades and we know how important outback etiquette is. Get it right and you can help make off road driving safer and more fun for everybody – including yourself.
The main thing is to remember that while Australia’s pretty big, a lot of people like getting out there so you’re going to meet other drivers on a regular basis. Having several big, heavy vehicles bouncing around on the same patch has the potential for danger, and a few unwritten rules help cut that to a minimum.
So the first rule is to be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into. If you head off into the desert without enough fuel, water and recovery gear you’re a menace to yourself and others, because somebody’s going to have to come out and rescue you. Do some research – ask for advice if you have to – and pack exactly what you need. Throwing some beer, mozzie repellent and a tube of Pringles in the back isn’t enough – but it happens.
Be aware of what others are doing and don’t get in their road. If you plan to stop for a barbie, get yourself off the trail so you’re not obstructing it. Maybe it seems quiet, but if someone turns up just after you’ve lit the grill and can’t get past you’re going to delay them – and mess up your own plans – while you clear stuff away. If there’s a track up a hill and you’re not sure you can get up it, let others past before you attempt it. That way you won’t block the trail for them, and if you do get stuck there’s someone at the top who can haul you the rest of the way.
Don’t tailgate either. This isn’t just bad manners – it’s dangerous, especially on hills. It’s easy to slip back a few feet when you’re trying to get up a steep incline, and if the bloke in front does that and you’re too close he’s going to end up in your lap. If it’s dusty you’ll also be driving in his dust, which means you can’t see very well. And what happens if you’re right behind someone when he goes into the mud, and you don’t have time to stop before you land in it yourself? That way you’re both stuck, instead of having one vehicle ready to help recover the other.
Dust is a common hazard in Australia, and when trails are dry you need to keep your speed down. If you pass somebody on a dusty track at more than about 15km/h you’re going to bury them in a big cloud, which is unpleasant and – if it gets in their eyes – dangerous.
What do you do if you need to pass someone, either because you’re travelling at different speeds or you meet face to face on a narrow trail? Some consideration on both sides helps here. If the vehicle behind you is going faster than you and wants to pass, pull over as soon as you find a safe spot and let him overtake. It’s trickier if you meet someone going the other way and there’s no room. When that happens whoever has a wide spot behind them needs to back up. Don’t take chances and try to go round, unless you’re sure it’s safe and you won’t damage anything.
Help people. If you see another driver stuck in sand or mud, don’t just laugh and drive on. Stop and help ham recover his vehicle. One day it could be you up to the axles, and you’ll be glad of some help when it is. Off-roaders all share the same hazards, and it’s much easier if you can rely on help.
Finally, respect the environment. If you’re constantly clearing rocks off the trail maybe your vehicle isn’t up to the terrain you’re crossing, and you’re just ruining it for people in heavier-duty vehicles. Either upgrade your wagon or find an easier route. Don’t leave litter either, and try not to damage plants or trees. Treat the landscape and your fellow drivers well and you’ll have a much better time out there.