2008 Land Rover Discovery 3 Dune driving on Stockton Beach

$17,000 Mrlp
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2008 Land Rover Discovery 3 Dune driving on Stockton Beach

Model driven: 2008 Land Rover Discovery 3 TDV6 Auto SE - $75,990 (RRP)

-words and pictures Antony Crawford

Two and half hours drive from Sydney’s North Shore lies a four wheel drive Mecca called Stockton Beach. It’s a beach like no other in the state of New South Wales - 32 kilometres of legally drivable shoreline and sand dunes. It’s almost too good to be true and utter madness that I hadn’t yet taken the family on this wonderful adventure so close to home.

As one of the driver’s on Land Rover’s 60th Anniversary Cross Australia journey, I was quick to realise whilst ploughing through some extraordinarily soft sand in a Series 1 outside of Alice Springs, that I had all but forgotten most of the skills I had picked up driving ex-World War II Jeeps and barely roadworthy LandCruisers as a teenager on the old man’s farm.

Now, thanks to John Eggenhuizen from The Getabout Group, who was on that northern drive to ensure we stayed out of harms way, I have regained those lost skills during the 1700 kilometre leg from 'The Alice to Kununurra'. My point is, and the reason for the plug, is that you need to know what you’re doing before charging off in your new four-wheel-drive into places such as Stockton Beach, particularly when the area has been without rain for so long and the sand is deadly soft.

As it turned out, one of the kids had a Nippers carnival on that weekend and couldn't make the trip, but my parents were on their way down to Sydney and were more than happy to come across from Taree for a bit of sand hoping in the Disco 3 TDV6 .

There are plenty of off-roaders and even soft-roaders, with the capability of tearing along the beach at Stockton at speeds well beyond the speed limit of 40km/h. That said, after witnessing the 4WD gymnastics this vehicle is capable of when the going gets rough, I was more than pleased to be driving the Discovery, not to mention the comfort and convenience.

While its not quite Range Rover in the luxury class stakes, Land Rover’s Discovery 3 TDV6 SE is not about roughing it either. Wrapped in supremely comfortable leather seats with an interior similar to that of the Range Rover Sport, and my iPod running through a nine-speaker Harmon/Kardon system, the Friday afternoon drive up the Sydney/Newcastle Freeway without kids, was pure bliss.

At 110km/h the TDV6 is barely ticking over and you won’t be able to pick the engine as diesel powered. There’s absolutely none of that diesel clatter once you are on the go, and inside the cabin is noticeably quiet. That’s not surprising, and with 440Nm of torque coming on song at just 1900rpm, there’s also plenty of in-gear acceleration for entering freeways and the like.

There’s also negligeable road noise from the Goodyear Wrangler M+S (mud and snow) tyres which are designed for high pressure/high speed although with a slightly deeper tread pattern than the stock road tyre fitted to the Discovery.

While these tyres are fine for the sand dunes, they would need to be replaced by a more serious off-road tyre, such as the MT/R if you intended tackling rocky terrain or muddy trails.

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The self-contained apartment I booked close to Anna Bay slept four, had full kitchen and bathroom facilities, and cost me just $140 for the night. While it wasn’t the cheapest joint on offer, it was quiet, well-maintained, and just two minutes drive down Nelson Bay Road to the Gan Gan Road Beach Access point, perfect.

My folks had still not arrived and daylight was diminishing rapidly, but I still needed to shoot a bunch of photographs before dusk. Problem was, I needed to have a National Parks & Wildlife 'Beach vehicle three day permit' before entering the Worimi Conservation Lands, the traditional country of the Worimi people.

Five minutes later and $10 lighter, I was on my way, well almost. Land Rover had kindly equipped me with a hand gauge so that I could accurately lower my tyre pressures to 18psi all round so as to provide a wider footprint and increase traction on the sand.

At this time of the day, you don’t want to be taking any unnecessary risks on the dunes, as I had no assistance, no mobile coverage and darkness was less than 40 minutes away. Nonetheless, I wanted the shots as we only up here for 24 hours.

Tyre pressures sorted, valve caps back on, all I had to do was dial up the Sand setting on Land Rover’s magic Terrain Response. It’s a sophisticated electronic management system, which can instantly retune any number of the vehicle’s features depending on what kind of terrain you intend driving on.

For example, by selecting Sand, Terrain Response will remap the engine management system for maximum throttle response, Traction Control and Dynamic Stability Control for reduced braking intervention, Hill Descent Control is switched off, transmission will hold gears longer and change down early for maximum power to wheels. The electronic differentials and suspension height remains normal in this mode. It’s a remarkable piece of electronic wizardry but you need to read the instructions carefully, as I would find out soon enough.

Even though I knew I should be heading straight for the dunes, the urge to drive down the edge of the surf was overpowering and made all the more special, given there wasn’t another soul to be seen for 32 kilometres.

The wet sand was hard packed and easy going, but after a few minutes I headed back into some low rise dunes to get some nice shots of the Disco at sunset.

No dramas whatsoever in the Land Rover nor did I expect any in what is widely regarded, as one the most capable off-road machines on the planet.

Rather than get eaten alive by the hexam grays (bloody big mossies) during the time it would take me to rig up the battery powered compressor and reinflate the tyres to road going pressures, I voted against that, and drove the 20 odd metres from the Stockton Beach entrance to the local servo and got is done in a few minutes.

My parents had just arrived as I pulled into the apartment complex on dark, after their LPG conversion had played up due to a worn out radiator, which in turn, was not heating the LPG sufficiently and caused the car to stall repeatedly - the joys of 12-year old cars with worn out parts I guess.

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We were all ravenous and decided to give Anna Bay a miss and head into Nelson Bay for a local Chinese meal, which was better than any of us expected. Apologies, I can’t be sure of the name of the place, but I think it was called the Ocean Pearl and the sizzling beef was superb but give the prawn omelette a wide berth.

After a reasonable night’s sleep with the only disturbance a possum who seemed to think the tin roof on this establishment was its own private treadmill for a couple of hours, we woke early to get an uncrowded start on the beach.

I probably should have been more attentive to the quad bikers who were staying at the same place, and mentioned that the sand was incredibly soft and to be careful.

At least with my dad with me now, he's had substantial off-road experience in a wide variety of four-wheelers, and is especially capable in the soft stuff. He used to take great pleasure on decimating beach buggies in duels with his bright yellow 1942 Ford built Jeep on Sydney’s Dee Why sand dunes back in the 1970’s. It’s only fair to mention that he raced that thing with us four kids in the back and his sheep-station owner mate from Warren was just as often behind the wheel.

Back on to the side of the Gan Gan Beach Access, while we lowered the tyre pressures to the same 18psi as I had run with the day before.

The weather was picture perfect and the water looked pristine, as we blazed across the water’s edge toward the famous old shipwreck of the Synga, where I wanted to get a few pictures.

Problem was, although the wet sand looked like it was hard packed – things just didn’t feel right, the engine and gearbox were working too hard and we were losing momentum. The old man looked concerned which didn’t do a whole lot for my confidence. As much as I had wanted to get close to the shipwreck, the fear of ending up on the six o’clock news put an end to that course and we decided to head for the dry stuff further up the beach.

The problem was that although I has selected the Sand setting on the Terrain Response, I hadn’t turned off the DSC, which continued to brake certain wheels, the was last thing I needed as we desperately tried to back-up over our own tracks and get out of there.

Once the DSC was off, the Discovery made light work of some of the most dangerous sand conditions we have ever seen.

The Sygna was a Norwegian bulk carrier, which broke in a half in gale force winds off the Newcastle coast some 26 years ago and is a popular site on Stockton Beach.

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One of the more interesting scenes was a stripped down beach buggy, driven by a couple of keen young fisherman looking for the best place to cast their lines, what a surreal site.

It was time to head into the sand dunes proper to find this place they call ‘Silver City’ - a shantytown of tin topped squatters huts in the middle of these desolate sand dunes looking more like a Baz Lurman movie set than any habitable accommodation.

If you don’t call yourself a skilled off-road driver, I wouldn’t venture too far from the beach itself, as some of these dunes are big, really, really, big and you don’t want to get trapped at the bottom or you could find yourself in for a serious hike back to civilisation. That reminds me take plenty of water with you as it can get bloody hot out there on the sand.

This rather adventurous journey was also a great test case for fuel consumption with a mixture of rapid highway speeds, urban crawl, and sand hopping in some of the softest stuff on record, the Disco 3 TDV6 consumed just 10.8L/100kms overall.

"The remarkable thing about the Discovery 3 TDV6 is that apart from the ultra luxurious and significantly more expensive Range Rover, I can think of no other seven-seat, serious off road vehicle, which can transport a car full of people over such difficult terrain in such complete and utter comfort"