Last month we followed Toby, and partner Jo, down the Autoroutes of France in our long-term Mitsubishi Shogun 4Work Van to their friends’ old farm house, high in the hills of Northern Italy. Following a wine-buying spree, Toby ventured off onto some of the tracks in the area to give the Shogun a chance to stretch its legs before an eventful drive home via the Alps
Words & photos: Toby Savage with additional photography by Leigh Hooper
Our plans took a bit of a knock as we gazed out of the window at almost zero visibility. A thick mist, bordering on light rain, had descended and enveloped the hills in autumnal damp. Regrettably, we only had that Sunday free to do our off-road driving in the Shogun and, judging by the distant sound of shotgun fire, the weather was not deterring the hunters who would be out in force on this, the first weekend of the hunting season. Wild Boar is their choice of target, but, to be honest, any other moving animal will do. The hunting is fairly well controlled; hunters require a license and work in small groups communicating by radio. A battered 4×4 is parked nearby ready to transport the hapless beast back to the farm, where it is apportioned out among the team. Our one hope was, that in the poor visibility, they would not mistake us for game and take a shot at us!
With windscreen wipers on, we made our way to a nearby track that, had the weather been good, would have rewarded us with truly breathtaking views across the hills of Piedmont to the distant, snow-capped Alps. But all we could see on this damp, autumnal day were russet brown trees, their leaves forming a thick rusty carpet on the track, but the driving was excellent. We picked a fairly challenging route over wet boulders; the nearside wheels occasionally dropping into a leaf-filled rut and cocking a rear wheel in the air. We were certainly climbing. While we had little visual evidence of this, the occasional spin of a wheel confirmed that it was getting progressively steeper as we neared the highest point. We stopped as the tree line was thinning out and the mist lifted a little to confirm that, had it been clear, the view would have been fantastic! Endless ranges of hills disappearing into the mists, fir trees dripping with moisture and the distant crack of rifles, accompanied by the blow of a whistle to indicate a hit, set the scene for the day.
In a couple of hours we had covered about 10 miles, winding our way up and over a small range of hills. Now it was time to descend into the valley, picking our way carefully down tracks more suited to their original traffic of donkeys, piled high with the fruits of the forest and led by an ageing hill farmer. There were a few times I was extremely grateful for the ABS as the descent became steeper and more slippery with wet leaves. On a hot, sunny day this would have been an absolute doddle, but with everything so wet, the chances of it all going terribly wrong were alarmingly high. The track was not much wider than the Shogun; very slippery and with a drop to the left, from which there would be no turning back. Thankfully, the BFGoodridge All-Terrains with their sharp tread edges gripped well, and in the lowest gear, which still needed a little gentle braking, we came safely and controlled down to the valley floor and into the forest.
The fallen leaves were so thick it was difficult to see where the track actually went, but the line of trees roughly indicated a direction. Attitudes to green-laning differ here to our own ‘you can’t drive that thing up there’ UK stance. The area is so sparsely populated and reliant on 4x4s to do everything that it is assumed perfectly natural to drive around any of the lanes. Any questioning of this with a local would initiate a shrug of the shoulders and the offer of a glass of wine from the bottle in the back of his truck! We made steady progress through the trees, at times rather close to the unblemished paintwork of the Shogun. It was comforting to be away from the risks of the high trails we had completed in the morning and have the sound of snapping twigs under our wheels and little chance of serious damage.
At the lowest point of most valleys there is the inevitable river. This one looked fairly shallow, strewn with rocks, but, after a quick inspection on foot, appeared negotiable and a bit of fun. Leigh got out to guide me in and I slowly inched the front wheel into the soft gravel river bed. It was about a foot deep and soon we were driving along it, picking a safe route through the bigger of the boulders. Occasionally, the Shogun would take a lurch to the left or right, as a wheel dropped into a soft patch, but it felt fine and we were in sight of a road, should we get stuck. Spotting a small road bridge ahead it seemed an opportune moment to rejoin civilisation and we looked for a suitable spot to exit the river.
Next to the bridge was a perfect shale beach, complete with small track up to the narrow road and the bridge. The gravel seemed especially soft here where the current had formed deeper pools and fi ner gravel. My fi rst attempt failed, with the rear wheels digging in some mud underneath the gravel and the need to use full lock, to steer out of the river, hampering progress. Clearly what was needed was a bit more ‘commitment’, so I took more of a run up the last 10 metres of river, water splashing everywhere, and with a triumphant lurch arrived on dry land.
We had enjoyed a great day’s off-road driving and, fortunately, not put a mark on the Shogun, so we headed back to Leigh and Maura’s house and the inevitable and delicious four-course meal and the opportunity to thrill the girls with exaggerated tales of our adventures.
Sadly, the following day we had to head home, Jo via a cheap flight from Genoa and me, solo, in the Shogun. We hatched a plan that after I had dropped Jo at the airport, us chaps could meet two of our Italian pals, Bruno and Guilio, who knew a good route to take over the Alps, avoiding the Mont Blanc Tunnel and end the trip with one last adventure. We duly met in a small restaurant in Ovada where I should have realised that, this being Italy, lunch would be lengthy. With Leigh translating, Bruno and Gulio regaled me with tales of a pass over the Alps used by the lorries when the weather permitted. I should be okay late in the autumn with a 4×4 – they thought! They enthused about the stunning scenery up there and thought I should be able to see a big lake, Lac du Mont Cenis, right at the top.
What they ignored, while ordering yet more food, was that it would be dark by the time I got there, even if I left immediately! Gulio, enjoying a stiff Grappa to aid his digestion, explained that I should take the Autostrada west from Turin until I saw a sign for the small town of Susa. Here, I should leave the motorway and head into the town looking for signs to ‘Col du Mont Cenis’. He warned me that they tend not to publicise this route too much with signs, preferring to keep it free for those in the know, while collecting tolls at the tunnel. I felt most privileged to be ‘in the know’ as I hit the road in the very last of the afternoon’s fading light and joined the Autostrada, firstly to Turin, then west to Susa. It was dark and raining as I drove through Susa looking for the secret sign, but sure enough, there it was and I was the only vehicle on the road as it wound its way up through a series of hairpin bends, the rain turning to sleet the higher I climbed.
I crossed the deserted old border post, once busy checking visitors travelling between France and Italy and now just a derelict building with windows smashed and clad in graffiti. The rain eased off as I drove higher, then I cleared the tree line and left the rain and mist below me with pure mountain ahead, the headlights picking up snow to either side of the road and sometimes across it. I could not resist pulling off up a snow-covered track leading to a ski lift station and drove across the snow, in the dark, without any drama – heater on, 4WD engaged. Stepping out of the Shogun and standing on the crisp snow it reminded me of various Sahara trips. I was the only person there and the silence was deafening. The air was clear and, had it been daylight, I would have had a great view; instead, all was darkness and solitude. Spooked, I jumped back in the Shogun and drove on, descending into the small ski resort of Val Cenis, where I found a small hotel for the night.
An early start the following morning and I’d ticked off ‘Alps’ by breakfast and decided I’d like to try and make it home that evening so drove all day on the Autoroute at a steady 85mph, the fuel economy still reading an encouraging 27mpg. With its comfortable seats and high driving position it was relatively stress-free motoring and by 16.30hrs I was on the ferry back to Dover and home for supper. The Mitsubishi had been my trans continental cruiser and off-road truck for a total of 1550 miles and fulfilled all its duties with style, speed and economy. It reinforced the notion that you really can achieve a great deal in a long weekend. I’d clocked up a tour through France, gastronomy and wine tasting in Italy, a day’s greenlaning, a dabble at snow driving in the Alps and was home for tea!
The Mitsubishi Shogun 4Work featured is the SWB model, starting at £23,016 + VAT. It has a 3.2-litre direct injection engine giving a top speed of 111mph and on this trip returned 29mpg overall – Autoroute and greenlane. It has a payload of 580kgs, which equates to quite a lot of Italian wine!
Leigh and Maura Hooper run a B&B – www.lamula.it – from their mountain top hideaway. It makes an ideal place to stay if exploring both the green-lanes and plentiful wine producers in the region. They can also point you in the direction of the best local restaurants that offer astonishing value.