It was a journey of Discovery for this journalistic explorer who landed on what appeared to be Mars – somewhere in Utah, USA.
HOW do you fly to Mars? On a jet plane, that’s how!
Journalists from all four corners of the world were flown to southern Utah last year for Land Rover’s Discovery World Media Test Drive. The 45th state o f America offers some of the most breathtaking views – from pink sand dunes to snowy pine forests to canyons and flatlands, all in a day’s drive. Our hosts chose a venue that was second to none for journos to testdrive their latest Land Rover Discovery, an all-terrain seven-seater that is a highly practical sports utility vehicle.
We stopped at Canyon Point for afternoon coffee. This was in the middle of nowhere, with a surreal Martian landscape of rusty-hued badlands and layered cliffs peppered with green shrubs. The vegetation reminded me that I wasn’t really on the Red Planet.
The four of us Singaporean scribes had flown 14,688 kilometres from Changi Airport to St. George Regional Airport in Utah to commence our drive in the new fifth-generation Disco.
By the time we sat in the luxurious 4x4s powered by either a 3-litre 340hp supercharged petrol V6 or a 3-litre 248hp turbo-diesel V6, we were not weary international travellers you would expect, having spent the previous afternoon and evening in Los Angeles.
Flying business class from Singapore to LA for the first leg, and then in a chartered Boeing 777 the next morning to Utah, helped a little, too!
An array of Discos in various liveries greeted us when we disembarked on the tarmac in St. George Airport.
The drive from there took us along typical American highways – mostly straight and long. Then suddenly, like Disney magic, we were 4000 feet (1219 metres) up in Zion National Park, in a picture-perfect scene of winding mountain roads flanked by snow-topped pine trees. That soon changed to scenes of the Night Watch’s perspective from the Wall.
The Landie Discos, in both petrol and diesel guises, were in their element, offering surefooted handling in slippery conditions and munchin’ up the miles and elevation in superlative comfort.
Our lunch stop was the quaint Buffalo Grill restaurant about 12 miles (19 kilome tres) after the wintery conditions of the national park.
The farm setting was reminiscent of Little House On The Prairie – a rusty old western horse carriage laid against a backdrop of a prairie, accompanied by the neighing of a couple of ponies and the bleating from some brown goats.
After our country lunch, having hitherto been a pampered front seat passenger, I took over the helm of our Farallon Black petrol Discovery, sporting 21-inch Goodyear F1s.
Two hours later, we arrived on “Mars” for our coffee break at Canyon Point. The good people at Land Rover had set up a tent to serve various brews and cookies. We had time to explore the wilderness on foot, by which period the temperature had dipped to 12 degrees Celsius in the late February afternoon.
Two other journos from Singapore decided to scale a two-storey-high rock. I reminded them that it was Navajo land and they could expect floating midnight guests with feather headd resses in their room should they continue. They beat a hasty retreat.
No Land Rover driving event would be complete without a demonstration of its legendary off-road capabilities.
We scaled boulders like mountain goats and crawled up steep inclines at angles that astronauts launching from the Nasa Kennedy Space Centre are familiar with. All the stunts were performed on street tyres!
There was one particularly harrowing exercise in which I thought I was going to barrelroll down a cliff, due to a very tight turn at the edge of the cliff into the entry point.
For all the lump-inthe throat moments orchestrated by Land Rover’s off-roading experts, we were rewarded with a night’s stay at the exclusive single-storey Amangiri Suites, frequented by the biggest names in Hollywood and the music world.
That night, as I wallowed in my white linen-draped bed, I wondered which superstar had slept on it. The next morning, we swopped our petrol-powered Disco for the diesel one.
With the InControl Touch Navigation System displayed on the 10-inch screen reprogrammed for a new day’s tour, we travelled down south towards Arizona into Grand Canyon country. En route the diesel Disco surprised us aurally with a sportier note than its petrol brethren.
We traversed the Glen Canyon Dam, the fourth tallest in the US, and stopped at a lay-by 6000 feet (1828 metres) up from the canyons for a coffee break.
The Land Rover’s now single tailgate is complemented by a fold-out panel, which serves as a mini coffee table.
WWF’s King Kong Bundy, who weighs about 200kg, could sit on it with another 100kg to spare before the panel starts to protest.
We were soon on our way again, letting the GPS voice navigator guide us to our next stop at the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Centre.
This stage was another splendid experience. From rustic canyon terrain, we descended 2000 feet (609 metres) within 20 minutes to flatlands bathed in sunshine skirted by mountainous range in the distance. We then drew closer and closer to a foggy forest as the elevation increased again. And before we knew it, we were driving amidst snowfall in Smokey Bear country in the Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest.
The Kaibab Plateau Visitor Centre, which is a gateway to these two national parks, is closed for winter between mid-October and mid-May, but was specially opened to receive us media folks (that was impressive, Land Rover!).
When we resumed our journey, the snow had stopped and the sun was out.
From white-carpeted forest, we arrived at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes desert a couple of hours later. It was an opportunity for our test vehicles to show off their soft-sand climbing ability.
The tyres were deflated a little to enhance their grip on the ground and it was extraordinary to see these almost 2200kg luxury 4x4s overcome the slippery pink sand dunes on street tyres. The terrain was more for dune buggies than middle-class SUVs such as the Disco.
After a quick lunch served in a specially erected large tepee, we made our way back to St. George Airport for our return flight to Los Angeles. It was American highway driving again and the Disco dispatched us explorers with consummate ease.
If there was to be a vote for the complete all-rounder in a Martian landscape, the Land Rover Discovery would certainly be one o f the few contenders in the list.
Thanks to Navajo Bridge, the Discovery didn’t get its Goodyears wet “crossing” the Colorado River.
"THE FARM SETTING OF THE BUFFALO GRILL RESTAURANT WAS REMINISCENT OF LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE."
"CANYON POINT’S GREEN SHRUBS REMINDED ME THAT I WASN’T REALLY ON THE RED PLANET."
The spectacular red-rock scenery and picturesque trails such as Seven Mile Rim were nature’s great joys discovered during this off-road trip
"WE CRAWLED UP STEEP INCLINES AT ANGLES THAT ASTRONAUTS LAUNCHING FROM THE NASA KENNEDY SPACE CENTRE ARE FAMILIAR WITH."
Survival gear for Utah’s “Mars” – satellite navigation, sunglasses and Land Rover’s terrainconquering 4x4 systems.