The Hannibal Trail across the Alps.
Recreating the route Hannibal supposedly took across the Alps in a North American Spec Land Rover V8.
Hannibal took Elephants to conquer the Alps, but I had the choice of several Land Rover products. I chose a North American Spec. V8 90 Defender to retrace the great leaders route.
Hannibal, the legendary leader of men and elephants of the 2nd century BC would have laughed his breastplate off if he knew that 2000 years later journalists in Land Rovers would be trying to follow his route across the Alps. Hannibal's exact route has been the subject of much debate by historians ever since, but one thing is certain, whichever passes he took involved traversing some of the wildest terrain in the Alps.
I had been invited to join Land Rover's well organised sortie across Mont Cenis, one of the four favoured routes, near the Ski Resort of Val d'Isere. The chance to have a thrash around in a Land Rover product high in the Alps was too good an opportunity to miss so walking boots and Nikon were packed and off I went in search of mid August adventure.
Emerging from the Hotel Altitude to fog and light rain was a bit of a surprise when Britain was enjoying a heatwave, but this was soon forgotten when it was time for "Gentlemen choose your weapons" in the Hotel car park. I teamed up with fellow journalist Martin Vincent and after a brief survey of the current range of Discoverys and Range Rovers we tentatively asked if there was any chance of taking the North American Spec. V8 90 parked in the adjacent car park, and if so, could we have the soft top off. "In this weather?" exclaimed Roger Crathorne, head of The Land Rover Experience, and man in charge. "We assumed everyone would want creature comforts today" Martin and I exchanged glances and decided to go for it. Hannibal had no roof on his elephant after all.
Soon to be named the 'Hard boys in the Hot Rod' we joined the convoy and set off south, 11 vehicles in total representing at least one example of each model. An impressive sight through four wheel drive mad Val d'Isere during the week of the 4x4 International Motor Show when every other person is an off-roader.
We took the main road for about 30 miles before turning off into a forest and the beginning of our first challenging climb. By some inexplicable fluke the 'Hot Rod' had worked it's way up to the head of the convoy, and was first to tackle the climb. Roger advised us on technique, a precaution he took with everybody as we were a very mixed bunch. It was a case for 2nd low and let the torque of the lazy V8 do the work. The beauty of the Alps is that their hillclimbs are not the molehills we get here, they go on for miles! Wondering if a full tank would be enough to reach the summit in a thirsty V8 we mauled and bounced our way up until we emerged above the tree line to be told a staggering view was possible had it not been for the fog. Oh well, if you've seen one Alpine view, you've seen them all.
After a stop for coffee from the chuck wagon , a well fitted out Discovery, we continued to climb on rough tracks, quite slippery after all the rain. The NAS Defender comes with a set of wide alloy wheels clothed in B. F. Goodrich Mud Terrain tyres and a pretty firm suspension set up reminiscent of what we might call real Land Rovers. With the roof off we felt very much at one with the elements following the route of one man and his elephants! When the cloud lifted briefly the views were colossal and the drops at the edge of the mountain track had the passenger?s grip tightening on the grab rail.
As we each took turns at driving confidence increased in the precise handling of the 90 and the engines ability to use it's 232 lbs ft of torque to make any incline merely a slight hill and by lunchtime we had covered some 30 miles of mountain track. The sissies in the warm and comfortable Range Rovers and Discoverys had only seen the rain and cloud as if on video through the windscreen. In the open 90 we had lived it, breathed it, felt it and got the T-shirt.
After an al fresco lunch of bread, salad and cold meat it was a tentative decent when some of those less used to off road driving were heard to mutter 'did we really come up slopes as steep as this?' Back down to the valley and onwards to the Mont Cenis itself. Assuming we were all more used to the conditions the route became more sporting, narrow paths littered with diff-cracking rocks and a drop from which there would be no return to one side and a sheer rock face to the other. I think I can safely say that everyone's attention was focused 100% for these sections, and I found myself looking more intently at the Safety Devises roll cage. Gushing with confidence I experimented with revs and gears on some of the tight hairpin bends. I was following a Defender County 90 TDi well known as a gutsy slogger, but a tell tail whiff of smoke gave the clue to the drivers gear change points from third low, down to second. The V8 managed the same sections in third, pulling from just under 1000 rpm. It was a fascinating comparison, because behind us was a DSE Range Rover, it's BMW engine having to rev a fair bit to haul two tons up the mountain, but always at the back of the convoy was the reassuring trio of Rover mechanics in their 4.6 HSE Range Rover, never needing to dirty their hands, but ever present like Apaches on the distant hill top. The big Range Rover made every situation look serene and calm rarely going above tickover on even the most demanding bits of track. With our many stops for photos we were usually at the back of the pack in the afternoon so we got to know these chaps well with their greeting of 'Everything okay lads?' said in a strong Solihull accent.
At our highest point on Mont Cenis we were almost 3000m above sea level, normally the very top of a good ski run, yet here we were in standard road going vehicles, most capable of cruising home on the Autoroute at a steady 100 mph with some gentle classical music on the CD player. It was an impressive achievement by all concerned, for although the terrain was far gentler than the average RTV trial many of the drivers had no previous experience, yet all made it to the top without drama, and relished a bit more.
On the return journey to Val d'Isere the heavens opened and the rain fell by the bucket full. We got a soaking, but the grin's were permanently etched on our faces from a days fun hurling the fast but disappointingly quiet V8 around. American regulations insist that the sweet music of 182 bhp bellowing out of a 2 inch pipe should only be imagined.
With 80 miles of exciting motoring under our belts through forests, across rocks and up and down some breathtakingly steep hillclimbs Hannibal's route had been conquered. The following day was more relaxed and took us to the nearby ski resort of Tigne dominated by the Grande Motte glacier offering summer skiing from it's 3656 metre summit.
Tigne actively encourages 4x4 motoring on well marked tracks up the mountains organised by the local Club des Aigles (Eagles) who can be contacted on 00 33 79 06 02 06 so just when a few of our party were eying up the golf course and the tennis it was time to select low ratio again with the cautioning words from Roger Crathorne 'You will find some of the descents at the top of the mountain steeper than yesterday, please ensure you are in first gear low and don't touch any of the pedals'. The tenderhearted swapped driving seat for passenger seat to let a Land Rover trained driver take over and off we went again up, up and up some more. Not quite to the edge of the glacier but in the company of several large patches of grubby snow. At the highest point, again about 3000 metres our view was minimal thanks to low cloud, so after a brief stop it was on to the fearsome descents. Although no steeper than the previous days, some of these had a pronounced list and caused many a sharp intake of breath and the question as to what angle a Land Rover would go to before rolling. I promise you, it all seems more relevant when the mountainside you are traversing drops away 1000 metres to your immediate left and the steering wheel's on the wrong side. The drive passed, thankfully, without incident and brought us out at the Val d'Isere 4x4 show where there was time for a quick look around before heading home.
It had been a tremendous weekends motoring and a chance to drive the worlds best off road vehicles in there natural habitat. Hannibal, of course, then went on to invade some of Italy's most beautiful cities where the Range Rover could make full use of its excellent posing values, turning more heads than a Ferrari for half the price, and maybe I could knock the rear silencer box off the 'Hot Rod' and really cause a stir.
Copyright Toby Savage.