Words and pictures by Stuart Williams
IN ORDER TO MAKE TRAVEL easier on sand or ice, you need to deflate your tyres to increase your surface area. Of course not all of us have the luxury of an 18.5 bar swing in pressure. That’s right, when cruising Iceland’s highways, the mammoth 44” rubber that put the Hilux up in the clouds is inflated to 20 bar. But when heading off road this can go as low as 1.5 bar without risking the tyre coming off the rim. In essence, not only does this enable the vehicle to float effortlessly above sinking terrain but the tyre acts as a damper too, cushioning the ride from rocks, ridges and moguls.
Emil Grimmson, CEO of Arctic Trucks jokes that during the famous North Pole Top Gear expedition the cars began to slowly sink through sections of thin ice. “I watched our lead vehicle guide Jeremy Clarkson through the precarious area. When I noticed the cars slowly sinking I was glad to be able to speak Icelandic and not terrorise the Top Gear guys with thoughts of an icy swim.”
Arctic Trucks began operations in 1990. The Hilux with the hallowed AT name (Arctic Trucks) soon proved popular with adventurers, scientists, overland enthusiasts and companies that operate in harsh conditions for its ability to go virtually anywhere and, more importantly, endure trip after trip without the need for major mechanical overhauls. And here’s the exciting news, Arctic Trucks is heading to SA in conjunction with 4×4 MegaWorld.
The initial plan is to build six vehicles at Toyota SA in Johannesburg, all of which already have a specific mission in mind: Antarctica. But if mutterings and rumours in Iceland are to be believed, there’s every possibility the conversion will become available to the public, offering not only a stand-out-in-a-crowd appeal but also true off-road prowess.
Of the vehicles being built in SA two will undergo full AT44 conversions. Another two will be converted to AT44 specification, but with full 6×6 configurations. These four Hilux vehicles will operate as back-up vehicles in the gruelling Antarctic Ski Challenge to the South Pole. The fifth Hilux, also to AT44 specification, will be built for the Indian National Centre Antarctic and Ocean Research, while Hilux number six will be built to AT38 specification – the same as that which took the aforementioned Top Gear crew to the opposite pole. This Hilux will serve as a heavy duty workhorse on the South African Antarctic base (SANAE IV) and more importantly, has been donated to the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP), courtesy of Toyota SA.
“We’re extremely proud of the fact that the Hilux has been approved for use in Antarctica and on the SANAE IV base,” says Andrew Kirby, senior vice president: sales and marketing at Toyota SA. “SANAP’s study of the environment, from geology to upper air research, is invaluable in our understanding of our planet’s fragile ecology. Toyota’s commitment has always been on minimising our environmental footprint and providing sustainable mobility, something that is clearly visible in our Optimal Drive technologies and our pioneering Prius hybrid vehicle. This donation underlines that commitment.”
The Hilux remains the only light commercial vehicle in service on the Antarctic continent. The Arctic Truck conversion, with larger diameter tyres and a greater ground clearance, enables the Hilux to traverse the icy and often dangerous terrain with a fraction of the CO² footprint of track-driven snow vehicles. Several Hilux bakkies are already in service on the icy continent. The specially built SANAP Hilux will be officially handed over to the Department of Environmental Affairs and the SANAE team towards the end of 2010.
Fitted with Toyota’s standard 3.0 D-4D motor, producing 126 kW of power and 360 Nm of torque, the AT38 Hilux rides on 38 x 15.5 R15 tyres and 15 x 12.5 rims, and in the three days of driving I experienced, handles the best of both worlds. Unlike the 44, the 38 feels natural at speed, almost better than a standard Hilux, while off-road the capabilities are hardly far off the mammoth 44’s. The AT38 can be ordered with either an automatic or manual gearbox but auto seems to be favoured on the big trucks. Both heavy duty suspension and heavy duty differential locks on both axles can be ordered, while the fuel tank can be expanded by 55 litres to 110 litres or to 160 litres with two 80 litre tanks. Naturally, when you’re this well specced you want to be able to drive for days without refuelling. Other added extras include a compressed air tank with waterproof compressor, an extra heavy duty dual air filtration system, a 24V generator and more power outlets. Ground clearance is a sensational 420 mm under the vehicle’s belly.
The AT 44 makes a compromise on the road in order to stamp its authority in the off-road playground. This particular conversion has already done numerous extreme adventures and truly looks ready for any challenge. The 44 rides on 15 x 16 rims with massive 44 x 18.5/15 tyres. The transfer case is fitted with a trawler gear offering a 5.132:1 ratio in low range. This of course means an additional gear lever in the cabin and some rudimentary modifications are done to accommodate this. But a hole in the centre console to allow for additional capabilities is well worth the lack of aesthetics. The 44 can be fitted with two 80 litre fuel tanks or with a combination of 135 litre and 55 litre tanks for a total capacity of 190 litres. An Arctic Truck trailer is optional too and will offer as much as 1 350 litres of fuel to be carried with the vehicle. Ground clearance is 480 mm under the vehicle’s belly allowing for midget mechanics to work on the machine sans hydraulic lift. The AT44 is fitted with 100% differential locks on both axles and a heavy duty suspension as standard. As with the AT38 the AT44 offers a compressed air tank with waterproof compressor, an extra heavy duty dual air filtration system, as well as a 24V generator. Should the conversions make their way to SA under the auspices of public consumption, don’t expect this one to come cheap. A converted AT44 goes for a whopping 100 000 Euros, excluding all taxes.
Imagine a Hilux with two rear axles and four wheels providing traction and carrying power at the back. This specialist 6×6 machine offers the same features as any of the AT-models, but with a much longer load bay. Off-road carrying capacity is 3 tons and the fuel capacity can be stretched to 400 litres making this the ultimate off-road workhorse… whether or not you’d be able to find a parking spot in Melville or Greenpoint is another matter.
The 6×6 can be ordered with any of the AT-conversions and is powered by the same 3.0 D-4D. Rear brakes are drums on both axles and coil spring suspension is used on all wheels. The 6×6 is 6.365 mm long and offers 100% differential locks on all axles.
Arctic Trucks, in partnership with 4×4 MegaWorld is already under way with these conversions: “We are very excited about this partnership with Arctic Trucks,” says Kirby. “Not only does the Arctic Truck conversion showcase the strengths of the Hilux in extreme conditions, but the various Antarctic projects’ aim at creating awareness of environmental issues also underscore Toyota’s strong commitment to sustainable mobility and the protection of our habitat.
“The vehicles we are preparing with TSAM and 4×4 MegaWorld in South Africa will soon perform tasks that few people knew to be possible, notably by travelling unsupported in the most extreme conditions, while being more comfortable and using a fraction of the fuel that conventional track driven Arctic support vehicles use,” said Kirby.
The likelihood is that should the AT conversions become available for local consumption, the AT35 will prove the most cost effective and probably most popular too. Sporting 35” tyres, flared wheel arches and a suspension raised by 40 mm, the AT35 is hugely capable and handled the Icelandic glacier with ease. The 35×12.5R15 tyres are fitted to 15 x 10 wheel rims. In a convoy of 8 vehicles we managed to keep a 35 with us throughout our journey. It never flinched but did provide the most fun on the powder snow of a glacier. Keep your thumbs crossed that the conversion becomes available!
There are times when you feel you might have fallen down a hole and found yourself in Wonderland with Alice just behind you and a rabbit or two in front. Iceland is such a place. Each corner presents a remarkable scenery change, equally dramatic in landscape as it is in history, geography and botany. It’s a sensual overload and the three long days I spent there were nowhere near sufficient to absorb all the wonders Iceland has to offer.
We began our journey with a swim in the Blue Lagoon a short drive outside the capital of Reykjavik. Picture a lunar landscape with black lava rock surrounding you and milky turquoise water steaming as people lounge about in 10° weather. Iceland is Picasso’s playground and surrealism is no longer an art movement.
From volcanic barrenness to fertile foot high forests, the landscape in Iceland changes at every turn. With three massive glaciers on the island and a few active volcanoes, there is obviously an abundance of waterfalls and icy clear streams and rivers… perfect for testing your new snorkel and traction through slippery rocks.
We visited the infamous volcano with the name that no one can pronounce that has been in the news globally lately. Having listened with intent for hours over a dinner table filled with fish of every description and the occasional horse and reindeer burger, Eyjafjallajokull eluded me. It was less dramatic than I expected with a few puffs of smoke coughing from its crater. But the fact that I was there, not more than a hundred metre dash from a truly destructive force, was nothing short of sensational.
Our final day in the land of the Vikings was spent atop a glacier. An expanse of white with the odd crevasse stretching deep into the ice below creating what is simply the most treacherous driving surface I’ve ever encountered. Slushy ice is the order of the day at the melting edges of the glacier but as one gets higher into the atmosphere, the snow is packed deep, concealing the danger from the eye. Here it is vital to go guided into the unknown, and carrying rescue equipment and a winch, is not only recommended, it is essential.
Three full days in Iceland is an affair you have to live. It surprises, entices and romances you at every level. Then again, so do Arctic Trucks.