The Motu School 4×4 Safari is probably the longest running, and one of the more challenging 4×4 adventures available in the North Island, if not NZ.

Eschewing the usual “Follow the leader” tag-along format, the Safari is a bi-annual excursion into the East Cape, where small groups of adventurers follow arrows and instructions, showing where to go, not necessarily how to get there.

Members of the Geyserland 4WD Club have supported the Schools fundraising efforts since the first Safari way back in 1997, and members are spread out among the entrants to offer help (and the odd vehicle recovery) throughout the weekend.

This year the Safari has taken on a new format, instead of packing up and travelling to a new campsite every day, the adventure is much more focussed on the Motu Valley and surrounds, returning each night to a campsite located in a paddock right across from the school.

Waiting to go as vehicle checks are carried out

This year Mazda NZ has offered us an all-new BT-50, to use as best suits us, as support for the school and event.

Primarily it is to be used as a camera car by 4x4actionadventure, but, as we drop back through the groups each day capturing snaps in interesting spots, it will inevitably become part of the Geyserland clubs arrow recovery group by the end of the day.

The only thing that we needed to change to the standard BT-50 GSX that Mazda gave us was to equip it with mud tyres.

So we headed off to set it up with mud tyres, collect PRS radio and inverter, some recovery gear and a pair of grandkids, hooked the caravan on the back, and headed East.

Entrants head out at the start of Day 2

It’s not our first time in a BT-50, and again we are impressed by how easily the 3litre diesel and 6-speed auto combination hauls the two tonnes of caravan around, particularly up the notorious Waioeka Gorge into Matawai.

Leaving Motu the next morning, after a safety and equipment check, and with tyres deflated to offroad pressures, we install ourselves with a group of farmers who are pretty interested in the new BT-50, and test our knowledge of the truck, and it’s controls. It was a bit of a learning curve for all of us.

A learning curve more or less wasted on us, most of the time we were able to just point the nose where we wanted to go, and just let the thing get on with it.

Traversing the high country in the fog

And, trust us it wasn’t just a cruise around the countryside, the East cape doesn’t really do flat land, the Mazda was subjected to river crossings that tested out its wading depth, tight narrow, steep hill country tracks that had a few passengers out of vehicles guiding their drivers (or just walking because it felt safer), and rocky river beds that tested its clearance (and underbody protection).

The diff-lock came into play a couple of times in the cross axle situations created on some of the high country stream crossings, and although it was dry enough most days not to need the hill descent control, we tried it out on a couple of the long steep descents on the last day, where a slip over the side would see your clothes out of fashion before you hit the bottom!

At the launch of the new BT-50, Mazda made a bit of noise about the ease of use of the HDC, and its differences from what we had been used to up till now.

Spectacular high country trails were a feature of the event

On the Motu, a section of the Old Hydro Road (which is anything but a road) has a long descent through the bush that has deteriorated to the extent that most of it can be a muddy, grassy, roller coaster.

Although it is really quite safe, with ruts and run-off areas, it has created white knuckles and cold sweats on more than a few Safari goers over the years. Even the long-term entrants still ask about its condition as they head out.

The BT-50 made it look easy. So easy in fact, that the boys in the back were pretty deflated when we got to the bottom. Hit the switch, use the brakes to set the speed, and down we went – slowly!!

Even the driver was a bit deflated.

BT-50 crossing the Motu

As you would expect from a new vehicle, everything was tight, and rattle free. The new BT-50 has had a bit of High Tensile steel added to its frame, and it has a very solid toughness about it, that comes as a bit of a surprise considering its much praised road going poise and sophistication.

There is a bit of a disconnect between the road going and off-roading personalities of the BT-50, however, and it becomes most noticeable on short sharp rough sections, where the heavier sway (anti-roll) bar that controls the front suspension so well on the road, takes over, and the ute tends to follow the movement of the front wheel across the terrain.

It’s certainly not unusual in a ute, but it is maybe a bit more pronounced, or it could be just unexpected, in the BT-50. We were hanging out for sway-bar disconnects at times.

Just one of the many rocky fords the BT-50 faced

Mazda were pretty relaxed in what they let us do with and to our weekend warrior, but we figured starting to dismantle the suspension may have been taking it a bit far!

In all these things, “fit for purpose” is the key issue, and when you consider the purpose of even the hardest working utes in this country doesn’t involve much time in these conditions, then you can’t argue with how it is set up.

And I have to admit that even on an event that deliberately avoided the better tracks and trails, we were comfortable enough most of the time. Seats are well designed, and supportive, even after three days of “doing it in the dirt”, and by then the controls, knobs etc were falling to hand easily, and that Mazda steering wheel is the best in the business.

Mangatu River Bed

So we spent 3 days bashing the truck about in the rough country east of beyond. Like I said, Motu doesn’t do flat, but, as you would expect it took it in it’s stride.

Then, we re-inflated the tyres, dropped off the last pegs and arrows, hooked the caravan back on, and headed for home. And it took that in it’s stride too.

Thanks Mazda, we asked a lot of it, and it delivered.

Sitting waiting for the crew to return

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