This is going to hurt. That's the thought that flashes into my head as I am launched over a steep drop-off at silly miles an hour, only to be confronted by a gaping hole in the dirt track ahead. While I'm unlikely to incur any personal injury--I am, after all, driving a Volvo-- it looks like it could be curtains for the XC70 I'm piloting. With nowhere for the wheels to land, I wait for the inevitable crunch as rock punches through metal underbelly. And yet, somehow, I make it out in one piece and carry on my dusty way.
This was typical of my journey through the searing heat of the Mexican desert: Each time I expected the XC70 to come to grief, it simply ate up whatever nature threw at it and continued on its merry way. I'd come to Baja California--the Mexican peninsula of dust and dangerous wildlife bracketed by paradise beaches--in order to find out what the new XC70 is really made of. While it's all very well Volvo harping on about how "capable" this new incarnation of its off-road estate is, when it came to the crunch in the remote Mexican wasteland, would it keep me out of trouble?
The Swedes must have been confident; this is one place in the world where you really don't want to break down. On either side of the potholed dirt tracks that thread their way through Mexico like so many strands of spaghetti, the parched countryside is crawling with scorpions and rattlesnakes, while vultures circle omnipotently overhead, ready to pick at the pieces of anyone who falls foul of the elements. Out here, you're nothing more than a another link in the food chain.
The route we were following retraced steps of the infamous Baja 1000 Endurance race--the annual 1000-mile pelt across the desert in whatever contraption you think will get you to the finish line. This probably the toughest endurance event in the world, with the rate of attrition being around 40 per cent. Yet Volvo is so confident in the XC70's all-terrain capability, there's even talk of it entering two vehicles in next year's event.Having given the car a practice run, I don't blame them. Throughout three days of hammering along the Mexican backcountry at silly speeds, smashing against rocks, splashing through creeks and sliding round blind bends, the XC70 didn't miss a beat. I'd put my money on it any day.
Enduro races don't come much tougher than the Baja. Five minutes with former race winner Bryon Farnsworth made this perfectly clear. "People get killed on this event pretty much every year," he said nonchalantly. "Aside from the obvious danger of going off the road, locals have a habit of getting drunk on Sundays and trying to emulate the racers; often, they'll drive up a stretch of the race route the wrong way. Three guys were killed in this year's race, which finished a few weeks ago."
Bryan is one of the most experienced Baja racers in the world, having competed on the event around 30 times in both cars and bikes, and even winning in 1970 and 1993. However, despite having "bounced off a few cows," he's never been seriously injured. Like any Baja racer, though, he's brushed with disaster on more than one occasion. "I was going through a remote village on a motorbike once, and the roadside was lined with little kids who were sticking their hands out to touch me as I went past at 50mph. I'm like, 'Ouch that hurts!'"
Our epic journey up the Baja peninsula--from north to south--began at the little town of Loreto. Having touched down at the tiny airport, we made our way to a nearby hotel for an all-important pre-drive briefing. While being told about the inherent dangers ahead and the fact that unlike the Baja proper--which had only finished a couple of weeks previously--this was NOT a race, the sound of rustling palm trees set the tone for proceedings. With safety in mind, it was time to hit the road.
This opening leg took us along the coast from Loreto to Mulege, with a rest stop at Playa Buenaventura. Here, next to a beautiful blue lagoon, we found a tiny bar called Olivia's where the walls were decked out in bits of Baja vehicles that have succumbed over the years: a wing here, a door there. Outside, the smell of the sea invigorated our jet-lagged senses. Small huts lined the white sand beach, available to rent for the night. However, all this was merely a prelude to the nine-hour marathon that awaited us the next day.
This was where the real adventure began. As the sun rose over the surrounding mountains, we left the tarmac far behind and plunged deep into the Baja backcountry. Although we were following each other in convoy (of sorts), it was crucial to leave a long gap to the car we were following, in order to avoid choking on the dust. This meant that often, we--myself and photographer, Bruce--felt very much alone in the wilderness. To help us find our way there were arrows sprayed onto the side of the abandoned cars that lined the route. These seemed to be everywhere; along with the cacti that lay all around us like myriad gravestones, they were a testament to the unforgiving nature of this cruel countryside.
Meanwhile, the XC70 was acquitting itself impressively as we threaded our way through the bumpy backroads. It took me a little while to get used to just how much clearance this car has; again and again I held my breath as we straddled the huge rocks strewn along the route, and yet there was no need. On the odd occasion when I did hear the dreaded thud of stone on metal, it was only the sump-guard that was taking a beating. Just in case you're forgetting (as we often did), these were pretty much showroom-spec vehicles. The only additions were slightly tougher Pirelli Scorpion tires and uprated brakes, but even these are available as factory-fit options.
Our pace varied according to the technicality of the terrain. At times I'd get up to about 70 mph along fast open stretches, the XC70 eating up bumps and potholes along the way. But for every quick section, there was a slow, technical descent into a dried-up creek bed, followed by a steep, tricky climb back out. Having negotiated a few of these, I suddenly realized that I'd left the chassis settings in sport mode, lowered ride height and all. Even with this embarrassing driver error, however, the XC70 had not faltered.
This variation in rugged backdrop was bizarrely juxtaposed with the polished tones of Frank Sinatra; his greatest hits CD provided a consistent soundtrack throughout the day. Similarly constant was the reek of hot rubber as the XC70 was made to sweat, coupled with the smell of baking hot earth that wafted in through the open windows like the scent of hot parsnips. At times when we felt truly cut off from civilization, however, we'd suddenly come across a remote farm plonked in the middle of nowhere. How anyone can survive in such a barren wilderness is an absolute mystery.
From bumpy backroads, the final day saw us negotiate our way along slippery sand tracks, which provided plenty of scope for some exciting sideways action. Make no mistake, though, this was no theme park, as photographer Bruce almost found out to his detriment. Stepping outside to take a quick snap, he almost trod on a snoozing rattlesnake. Luckily, his reactions were somewhat quicker than the sleepy serpent's and he managed to scarper before being bitten.
After three days of dust, dirt and deadly wildlife, we finally arrived at our destination, a paradise beach that reminded me of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie. Having parked the XC70, I took off my shoes and socks and sprinted onto the sugary sand. This is the kind of place that you want to tell people about but would never want them to actually visit, for fear it would spoil the peace and quiet.
It was utterly deserted as far as the eye could see. The only building for miles around was a little bar serving fresh fish tacos and ice-cold Corona beer. As I cooled off in the ocean a few feet away, I took some time to reflect on the experience of the previous few days.
What a shame it is that the only off-road driving most XC70 owners do takes place in the school car park. But having personally negotiated some of the most challenging terrain you can tackle in a car, you should be under no illusion--this really is an all-terrain vehicle.
Afterward, the only thing I had to worry about was the marathon journey back to the UK. Now that really WAS going to hurt...