Tank Girl

Bored with the Ford? To roll right over your next rush hour, try a caterpillar tread instead.

By Helen Clark

“Right, right, go right. GO RIGHT! RIIIGHT! . . . Oh, Jesus.” That’s what’s crackling through my earpiece. I think. I can’t hear too well over the Rolls Royce roar of the engine as I turn the wrong way and nearly bog my Ferret – a 4.5-ton ex-British forces armoured scout car. It looks like an overgrown dune buggy (only with a gun turret stuck on), and right now it’s handling roughly the same. I’m in the middle of a military vehicle driving course and I’m having fun. I think. But first, before this . . .

I’m in a caravan surrounded by camouflage netting in a field, tantalisingly close to the two vehicles I’m about to punish. Combat-ready Howard Bull, the red and yellow insignia of a military vehicle club visible on his epaulettes, is explaining things to me. Both vehicles, the Ferret and a 10.5-ton Saracen troop carrier, have a pre-select gearbox, meaning you must shift ahead of time. “So when you’re banging along in third, you select fourth,” he says. Then, when ready, you push down on the engage pedal. Never select and engage at the same time, as in an ordinary car; a wrecked gearbox in one of these babies can cost up to $6000 to repair.

Both are semi-street legal vehicles – with the right plates. They’re sometimes sold on eBay. Howard often drives them to conventions. People cut him off when he’s in the Ferret. “They have no idea,” he says, “what I can do to the back of their car.”

I’m taken for a ride in the Ferret before my turn behind the wheel. Sitting in the commander’s turret seat, looking out at the trees and grass as we roll and roar over low hills in the sun, it seems so easy. So easy.

We stop. We swap. I’m in the driver’s seat now, surrounded by raw metal, hands white-knuckled on the forward-facing steering wheel. My feet, attached to their stupid, short legs, won’t reach the oily pedals easily. Starting in second gear, I engage the engine and bunny-hop away, squinting at the path ahead, straining to hear Howard’s commands through the two-way attached to my heavy helmet. Oh, God – bravado will not get me over that hill.

After several Ferret-runs around the track, Howard mildly tells me I’d be surprised the number of people who don’t know their left from right. But no matter – up next is the big Saracen. It’s a six-wheel-drive and uses 76 litres of petrol an hour.

It functioned as a unit along with the Ferret and Centurion tank. A short-to-mid-run vehicle, it was designed to transport eight troops into a combat zone; sitting in the rear in the dark, you wonder how they felt, back here, rumbling into battle.

I sit in the driver’s seat – “designed either for a dentist or a gynaecologist,” grins Howard – then I start the engine and accelerate like hell. The thing roars up the slope and all I can see is grass streaming out either window before we bounce down the far side. I can hear Howard more easily now: “That’s it! Right! Engage fourth! Accelerate! That’s it! Give it to her! ACCELERATE!”

And mate, I sure do. Finally, simply easing my foot up and pulling on the brake, we stop. That was so much fun I can hardly stand up straight. Climbing out, Howard looks less like Dad after my first driving lesson; I did okay in the end. In fact, in the eight years he’s been doing this, there’s only been one person Howard’s had to actually stop – a serving major in the army. Couldn’t take direction. Women are often the best drivers, Howard reckons.

Now it’s a simple matter of putting my helmet back on one last time and posing for the camera. At the end of the course everyone gets a camouflaged certificate with a triumphant Polaroid in front of their conquered vehicle. It’s a damn nice souvenir for one of scariest and most fun days you’ll have in a long while. But driving your old Ford’s never going to be the same.

you’ll need: A full drivers’ license, preferably with manual experience. Tough shoes and long pants.
cost: $325 half-day course, weekends only, booking essential. A cheaper option is the 15min Saracen ride ($14 adults, $8 children).
phone: (03) 5973 4342
email: hbull@bigpond.net.au
address: Ace Hi Ranch, Boneo Road, Cape Schanck, Victoria.