The invite was definitely something out of the blue. Would I like to join the team of Toyota’s Five Continents Drive on their Oman leg? A quick mental calculation put me in town at exactly the right time and my acceptance was instant.
Why the excitement, you may ask? Toyota Motor Corporation began this annual ritual four years ago in Australia at a time when Akio Toyoda, the company’s president, had stepped in with hands-on mentoring of the company and its brands as it faced competition from the Volkswagen group for number one spot. The concept, as explained by Toyodasan himself was seen as both radical and yet necessary. A team of Toyota personnel, drawn from various disciplines, functions and levels of hierarchy would connect with local faces of the brand and travel through the five continents of the world as symbolised by the Olympic logo.
The aim was, and continues to be, to connect to products and consumers in the region, through the local importer, offices, dealers and other facilities, while experiencing first-hand the terrain and uses the products are put to by the user. As Toyodasan says in one of the introductory videos we saw, he encourages the team to keep their ‘sensors’ active for feedback and first-hand knowledge.
In keeping with the spirit of adventure and the unique skill sets that are required on the drive, the entire project is handled by Toyota Gazoo Racing, but is by no means limited to the offshoot.
Back to the big day in Oman and we were introduced to the team that comprised a variety of personnel drawn in from Toyota’s Japanese facilities, joining hands with an almost equal number of staff from the Oman importer – the Saud Bahwan Group. Introductions were kept short and to the point and we discovered that a person’s designation in the Toyota 5CD team had almost no relation to their seniority within the automaker. And the legendary flat reporting structure was only amplified here. It was also a charm to see how the two representatives from JTB (Japan Travel Bureau), Satosan and Yoshidasan were integrated into the team.
The morning’s briefing, begun by Suzukisan, the expedition’s leader, was to explain the whole concept once again and to allot people to cars, with each of the five core “Toyota 5 Continents Drive” cars getting two designated drivers, one local and one visiting. Coincidentally, Oman was the second leg of the project’s trip through Asia, the last of the continents, with the journey ending in Tokyo in 2020 in time for the Olympic Games. The visitors had not been able to drive in Saudi Arabia (the first leg) and were raring to get a feel of Oman’s legendary off-road terrain in the mix of Land Cruiser 200, Prado and Fortuner we were in.
A quick check of the cars and a remarkably short send off ceremony that involved a director from the importer and Miyamotosan from Toyota’s regional HQ in Dubai, who had flown in just for the occasion, keeping their speeches to the primary importance of safety. That was the underlying message all through the drive.
And we’re off!
The first leg of the journey was to end at Sur that evening. But driving down there on the butter smooth coastal highway would have been just too easy. First stop Amerat, the suburb of Muscat that sits just south of Wattayah and the rest of Muscat city, separated by a fringe of the Hajar mountains. The vehicles were tanked up and it was here that the JTB guys popped up to take on the role of host, paying for meals and tea. Slowly, you begin to see how the Toyota system works.
From there, the leisurely drive down to Quriyat brought us to our next compulsory rest stop. You learn some more – safety means following the rule book and no one was in a tearing hurry anyway. After all, even Toyota were taking five years to conquer five continents. From there our support car took off early to scout the path and location of Wadi Al Abrayeen. That takes us part of the way down the coastal highway and down the exit ramp onto a hard packed dirt road. You need to watch the signage even on the dirt track or you’ll wander around a bit, but there was no sense of worry anyway since we were in an LC 200 piloted by our designated driver, Gikan (that’s Grand Master) Kanamorisan.
Wadi Al Abrayeen is typical of the highly scenic, often dramatic, villages that make up Oman’s hinterland. Blessed with a location in a bowl of mountains, not far from the Salma Plateau and boasting a natural water way that wends off in the distance to empty itself out in the sea, Wadi al Abrayeen also has the other features that make Omani villages so appealing – bemused locals who are ready to drop everything and chat with you, or indeed jump into their ute and guide you to your destination, cerulean blue swimming areas with only a hint of litter around and the stark craggy outcrops that remind you that the Hajar range really has along reach. And the ever present Falaj irrigation channels.
By the time the rest of the team joined us, I managed a few choice shots of the hideaway, joining in with the photography as the team made the obligatory water splash through the wadi. Team photos done and we were now off to the next stop – again a rest stop along the coastal highway at Qalhat and then in to Sur. As I had chance to observe to the visitors later that evening at the debriefing in Sur, they missed a few rather scenic spots, like the Bhimah sinkhole and Wadi Shaab – but then the logistics wouldn’t have worked out.
What a Day?
Typically of the team, check-in at the hotel didn’t mean end of work. We were herded straight into a meeting room where the gentlemen tasked with collection of feedback, data and analysis took each car’s inputs from the car leaders. Now you have to remember that the whole process was in two languages, Japanese and English so that everyone knew who was going on.
A lot of furious note-taking was going on, when the almost universal positive messages from car leaders reached the folks who were in the Fortuners. “A little bouncy”, “could do with better brakes”, “should have the Prado’s engine”… slowly the feedback became more realistic and the discussion opened up. Now remember, I’m just an outside observer, but I can see Toyodasan’s comment about sensors come alive. All the visiting team are making furious notes as local team members try to pitch the Fortuner as the smallest, yet most affordable true SUV of the Land Cruiser marque. And I’m loving it, the usually staid and close-lipped Toyota family have accepted that I’m there, yet they do their job.
And to top it all, they even seek feedback from me! I try to keep it short and to the point and use the opportunity to reiterate my already published views on the Toyota Fortuner:
- It’s not a true desert or tough terrain off-roader like the other two, so stop treating it like it should be.
- The Toyota Fortuner is a derivative of the HiLux pickup focussed IMV platform. That rear axle is meant to be loaded. But with rigid springing you’ll get bounce when unloaded, bounce that digs wheels into sand.
- The Toyota Fortuner is remarkably popular as a high end SUV in South Asian countries. But the engine of choice is the D4D diesel with high torque. Not likely to appeal here. But with that engine, no one will ever say it is underpowered.
And then my two bits of sage-like advice, “there’s obviously a need for a smaller retail-consumer SUV, sitting between the RAV4 and Prado. It’s time to design that.”
Day two and no, it’s not like you think – there was no drinking. The hangover was my feeling of things winding up as I was only slated to stick around till mid-day or so with the support car that would head for Bidiyah and its undulating sands while the rest of the team would head off southwards from Sur, to Al Ashkarah, Mahoot and so on till they came back by the long route to their planned overnight halt at Bidiyah sands.
In the meantime, we took the straight route through Al Wasil, past the almost hidden turn off for the alluring springs of Wadi Bani Khalid and off through the maze of roadworks that are going on to convert the entire Muscat to Sur interior highway into a multilane.
We stop at the desert camp, have a tea and then we’re off to mark out a route through the sands for tomorrow’s planned routine. It’s when we’re halfway up a dune with our wheels stuck in the sand for the first time that both I and the local part of the team in the car look at each other with the realisation that our guests have no idea of the intricacies of driving on soft sand. A gentle coughed reminder to apply the diff lock and stay in low gear, was to be followed sometime later by a suggestion that we really needed to deflate the tyres.
Somewhat better, but that only meant we went further into the sands to get stuck again, this time well and truly. After sacrificing a blanket to the dune monster (we never located it once it went down) and a lot of digging, a friendly local passing by in an older Land Cruiser, smelt an opportunity, rubbed us down for Ten Rials and towed us out. It was only later when we got back to the desert camp to cool off and tuck into our pre-packed snack boxes we had hauled all the way from Sur, that we learnt he made quite a bit of money out of being a good samaritan.
It was almost time for me to head back into Muscat, to freshen up at home and head to the airport for my next assignment. The support car was headed out again, to get it right this time. Hopefully.
Did I feel the Drive?
Did I? Of course. But then I was and am a sucker for stuff like factory visits, technology seminars and even motivational talks. So here I had hit gold. I could see not just the cause being justified, but the way it genuinely works as a harvester of relevant data.
An example was the amount of thought that went into listening to my feedback on the Fortuner and the way in which my suggestion that they wait for a second car to pair up in the reconnoitre of the sands or that they use the services of the Rial-munching local as guide, were politely considered and put aside. The job had to be done.
From the sight of a preponderance of Toyota branded vehicles out in the villages, being used to haul families and produce with equal aplomb, to the way in which the effort effectively team builds, forcing responsibility and problem solving on employees, the team had multiple takeaways.
They met fishermen who use the Land Cruiser II pickup as a tool to haul nets, transport fish and so on. They were further headed on to the core of the Hajar range around Jabal Shams and Jabal Akhdar after their desert stint. After all there was a lot to pack in over the four days that they would be in Oman, the longest leg of the Arabian journey. Next stop Kuwait.
Finally, the Toyota Five Continents Drive brings out the importance of people in the auto major’s equation. To me, that single point tops all others.
As I thundered down the runway off to my next destination, I couldn’t help but think that the team from Japan would find the rest of the peninsula a downward journey after the stunning landscape of the Sultanate.