Thursday 26 April 2018

'Deep in my stomach, I had a chill of fear for days' - What happened when I drove across the deepest (frozen) lake on earth

Motoring Editor Eddie Cunningham drove across the extraordinary Lake Baikal in Siberia in Mazda's CX-5 AWD

Mazda CX-5 AWD
Mazda CX-5 AWD
Mazda CX-5 AWD
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

And so a short while after the Beast came west, we went east - to Siberia - to drive a car on snow, ice and across a frozen inland fresh water lake.

Wouldn't you think I'd be sick of slip-sliding snow at this stage? It's spring and there are cars to be driven under normal conditions.

But when rare special permission is granted to drive through Siberian forests and across the world's largest expanse of fresh water (mostly frozen, thankfully), it is hard to resist the mixture of excitement and fear evoked.

It is a drive and a test no other car manufacturer has been able to stage. Mazda somehow managed to do so. And that's why I'm reporting from Irkutsk, in deep Siberia, just north of Mongolia, west of China, east of Kazakhstan and 7,000kms from Dublin. This is Siberia, for real remote.

Mazda CX-5 AWD
Mazda CX-5 AWD

Out here are the sort of challenges and environs I've always wanted to experience. Russia has had a fascination for me ever since listening to my father telling us fireside stories about the country, its myriad peoples, climates and cultures. His particular favourites were the Cossacks and their wonderful skills with horses.

It was horsepower of a different hue here, with all the driving done in Mazda's popular compact crossover the CX-5 (recently announced as one of three in the shake-up for World Car of the Year).

What we faced would be a big challenge for your traditional, rugged 4x4 beast at the best of times, but Mazda was confident we'd make it in the mid-sized urban (yes urban) SUV.

Naturally, you need all-wheel drive (AWD) and in -20C temperatures, appropriate tyres too, in our case studded. But nothing extraordinary other than that.

The centrepiece of our adventure was the extraordinary Lake Baikal, near Irkutsk (pop nearly 600,000) a wondrous 25 million years old natural phenomenon. It is 636km long, 20km/80km wide, the deepest lake on Earth (1,700 metres) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two thirds of the 1,700 species of plants and animals here are found nowhere else. The lake holds 20pc of all the unfrozen fresh water in the entire world.

Deep in my stomach, I'd had a chill of fear for days. Yes, there were teams of people checking to make sure the ice was thick enough and all that. But the sheer thought of 1,700m of water beneath an 80cm coating of ice fostered fear and devilment in equal measure. I can't swim. I have a dread of water. I shiver crossing a river bridge, but bucket lists and all that.

Mazda CX-5 AWD
Mazda CX-5 AWD

Life is unpredictable everywhere, but more so in areas of extremes, as we were to find out.

The plan was to start in nearby Listvyanka, cross the lake and move through the frozen forest on the Trans Siberian Highway before finishing in Ulan Ude in the Republic of Buryatia. Mother Nature had other ideas.

Mazda was to be justified in calling this an Epic Drive. Not just about them showing what their AWD technology could do in coping with the worst of conditions. It was also about finding out if we, the humans, had the skill, the guts and the nerve.

There has to be a certain amount of Hail Mary, fingers-crossed, blind faith when you have to accelerate to 50/60kmh to burst through snow mounds. And there have to be subtle, tiny adjustments to keep traction on slippy-glass ice. It is a thin line between getting through and bogging down.

Mazda told us there were risks involved, as if we didn't know. But the safety team, specialists in driving on Lake Baikal, surveyed the ice prior to driving as well as accompanying us, a reassuring presence in a six-wheel monster.

We were told not to wear our seatbelts, not to lock the doors and to leave everything if the car started to sink. They reckon you have two minutes before submersion. And I'd say a few seconds after it to survive the cold. We tried not to think about it.

What was to be a tough enough looking four-hour crossing stretched to near eight hours of diversions and new route trials in the face of deteriorating conditions. With snow getting heavier and a wind shaving in from the east, at one stage it was not looking good at all.

A severe crack in the ice blocked our weary path, necessitating a diversion and a bridge of canvas and wood being thrown down to get us over.

Those Mazda CX-5s took a real hammering, shuddering on impact with massively uneven surfaces beneath the deceptive snow.

But they kept coming back for more as we swung to avoid sharp shocks of re-frozen ice jutting fangs into anything that dared traverse them.

Without a seatbelt it was a matter of hanging onto the steering wheel or, in the case of the passenger, the grab handle, and hoping for the best.

We got out a few times, mindful of warnings about just how slippery the ice could be. A few of those ahead have sore bums this week, I'd say.

In the cabin, waiting for word of our next move, my colleague and I wondered if we'd get off the lake before dark. To divert ourselves we talked about how such an 'ordinary' (meant as a compliment) car as the CX-5 could battle so well in those conditions.

The thing about driving a car with AWD is that you take it for granted at home. As you know, AWD gives power to the wheel(s) with most traction to avoid others spinning needlessly. Seldom has it been pushed this hard, I'd say.

It's only human, but when confronted with adversity, you grow fond of whatever it is you hope can deliver you. We grew really fond of the CX-5.

But we worked hard too. Confronted by the choice of ploughing through formidable terrain or giving up and being swallowed by the virginal snow mounds, I powered every sinew's worth of steer, acceleration, lift-off and driving sense to keep going - sometimes barely able to see two car lengths ahead.

With no food, no drink, no toilets, this was a little taste of privation. It surely sharpened our sense of fear and adventure. At times our hearts sank; at times other vehicles spun to a sinking halt into embracing snow. Our gritty Russian experts circled, towed, found new pathways.

Inch by inch we ground down 72kms of a route only traversed once previously. Not once did the AWD in our CX-5, with its 2.5-litre petrol engine - yes petrol - ever feel it wasn't up to the job.

And then, when it seemed forever had come and gone, we sighted land. "Land," I shouted. "Land". Thank you God and the saint of frozen lakes.

But wait. We still had a good bit to go and still needed the courage of our convictions that the car would get us there. Shovels dug paths to a bumpy line for the shore. Only an hour earlier, our walkie talkie squadron leader told us there was a kilometre of water beneath the ice where we'd all halted. Gulp!

And then ... Adieu Lake Baikal; we will never forget you.

Dry land brought elation, as did being only the second in history to have successfully negotiated that particular route. One backward glance to live with us for ever and we were onto 200kms of the Trans-Siberian Highway, where trucks clung to the umbilical cord connection between Russia east and Russia west. Lengthy trains slid by on the Trans-Siberian railway alongside us. We were, despite our exhaustion, filled with a sense of the region's vastness and history. It was mystique made real by people and nature.

Hunger, thirst and bladder pangs bade us stop at the first 'cafe' we spotted, but even our extreme needs couldn't persuade us to loiter. Around 50km further, we found a fuel station. Culinary choices were limited, but not life-threatening. I scoffed the longest Kit-Kat I've ever seen, a large bag of crisps, a bottle of water and a couple of bars of chocolates.

And then, Asia's great vista lifted. Ulan-Ude opened its arms to us. Without getting out of snow boots, layers of clothing and the warmest of coats, we headed for dinner. We ate heartily of the ubiquitous Baikal omul fish intrinsic to every meal.

Emboldened, happy, relieved and slightly sad it was over, our need for diversion prompted a late-night visit to the largest sculpted head of Lenin in the world.

We were a little light-headed ourselves, despite the hour. Time and again, I came back to it. A compact SUV had not only whisked us from Europe to true Asia, it showed how technology we take for granted on our tarmac streets could deliver us through a hazardous, heavyweight physical battle with what lies beneath.

It was remarkable, memorable, humbling, euphoric and testament to a marque confident in its car's ability to overcome the challenge of what will always be, for me anyway, an epic drive.

The CX-5 AWD starts at €28,995 (2.0 petrol); Diesel starts at €31,495; AWD (2.2D 150bhp manual) from €35,995 for mid-grade). Top grade AWD (platinum 2.2D auto 175bhp with additional safety elements) €43,345. The new 2.5-litre petrol on our test cars will not be coming to Ireland in the CX-5, but will be an option in the heavily revised Mazda6 range, which is due in July

Indo Motoring

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