Cooper Discoverer - Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac: An Overlander Rookie Earns H

Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac: Backcountry Adventure

By Martin Spriggs

High in the desert hills of the Sierra La Libertad, lies a piece of history that helps tell the story of the colonization of the Baja California. The 17th century Jesuit Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac lies in a rare patch of green olive groves nestled between two natural springs in an otherwise barren cirque valley. Original ruins from the mission remain on the site today to tell their story for anyone who dares the road. Being in the area, I decided to dare.

I had recently acquired a Four Wheel Camper ‘Eagle’ from a dealer in Azusa, California. After driving from Alberta to southern California to pick up my new camper, being so close to the Baja, I decided I would venture further south to Mexico with my new over land vehicle. While stopped in Ensenada, I met a Californian who knew the Baja well and, after I said I would be travelling to Bahia de Los Angeles, he recommended I visit the Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac. He said the road could be brutal, but I would not be disappointed.

Figure 1: The ‘Eagle’s Nest’: Eagle pop up camper from Four Wheel Campers on a 2007 Ford Ranger FX4 Level II

Some in the over landing community would question the rationale of mounting the camper on a ten-year-old Ford Ranger chassis when there are newer trucks which, arguably, would make a more sensible and modern platform choice. Those who question my rationale do have a point and I agree with them. However, having owned the Ford Ranger and driven it reliably for ten years, it didn’t feel right to part with it. I had regularly maintained the vehicle and it had performed reasonably well in the ten years I owned it. Besides, I didn’t want to be a ‘throw away consumer’ who discards possessions as soon as something newer becomes available on the market. You know, like those cell phone replacing people who buy a new one every time a new one becomes available!

Before I left home, I did a suspension upgrade to ready the Ford Ranger for the camper. I added a full size leaf spring (acquired in a local junk yard for $75.00) to each side of the rear suspension, replaced the stock shocks all around with OES Spectrum and added Cooper Discoverer AT3’s. A modest upgrade, but I didn’t want to commit to an expensive upgrade if it wasn’t necessary. I haven’t ruled out further upgrades to the suspension upon returning home. I also sprayed the truck bed with Line-X, another recommendation from the good people at Four Wheel Campers.

Figure 2: The road to San Borja, described on the map as a ‘Primary rural dirt road’: This was the nice section.

As a relative novice to over landing in the civilian world, I do have off road and four wheel driving experience from my years in the Canadian Army. As a young soldier in the mid 1980’s, I was trained to drive an assortment of four wheeled, soft skinned, ¼-2½ ton vehicles and six-eight wheeled, 11-14 ton, armoured fighting vehicles. In those days, driver training in the army was hands on and comprehensive. Drivers were taught how to navigate all types of terrain in any weather condition, including blackout drive at night, with and without night vision devices. Drivers were also taught how to recover errant vehicles from precarious situations, usually caused by the student drivers.

It was during this training I learned an important lesson for off road driving which remains with me, to this day. While navigating a Chevy 5/4 ton through a mud hole at speed, I remember my army driving instructor warning me of the dangers of keeping my thumbs wrapped around the inside of the steering wheel. No sooner had I heeded his advice and removed them from the inside of the wheel, the front suspension hit a solid mass hidden beneath the mud, sending the steering wheel into a frenzy of violent left and right rotations. Once we successfully crossed the mud hole, the grizzled old sergeant turned to me and calmly said, “That’s why we never keep thumbs in the center of the wheel”.

Figure 3: The mountains of the Sierra La Libertad

The road to San Borja was an adventure. The first few kilometers of soft sand lures the driver into a false sense of a smooth journey ahead. It’s not long before reality sets in and the sand gives way for shale rock and finally softball to football-sized boulders, rounded by millions of years of wind and water erosion. Heavy rock and undulating road surfaces limited vehicle speed to below 10 kilometres an hour for the majority of the drive.

A couple of short steep inclines challenged the vehicle to crest. I was glad I had four-wheel drive to assist in the climbs as there is neither the space to take a run at the inclines or the road condition to allow for such a run. Climbing one of these inclines, the front suspension struck a boulder that sent the steering wheel spinning. With a quarter century lapsed between my driver training in the army and my assault on San Borja, I am glad I still followed my army driving instructor’s advice!

After traversing four mountain passes, the road crests one last ridge and finally gives way to an oasis of greenery nestled in a small mountain bowl, surrounded on three sides by wind eroded peaks. After two hours on a brutal road, the dusty mission at San Borja is a welcome sight.

Figure 4: Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac: Dominican church erected in 1801 and abandoned in 1818.

First established in 1762 by Jesuit missionaries, the Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac became an important departure point for Jesuit expeditions moving north up the Baja Peninsula. After the Jesuits were expelled in 1776, Franciscans took over the mission until they too were replaced by the Dominicans. The large stone church erected in 1801 by the Dominicans still stands today, painstakingly excavated and restored by the Indian family who have lived on this land for seven generations. It was abandoned in 1818 due to the ‘decline of the Indian population’ after disease from the European colonists decimated the indigenous populations.

Following a great one on one tour of the mission by the local custodian, I made a small charitable donation and bid the owners farewell. Another two-hour overland journey awaited me. Halfway back, I noticed the camper was rocking from side to side more than usual. I stopped the truck and inspected the turnbuckles to find three loose and one completely off. Needless to say, some roadside maintenance took place and the turnbuckles were squared away.

Figure 5: Zorro Fox

Closer to base camp, a Zorro Fox scurried across the road. As an amateur wildlife photographer, I live for these moments! I stopped the truck and grabbed my camera with a zoom lens and took chase. I stalked it for a little while until I had good enough light from the fading sun to shoot. I was amazed how the fox’s natural mix of colours blended into it’s background for excellent camouflage. Patience paid off and I captured the Zorro Fox while it was sitting nicely for me. I bid Zorro goodbye and made my way back to the truck.

All in all, the quest for adventure in the Sierra La Libertad was a worthy accomplishment. Not only was my thirst for adventure quenched, but I learned the history of the Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac from a descendant of the people who built the original Jesuit church, almost three hundred years ago. I avoided trauma to my thumbs by heeding an old lesson learned and I was able to satisfy my photographic desires by capturing wildlife in the desert. For anyone who visits the area, I recommend daring the road less taken. You won’t be disappointed.
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