The eccentricities of our vehicle
“Legendary. For work, for adventure. 65 years on and still going strong. Welcome; you haven't just procured a vehicle of comfort and capability; you've joined a select group of drivers with a spirit of adventure.”
So read excerpts from the landrover.co.nz web site, written for the new owners of today’s land rovers. The words might well have been penned to apply to us, about to set out on a journey of 10,500 kilometres in a land rover from Cape Town to Nairobi.
A little bit of potted history before we begin. Land Rover is the second oldest four-wheel-drive car brand in the world after Jeep. Since 1948 over two million worldwide have been produced. They originated in Britain in 1947 when Maurice Wilks drew a picture of his plans in the sand on a beach in Wales where he was on holiday. He wanted a vehicle that would be suitable for the farmer but also for the general public, a do-anything automobile for the beach, the farm and even the army, whom he later interested in his project. With a strong box chassis and permanent 4 wheel drive, they were very stable and able to drive through the roughest terrain. Early models were coloured khaki green using World War 2 army surplus paint.
In 2008 the then owners, Ford, sold the company to the Indian multinational Tata, who, in 2013, announced that production would end in December 2015, after a continuous run of 67 years. All land rover lovers should rise to their feet for a minute of silence to mourn their demise.
We stood looking at our 1998 Defender Land Rover in the courtyard of the Breakwater Lodge in Cape Town, an iconic image of the colonial safari way of life. ‘Landie’ sat alongside two other land rovers, one our guides' vehicle, and the other our travel companions’. A square cream box on high wheels, topped with a large metal roof rack carrying spare tyres, extra diesel fuel, emergency water and the oblong case for the Oz tent. Owners of Africa Expedition Support, Debs and Timo, had shipped her from England to Mombasa, and then driven her to Nairobi to join their fleet of other land rovers. They changed out an assortment of parts, adding new shocks, a new radiator, larger tyres and more comfortable bucket seats from the Discovery range.
We were to learn her eccentricities, both agreeable and less so. She was manual, not automatic like most modern cars we drive, and so required more user interaction in the driving process. Martin found that the clutch was stiff and third gear occasionally needed his full force to move it. I will leave you to imagine the muttering that accompanied such efforts. Modern air conditioning and ventilation was non-existent, with an open window the only source of fresh air. Land rover designers, in their wisdom, had placed the window winder handle low down on the front door, somewhere in the vicinity of the accelerator for the driver. You had to grope in the depths to find the handle before frantically winding up the window to prevent the dust from an oncoming vehicle pouring in. Martin’s request that the handle be shifted was not met with any enthusiasm by our guides. There was an upside. Without any electronic mechanisms to get clogged up with dust, the manual windows always obediently opened to the turn of the handle.
When it rained, our land rover leaked; for example, in the front passenger area, in the corner of the door and the front wind screen. With heavy rain, a puddle soon developed at my feet. The old window vents in the ceiling could no longer be opened because of the roof rack on the outside, but they leaked in wet weather. Another issue was storage. Our model had no glove box, dashboard shelf or cubby hole in the front door, so there was a shortage of storage space in the front seat for all those small items that tended to float around – sun cream, barley sugars, camera batteries, tooth brush charger, tissues, water bottle, lip gloss, snack logs, rubber bands and so on.
But it wasn’t all negative. Don’t imagine we resented our Landie and her limitations. We became very attached to her, feeling quite possessive towards her. She was ours, even if only for eight weeks. There were numerous good features. The suspension was excellent, a bonus on the rough bumpy roads of Africa, and the seats were as a comfortable as any modern sedan car, another bonus for the many hours of driving that we experienced. The big wheels positioned the land rover well off the ground and you could travel over many an irregular surface with deep, muddy ruts without flooring out. Of course, the height of the vehicle necessitated grabbing hold of the inside handle above the door and hoisting oneself energetically from the ground into the seat in order to make an entrance. But at least I had some daily exercise in the otherwise sedentary occupation of riding in the front.
Between the two seats was an old frig box converted into a cupboard. It provided some storage space for the car manual, the route folder and our camera equipment. The bags of potato chips, the boiled lollies and the sun cream did tend to get lost in its depths, but it was very useful. Between the box and the back bench seat was stowed the new little frig, very effective for cooling drinks and lunches, as long as the motor was running.
There were several other very handy pieces of equipment. We were linked to our ‘mother’ vehicle and to each other by radio, allowing the exchange of information whenever we wished. Like “Graham , I think you have gone the wrong way” or “look over there, it’s not a stone, it’s a rhino” or “watch out, vicious speed bumps ahead”. Our radio played up from time to time, underlining its importance when we had to manage without it. We also had an inverter to charge our batteries – cameras, toothbrush, laptop, notebook. It might have been deepest darkest Africa, but we still had our mod cons with us. The inverter, with its annoying wires and cords in all directions, was really important, especially if we were not able to recharge batteries at the camp sites.
We were a small group, just three vehicles. Judy and Graham, our travelling companions, were given a green land rover with a rather interesting number plate. The numbers were preceded by a blue panel containing the round circle of the 12 stars of the European Union and the letters RO. What did it mean, we all wanted to know? Debs and Timo had purchased it from a Romanian traveller on his way around Africa. Part way on his intended journey, he decided to end his travels and return home and so he sold it to Africa Expedition Support. We dubbed Judy and Graham ‘the Romanians’. Aussies from Adelaide, they were of a similar age to ourselves and proved to be agreeable and convivial fellow travellers.
In the third land rover were our ‘minders’, Eddie, our chief guide and cook, and Jan, 25 years his junior, his driver and the mechanic for the vehicles. They were both of South African extraction, Eddie probably with more English heritage and Jan from Afrikaans stock. Both had lots of experience in the African overland tourist trade and could regale us with hilarious or fanciful tales of their days as overland leaders up and down the highways of Africa. Eddie had also served as a conservation ranger in South Africa for some years and had a wealth of knowledge about the flora and fauna we met on the trip. Whatever we wanted to know, Eddie seemed to know, from the ancient Welwitschia of the Namibian desert to the differentiations of the four types of giraffe through Africa. Along with the lifestyle went certain unconventionalities of character, like Eddie’s love of bare feet whether it was on hot desert sands or dirty village footpaths. The only concession was to life in the city, when shoes would appear. Both did their best to keep us out of trouble and make our trip stimulating and enjoyable.
I presume their land rover had been specially modified for the purpose of a leader vehicle, equipped with breakdown gear, tool kits and spare parts, should we get into a spot of bother. There were no windows in the back or behind, securely hiding all their gear, which included dried and fresh food. A large refrigeration cupboard provided storage for the meat, milk, cheese and yogurt which they regularly purchased along the way.
We were well looked after. When I saw the overland trucks disgorging their occupants, I had to acknowledge how fortunate we were. Four travellers, with a vehicle to each couple and two guides as our escorts and chaperons – we were privileged nomads for the next eight weeks.