In Africa, Learning to Defend the Land Rover Defender
Turns out, the problem wasn’t with the truck, but with the poseurs who co-opted it.
I drove a US-Spec Land Rover Defender 90 once, as a teenager in the late 1990s. I thought it was an absolute piece of shit. Like the terrible H1 Hummer I’d come to own six years later, the Defender was clearly an appliance, an off-roading tool designed for the most specific of needs, and nothing else, culturally appropriated into a fashion accessory—just like today’s Mercedes G-Wagen. But unlike today’s twin-turbo G-Weezy’s, with their diamond-stitched leather, factory matte paint, and tolerances that would impress Holland & Holland, the US-Spec Defender had . . . nothing. A thirsty, unimpressive V8, uncomfortable seats, a terrible stereo, and ride quality like an oxcart, the Defender just made no sense when it was dropped on the US market for a couple of years, basically out of nowhere. As a kid, I’d seen maybe two or three Defenders before 1994, before, all of a sudden, they became the hot-ticket item in Westchester. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why. They left the US market in 1997 because they couldn’t be made safe enough for our standards, and 20 years later, they're the same vehicle, right? Until last week, I’ve maintained the opinion that the Defender sucks.
But context, as always, is king. And though a Defender makes no more sense in Westchester than a G-Wagen does in Beverly Hills, or a Hummer does in Manhattan, I’ve now experienced a new level of Defender context, and come away impressed—right in time for Land Rover to stop making them. Ain’t that a B?
Royal Malewane sits on the Thornybush Game Reserve, near but not inside the Kruger National Park in the northeastern corner of South Africa. It’s not quite as remote as the vast expanses of uninhabited Utah desert in which I’ve traveled to shoot landscape, but landing in a twin-engined six-seater on a silent, unmanned, dirt airfield certainly sold it well enough. I’ve been somewhat spoiled financially and seriously spoiled experientially for a lot of my life, and a family safari in Africa is no exception. We are greeted by Nik Vounnou, our Safari Guide. Nik is a former South African Safari Guide of the Year, and is joined by his tracker, Robert, who has a 20-year career in anti-poaching. They arrive planeside in a pair of Safari Green 2015 Land Rover Defender 127’s, slightly coachbuilt with stadium-style seating for nine, with the Royal Malewane logo emblazoned on the side in gold.
For the next four days, we will see lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and dozens of other species of African wildlife. We will not see pavement. And there’s no fashion here; khaki and green, comfortable socks, ugly hats. There’s no one to impress. And what’s the vehicle of choice, even in 2016? As new a Land Rover Defender as they will sell you. Open air, no roof at all, is the best way to experience a Defender. You completely forget the terrible ergonomics, since your entire upper body, especially your outside arm, can sit outside the vehicle, where there’s room. Like the Hummer, Defenders with hard roofs seem designed for people without arms.
Aside from their remarkably clean condition, there’s few indicators these Defenders are newer than 20 years old. Unlike the G-Wagen, which has a few "tells" nerds like me can use to date them, I’m stumped by the Landie’s age, and shocked when Nik tells me it’s a 2015. (I later saw an identical 2007 model, only the steering wheel was different, and not by much.) South African-market means Right Hand Drive, and their Defenders get a 2.2-Liter turbodiesel four-cylinder from parent overlord Tata, with a six-speed manual transmission. “I miss the old Ford 2.5 diesels we had before, but this gets the job done,” Nik says. It makes 120 horsepower, 260 lb-ft of torque, and motivates the lengthiest Land Rover with surprising gusto, especially considering Nik’s tendency to upshift at low RPM to keep things calm and not startle away animals with revving engines. Even without such luxuries as a roof, doors, windows, or a windshield, you could almost call the experience refined.
“They really should have been grading these roads the last few months, they're pretty rough right now—sorry about that,” Nik says as we travel eastward on a “2” trail (sort of guide-speak for a “b-road” in the bush). The dirt roads are rough; big rains and some unmaintained drainage areas have created deep ruts we have to slowly crawl through. Had he not mentioned it, I’d have barely noticed. Nik has repeatedly told us the rearmost seats of the Land Rover, which sit as much as a meter behind the rear axle, are by far the roughest place to be, and yet I’m finding it comfortable. On skinny, high-PSI tires, the Defender can billy-goat up steep, sandy grades, manage incredibly deep ruts, and rock-crawl with the best of them—and even hanging like a pendulum off the rear, I’m not broken.
Nik and Robby’s tracking skills are ridiculous. On departing the lodge, they’d banter back and forth in Tonga, Robby’s native tongue, and Nik would relay the message that someone had seen a male lion track on some trail, 20 miles away, the night before. There are hundreds of dirt roads criss-crossing the 65,000-acre Thornybush, unmarked but named, and the best place to start looking is to see where they cross the road. After that it’s into the bush, Robby on his spotter’s seat like a figurehead, armed with a machete to help save our faces from encroaching vegetation, while Nik maneuvers through, over, under, and in some cases, right into trees. Most of the time, the narrow track and reasonably good turning radius are enough to clear obstacles, but if not, the Landie’s toughness most certainly is. The noises coming from around and underneath this thing as it crashes its way through bush and rocks would drive someone like me mad; Nik and Robbie have no worries. On a break I stick my head underneath the truck to inspect the underbody. It, too, is impressively clean and dent-free, a fact which, considering the usage, is very impressive. Whatever single-stage paint they throw on these things, it works, because even though I’d spent an hour listening to scratches along the steel body, now, stopped, I can’t find any. Aside from a few nicks in the steel wheels’ green finish, you’d never guess this car had gone 18,000 kilometers under conditions like this.
The front brush guard, which mere minutes earlier had been used to move a tree out of the way, unfolds to reveal a tea table, which we actually use for morning tea. Maybe it wouldn’t be so out of place in Westchester after all?
Though the 2.2L Tata-based diesel engine proves quite frugal, using just under half a tank of fuel after seven different four-hour Safari drives, though it’s also quite dirty—an inescapable fact given the open-air nature of the journey. When stopped, Nik makes a point of shutting the car down not only so we can hear the world around us, rather than diesel clatter, but also so we don’t die of suffocation. Nevertheless, the quality of northern-South Africa’s diesel fuel is “highly variable,” and these Landie’s always run right, even on a crap tank. And though parts are available in most parts of South Africa, I’m told that none of Malewane’s eight Rovers have needed major repairs in the eighteen months they’ve been on the payroll. This is the exception, however, not the rule, as other South Africans make sure to mention, “You buy a Defender so you can get it fixed anywhere; you buy a Land Cruiser so you don’t have to fix it in the first place.”
So while I’ll still sneer at Defenders parked on Rodeo Drive, and will maintain contempt for their owners in the same way I do when I see the occasional H1 on Santa Monica Blvd, I’m changing my tune on the Defender itself. To experience one in the correct environment, on the correct continent, is to really appreciate what those trucks mean to the people whose livelihood depends on them—not just Safari guides and the tourism industry, but farmers, contractors, ranchers, parks maintenance crews, and construction workers who live and work where and how they can because of the long-lived, simple, and effective Land Rover Defender. And, at long last, on your way out, I will finally stand up and salute you. That’s a good truck indeed.