After 67 years, production of the iconic Land Rover Defender ends today. It’s an amazing feat that the Defender has lasted this long. It was a utilitarian vehicle developed at a time when going off-roading meant just going. It helped Europe rebuild after World War II. And it explored Africa, where often the Land Rover was the first automobile ever seen by locals. It continued that way for years, undergoing constant but slow evolution, rather than complete revolution.
Rather than boring everyone with interesting quasi-factual trivia about Land Rover’s most iconic model, I’ll bore you with my own personal experiences.
It was the summer of 2000 and I was about to enter my final semester in college. It was going to be a tough one; I needed to complete 21 credits that fall to make up for all the car fixing and skirt chasing I did when I should have been studying. Being that it was likely my final year in school, this would be my last proper summer as a student before entering the exciting world of engineering.
So, I decided to make my summer special.
Through a group of worldly travelers and explorers I’d met though my mother, I managed to book a four-week-long trip to southern Africa. It wasn’t going to be a vacation; it was going to be a safari — an expedition, if you will. No hotels, no restaurants, no lounging on the beach. We, a group of 11 and two tour guides comprised of a husband-and-wife team, would be going into the wild with two vehicles: a Land Rover Defender 110 and a Toyota Land Cruiser 70 series.
The diesel Defender was a 5-door wagon equipped with a water tank in the rear bumper, a big roof rack, a brush guard, off-road lights and a new set of all-terrain tires. In the back was a fridge and storage for camping and vehicle essentials. Tents and luggage, limited to one bag per person, would be strapped to the roof. Five people would ride in the Landy. Being the youngest and fittest, I was assigned the duty of loading and unloading the roof-mounted accoutrements.
The Land Cruiser was a regular cab pickup with something resembling a camper on its back — except said camper housed six seats. Headrests, seat belts and roll-over protection were absent — and no one cared. Its huge roof rack held more luggage. There were no winches, special skid plates, light bars, oversized tires, or any of catalog-ordered off-road junk people love to slap onto their 4x4s. Six people sat in the camper and one in the cab beside the driver/guide.
We started in Cape Town and ventured north to Namibia, which is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth. It was there we stayed at Etosha National Park, a quintessential wildlife reserve teeming with animals living uninterrupted by man. Campgrounds were fenced in. Watering holes were amazing theaters where animals, after patiently waiting until their natural predators disappeared, carefully walked onto the stage for a drink.
Throughout the trip, which took us further north and east along the Angolan border, we stopped at numerous parks where we camped on open ground. We were even occasionally visited by hyenas that would attempt to steal our food. Leaving the tent at night was a strict no-no, as many mornings we would awake to animal tracks left by lions, elephants and all kinds of animals that walked within inches of us as we slept soundly.
It’s a funny thing with those animals; they seem to think of cars and tents as rocks. Except for some elephants and ostriches, no animal ever approach the cars. Same with tents, unless they’re left open; animals would just walk on by. I found that amazing.
Okavango Delta is a place you might have seen on Top Gear’s Botswana special. It’s a vast open area of grass and water with random islands of trees in between. It was here that we encountered the African animal most dangerous to humans, the hippopotamus, and saw a pride of lionesses hunt their prey with frightening efficiency as if they were Special Operations Forces taking down laser-painted targets. It was a place where time stopped. It made me wonder and re-evaluate everything about life — and the world in which we live.
We continued east towards the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. There, near the city of Livingstone, are the famous 300-foot high Victoria Falls – which are not tallest or biggest, but certainly the most spectacular. The city itself is an interesting mix of people from all over the world, with crazy young Aussies gathering the most attention. It was there we did something amazing: white-water rafting on the crocodile-infested Zambezi River. While that may seem dangerous, the crocs were only near still water pools, and not the rapids where many of us ended up once we were tossed from the boat.
Our trip concluded in a rather unglamorous way at an airport terminal in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the course of that trip, our vehicles climbed mountains, drove through fine desert sand, and forded rivers. They were our homes and our ultimate mobile entertainment. Without them — without the first Series I, its grandson that was our mighty Land Rover Defender, and the other vehicles that the Series I inspired — this trip and many like it would have been impossible.
Cheers, old mate.