African camaraderie around a fire and the iconic Land Rover Defender

Published Apr 3, 2024


Having spent our first day at Mmokolodi Primary School focusing on conservation, Right to Sight and a soccer match with Kingsley Holgate, his son Ross, his partner Sheelagh and members of the Botswana Land Rover Club, we headed out to an open field just outside the city as the sun set over the African Continent.

This was the beginning of the second leg of their Afrika Odyssey (read about part one here), an expedition to connect 22 game parks managed by the conservation NGO African Parks in partnership with the government of each country.

They would now be heading into West Africa to some very treacherous waters that include the Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Benin.

It was billed as wild camping but as we were setting up camp a Toyota Hilux, rather out of place between more than 25 Land Rovers, arrived towing a portable toilet with two flushing porcelain thrones.

It was the beginning of an evening with some of the most magnificent hospitality, camaraderie, humour and building of friendships that I’ve experienced in a long time.

It made no difference whether you were English, Afrikaans, Setswana, black or white, everyone had a passion for the Land Rover brand and more specifically the Defender.

The Holgates explore in a new Defender D300 130 and the rest of us hold onto our TDi 200s, 300s, TD5s and Pumas or, as most wives and partners call them, “the money pit”.

Kingsley and his crew held sway as they weaved a tapestry of trials, tribulations, AK47s in their faces, being taken “prisoner” and victories across the continent and indeed the world.

Members of the Botswana group regaled us of their travels to some of the magnificent parks in Botswana and of course all the issues, large and small, that Defender owners have to contend with. All of it with much mirth mind you.

Chairperson Sharpe Kamutati with his two sons dubbed Sharpe one and two, told us that owning a Defender is like having a sick family member, you don’t just abandon them.

Sharpe one is on his way to flight school at Wonderboom, Pretoria and Sharpe two intends to study archeology when he matriculates this year. It’s the same course my son started in February at Pretoria University so I gave him my number in the event he wants more information.

In true African style we tucked into meat fresh off the fire with our hands, poured drinks and swapped Land Rover stories until the early hours of the morning.

The next day was a mad dash along the Trans-Kalahari Highway towards the Namibian border, but not before Kingsley had taken out the big Scroll for Conservation and asked members of the club to write a message to add to the hundreds of pages already filled with messages from community leaders and beneficiaries, park rangers, conservation partners and government envoys.

I climbed in next to Kingsley who was riding shotgun with Sheelagh in the back taking care of biltong, droëwors, and snack bars.

We covered a diverse range of topics that included politics, the state of various African countries, travel and accommodation advice, exploration, Landies and found out we had an almost obsessive interest in World War II.

The Trans-Kalahari Highway is a magnificent stretch of tar road that provides a direct route From Pretoria through Botswana, into Namibia passing through Windhoek and ending in Walvis Bay.

We needed to get as close to the border as possible before sunset so I pushed the Defender hard using the adaptive cruise control to stay under the radar from keen Botswana cops.

Cooldrink money will get you locked up there.

The average consumption stood at 13l/100km which is damn good considering how heavy the Defender was and the amount of wind resistance from the roof rack loaded with a tent, spare wheel and a pile of equipment needed when you’re adventuring for thousands of kilometres into Africa.

About 50 kilometres from the Buitepos border crossing Ross pulled off a few 100 metres into the bush and found a clearing for us to eat, drink and continue our discussions before eventually retiring to bed.

Look, I know going to the head with a spade and a toilet roll and showering with a bucket isn’t everyone’s idea of a memorable trip, but for me, sitting around a campfire with a cold drink, the smell of a braai and good company trumps 5-star accommodation and Michelin chef food every day.

You also get to appreciate a flushing toilet, being able to wash your hands under a tap, clean sheets, a long shower or soaking bath a lot more when you return.

Team Kingsley Holgate Land Rover Defender 130

Another no-nonsense border crossing saw us on a three and a half hour drive to Hosea Kutako International Airport just outside Windhoek followed by a coffee and our final goodbyes to an amazing trio.

As far as my experiences go as a seasoned motoring journalist that’s had the privilege to attend lavish launches across the globe, this one rates, without a doubt, in the top three.

I’ve also had time to reflect since my return and a couple of things struck me.

Obviously the Defender comes to mind first.

Trolls and a number of YouTubers have slated it for not being an expedition vehicle into the great unknown because of the extraordinary amount of electronic gizmos that could go wrong.

Yes, obviously that’s a risk, but in the +40 000km during the first section of the Afrika Odyssey the only issue they had was a loose sensor on one of the front wheels after many thousands of kilometres on some of the worst corrugations they have encountered in their travels.

And no, the car didn’t go into limp mode, in fact since they have switched back to the new Defenders in the last few years they haven’t had a single fatal breakdown.

Here’s the thing though.

The new Defender is expensive and out of reach for many of us that have a passion for it and everything it stands for.

The cheapest 90 locally starts at R1,515,100 and it tops out the 24 Defender versions with the V8 130 at R3,015,700.

It’s not JLRs fault. They have to move metal to stay profitable and the Defender shoots the lights out by leading JLR’s figures by a substantial margin.

Compare that with a couple of thousand sold in the last year of production of the previous generation in 2016.

My fear, but also the reality, is that eventually it will die out as parts become more scarce, repair knowledge fades and a generation forgets its heritage.

It’s like the Volkswagen Beetle that saw more than 21 million produced.

When was the last time you saw one on the road?

I have a plan in mind when I eventually hang up my accredited motoring journalist lanyard.

It involves a lot of adventures across our borders and continues with my local exploration, so I follow overlanders, 4x4 enthusiasts and travellers religiously on social media.

Jinne mense, some of them are kitted to the hilt and are so accessorised that it looks like an apartment on wheels, and costs about the same.

And that’s not taking into account the myriad of offroad trailers and caravans that a friend in the overlanding industry calls the “devil’s van”.

Kingsley and Co keep it very simple.

There are no fancy slides, mega-expensive battery systems and inverters for appliances that should essentially stay in your kitchen or gullwings fitted with everything you need for a dining room dinner.

There are two fridges operated by a simple dual battery system, food is cooked on an open fire or gas, Ross has a rooftop tent and Kingsley and Sheelagh sleep in a canvas ground tent with Australian Driza-Bone bedrolls they have on test.

Most of the rest of the Defender is packed with essentials they need for the Odyssey including mosquito nets they hand out to women and children, paper for kids to colour in animal scenes, crayons, koki pens, soccer balls, boxes of glasses and non perishable food items.

My argument is that overlanding is an experience.

If you have a simple set up to keep things cold, sleep warm and dry and have a gas or butane stove to boil water or cook with, is the sunset, the wildlife, lion kill, waterfall, meandering river or stark desert landscape any different to the person that uses an induction plate to fry an egg or cook pasta?

I think you know what the answer is.

So don’t be intimidated by fitment centre advertisements, hype and social media, if Africa’s most prolific explorers and adventurers can do it, so can you.