Last Great Challenge, Landrover Owner Magazine
the first of a two part series Kevin Muggleton describes his epic
trans-Africa expedition in a Series III
had just three months to prepare for the trip of a lifetime. My
filming project for National Geographic Television would take
me through Africa in under six months and I needed a vehicle capable
of transporting a passenger, cameras, film, fuel and supplies
through the most demanding terrain in Africa. I poured over the
Michelin map series and realised that to film at each location,
I would need to drive the length of the continent. On the road
my route timings would be dictated by the weather. Crossing the
Sahara before October would have been like sharing the oven with
your Sunday roast and I needed to be beyond Central Africa before
the rains blocked my progress completely. If your sights are also
set further afield, frustrated at driving the odd greenlane, you
are not alone. As the Sahara summer temperatures fall, a flock
of Land Rovers migrate from these shores for what is now regarded
as the last great motoring challenge left on earth: the trans-African
expedition. It's here where your Land Rover love/hate relationship
will be tested to the extreme, but with time, patience, hard work
and an abundance of luck, you will return an accomplished off-road
driver and a bush mechanic capable of understanding every creak,
knock and bump the Land Rover produces.
For this project I needed a vehicle fast. It is no coincidence
that the army, emergency services and the majority of worldwide
expeditions based out of the UK use Land Rovers and, having used
Land Rovers world-wide previously, I found choosing one is always
a good compromise. The major advantages lie in their ready modification
for projects, and spares can easily be made up or found en route.
I ruled out purchasing a new 110 Tdi as the combined tally of
a valuable camera hoard, a shiny vehicle and frequent carjacking
in African cities made it a high risk target. Equally, as I later
found out, the route through the rainforest would smash the bodywork
reducing the resale value substantially. I wanted the extra pull
of a petrol engine so I finally settled for a 1980 ex-RAF 109
Series III with a 21/4 litre engine. In excellent mechanical condition
at £3000, the vehicle was by far the single most expensive
purchase on the trip. Much of the preparation time involved scouting
army surplus stores for equipment and organising paperwork and
visas (see box).
in Africa are eager to supplement their meagre salaries when your
documents are amiss. A Channel ferry price war and £15 later
I was in France and within four days and 2500kms of the anticipated
carburettor was in need of surgery before Gibraltar. With none
available on the Rock, the Land Rover suffered through to Ghana
before finding the parts. Crossing from Algeciras in Spain to
Tangiers, my trip plunged into the heart of the Arabic culture.
The exotic smells and the wailing of the 4am prayer from the medinas
bombarded my senses. The infamous towns of a bygone era, Casablanca,
Rabat and Marrakesh blurred past as I searched out the autonomous
Berber clans of Morocco's High Atlas mountains.
across rock beds and scree, it was easy to see why they have never
been invaded and they jealously guard their independence. The
hard, heavy duty leaf springs of the Series III were softened
a little by the extra fuel and water, but already I questioned
my judgement in not purchasing a 110 with coil springs and longer
suspension travel. The Land Rover continually grounded, with the
fuel tanks close to being ruptured, and the constant heavy weight
shift to each wheel brought the springs close to breaking point.
With no traffic on this route, I had little intention marooning
myself with the Berber mountain folk before I crossed the Sahara.
My patience wore thin as I crept along a trail designed for mules
in low ratio. Eight hours a day of being hammered around on this,
I tried every combination to soften the ride.
no avail, I resigned myself to many uncomfortable months ahead.
Broken only by the odd camel train, the lifeless, sand blasted
terrain through Moroccan controlled Western Sahara was in stark
contrast to the Atlas Mountains. Frequent security checks along
the border region ensure safe passage through the heavily sown
minefield. A military convoy escorts the crossings into Mauritania
on Tuesdays and Fridays from Dakhla.
when immigration and the security forces combine, there is an
immense load of paperwork, confusion and chaos. This was a good
time to take advantage of the duty free fuel in Southern Morocco,
filling jerrycans to the brim and carrying out any last minute
servicing before the sand dunes. At the major bottle neck of the
north-south crossing, the convoy presents a good chance to meet
fellow travellers. The majority are British squeezed into Land
Rovers of every description. Of the 45 vehicles in the convoy,
there were two motorcycles, a Bedford overland truck and even
two Peugeot 504s.
first taste of desert driving comes as the soft where you choose
a Moorish guide to accompany you through the Sahara. If you are
unfamiliar with open country navigation, and lack a GPS navigator,
I would strongly advise on one. The price of a guide is negotiable,
currently around £120 per person. I didn't opt for one and,
armed with a GPS (which couldn't anticipate a path through dunes
for me), enjoyed a challenging experience. The Moors, with desert
navigation handed down through the centuries, read the sand like
an A-Z. It is essential if choosing a guide to work out where
he will sit and make concession for the extra fuel and water.
Between fuel stops is only 650kms, however, fuel economy in the
soft sands can drop to a miserly five miles per gallon. And as
a safety margin, it was wise to add 150kms and a jerrycan to the
equation. With two under seat tanks and ten full jerrycans, the
300 litres proved ample, if not a touch heavy with a further 80
litres of water.
after the summer heat has diminished, the furnace like desert
still blew fine sands into my eyes, nose, mouth and into every
niche of the Land Rover. The midday temperatures peaked at 46
degrees Centigrade, a whole ten degrees cooler than July! Checking
the water and oil was essential after every stop. Two days into
sand, my starter motor refused to engage the flywheel and with
high temperatures evaporating fuel, it was impossible to start
with the crank handle. Dismantling oily engine parts in these
sandy conditions proved a headache but, when cleaned and re-oiled,
the starter kicked in.
by an endless sea of dunes my 21/4 petrol engine never sounded
so sweet. Much of the desert is hard, compact sands and can be
driven as fast as you wish. The sands continually shift, and with
nothing to hold them back, the hot winds now push these mountain
size dunes into the Atlantic ocean. It was while negotiating these
dunes, that the going became heavy. I realised that maintaining
momentum was crucial as I crashed through the gears to prevent
the wheels spinning in deep, soft sands. The oil cooler prevented
the engine from overheating as long as I managed to move forward.
The standard Land Rovers I passed stalled as engines overheated
at the very time they needed the momentum to push forward. Learning
to switch smoothly from high to low ratio and back on the move
is a valuable skill to learn before setting off.
400kms the danger comes from assuming you are a past master at
desert driving; a motorcycle pillion broke her back as the rider
misjudged one dune and a South African team playing in the sand
sheared the engine mounts. The Sahara is a harsh enough environment
without the burden of an unattached engine. South from the desert
through the town of St Louis and the bustling capital of Dakar,
my route turned towards the Senegalese fishing villages.
sprawling population was an immense contrast as I crossed the
Senegal river into the heart of black Africa. Lush, green reeds
rise along the river banks, creating a natural firewall from the
encroaching sands. Close to Dakar I bumped into a Swiss crew travelling
in their fully fashioned new Tdi. Rogue police continually eroded
their carefully planned budget. As appearances go a long way in
Africa, my sixteen year old tattered looking Land Rover rarely
aroused any serious canvassing, and although I had thousands of
pounds worth of cameras, film and computers hidden away under
a carpet covered steel safe, I didn't once hand over a bribe in
six months on the road. Although my next concern wasn't until
the rain forests of Zaire, my journey twisted eastwards through
Mali, The Ivory Coast and into Ghana.
route guides used in planning were hopelessly out of date. Tracks
marked 4x4 had, at times, been freshly graded, others marked had
overgrown to, at best, little more than a foot path. In Mali a
route following the Bakoye river, a tributary of the Senegal river,
followed some of the most spectacular scenery and villages I had
encountered. The 250km six day trek from Kita to Bamako the capital
proved inaccessible in other than a four wheel drive as the Land
Rover crashed through tall grasses, crops, sand, forests, boulders
and streams and adding to the challenge the path disappeared from
village to village. The Land Rover took more of a hammering here
in a day than the average farm example does in a month.
pounding exposed weakness along the vehicle. Already the roof
rack had snapped along three joints, and even after repairs the
clattering up top reminded me in future to purchase the best money
could buy. The steering ball joints were completely shot, the
carburettor still sick, so it was with enthusiasm I arrived in
Accra, Ghana, 10,500km and three months from setting off, at a
cheap Land Rover dealer which supplied all the parts I needed.
The Ghanaians were also the friendliest people I met in Africa.
Stopped as I passed through the palm groves by a police sergeant,
he asked where was I headed. "Cape Town," I answered.
" You best hurry up and be on you way, "he cheerfully
grinned, genuinely concerned as I headed for Togo.®
NEXT The route through the terrible mud of Zaire,
the perils of Malaria and through east Africa to Victoria Falls.