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The Last Great Challenge, Landrover Owner Magazine

In the first of a two part series Kevin Muggleton describes his epic trans-Africa expedition in a Series III

I 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).


Officials 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 20,000kms, my
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.


Bounding 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.


To 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.


Inevitably, 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.


The 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.


Even 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.

Surrounded 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.


After 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.


The 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.


The 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.


The 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.