Stories

Count experiences, not countries

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

(Note: Some time ago I published a version of the following article in OutdoorX4 magazine. I subsequently received more emails thanking me for it than any other article I'd published there. Thus I am reprinting it here. If you agree—or disagree—with it, please like and/or comment!)

For several years my wife and I lived as volunteer caretakers in Brown Canyon, a remote wildlife refuge property in southern Arizona. One of our duties was leading birdwatching hikes up the canyon, which ascended through several biotic communities from desert to oak woodland. And that’s where we had our introduction to listers. We’re both avid birders, but we simply enjoy seeing them, identifying them, and learning their biology. Not so the listers: Their drive is to record the most species possible, and for a small subset of them it becomes an obsession next to which nothing else matters—not the experience or the natural history, not even, sometimes, whether or not the bird they want to check off is disturbed or even driven off a nest, exposing eggs or hatchlings to predation. The cachet of having 1,000, 2,000, 4,000 species on a life list is all that counts.

Why do I mention this in connection with overlanding (besides the fact that non-obsessive birdwatching is a relaxing and educational pastime while camping)? Because frequently, while chatting with newcomers to our activity at the Overland Expo or elswhere, I’m asked, “So, how many countries have you visited?”

When I answer honestly, “I have no idea,” most are surprised, and wonder if I’ve been to so many I’ve simply lost count. That’s not really the case—I could certainly tally them up with a map. And while I know I’ve been lucky enough to travel in many more countries than the average American (who, statistically, has visited three), I also know there are legions of travelers of more modest means than I whose tally would outstrip mine if they cared to add them up. (My friend Lorraine Chittock, for example, has explored several continents on budgets most people would blow through on a trip to Disneyland.) 

It’s that emphasis on a tally that makes me uncomfortable, and which makes me deliberately avoid keeping track. Rattling off some memorized total would come off to me as, at best, grandstanding, and at worst intimidating to someone who’s perhaps never been outside the U.S. and is dreaming of broader horizons—or who might be because of finances and/or time “limited” to exploring North America, where I’ve counted many of my most sublime experiences.

And there is my point: It’s the experience that counts, not the count. Here’s an example. My wife and I fell in love with East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) on separate trips—me on a journalism assignment, she while working for a conservation organization. We’ve since been back together a half-dozen times, both to explore on our own and to work with the South Rift Maasai community on wildlife conservation projects. We could easily have used those additional trips to add to our total of countries visited; however, 1) we’ve not nearly run out of areas to explore in those two countries, and, 2) we’ve made several life-long friends through return journeys and continued interaction. To us that beats the fact that we’ve not yet been to Uganda or Burundi or Rwanda, each just a border away.

Or consider the Italian gentleman we met on a dirt road in a remote part of Tanzania. He was on his way from Cape Town to Cairo . . . on a bicycle. He would pass through “only” eight countries on the journey. You could drive through that many European countries in a day and add them to your list. Who has had the richer experience?

I’ve advised dozens of people planning for their first trip to Africa. Since it is a serious commitment for a North American resident to even get there, most want to cram in as many countries as possible in their two or three weeks. I struggle mightily to convince them to scale back on the countries in order to scale up on the experience. It’s fun to drive through exotic new places, but simply transiting doesn’t really gain you anything of lasting value. Digging in and getting to know a place and its people and its wildlife does. 

If you have fun keeping tally of the countries you’ve visited, great. But if the count becomes the chief metric by which you judge your success as an overlander, you might want to reevaluate your priorities and slow down a bit.

Might I suggest birdwatching . . . ?

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

Rookie tourist shopping

David Giguere responded to the Lowell Thomas post below with this intriguing comment:

“I wonder if the 'behemoth' truck is one of the Nairn Transport Company vehicles that operated in that part of the world and offered a Beirut to Baghdad route. Nairn also used Cadillac and Buick cars. Thanks for posting the story and video, fascinating stuff!”

He also posted a link to an interesting Wikipedia entry about Nairn, here.

And that begs a short related tale. 

While in Jerusalem last November I spent several days exploring the old town and its cacophonous warren of shops, which sell everything from snow globes of the Dome of the Rock (not kidding) to half lamb carcasses, spices, pots, clothes, jewelry, and antiques. Short video here:

Late one afternoon I was headed back through a passage I’d been through several times before, when I was stopped in my tracks by this:

Oh. My. God. 

How could I have missed it, and could any overlander possibly live without this poster hanging somewhere in his home? Bought in a souk in Old Jerusalem?

Of course not—so, in my delirium, I made the most fundamental mistake any rookie tourist could commit in any souk anywhere in the world. I leaped into the shop, where the owner sat calmly sucking on a hookah, and, my eyes wide with avarice, shaking finger pointing, said, “Do you have those posters for sale?”

The man slowly exhaled a cloud of cool blue smoke, pulled the mouthpiece from between his lips, and smiled.

Shit.

“Why yes, my friend, I do!” He put up the pipe and pulled out a box stuffed with rolled posters in cardboard tubes. “What size would you like, my friend?”

What does one do at that point? Put on an utterly transparent sham of hard bargaining? Of course not. I picked a tube that would fit on the rear rack of my bicycle, asked how much, and he smiled and named a figure I won’t repeat here out of abject, head-hanging shame. I sighed and pulled a half dozen bills off my roll of shekels. At that price there was bugger all hope of buying extras for my friends Graham and Connie, or Nick, or . . . (And could I find that poster anywhere else in that entire city? Nope.)

Oh well. Let them get their own. I’ve got mine. 

And boy did I pay for it.

Recovering a semi truck

In my last post (here) I mentioned using a set of MaxTrax to recover a semi at the 2015 Overland Expo.

Found the video.

Also visible are the Crux Offroad aluminum bridging ladders (here), which also survived with only minor bending and were perfectly serviceable afterwards. Since bridging ladders are designed to be rigid, the fact that these—intended for vehicles the size of Land Cruisers—survived at all was equally impressive.

The new Defender is coming! (However . . .)

When the Land Rover Defender finally reached the much-delayed end of its production run last January, after 68 unbroken years rolling off the assembly lines of Solihull, it seemed like not just the end of an iconic expedition vehicle, but of the very image of exploration that fueled the early dreams of so many of us. Those black-and-white photos of a 107 or 109 wagon, cruelly overloaded, canted sideways on a muddy track in the Congo or parked under a camelthorn tree in the Kalahari, stopped us in astonishment as we paged though books or National Geographic magazines. 

That’s it. That’s what I want to do. 

How many of those who in the last few decades have done the most vital research in wildlife conservation, archaeology, anthropology—even astronomy—felt their first pang of yearning for an adventurous future gazing at a picture of a Land Rover in a far away place? How many thousands more became advocates for conservation after accomplishing more modest explorations, inspired by those same images?

For its entire history, the Defender (as it came to be called only in the 1980s) stayed true to a formula nearly ideal for an expedition vehicle and a product designed to suit developing world conditions and markets. A boxed chassis provided necessary torsional rigidity, and separate aluminum body panels bolted on, easily replaceable. Entire vehicles could be shipped in pieces in crates to remote regions to be assembled on site, a program known as CKD, for Complete Knock Down. 

The layout of the Defender—all angles and straight lines—meant the interior was ideal for storing cargo or modifying with interior cabinetry. Running gear stayed simple until the needs of the late 20th century mandated electronic controls for some engine functions. An increase in comfort and ability (with no loss of strength or dependability) came with the bold move to all-coil suspension, long before Japanese competitors copied the design.

Was it perfect? No. The factory’s stubborn six-decade-long refusal to galvanize the thin steel of the chassis severely compromised durability in damp environments (such as, er, England), and the equally stubborn refusal to offer cross-axle diff locks allowed competitors to exceed the Defender’s performance in severe conditions. Reliability as well lagged behind Japanese competition. But the Defender remained a viable choice for far-flung journeys right up until . . . it was gone. 

Only the name remained. But what a name—swirling with all the potential for adventure we remember from the actual vehicles. So it was inevitable that it would sooner or later be attached to a new vehicle. 

What would that vehicle be like? Speculation was rife. The faithful gathered on forums, lit candles in pentangles, and with false bravado claimed, “It’s Land Rover; it’s the Defender; they wouldn’t dare sully it.” Surely, they predicted/prayed, the new Defender would be much like the old—separate chassis, solid axles, simple, just modernized with whatever technology was needed to make it compatible with 21st century regulations. And bring it to the U.S.! With a diesel!

There was just one problem, the unmentioned elephant in the chat room: That simple old separate-chassis, solid-axle Defender wasn’t selling. Twenty thousand units a year is not sustainable for a modern manufacturer (by contrast, Toyota sells about 75,000 70-Series Land Cruisers annually). And it had been that way for some time. Even when U.S. Defender fans’ dreams came true and we were blessed with access to the federalized V8 Defender 90 for several years, sales peaked early, then sagged. Enthusiasm among a devoted fan base couldn’t compensate for the fact that the actual market for what most viewed as an expensive British Jeep Wrangler was miniscule. Elsewhere in the world, Land Rover steadily lost military and NGO contracts (not to mention sales to various insurgent groups) to Toyota and Mercedes Benz. There’s no reason to believe that even an extensive revision of the existing body-on-frame platform would have changed things. Thus, the vehicle itself had to change.

All the worst nightmares of fans regarding that change came true when Land Rover rolled out the DC100 concept vehicle in 2012, when the end of Defender production was prophesied but not yet calendared.

So not working, Land Rover

Even among impartial journalists the response was, at best, a sort of collective “Eew.” Among aficionados, the reaction was a bit more strident, as this photo taken outside LR headquarters in Whitley, Coventry, at the time, shows.

Land Rover reportedly hired magician David Copperfield, at huge expense, to make the DC 100 disappear, and it was never seen again.

The die, however, was cast. It was pretty clear that the new Defender was going to be a substantially different beast than its predecessor. Now that development mules for a 2018/2019 launch are circling secret Land Rover test facilities around the world, we’re getting what seems to be reliable information from such people as CEO Ralf Speth. No photos of the vehicles yet—Land Rover probably has SAS snipers with Barrett M107s deployed around each prototype—but we do know more about the construction.

Which will be . . . an aluminum-intensive unibody structure built on the same architecture as the current Range Rover and Discovery, with all-independent suspension. No more mechano construction, no more CKD vehicles in crates shipped to remote African outposts on bullock carts. (And no more changing out a rusted chassis in your back yard with hand tools, a few friends, and a come-along.) Furthermore, while the company promises that the new Defender will have four-wheel-drive capabilities beyond anything in the current lineup, those capabilities will be heavily based on sophisticated electronic traction-control systems and computer-controlled parameters for throttle response and shifting. You won’t be repairing your new Defender in Bamako with a multitool and a hammer.

This is not all bad news. First, despite myths to the contrary, unibody vehicles almost always display superior torsional rigidity to body-on-frame vehicles, even those with a substantial boxed chassis. In essence the entire unibody acts as a boxed chassis member. And independent suspension has certain advantages as well—especially, of course, in on-road comfort and handling. Land Rover's pioneering experience with electronic traction control systems will surely pay dividends.

It’s a good bet, in fact, that the new Defender will hugely surpass its progenitor in comfort, ergonomics, and efficiency—and in actual backcountry ability as well.

However, the Defender we knew, the one that inspired our dreams, is gone. The new one will be made for a different world.

The winch that wouldn't work

My friends are always sending me photos of vehicles they know will intrigue (or horrify) me. Most Series I, II, and III Land Rovers fit in the former category (although there are exceptions). The one here, spotted by Bruce Douglas in Seattle, looked nearly perfect at first glance—mostly stock, not quite concours and thus drivable without angst, lovely contrast of the dark green bodywork and tan hood, proper skinny tires on factory wheels.

The aftermarket seats were a bit much, although given stock Series II seats somewhat understandable—but why not just install the appropriate and excellent Defender items? Still it was a striking vehicle.

Then I noticed the winch.

Like quite a few early Land Rovers, this one was equipped with a capstan winch (whether from the factory or added later is impossible to say). A capstan winch differs from the more modern and much more common horizontal drum winch in having an upright drum, or capstan, like a winch on a sailboat. The capstan is powered by the engine, normally via a driveshaft connected to the front of the crankshaft. Unlike your Warn, Ramsey, or Superwinch, the capstan winch is designed to be used with a free length of rope, which is attached to the object to be winched (or to an anchor if winching the vehicle itself) and then wound around the capstan three or four times to provide friction. When the capstan is engaged, the operator pulls the free end of the rope to provide tension, and the capstan pulls in the attached end at slow speed. The advantage to this system is that there is no practical limit to the length of rope—if you need a 200-foot pull for some reason and have a 220-foot length of suitable rope, you’re good to go. It will also work as long as the engine is running, without overheating the winch or overtaxing the alternator. Disadvantages include limited power (most were rated at just 3,000 pounds, suitable for the 3/4-inch manila rope used) and the fact that if the engine isn’t running the winch isn’t either. Finally, solo recovery of a bogged vehicle is extremely awkward if not impossible. These downsides explain why capstan winches have been almost universally superceded by much more powerful horizontal drum winches that store their own line. 

But the capstan on the Seattle Land Rover was—bewilderingly—wound with a long length of steel cable. This configuration cannot possibly function properly. You cannot use steel cable on a capstan as it is intended to be used—there would not be enough friction on the capstan and you would find the cable impossible to grip. And you cannot attach the free end of a steel cable to the capstan and expect it to wind in like a horizontal drum. It simply wouldn’t work and would likely destroy the winch in short order if it didn’t result in some much more serious failure. Note the horizontal bar on the mount, under which the rope is designed to run to properly feed it on to the capstan. Even if you managed to attach the steel cable and attempted to winch with it, it would instantly bunch up at the bottom of the capstan. 

I’m at a complete loss to explain what the owner of this otherwise fine vehicle was thinking. I suspect he or she had no idea how a capstan winch worked and, seeing the steel cable attached to many horizontal winch drums, ordered one and somehow managed to attach and spool it on this poor capstan. To the uninformed it might look cool, but one can only hope its owner never attempts to put it to use for anything other than posing in front of some well-known Seattle coffee shop.

 

 

Origami camping

I’ve written before about Montague folding bicycles (here). We’ve had one for seven years now and, while it’s far from the most highly specced mountain bike you can buy for the price, its ability to fold into a compact package, yet ride like a “normal” rigid-framed bike is unparalleled. 

There was just one problem—we only had one of them. And the effortless way it fit behind the front seats of our 2012 Tacoma Extracab made us think that two of them might actually be able to ride there.

Theory confirmed. We recently bought an example of the current Montague Paratrooper Pro, which boasts several improvements over our original. Most notable is a clever rear rack that pivots completely under the rear wheel to serve as a stand when folding or even working on the bike (although it’s not really stable enough to be a parking stand). The Pro also now has fenders, a very worthwhile addition, and a rear disc brake instead of the cantilevers of the old model. This is a questionable asset; I’ve noted before that I’ve yet to use a mechanical disc brake that works as well as a good cantilever. This one is no exception, but it’s what buyers expect.

And both bikes snuggle securely into the Extracab space behind us—noting, please, that we are both in the 5’7” to 5’9” range heightwise, so I cannot guarantee that you six-footers will have the same luck. We put the front wheels into a case inside the Four Wheel Camper, which makes the process much easier. 

Now we have two bicycles that ride securely inside the truck, no intrusive (and expensive) hitch mount needed, vastly reduced danger of theft, and no worrying about reduced departure angle or dust-coated bikes after 20 miles of dirt road.

Along with our pop-top Four Wheel Camper, and our recently acquired Klepper folding kayak, we've assembled quite the origami recreational kit.

The irrational Land Rover . . .

I knew a fellow, a lives-and-breathes-them Land Rover aficionado, who was on his way across Africa in a 109 Station Wagon when the rear differential blew. Someone on a forum, as I recall, referred to the event in terms of a “breakdown”—which elicited an aggrieved response from the owner. This was not a “breakdown,” he insisted. Why? Because differentials are “maintenance items.”

If you are a lives-and-breathes them Land Rover aficionado, or if you know one, you’ll recognize this syndrome. Over the years, and to a greater or lesser extent depending on the model, Land Rovers have become known for being, how shall I put this . . . co-dependent. Because of this, owners are constantly besieged with quips, snarky comments, and jokes. (“Eight out of ten Land Rovers ever made are still on the road. The other two made it home.” Etc.) These are especially likely to come from Toyota owners revelling in their own brand’s sterling reputation. Desperate-sounding ripostes about Toyotas being “appliances” only come off as desperate-sounding—the Toyota owner just smirks and leaves the Land Rover owner grinding his teeth. 

Perhaps it was the resulting Maginot mentality that led to the simple defense of not acknowledging breakdowns as breakdowns, and not calling repairs repairs. After decades of association with Land Rover owners, I’ve realized that the word ‘repair’ should not be applied to any procedure being performed on one of their vehicles unless they’ve rigged a steel beam on two A-frames extending side to side through both open doors, and are using three pulley blocks and a team of donkeys to remove something. And even then: A dear (nameless) friend whose Defender’s transmission failed on an epic trans-Africa trip actually excuses it with, “It wasn’t the vehicle’s fault. A part was installed incorrectly at the factory.” Um, okay, Graham. The reductio ad absurdum of this peculiar mental illness is reached when the poor owner begins typing spluttering forum posts such as, “They’re only unreliable if you don’t use them hard enough!”

I can write this without (much) fear of assassination because I have always felt a strong attraction to Land Rovers, and at the moment own two of them. At the same time I can keep one eyebrow raised ironically because I also own an FJ40 Land Cruiser that in 35 years has not once, one single time, left me stranded. In 1978, when I bought it, my choice was between the Toyota or a 1974 Series III 88, at that time a product of the troubled British Leyland group (‘troubled’ and ‘British Leyland’ being completely redundant phrasing). Everyone short of the State Department warned me off the Land Rover, and in retrospect buying the FJ40 was absolutely the right choice. Reliability aside, towing a 21-foot sailboat or a utility trailer loaded with eight sea kayaks would have been problematic with the 88’s 75 horsepower. And then there were those axles . . .

The logical choice . . .

The logical choice . . .

Where was I? Right: The big question, of course, asked by everyone who is not of the lives-and-breathes community, is why? Where does what seems like this blind devotion come from, when there are so many alternatives, however appliance-like they may be?

One simple answer on logical grounds would be that Land Rovers work so well when they work that owners are willing to put up with constant fettling. From the range-topping Range Rover, still unmatched in its combination of luxury and off-pavement prowess, to the Defender, still unmatched in its combination of pliant ride with outstanding cargo capacity, and fine turbodiesel power with excellent fuel economy, Land Rover has been ahead of other marques in numerous engineering details since the 1970s. 

But that’s the logical answer, and logical answers are vulnerable to logical ripostes regarding . . . reliability—surely, many would point out, the most critical characteristic of any expedition vehicle.

I think the real answer to the unswerving loyalty of Land Rover owners is the intangible, but undeniable, aura of history and romance that surrounds the Land Rover as it does no other expedition vehicle. Hook up electrodes to the brain of the most loyal Toyota/Nissan/Ford/Jeep owner, and ask him to, quickly, picture a vehicle on an African safari, and I guarantee the diagnostic screen is going to produce an image of a Land Rover, roof rack loaded with jerry cans, plowing through the bulldust of Tanzania.

The romantic choice . . .

The romantic choice . . .

Whatever the real reason is, I consider myself immune to such blind unreasoning justification.

Or, I did. Until this weekend.

I drove our recently acquired ex-MOD 110 Defender out to our desert property to do some work on the camping area. On the way out I’d noticed the shifting of the LT77 five-speed seemed to be more recalcitrant than usual (it’s due to be replaced with a later R380, along with a 300Tdi powerplant, soon). Just as I pulled up to park near the cottage, I was suddenly presented with, in the immortal words of the late James Hunt, a gearbox full of neutrals. Uh oh.

I had no factory manual, and no experience with the LT77, so I just got out the tools and began fettling. With the rubber shift boot pulled off, it became obvious the issue lay beneath a shift tower that supported two springs which helped locate the shift lever. With the springs popped off to the side, the lever came out (sending another spring-loaded plunger smartly across the cab, fortunately found). Four bolts undid the tower, and with it off the problem was immediately apparent: The metal and nylon socket into which the lever’s ball fits had come off the operating shaft, in turn because a set screw had come loose. Slide the socket assembly back on, tighten the set screw, tower bolted back in place, shift lever in and springs prized back on, and we’re finished. More or less precise shifting back in operation.

 And then it happened.

I was thinking that, if the problem occurred again, I could probably have it sorted in less than 10 minutes. And as I innocently, happily considered that, another thought flowed—smoothly, sinuously, completely unbidden—into my brain:

 

                                                                       It hardly even counts as a repair.

 

I’m doomed.

 

Or maybe I'm just not using it hard enough?

The Wescotts return from The Silk Road

One day in the summer of 1993 Roseann and I were sitting in a café in the Canadian Inuit village of Tuktoyaktuk, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We’d been having one of those time-warp conversations with a phlegmatic local whale hunter: He’d ask a question such as, “Where you from?” We’d answer, there’d be a two-minute silence, then, “How’d you get down the river?” We’d answer, then ask him a question: “Lived here long?” Two minutes, then, “Born here.” We were in no hurry, having just paddled sea kayaks 120 miles to get there, so it was a fun way to pass time and—slowly—learn something of the area.

After a while a couple came in—anglos, surprisingly, the first we’d seen since landing the day before. They sat nearby and said hello, and we struck up a conversation that must have seemed alarmingly hasty to the Ent-like whale hunter. They asked how we’d got to Tuk, and when we described our trip expressed open-mouthed admiration. They’d flown from Inuvik, it developed, and had left their pickup and camper there. 

And as soon as they mentioned a truck and camper, I realized that the couple was Gary and Monika Wescott. It was my turn to be open-mouthed, as I’d been reading tales from the Turtle Expedition in Four Wheeler magazine for, what, 15 years already by then? I’d devoured the articles documenting the extensive modifications to their Land Rover 109 during the 1970s, had been disappointed but intrigued when they switched to a Chevy truck (which, even more intriguingly, vanished without comment soon after), and then followed the buildup of the Ford F350 that would prove to be the first of a series. Our Toyota pickup had a Wildernest camper on it at the time, but we were saving to buy a Four Wheel Camper of the same type that sat on the F350 Turtle II. Most recently, I’d read along as the Turtle Expedition completed an epic 18-month exploration of South America.

We saw each other over the next couple of days as we all took in the annual Arctic Games, watching harpoon-throwing contests and blanket tossing, and snacking on muktuk. Then we lost touch for 15 years (while they journeyed across Russia and Europe), until reconnecting when I edited Overland Journal

Since 2009 the Wescotts have been regular instructors and exhibitors at the Overland Expo—until 2013, when they embarked from the show on their latest adventure, a two-year trans-Eurasian odyssey along the Silk Road. 

Now we’re delighted to welcome Gary and Monika back from their journey. They will be giving presentations and taking part in roundtables at Overland Expo WEST 2015. Don’t miss a chance to meet these two personable and friendly travelers. Listening and watching as the Wescotts describe their journeys is both entertaining and inspiring, and their latest journey should be  fertile ground for good tales. 

Best of all, Gary and Monika are genuinely excited to share; there’s not a trace of bravado between them, despite being among the most-accomplished overlanders in the world (and still traveling). They travel because they are passionate about exploring and learning and sharing, not because they are trying to count coup or gain fame. It’s refreshing, and we are glad to have them back.

  • Regional Q&A: Russia, Mongolia & Southeast Asia; Friday 2pm
  • Regional Q&A: Europe, Eastern Europe & Iceland; Saturday 8am
  • The Silk Road; Saturday 11am
  • Experts Panel: Top Travel Tips; Saturday 1pm

Explore 40 years of adventures with the Turtle Expedition at http://turtleexpedition.com