For the Love of the Land

Something all owners understand: it takes patience to keep a Defender moving


We call him Larry. We don’t often name our cars, although I did once own a Fiat Uno Turbo named after Enzo Ferrari and, later, a Renault 5 called Gigi after a Parisian call-girl.

Larry is neither Italian nor a prostitute but he’s equally temperamental. A typical Defender. That’s why Defender drivers wave to each other on the road – not a hysterical hi-de-hi wave; just a subtle lifting of the fingers from the wheel. Understated. A small gesture to acknowledge that it requires patience to keep a Land Rover moving.

Apart from the bling on his dashboard (a Maasai blanket) and an oversized roof rack, which once led a Kenyan pump jockey to admire how we’d “pimped” him, Larry is like any other Defender. He rattles like a baby, sucks in dust like a vacuum cleaner and breaks down like a neurotic.

His worst tantrum left us stranded on a gravel road in Zambia, where we were ferrying a friend’s driver, George, to his bushcamp.

Larry didn’t explode. He merely glided to a gentle stop, his accelerator flat on the floor and no power to his wheels. Helpless.

With my co-pilot, I climbed out to identify the problem. Larry had blown a pipe. There was water all over the dust. George sat in the back and watched.

Twenty minutes later, we were still fumbling with an inadequate Leatherman when it occurred to us that George might have some pliers.

“George, do you have pliers?”

“Yes, sah,” he replied.

Propped comfortably in the back seat, George showed me his extensive tool collection.

“Are you a mechanic?”

“Yes, sah!”

“Well, would you mind fixing the *$&%# car?!”

Larry was soon mobile again. In camp, he got a good going-over from George and all was well for a few hundred kilometres. Then the wheels, or rather the pipes, came off again. And again.

We could cover only 15km between breakdowns. We were towed by bakkies, buses and Belgians. Everyone had a theory. No-one was right.

At a roadside quarry, we spent a night on the staff ablution-block floor, while the mechanic cleaned Larry’s radiator. It was no good. He needed professional help.

“We’ll get a Teepo,” they said, “to carry him to Lusaka.” We didn’t know what a Teepo was. Some kind of Korean tow-truck? It sounded ideal.

We waited. Grey dumper trucks came and went, filled with quarried gravel.

The Teepo took eight hours to arrive and turned out to be, well, just like all the other trucks. But blue. A Tipper-truck.

Larry stuck out at the back by more than a metre and was held on by nylon ropes with rocks as chocks. Our R300 000 vehicle would balance on a dump truck for 650km.

The tipper’s cab was full so we climbed, contorted, into Larry and bumped along to Serenje, playing cards to distract ourselves from the rocking motion and occasional snapping of ropes.

For fear of roadblocks, we could only travel thus for 200km, so, at midnight in Serenje, we bade Larry farewell and boarded a bus to Lusaka, lurching in the stairwell as there were no seats available. The conductor put his foot on our heads whenever the police stopped the bus, which was permitted 65 passengers and carrying 120.

We overtook Larry at about 3am. He was bouncing, slightly askew and lonely, on a lightless, smoke-billowing truck.

“That’s my car,” I proudly told the conductor, “on the back of that Teepo.” And I waved.

He looked at me as if I was deranged. He’s obviously never owned a Land Rover.