Garrett here, finally chiming in to share the experience that has most colored my time in Africa. When the idea of moving to Botswana came up – my mind immediately jumped to images of me bounding through the bush in my dream car – a Land Rover Defender. I’ve lusted over this car since middle school. I have always and will always contend that there is nothing cooler than this quintessential african safari vehicle!
Sadly, the US government banned the import of Defenders many years ago due to their lack of safety features (no airbags/very dangerous in roll over situations) and high exhaust emissions. Estimates are that currently there are only 2500 Defenders in the USA, so they are quite expensive and there are limited options. Thus, I had given up on the idea of having one a long time ago….until our big move to Botswana opened up my dream to becoming a reality!
The only way to get a Defender in the USA is to ship it from outside; however, to be allowed in, the car has to be 25 years only and factory stock. You cant go installing a new engine and modern electronics or you risk US customs seizing and crushing your vehicle. It costs $3-4,000 to ship a Defender to the USA but it can sell for upwards of $50,000 as a base vehicle. If you fix it up in the USA you can sell them upwards of $100k. This caught my attention – I figured a great option would be to buy an older model, use it for our travels in Africa then ship it to the US to sell – maybe even make a little profit!
When we arrived in Africa I was amazed to learn how many models there are in the Defender lineup – 200tdi, 300TDI, v8 BMW motors, TD5 and the Puma.… and that’s just the engines. I had quite a bit of learning to do to figure out the advantages and disadvantages of each, and what would work best for our purposes. Finally, we settled upon the 300tdi (Turbo diesel injection) because it has great fuel economy (26 miles per gallon / 11 L per 100k), it uses Diesel which is easier to store and more available in remote Africa, it has little to no electronics to get damaged in water crossings and best of all it will continue to drive even when pieces are missing! It is also the most prevalent model with the added bonus that parts can be used from the earlier LR Discovery models. I was most excited about the rumors that it was so easy to fix that you could even patch it up with barbwire and duct tape!
Then there was the choice of body style to decide on. The 90 series is 90 inches long which is bit bigger than a Jeep Wrangler. The longer model is referred to as the 110. Both sizes can come as either a pickup (“bakkie”) model or the 110 comes can come as 2 door model or a 4 door station wagon. All have a “the fifth door” which is the rear door. Due to us having a tendency to overpack, we choose the 110 station wagon model. It is the same size as a Land Cruiser, but just a bit boxier and the inside is a bit taller. They also make a 130 Defender but it looks rather funny as it has 6 side doors and looks like a “stretch Defender”. There is also the earlier Series 2 and 3 defenders which are even more basic and have the iconic recessed front grill.
So with our requirement of a mid to late 1990’s 300tdi Defender station wagon, I set off to find our vehicle. I thought this would be easy but it wasn’t. Defenders in Botswana cost about 50% more than in neighboring South Africa and I could only find two sites that listed vehicles for sale (functioning similarly to craigslist and auto trader in the USA). I began combing through these sites daily. I also asked around at the local Land Rover garages in Gabs, but there just wasn’t anything that fit what I was looking for. It just didn’t seem like there were that many options. Like most Americans, I was impatient. I had made up my mind, budgeted for the purchase and wanted instant results. So I expanded my search to South Africa, where there seemed to be many more cars for sale and at cheaper prices.
Late one evening I stumbled upon a listing, this was it! It had the engine specs and was fully kitted out – dual battery system, long range fuel tank, roof rack, spotlights, winch, seat covers…. it was at the top of our budget but came with all the accessories we would need. Perfect.
The next step was to get Tori’s blessing (which took some convincing) and approval from my mechanic friend Trynos who would accompany me to South Africa to inspect the vehicle. We flew to Durban (a short 1.5 hour flight) to check it out. The first red flag was that the owner picked us up at the airport in a pickup truck – why had he not picked us up in the Defender? He said it was because the Defender was too tall and couldn’t fit in the parking structure. Well it quickly became clear during the test drive that it was because the Defender wouldn’t have made it to the airport let alone the 8 hours back to Gaborone. It leaned heavily at each turn and there was a “spare” water pump that needed to be installed. All of the accessories that I was so excited for were dilapidated and wouldn’t work without some tweaks…
The truck needed a lot of work which was not what I had bargained for. I was pretty dejected but I learned a valuable lesson about Defender owners: they are the worst about advertising and pricing their vehicles! These cars are very sentimental to the owners and they way over value them due to the time they have spent fixing them up and all the adventures they have lived through in them. The owner wouldn’t budge on his 100k rand price tag so we decided to walk.
We headed back to our hotel where I restarted my search for a vehicle. We had made a long journey, I had my heart set on buying something and I really didn’t want to go back to Botswana empty handed. As luck would have it there was another good candidate 4 hours down the road in a southern suburb of Johannesburg. The next morning we rented a car and set off to continue the adventure.
This second candidate vehicle was a 1996 300tdi. It ran better than the previous vehicle and was priced at 80k. It still had a roof rack and the interior looked good. The most shocking feature was the color – it was a bright yellow! There were some minor issues present and some hail damage so we low balled the seller at 50k rand which is around $3,700. He agreed to 55k Rand and I decided to take it. I was tired of looking and this seemed like a great deal. It was way cheaper than my initial budget… but I was soon to learn another important lesson: if something seems too good to be true it almost always is!
I quickly learned that I should have had the seller perform the South African Police clearance forms so the car could be registered outside of South Africa. I had to drive back to Johannesburg, get the vehicle inspected and micro dotted (microscopic barcodes sprayed all over the vehicle and engine), then go to the police department to get a form signed and stamped. This may sound like a few easy steps….but nothing is easy in Africa! After a few failed attempts I finally located the proper police facility (more like a DMV in the USA as no one was wearing a uniform and they all seemed to hate their jobs). I arrived at 2 pm which was just past their inspection time (mind you there is no details online on how to do this or any hours of operation). After a lot of protesting, they agreed to perform the one minute vehicle inspection. Having spent a day and a half on this little adventure it was now time to drive the 5 hours back to Botswana. It was really boring without a radio or a companion so I used my cell phone to stream music and play it full blast to combat the loud engine.
As I neared the end of the journey, my phone battery died and then I heard an ominous pop. The engine began to strain, slow and make noises.. Oh no!! My first breakdown! I was so close to home, my cell was out and it was really late. The border closed in a hour and a half and I realized that I didn’t have any tools except a tire iron and my leatherman. After some struggling, I opened the bonnet to find that the small hose connecting the water pump to the engine had split right next to the band clamp. After letting it cool I realized that I could trim it and put it back on Mac Gyver style! However, I was short on water. The rear wheel spare water tank was empty as I had failed to refill it…. opps.
So in an effort to avoid spending the night on the side of the road in South Africa (one of the most potentially dangerous places to be a white male stranded alone), I did what any man would do – peed in a bottle! I figured I would use this to fill up the radiator, then I would drain the window washing water into another bottle to add to the liquid. I was feeling like a genius until I realized that the water system holds a lot more liquid than I could pee! Mac Gyver never produced water out of thin air…. or maybe I just missed that episode.
When I thought things couldn’t get any worse….more trouble arrived. The South African police showed up with the crazy idea that I was a poacher! Madikwe Game Reserve sits along the Botswana border and I had broken down right next to the fence. Things could have gone either way – South African Police are pretty corrupt and unpredictable. But thankfully, they quickly realized I was harmless and were kind enough to assist in filling the bottles, not with pee but real water.
About 40 minutes later, I was back up and running….a few rand lighter and with nerves running thin. The truck continued to overheat so I’d have to stop and let it cool every so often, then slowly continue onward. The problem was that I couldn’t property bleed the water system because I didn’t have the tools, the skills and I couldn’t ask Google because my phone was dead. I limped across the border with 10 minutes to spare before it shut down. I parked at the closest gas station I could roll into. I didn’t know what else to do so I asked the gas station attendants if they would watch the defender overnight and if anyone could give me a ride home. Luckily, they were more than thrilled to do this for a few beers and a bit of cash. Botswana is a pretty safe place overall so I wasn’t worried about any sort of foul play. I hopped in their dilapidated combi (minibus) and we hurdled off down the wrong side of the road. I soon realized being drunk and high was pretty much standard for the gas station night attendants….thankfully we weren’t that far from home. After a few wrong turns, engine stalls and stopping at virtually no red lights, I was home. It was about 2 am and Tori was really worried and angered at my lack of preparedness or communication but I was home safe so I guess that was all that mattered…..
I had survived my first Defender debacle in what was soon to be named the “Yellow Peril.” A name which was coined on our first camping trip to Khutse where we hit a cow on the way – the cow didn’t die and we only sightly bent the grill….so no harm done!
Not all relationships are perfect and there are always ups and downs – I was determined to stay the course and do whatever it would take to make this Defender into my dream car. The car that would take us on our most epic journey yet – a 4 month road trip across Southern Africa that we plan to embark on after Tori finishes up her 2 years working in Botswana. However, of course this was only just the beginning of the work that needed to be done to make that happen! Stay tuned as the rest of the “Saga of the Defender” unfolds…..