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Defender Trophy Limpopo 2016





16 December 2016


It started with a question at a Landy Defender meet, early in the year: what about a Defender Trophy competition, based on the original, family-oriented concept? For Johan Kriek, the creator of that original adventure, it was like adding petrol to the bonfire – and so the Defender Trophy was reincarnated. This is how the first of the new-old Trophy events went down, as told by Johan Kriek.

The idea behind the original Defender  Trophy was simple: a family-oriented ‘adventure trail’ event, aimed at all Defender owners. Anyone could participate in a stock standard Defender without damaging their rides, and have bags of family fun at the same time, too. Although this was how the event started out, it later evolved into a kind of Camel Trophy event, with extreme 4×4 tests, specialised Defenders, high-lift jacks and a lot of blood, sweat and gears. Eventually the competition ran its course, and was called off.

And so I set about, due to popular demand, to reincarnate the Trophy. And, on a morning in September, 15 Land Rover Defenders arrived at the rendezvous point, close to the old Penge Mine, situated on the Olifants River between Burgersfort and Polokwane. After final documentation, the event got underway with participants following the tracks of an ancient route which crosses the Olifants River enroute to Moshikwane traditional village. After re-grouping, we were entertained by the villagers with a real smorgasbord of some of their exotic traditional foods: termites roasted to perfection, fresh wild berries, sorghum beer, beans, nuts and other delicacies. All of this while the drums of Africa beat rhythmically in the background. The Defender Trophy 2016 was truly underway. Still in low range, the group of participants re-entered the tracks that guided them further into the mountains.

This terrain is tailor-made for Defenders, and while one constantly feels like an explorer of old, the heavily laden vehicles grind their way uphill and downhill through tinder-dry bush – perhaps expecting to meet Dr Livingstone around every corner. The old track winds across peaks and through valleys as they crawl along the scenic Drakensberg escarpment towards the first night’s camping destination. Exhausted after a long day in the saddle, the guys and girls pitched camp high in the mountains next to the African Ivory Route’s best-kept secret: Mafefe self-catering camp. The talk and banter continued late into the night despite the chilly winds and occasional light drizzle, until everyone was fast asleep and you could almost hear Africa sigh with contentment.

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Day Two started at 8am. The teams reached an altitude of 1 145 metres (one of the many waypoint-based questions that had to be answered along the way) before they descended into Limpopo Province’s Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve. They were in for a surprise: the tracks guided them into an unexpected Afromontane forest. Thick undergrowth covered by a forest canopy so dense that hardly any light permeates, and a crystal clear mountain stream murmuring over moss-covered rocks. Everyone agreed that this had to be where Lord Greystoke, or Tarzan, presided before he relocated to central Africa to start his film career. What an absolutely magical experience.

The forest then ‘released’ the Defenders at Makutsi Camp, boasting wooden chalets perched on the banks of the Makutsi River. It was a pity there was not enough time to properly explore this quaint little camp before moving on. Believe it or not, there was only one flat tyre recorded after six hours of low-range driving, with 60 tyres constantly providing traction across a varied terrain of sharp rocks, steep inclines and declines, and with enough axle twisters to have those merry Defender men smiling from ear to ear. From Lekgalameetse, the convoy proceeded via Ofcolaco, a tiny village that was formed in 1920 by demobilised British army officers (after World War I), which they named after the Officers Colonial Land Company.

The route continued on to the historical town of Leydsdorp and the newly renovated Leydsdorp Hotel for snacks, refreshments and stories galore… like the fact that the region’s deceased were stored in the cellar under the hotel bar as that was the coolest place around. Leydsdorp, the smallest city in South Africa, and once the capital of the Lowveld, was named in honour of President Paul Kruger’s secretary of state, Dr William Leyd. Having shot his first lion at the age of 12, Paul Kruger was a keen hunter and often used to visit his hunting house, which can still be seen today. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that when he needed to put his signature on a few important documents that protocol required be signed in a city, he proceeded to proclaim Leydsdorp as such and it was proclaimed an official city on 1 October 1890. However, the history started as early as 1870 with the discovery of gold, the extent of which was fully recognised by 1888, and that evolved into the second so-called gold rush in South Africa.

After Leydsdorp, the Defenders formed a traditional laager around the Giant Baobab, a tree so big that it was utilised during the gold rush era at one time or another as a post office, a bar and a jail. After a quick refuel in Gravelotte, we headed to the Letaba Ranch sector of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Letaba Ranch, which shares an unfenced border with Kruger National park,can only be accessed by joining the Luvuvhu 4×4 trail.

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This trail winds its way through the Park and offers unfenced camping in wild Big Five territory: an ideal venue for the Defender Trophy. While the gripping drought was clear to everyone, we did come across elephant, impala, giraffe, kudu and zebra, and were surprised to see a herd of buffalo near our campsite on the banks of the Great Letaba River. What a privilege to camp wild, knowing that any wild animal could stroll through the camp at any time. Needless to say, the campfire was stoked rather enthusiastically for most of the evening. Morning in the bush is almost magical. It is like the calm before the storm. And the coffee just tastes so much better. Then that Lowveld sun hits you and you’re less reluctant to break-up camp before it becomes really hot.

And so the last day of the 2016 Defender Trophy arrived. Once again, we departed the camp at 8am. The convoy wound its way towards the Great Letaba River, which forms the divide between North and South of Letaba Ranch. We deflated tyres, crossed rivers, there were plenty of photos snapped and in single file (to minimise impact) on the tracks we drove on, before we cleared the soft sand on the opposite bank. There we inflated the tyres again, and it was time to explore this unknown sector of the more than 3 million hectares of land, that make up the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park.

The tracks loosely followed the Great Letaba River, before swinging away to the Little Letaba River. We drove past the exclusive new Klein Letaba camp, before following the Little Letaba, with spectacular views across the opposite bank into Kruger. This river previously formed the western boundary of the Kruger.After the only other flat tyre was changed (caused by an original fence pole that was left protruding next to the track) we exited Letaba Ranch and continued along the riverbanks.  In this area, the Kruger fence line is reinforced by three thick metal cables to prevent elephant from molesting the adjacent local communities. But alas, the cables did not stop them: we came across broken fence poles and elephant dung all the way. It seems nothing can stop these 6 000kg animals coming and going as they please.

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The convoy continued onto the white sand of the Little Letaba where it veers out of Kruger. Again we deflated tyres and continued on tracks upriver for approximately one-and-a-half hours before regrouping for a final photo. Then it was on to Baleni where Tsonga women still perform the ancient tradition of salt harvesting. During the dry winter months the salt is sold by individual producers directly to locals and traditional healers who revere its healing properties. Even top chefs in Michelin-star restaurants use Baleni Sacred Salt for some of their speciality dishes. Our final destination was Baleni Camp, another of the African Ivory Route camps, where a colourful local dance group welcomed the Trophy to the land of the Tsonga.

After the local ladies served a sumptuous dinner fit for a king, we held the prizegiving, accompanied by much laughter, until late in the evening. The first new-old Defender Trophy went down well among the Defender enthusiasts. Instead of high-lift jacks, aftermarket differential locks, recoveries and a Camel Trophy-level of tough, the teams enjoyed the mellower yet still challenging 4×4 driving. It was this, along with the nature element, the camping, the camaraderie and, maybe most important of all, the fact that the entire family was part of the fun, that made it so special.

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And the winners were…
1st prize: Johan Evert
2nd prize: Colin Gallop
3rd prize: Brendon Lowe
Five consolation prizes went to Dave Richards, Gerwin van der Veen, Johan Opperman, Winston Ilsley and Oom Ian Theron

The venues
African Ivory Route: africanivoryroute.co.za
Letaba 4×4 Trail: dolimpopo.com
Makutsi Camp: golimpopo.com
Klein Letaba Camp: zatrax.com

Photographs courtesy of Dries Fourie from Africa Digi Photo