Landy goes soft-roading

Text and photographs: Ralton Bentley

The new Land Rover Defender 90 is an extremely exciting drive. There’s no luxury here, and there’s no perfectly smooth, absolutely silent cruise in this vehicle. No, but it’s exciting, wild, untamed, and energetic.

Just sitting in the Defender makes you feel like you’re out in the bush, and that you’re part of the “African Experience”.

Off we went, my wife Renee and I, for a quiet three-hour drive from Durban to the Umfolozi Game Reserve, along the old R102 to Richards Bay, and then the N2 to Mtubatuba for diesel and a bit of pavement shopping.

The Land Rover may not be the softest ride, but it is softer than my previous vehicle (a double-cab bakkie)! The sixth gear provided a smooth, reasonably quiet drive – quite pleasant, it was.

Mtubatuba is a very clean, friendly town, and we felt quite safe during the 20 minutes we spent here, while I refuelled and Renee explored the wares of the hawkers on the pavements.

The drive to the main gate of Umfolozi along the R618, though, takes you through some built-up rural townships, and we felt a little wary on occasions. It’s not the prettiest welcome to this tourist attraction.

We were staying at the Mpila tented safari camp, which meant we had two or three hours to drive around before checking in, and even in this short time we managed to see elephant, hyena, zebra, and warthog, to name but a few. Umfolozi has a few off-road loops that I eagerly turned onto to test the Defender. Yes, a very “soft” 4×4 experience, I know, but an exciting and comforting experience none the less. The Defender easily negotiated the routes in high range, so low range must only be needed in serious sand or to climb walls?

We stopped at lunchtime at one of the picnic sights, found a quiet, isolated table and tucked into the sandwiches and Sauvignon Blanc! Pure bliss – warm humid weather, quiet African bush, a beautiful view of the White Umfolozi River valley, perfect company, wonderful wine and food – and the ever present knowledge that there could easily be a lion or hyena, or similar, watching us.

None of the picnic or campsites are fenced; it’s just you and the wild! And there are plenty of gentle reminders, in the form of bright red painted signs, that this is a big-5 reserve…

Arriving at Mpila was an exciting affair: “Beware the elephant bull walking around the campsite”, we were told, “don’t try to stop the hyena stealing your food”, and “don’t walk around at night”, were some of the messages we received on checking in.

We quickly unpacked, had a half-hour lie down, and then off to the waterhole hide we went, to see what we could see. Giraffe, impala, zebra, eagles, baboons, waterbuck, wildebeest, and more, is the answer: there’s plenty of game in this park! The Defender was a joy too: a good height for game viewing, and comfortable to drive around in.

The tented safari camp is an adventure in itself. The kitchen is separate from the tent (so that the tent and occupants don’t get damaged when the wild animals come and trash the place looking for food!). The fridges and cupboards have deep gouges where animals’ teeth and claws have damaged them in their attempts to get to the food!

Our closest neighbour was, in simple terms, too far away to help. But that was part of the adventure… Quiet, peaceful solitude, just you and the lions. Out with the red wine and brickettes, and soon the lamb chops and boerie were ready. We had hardly sat down on our patio to eat, darkness upon us, when a hyena came walking along looking for food. Wow! Although it just walked off, it left us feeling very aware of where we were and exactly how vulnerable we were!

Midnight saw the return of the hyena looking for food in the rubbish bin. Again, a scary part of the adventure, not knowing exactly what was out there! How safe is it really inside these canvas tents? Can I shine a torch onto the hyena?

We had securely fastened our bin before bed, removed all the food, and made it animal-safe as requested. Our neighbours hadn’t, though, and there was rubbish all around their camp in the morning as we departed on our early morning drive.

Again, loads of game was to be seen, all while experiencing the additional excitement of driving the Land Rover!

Then it was back to camp and, after a nice hot shower and breakfast, off back to Durban.

In closing: Mpila tented camp at Umfolozi is a wonderful adventure and stopover, while the new Land Rover Defender 90 is the most exciting vehicle I’ve ever owned!

GPS Co-ordinates: Main Gate: S28 15 42.8 E32 00 59.0
Malaria: Yes, low risk.
Safety: The R618 into Umfolozi can be dangerous. Don’t stop along this stretch.
Roads/Vehicle: The roads are good.
Other: One night is not enough!