Defender Trophy and those illusions of grandeur…
Any off-road enthusiast worth his salt has images in mind of the Camel Trophy, hailing back to the early days of hardcore, experimental overland travel, where men of steel pushed the limits of what’s physically possible in a vehicle, body and even mind. There were jungles and mud, bridges made from trees and Landys forging their path through torrid rivers, by men with unbuttoned khaki-shirts flaunting aspirational physique. They were the epitome of Adonis, gods in their own right and heroes to many a boy.
Forward to 2017 and I am one of those Defender enthusiasts, who despite my own perceptions and best intent, admittedly lacks the physical rigour and probably mental capacity to compete or partake in such events, thanks to years behind a desk. Notwithstanding, the fact that I own, drive (daily) and love my Defender. Imagine then, my surprise when I met a man named Johan Kriek, now affectionately known as Kriekskie: slender and towering with rugged (albeit sparse) facial hair with a shared admiration of the iconic brand, who let me know about the return of the Defender Trophy. With a reassuring, yet confident tone he muttered after several inspired questions from my direction: Ja-nee man, kom saam. Me, do a Defender Trophy?
But… I have no knowledge of bamboo bridge construction, nor can I carry vehicle parts on my back across raging rivers. Then, there’s the mental endurance issue, and honestly it’s better to button up my designer outdoor gear, trust me. But I was keen. Super keen. Cut then, to very little further convincing and the lead-up, of what was sold to me as a family event. I left Johannesburg on Wednesday afternoon to make the 10am next-day start. Some night driving was required, but I am an intrepid and fearless explorer, I thought. I can handle it.
Seven hours of gruelling wind, a gushing rain-storm and remarkably poor B-roads (read: national road to Polokwane, yes the N1, average to light rain and a mild easterly) to a Copa-Copa bush-lodge near the Punda Maria gate of the Kruger National Park where the activities would due to commence… “I am on the trophy,” I thought, and suddenly reality set in at 1:37am. I found fragments of sleep in between the anticipation and considered for brief seconds those legends who built this fanciful notion. We awoke to a rather dreary Limpopo sky, amid excitement, we (I convinced my wife and daughter to join me as I set out to conquer Limpopo, the last frontier for exploring man) saw the distinctive box-shaped vehicles spotted in a field and found some soaked tents… A chap named Tom, with a peculiar and may I add rather colourful hat, peered from the shutters and rang out a hearty “Howdy mate!” He was in good spirits for someone who made the journey from Zimbabwe the day before.
A quick walk to the gate, revealed a mass of BF Goodrich flags, banners, inflated arches and branding as far as you could see, with more beautiful vehicles off-course, adorned in stickers from willing sponsors. Great fanfare! drums and dancers, many people and palpable enthusiasm as we set off in intervals to follow a set of pre-determined co-ordinates and made our way into the Thamavudzi Mountains to follow the infamous Luvuvhu 4×4 eco-trail and then into the wild Makuya Park. This section proved challenging, as literally minutes in, a rather sobering call came over the radio while we navigated the wet and clay-rutted path, drenched from the previous evening: “I’m off, I’m off”. Not too long after, I was in the mud armed with recovery straps, desperately trying to remember all the info from the off-road course I attended four years ago and having delusions of grandeur about my importance in all of this as a formidable participant in the Trophy. Albeit for about two minutes until we got Fourie out of the ditch and he could help himself again.
The rest of the day we carved through brush, followed twee-spoor paths and made our way to the Luvuvhu River through incredible topography and awe-inspiring sights, to where we hunkered down for the night on the banks, against a backdrop of moonlit rockface and some nearby hippo. A suitable explorer’s bonfire with new friends, equally inspired and obviously as thirsty as me after the adrenaline-filled exploration of the day. Day two started somewhat slower, few scuttling to get their gear packed as the horn sounded for a briefing. A couple of pointed words, new co-ordinates for the day and a circle-like gesture in the air from Kriekskie, and the convoy rolled out again. We made our way to Awelani Lodge, 12km from the Kruger National Park Pafuri Gate for another evening of exchanging stories about our now ever-growing and increasingly confident Conquest of the North.
The last day, we followed the Madimbo Corridor along the Limpopo River, which forms the boundary between South Africa and Zimbabwe. We teasingly enquired if Tom felt the need to go home (which was on the other side of this river), but that crazy Englishman was adamant he was continuing, odd-hat and all. So, we did. Cutting through Poppalin Safari Ranch to access the wide Limpopo for some fun in the sun, Defender style! Fifty contenders and 25 vehicles from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Britain and Australia competed for the biggest splash and most impressive desktop picture, followed by a quick stop at the white lion breeding programme en route to prizegiving that evening at Awelani Lodge. Ready with a warm meal and refreshments for what can only be compared to a youthful new-year’s celebration.
First prize went to a very deserving father-and-son team, Brendon and Evan Lowe who diligently found every tree name, navigated the mysterious co-ordinates and figured out that apparently a cow has two teats on an udder (really?), gaining them a brand new set of BF Goodrich KO2 tyres. Second place went to Nic Smart and Mike Miller, and from what I could tell, they deserved the drinking trophy as well. Third was rounded up by Alan and Kayle Faul, Barry Fourie and Johan van Wyk, David Wafer and Joe de Bruin. This, now that I think about it, was made up of about five vehicles, which would explain why I only got seventh. Then again, if you visit the Facebook page, there are about 25 ‘winners’, which means technically no one really lost. All I can conclude is that, if, like me, you are a middle-aged, mild-mannered family man and you happen to find a Defender in your garage, get on the Trophy. It’s an experience that will put some much-needed excitement in your life, provide a couple of days of escape for the family and just maybe, you find yourself undoing one more button of that khaki shirt as you drive home wearing a smirk that will remain for long after.
Text: JJ Opperman