09 August 2022
Stephen Elliot is a man on a mission: he wants to visit all 193 countries in the world and is using a 6x6 Defender camper to do just that. Now, with just nine countries to go, Editor Patrick Cruywagen caught up with him in London
What triggered this quest of yours? My first trip abroad was to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1970s. This was followed by a trip through Africa on the back of a Bedford lorry in the 1980s. Then came a short trip to South America followed by Asia. I was young and that was what youngsters did back then.
Then in 2005 someone said to me how many countries have you been to? It was just under 100, so I thought to myself that I might as well do them all. There are 193 countries recognised by the United Nations, I have now done 184 of them so there are only nine left to do. They are Syria, Eritrea, Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and the Central African Republic.
Is there a plan to visit the missing countries on your list? There was but the pandemic changed all of that of course. I was supposed to go to Nordkapp this summer but my work load has not allowed for it. I normally work during the summer months and then try and get away from about November through to March. I took three years off in 2012 to just travel in the Defender and did several legs including Kurdistan and Southern Africa. During this I would sometimes park it up in places like Cyprus and Ethiopia and just do other bits of travel or return to London for a short break.
Stephen has personalised the 6x6 to suit his travel needs
For anyone that's watched Blackhawk Down it makes you not want to visit Somalia, yet you did. Why? I did not drive there in the 6x6, instead I parked up in Ethiopia and got a bus to Hargeisa in Somalia; from there I used public transport to get to the coastal town of Berbera. The border post was not the most comfortable one I have ever been through as they are a law unto themselves. An hour after crossing into Somalia we were told to return to the border post but eventually they let us go on our way. The central government has no control there and it is pretty much bandit country and we had to move around with armed guards or guns for hire. They were just trying to make a buck.
Presumably you ship your Defender most of the time rather than rent? Correct. I normally ship my Defender to where I need it, as rentals are £80 to £100 a day, which is not cheap when you are away for two or three months at a time. Plus if you have not finished a specific area you are travelling in you can always leave your Defender there before returning to the UK to make some money to finance your future travels.
My plan is to ship my 6x6 to Africa now and leave it out there for a few years so that I can fill in all the blank spots before calling time on it.
Tell us about your history with Land Rovers? I have owned two in my life. The first was a 1964 Forward Control which I drove down to Niger in the 1980s when it was still safe to do so, and someone took it on to Kenya where I was reunited with it again. Now things have changed in those areas and you think twice before going to places like Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic.
Ample storage space for the man who often travels alone
Tell us about your 6x6: I was looking for a Defender in 2006 to drive from London to South Africa in and then I saw this 300Tdi 6x6 for sale on the internet through Foleys. It was previously owned by a chap called Michael Groves and had started out its life in Germany so it was a left hooker. He had told Foleys to build it according to his needs and specifications. He then took it around Australia, South America and Africa.
When I saw it I had to have it and I paid £28,0000 for it which is probably a little more than I should have. It had done 128,000 km. The first trip I did in it was London to Lagos, Nigeria, then I shipped it to Durban before doing a loop around Southern Africa; this was in 2007.
Where else have you been in it? It stayed in the UK and Europe for the next five years and then I did a big trip to Cameroon in 2012. I was planning on driving it back from there but I had a friend who had malaria and I did not fancy driving through Nigeria.
Despite the fact that I have visited most of the continent of Africa there are some blanks that I need to fill in. I have not been to the most southern point of Africa, Cape Agulhas. Plus I need to do the world-famous Garden Route. There are also some parks in Zambia that I would like to visit such as Kasanka, home to millions of fruit bats.
Stephen likes the no-drama qualities of the 300Tdi. The double locks system has meant no security issues to date.
Why a 6x6 and not a regular 4x4? It is a proper 6x6 and not a 6x4, I am not the most fantastic off-road driver and for me it is just a question of using the Defender to get from point A to B really.
I have been in some really wet and technical sandy conditions and I have had to engage the 6x6 system to get me through. I have actually managed to get myself stuck in some deep mud where I had to be pulled out but that was just due to my bad driving and not the 6x6 system. You can’t drive very far in 6x6 because of the stresses and strains it puts on the system and it is only to be used for relatively short periods of time when the tracks or roads are extreme or very bad.
I remember when travelling through the border area between the DRC and the Congo, which consisted of seemingly impassable steep, muddy hills. I was told my Defender looked like a tank by my friend who was watching from the outside of the 6x6. You engage the system with the push of some buttons on the dash – it needs compressed air to work, of course.
Cage folds down onto windscreen for extra security
Your 6x6 had a lockdown makeover: That's right. The previous owner Michael Groves was an engineer and he had a lot of stuff on there. Over the years I have taken lots of it off as I did not need it. The previous rear section was made from marine ply which is rather heavy, so when Foleys recently added a new back we went for aluminium instead, which is much lighter. Now it has a top speed of around 65 mph if there is no headwind; prior to the rebuild I would have been lucky to average 50 mph.
I have yet to take it abroad again thanks to the pandemic but have done some local trips in it. The word 'head-turner' is a bit of an understatement when describing the reaction it gets because so many people come over to me to have a chat about it. They ask things like: 'Is it a fire engine?' because it is in Ferrari red. It creates a lot of interest. Defender drivers love their Defenders and we have a comradeship on the road that you would not have if in a Ford Mondeo.
Two spares – it is a 6x6, after all.
I see you have a winch and hi-lift jack. Have you had to use them? I did once get the winch out and it didn't work out too well when I broke down on a back road in Zambia. I think this is more due to my lack of experience than the capability of the equipment. The hi-lift has never seen any action.
I have had punctures but never on the front wheels and you can still drive if you get punctures on the rear wheels, so I would just drive to a puncture repair place. I have never had to physically change a wheel on the road.
A clean look from the outside
There's not a lot of gear on the outside of the 6x6: That's right. I only have a solar panel on the roof and everything else is enclosed. The reason for this is that I don’t want weight on the roof for fear of rolling, so I try and keep the weight down low. I normally travel on my own and even though I carry a lot of gear I am able to comfortably fit it all into masses of storage space.
Can you explain what it all does? The one side with the double door contains my whole kitchen including a fridge, gas cooker, microwave, food and everything else needed to cook for myself. I have a potty-style toilet for emergency use only as I tend to use the bushes and a spade normally. Everything is enclosed, which works from a security point of view.
The other side of the vehicle contains my water, camera gear and chairs. I also store my tools, spares and gas bottles there. All these storage doors lift up and not sideways like on the old design; they now work as an awning when open. I did not want to add a whole extra awning as it would have added weight and potentially got damaged when on scratchy tracks.
Fridge, cooker and a full field kitchen
How long does it take to set it all up? Literally seconds. After a long day of driving and you are tired all you need to do is to push the roof up and go to sleep. There is no faffing with poles or getting dirty. It is just so convenient when all you want is a can of beans and some rest.
Have you weighed it? Well I can carry 360 litres of diesel and that probably gives me a range of about 3000 kms. I have not had it on a weigh bridge recently but I think that when fully laden it must be over four tonnes. The previous owner had it closer to five but I’ve made it lighter and taken some bits off which were heavy and overkill for Africa. It even has a vice on the front, which looks great but I have never used it. The lighter body has made a massive difference. Paul at Foleys has been great at helping me simplify it all; he is an experienced operator and I trust him.
Every overland vehicle needs a good sound system. It literally takes seconds to set up the bed
Stephen engages 6x6 by simply pushing a button
What about services and fixing it? Whenever I pass through a big town with a reputable mechanic I tell them to cast an eye over it and if there is something that needs doing I tell them to go for it. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Any dark moments you want to share? I was out in Uzbekistan on my own and I knew I had to get back over to Turkey on a long and slow road via Iran, then it did get a little hard but I got through it. The worst bit of that drive was on the road just south of Syria when I got stopped about ten times. This included night driving which I just hate to do as you are not really seeing the terrain you are driving on. I normally pull over at about 6 pm at a campsite with a bar somewhere.
On the road – sort of. Pic taken before the recent makeover
Your roof-mounted spotlights have a cage in front of them. Is that to protect them? No, that cage has a hinge and comes down and covers the windscreen and you can padlock it to the bars on the side. So it is a security feature really. The passenger doors also have bars that can be padlocked in place so I have double-locked doors. I have never had anyone try to break into my Defender thus far. I have been very fortunate. Remember, usually I am with the vehicle and when I have left it somewhere while heading off on a plane, it was somewhere with decent security.
Have you had to pay any bribes? When crossing from Angola into the DRC the customs officers did try and take me down a dead end for some special attention and searching. When I go through a border post everything is locked, I only open one door or box at a time for inspection so I can watch what they do. I have done enough travelling in Africa to know how to look after myself.
My next challenge is to figure out how to visit those last remaining countries on my list. I am hopeful that things will open up again. Until then I will carry on taking local trips and visiting those countries that have already opened up again. You can't be in a hurry when driving a 300Tdi 6x6 Defender.
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