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19 October 2023
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South Africa once again offers challenges for Defenders : credit: © Patrick Cruywagen
A group of dependable Defenders take on the 2023 Defender Trophy, which traverses the rocky Soutpansberg range, otherwise known as Salt Pan Mountain

The week-long Defender Trophy started with a leisurely Sunday afternoon reporting for duty at the South Gate Country Lodge near Polokwane, South Africa. For Team Front Runner (myself, Michael de Bruyn and his 13-year old son Nathan), this involved a five-hour drive north from Johannesburg in Michael’s well cared for Defender 110 TDCi. I wasn’t the only one who’d travelled from abroad for the event; young James Birkholtz, who works on luxury yachts in Fort Lauderdale in the US, had flown in to join his father, Tony.

Smiles all round. Nothing beats a convoy of Defenders

The first thing you do after checking in is to sticker up your Defender; this took a while as there were loads of sponsors. I used the time to reacquaint myself with some of the old Trophy legends, such as Chris Ash and Nick Smart. Chris was not taking part but had driven up from Johannesburg to greet everyone, while Nick and his partner Tiffany Blignaut would be bringing up the rear in his 130. They were also the Trophy mechanics – otherwise known as Land Rover royalty.

Starting out in the dust

The first Defender Trophy was held back in 2004 in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, a mecca for 4x4 enthusiasts. While most subsequent events have been held in South Africa, the trophy has also visited neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique.

Before the first bit of off-roading, we had a quick breakfast stop at the Polokwane Land Rover dealership, where the only old Defenders in attendance were ours. Not far from here, we took a gravel track which ran parallel to the busy N1. Centre diff-locks were engaged, and the gaps widened between vehicles because of the dust. The Louis Trichardt Air Force base we drove past was active during the Bush Wars of the ’70s and ’80s. Private pilots took off in their private planes from here to assist with the war effort.

Tiffany Blignaut was one of the event mechanics

After a short tar section north on the N1, we turned off onto the Bluegumpoort Forest road. We were supposed to take another steeper and rockier access road into the Soutpansberg Mountains, but the rain and mist ended those plans. The Defenders (and sole Grenadier) were starting to look the part, thanks to a covering of red dust and mud. We enter a lane of the tallest Bluegum trees I have ever seen. The mist and low light further enhance the dramatic atmosphere of the occasion.

The rain and red gravel tracks made things rather interesting

The wet gravel track takes us through private farmlands and nature reserves; Johan has received permission from the landowners so that we can proceed through the locked gates. Eventually, one of the gates leads us into Happy Rest Nature Reserve, where we start to see our first wild animals, such as kudu and impala. We continue to fight through the rain and mist; the yellow media Defender, which used to be a game viewer, slides off the main track and into a ditch. Due to its high centre of gravity, things don’t look good and it’s in danger of toppling over. It takes a few vehicles to first secure it before winching it out. Everyone is happy when we eventually drive to the campsite. The weather and the hills remind me a bit of Scotland though the big roaring fire and the smell of Karoo lamb sizzling on the coals tell me this is Africa.

Team Front Runner taking a break under their awning

Defenders in the mist

We awake to more mist and low clouds; no one is happy about packing away the wet tents and gear. From Happy Rest, we wind our way to the valley floor, passing through several farm gates. The mist and clouds clear, and the sun makes a welcome appearance. Johan barks out a set of instructions over the radio. “Engage low range and brace yourselves for a long, rocky climb.” Michael is a good driver, and second gear low range does the trick. Unfortunately, others are not so lucky and need several attempts at the climb; one of the Defenders cannot engage its locking centre diff, which makes the rocky climb even harder.

Scrabbling up the red rock tracks in Limpopo Province can be a bit challenging

This Trophy would not have been possible without the wonderful people of the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) as they run the Soutpansberg Mountain Range as one big game reserve. To do this, they need strong relationships with the farmers and landowners. We have a quick stop at the EWT rest farm before continuing towards the Sand Rover. The landscape changes in the afternoon as we make our way into the American-owned Bahiti Nature Reserve; the tracks now seem sandier, while we see loads of palm trees for the first time. We also start to see more wildlife, such as buffalo and wildebeest. I spot a marshland in the valley below as we descend towards our campsite. The tree-filled campsite is perfect for a convoy to laager (not lager) up for a peaceful night. Barking baboons on a nearby hilltop have other ideas.

 

Day three begins with a presentation by Oldrich van Schalkwyk, the MD of Wild Estate, home of the Bahiti Nature Reserve. He shares many interesting facts about the 210km-long Soutpansberg Mountain range, the most northern mountain range in South Africa. He also speaks of the several different microclimates on the mountain; we can attest to that as we have experienced massive temperature changes as we have climbed up and down the various passes. At times it felt as if one minute we were in the sunny red sands of the Kalahari and the next in the cold misty Knysna forest. Oldrich finishes his talk by emphasising that we are driving through a critical conservation area.

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Descending the pass demanded concentration

We depart from Bahiti and make our way to the start of the Van Collers Pass near Waterpoort. Legend has it that it was built by a local farmer tired of being cut off from the world when the Sand River floods. His wife used to drive the pass in her Nissan Pulsar. For us it was low-range first gear on the long, steep decline of the pass. There was a dramatic drop-off to our left with lovely views over the river. It was slow going as we crawled down the steep pass before taking on the steep climb back towards the EWT’s rest farm, our next campsite. Johan Fouche bent a trailing arm while James struggled with his centre diff again. That evening at camp, Nick and Tiffany worked for hours to repair both vehicles. While sitting around the fire, Kath Vise from the EWT gave us a talk on how they are trying to save species, protect habitats and serve the people of the region. “People are not aware of what is up here. We have 594 tree species, over 550 spider species, over 140 reptile species and 152 mammal species. The diversity is just off the scale.”

The start of the Doug Wilson Pass

Day four kicked off with what was undoubtedly one of my highlights of the 2023 Defender Trophy. We were the first group of 4x4s to drive the nearly completed Doug Wilson Pass. The EWT built the pass because it connects the eastern and western sections of the Madike Nature Reserve. This saves staff around three hours of driving time. Johan Kriek was quick to warn drivers of the dangers. “First gear, low range and don’t touch your clutch.” It was one of the most prolonged and beautiful descents I have ever driven. The red, rocky Soutpansberg mountain tops surrounded us. Once again, we had one or two technical issues, so Nick and Tiffany were kept busy. These old Defenders are certainly getting well-needed TLC. After the long descent, several smaller climbs and descents lay ahead. It took the best part of the morning to do the pass, but what a special drive it was.

Driving the Cape can be full of surprises

After a short stop at Vevo to top up with essentials, we made our way to a nearby quarry where one of the sponsors, Securetech, demonstrated how to use recovery equipment correctly. From here, it was a short transit to our overnight camp at the Blouberg Nature Reserve.  We were lucky enough to see a rather large group of giraffes just as we stopped to set up camp, and the reserve is also home to buffalo and leopards.

The final day of the trophy consisted of a drive through the Blouberg Nature Reserve, a region best known for being home to over 1000 breeding pairs of Cape Vultures. Each vehicle was given a set of GPS coordinates they had to visit while filling in the daily questionnaire, which related to the area we drove through, Land Rovers and the event sponsors. They would help determine the eventual Trophy winners.

Cape Vulture spotting

After lunch, we drove up a 4x4 track to a viewpoint where we could observe some of the vultures. Incredibly the whole side of the mountain was white from their droppings. Watching these nearly extinct animals soar on the thermals was a great way to finish the Trophy. All that was left to do was drive to Camp Aquila for the prize-giving ceremony. Trevor and Helen Siebel were declared the 2023 winners and received a set of Cooper Tyres for their efforts. I have done over ten Defender Trophies, but this was by far the most special, not only because of the company but also for the privilege of being able to drive through such a unique and bio-diverse area.

Well, there had to be a winner, I suppose

 

Team Front Runner

Michael de Bruyn (Front Runner Production Manager) and son Nathan

Front Runner’s core business is roof racks. Tell us about yours and what you have on it. I use my 2011 Defender 110 TDCi as an overlander, and to create extra space, I have the rugged Slimline II roof rack with a Front Runner roof top tent, which is the lightest tent on the market. It also has a low profile which helps to keep my centre of gravity low.

What about protection against the elements? I have the Easy-Out 2.5m awning with the quick-release brackets, so taking my tent and awning off is a breeze. We recently did a family trip to the West Coast, and for that, I took along the wind/sun break, which fits nicely to the side of the awning. So you can create your little makeshift gazebo.

What is your favourite Front Runner accessory? It must be the two gullwing windows. Overlanding and camping should be a pleasurable experience. Having easy access to my kitchen on the one side and my recovery gear on the other does just that. I also never leave home without my Dometic fridge.

See defendertrophy.com for announcements of upcoming event dates.

 

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