10 March 2023
The Superlative Adventure Club specialises in extreme road trips. LRM reader Lt Col Charles Valdes-Scott recently returned from its northernmost rally – the Baltic Sea Circle – battling against the Arctic wilderness in his Defender 110. This is his story...
Now that looks fun,” was my response to receiving a newspaper cutting from a chum, extolling the virtues of driving 10,000km around the Baltic Sea with the Superlative Adventure Club. The SAC is a German-based club that organises a number of rallies each year, usually with a few quirks such as the vehicle must be 20 years or older, no motorways, no GPS… you get the picture.
With zero hesitation I rose to the inadvertent challenge set by my mate, Lt Col Chris Sargent, whom I have known since I was eight-years old, confident that we could put up with each other in the same vehicle driving ten countries in 16 days without leaving one another at the side of the road. We paid our €1000 entry fee and registered for the Baltic Sea Circle: Winter Edition. Inevitably it was delayed a year because of the obvious, which was no bad thing as it gave me more time to find a suitable car.
The route north
It needed to be over 20-years old, rugged, reliable, adaptable and, most of all, big enough to sleep in if we got into trouble. It was always going to be a Defender. I thought about adapting my five-door nine-seater 110, but knew that a two-door 110 would allow two six-footers to sleep in the back as well as provide ample stowage space below and on the roof. I found the perfect candidate in the form of an ex-Electricity Board Td5 utility 110. It had high miles, but had been looked after and serviced consistently.
While I set out with a budget of £5000 to convert my donor, the year’s delay also meant I got a little less strict on the finances and started loading it up. The essentials were done: Discovery transfer ’box (just to get to the start in Hamburg was a long motorway trek), secondary leisure battery in the external storage box connected to the first, comfy seats with large cubby box, roof racks, decent lights (everywhere), 13,000lb winch and a full service with correct fluids for Arctic conditions. Credit is due to Rob Carter at R&E Land Rover in Salisbury for some superb work.
Useful storage below the ply boards that serve as a sleeping area
I also had three marine ply boards fitted between the sponsons in the rear. These could slide to access the cargo space they created underneath, as well as two thick garden bench mattresses, fitted perfectly to form a sleeping area, with spare kit stowed on the roof in Pelican cases, which included a comprehensive Defender spares box. I optimistically had a tank tent strapped to the side of the roof rack, but it was never to be used as the conditions mid-winter above the Arctic Circle were surprisingly cold. Surprising because I genuinely didn’t know what proper cold could be like…
Cabin mods for long-distance driving
I made further alterations over the intervening months while we waited, such as removing the rear bulkhead for improved legroom; fitting an intercom with noise reduction headsets; Masai sliding side windows, snorkel (God knows why – everything was frozen) and a bonnet bag for table and chairs (again what was I thinking – tea parties?). The good thing was that I had plenty of time to think through scenarios. The bad news was the amount of extra kit that I found and fitted ‘just in case’.
Setting off from Hamburg, Germany
Around 60 cars crossed the start line in Hamburg and while we all knew where each other was using a tracking app, we didn’t meet again until the northern tip of Norway six days later. The SAC issued each car a road book with various sites to visit and tasks to complete with a view of gaining points for the winner to gain free entry to a future SAC rally, though participation was entirely optional. Recommendations were being made as we all progressed up country as to which hotel, chalet, campsite people were staying in, though we chose to go mostly off-grid and park up in as obscure a place as possible. Every third night we would find somewhere to stay for a clean-up and reset.
By the time we got halfway up Sweden we engaged permanent four-wheel drive for improved traction. Initially the Goodrich mud tyres gripped well, as there was always a layer of snow on the periphery of the road, but soon the road surface gave way to a permanent thick layer of ice and traction was becoming a problem.
Fitting studs transformed the traction
In my naivety I went off in search of chains big enough for 255/85 16 tyres, only to be offered a small bag of studs and a nod to next door for an overpriced drill, so as to insert the studs into our tyres. We chose to place two studs parallel every third traction block, and it transformed our driving experience. A far superior solution to driving with chains and not too expensive either, with 120 studs costing approximately £100.
The frozen wilderness stretches out ahead
We were denied access to the northern tip of Norway because of bad weather. With 13km down a single lane road to the pinnacle of the continent, the snow plough drivers blocked the road as they knew they’d spend the rest of their day recovering most of us. The storm reduced visibility and the Defender’s wipers struggled to clear the frozen windscreen as the dash heater wasn’t man enough to heat the whole screen.
The route back down to the local village was treacherous, but we had a tank tow rope attached to the rear and, with studded tyres, were able to do the decent thing several times for fellow team mates. One such tow revealed a couple of tourists in a little hire car with worn tyres, dressed in jeans, with a two-year old in the back… Go figure.
Quick brew up in Honningsvåg, Norway, gives a welcome injection of warmth
There were plenty of fuel stations throughout Scandinavia so coffee and diesel were readily come by, though the quality of the coffee deteriorated the further north we went. Come the evening we would pitch up to a small town and eat locally before heading off to find somewhere suitable to kip.
Sometimes they just need a little encouragement...
Once in the mountains of Norway the excessive cold required being organised. The temperature gauge told us it was -21°C and high winds meant wind chill was dropping the outside temperature to around -40°C. Looking similar to a downed World War 2 bomber crew on the run, wearing thick trousers, hoody and fleece-lined leather boots and coat, the routine of an evening was to make yellow snow, have a tot of whiskey and wrestle oneself into an Arctic sleeping bag in a windproof and waterproof bivi bag.
Cosy but comfortable, as long as nobody kicks open the back door…
I awoke one night to feel a draught on the small amount of exposed skin of my face and closed the tiny gap in the window, deliberately left open for air to prevent excessive condensation. Nope, still a draught. I sat up and realised the back door was open! My big-footed friend had accidentally kicked the door handle in his sleep and the weighted door had swung open six inches… Enough to freeze my mucker’s feet.
It took days to get the feeling back and stoic though he is, frost nip is no joke. The next morning the Defender thought long and hard about starting, but to our relief burst reluctantly into life after an inordinately long time warming the coils.
Our intrepid duo tried to find out of the way camping locations rather than use hotels
The northern coast of Norway is stunningly desolate and unworldly beautiful. Finland is sparsely populated but remarkably sophisticated, with a plethora of exceptional places to stay, amongst the endless woodlands and lakes. We parked one night, arriving after dark, at the edge of the northeast corner of the Baltic Sea. We imagined we would wake to a beach front and twinkling waves reflecting the morning sunrise, but were surprised to find a vast field of snow blown into ridges to the distant horizon above a frozen sea.
Crossing into Estonia via the ferry in Helsinki, there was a change of pace and weather. The run down through Latvia, Lithuania into Poland through the Suwalki Gap was effortless, sleeping in the back became a distant memory as there were myriad affordable good quality places to stay, which we could book into a couple of hours before arriving.
The Defender behaved impeccably throughout, only requiring a litre of radiator fluid on the entire trip. I never needed to top up the oil, despite eagerly checking every morning, and I never opened the spares box. Throughout the whole trip we would often procrastinate as to whether there was a better vehicle for such an excursion, listing but dismissing the relevant contemporaries for various reasons. We would always return to extolling the virtues of Land Rover’s Defender – what a superb all-rounder it is.
Neither of us crossed the finish line in Hamburg as my mate was recalled to NATO Headquarters in Poland after Putin had invaded Ukraine. I returned to my job which is bringing the UK’s latest medium-weight tank, AJAX, into service.
Engine & Transmission:
• Td5 2.5 turbo diesel
• Discovery transfer ’box
• R380 five-speed manual gearbox
• Kenlow radiator fan
• Lightweight winch bumper
• 13,000lb remote winch, steering guard
• Fire & Ice side steps
• 2in lift
• Goodrich Mud Terrain tyres
• Masai side windows
• Cargo lockers
• Jerrycan holder
• Roof rack
• Reversing camera
• Spare wheel carrier
• LED lights
• Light bar
• Front and rear roof lamps
• Two wingback cloth sports seats
• Rear bulkhead removal
• Three-panel false floor with LED interior light
• Charging points from secondary external cargo locker battery
• Bluetooth stereo
• CB radio
• Intercom headsets
• Rev counter
• External temperature gauges
The Defender is for sale with a fresh MoT, as it’s someone else’s turn to have an adventure. So if you fancy an expedition-ready Defender, please email me your details at [email protected]
Find out more about what the Superlative Adventure Club can offer you. Visit superlative-adventure.com/en or call (49) 40 55 77 57 20.
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