13 October 2022
Meet the family embarking on the ultimate overland trip – a never-ending world adventure with pre-departure planning that included intensive off-road driving tuition from Edd Cobley. Dave Phillips got an exclusive sneak peak
In the spring of 2021 the Betts family – dad Nigel, mum Linda and teenage son Oliver – sold their family home and most of their belongings to explore the big, wide world in a converted Defender 130. At the time of writing they are in Sicily, Italy, and about to head for Norway. Soon they will be in America – and after that, who knows? Nigel describes this as a never-ending road trip with no finish line.
Before departing for their extraordinary adventure, the Betts made a detour to Britain’s smallest county to prepare themselves for the challenge of driving well off the beaten track. Tixover quarry in Rutland, to be precise. It is the off-road headquarters of Protrax – a challenging off-road site that could be likened to a lunar landscape was it not for the water, deep mud and occasional jungle of undergrowth. Protrax is a specialist off-road training outfit run by father and son Vince and Edd Cobley, and the answer to help the trio survive their adventures without denting their vehicle or their pride. I interrupted their training briefly to take some photographs and ask Nigel a few questions...
Training at Tixover quarry
How did you get the idea of giving it all up and travelling around the world?
Since boyhood I have harboured a burning desire to travel long distances. Fast forward around 40 years to 2016, around my 50th birthday, and the old rumblings returned – and what my son Oliver refers to as ‘the world’s longest mid-life crisis’ was about to begin.
How did it come about?
I worked for Ferrari in Formula 1 from 1996 until March 2021. The last six years were spent working in Maranello, Italy, as an F1 Purchasing Manager for the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 team.
The relentless pressure that working in the F1 industry entails had taken its toll and had already claimed the lives of colleagues and friends. I desperately needed change, but the real inspiration was a chance viewing of a BBC feature about the Bell family – a family not unlike our own, a family that proved the life I dreamed of was attainable. It just so happened that the Bells were in southern France and, after exchanging a few messages on Facebook, they were soon sitting around our kitchen table regaling us with stories. The seed was well and truly sown. Meeting the Bell family made it seem more real. Even so, how could we fund it?
The 130’s side boxes house the pantry and provide other storage
Linda was very excited at the prospect of going, but not sure if we could do it, with finance being her biggest concern. Oliver was also very excited but his main worries were encounters with bears in Canada and violent drug cartels in Mexico.
Linda refused to believe in the project until we found the vehicle, so you can imagine her elation when we drove to Germany to put a deposit down on the 130 that would become Mandy.
Why a Land Rover?
I have always loved cars, particularly British cars and had leased a series of Discovery 3s. For the last six years we had our indestructible Freelander 2, a much-underrated workhorse. The choice of a Defender 130 was led by the need to mount two roof tents.
Who came up with the design/layout of your overland vehicle?
I did most of the specification but Linda was involved at each stage and approved the major elements as they came along. It’s been a truly massive challenge for us and boiled down to tools versus clothes. I like to be prepared for every eventuality but I had to learn to manage this urge – and the chainsaw made way for the dinner jacket…
Why a 300Tdi model?
It was a conscious decision based upon the ease of repair of the 300Tdi, but also realism, as the price of Td5 130s was ridiculously high.
Protrax boss Edd Cobley imparts advice during the Betts’ training
Why did you opt for professional off-road driving tuition?
On our travels we will be driving our ‘house’ (and all our possessions) across some very tricky terrain and we would be foolish to attempt this without the very best training and preparation.
A lesson I learned from F1 is that quality nearly always outstrips ever other consideration. Vince and Edd Cobley of Protrax are legends in the off-road world and their experience in unrivalled.
Linda was nervous but Edd’s tuition was superb; his ability to gently push her beyond her perceived capabilities was highly effective. Real-life advice about approach and departure angles, lean angles and low-range/diff-lock management was fantastic.
The simple rules that Edd shared gave us the confidence to assess any situation, decide if we can proceed and manage any risk effectively.
During their travels the Betts will experience all sorts of terrain
Did you seek any mechanical advice?
The guys at RST Land Rovers in Essex were a huge help – and Edd gave us ongoing support for our final preparations before we headed off.
How will this impact you as a family?
We are a tight-knit family. With a separate Darche tent and annex for us and for Oliver, everyone has their own space when we camp. Naturally, there will be arguments and disputes from time to time, but we’ll manage these together as we always have. Once everyone has had their say, Linda confirms that she’s right! I’m joking, of course…
What are your plans for Oliver’s education during life on the road?
We want Oliver to be able to look back on these journeys as incredible learning experiences. We want to collectively embrace every opportunity to work with young people and animals. Our simple philosophy is to leave every place that we visit a little better than we found it. Even if it’s just to make a child smile – leave no trace but happy faces.
We want to meet interesting people and experience new cultures. Remote living fascinates us. As a family we have enjoyed a number of trips to Wester Ross in the West Highlands, which whetted our appetite for this kind of life.
What do your friends and family make of your decision?
No tears, we are not that sort of family, and not everyone was completely on-board with our decision to travel during a pandemic. But for financial reasons we needed to get moving or this would never happen.
Learning how to pack efficiently is a vital skill for an expedition like this
Do you think you’ll stay on the road forever?
Nothing is ruled out. We want to travel as far and as long as we can remain fit, healthy and funds will allow us. If we find somewhere perfect, we may hang around for an extended period.
What parts of the world are you all most looking forward to experiencing?
As part of the ex-pat community in Italy while I was working for Ferrari, we built up many contacts around North America and, coupled with 25 years’ of relationships in Formula 1, we are very excited about our plans to visit friends in Moab, New York, LA and Kentucky, Buenos Aires and Panama, among other places. Our aim is also to spend extended periods in remote locations in Alaska, Canada and the mountains of South America.
Linda gets to grips with the new kitchen
Knowing what you know now, would you still start this project?
Difficult question. For me the answer is yes, but I’m not so sure about Linda and Oliver. With all the setbacks, it’s hard not to think: “Is it all worth it?” It better be – and instinctively I know it will be – because I cannot turn back, I must push forward.
• June 2016: Decision to begin the project
• Feb 2019: Name Itchy Feet Overland decided upon.
• May 2019: LHD 1998 Defender 130 located in Frankfurt Germany and driven back
• June 2019 Work begun on restoring Mandy at Wyer Historic Racing in Essex
• Feb 2021: Non running vehicle passed to RST for fitment of new Winchester Gearbox and Transfer Box. Family return to UK to complete the build of the Defender.
• Mar 2021: Engine and mechanical work completed at Loughran Brothers in Towcester.
• Apr 2021: Tembo Roof rack and internal storage drawers fitted by Stable Fabrication in Towcester.
• May-Jun 21: Final electrical and water system work carried out by Alan Strachan of CNC AWS Engineering
• July 2021: Final revisions to the rear suspension – followed by departure to Italy.
Main modifications and equipment
• ROPS (Roll-Over Protection System): safetydevices.com/expedition/products/roll-cages
• Canopy, rear bumper and internal storage: tembo4x4.com
• Terrafirma A12000 winch and full underbody protection: terrafirma4x4.com
• Falken 235/85/16 Wildpeak MT/01 mud tyres: falkentyre.com/en
• Off-grid lithium battery power system with three-way charging (vehicle, solar and shore power): portablepowertech.com
• Ardcase pedal lock, Optimill security bonnet and door hinges: landroverdefendersecurity.com
• Combi fridge slide and integrated partner steel stove: atoverland.com
• Modular G4 seats and matching cubby box: exmoortrim.co.uk
• Maxtrax recovery system including extreme boards: maxtrax.com.au
• Darche Hi View 1600 rooftop tent, Panorama 2 1400 rooftop tent and 270-degree awning:
• 90-litre Dual-Zone Nationalluna Legacy fridge-freezer: equipt1.com/collections/national-luna
• Garmin InReach & Iridium satellite phone: gtc.co.uk
• High-performace alloy radiator, intercooler and oil cooler: pwreurope.com
• Assorted OEM and genuine spare parts: rst-landrovers.co.uk
• All engine, gearbox, diff, steering and brake fluids: pakelo.com/en/find-your-oil
• Cooking equipment and flasks: eu.stanley1913.com
• Globe Explorer G8 satellite navigation tablet: ardent.works
• Medical kit: survivalfirstaidkits.co.uk
• Camping chairs and table: helinox.eu
• Secure mounts for GoPro, iPhone, G8 Tablet and Garmin InReach: ram-mount.co.uk
• Vehicle livery: presson.co.uk
Edd Cobley’s expedition preparation tips
Old-style Defenders remain popular for overlanding as the parts are readily available all round the world. Most people with a slight mechanical background can fix/bush repair them easier than later models, but before you head off across the world it’s important to learn some basics.
Off-road skills are vital because you will probably be driving in inhospitable terrain where roads consist of tracks through the sand, rocks, mud or snow. The best way to learn them is at a reputable training company run by experts with vast experience in driving these places.
Driving techniques for mud, sand and rocks (depending on your expedition) will be needed, but factor in the ground-reading skills you’ll need to acquire for travelling long distances in a heavily-laden Land Rover. You have to understand your vehicle’s capability and use the terrain to your advantage.
Any shortcomings will soon become apparent if, for example, you are driving across a desert.
One of the biggest mistakes is thinking an expedition is a holiday – it is most definitely not. You need to plan for the worst-case scenario and there’s much to learn, including:
• Vehicle preparation
• Route planning
• Border crossing issues
• Vehicle issues
• Language barriers
• Changeable weather conditions and season (especially in Africa)
• Recovery plans in remote areas
• Fuel issues
• Road traffic accidents
• Medical issues. The list goes on…
You will need to carry spares, including oils, water and fuel. You’ll also need a puncture repair kit, jacks, tools, a wheel bearing kit and seals, propshaft UJ, ancillary belt, wheel nuts plus an assortment of nuts, bolts and screws, because corrugations on off-road routes will slowly undo your vehicle.
The list can be massive, but remember you don’t have to carry everything. Research the places where you can get parts en-route.
I have never been a roof-tent lover, but they do have massive benefits. The downside is that they put extra weight in the wrong place, making your vehicle top-heavy and possibly unstable.
Off-road driving in a heavily-loaded vehicle will put your springs and dampers through hell and you may find that replacing them with uprated ones will transform the way your vehicle drives.
Learning to use all your equipment prior to departure is crucial
If you do get stuck, you will need recovery equipment. Essential kit includes a tow rope (kinetic only if your recovery points are strong enough), electric winch and winch kit (pulley blocks, gloves, strops, shackles). I always carry a high-lift jack, which can also be used as a makeshift winch, tyre bead breaker, or even straighten bent parts with them, but training is needed as they can be dangerous. Also useful are traction boards/waffles/traction mats.
Tyre choice is important. On a long overland trip you’ll encounter all sorts of terrain, so use an all-terrain tyre. I favour Davanti Terratouras for their all-terrain ability as well as excellent on-road handling. Their wraparound tread pattern continues into the side carcass of the tyre, minimising sidewall damage and aiding off-road traction.
Edd's top ten tips
1. Get trained
2. Know your vehicle
3. Plan for the worst
4. Make sure your travelling companions are compatible
5. Research routes (and back-up plans)
6. Learn how to pack
7. Sat-nav is essential but have paper maps and compass, too
8. Make calls to friends at pre-arranged times and places
9. Have an action plan for vehicle issues
10. Finally, enjoy it!
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