01 March 2019
Want to know how to overland around the world in a Defender 130 with your family and not kill each other? Just ask Graeme Bell, he’s even written books about it
Graeme Bell, 43, is an author and photographer with a difference. Having lived nomadically with his wife Luisa, 42, and children Keelan, 19, and Jessica, 14, for the past eight years in a Defender 130 and travelled 150,000 miles across 49 different countries, he decided to write about his experiences. In fact, it is the family’s main source of income, and as such means that in theory they can spend their entire life overlanding.
So far, Graeme has penned three books, and his aim is to inspire others to travel our planet. Their first book titled ‘We Will Be Free’ documents the challenges they faced as they set off to explore Africa (25,000 kilometre journey through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia) and South America, such as breakdowns and having to import expensive parts to repair their Defender, crossing the Amazon and tackling the Andes.
“That book is really about our transformation,” reveals Graeme. “The story of how we extracted ourselves from the real world. It was more than a holiday; it was a declaration of independence and breaking away from the mindset of consumption and the South African version of the American dream. We were putting ourselves in situations where you strive or give up, and it was transforming our family.”
It proved to be very popular (so much so it paid for them to go across the Americas and down to Mexico), so Graeme penned another book, ‘Travel The Planet Overland’, which is an overlander’s resource. Graeme takes the reader by the hand and walks them through the reality of travelling the world. In it, he introduces the different types of overlanders and the vehicles they prefer based on the fluidity of their cash flow. He also offers practical tips on vehicle modifications and field mechanics, finding good campsites, product reviews, medical considerations, safety tactics, advice on technical driving and border crossings, and perhaps most crucially, the emotional preparations required for overland travel.
“This was Luisa’s idea – we spoke about writing a book based on what we had learnt, and by now we had been on the road three and a half years so we were no longer novices. There were so many things I wish people had told me about so hopefully this book walks people through overlanding, as well as inspire them. Unlike the first book which was self-published on Amazon, this was a kick-starter, so people pre-brought the book. It also did very well, raising us just over $80,000 in total before fulfilment expenses.”
A jungle girl found the sweets, Oiyapoque, Brazil
The Masai and the Land Rover, Serengeti
A Belgian overlander after a cup of tea in Patagonia
Daughter, Jessica, in Alaska
Their last book is a sequel to ‘We Will Be Free’, and is titled ‘Overlanding the Americas - La Lucha’ (which means The Fight in Spanish). The story picks up in Ecuador, and chronicles their (almost) linear journey from Argentina to Alaska via Central America where they toured every country except El Salvador, covering 125,000 kilometres in four years. It demonstrates how, with passion and perseverance, they overcome massive geographic, personal and financial obstacles, in order to achieve their dream. Like all of their books, they’re rich with expertise and equally enjoyable to read.
“To me it was more than overlanding, we were there during a very interesting time in US history as it was the presidential election, and I’m very interested in politics, so I also documented what we were experiencing but in a totally unbiased way.”
If you are seriously considering overlanding, but worried about the pitfalls of being independent and self-reliant then these books are invaluable – this is no rose-tinted account of life off the beaten tracks filled with superfluous information. It is for this reason no doubt that they have become renowned in the overlanding community. Moreover, it is not just down to the success of their books, they also have a prominent web presence sharing their stories on every imaginable social media channel going.
Their latest venture is their YouTube page and Patreon channel where you can watch entertainingly brilliant videos about family life on the road and the many adventures that they find themselves encountering. Their short documentaries are delivered with the same passion as their books, most probably because Graeme has always fancied being a film maker – and was actually accepted to film school when he left high school but could not afford the fees.
“We had to reinvent ourselves to basically survive, and we’ve been filming our journey since we left but we never put together any videos. Selling books is great but not everyone reads. So we created this channel to show people how we really live – Instagram and Facebook can be very deceptive, it’s so often the most perfect representation of what life is like. We do a lot of interesting things and go to amazing places so for the last few months we’ve been uploading two, three videos a month, of our journey.
“The archive footage is generally of day to day life, but is broken up into different elements like gear reviews, food we make, wonderful people that we’ve met and also social commentary of the country we’re in. It’s very relaxed and fun and people seem to be enjoying it.”
Graeme, Luisa, and daughter Jessica
The Bell family, by their own admission are ordinary people who seek the extraordinary. After Graeme graduated high school he hitchhiked across South Africa and then spent another year doing the same in Israel. It was those journeys that shaped his love for the freedom of the open road.
Luisa grew up moving around South Africa too, and like Graeme, had always grown up camping, but she hadn’t totally caught the bug until they completed a six-month drive from Cape Town to the Serengeti in their Defender 130 in 2010. The idea of normal life and the corporate grind was so far removed from what they wanted that just a few years later they took the brave leap into long-term overlanding.
Mossel Bay, South Africa, back in 2010
“The opportunity to spend every day with our children, to watch them grow and to be their primary educators was irresistible. We were not satisfied with the level of education the children were receiving back home and this way they would also learn invaluable life lessons,” confesses Graeme, before adding: “Another big plus was that we were both immigration specialists for five years so we understood bureaucracy. Where most would be flustered by the idea of borders and shipping vehicles, this was very natural for us.”
Overlanding long-term has obviously worked for them because when I Skyped with Graeme and Luisa, they were house-sitting in Switzerland for a family they met at the start of their travels. “Every cent we earn gets invested back into overlanding, and our plan for the near future is a loop around Africa. So, from here we’ll go down the Pyrenees to Portugal for three or four months, getting the finer details sorted – the visa, the carnets and all that kind of stuff – then drive down the west coast of Africa and then back up the east coast if all goes to plan. Then we’ll return to Europe, and the long-term goal is to drive across Asia and Russia, ship the car to Alaska and then drive to Argentina – with six months in Australia somewhere in the middle of all that,” explains Graeme.
While the family are in Portugal, Keelan will also get his driver’s licence and enrol on some courses (as he wants to work in Canada in the oil rig industry). After two years of dipping in and out travelling with his family and doing several work placements, they’ll put him through university or do whatever they can to achieve what he wants.
Keelan reads their first first book while in Phoenix, Arizona
“While Keelan is beginning to flee the nest as he officially turns into an adult, spending every moment of the day
during the best years of my children’s lives has been an experience worth more than all the diamonds in Africa. It has sometimes been a challenge, but our success has boiled down to teamwork.
“We each have our own strengths and weaknesses, roles and responsibilities. Sometimes it is a challenge to keep the crew motivated and happy, and we have been through some tough times and have had to learn to be positive, accommodating and patient.
“The responsibility is immense as the future of your children depends on the decisions you make for them, particularly by removing them from mainstream schooling and culture. We do not feel they have missed out education-wise, and that their new-found confidence and strength of character from being exposed to the greater world will serve them well in the future.”
A good example of that would be when the family were staying in a little cottage owned by some overlander friends in Southern Brazil for a couple months. The kids were invited to attend the local schools and having been previously shy and quiet, both had a host of new buddies within days, were communicating in Portuguese within weeks and did extremely well in their work, after two years of being schooled on the road. Jessica (then 8) was awarded gold stars for most of her work and Keelan (then 13) achieved 94 per cent for an age-appropriate maths exam with all instruction in Portuguese.
The trusty 130
Although the Bell family have toyed with the idea of running another rig, like a live-in motor home, they are truly in love with their Defender. “A Sprinter may be more comfortable, a Westfalia more quirky, but neither is able to take us where our Landy has.” Indeed, the Land Rover has been victorious, with the original Td5 having clocked up 355,000 kilometres now.
“We looked at a Defender 110, but we opted for the 130 diesel for several reasons. It’s roomy being a double cab, extremely capable, has a load capacity of 1500 kgs and was cheaper than the competitors by a long shot. Plus we’ve always had and loved Land Rovers [1980 Series III pick up and 1984 Series III R6, a South African military model with a Chevy 4.1 engine, 1983 Range Rover Classic and 1989 110 V8] – they’re like Lego, you can bolt things on and take things off – they’re so versatile.
“The 130 was purchased from a Mercedes dealer in 2009. He was desperate to sell it, as most people in Bloemfontein, where it was advertised, farm, and therefore drive Toyotas. It may have been 700 miles from our home in Cape Town, but it was a good price [£10,000] and only six years old.
“She had 140,000 kilometres on the odometer and a few battle scars from herding cattle, but she was in excellent condition. At some stage she must have been in an accident, as there were signs of paint overspray on the front of the vehicle and the right-hand side mud eyebrow did not match the left. The sales person denied it had been in an accident but offered a new gearbox, which I accepted and kept silent.”
Bar a snorkel and bull bar, it was completely stock, so Graeme designed and installed all the accessories to turn it into a vehicle capable of sleeping four while still being able to off-road. “I kept it as simple as possible with a roof top tent, an aluminium load area, bolted drawer system, a little kitchen, a winch, upgraded suspension, bigger tyres and then an awning. Spare tyres, jerrycans, and extra crates were bolted on top.
The best modification was an engine management system called The Little Black Box which saved the engine on numerous occasions when driving at altitudes of 5000 metres in the Peruvian Andes.”
When the family left South Africa they were determined to do all of their own maintenance and repairs, and have learnt, through trial and error, how to keep the wheels turning despite having no technical or mechanical training background. “It was a very steep learning curve.
“Most of the problems we had were operator errors early on in the trip, caused by a combination of bad fuel, extreme altitude and faulty aftermarket parts,” confesses Graeme. “We soon learnt that preventative maintenance, checking all the oils, greasing the propshaft and keeping her clean and running well is the thing to do. We’ve also been brand ambassadors for Bearmach since 2015 and that’s a great arrangement as it means I don’t have to carry as much spares. Saying that, we’ve been stuck on several occasions in campsites for a month at a time, so it’s not always a quick solve, but we’ve come to expect it as part of the journey.”
Transformed: the 130 becomes a camper
Over the years, Graeme has become quite the expert, and in early 2017, with Keelan and Luisa (while Jessica made sandwiches), he rebuilt the 130 as a camper. “We thought if we’re going to carry on doing this we need to make some changes and live inside. So we removed everything from the front doors back and built on a camper pod with space for four adults to sleep. It was a very complex three-month project as we wanted to walk through from the back to the front, so we had to design a subframe and a bulkhead that would allow flex but give it strength so the camper wouldn’t rip when off-roading.
“From no experience in mechanics to a complete camper conversion is quite a progression,” says Graeme modestly. “The most rewarding part was that it performed excellently when we took it along the smugglers route into Andorra - even with the whole chassis under pressure, to not even get a squeak, was incredible. And then to be able to live comfortably and overland was amazing. I wish we had done it earlier. There’s no packing and unpacking – I just open the roof up and that’s it. It’s a lot safer, too.”
The original plan was to drive from Argentina to Alaska over the period of 18 months (hence naming their trip A2A), but when Graeme left South Africa he knew in his heart he would not return for a decade. Luisa actually returned home in 2014 with their son after becoming a little fed up but after just a week she had decided she wanted to travel.
“That was the nail, and what I wanted to hear all along. We’re at our best when we’re travelling, we love the freedom,” says Graeme who, together with his wife and children can all now categorically say they prefer the backroad journey to the actual destination.
“Only old age or electric cars will ever stop us from travelling the world in a Land Rover – and if the latter happens we’ll have to take to the seas.”
Travel the Planet Overland is available as an A4 hardcover in the USA ($50) and as an A4 softcover ($35) internationally. We Will Be Free ($20) and Overlanding the Americas – La Lucha ($25) are soft cover at over 300 pages each. Prices exclude delivery.
If you fancy reading about their adventures, the books are available through their website [email protected] and through Amazon, but all proceeds go directly to the Bells by purchasing from their website.
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