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Into the great unknown : credit: © Graeme Bell
In March 2019 we featured the Bell family who were touring the world in their Defender 130. With the pandemic presenting a bit of a challenge however, as well as a year-long conflict in Northern Ethiopia reaching disastrous proportions, they headed Stateside with thoughts of…

Many years ago we impulsively bought a relatively cheap early 1980s Range Rover for its superb rumbling exhaust note. Unfortunately, that glorious soundtrack was accompanied by a stump-toothed, drooling gearbox and 20 years of DIY auto-electrical poverty. It was a short wheelbase which trampled the local 4x4 tracks and dunes (we lived in Cape Town at the time) but often refused to return home. We spent as much time under the bonnet as we did behind the wheel. When planning a tour of the US a friend offered his 1994 Range Rover Classic LWB County and we accepted gratefully but hesitantly: would this old Range Rover be up to the task of travelling across the width and length of this enormous country? There was only one way to find out.

On the road in Minnesota​​​​​​

Unfortunately South Africa was on the US blacklist because of the severity of the pandemic but my partner Luisa, (an administrative genius) had determined that we could enter from Mexico. All we would require was a two-week self-quarantine and negative Covid tests to fly to Germany, to then travel to Mexico and continue to the US. An expensive and insecure month passed before we landed nervously at Miami International Airport and were greeted by a relaxed and friendly immigration agent who stamped us in without even a mild waterboarding and, to our relief, no TSA agents waited to strip our luggage or shave our dog.

Outfitting the vehicle in Florida before the journey commenced

In Fort Lauderdale we collected the Range Rover Classic from our friend, Mr. Young, who has one of the largest collections of Land Rovers on the planet. The vehicle overflowed with character and drove well on our maiden voyage across the Keys to our temporary, thankfully cooled home where we got to know the vehicle by giving her a good scrub and polish. We had arranged the loan of a rooftop tent, Wolf boxes, shower cubicle and a 270-degree awning with walls from Quick Pitch North America. SnoMaster USA supplied us with a 50-litre fridge and General Tire a new set of 265/75 R15 A/TX tyres.

Forest camping in Tennessee

I had ruled out the idea of a large ground tent for camping as it would be uncomfortable and hot during an American summer. The rooftop tent and awning with walls would allow the girls to sleep up on the roof while my son and I would distract the bears as we slept on camping cots on top of a groundsheet. The 270-degree walled awning creates an enormous living area and we could set up a long- or short-term camp in a matter of minutes. The rooftop tent is robust and I was able to store both the spare wheel and a waterproof bag on top of the hard-shell tent. We essentially built an overland vehicle capable of travelling almost anywhere and accommodating a large family of four in two long, sweaty days. We left Mr. Young’s workshop and began our overland journey to the north, our rough plan being to drive from Florida to Maine, avoiding tourist traps and interstate freeways, and then drive across to the Pacific North West to attend various overland shows and visit old friends.

The imposing Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

Feeling the might of Niagara Falls

Mountain goat chilling in the South Dakota Badlands​​​​​​​​​​​

The Appalachian Mountains dominate the Eastern Seaboard from Alabama to the Canadian border, 1500 miles of mountain passes and a famous hiking trail which can take six months to complete end to end. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a National Parkway and an All-American road which stretches across Virginia and North Carolina linking the Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The MABDR (Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Routes) runs parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the trail is generally considered an adventure bike trail. Our plan, thanks to the input of many well-travelled friends, was to drive to Maine along the mountain route, dipping between the Blue Ridge Parkway and the MADBR, looking for areas where we could free camp in areas designated as Dispersed Camping by the National Forest agency.

With a route plotted we first had to come to terms with the sheer heat and humidity of northern Florida and the lowland south. Our first two weeks in Florida had been spent in an air-conditioned house planning the route, and the two weeks prior to arriving in the US we were in the high altitude Mexican city of Puebla – we’d become soft. The Range Rover was equipped with an AC system but it didn’t function – we chose not to fix it as we soon discovered that 12mpg was the best we could hope to achieve from the thirsty 4.2-litre V8 and we simply couldn’t afford to burn an extra 15 per cent just for the sake of a cool breeze.

Hummer in Vermont: and you thought a Range Rover was big and thirsty

With windows wide open we left the cities and Interstates behind and made our way through the forests and swamps of northern Florida to Georgia. Our days were spent meandering along back roads, avoiding the Interstate and large towns, soaking in the atmosphere of small town America when we stopped to fill large Styrofoam cups with ice and water. Our dog, Chewy, soon understood that a stop at a supermarket equaled cool air and he would squirm and bark to be allowed to enter the store with us.

Georgia was smooth sailing despite the heat and we marvelled at the beautiful homes, endless lawns and occasional dereliction. It was not until we drove up to Atlanta that the heat began to subside. We visited an artistic couple who lived in the Chattanooga hills surrounded by clans who had feuded for as long as they could remember. We met a kind man
who drove a Defender 90 (and owned a new 110), we shot a bow and arrow, camped in a green field and began to relax into our journey.

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Forest Ranger, Georgia

Land Rovers bring people together and nothing brings travelling people together quite as efficiently as a stuttering, fully-loaded Range Rover. The flat Floridian terrain did not pose any significant challenges to the V8, but the steep Appalachian mountain trails were more demanding and the old girl decided to take a break in the parking area of a campground. A good ol’ boy named Wayne towed us to a campsite with his 1952 Willys Jeep which he had owned from new since the age of 17. He then helped my son push the heavy Brit into the desired position.

Roadside repairs in Maine

Luisa and I worked through the vehicle and found that a connection to the fuel pump was faulty and were able to repair it. We always try to deal with our own drama but we struggled continuously to have the Range Rover run smoothly and on all cylinders – fortunately the Land Rover community is such an asset, as the list of repairs was seemingly endless. Wheel bearings replaced or re-packed with grease, exhaust gaskets replaced (with the help of British 4x4 in North Carolina), as well as spark plug wires, distributor cap and fuel filter, rusted footwells and load area repaired (with the help of Harold Bissel of Jagspeed, Pittsburgh), a failed universal joint…

Eventually the Classic became reliable but remained stubbornly thirsty and troublesome – the passenger window would not lower unless the wires behind the switch were fondled, the hooter gave up the ghost, the headlights were mere candles and, until the rust repair, the driver’s legs were splashed when driving in the rain.

A great way to travel

But, and this is a big but, the Range Rover had tons of character and a huge amount of space and luxury (being the long wheelbase County edition). All occupants were comfortable and pampered by the soft leather seats, the burble of the V8 was usually soothing and the large windows allowed excellent visibility.

When the road was rough or we found ourselves in the lesser-known parts of national parks, the Range Rover would purr in low-range, easily trundling over obstacles and giving the driver a vague sense of invincibility. The only thing which can stop an old Range Rover is herself.

Father and son and Chewy the dog, enjoying the journey

In total we drove over 5000 miles from Key West in the far south to Lubec, Maine in the far northeast, and then across to Michigan and Lake Superior and down to Flagstaff, Arizona for the Overland Expo West. Travelling the USA is not as challenging as South America or Africa, not by a long shot. It is so very different in so many ways and a great beginning to a pan-American journey.

Here you do not need to worry about corrupt officials and daunting border crossings, the lack of road infrastructure, spare parts, fuel stations, supermarkets and friends to help carry the load. The beauty of an overland journey across the USA is that you will encounter every type of terrain and could spend a few decades gently exploring or getting far from the beaten track. How you travel is up to you and you can choose the hard road, the easy road or a comfortable road between. The east of the country is wonderful for a road trip but, truth be told, the west is where you will find adventure.

Sierra Nevada, California – Graeme's perfect place


Read more about the Bell family’s previous overland adventures here.


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