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Philip using the ex-ambulance Land Rover as a viewing platform to survey the vast expanse offered by the Etosha salt pan in northern Namibia : credit: © Philip Russell
Trekking from Zambia back to Britain during the 1970s had its challenges, as this two-part story reveals

With a milestone birthday fast approaching, Philip James Russell suddenly found himself pondering not just the past, but also the future: was 79 the right age to start planning an overlanding rematch, some 50 years after his last adventure? More on that later; for now let’s start at the beginning.

Born in September 1943, Philip Russell had an unusual ambition as a child – he didn’t dream of becoming a firefighter, astronaut or stunt man, instead he was dead set on being a maths teacher and duly ended up studying for a mathematics and physics degree.It was whilst at university in Liverpool that Philip was introduced to Land Rover ownership with the keys to an 88in Series II fitted with a hard top. For reasons he could never fathom, the hard top proved to be stuck firmly in place, scuppering thoughts of open top motoring. Yet this didn’t cull the enjoyment as he recalls just how much he enjoyed owning it. “I fondly remember taking it for a spin along the water’s edge at Bracklesham Bay in West Sussex, before eventually selling it on a year later.”

Philip, left, in the 1970s (working with the cadet force resulted in a commission with the Zambian Army) and right, 50 years later, with fond memories of his overland trip 

With intentions of joining the Royal Navy as a helicopter pilot put to one side when he suddenly found himself a family man, Philip began to look at other ways he could put his qualifications to good use and spotted an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement that promised a new adventure.

The recruitment drive was part of the Government Aid Scheme and they were looking for people to undertake a teacher training course in Zambia before being given a full-time post in the area. He signed straight up.

Philip sat on the Series IIA Ambulance he and mate, Perry, would eventually buy for the trip. Phillip's officer status ensured that his bid on Lot 13 went unchallenged!

By this time, Philip and his wife had two children and in February 1969, the four of them boarded the RMS Pendennis Castle in Southampton with Cape Town as their next destination, followed by a drive from the tip of South Africa through Rhodesia – an interesting journey for a young family such as theirs. The next couple of years proved to be pretty busy with the completion of a PGCE at the University of Zambia, followed by a teaching contract at the Munali School in Lusaka and a stint working with the Zambian Army cadet force, for which he was given a commission in the service. However, it was getting to know Perry Dutfield at the Lusaka Theatre Club that would shape the next chapter of his life.

“Perry was nine years older than me. He had previously driven back to the UK in an old Land Rover through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt – basically up the right-hand side of the Michelin map and I remarked that I rather fancied doing something similar.”

Perry’s response was simple: political changes since he’d completed the journey meant that the same route was no longer possible, but that didn’t mean another overland adventure wasn’t – just that they’d have to find a different way home.

With two of the four stretcher beds removed, Perry and Philip could begin the process of fitting out the Series II

It was now 1972 and Philip had been in Lusaka for over three years. Unfortunately, he and his wife had separated, but plans for his trip back to the UK rapidly took shape and with Perry egging him on, he found himself at an auction of ex-Zambian Army vehicles and ready to bid on Lot 13 – a recently retired Series IIA ambulance, complete with four stretcher beds.

“It was perfect for our trip,” Philip recalls. “But I was concerned that I would quickly be outbid and mentioned this to one of the officers involved in handling the auction. He assured me that there wouldn’t be any other bids thanks to my own officer status – apparently that meant I would go unchallenged and Lot 13 was soon mine!”

With the ex-ambulance in their ownership, the pair set about preparing it for their journey. Two of the four stretcher rails in the rear were removed and storage trunks bolted to the side in their place. Philip and Perry then bought another 109in Land Rover that had suffered a rod through the block and was for sale, paying little more than scrap. They removed the fuel tank and fitted it to their IIA to increase the range and then stripped the rest for spares – adding half-shafts, a dynamo and lots of other parts in the process before selling it for more than they had originally bought it for.

A home from home: storage trunks on the ‘wall’, bunk beds for the travelling companions and even a fridge to keep the beer cool

Of course, no respectable overlander at the time would leave their steed looking as they bought it, and so they decided that zebra stripes were in order.

“A chap by the name of Ian on my PGCE course was an artist,” Philip explains. “He insisted that it was done properly. He had us paint it white and said he would pencil in the correct zebra markings that we could use as a guide. In fact, he ended up painting it for us – complete with Playboy bunny on the front.”

The open road: although Perry had completed an overland journey before, for Philip this was his first experience and one that he is still to this day keen to repeat

​​​​​​With the aesthetics sorted, they continued with their preparations, which included fitting a fridge that ran off either 12v electric, gas or the mains, but eventually the pair decided they had procrastinated enough and on 7 September 1972, the ex-ambulance finally set off in the direction of Salisbury in Rhodesia. Once there, their main task was to stock up on spares – as one of the main towns in the region, dealers and garages holding Land Rover parts were relatively abundant and so it made sense to do so while they could.

Philip kept a written record of their progress with mileage and fuel costs noted throughout the entire journey

Already the Series II had gained a nickname: ‘IWE’. Not only was this a phonetic reference to the first two digits of the registration, EY, but also coincided with a rough translation in the local dialect to ‘hey you’. The pair spent another couple of days in Salisbury readying IWE before heading south west to Bulawayo and then Francistown in Botswana. By this point Philip had started to write in his 1972 Zambian desk diary. Simple entries punctuated the first ten days of travel: ‘raining and cloudy’, ‘fought off dog’, ‘game skin factory’ and ‘good dirt’, all serve to paint a sometimes humorous picture of the journey they were on. Monday 18 September was clearly noteworthy: ‘1 1/2lb fillet steak, 50c’ – an entry that Philip recalls with delight. “We had travelled to Maun on the edge of the Kalahari Desert and stopped for food at a local butcher’s stall. That fillet steak was absolutely stunning and with a glass of red wine in hand and the sun setting in front of us, it has stuck in my mind ever since.”

A lunch of goat kebab – not as nice as the fillet steak bought on the edge of the Kalahari

In contrast, the goat they bought a couple of days later near Sehithwa provided a very different taste experience, but the route was also providing its own challenges. “Every five kilometres or so there was a stick with a red tip to show you the way. Having a compass was useless because of the abundance of iron-ore in the area and the sand made for tough going in places.”

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Pit stops were inevitable: Perry works in the engine bay whilst the bonnet receives structural attention in the shade

The diary entries go on to read ‘Fair... Bad... Terrible’, and then lists having to use four-wheel drive and low ratio before becoming momentarily stuck en route to Ghanzi. The conditions also played havoc with their packing and Philip recorded that their food cupboard was a mess and that they lost oil, a funnel and a rubber mat. With rocks thrown into the mix, this would be the start of their tyre issues, but the pair had thoughtfully brought four or five spares with them – not just tyres though, but complete wheels in order to ease the change in event of a puncture.

Bustling small town markets provided an opportunity to stock up on supplies

A leaking radiator and wheel hub added to the list of relatively minor woes and the campsite showers that awaited the travellers in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, were most welcome and much needed. The duo spent a few days over Philip’s birthday in the area, shopping for spares, doing their laundry and getting haircuts as well as fulfilling more crucial tasks such as applying for their Angolan visas and getting the various documents in order for the next leg of the trip.

The Land Rover didn’t go unattended to either. Brakes were adjusted, a new fan belt was fitted and curtains were installed in order to provide a little more privacy for overnight stays. But soon the IIA was heading north once more and in the direction of the Etosha Game Park.

Wildlife spotting in the Etosha National Park

Philip’s diary entry for Wednesday 27 September records seeing 16 lions, but with door tops removed due to the heat, it was decided not to get too close. An elephant and zebras were also spotted and the pair witnessed a hyena attack a young onyx – clearly something so distressing that they had to relax around the pool for the rest of the afternoon before continuing on their way the following morning.

Pausing for a comfort break somewhere in Angola. With twin tanks fitted and Jerry cans secured wherever possible, the Land Rover could travel considerable distances between top-ups

The Land Rover was still performing excellently; Perry’s previous overlanding trip had been carried out at the wheel of another Solihull model and as far as he was concerned, there was absolutely no question what they would be driving for this trip.

“Perry knew that if our choice of steed left us stranded, we could well be in serious trouble,” recalls Philip. “I don’t think he used the word ‘trouble’ though, but it’s why we opted for a Land Rover in the first place. They were easy to work on and spares were readily available and although Perry owned a Peugeot 308 when I met him, there was only ever one vehicle for the journey.”

Setting up camp for the night and trying to use what little shade was on offer to keep temperatures down

As October rolled around, they were making good progress and were now in Benguela on the Angolan coast. Continuing north through Lobito and into the capital of Luanda, Philip and Perry hit upon their first real problem. “We had to jump through hoops in order to get our papers so that we could continue into the Congo,” explains Philip. “There was a war zone ahead and we were sent to the High Commission, then the Army, then the Police before returning to where we started – each refusing to give permission for us to continue.”

The pair were eventually allowed to go on their way, but with a crucial caveat: “The British Embassy let us know in no uncertain terms that they had told us not to enter the area and that if we got into trouble they were to have nothing to do with us… Obviously we carried on regardless, but the whole affair had set us back by a good five days.”

Snake bite kit an essential accessory and is still complete and ready to use

​​​​​​Heading inland, the Series II crossed the border north of Negage without issue – although south of the Zaire border, the pair suddenly found themselves being waved down by a man brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle, as Philip recalls: “Although we were a little concerned at first, the chap instructed us to take a badly wounded man to the nearest hospital, run by nuns.

“He was bleeding heavily and so we put him in the back and knew that we needed to get him there as quickly as possible. I was by far the quicker driver and so jumped behind the wheel and pressed on.”

When they arrived at the hospital, the sister was straight on the case and took the man into her care, but when she saw the state of the inside of the Land Rover – now covered in blood – she immediately barked at three locals to give it a thorough clean as a reward for Philip and Perry’s good deed. When the pair asked about the man’s chances, her response was simple: “It’s a head wound. He’ll survive.”

Crossing into Zaire, the border guard fell off his chair when he spotted the Land Rover. “I’ve been here five years and I’ve never seen anyone!” he announced. “You can’t come through though – you haven’t got any visas.” Fortunately, Perry and Philip immediately proved him wrong, but he then insisted on searching the Series II. When his sergeant came out, Philip offered him a beer and began to chat whilst the guard prepared to dissect the contents of the Land Rover.

“If I give you another beer, you don’t have to search it, do you?” asked Philip hopefully. Although they had nothing to hide, it was a delay they really could do without. With the free beer having done the trick, the answer was no and the pair were sent on their way to tackle a road so terrible that it was only ever used when one guard replaced another.

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy that they had experienced so far would be eclipsed all too soon on the next leg of their journey. You can read more about that, and the pair’s further adventures, in part 2.


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