The second 2019 Defender Trophy event kicked off in Limpopo and was unique in that participants camped in three different countries…
Story & pictures Pat Cruywagen
I now live in England but African blood runs through my veins. In nearly 20 years as a 4×4 journalist, I have attended over 10 Defender Trophy events. They are always held in southern Africa, and, as the name suggests, they are for Defenders only. Last year Englishman Phillip Young did do it in a Toyota Land Cruiser, but only because he could not get his Defender through customs in time after shipping it over from the UK for the event!
As I exit the OR Tambo arrivals hall in Johannesburg I walk straight into the welcoming hot Highveld air. After a few minutes of waiting, the mother of all Defender 130s appears – it’s the Front Runner demo model. It might just be the most-accessorised Defender I’ve ever seen. Ryno Cloete is behind the wheel, and doing what he does for a living; demonstrating Front Runner products to the world’s media. Ryno whips out a packet of biltong and places a cold drink in my hand. “Welcome home, brother,” he declares.
Our first stop is the Front Runner factory and world-class showroom at Kyalami. Even though it’s a Saturday there are loads of (mostly) Defenders lined up and waiting to get some or other accessory added. Marketing man, Jaco Nel, meets us at the entrance and takes us on a guided tour. The place has expanded tenfold since my last visit over a decade ago. Front Runner is one of the big South African 4×4 success stories, with offices and warehouses all over the world.
DAY 2: Even though we only have to report for Defender Trophy duty on Monday afternoon, we head off on Sunday morning. I’m in the 130 with Ryno while two of my best mates, Aldri van Jaarsveld and Lindsey Parry, are in a Defender 110 Td5. Aldri has tied a big South African flag to the back of his Land Rover. He is impossible to miss.
We take the N1 toll road north in the direction of Zimbabwe. I have driven this road many times and not much has changed, except the tolls are now more expensive. We cross the Tropic of Capricorn and after about four hours we reach Polokwane, the capital of the Limpopo province. We now take the more rural R521 towards the Limpopo River. The last town we pass through is Alldays, where we top up on ice and other essentials. It’s nearly 40 degrees Celsius, so ice is like gold in these parts.
We swap the tar for gravel and head east along the Limpopo River, entering a wildlife area and our home for the next two nights, the Ratho Bush Camp, which is also a working farm. We are one of the first of the 31 competing Defenders to arrive. Event organiser, Johan Kriek, greets us warmly and tells us to set up camp in a dry section of the Limpopo River.
Before I can put up my Front Runner pop-up tent, Ryno passes me the first of many cold beers. The sun forms a blazing orange ball and slowly slips behind some baobab trees. A herd of impala nervously cross the river about 200 metres away from us.
It gets dark quickly and so we make a fire. Ryno expertly braais some lamb chops and boerewors, the single malt whisky flows and shooting stars entertain us further.
I have left my head torch in my tent and walk the 50 or so metres from the braai area to go fetch it. I hear a snarl behind a rock or log, which makes me nervous. I walk backwards towards the fire and tell the others, but they just mock me and say I have been in the UK too long. One of the event sponsors, Johan Fouche, then grabs a searchlight and walks with me. Straight away we see the yellow eyes of a lioness who is hiding behind a large log. This is not good. Johan carries on walking towards her. She jumps up and scurries away. I decide it’s time for bed.
DAY 3: As we have a day without driving, we take in some tourist activities. First up is a croc farm tour. There are around 10 000 crocodiles at the Ratho Bush Camp. Each year they sell 2 500 croc skins to, mainly Italian and Korean, buyers at an average price of US $200. It’s a pretty lucrative business. The most impressive part of the tour are the large breeding crocs.
As my son is mad about crocs I buy him a real crocodile skull. Later in the afternoon, we head out on a game drive with a local guide. We see impala, kudu, elephant, and some nervous warthog, but no sign of the lioness from last night.
By the time we get back from our drive, most of the competitors have arrived and have put the event decals onto their Defenders. Even though we have so many Defenders, no two are the same.
Tonight is a slightly more civilised affair as I catch up with Defender friends that I have not seen for years. Dara King, from Tuff-Trek in the UK, is also here on his first Defender Trophy. He is a guest of Bundutec, the headline sponsors. There is also a Dutch family who are on their second Defender Trophy.
DAY 4: We’re up at sunrise, as today is the first official day of the 2019 Defender Trophy. Before leaving, Oldrich van Schalkwyk, from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, talks to us about the need to create wildlife corridors for the free movement of animals. He goes on to say that we are currently in an area which is home to one of the last free-roaming groups of lions in the world. I can confirm this. Oldrich talks for about 45 minutes and I look forward to seeing how the various wildlife authorities from the countries we will be travelling through work together to facilitate the free movement of wildlife.
Johan has obtained special permission for us to enter the Mapungubwe National Park via one of the rangers’ gates, which takes us to the less-touristy eastern side of the park. Mapungubwe is best known as the former home of an Ancient African Kingdom from over 700 years ago. Evidence of this kingdom was found in the form of a golden rhino excavated here by archaeologists.
We exchange the gravel tracks for the rocky trails of the Rhino Eco Trail, which snakes its way through the red sandstone kopjes of the park. Ryno engages low range and our beast purrs forward in second and third gear.
Each day teams are given a questionnaire with loads of interesting questions about the area we are driving through. These will be marked and the points tallied up to determine the eventual winner of the event.
We leave the rocky trail and join the game track that runs alongside the Limpopo River. Where there is water there are animals and we now see loads of wildlife along this section of the route, including elephant, bushbuck, impala, kudu, giraffes, elephants, and baboons.
While it feels as if we have the park all to ourselves, thanks to the unique 4×4 tracks we have been driving, Johan does allow for a stop at the touristy viewpoints. At one point, we are able to gaze over the confluence of the Sashe and Limpopo rivers. It’s one of the most magnificent views in all of the Limpopo Province. As we leave the viewing area our progress is halted by a herd of elephants having a feed. They have loads of youngsters with them, so we give them a wide berth.
Near our campsite for the night, we’re met by Stefan Cilliers, the senior section ranger in Mapungubwe National Park. Despite the fact that he doesn’t drive a Land Rover, Stefan is a rather remarkable man. During the last nine years, he has helped to reduce rhino poaching in his area to zero. He and his team have collected 1 187 animal snares in that time and also arrested 113 suspects. After a fascinating day, once again we sleep in the dry Limpopo riverbed.
DAY 5: We wake up to a temporary border post that has been set up by the South African authorities only a few metres from our campsite. They are from the nearby Pontdrift Border Post, which is the most northern border post between South Africa and Botswana. They efficiently stamp us out of SA, then we drive for about one kilometre in a westerly direction. There is a huge welcome party consisting of Zimbabwean officials from just about every government department, including the secret police. They take great interest in me because I am a British journalist and seem disappointed that I have pre-arranged my media accreditation from the Zimbabwe Media Commission. In fact, Nothando Moyo has come all the way from Harare, a distance of 700km, to personally issue it to me. The convoy’s paperwork takes about two hours to complete. While this is going on Nick Smart, a Defender Trophy veteran helps to recover the bogged-down truck of one of the officials.
Some clever entrepreneur has been informed about our visit and he has set up a stand selling baobab juices. He even has promo girls to help with the tasting. I try some. It’s not for me. Others buy bottles by the dozens.
We make our way to the Sashi Primary school, which is about a 45-minute drive away along very dry and dusty roads. The place is in dire need of rain. Hundreds of school kids are waiting for us. Nick has raised about R6 000 for the school after selling some cloth Defender Trophy badges. Everyone else is carrying much-needed equipment for the school. Brett Ellis has made a special wooden box full of sporting equipment for the kids. The whole village has come to see what the fuss is about. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the event, giving back to those who have so little.
We have lunch at a nearby Hunters Lodge and then take a trip to what remains of an old fort. The entourage of officials are still with us and explain the history of the area to us.
Then it’s time to deflate tyres again as we drive up the dry Sashe River for 25km. Botswana is now to our left. The only people we see during this sandy slog are some fishermen and herdsman. Our original plan was to camp where the Sashe and Tuli meet, but the area is very exposed and the wind is strong. Instead, we set up camp in sheltered spot a kilometre or two away. Our day in Zim has been long but memorable.
DAY 6: After packing up camp, which takes about an hour, there is a driver’s briefing and then we arrange all the Defenders abreast for a drone shot as they drive together up the dry river bed. After about 15km we arrive at the small Mlambapele border post; time to clock out of Zimbabwe and into Botswana at the adjoining Mabolwe border post. By now we are running low on beer and so we make our way to the village of Semolale, where we top up on St Louis, Botswana’s finest and only beer.
From here we head south towards the Tuli Block and enter the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Suddenly we start to see more and more signs of wildlife. Elephant dung and damaged trees are everywhere. Once we enter the Mashatu Game Reserve we see loads of wildlife. There are elephants, giraffe, or impala around every turn. As we head back into the dry riverbeds we have to stop to deflate tyres again. Some try and advance without deflating and get stuck, of course. Just as the sun starts to set we reach the confluence of the Sashe and Limpopo rivers.
My final night on the Defender Trophy is spent camping where not only three countries meet, but also where wildlife can roam free across international borders. The way it should be, without having to worry about being poached or shot for the pot. That night the braai fires burn long into the night and Defender war stories are exchanged. These are my people and some of my best mates. Like me, they love Defenders and wilderness areas. It’s why I keep on coming back.
FINAL DAY: Unfortunately I cannot hang around for the last day and prize-giving as I have to get back to the UK. It takes the best part of a day to cross the Botswana border and drive through to OR Tambo airport, in Gauteng. I make my flight with minutes to spare. When we touch down the next morning to London’s dull early morning light, I find the sands of the Sashe River are still in my boots. The Defender Trophy; it’s the real deal.
FIND OUT MORE
Want to do the 2020 Defender Trophy or something similar in Classic Land Rovers? See www.defendertrophy.com or email Johan Kriek on email@example.com.