The inside story: Land Rovers r Us?

Research team members at BPCT’s field research camp called “Dog Camp” come and go and they all have different experiences and stories to tell about their experiences in the field. There are tales of the challenges to keep up with wild dogs on the hunt, finding their dens in thick mopane forest kilometers from any road or from any body, sitting out for hours in the rain to make sure a collared animal recovers from darting, or heading out on long overnight trips in the bush in the far corners of our study area, the Moremi Game Reserve. But for me one feature of life in Dog Camp that might not receive due appreciation is something critical to life and work here and is more constant than the coming and going of the people involved: our fleet of old Land Rover Defenders.

Without these vehicles, no field research is possible.

Without these durable 4x4 ‘s, the work we do simply comes to a stop, important data are not recorded and the remarkable observations and experiences do not happen. At the moment we have seven Land Rovers. All but one, are more than 25 years old. Researchers are allocated one of these when they come and consequently,most  become quite attached to “their car”.This is important, because each vehicle has its own idiosyncrasies, its own look, its own name. One comes to know how it should feel and sound when it is running properly and will raise an eyebrow and cock an ear when something doesn’t feel or sound quite right. But that’s not enough.

photo: L. Johns

As a field researcher working from Dog Camp, your ability to go off road to a precise GPS location to collect data on focal animals and come back safely entirely depends on a vehicle functioning properly. As such, you have to understand what makes it work, how each component contributes to the whole. You have to get under it,get greasy, grimy, dirty and dusty just for routine maintenance, but also for repairs; from the typical punctured tyres to broken brake lines, collapsed suspensions, and snapped tie rods. You have to know your car and what makes it work, because someday you will be tens of kilometers from camp, deep in a mopane forest, and suddenly you have no power, or you can’t get it into gear, or your steering rod snaps, or you turn the ignition and get nothing but a scary dead silence. Now imagine that scenario. You are far from anything or anyone that might be able to help you. You’re also outside of radio communication range so there is nothing but static and intermittent blurbs  from camp on your radio. There you are, unable to go forward or back, wondering what to do next.

While this situation isn’t common, it  happens, and it will become the subject of the frequent and sometimes wild vehicle stories told around the table back in camp.We certainly do talk about the cars. But that isn’t to suggest these cars are unreliable. In pursuit of our research projects, these cars work hard in sweltering heat to get through thick sand, up and over unexpected logs hidden in the grass, through sticky mud that grips the tyres, and through the clear waters of the Okavango Delta. They snake through dense woodlands and shrubs with tough and sharp branches jutting out at angles just waiting to grab on to a fuel hose,a brake line, or an electric cable. In reality, these vehicles are doing what Land Rovers were built for. They endure. But we invest considerable time making sure they can.

"Last", our assistant mechanic 'man in camp' who knows each of our vehicles as well as anyone. photo: L. Johns

They look the part too. Our Defenders are stripped down to the bare necessities for work in the field.Forget air-conditioning. Forget wiper blades, door windows, brake lights, mirrors,and cup holders. Forget a roof. They are essentially a chassis with a battered body and a serious iron bar protecting the sides and front and a rugged suspension that holds it up.  The wheels are worn and cable ties substitute for the missing screws to hold the dash together. The speedometers haven’t worked for years (we don’t need them since we only drive on narrow sandy tracks or altogether off road) because the cables underneath have been ripped off by stumps. A rack mounted over the back provides a high platform for standing to radio track collared animals with a directional antenna, and serves as a safe place to sleep when you stay out in the bush overnight.Up front is the hardware that runs the show. The V8 engines - what makes them go is pretty simple: fuel and fire. With those in the right amounts at the right time, it runs. Something is wrong in this equation when it isn’t. Our basic petrol-driven V8’s are the powerhouses that make it through all these habitats without breaking a vehicular sweat.

We also have a few diesel-driven TDI’s with a few more components, such as power steering and a turbo charger. Nice. These engines typically require less maintenance and are considerably more fuel-efficient than the V8’s and they seem to carry on grinding away, tenaciously pulling forward. But we love the power and simplicity of the V8’s. Each Land Rover in our old fleet is unique, and has its own character. You can tell which car is coming back just by the sound it makes as it nears camp. And when we hear that noise we don’t say, “So-and-so is back.” We say, by its name, “That car is back.” And even when we lament missing spares, everybody still boasts about the performance of ‘their’ vehicle and explains why it’s the “best car in the fleet”.

Routine work to keep a field vehicle operating. photos: L. Johns
The 'Big Sigh': returning to Dog Camp, when all vehicles (and team members) are back and ready for tomorrow.

So think back to that scenario you imagined before. Stuck in mopane woodlands, kilometers from any road, with your “best car” that won’t budge, a few tools and your own resourcefulness. So what do you do? You think back to the time you spent in the workshop in camp fixing this car. You remember that, bit by bit, you have taken this car apart and put it back together. You think ‘this is just a big, logical machine’. A machine that you know on a personal level. And you know what it takes to make it start and move. You know how each component fits into the overall process that is going to get you out of there. So you diagnose the problem. You locate that last clunk or pinpoint the source of that smell of fuel. You determine why that part that should be moving is not. You assess if it can be fixed and, if not, what you can do to hold it together to allow you to limp home. Think MacGyver. And you get to work. You take your toolbox, various odds and ends lying around (of which you weren’t sure when you originally collected them how they could be useful), and anything in the immediate environment that could help. Being out in the bush and being repairable in the bush is what these cars were made for. So, you take what you learned about the car, your logic and your common sense and you head back. And when you make it back, you have a good story to tell about how your car brought you home.

But again, this scenario is rare. Not only are these vehicles robust, but, alongside our camp mechanic, we spend the necessary time to make sure they are in good shape before we head out. We need to invest that time because this machine is what enables us to do this challenging job in this challenging environment and on top of that it keeps us safe while we do it. And when you come back home from a long day out in the field and you switch off the engine, you return to silence and can for a moment appreciate that this machine, that you know so well, that you talk about like it’s a person, that you know has carried you a long and difficult way, can, like you, finally have a rest. You have taken care of it, so it has taken care of you.

At the end of the day, back in Dog Camp, stories of accomplishments, sightings of wild and wonderful things, and, inevitably, 'how did your vehicle do?'. photo: L. Johns