Choice of Vehicle

1996 Land Rover Defender County SW Tdi

There is a wealth of information (objective or otherwise) available from books, websites and internet forums as to what vehicle is most suitable for African overland travel.

The relevant factors are:-

  •      4x4 (or more) with good off road capability
  •        Diesel with reasonable mpg – fuel is expensive and heavy, 
  •       Simplicity – the less reliance on electrical gizmos the better,
  •       Reliability and/or ease of maintenance,
  •   Good availability of spares and local familiarity,
  •   Space and load carrying ability,
  •   Availability of accessories and ease of modification.

Having ruled out exotica like Unimogs and Pinzgauers on the grounds of cost and/or complexity and ex army Bedford trucks on the grounds of size, the choice came down to Land Rover Defender vs Toyota Land Cruiser, both of which tick all or most of the above boxes.

Land Rover vs Toyota

Land Rovers have a long history in Africa, a reputation for outstanding off road ability, are used by the British army and have fiercely loyal supporters but also a reputation for needing regular attention to keep on top of niggling reliability “issues”. Land Cruisers have bigger engines and are thirstier but have a legendary reputation for reliability and it is difficult to argue with the fact that Toyotas tend to be the vehicle of choice for the UN, aid agencies and mining companies throughout Africa.

However, big Land Cruisers available secondhand in the UK tend to be luxury versions with leather seats and lots of electrical gizmos rather than the more utilitarian models which would be more suitable for Africa. This made the decision to go for a Land Rover Defender 110 less of a “heart over head” choice than it might have been if we had been buying a vehicle in Africa.

We had also driven a Land Rover Defender 110 from Jo’burg, thorough Botswana and into Namibia in 2007 so we had a good idea what we were letting ourselves in for.

Tdi vs TD5

Having decided on a Land Rover Defender, we still had to decide on the engine and body style.

Although the basic appearance of Land Rovers has not altered much over the last 30 years, developments in diesel technology, emissions regulations and the fact that Land Rover has had a succession of owners (BAe, BMW, Ford and now Tata) during that time means that a number of different engines have been fitted.

The consensus is that although they do not comply with the latest EU emissions standards, the 200 and 300 Tdi series engines as fitted to UK vehicles in the mid-1990s (which continue to be used in military and “rest of the world” Land Rovers), which have minimal electrics and can run on low grade diesel are the most suitable for overlanding in Africa.

Another benefit of having a mid-1990s Land Rover is that it would be cheaper, though not that cheap, Tdi Defenders seem to defy normal rules of depreciation. This in turn would reduce the cost of getting a carnet, the “passport” issued by the RAC which minimises the formalities when taking a vehicle across borders, which is based on varying multiples of the vehicles value depending on country – typically 150-200% but rising to an eye-watering 800% in Egypt.

Station Wagon vs Hardtop

Three door hardtop Defenders with “van” bodies and two seats (the optional middle seat at the front is not a serious proposition for adults unless they happen to be pigmies) are cheaper and have more load space although it can be harder to access.

We did look at a few hardtops, particularly ex-utility company or mountain rescue vehicles fitted with customised bodies with side access hatches but most of these had TD5 engines and/or had lead very hard lives and were quite claustrophobic.

The ability to carry one or more passengers (guest, guide or guard) would be useful so we opted for a five door station wagon.


After travelling the length and breadth of the country visiting secondhand Land Rover dealers and/or overland/offroad vehicle preparation specialists, we bought a low mileage eleven seater 1996 (P reg) 300Tdi 110 County Station Wagon from a local dealer.

The “County” specification means that our Land Rover came with luxury additional extras such a sun roof – which leaks (n.b. Land Rover seem to have cured the leaking sun roof problem on the latest Defenders – by not fitting one!) and carpets which soak up water (entering via the sun roof and other routes) and get clogged up with mud and dust. Our Land Rover also came with dark metallic (Epsom) green paint which looks superb when polished but may get quite warm under the African sun – there is a reason why most expedition vehicles are painted white!

Apparently by specifying eleven (or even twelve) seats, purchasers gained some tax discount although the idea of eleven adults (other than pigmies) having to sit in a Defender 110 being driven over anything other than the smoothest terrain is too horrible to contemplate. Insurance for a Defender with less than nine seats was considerably cheaper so we had the six side facing seats at the rear removed before collecting the vehicle.

An Inauspicious Start!

Having collected our Land Rover we headed off from Birmingham to stay in a pub in the Peak District for a weekend’s walking and contemplation. About 50 miles later we came to a shuddering halt with a seized wheel bearing on a blind bend on the A6 near Matlock in the dark.

Despite lighting the Land Rover up like a Christmas tree and deploying warning triangles, we could only stand on the opposite side of the road watching a succession of near misses until finally one driver braking hard to avoid hitting our vehicle was rear-ended by a taxi driver who had “forgotten his glasses”! 

Our first outing ended on the back of a tow truck and having dumped the Land Rover on Lisa’s dad’s drive, we resumed our journey to the Peak District in our other car – a Toyota!

February 2011 Update

In addition to the indigenous ethnic groups in Southern Africa there are also two 4x4 based tribes which have more recent origins.  The Toyota tribe (sub-divided into Land Cruiser and Hilux) and the smaller Land Rover tribe.There are other 4x4 tribes of Japanese, American and German origin but it is the intense (but good humoured) rivalry between the Toyota tribe and the Land Rover tribe that dominates any bar, campsite or braai where opposing factions meet. Recovering a broken-down or stuck member of the opposing tribe is regarded as a major prize.There are plenty of websites devoted to this rivalry and I won't waste time here other than to say having driven both a 300 Tdi Defender and a 70 Series Land Cruiser, I know which my back prefers and so far we have recovered two stuck Land Cruisers without the need for assistance ourselves.

We have had our share of problems but these have been down to two main issues:


All UK 300 Tdi Defenders will date from the mid 1990s and rust can be a major problem.  Although our Defender was an unmolested low mileage 1996 model it had spent most of it's life by the coast in Aberdeen, Scotland. Corrosion due to the salt air and the use of salt on UK roads in winter had weakened our chassis and two years and 50,000 miles (enough to drive from London to Cape Town about 5 times!) on African roads and tracks eventually took it's toll.

After the patched up chassis broke for the fourth time we had it replaced with a galvanised one by Foley's Africa in Livingstone, Zambia in December 2010. They also replaced the rotten rear floor section and repaired some minor rust damage to the bulkhead.  We took the opportunity to have a thorough mechanical overhaul to set us up for our return journey.

The obvious lesson from this is that a sound chassis and bulkhead should be the starting point for any expedition vehicle.

Poor quality aftermarket parts

We are now on our third starter motor, third indicator/horn switch (working lights and horns are popular checks for local police in Africa), third fuel sender unit and fourth fuel tank.

The high attrition rate for fuel tanks may be partly the result of our weak chassis but we have seen enough other travelers with leaking aftermarket tanks and broken sender units to confirm that quality control from some aftermarket suppliers leaves something to be desired.  the two year guarantee now offered by Britpart is pretty meaningless if the part fails in the middle of nowhere (in our case Damaraland, Namibia) and/or you have incurred international courier costs and non-refundable 51% import duties (as in Zambia) to get parts from the UK!

Cheap parts may make sense if you can get the AA to tow you home but not if you are in the middle of nowhere and your vehicle is your life support system.