It’s a Friday evening and the sun has just slipped behind the Drakensberg, the venue for this year’s Land Rover Centurion Defender Trophy. I try to imagine where my mates might be right now; Cape Town watering holes like Fireman’s Arms, Forries and The Grand are good bets. I’ve just come out of a watering hole of a different sort. It’s taken us the best part of two hours to winch two Defenders through a black, sticky mud pit, up a hill and then back through the same mud hole. It was back-breaking work and we had to extend our winch cables as the closest tree was about 50 metres away.
The mud stinks and makes me retch – I’m covered in the stuff because I’m the winch operator. The only parts of me still pale are the whites of my eyes, which is just as well because during a technical winch operation like this there’s a great deal you have to keep an eye on. My partner and driver, Chris Ash, gives me the two-fingered salute from inside his Defender 90 (Puma) – of course, he’s mud-free.
By now the stars are out but there’s one more exercise to complete. This is the scenario presented to us: two members in our party have broken bones, the medic coming to help got his directions wrong so now we have to get both patients across a deep gulley to reach him. We’ve got a snatch block, winch cable, tree protector, rope, shackles, and harness; it’ll take some careful planning to successfully complete this one. Finally we get back to camp after a gruelling 12-hour day. The cold, the mud and my state of ickyness are quickly forgotten when I hear the welcome sound of a beer can being opened.
The 2011 Defender Trophy was criticised for being too soft with too much emphasis on health and safety and not enough focus on tough driving challenges. Although I didn’t attend that one, I have reported on five Defender Trophies in the past, each in a different part of southern Africa and each unique in terms of challenge. This year my vantage point has changed as I’m competing for the first time. One’s teammate is a critical component in any team-based event; over the years I’d noted that my mate Chris Ash doesn’t drive too badly – for a Scotsman. What’s more, his bulldog-like spirit (and looks) should stand us in good stead. So we teamed up. This year’s event began on a Tuesday with a 17h00 rendezvous at a predetermined GPS point in the Kamberg Valley, about a 35-minute drive from Nottingham Road. Each team was given the opportunity to introduce themselves around the campfire that night. We were in Team 14 and after Chris had finished our introduction all hell broke loose. To say the heavens opened up would be an understatement. When the storm hit everyone ran for cover underneath the big marquee tent with the biggest chaps hanging onto the main poles to prevent the entire thing from being blown away.
The competitor tents took a pounding. Poles snapped like twigs and they blew over, leaving gear and sleeping bags exposed. And then, 30 minutes later, the storm stopped. It was time to clean up and get ready for what would, for many, be a long and wet night. One of the problems with past events was that much time was spent sitting around watching those ahead of you complete events or challenges. This year the organisers addressed this problem; for the first two days teams would spend the mornings working through 10 compulsory activities. The GPS co-ordinates for each activity were given to competitors – most were located in and around the river not too far from the campsite. During the afternoons teams would busy themselves with individual and group activities, as well as a Team Spirit challenge.
Our first challenge was to see how many logs we could fit beneath our vehicle’s tyres with the aid of our high-lift jack. Using said piece of gear was a first for me and I very nearly dropped the Landy on top of my teammate – in hindsight perhaps this mightn’t have been a bad move! But I soon got the hang of it and we managed to fit a couple of logs under each wheel. The test was to see whether the vehicle would slip off the logs when we released the handbrake (with the vehicle in neutral). No, we were fine.
One of the most challenging individual tasks was a reversing exercise with an off-road trailer hitched up. Not one contestant managed to complete the task, although we were the only team who managed to get the trailer through a deep, muddy bog; this by virtue of the fact that we took a different line and smashed through some bunting.
There were all manner of Defenders entered this year – a few V8s, a 2.8 petrol, some Td5s, plenty of Pumas and one Landy with a retro-fitted Lexus engine. About two-thirds of the entrants competed in 110s with the remainder in 90s – this was the first Trophy I’d attended where there were no 130s. Many of the Defenders were modified in some way, with plenty of lift-kits, massive tyres and the vehicles had winches. And they needed them.
Most of the individual tasks involved the Defender but there were one or two non-vehicle events. Th e navigation run to several GPS and compass bearing points was another interesting exercise and a little swim in a 10-foot-deep bog taught us that a straight line is not necessarily the quickest route. Th en there was the drive-by shooting event where we had to fi re 20 rounds from a paintball gun at a collection of non-Land Rover vehicles. I took the steering wheel for this one as Chris had shot for his regiment back in his British Army days. However he got so excited when he hit the closest target that he emptied the magazine, leaving the further targets unscathed. Our fi rst aft ernoon was spent contesting the Team Spirit award. Here about six vehicles are grouped together, the challenge being to see how far they can progress along a predetermined route to a fi re tower. We didn’t get close. It didn’t help that we were fi rst off , which meant we had to find a route and build a track at some places – later groups could simply follow our tracks. When the first day’s scores were posted we were third last, and I’d thought we’d had a fairly decent day. But by the next evening we were sixth and by the final night we had made our way to fifth place where we’d eventually finish.
On the third morning everyone took time out to go and help build an enclosure at the nearby Hlatikulu Crane and Wetland Sanctuary. Holes were dug, poles were put into place and fencing was carefully placed around the enclosure to keep the otters out. Th is was a great initiative by organisers to ensure that we left a little something behind in the valley to help the crane species which are so severely under threat.
The afternoon competition commenced and again we were grouped with two other vehicles. Ahead lay the mud holes, river crossing and medical evacuation. The great thing about this section of the Trophy is that we got to do some really cool stuff like dig a deep hole in which to put a tyre which became our winch anchor. Things that you see on extreme 4x4 competition DVDs but never get to do yourself. The three days of intense competition took their toll so the final day was one of fun, navigating the midlands. We had to drive around and visit several of the area’s attractions such as the brewery, the spot where Mandela was arrested and the Midmar Dam. Here we got to do a loop of the dam on some yachts which were taking part in a nine-hour race. It wasn’t long after this that our Defender ground to a halt. We quickly identified the problem; there was water in the diesel. It must’ve got in the previous day when we were on our side in deep water. Th e mechanics didn’t have a spare fuel filter or the tools to help us flush the tank so we were really stuck. We wanted to finish so asked Team Boschkop Barbers if they would tow us around the course.
Their Defender had a big V8 motor and they kindly obliged. These two lads would later take the Team Spirit award, not for only helping us but for their super winching skills during the Team Spirit afternoon when they winched several vehicles up a tricky incline. With our dramas we were the last team to cross the finish line, but that result is still more palatable than a DNF (did not finish). It was a tough trophy, easily the toughest to date, with some really technical driving challenges, the likes of which I haven’t seen at any other 4x4 competition in SA. In fact, one or two of the challenges reminded me of the Outback Challenge in Australia. Th e organisers had done their homework, listened to feedback and created something special and extremely challenging. Yes, there are always little things that can be done to make it better but on the whole I was impressed, so no more sitting on the sidelines for me, I want to become a master of the winch, high-lift jack, recovery and navigation. Th e Defender Trophy has flipped my switch.