Trac­ing The Lu­vu­vhu

Pa­trick Cruywagen ven­tures to South Africa for the 2017 De­fender Tro­phy. If you fancy the sound of it you can go next year for just £1200… and that in­cludes De­fender hire and guar­an­teed wildlife sight­ings

Land Rover Monthly - - Contents - Story and pic­tures: Pa­trick Cruywagen

Pa­trick Cruywagen ven­tures to South Africa for the spec­tac­u­lar 2017 De­fender Tro­phy

Wed­nes­day May 10, 2017. Fly­ing from Lon­don to Jo­han­nes­burg on BA is great: it’s an overnight af­fair and you don’t cross any time zones. You take off at 8.30 pm, en­joy a meal, take a nap and then wake up in Egoli, the city of gold, also known as Joburg. My best friend from school and a for­mer African over­land truck driver George Borst­lap is there to col­lect me. George and I have done many a mile to­gether in Africa. He is cool, calm and col­lected while I am al­ways think­ing of the next bribe or bor­der crossing. We travel well to­gether.

George drives me to the leafy and hilly sub­urb of North­cliff, where an­other great mate and Land Rover fan, Aldri van Jaarsveld lives. He owns two De­fend­ers, one a 110 Td5 hard-top and the other a 90 300Tdi, and a Free­lander 2.

The day be­fore I flew out I got a call from Front Run­ner to say that their De­fender was in the work­shop and that I would not be able to bor­row it for the 2017 De­fender Tro­phy. For­tu­nately I know one or two blokes in Africa with Land Rovers and Aldri was only too happy for us to use his De­fender 110. He had only just done a 6000-mile fam­ily road trip in it to Botswana and Namibia, crossing the great Kala­hari in the process. And you think that Scot­land is far?

We had 24 hours to get to the start of the event and so af­ter a brief greet­ing we got on with the pack­ing of the De­fender 110. As we would be spend­ing some nights wild camp­ing, we needed to be self-suf­fi­cient. Tents, fridges, cooler boxes, re­cov­ery gear, Mel­lvill and Moon chairs, a ta­ble and Biffs Big Six fire­wood and char­coal were all loaded in. Plus enough meat to feed a full Wem­b­ley sta­dium. As George was the small­est of us three he got the jump seat as we headed north on the N1, which if you don’t turn off it, will take you all the way into Zim­babwe.

Af­ter about 180 miles and 181 toll­gates we head east to­wards Pha­l­aborwa and the gates of the Kruger Na­tional Park, this nearly two mil­lion hectare na­ture re­serve re­ceives way over a mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

Af­ter pay­ing about £40 we can pro­ceed into the north­ern part of the park; this in­cludes our park fees and a night’s camp­ing fees. Most vis­i­tors go to the south­ern part of the park as this is where most of the camps, fa­cil­i­ties and an­i­mals are. I pre­fer the qui­eter north.

The De­fender Tro­phy route is al­ways a well-guarded se­cret and or­gan­is­ers only give par­tic­i­pants the GPS co­or­di­nates for the start, which this year is just out­side the Punda Maria Gate of the Kruger Na­tional Park and is about 150 miles north of our cur­rent po­si­tion. It would’ve been crim­i­nal to travel all the way here with­out tak­ing a short drive through the park.

Within min­utes we see ze­bra, im­pala, warthog, vervet mon­keys, a herd of breed­ing ele­phants and sev­eral bird species. Af­ter an hour of head­ing north to­wards our overnight camp­site at Shing­wedzi, a ner­vous im­pala darts

“We hit a slip­pery sec­tion and Jo­han Fourie finds him­self in a ditch at the side of the road”

across the road. I see some­thing rustling at the base of a Mopane tree; it’s a leop­ard and he must have been chas­ing the im­pala but for now he has given up and is tak­ing a breather. We stop for sev­eral min­utes to watch him rest, as a leop­ard sight­ing is some­thing spe­cial. Just be­fore en­ter­ing the camp­site a herd of ele­phants make them­selves heard. The al­pha male in the group has an im­pres­sive set of tusks; in fact they al­most touch the ground. Af­ter setting up my swag in the fenced camp we start a fire to cook on. That night I fall asleep to the sound of soft rain on the can­vas of my swag. Those are not the only sounds. I also hear a laugh­ing hyena, bark­ing ba­boon and some grunt­ing hippo. I feel at home.

Thurs­day May 11: It rains vir­tu­ally all night and as I have not set up my swag prop­erly, I get soaked. By 5.00 am I have had enough and head off for a shower. We need to be on the road by 7.00 am as the meet-up point is 50 miles away and they have strict speed lim­its in the park. We pass a large herd of buf­falo just be­fore ex­it­ing the park gates. We are now in the Lim­popo Prov­ince, one of the coun­try’s lesser­known tourist ar­eas. As we pull up at Copa­copa Lodge there are De­fend­ers ev­ery­where. Time to get liv­er­ied up. There are 20 De­fend­ers of ev­ery de­scrip­tion tak­ing part this year and five sup­port De­fend­ers, which makes for a im­pres­sive con­voy.

The De­fender Tro­phy event started in 2004 and the first event was held in Le­sotho. It was a joint ven­ture be­tween Jo­han Kriek (who now runs the cur­rent event on his own) and Land Rover Cen­tu­rion, one of most suc­cess­ful Land Rover fran­chises in all of Africa. For the next ten years (I cov­ered seven of them) it was held all over South­ern Africa in­clud­ing Mozam­bique, Transkei, Kala­hari, Swazi­land and Zu­l­u­land. What es­sen­tially be­gan as a tag-along tour for Land Rover Cen­tu­rion De­fender cus­tomers, soon evolved into a tough, no-non­sense com­pe­ti­tion, with a new De­fender as the prize in 2013. The event then took a break for two years be­fore Jo­han de­cided to take it back to its roots as a tag-along tour as he elim­i­nated the com­pe­ti­tion el­e­ment.

Be­fore our long con­voy snakes off into the un­known we are treated to a spec­tac­u­lar and colour­ful drum­ming and danc­ing dis­play by the lo­cal Venda tribe. While the un­in­formed might think that it was Mi­ley Cyrus who gave twerk­ing to the world, in fact the Venda peo­ple were do­ing it long be­fore that.

Within a few min­utes of setting off we hit a muddy and slip­pery track. Aldri ex­pertly keeps our De­fender go­ing in a straight line but the con­voy’s tail-end Char­lie has no such luck and finds him­self in a ditch at the side of the road. A quick snatch has him back on track. We drive through in­for­mal farm­ing set­tle­ments as we make our way into the Sout­pans­berg Moun­tains, which lit­er­ally trans­lates to moun­tains of salt. Af­ter about two hours we reach the south­ern­most gate of the Makuya Na­ture Re­serve, which shares a 30-mile-long bound­ary, the Lu­vu­vhu River, with the Kruger Na­tional Park. The gate is not for tourists and one of the war­dens has driven here to open it for us. The sum­mer rains have been good to the re­serve, the grass stands tall and the leaves on the trees are bright green. Makuya is one of South­ern Africa’s lesser-known wildlife hotspots and this is my fifth visit here. I like to come here be­cause no one knows about it so the chances are good that you will have the re­serve to your­self.

The re­serve has in­cred­i­ble 4x4 tracks and some of them

are pretty rocky. Within min­utes the call comes over the ra­dio that some­one has a punc­ture and so the con­voy grinds to a halt. It does not take long to change a tyre when you have so many De­fender ex­perts in a con­voy. We are now on a track run­ning along­side the Lu­vu­vhu River. A naughty ele­phant has pushed over a tree into the track, but it’s noth­ing that a few saws and loads of male testos­terone can­not sort out in a few min­utes. Not long af­ter this the al­l­ladies team blow a fuse (in their De­fender, of course), some­one quickly finds the cor­rect one and we are on our way again. Big majestic baobab trees stand tall on the many rocky kop­jes that we are driv­ing over and around. They are with­out a doubt my favourite tree in the world.

While the re­serve is home to most of the an­i­mals found in the Kruger Na­tional Park we don’t have much luck with wildlife sight­ings, though many ele­phants have left pooshaped land mines in the track for us to drive over. About an hour be­fore sun­set Jo­han calls a halt on a mas­sive sand­bank next to the river. A croc hur­ries into the water while a hippo snorts in protest; this is the per­fect camp­site. Tonight I will be sleep­ing in a proper tent in­stead of in a swag as I don’t fancy be­ing stomped on by a hippo.

Fri­day May 12, 2017: No such thing as a lie-in when camp­ing in the wild as the birds are al­ready chirp­ing away from about 5.00 am. By 7.00 am the camp is packed up and

ready to pro­ceed but not be­fore a morn­ing brief­ing by Jo­han. Each par­tic­i­pat­ing ve­hi­cle is handed a ques­tion­naire which they have to an­swer and hand back at the end of the day. The ques­tions re­late to the area we are driv­ing through, plus Land Rovers, ob­vi­ously.

As the con­voy leaves the soft sand the sun is al­ready high in the sky. It looks like to­day will be a scorcher. Aldri and I agree that slightly de­flated tyres are bet­ter when driv­ing over the rocky ter­rain, so we quickly stop and do the nec­es­sary. On the long climbs his Td5 just purrs up in sec­ond gear low range. This is what De­fend­ers were built for.

The re­serve is truly an off-road­ing de­light and about 90 per cent of its tracks are for se­ri­ous 4x4s only. We stop at the Singo Camp, which is sit­u­ated on the edge of a cliff, for a re­lief break. The camp has sev­eral lux­ury tents all perched pre­car­i­ously on the edge of the cliff over­look­ing the Lu­vu­vhu river. From this in­cred­i­ble van­tage point we can see a herd of buf­falo on the plains be­low. A cool breeze blows over my face, of­fer­ing a short respite from the oven-like De­fender and out­side tem­per­a­ture. George has proved his worth to our lit­tle team and has put to­gether a rather mar­vel­lous spread for lunch. Our De­fender is a ve­gan-free zone.

About 20 min­utes af­ter lunch an­other halt is called as we have ar­rived at World’s View. It too is sit­u­ated on a rocky cliff with some rather in­cred­i­ble views over the Lu­vu­vhu. The herd of buf­falo have hardly moved. The plan is to try and cross the Lu­vu­vhu later this af­ter­noon, but first we have to bump and bounce our way over the hun­dreds and thou­sands of fist-sized rocks that lit­ter the tracks we are trav­el­ling over. A ner­vous warthog darts across the track as we at­tempt an­other long climb. Af­ter a few hours we are on the banks of the river again. Jo­han crosses first and I hitch a ride with him so that I can snap the con­voy as it crosses. We are not far from Mu­tale Falls so there is no chance of any crocs try­ing to grab me as I stand on the water’s edge. I still

feel a lit­tle ner­vous. To get to our overnight spot we have to exit Punda Maria Gate of the Kruger Na­tional Park, and park of­fi­cials are a lit­tle sur­prised to see our large con­voy.

They ask us for our park per­mits but we have to ex­plain to them that we have just crossed the Lu­vu­vhu and don’t have per­mits. A quick phone call con­firms this. I don’t blame them for be­ing a lit­tle ner­vous as the park has lost hun­dreds of Rhi­nos to poach­ers over the past few years – and that’s a real tragedy.

From here it is just a few kilo­me­tres of tar road to Awe­lani Lodge where we will be spend­ing the last two nights of the De­fender Tro­phy. There is noth­ing like a hot shower af­ter wild camp­ing for a cou­ple of nights.

Satur­day 13 May: While we have spent the past few days trac­ing the Lu­vu­vhu river, we now head north to­wards the Lim­popo River which forms the bor­der be­tween South Africa and Zim­babwe. We fol­low what is known as the Mdimbo Cor­ri­dor, a mil­i­tary-con­trolled area be­tween South Africa and Zim­babwe. Mil­lions of Zim­bab­weans have il­le­gally crossed over into South Africa as they try and es­cape the eco­nomic chaos, lack of food and jobs. We pass sev­eral South African sol­diers out on pa­trol on the look­out for il­le­gal crossers. The sol­diers are friendly and hap­pily pose for pic­tures with us.

The floods have de­stroyed a ce­ment bridge that we are sup­posed to cross but as we are in De­fend­ers we just drive around it. We en­ter Popallin Ranch, a 22,000-acre pri­vate sa­fari ranch. Its owner, De Wet Bezuiden­hout, meets us in his Land Cruiser and takes us on a guided drive through the prop­erty. They are very lucky to own this piece of Africa bushveld right on the Lim­popo River; it is like liv­ing in your own very own piece of the Kruger Na­tional Park.

The high­light of the drive is when we reach a large sandy patch right next to the river. Playtime has ar­rived. De­fend­ers hare off in ev­ery direction as their driv­ers try and show off their sand driv­ing skills. A few get stuck in the softer, wet sand but peo­ple quickly come to their aid. They say that play­ing is fun un­til some­body gets hurt and that is ex­actly what hap­pens when some­one snaps a half­shaft on the steep in­cline off the sand. Aldri has no such con­cerns as he eases his way up and off the soft stuff. Less horse­power and more brain­power, I say. We end up play­ing for a cou­ple of hours be­fore Jo­han and De Wet call time.

From here it takes us less than an hour to get back to the Awaleni Lodge but not be­fore stop­ping off to see the white lions and have a quick beer on the banks of the Nwanedzi River. The last night on the De­fender Tro­phy is al­ways a fes­tive af­fair and the 2017 ver­sion of the event is no ex­cep­tion. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one gets a prize while Bren­don Lowe and son Evann Lowe are de­clared the over­all win­ners. They to­tally de­serve it. Not only did Bren­don ex­pertly drive his stan­dard Puma De­fender 110 Sta­tion Wagon, he and his son mucked in when oth­ers needed help.

Sun­day 14 May 2017: As soon as we wake up we pack the De­fender and hit the long road back to Jo­han­nes­burg af­ter say­ing good­bye to those that are still around. It takes a while to reach the N1 south as we were lit­er­ally in the hid­den north­east­ern cor­ner of South Africa. Af­ter about 300 kms and count­less toll­gates we ar­rive in Jo­han­nes­burg. I greet Aldri and George and hop on the Sun­day night flight back to Lon­don.

When the plane lands I hop into my car and head to the of­fice. On the way there I re­flect on the past few days. The De­fender Tro­phy is noth­ing like the event of old: the tough com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment is no more, it’s a con­voy drive through some of the lesser-known 4x4 tracks in scenic South­ern Africa. So if you want to drive a De­fender through a spe­cial part of Africa then the De­fender Tro­phy is a must-do.

Above: A gi­raffe keeps watch as our con­voy of 25 De­fend­ers slowly rolls past him

Above: Play­ing in sand on the banks of the Lim­popo River was def­i­nitely one of the highlights of the 2017 De­fender Tro­phy

Guide and event or­gan­iser Jo­han Kriek looks for a safe place where the con­voy can cross the Lu­vu­vhu River

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