For the 2023 Defender Trophy – Limpopo, 16 Defenders and a sole Ineos Grenadier traversed one of South Africa’s lesser-known treasures, the Soutpansberg Mountains. PATRICK CRUYWAGEN joined in the fun.
The week-long Defender Trophy started on a leisurely Sunday afternoon at the South Gate Country Lodge near Polokwane. For Team Front Runner (myself, Michael de Bruyn and his son, 13-year-old son Nathan), this required a five-hour drive north from Johannesburg in Michael’s well-cared-for Defender 110 TDCi following a long flight from the United Kingdom, where I now reside. However, the prospect of meeting up with some old Defender Trophy friends made the long haul more than worth the effort. I was not the only one who had travelled from abroad for the event, though. Young James Birkholtz, who works on luxury yachts in Fort Lauderdale, had flown in to join his dad, Tony.
At the check-in, we were given all sorts of goodies from the event’s generous sponsors, including a spare wheel cover from Melvill & Moon and some braai accessories from the main sponsor, MBT Petroleum. The first thing to do after checking in was to sticker up the Defenders, which took a while as there were loads of sponsors. I used the time to reacquaint myself with some old Trophy legends, such as Chris Ash and Nick ‘Not-So’ Smart. Chris was not taking part and had driven up to the start to say hello to everyone. Nick and his partner, Tiffany Blignaut, would be bringing up the rear in a 130. They were also the Trophy mechanics and are widely regarded as Land Rover royalty.
The first Defender Trophy was held in 2004 in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, a mecca for 4×4 enthusiasts. While most subsequent events have been held in South Africa, the trophy has visited neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique. Even though this was the Defender Trophy, sponsors Melvill & Moon arrived in a diesel Ineos Grenadier, driven by founder Rob Melvill and his son James. Not one competitor bemoaned the fact that there was a Grenadier in our ranks – in fact, most went over to have a good old look at the ‘Defender wannabe’. Some of these die-hard Landy fans even remarked that this is what the new Defender should have looked like.
MBT Petroleum had another surprise in store for participants and treated all of us to a traditional sheep-on-the-spit braai on the first evening. There was enough meat to feed the Zulu army that had fought so bravely at Rorke’s Drift!
The current organiser of the event, Johan Kriek – who drives a Defender 90 Tdi – is also one of the founders of the Defender Trophy. When I heard the 2023 event was again being held in Limpopo, I was sceptical since this would be the ninth time it would be visiting this region. However, Johan was quick to dispel these feelings. “Trust me – I will take you to places you have never been before! We have special permission to drive some challenging 4×4 tracks on private land and in provincial nature reserves.”
Before the first bit of off-roading, we had a quick breakfast stop at the Polokwane Land Rover dealership, where the only old Defenders in attendance were ours. Not far from there, we took a gravel track which ran parallel to the busy N1. Centre diff-locks were engaged, and the gaps between vehicles widened because of the dust. The Louis Trichardt Air Force base we drove past was active during the Bush Wars of the 70s and 80s. Private pilots took off in their private planes from here to assist with the war effort.
After a short tar section north on the N1, we turned off onto the Bluegumpoort Forest road. We were supposed to take another steeper and rockier access road into the Soutpansberg Mountains, but the rain and mist put an end to those plans. The Defenders and sole Grenadier were starting to look the part, thanks to a covering of red dust and mud. We entered a lane of the tallest Bluegum trees I have ever seen, and the mist and low light further enhanced the dramatic atmosphere of the occasion.
The wet gravel track took us through private farmlands and nature reserves and since Johan had permission from the landowners we proceeded through various locked gates. Eventually, one of these led us into Happy Rest Nature Reserve, where we started to see our first wild animals, such as kudu and impala.
As we continued to fight through the rain and mist, the yellow media Defender – which used to be a game viewer – slid off the main track and into a ditch. Due to its high centre of gravity, things didn’t look good, and it was in very real danger of toppling over. It took a few vehicles and quite a bit of effort to first secure it before winching it out and everyone was relieved when we eventually drove to the campsite. The weather and the hills reminded me of Scotland, though the big roaring fire and the smell of Karoo lamb sizzling on the coals was authentic Africa.
The following day saw us waking up to more mist and low clouds and none of us were happy about packing away the wet tents and gear. From Happy Rest, we wound our way to the valley floor, passing through several farm gates. The mist and clouds eventually started to clear, making way for the sun to put in a welcome appearance.
Johan barked out a set of instructions over the radio: “Engage low range and brace yourselves for a long, rocky climb.” Michael is a good driver, and second gear low range did the trick. Unfortunately, others were not so lucky and needed several attempts at the climb. One of the Defenders couldn’t engage its centre diff, which made the rocky climb even harder. We made a quick stop at the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) rest farm before continuing towards the Sand River. This Trophy would not have been possible without the wonderful people of the EWT, who run the Soutpansberg Mountain Range as one big game reserve. To do this, they need strong relationships with the farmers and landowners.
The landscape changed in the afternoon as we made our way into the American-owned Bahiti Nature Reserve. The tracks seemed sandier, and we saw loads of palm trees for the first time. We also started to spot more wildlife, such as buffaloes and wildebeest. I spotted a marshland in the valley below as we descended towards our tree-filled campsite, which was perfect for a convoy to laager (with a Lager!) up for a peaceful night. A bunch of barking baboons on a nearby hilltop had other ideas… The third day began with an exciting presentation by Oldrich van Schalkwyk, the MD of Wild Estate, home of the Bahiti Nature Reserve. He shared many interesting facts about the 210km long Soutpansberg Mountain range, the northern-most mountain range in South Africa. He told us it is home to the highest number of tree species in South Africa and that you find several different microclimates on the mountain. We could certainly attest to that as we experienced massive temperature changes as we climbed up and down the various passes. At times it felt as if one minute we were in the sunny red sands of the Kalahari and the next in the cold misty Knysna forest. Oldrich finished his talk by emphasising that we were driving through a critical conservation area.
We departed from Bahiti and made our way to the start of the Van Collers Pass near Waterpoort. Legend has it that it was built by a local farmer who got tired of being cut off from the world when the Sand River floods. His wife used to drive the pass in her Nissan Pulsar, but for us it was low-range first gear on the long, steep decline. It was slow going as we crawled down the steep pass before taking on the steep climb back towards the EWT’s rest farm and our next campsite.
Johan Fouche bent a trailing arm while James struggled with his centre diff again, and that evening at camp, Nick and Tiffany worked for hours to repair both vehicles. While sitting around the camp fire, Cath Vise from the EWT gave us a talk on how they are trying to save species, protect habitats and serve the people of the region. “People are not aware of what is up here. We have 594 tree species, over 550 spider species, over 140 reptile species and 152 mammal species. The diversity is just off the scale,” we were informed.
The penultimate day of the event kicked off with what was undoubtedly one of my highlights of the 2023 Defender Trophy. We were the first group of 4x4s to drive the nearly completed Thomas Wilson Pass. The EWT built the pass because it connects the eastern and western sections of the Madikwe Nature Reserve. This saves staff around three hours of driving time. Our intrepid tour leader and organiser, Johan, was quick to warn drivers of the dangers: “First gear, low range and don’t touch your clutch!” It was one of the most prolonged and beautiful declines I have ever driven, with the red, rocky tops of the Soutpansberg Mountain surrounding us. Once again, we had one or two technical issues, so Nick and Tiffany were kept busy. These old Defenders are certainly getting on and need a bit of TLC. After the long descent, several smaller climbs and descents lay ahead. It took the best part of the morning to do the pass, but what a special drive it was!
After a short stop at Vivo to top up with essentials, we made our way to a nearby quarry where one of the sponsors, SecureTech, demonstrated how to use recovery equipment correctly. From there, it was a short transit to our overnight camp at the Blouberg Nature Reserve. We were lucky enough to see a rather large group of giraffes just as we stopped to set up camp. The reserve is also home to buffaloes and leopards.
The final day of the Trophy consisted of a drive through the Blouberg Nature Reserve, best known for being home to over 1 000 breeding pairs of Cape vultures. Each vehicle was given a set of GPS coordinates to be visited while filling in the daily questionnaire, which covered the area we drove through, Land Rovers and the event sponsors. These would help to determine the eventual Trophy winners.
After lunch, we drove up a 4×4 track to a viewpoint where we could observe some of the vultures. Incredibly, the whole side of the mountain was white from the vultures’ droppings. Watching these nearly extinct birds soar with the help of the thermals was a great way to finish the Trophy.
All that was left to do was drive to Camp Aquila for the prizegiving ceremony, where Trevor and Helen Stiebel were declared the winners of the 2023 Defender Trophy – Limpopo and received a set of Coopers Tyres for their efforts. I have done over 10 Defender Trophies, but this was by far one of the most special – not only because of the company, but also the privilege of being able to drive through such a unique and bio-diverse area.
*Want to do it too? Defender Trophy Richtersveld will run from 4-9 September 2023. To find out more, visit www. defendertrophy.com – Ed.
Team Front Runner
We caught up with Team Front Runner’s Michael de Bruyn and son Nathan (13):
Front Runner’s core business is roof racks. Tell us about yours and what you have on it.
I use my 2011 Defender 110 TDCi as an overlander, and to create extra space, I have the rugged Slimline II roof rack with a Front Runner rooftop tent, which is the lightest tent on the market. It also has a low profile, which helps to keep my centre of gravity low.
What about protection against the elements?
I have an Easy-Out 2.5m awning with quick-release brackets, so taking my tent and awning off is a breeze. We recently did a family trip to the West Coast and for that, I took along the wind/sun break, which fits nicely to the side of the awning. So, you can create a little makeshift gazebo.
What is your favourite Front Runner accessory?
It must be the two gullwing windows. Overlanding and camping should be a pleasurable experience. Having easy access to my kitchen on the one side and my recovery gear on the other does just that. I also don’t ever leave home without my Dometic CFX 42L fridge.