Motoring contributor Benjamin James meets a group of fleeting visitors to Egypt, as they make their way south.
In 1898 a young Brit named Ewart Grogan asked his girlfriend’s father if he may marry his sweetheart, Gertrude Watt. Gertrude’s father thought Grogan wasn’t much of a man having been expelled from Winchester College and Cambridge University. Grogan suggested that if he were to be the first man to travel overland from Cape Town to Cairo by foot, this should be a suitable test of his character. Three years later Grogan had completed his trek, became a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, met Queen Victoria, and he and Watt were married. And thus, overlanding had begun.
If you’ve ever noticed my biog line at the end of my articles you will have read that I have an unrequited passion for overlanding. This wasn’t helped by a chance meeting in Coptic Cairo with the Mitton family. Paddy, Libby, and their two adorable kids are partway through their overland journey from Cornwall, England to Cape Town. Paddy, is not trying to gain Libby’s hand in marriage and they are driving a Landcruiser rather than walking, but inside every overlander is that same spirit.
If you’ve still not got it sussed yet, overlanding is the act of travelling vast distances...well, over land! Some typical routes include The Americas top to bottom (Alaska to Cape Horn), London to Sydney via the Silk Road, and Cape to Cape (Nordkapp, Norway to Capetown). The Mittons, by their own admission left their small seaside town in a rush and underprepared, figuring out how best to pack the car as they go. Most overlanders would take their vehicle on a shakedown trip for a week, perhaps to Scotland, Spain, or even across to Morocco. These guys managed one night a few miles down the road. Some of their friends, rather disparagingly, suggested they wouldn’t even make it out of Europe but so far they have proved their doubters wrong – although now out of Europe, they’re struggling to get into Africa...
It all started well for them. They bought a 1995 Landcruiser 4.2 turbo with a proven track record. It previously lived in Kenya then was taken down to South Africa and up the difficult and often muddy West Africa route back to the UK. They allowed ten months to prepare the vehicle, pack up their house, and complete the paperwork required for such a journey. They paid a mechanic for five hours work just to see what needs doing, the list that came back was as long as your arm. They replaced the water pump, fuel pump, power-steering pump, radiator, an electric window motor, radio, brakes, and wheel bearings. They joke that they bought the only unreliable Landcruiser in the world.
The Mittons family.
Something that hasn't needed repairing is the AC...because it hasn't got it. Paddy says they regret that too! Discussing their trip online they met a German couple doing the same route at the same time. If the Mittons typify the British ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ approach, then the Germans are every bit ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’. They bought a brand new Land Rover and doubled its cost with a roof tent, winch, upgrades, electronic gadgets etc. To be fair, on paper the Mittons made the right decision. The perceived wisdom is that Land Rovers are better off road, but are generally regarded as less reliable, whereas Toyotas are considered ultra reliable, more comfortable, and have a better dealer network. Also, older vehicles are often preferred as they are simpler to fix and lack computerised systems (see my VW article in November!) that require specialist equipment to fix.
At the end of the day people are overlanding with everything from bicycles to million-dollar purpose built expedition trucks. Some will even choose an inappropriate vehicle to add to the challenge; an old Limousine, a London Taxi, a tractor, and even a penny farthing bicycle have previously been used. It’s a question of choosing the right vehicle for you and what you wish to achieve.
The Mittons’ route has taken them through France to the Alps, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece. Like many European overlanders they saw the ‘real journey’ as starting in Egypt, but they wish they had allowed more time to explore Eastern Europe and have been staggered by the beauty of the Balkans. In fact, they didn’t bring any guide books or maps for Europe for fear of adding too much unnecessary ‘stuff’.
They are now waiting for their car to be released from customs in Alexandria having had it shipped from Greece. The Germans’ Land Rover got through relatively quickly and, as I type, have almost left Egypt. But since Landcruisers are popular with certain groups of bad people in our region, any coming into the country are subject to extra military checks. Paddy is unsure quite when it will be cleared, but their blog allowed one week to clear customs and a further three to reach Sudan. So far it has been three weeks waiting! On the bright side it allowed them to visit us, and for their kids to play with ours.
Even though the Mittons say they haven’t prepared as much as they could have done, this plucky family are actually doing it! For every one person who sets off there are twenty armchair overlanders, and for every armchair overlander there are fifty who say it’s too expensive, too difficult, or too dangerous to even consider.
“Good luck to them” I say. Yes, things will go wrong. Yes, there will be times it seems like a very bad idea. But I have every belief they will reach their destination safely. And until I get my own expedition truck I will keep reading their blog and keep dreaming.
The Mittons’ website: www.arewethereyetdaddy.co.uk (updated now and then)
Their German companions: www.4-wheel-nomads.de (very in-depth, frequent updates)
Benjamin James has a background in automotive engineering, a keen interest in two- and four-wheel motoring, and an unrequited passion for overlanding.
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