Risky Business

I prepared this risk analysis very early on but did not publish it.  I am doing so now, but backdating it to the beginning of the project, which is when it was prepared.

In any project it is always a good idea to be aware of the things that can go wrong and put you off schedule, or off track or, in this case, off the road.  Some of the issues that might impact upon an obruni  procuring and restoring an old vehicle in Ghana and using it to explore West Africa include the following.

Risk Rating Mitigation Strategy
 A.   To Procurement
  1. Cannot find a suitable vehicle
LowThere  seems to be no shortage in Accra. Diversify sourcing network beyond Opere by telling CHC drivers and  Francis the CHC mechanic I am in the market
B.    To Restoration
  1.   Opere becomes unavailable due to illness, misfortune or disagreement between us.
MediumOpere seems a tremendous asset, but my dependence on him need not be absolute.
  • Getting  the mechanical rebuild done first
  • carefully  cultivating the relationship  so I can rely on him
  • Diversify sources of expertise
      2.   I become ill, or Ghana posting is cut short Medium If fopr any reason I have to bail on the project with a half-restored vehicle I can likely find someone to buy it,  Opere himself will likely be a good candidate
  1.  Actual Restoration cost exceeds budget
Medium Complete as much as possible of the work myself; careful sourcing of parts;
C.   To the Expedition
  1.  Cannot take the time due to personnel or professional obligations
 LowI am now eligible to retire and plan to do so when I leave here so there will be no professional obligations Complete arrangements for retirement, pre-retirement leave, and repatriation of personal effects well in advance.
      2.   Mechanical Troubles en route Medium to High This is an older vehicle, mechanical troubles have to be expected Become very familiar with the vehicle;Carry suitable tools;Complete Test Trips
      3.   Political Instability in Countries to be Visitied, including kidnapping risk Medium to High  People are kidnapped in the Sahel with regularity  Limited mitigation available.  This is an adventure, if we are going to be risk adverse there is no point, we just have to get out there and do it.Maybe there is insurance?
D.    To Demobilization
  1. Unable to Sell before returning to Canada
Medium  Start marketing early,Diversify market options (Ghana local, Europeans interested in overlanding in  AfricaFollow  Canadian import regs
     2.  Change in Canadian Import Regulations Medium


Testing the Idea in South Africa

Morning at Natal-Drakensberg Park en route to the pass

I am not particularly knowledgeable about Land Rovers (there is an understatement!)so before going too far Laura and I thought it might be a good idea  to try to gain some exposure by going to South Africa and trying it out. We rented a 2005 Defender from Bushlore, an expedition outfitting company, and took it from Johannesburg in the north-east part of the country and down through Lesotho and back.   It was slow, noisy, and wonderfully functional.   We had a tent on the roof, propane tanks installed on the rear,  a good fridge and lots of kitchen gear stowed in a drawer system inside.

  1. We were most impressed by its road worthiness.  In this big, heavily  laden vehicle with a relatively small 2.5 Litre diesel engine we climbed the 3,000 metre Sani pass up into the Drakensberg range between South Africa and  Lesotho, which is also known as the  “mountain kingdom”, on a road that is not really a road at all, rather a very rough steep, track, full of quite tight hairpin turns.  As we ascended this valley bounded on both sides by cliffs we honestly could not figure out where the road was going to go to get us out of the steeply walled valley, until we realized we were just going to go over the top.

The  road just gets steeper and kind of transforms into a scree slope with tracks until you emerge out the top.  Voici lepass.  Driving our Defender 110 up that mountain was a delight, it simply clambered up the 40 degree slope, made all the tight, switchback turns and kept going, past other vehicles that had stopped dead in their tracks and were being pulled, by other Land Rovers.  In 4WD low it felt as if we could climb straight up.  Unfortunately we did not think to take pictures of the road when it really got tough.

At the Summit at the Lesotho border, we really needed those jackets

When we reached the summit there were only about six other vehicles, all Land Rovers,  (I am not joking – there are a lot of Land Rovers in South Africa) parked at the Sani Pass Inn, which bills itself as the highest bar in Africa.

Road Coming Down into Lesotho From the Sani Pass – as steep and winding as on the SA side, but at least its paved
After a well-lubricated pub lunch and a great conversation with the fascinating owner we drove another 100 km to an alpine town and flipped upon our roof-top tent under the stars. We were really enjoying the Land Rover experience.

Mokhotlong Rose Garden Campsite in the Mountains of Lesotho

Thinking about Buying a Land Rover


The Land Rover has a wonderful legacy.   The Land Rover story began in 1948 as a basic utility vehicle for farmers, delivery companies and the military.     Used by the British Army, and the armed forces of many countries,  the Land Rover later became synonomous with expedition travel, particularly in Africa.  More Land Rovers have been used to cross Africa than any other vehicle.    For years Land Rovers were a vehicle of choice for overlanders, for reasons related to payload capacity, space efficiency, off-road ability and toughness,  availability of spare parts, simplicity of design and fuel economy.  We later took a test spin in South Africa (December 2010 – see separate post) impressed upon us how functional the Defender is.

The appeal of Land Rovers is not universal, they also have their detractors who emphasize that they are unreliable, uncomfortable,  and noisy.   They have now been greatly displaced by Japanese vehicles like the Toyota  Land Cruiser or Nissan Patrol, but the Land Rover retains an almost mythical appeal among overlanders.  One catchphrase I saw on one club site typifies the less than completely rationale commitment to the product:     “Land Rovers do not leak they are just marking their territory”, or “Land Rovers are always sick but never dead”

There is a vast network of Land Rover Clubs around the world, full of people who are prepared to tolerate the drawbacks in exchange for the functionality.


The Idea

Last June I learned that two of my colleagues at the Canadian High Commission in Accra had each purchased older Land Rovers Defenders which they were restoring to take back to Canada with them at the end of their postings.  I was only casually interested until one day Stephane brought his into the CHC grounds.   It was a Defender 110, perhaps 1994, painted white and beautifully restored.

I have no prior knowledge of or experience with Land Rovers.  Over my 30 year development career I have probably driven a million miles in various Toyotas, Nissans, and Mitsubishis,  but rarely did I ride in a Land Rover.   The only occasion I can recall was in the remote and very beautiful Rupunni savannah region of southern Guyana some 20 years ago.  I spent an afternoon tumbling about in the box  of an old Series pick-up, a ride made more interesting by the fact that I and a chain smoking colleague shared the space with a 20 gallon drum of diesel fuel.

The Land Rover has such a classic profile, and Stephane’s restoration was very nice.   He had had the interior redone, and the exterior painted and all the fittings replaced.   Stephane took me out to Legon on the edge of Accra and introduced me to meet Opere, a Ghanaian Land Rover specialist who maintains a “shop”  under a tree surrounded by  old Land Rover shells he has scavenged for  parts to create some quite lovely classics that he rejuvenates under his tree.    Since then I have learned that a great deal of micro-enterprise in Ghana is conducted under trees, which provide shade and protection from the elements.

The Defender got my attention and it was  not long before I was googling for “Landy” sites and thinking about what I might actually do with one if I took the plunge.  Suddenly I began to think of the  destinations that were on our list to see during our time in West Africa in a new light, viewed not via a series of week or two visits via aircraft, but as parts of a more substantive overland trip.  The vehicle could have a purpose beyond just giving me a project to keep me entertained during the remainder of my posting in Accra, we can use it to drive out of here on an overland adventure.

There is no question I was attracted to the vehicle before I thought of the trip.  The Defender has me quite inspired, for both the rebuild and the travel.   In our trip to South Africa in December I bought Africa Overland (Bradt, 2009), which is a great source of tips and ideas for travelling through Africa.  In the section dealing with vehicle makes they list Land Rovers first, with the guarded enthusiasm that is typical.   Most interesting is their recommendation that the best thing is to “…buy an older model, preferably in good condition, and spending some considerable time fixing it up.  How old it should be depends on your mechanical ability, the time and enthusiasm you have, and the depth of your pockets.”

There is another factor that will influence the age of this vehicle and that is whether or not we want to take it back to Canada when we go.   We are allowed to ship one vehicle back at the end of our posting, although these are subject to regular Canadian regulations on safety and pollution standards.  That is unless the vehicle is 15 years old or older, in which case the requirement to meet safety and pollution standards are waived because it is considered antique.   I am not sure that is a good idea, a 15 year old diesel vehicle may have some novelty antique appeal in Canada but it is not going to be practical.   I think most owners of older Land Rovers in Canada probably use them as seasonal toys, storing them in winter and bringing them out to go trail blazing in the spring, summer and fall.  Nevertheless, it is an option.  As to time, I do have lots of that, if not spare time at least lapsed time when someone else can be doing repair and restoration work under my supervision.    My pockets are not that deep, but the work is not expensive here and I could certainly sell the vehicle in Canada for as much as it would cost me to purchase and restore it here.  If we time the pack-up and shipment of our other goods here right we can send it back to Canada at no additional cost to us or the Canadian taxpayer, in the same container that carries our household goods.  We brought our Subaru to Ghana from Canada that way, but we are going to sell it here.

However, when the Bradt Guide was talking about restoration and fix-ups, I somehow think they were addressing an audience in Britain or elsewhere in Europe where the supply of parts and materials, spares and tools, is plentiful, not in Ghana.   I only brought a small toolbox with me from Canada to do household chores: a screwdriver, a couple of wrenches, a hammer.  I do not have a socket set, or any of the heavy duty wrenches that you need to work on a vehicle.   Ghana is not an environment conducive to DIY.  However, what they do have is an abundance of skilled auto mechanics and the labour costs are reasonable.

So the idea is to buy an old beat-up Defender and make it into a functional, comfortable, fully outfitted overland vehicle.

“Land Rovers are always sick but never dead”

“Land Rovers don’t leak, they are just marking their territory”

“Land Rovers last longer than their owners do, but that may be because they are so uncomfortable”.