Two Fools, One Freelander: Land Rover Monthly

I wrote a 6-page print feature for Land Rover Monthly of Dennis Publishing Company in the December 2018 edition of the magazine. 

Below, I have attached the unedited version of the text submitted to LRM.

I also submitted photographs to accompany the story but have not attached all of them here due to frequent theft of my photographs. 


Digital copy of feature article.

 “Stop! Brake!” I scream. “I’m trying, the brakes aren’t working” he retorts. Before we can even think of grabbing the handbrake, our Freelander has shot back and hit a small brick wall. We narrowly escape plunging off the bridge and into the shallow water below. Assessing the damage, we realise we have shattered the back window and lost the door handle.

At this moment, stuck in the middle of the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, we realize we know so very little about Land Rovers or off-roading in general. Later, reading our handbook, we learn that while reversing up a ravine we should have used minimal throttle. As soon as our tires hit the tarmac, our harsh acceleration caught up with us – the wheels kept spinning and the brakes failed to slow the car.

On the bright side, this misfortune led us to purchase a second-hand mismatched dark green door from a local rural family. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this acquisition led to an invitation to spend the night at their house. We spent hours enjoying homemade wine and whisky with a police chief and his family that did not understand the word ‘no’ as they poured shot after shot into our glass.

A short while ago, in the midst of my around-the-world travels, I asked my friend, Harley, if he wanted to drive with me to Mongolia and back for two months during his summer break from university. “Sure. Why not!” He responds. And so, it was set in stone. With less than a month at home to prepare, we needed to get visas and get my 2002 td4 2L Freelander adequately prepared after 6 months of neglect.

I have owned a Freelander for two years now and never really appreciated it properly. Growing up, my life consisted of nothing but Land Rovers. Before I was born, my father, Duncan Mansfield, reached the finals in 1989 and 1990 to represent the U.K. at the Camel Trophy competition. Flipping a Mini Moke in Lanzarote, however, meant Bob Ives led the British team to victory instead. Soon after, my dad set up his first LandRover parts company.

As a child, I remember being taken off-roading with my three sisters. Rather than recalling much about the adventure of it, all that sticks in my mind is being 7-years-old and accidentally squatting on a nettle bush and stinging my bottom as there were no toilets in the middle of this 4×4 course.

Today, with my mum (fortunately also a keen Land Rover lover), they own Britcar UK Ltd, a Land Rover and Jaguar car parts specialist – hence the logo on my wheel cover. Though you think this would be a great help while touring the world, it turns out they cannot magically send parts we need in record time or fix our problems over the phone. Alas, in their absence we turn to our trusty Haynes manual, YouTube tutorials, and local LandRover community pages on Facebook – in fact, the latter is how we found that second-hand door.

“You’re going to drive to Mongolia in that?” My dad questions. “Sure, why not? You’re always preaching about Land Rover’s to me!” I reply. At the time, the challenge of a 16,500-mile trip in a 16-year-old right-hand-drive manual car, with 160,000 miles on the clock, doesn’t even strike me as anything to worry about. We have one spare tire, a can of tire weld, four 5L jerry cans, cable ties, a spare fan belt, a hammer, and a pair of pliers. “What else could we possibly need?” I question as we pass Land Rovers equipped with the entire kitchen sink on their roof rack.

I will admit, we later bought a £8 screwdriver and socket set from a Bulgarian supermarket after realizing we had forgotten to bring even the most basic tools. This purchase only came when we attempted to fix our windscreen wipers. Though, as mentioned, we know nothing about Land Rovers so fail to even fix this simple problem.

“What are you still doing here?” a Turkish man ends up asking us, noticing we have been stuck in the same petrol station for three hours. “We are waiting for the rain to stop” we dumbly respond, pointing to our broken wipers. “One second” he replies (or at least we think we said this, he only speaks Turkish). Soon, his friend arrives and within two minutes has fixed our problem. We thank him greatly and finally set off on our way once more, cursing our stupidity and questioning if it is too late to turn around. We turn to each other, and with a shrug of the shoulder collectively reach a conclusion: “Onwards”, we laugh.

Our next challenge comes after crossing the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. Thanks to a typing error, we import our ‘Land Lover’ and enter a different world. The sheep, cows, and stray dogs that once darted in front of us while winding through the stunning Transfagarasan Highway in Romania seem a distant memory as a stubborn camel stepped out in front of our car, forcing us to grind to a halt. We put on our hazard lights to warn our new British friends behind us. Travelling in a beaten-up Nissan Micra, these two boys have picked up two hitchhikers and have asked to convoy with us, worried they may need to be towed as their engine struggles to reach anything above 60mph.

Moments later, we start to notice a pull on the wheel and swiftly pull over. On closer inspection, we find a small stone has pierced a hole in our tire and we can audibly hear the air escaping from it. Despite insisting that this is something we could actually deal with ourselves, Max, our new friend with a few months at Halfords under his belt, expertly changes the tire in a time record that would make even a formula one pit crew green with envy. Before we know it, we are on the road again.

Reaching the town of Beyneu, the road suddenly disappears. In its place, a sandy dirt track littered with sizeable rocks confronts us. For the next 200km, our Freelander tears over potholes and battles banks of sand designed to stop cars using the half-finished perfect tarmac road that follows alongside this abysmal track. For the first 100 kilometres, the Micra puts up a devastatingly good fight with Mad Max behind the wheel. As we bound over another sandbank, the Micra fades out of our rear mirror. We circle back and discover that the Micra has met its match.

At this point, I come to realize why Land Rovers are revered by so many. Though a Micra is hardly a match for our beast or a true test of its skill, I was still amazed at how effortlessly we towed it to safety and how well it handled any obstacle thrown at us. Come rain, snow, sleet, and sand, our Freelander kept surprising us.

After conquering this track, we reached the border to Uzbekistan and encountered our first problem with our diesel engine. There was no diesel. Talk about a problem! A lot of the cars in Uzbekistan have been converted to natural gas. Every internet forum you search will tell you the same thing – bring as much diesel as you can. Of course, with only a 20L jerry can, we were limited in this respect.

Every time we wanted to fill up, we had to stop at anywhere between 10 and 15 petrol stations. Eventually, we were able to finally find places with very dodgy quality diesel in dubious-looking containers. The Freelander, thankfully, kept plodding along albeit with some new noises to match – nothing that couldn’t be drowned out by turning up the radio though.

In Uzbekistan we also found our second-hand window to be a problem too. Unfortunately, there was a tiny gap left at the top of the window and vast volumes of dust seeped in as we battled yet more desert tracks. At this point, we were forced to wrap jumpers around our heads to breathe better as we laughed at our idiocy.

Of course, with this level of dust, we worried about the condition of our air filter. At our next hostel, it took four British guys a solid 30 minutes to work out how to get the filter out. Once removed, we blew on it and declared it “good to go”. After using some diesel injector cleaner we set off again through the historic cities of Khiva and Bukhara.

Reaching Kyrgyzstan, we did not know what to expect. With no money for a Tajikistan visa and limited time on our Russian visa, we sadly skip the Pamir Highway. Instead, we opt for the Seok pass: a 4,028-meter climb through the Terskey Alatau mountain range. My god was it worth it!

Arriving late afternoon, we camped at the start of the main trail in Barskoon. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, luscious green fields, nomadic yurts, and muddy fun-filled roads, we cooked pasta and washed up using the fast-flowing river by our sides. Nearby you could find two waterfalls and a very odd boulder, painted and carved into the shape of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s head – just one of the oddity’s you can find in the former Soviet Union.

In the morning, waking early, we drove to the entrance. Upon arrival you have to give your details to the man that guards the gate in case you do not return – this helps them to know what car to look for. Ominous, I know but weather conditions can make the track very dangerous. Fortunately, the weather held up for us as we cautiously snaked round the so-called serpentine road (owing to its 18 bends) and proceed through valley after valley, taking in the breath-taking views and isolated location of this scenic pass.

Next, we venture into Kazakhstan and fly through. Quite literally it turns out. For the first time on our entire trip,we are pulled over by the police. “Give me your passport and follow me”, the officer demands. He then gets back in his police car and drives off. After a short while, he pulls up behind another police car and tells Harley to get into his car. “$100 fine for speeding” he demands. “But, but, we were definitely not speeding” Harley replies, having read online that they try to catch tourists out all the time. “Well, who is this on video going 106km in a 60km zone?” he asks. Crap. The speed limit in Kazakhstan randomly drops for no apparent reason before returning to its original speed; we were caught. After negotiating it down to £20, we swiftly drive off again, more careful than ever before.

By the time we reach Russia, we notice the engine is really losing power and there is a whirring noise that even music cannot drown out. Popping open the bonnet, we see oil all over the engine. Acknowledging this is probably not good, and realising there are practically no Land Rovers in Siberian Russia, we decide to visit an official Land Rover dealership. £10 later and we are shown a sizeable hole in the intercooler to manifold hose. “Moscow is a long way”, the manager tells us, “it will take four days for the parts to get here”.

I stare at Harley: “I have always wanted to see Mongolia”, I tell him. “He told us the car will set on fire if we drive it! This does not sound safe”, he responds. After consulting Facebook, I persuade Harley to let me superglue the hole and patch it up with duct tape. Before we are allowed to leave Land Rover, I am asked to sign a waiver to free them of any liability in case the worst happens. Agreeing, we leave the garage and continue on to Ulan Ude. Four hours and $70 later, we have our visa to Mongolia. Wasting no time, we set off once more and finally reach the Mongolian border.

When Patrick, editor of LRM, asked us what we were doing when we reached Mongolia, it felt anticlimactic to merely respond“well, turning around and driving back”. Alas, spluttering into the Gobi Desert, looking at our patched up spare tire with nothing but baron land ahead, we realised the adventure was far from over. The Freelander, much like the camel earlier, may not be the most beautiful creature in the desert but its presence is striking as it stubbornly continues striding along regardless.


LRM Travel Guide

Visas:

  • No visas are needed until you reach Turkey. Visas for Turkey ($20), Azerbaijan ($20), and Uzbekistan ($20) can be purchased online. I recommend visiting the UK government’s FCO travel advice website and follow the links from each page to the embassy websites to purchase these visas as google can lead you to fake websites.
  • As a British Citizen, you do not need visas for Georgia, Kazakhstan, or Kyrgyzstan.
  • For Russia and Mongolia, as a British Citizen, you will need to apply in person at the corresponding embassies. Our double-entry Russian visa from their London embassy took 20 working days and cost £113 + £38.40 service charge + £9.80 passport postage return fee + a£15 Letter of Invitation from russiable.co.uk (£176.20). We applied for our Mongolian visa in Ulan-Ude in Russia; this cost $70 for 8-hour processing or$30 for 3-day processing. You can also apply in person in London – it takes up to 5 days, and costs £40.

Fuel

  • Prices en route vary hugely. Naturally, Europe has the most expensive fuel by far but as soon as you get out of Europe, prices plummet. At 20 pence a litre of diesel, Azerbaijan was the cheapest country we visited while England was the most expensive at£1.31 a litre.
  • Overall, to get to Mongolia and back it cost us £1,272 in diesel.

Where we stayed

  • We built a bed into the back of our Freelander and often slept on it. Overall, it cost us around £150to build the bed. Costs include £45 on wood, £25 on fixings, £55 on a memory foam mattress and yoga mats, £15 storage and £10 for thermal insulation foil roll used to fashion covers for the windows.
  • Unfortunately, due to the broken sunroof and lack of air conditioning, we did not really use the bed in Europe as it was too hot during the month of July. When we did use it, we woke up very early owing to the heat. For the rest of the time, we slept in hotels and motels.
  • In Mongolia and Russia, we slept in the car most of the time. We used the app ‘iOverlander’ to find other places overlanders have scouted out and marked as convenient to sleep, or sometimes veered off-track to easily find our own little spots.

Travel Tips

  • Whatever you do, do not forget your V5C certificate. Ensure that it is up-to-date and in your name.
  • Harness the power of technology for the latest up-to-date advice. Facebook groups such as ‘OverlandingAsia’ provide a wealth of information in this respect. The website caravanistan.comis also very useful for central Asia, as are the apps ‘iOverlander’ and‘Park4Night’.
  • When it comes to GPS navigation, do not rely on Google Maps. Unfortunately, we found it took us to very random locations nowhere near where we wanted; the timing is also wildly inaccurate. We use the app ‘Maps.me’. While it gets you everywhere excellently, it also vastly underestimates the time needed to reach your destination. When you are planning your route, do allow for extra time as a result.