The Bell family–Graeme, 44; Luisa, 43; Keelan, 20; and Jessica, 15—is originally from Cape Town, South Africa, but their home is wherever their Land Rover Defender 130 is at the moment. Likely somewhere in Africa, but it’s a wide-ranging vehicle. Graeme and Luisa were born into traveling families and the bug bit them at an early age. They’ve owned a handful of Land Rovers over the years, but a six-month trip from Cape Town to Tanzania convinced the family they wanted to overland long term. As if six months is just a quick trip.
Now, they raise their family in a Landy, cruising through Africa and anywhere else that catches their eye, has dirt to be driven over, and is interesting. You can follow their adventures at A2A Expedition.
AJ spoke with Graeme about their rig.
Year, Make, Model of your vehicle?
2002, Land Rover Defender 130, TD5 (turbo diesel , five cylinder, fuel injected). The Landy was originally a double cab pickup.
Does the vehicle have a name?
Her name is Mafuta, which means “oil” in Swahili.
What’s the story behind buying Mafuta?
In 2009 we were looking for a vehicle to take our young family on an African adventure from Cape Town to Kilimanjaro. We bought her from a rural city in the South African interior where she had been laboring as a farm vehicle and then prepared her for self-sufficient travel. She has since carried us through 67 countries on four continents and has been converted into an overland camper.
Did you have to rebuild the thing to accommodate a family?
Initially we were very happy with the stock standard vehicle (apart from adding an upgraded suspension, larger tires, and a few accessories), extra-large rooftop tent, and rear storage system. But after four years on the road, living outdoors and in a tent, we realized that we needed a vehicle better suited to full-time overland travel.
We needed a vehicle which was highly capable off-road, able to accommodate four adults, be fully self-sufficient (solar power, heating, food, and water storage) and provide all indoor amenities such as a kitchen and ablution facilities. The interior design had to be versatile and lend itself toward adaption and modification as our changing needs dictated. We had the perfect base vehicle for a build project and could not imagine traveling in another vehicle. So we just modded this one.
We designed and built a composite pod with a pop-top which extended the interior standing room. The interior layout is modular. A steel frame behind the cab provides a security frame in case of an accident while providing a base for inward-facing seats which convert into a bunk-bed. The kitchen unit stores all food, a 62-liter Snomaster fridge, a cooker, 10-kilogram gas tank, and sink with a shower nozzle. A porta-potty (how did we ever travel without it?) now rests in a cabinet aft of the kitchen unit below the toiletries. A large rectangular box provides storage for all our clothing and technology and is the base of one bed while a mattress is placed on the floor at night to provide a fourth sleeping berth. Luisa sleeps on the floor, under the kitchen sink (her choice, by the way, and boy does she like to remind everyone). It is also possible for the whole family to sleep in the vehicle without raising the roof.
Weight and durability were a major concern and the pod was built accordingly – all furniture was built on a base of aluminum tubing and marine plywood. We only carry absolutely essential gear and everything we own is used, repaired and recycled until completely obsolete.
Aesthetically, we consider space to be a greater luxury than storage. We installed five large windows, a large rear door and few cabinets above window height. The result is that we enjoy all-natural light and are able to open the camper up to allow the outdoors in. But when necessary, we can shut down and allow no light to exit. Two years, 30,000 miles and all of West Africa later, we are very proud that the camper structure has not suffered even the slightest failure.
Did you do the work yourself?
My son and I did the majority of the work while Luisa built the roof and is responsible for the electrickery. We built the camper in Homestead, Florida, and renovated the interior in Portugal after a year on the road and in preparation for our trans-Africa journey.
Right now we are in South Africa preparing to give the Land Rover a makeover after her West African ordeal.
Where do you sleep? In the truck? Tents?
We all sleep inside but we do have a “love” tent for date night. In Senegal I realized that a longer tent may be a good bloody idea.
What are the most complicated off-road repairs you’ve had to make?
There have been quite a few. A fuel pump failure in Salta, Argentina. Late-night wheel bearing failure in Northern Brazil. An injector seal replacement in camp in Turkey (a dove pooped in cylinder four, the bastard). A crank position sensor failed in rural Congo. That’s just a handful. The worst (and best) was the complete failure of the clutch high in the spectacular Rif mountains in Morocco. The Rif is where Moroccan hashish is produced and is notoriously dangerous but we had plenty of food and firewood and a spring burbling out of the mountain 50 meters from our breakdown camp. It took four days of endless attempted repairs until eventually we surrendered and had a farmer tow us down the mountain with the only tractor in the sparsely populated district, where people live as they have for centuries. We then repaired the clutch in the camp above the magical city of Chefchaouen over a lazy six week period.
What kinds of security mods have you made for international travel?
The Landy can be locked down when necessary. We befriend and feed stray dogs who provide protection and friendship, we carry a positive mental attitude…and two hunting knives, a machete, an axe, bear spray, and a fiery redhead. That said, we have boondocked in Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles, on BLM land, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Lagos, Nigeria, and never have we had any serious security issues. The world is populated mostly by amazing, friendly people and we are always sure to seek permission and security. Sometimes you just have a gut feel and you should always trust your instincts.
What is it about a Land Rover?
Land Rovers are iconic and ours is irreplaceable—the fifth member of the family. Visually, the design principle, particularly of the Series vehicles and Defender, is the logically irresistible Rule of Thirds which gives me a zing, I am not embarrassed to admit. The Defender is supremely capable and adaptable and each vehicle has its own charm and personality while always getting the driver where they are going, no matter what (though they may need some TLC along the way). They are hand-built, they are historic, they are living, breathing relics of a time gone by. And driving a Defender is like riding a motorbike, you look forward to going somewhere, you appreciate the journey, and you are grateful when you arrive.
Defenders do not simply commute.