NINE LAND ROVER DISCOVERYS CONQUER AFRICA ON AN EPIC NINE-WEEK, 16 500 KM EXPEDITION WITH A HUMANITARIAN FOCUS
The Land Rover Discovery 3 is recognised around the world as one of the most accomplished four-wheel drive vehicles ever produced, and after completing an arduous nine-week cross-continent journey through Southern Africa, the Discovery’s formidable reputation and esteemed status has been solidly reaffirmed.
The expedition was undertaken by the Blues and Royals regiment of the British Army’s Household Cavalry, and spanned a total of nine weeks as part of its ‘adventure training’ programme. This initiative serves to enhance the skills base of its personnel outside of their regular combat duties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, aside from the experiential component, the venture maintains an overriding humanitarian focus, building on an established partnership with the UK’s Burnaby Blue Foundation – a charity organisation that has previously conducted humanitarian missions in Poland, Romania and Azerbaijan.
The 30-member team arrived in South Africa at the beginning of June, and the ensuing five weeks were spent literally living in, and out of, the fleet of nine Land Rover Discoverys as they travelled through Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and back to South Africa.
Thereafter the team visited Lesotho and spent three weeks conducting charity work at the Thuso School in the northern town of Butha Buthe, which caters for children with profound physical and mental disabilities. The funding was provided by the Burnaby Blue Foundation in conjunction with Sentebale – a charity founded by Prince Harry (23), who is a lieutenant in the Blues and Royals regiment.
Sentebale (which means ‘forget me not’ in Sesotho) was established by Prince Harry, and his Lesotho counterpart, Prince Seeiso, after the British royal first visited the remote country in 2004, and recognised the plight of the local communities as a result of poverty and Aids.
According to expedition leader Major Tom Archer-Burton, the first leg of the journey was a true adventure for most of the British Army crew, who had never been to Africa or seen wildlife first-hand.
“The Southern African route we selected was chosen specifically because it was the most arduous and severe we could find,” Archer-Burton explains. “Considering the extremely difficult terrain we encountered, it’s remarkable that we didn’t experience a single problem with any of the Discoverys throughout the 16 500 km covered, other than hitting a goat and picking up several punctures due to the terrain.
Land Rover UK, which has, for many years, provided vehicles to the British military, sponsored the nine Discovery 3s in TDV6 HSE specification. Two of the vehicles were modified as ambulances by Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) division, which, according to head doctor Surgeon Major Taj Baidwan, made them ideal for a trip of this nature – although fortunately, the medical expertise was limited to assisting the communities in Lesotho, rather than any emergencies.
“Land Rover UK sent three technical people on this expedition, but they needed to do no more than check the oil and clean the air filters, such was competence, performance and reliability of the Discovery in some of the most difficult terrain I’ve yet encountered,” Archer-Burton points out.
Although not directly involved in the activity, Land Rover South Africa was tasked with technical and parts supply logistics for the duration of the trip – a requirement that ultimately wasn’t called on.
From the treacherous pot-holes of Mozambique to the vast open plains of the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, the extremely fine sand of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and the rocky terrain of Lesotho – which isn’t known as the ‘Mountain Kingdom’ for nothing – the vehicles performed faultlessly, and proved exceptionally easy to drive.
“Some members of the regiment were complete novices behind the wheel, never mind having any previous 4×4 experience,” Archer-Burton says. “Yet it was very rewarding seeing an 18-year-old troop who had never driven without an instructor taking on and conquering the enormous driving challenges we faced. It’s a testament to the Discovery in terms of both its exceptional capabilities and ease-of-use.”
Lance Corporal Hugh Bennett (23) explains that, prior to the trip, the regiment were first exposed to 4×4 driving with a day spent at the Land Rover Experience at Gaydon in the UK, giving them vital driving skills that were used extensively throughout the Southern African jaunt.
“The Skeleton Coast was the most difficult part of the trip, as eight of the nine vehicles in the convoy got stuck in the impossibly soft sand, and it took almost eight hours to get everyone out,” Bennett muses. “As tough as it was, for me this was also the most memorable part of the journey.
“Team work and team building were the order of the day, which is what this adventure training is all about.”
THE ‘LOST’ LESOTHO
“The life expectancy in Lesotho is only around 37 years, while conservative estimates put the country’s HIV/Aids rate at around 40-percent,” states Major Archer-Burton.
Therefore the aim of this expedition, in partnership with the Burnaby Blue Foundation, was to transform the Thuso School in northern Lesotho into a dedicated, and well-equipped facility catering for children with physical and mental abilities – the only of its kind in Lesotho, although the intention is to open new centres in other regions.
The 30-strong Blues and Royals, which included Sentebale’s patron Prince Harry, spent three weeks renovating the school. The Burnaby Blue Foundation sponsored the expedition and donated £17 000 (almost R250 000) towards the refurbishment of the Thuso School, while the Sentebale charity provided £71 000 (just over R1-million) to complete the project.
“We served as the man-power for the project, while all the materials and skilled contractors were locally sourced from Lesotho,” Archer-Burton explains.
The team did an extraordinary amount of work within the three-week timeframe, building ramps into the school where there was previously no access for the disabled children, building an 800 m perimeter fence for increased security, renovating the kitchen, dining room, classrooms and ablutions facilities, and even installing a new playground.
At the same time, the outfit’s medical team, comprising Surgeon Major Taj Baidwan, Assistant Surgeon Jason Biswas and Corporal of Horse Darren Royston established an all-important medical presence. They visited the local communities and gave each of the Thuso School’s 43 children a medical examination, set up the means for future treatment and introduced an occupational therapist into the Thuso programme to assist with their mental development.
“This project was a fantastic opportunity to entrench the value of community participation and involvement in our soldiers, which is very different from war situations where, as a formation and reconnaissance regiment, we are mainly looking after our own personnel,” Archer-Burton says.
“But it goes beyond just a single project, and through the Burnaby Blue Foundation and Sentebale, other similar facilities will be opened in other areas of Lesotho. The focus is on making a valuable contribution to the people of Lesotho, and ensuring that it is sustainable.”
As for the members of the Blues and Royals, the conclusion of the Southern African odyssey at the beginning of August meant a well-deserved three-week break before returning to another tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Yet without a doubt, it’s clear that the entire team left with fond memories of Africa, a sense of fulfilment from the community work in Lesotho, and new respect for the remarkable abilities of the legendary Land Rover Discovery.