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THE EVOLUTION OF OVERLANDING: FROM PIONEERS TO MODERN NOMADS

THE EVOLUTION OF OVERLANDING: FROM PIONEERS TO MODERN NOMADS

- May 03, 2024

Traveling over the land has existed since the beginning of humankind. Hunter-gatherers would have to leave the safety of their caves or huts to stalk animals or gather fruit and vegetables. The indigenous people were all overlanders, as some of their journeys took place over many miles of land. Without all the useful gear we can access today, they would still have to take along some provisions such as food, a blanket, and weapons.

Things changed dramatically on the overlanding scene when the first vehicle powered by a fuel-burning internal combustion engine appeared in 1866. Later, the Americans took things to the next level when they gave us the 4x4 Willys Jeep, followed by the British, who launched the Land Rover Series I at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show. Now, overlanders had vehicles; it didn’t matter that there were no roads in many parts of the world because some of these vehicles could go anywhere. ​

Over the last 75 years the world has become much smaller and easier to navigate thanks to advancements such as GPS, satellite phones, the internet, and improvements in overland gear such as roof racks, spare water tanks, and fuel tanks. So, we can now go further, longer, faster, all while still being able to stay in touch with the rest of the world. ​

To highlight some of the most significant overlanding milestones and changes in the last 50 or so years, we spoke to Stanley Illman (the founder of Front Runner Outfitters), Kingsley Holgate (the man who has done the most African miles in both old and new Land Rovers) and Chris Collard (the renowned American 4x4 journalist).

© Chris Collard © Front Runner

What did your first overland experience look like? 

Chris: My earliest four-wheel drive adventures were in Baja, Mexico, in my parent’s International Travelall. We slept in Dad’s grungy green Marine Corps sleeping bags and cooked on a Coleman white gas stove. As a young adult, I purchased a 1982 Toyota Hilux and fitted it with a shovel, cooler, sleeping bags, and a basic Craftsman tool set. I didn’t have money to buy fancy gear, and to be quite honest, most of the ‘must-have’ gear of today’s overlander wouldn’t be invented for several decades. ​

Stanley: It was 60 years ago when my wife and I went to Botswana for the first in a long-wheelbase Land Rover; once there, we tried to drive from Kasane to Maun using an aeronautical map. It was December, the middle of summer and the rainy season. There were no roads, but there were beacons that we could follow. We got hopelessly lost in the flooded Mababe Depression, and after five days of driving, I saw a numbered beacon in the water we were driving through. That night, I took a sextant reading from the stars and a compass reading in the morning, and using this, we made our way to Maun. It was my first real bush experience; we were lost for days and nearly ran out of fuel. We had a compass, a few jerry cans of fuel and made a bed in the back of the Landy. Nothing fancy, but it worked. 

Kingsley: In the old days, you took a spade, kettle, and a few simple things. You packed very differently from today. The kettle and braai grid were attached to the Landy bumper. Adventuring seemed to be slower and more adventurous when we started doing this 40 years ago; today, there is every available luxury imaginable. 

© Chris Collard © Kingsley Holgate

What does overlanding look like today for you? 

Chris: Forty years later, I still own and drive the Hilux, but my primary overland rig is a 2002 Tacoma with 310,000 miles on the odometer. I could buy a new rig, but I am intimately familiar with every nut, bolt, belt, and bearing on the Tacoma, plus I trust it. Trusting your vehicle is vital when you travel in remote areas. Take care of your rig, and it will take care of you. If I were to buy a new vehicle, it would be a Jeep Gladiator, as I have always been a truck guy or the new INEOS Grenadier. I drove one in Morocco last year and was very impressed.​

Kingsley: I urge the modern overlander to keep it simple and load only a little stuff in their vehicles. I have seen people waking up at 4 am at campsites to pack all their gear away for two hours. When we go on expeditions, we can put everything away and sit at the fire enjoying a morning coffee in just seven minutes. ​

Don’t take sophisticated equipment on a long journey; think simplicity. I put all my gear in a tiny Bulawayo bag, and if I run out of clothes, I wash them or buy some new ones at the ‘dead man’s clothes market’ for a pittance.​

© Front Runner

What gear do you carry now that you never took on those early overland expeditions? 

Chris: I only carry things I’ve needed over the years. For the past 30 years, I’ve used electric or engine-mounted air compressor units. The tool kit has also morphed and now includes a Premier Power welder, power tools, and a 2,000-watt inverter to run them all. I also carry tools specific to my vehicle. Regarding comfort on the road, the development of fridge freezers and roof top tents have been game changers.​

Stanley: My Mercedes Gelandewagen Entdecker that I use today has everything on it that Front Runner makes, including the Slimline II Roof Rack. I like to keep the weight low down so the only thing on the rack is a roof top tent. My Entdecker can carry an impressive 125 liters of water and 230 liters of fuel; this gives it a range of about 1,800km. Then it also has the Wolf Pack Pro storage boxes, drawer system, onboard compressor, charging points, additional batteries, and two 40L fridges. It is very different from what I used on that first trip.

© Front Runner

How have roof racks changed since the founding of Front Runner? 

Stanley: The original Front Runner racks were a welded one-piece rack with the slats running from north to south. Then, we moved the slats from east to west. We started exporting these racks worldwide, which sold well, but shipping was our biggest problem with this one-piece, from LA to New York costs us $400 on a $800 (at the time) rack. ​

So, we returned to the drawing board and designed a modular, demountable rack that could ship in a box that would only cost us $50 to send across the US. We launched the first bolt-together rack in the industry 15 years ago and have been running the same system since. It’s the strongest rack out there, kept together with 8mm bolts; nobody has built a better rack.  ​

© Front Runner © Kingsley Holgate

Some overland gear is gear just timeless. Name a few of your timeless bits of gear.

Chris: Although I’m a fan of GPS navigation, I don’t head into the back country without paper maps and a whiskey compass. A Leatherman multitool is always on my belt, a Swiss Military Chronograph is on my wrist, and a Warn winch is on the front bumper. My other gear includes a Hi-Lift Jack, a Benchmade jack knife, and a WWII U.S. Army-issued machete. All are timeless classics.​

© Chris Collard © Kingsley Holgate

What have been the most significant changes since those early days of overlanding? 

Chris: The popularity of overlanding has attracted a new and wealthier demographic. A rig can be purchased and fully kitted without the foundational knowledge needed for self-reliant travel. Today’s vehicles and the latest technology are excellent, but many modern overlanders use them as a crutch. If their GPS goes down, they are lost. If their automatic locking differentials malfunction, they don’t have the core driving skills to continue or the mechanical skills to fix it. On the plus side, tire technology has improved tenfold, and our ability to repair and reinflate a flat renders a simple puncture a minor inconvenience. ​

Although my adventures have expanded from weekend trips to California’s Sierra Nevada to treks across Australia and Antarctica, my mantra remains the same. As John Steinbeck suggests in Travels with Charley, don’t take a trip; let the journey take you.​

Kingsley: Twenty years ago, if you did 200km a day, it was a good day. You would have to stop and get someone to weld the roof rack that was wearing through the gutters, and the roads were bad or non-existent. Nowadays, you can do 500km before lunch, no problem in a D300 new Defender. ​

Stan: The one thing the GPS and software like Tracks4Africa have done is that it prevents people from making their own tracks; that is a significant advantage. When the GPS first came out, people would try to drive between points A and B and create their own road or way; now, software like Tracks for Africa ensures they stay in someone else’s tracks and don’t make new tracks. Nobody wants to travel through a place with tracks running in every direction. 

© Benyamin Senkal © Craig Kolesky

Is there a place for modern vehicles in very remote and faraway places? 

Stanley: The biggest problem I had when moving from the 4-cylinder petrol G Wagon to something a bit more modern is the electrics. You can no longer fix everything yourself. Now, we take along a laptop and specific sensors that have a habit of failing. This is the biggest issue with modern vehicles. ​

You must use your satellite phone sometimes to order parts to fix it because when it goes into limp mode, you can’t drive it. However, they are still reliable, as Scott Brady from Overland Journal is crossing Africa in an INEOS Grenadier and has had no problems thus far.  ​

Kingsley: Those old days were possibly more adventurous, and it was easier to fix your vehicle when something went wrong. Today, with our modern Defender 130s, my son Ross caries a diagnostic tool. Some people say you can’t do an expedition in a contemporary Land Rover like the new Defender; we have been driving them all around Africa and the world for years without issues. 

© Front Runner © Kingsley Holgate

How have the places you’ve visited over the years changed? 

Stanley: The improved infrastructure means you can drive all over southern Africa and stay in lovely lodges or campsites without issues. Plus, your phone will work everywhere. Driving from South Africa to Kenya or Ethiopia is not a big deal. If you start to go off road, you can still get into some rough areas away from the trucks and people.  ​

Kingsley: I miss the old, slow way of travel; there was so much more free camping. We still free camp when we can, but the modern traveler will look for a well-known campsite with WiFi to broadcast what they are doing to the world. ​

In the olden days, time was not really an issue; once set up, often you would stay in a place for weeks or a month. You get to know the locals in that time. It’s certainly not the case these days; people race along with rigid itineraries and YouTube upload deadlines. To indeed be a true adventurer, you need to be constantly curious.   ​  ​   

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