I can just about smell Johannesburg, around 300 clicks to go.
We have been up since 5am, and our plan was to drive from Kasane, on the banks of the charming Chobe River in northern Botswana, to Johannesburg, 1200km away.
We are breaking my first rule of African travel, don’t drive at night. Why? Drunk drivers, animals on the road and people running out of driving talent. All three can kill you.
I am behind the wheel of the big old 130. I love this old girl; she is fitted with every Front Runner accessory ever made and she has been our chef, shower and cold-beer provider on this trip.
The truck approaching from the front has its high beams on. I try to look away, but they still blind me. I realise that it is in my lane and about to crash into us. I don’t want to die here. I pull hard left on the steering wheel; there is no time to look out for pedestrians, donkeys or, God forbid, a young child.
I wait for the impact of the truck. It does not come, we are doing 120km/h through the dry and dusty bushveld. I dare not brake for fear of rolling – old Defenders are notorious for just that. I allow the Defender to gradually roll to a halt. St Peter is nowhere to be seen. I am still alive. I bloody love old Defenders.
What about my friends behind us in the new 110? It has all the technology and driving aids in the world but there is no special red button to deal with a truck driver who has fallen asleep. Did the truck get them? Are they dead? Once the dust settles, I see that they too took the off-road alternative to definite death. Africa is most certainly not for sissies.
New vs old
Even though I am attempting to compare the old and new and Defenders, I would like to start by saying that there is no comparison. The 2016 Defender 130 I am in is not too dissimilar to the original 1983-model Land Rover 110.
It was assembled by hand, not by robots, and it runs a separate body-on-chassis construction, live axles front and rear, and coil spring suspension, and is without a doubt a 4x4 icon.
It is instantly recognisable and loved the world over. You can find spare parts for it in the most remote locations. Case closed. End of article.
Not so for our 2022 Defender X 110 D300 V6, which came off the production line at JLR’s newest and most modern production facility in Nitra, Slovakia. When running three shifts, this facility has the capacity to build 150,000 vehicles a year.
This is a huge number, especially when you consider Land Rover was producing fewer than 20,000 old Defenders per year at its Solihull plant towards the end of production.
The new Defender is a luxurious and thoroughly modern vehicle with more electrickery than a rocket ship on the way to Mars, while the old Defender can often be fixed on the side of the road.
Most old Defenders have a simple diesel engine under the bonnet. I have had an old-style Defender as my daily driver for more than 15 years now, and I am not going to lie, you need to love them to drive them all the time. They are more tank or tractor than modern car.
Now, as I find myself cruising in a convoy at 110km/h in a fully-loaded old 130 after crossing into Botswana, I can’t possibly be any happier. As a bonus, everyone is smiling and waving back at me. Try that in the blingy new Defender 110 and you’ll probably be greeted by a middle finger from someone bouncing along in a lifted Disco 2 or a HiLux.
In Africa, people see new, shiny vehicles as an ATM of sorts, which means their drivers can expect to pay more in fines and bribes than if in an old 130.
Out of all the new Defender engine derivatives, the 220kW straight-six D300 is my favourite; flatten the accelerator and it just takes off, making it great for overtaking convoys of long trucks, whereas the old 130 only musters a modest 90kW from its 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine and so requires a more measured approach when overtaking.
It is rather fun flying across the dry Makgadikgadi salt pans at just over 160km/h in a new Defender. Even though it is loaded with gear, I am still able to throw it about through tight turns without having to worry about toppling over. It does not handle like an old Defender; it sits solidly on both tar and rough tracks.
But the 130 really comes into its own when we engage low range to crawl along over the rough stuff. This is what it was made for. I know the new Defender has lockers front and back, plus lots of other off-road traction aids, but just how much capability do you need?
Old Defenders are renowned for being uncomfortable. When cruising in the 130 I put my left foot on the handbrake for comfort, I open the driver’s window for elbow room and I crank up the not-so-good aircon. When going off-road along one of the hunting concession cutlines, I feel at one with nature.
You can smell the elephant dung and hear the squawk of the yellow-billed hornbill. It does not bother me that there is dust coming through the windows and covering me and everything else inside the vehicle.
Not so in the new Defender 110, which I drive with the windows closed, aircon on, seat massagers engaged and seat-aircon blowing hard! It’s as though Land Rover has taken the Range Rover Gucci bits and put them in the new Defender.
When off-roading it feels like I am cheating on my old Defender as it sanitises the whole experience. Everything is too easy and, thanks to the air suspension, bumps are barely noticeable. It really takes the ‘off’ out of off-roading.
Our first stop before heading off on this adventure was the Front Runner HQ in Kyalami, Johannesburg. The latest Defender is still the new off-roader on the block and while global chip shortages have slowed sales and production, overland accessory companies like Front Runner were quick out of the blocks with new product.
In less than an hour our new Defender was fitted with Front Runner’s Foot Rail Kit Slimline II roof rack. A roof top tent and Easy-Out awning were also added and, despite the additions, the increase in noise levels were minimal as we sped along towards the Botswana border.
Old Defender owners certainly have a bigger catalogue of overland products to choose from, especially when it comes to things like underbody protection and interior storage systems.
I chatted to ARB recently and they told me they would not be developing a bullbar for the new Defender – this is problematic for overlanders who in Africa and Australia wouldn’t leave home without one – but US companies like Lucky 8 Off Road Equipment are leading the way when it comes to developing quality off-road accessories for new Defender owners.
Defender fans see the old 130 as the ultimate overlander due to its size and carrying capacity. Our 130 is living proof of that, and it’s fitted with two roof racks. One on the cab carries our boxes, jerry cans, water, and gas, and the second rack on top of the enclosed load-bed is the base for our roof top tent.
One of my favourite parts of this 130 is the fact that it has a load bed cargo slide, so accessing anything that we have in there is a breeze. This slide is a blank canvas you to customise your gear arrangement on it.
Fix on the fly
One of the biggest worries on any off-road expedition is the potential for a breakdown. When it comes to the new Defender, you can fix punctures, replace filters and do some of the basics yourself, but if something more serious goes wrong you will need a satphone to call a Land Rover mechanic to assist with the diagnosis.
Ironically it is the 130 that suffers the only technical issue on this trip. We initially think that it is the mass airflow sensor not reading the correct flow, but a quick check with the diagnostics tool tells us it is a faulty ABS sensor, which is quickly resolved with a fault clear and reset.
The main thing is we can fix it and carry on.
Both vehicles are fully loaded, and this obviously has an impact on fuel consumption. The tank on the new Defender is 14-litres bigger than the standard 75-litre tank on the 130.
The heavily laden and not very aerodynamic 130 uses at least 20 percent more fuel than the 110. Land Rover’s modern diesel engines are certainly more efficient than the old ones.
I seriously doubt we are going to see a heap of new Defenders on the big overland routes around the world any time soon, although legendary African explorer Kingsley Holgate took the first new Defenders on a trans-Africa trip without any dramas, and he loaded them way past Land Rover’s legal weight limits.
When leaving Kasane we decide not to do the northern section of the Hunters Road like the rest of the convoy because the thorn bushes would’ve destroyed the paintwork on the new Defender.
Would I have done it in my old Defender? Of course! That is what they are built for.
While it is great being comfortable and cool while doing 120km/h, one of the most important things when overlanding is the ability to fix a vehicle when it breaks down, so it’s the old that wins over the new for me.
But more than that, old-style Defenders have an iconic legacy that the new Defender will never possess. Old Defenders have a soul; new Defenders are highly capable but soulless.
There are certain things that money can’t buy: the smile you get when climbing into an old Defender or the looks you get from others when driving one. That is why the old Defender is still the Land Rover king of the outback.
|2022 Defender 110||2016 Defender 130|
|Engine||I6 turbo diesel||I4 turbo diesel|
|Max power||221kW at 4000rpm||90kW|
|Max torque||650Nm at 1500rpm||360Nm|
|4x4 system||Full-time, dual range 4x4, Electronic Active Differential, Terrain Response 2||Full time, dual range 4x4, lockable centre diff|
|Construction||Aluminium Monocoque||Separate chassis|
|Front suspension||Double Wishbone||Live axles, coil springs|
|Rear suspension||Independent Integral Link||Live axles, coil springs|
|Tyres||255/65R20 Goodyear All-Terrain Adventure||235/85R16|
|Fuel tank||89 litres||75 litres|
|Approach angle||37.5 degrees||49 degrees|
|Departure angle||40 degrees||35.2 degrees|
|Ramp-over angle||28 degrees||152.5 degrees|
|Turning circle||12.8 metres||15.1 metres|