It was a scorching hot day last summer at the Northwest Overland Rally when I sauntered past a well-traveled Defender 130 with dual roof top tents and a South African flag on the fender. Overland events are rife with well-built vehicles, but all too few seem to have actually been anywhere of interest. This Defender, covered in dust and wearing the marks of many miles covered, was no show pony. After making a couple curious orbits of the truck, a towering figure appeared with a friendly wave and a cheery, “hello!”
Graeme and his wife Luisa, the affable owners of the Landy, were quick to give me a tour of their truck and over a handful of libations as the evening temps cooled, told me of their trip, a two-year lap of South America with their two kids. The more I learned of the Bell family, the more interested I became. After reading Graeme’s book, We Will be Free, I have become a regular follower of their travels and adventures.
I recently caught up with Graeme and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions about their journey and life on the road.
Christophe Noel: Of all the overlanders currently traveling the globe, there are not many doing it as a family of four. What made you want to load up the whole tribe and hit the road?
Graeme Bell: I think Luisa and I inherited a particularly strong strain of wanderlust from our ancestors. We grew up moving around South Africa and both loved the outdoors and camping. As adults we were initially happy with the odd camping trip in one of our Land Rovers (we had three old oil leakers at one stage) but once returning to “normal” life after a six-month drive from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam in our Defender 130 we became restless and insatiable. We realised that the overlander addiction was too strong to ignore and eventually decided to make the leap into long-term overlanding. There were also other motivating factors. Having grown up in isolated Apartheid South Africa, we both wanted to explore the planet and learn more about this world we inhabit. The opportunity to spend every day with our children, to watch them grow and to be their primary educators was irresistible. We were not satisfied with the level of education the children were receiving back home and were determined not only to learn invaluable life lessons but to also share those life changing experiences with our wonderful kids.
It’s hard to fathom the logistics of moving your family down the road day in and day out. Did you have to put in a lot of test-runs at home before you finally embarked on your big trip? What is the hardest aspect of keeping your crew moving?
If only we had known then what we know now. That six month African journey was an excellent opportunity to learn how to travel safely and comfortably and we were able to test our gear and iron out the rookie creases close to home. The success of a long-term journey as a family boils down to teamwork. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, roles and responsibilities and we work to our strengths. The kids cannot simply be passengers, they have to help set up and break camp, with cooking and dishes, laundry and all the other daily chores. Sometimes it is a challenge to keep the crew motivated and happy, we have been through some really tough times on the road and there have been times when cracks have appeared in the family fabric. We do spend a huge amount of time together and have had to learn to be positive and accommodating, patient and positive, it is not always easy.
Since starting your journey, your two kids have spent a good portion of their lives on the road. What do you think has been the most important lesson they have learned through their experiences?
They have learned adaptability. I will give you an example. After circumnavigating South America, we were lucky enough to be offered a little cottage on a farm owned by some overlander friends in Southern Brazil (they call themselves Daytrippers and have just shipped their Landy from Asia to Africa). Close to the farm was a little town called Coqueiral and as we were going to be in the area for a couple months the kids were invited to attend the local schools, Jessica at the junior school and Keelan at the high school. Both Keelan and Jessica had been shy and quiet kids when we left South Africa and we nervously expected them to be very awkward walking into schools where no-one spoke English and, with their blue eyes and blonde hair, they would stand out like a basketball player at a Bolivian soccer game. On the first day they insisted that we not accompany them and walked into their schools alone, with heads held high. It is a credit to the Brazilian people that our children were warmly welcomed and accepted by both the teachers and the students. Within days they had a host of new friends, within weeks they were communicating in Portuguese and they both did extremely well in their school work, after two years of being schooled on the road. Jessica was awarded gold stars for most of her work and Keelan surprised us all by achieving 95% for an age appropriate maths exam with all instruction in Portuguese. Mom and Dad were doing backflips across the farm.
Their newfound confidence and strength of character will serve them well in the future as they decide their own paths. We are confident that, given the massive range of experiences they have had, they will be able prosper on their own terms.
The Defender, as is true for all Land Rovers, often gets maligned as being an unreliable vehicle. You seem to have had not problems getting from point A to B. Can you imagine doing this trip in any other vehicle? Has it been difficult keeping it maintained and running well?
The Defender has a TD5, turbo diesel five-cylinder engine, with ECU, and has been absolutely reliable; touch wood. She now has 315 000 km’s on the clock and we are hoping to put on another 300 000 before we replace the engine. We have only had a few breakdowns but in true Landy fashion she always got us “home.” When we left South Africa we were determined to do all of our own maintenance and repairs and have learned, through trial and error, how to keep the wheels turning despite having no technical or mechanical training or background. Unfortunately most of the problems we had were “operator errors” early on in the trip and caused by a combination of bad fuel, extreme altitude and faulty aftermarket parts.
Prevention is better than cure is the cornerstone of any good maintenance regime. By listening to the truck, feeling her wobbles and jolts, trying to predict and address problems before they become failures we are able to avoid being stranded on the side of the road. In November, I wrote a blog titled “How To Be A Round-The-World DIY Mechanic. You can find that blog here http://www.a2aexpedition.com/#!How-to-be-a-RoundTheWorld-DIY-mechanic/c1ad1/563bed250cf275e9c599f24d
We have toyed with the idea of running another rig, perhaps a live-in motor home of some sort, but we are truly in love with our Defender. A Sprinter may be more comfortable, a Westfalia may be more quirky, but neither are able to take us where our Landy has. That said, you could go to many of the places we have in a VW beetle or a Ford Fiesta, the vehicle is a means, it is the journey which is important.
We are looking at ways to make the Landy more comfortable though, perhaps installing an ambulance body with a pop top might be a compromise for sustainable, comfortable long-term travel for an African sized family of four.
I have often wondered what goes into the planning of these types of trips once underway. How do you determine how many miles to cover in any given day or week. Do you simply travel when and where the mood strikes? Is there a schedule to keep? What factors determine your daily travel plans?
We try and avoid schedules if possible, a good slow, comfortable pace is the best way to travel both for the sanity of the traveller and the health of the vehicle. Luisa used to be quite Germanic in her planning, dictating distance, destinations and diet but soon realised that being too rigid leads to dissatisfaction and conflict. Often the road itself dictates the pace. In North Central Brazil, for instance, you can drive for a week without seeing much of interest; it is the type of terrain that you simply want to cover, to get back to the good stuff. In Africa and much of South America roads tend to be narrow and dangerous and travelling at high speeds and after dark is a very bad idea. Usually the greatest challenge comes at the end of a day on the road when finding a safe camp can be difficult. Often we will decide on a long-term destination, a border or perhaps a ferry crossing, and will give ourselves ample time to reach that destination whilst enjoying the drive. Travelling at a slow pace allows you the opportunity to see meet people you would not normally meet and go places where many don’t go.
After spending two and a half years in South America, are there any places you would return to?
Absolutely. We could spend another five years exploring the continent which we learned to love immensely. Venezuela with its terrible government and economy held a vast treasure of natural beauty that very few foreigners get to see. In fact, we are counting the days until the current regime falls, that prosperity returns and the many friends we made have an opportunity to rebuild the country, a country which, by far, has the most potential of any of the Latin American countries. Argentina was spectacular, the Brazilians and Colombians were the kindest, most generous people we have ever met and the Bolivian landscapes were mind numbingly beautiful.
You’re currently in Mexico as the northern parts of the continent are gripped by winter. Where are you headed in the spring?
We are planning to re-enter the good old USA and explore the South and East Coast, perhaps heading up to Canada. We had the opportunity to spend six months on the West Coast, including the drive up to Alaska, and were blown away by the natural beauty and the hospitality of the people we met.
Now that you’re in North America, what do you have on your agenda for destinations and places to visit?
We were recently chatting to the guys from the 4×4 Podcast and they reminded us of an overland, mostly off road, route from the West to the East Coast which we are now considering exploring. The West Coast set the bar very high, hopefully the East Coast will be up to the challenge. We want to eat BBQ and salted watermelon in the South, take photos of the Landy in Times Square, hang out with the good Land Rover people in Pittsburgh and get lost in Maine for a while. Local knowledge is the best resource for us and, because we are flexible if nothing else, we like to zig zag across the major routes, seeking those “secret spots” while avoiding the tourist hordes.
What are your long term plans? What’s next?
Ultimately, we plan to travel the globe; we may vary the mode of transportation though. I have always wanted to overland by motorbike and would love to sail around the Caribbean and across to the Mediterranean. We might even become lowly backpackers for a while; it all depends on our location and resources. The resources are naturally the greatest challenge for most long term travellers. Luckily we have learned to be frugal and can get by on a small budget and could get by on even less if the man child would stop eating everything. For now we will focus on completing our tour of North America whilst planning the next step. Shipping the Land Rover to Europe and then driving to Asia is one option, the other is to return to South America and spend those five years exploring. We are also writing our second book, a quirky look at the life of a long-term overlander and a guide for any aspirant world traveller. The first book about our travels in Africa and around South America has been well received and will be followed up eventually, once we have finished exploring North America. You can get that first book We Will Be Free here, http://www.a2aexpedition.com/#!author/c16nk
Do you have any advice for any other families contemplating a similar journey?
Overlanding long term with children is one of the toughest yet most rewarding endeavours you could ever undertake in the short period you have on this planet. The responsibility is immense as the future of your offspring will depend on the decisions you make for them, particularly by removing them from mainstream education and culture and by exposing them to the realities of the greater world. Kids make great overlanders, they require patience and guidance, discipline and love and you will be amazed how close you become while tackling the long road together.
My advice for any aspirant overlander family is to become a short-term overlander as often as possible, get out of the comfort zone and explore the country you live in. Carefully consider your finances and future prospects, build a live in rig suitable to your style of travel and beware the overlander addiction. Once you start you may not be able to stop.
To learn more about the Bell family and their amazing journey as it unfolds, visit their website by clicking on the banner below: