Show Notes for podcast 157
Tom Sheppard on the Nobility of Wilderness, Crossing the Sahara, and Overlanding the Deserts.
Scott Brady interviews the legendary Tom Sheppard, an icon of overlanding, and one of the most accomplished desert explorers in history. With overland projects and many solo, remote region, off-tracks Sahara expeditions to his name, Tom also led the eight-man, first coast-to-coast Sahara crossing and gravity survey, later recognized by a Royal Geographical Society award.. Tom is an exceptional practitioner of the craft, and authored numerous volumes on the subject, including the preeminent reference manual of overlanding, the Vehicle Dependent Expedition Guide.
Tom Sheppard, MBE, ARPS, is a British explorer, pilot and RAF test pilot. He’s best-known for the 1975 Sahara west-to-east crossing, using Land Rover 101s. He’s also gone on several solo Sahara expeditions, and written extensively and authoritatively on 4×4 driving and expeditions.
Looking for his books? He runs his own publishing company, Desert Winds Publishing.
Buy books here: http://www.desertwinds.co.uk/
Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal and is often credited with popularizing overlanding in North America. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and includes three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar expeditions include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. @scott.a.brady
Scott Brady: Hello and welcome to the Overland Journal Podcast. I’m your host, Scott Brady, and I have a very exciting guest for today. Personally, I am incredibly honored to have Tom Sheppard with me on the podcast. Tom has been someone that I have admired since the very first days. As an overland traveler for me, I remember walking into the Land Rover dealership in Scottsdale and seeing this book that said vehicle dependent expedition guide. And I remember my hands nearly trembling as I was asking the service counter person if it was actually for sale and it was. And I still have that book today and I have since purchased all of his other volumes. We worked with Tom on bringing the vehicle dependent expedition guide into the United States. His expeditions are considered some of the most effectively planned and executed in history. Some of these big ones were done before GPS, before modern communication and [00:01:00] navigation. So they would use a sun compass and they crossed the entire length of the Sahara all off track from coast to coast.
Tom Sheppard Is also an incredible photographer. He has a lot of passion for Northern Africa and has traveled there extensively, and he’s also had a wide range of vehicles and every single one of them. He prepares in nearly the same way with a great deal of simplicity. and minimalism to his approach. There is a lot to learn from Tom. He’s about to celebrate his 90th birthday. A huge happy birthday to Tom. This was such a joy for me to do. I’m so grateful that we had the chance to sit down and talk with Tom Sheppard. And a special thanks to Rocky talkies for their support of this week’s podcast, Rocky talkies or backcountry radios designed by a small team in Denver. The radios are extremely rugged, easy to use and compact weighing in at just under eight ounces. They have a range of 1 to 5 [00:02:00] miles in the mountains and up to 25 miles line of sight. The batteries will last from 3 to 5 days and you can recharge them easily via USB C right in the vehicle. Our team uses Rocky Talkies and we also used them recently at the Overland Expo. The next Overland Expo, stop into our booth and say hello and check out the radios for yourself. And as a listener of the Overland Journal podcast, you can get 10% off a pair by going to rockytalkie. com forward slash Overland Journal. Thanks again, Rockytalkie. Tom, it’s very humbling for me to be sitting here with you because you’re someone that I truly admire. And I’m grateful that we get to tell your story to the people that listen to the Overland Journal podcast.
Tom Sheppard: It’s very reassuring actually to hear your reaction, when you got the book or when you first saw it, which, it helps me.
Scott Brady: It filled me with wonder. It truly did. Just from the cover image. [00:03:00] I remember the first image that I saw that has stuck in my mind was, it was a photograph, I believe it was of the Range Rover being craned onto a ship.
Tom Sheppard: Ah, yes.
Scott Brady: And I remember it as if I saw it ten minutes ago, because again, it’s those, it’s those kinds of experiences that you’ve had. that we’re all seeking for. We’re seeking for this adventure.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, that was the ranger that broke the track rod, actually. As we will see. That was a surprise in store for me.
Scott Brady: So, I’d like to start from your military career. So, you had a full career as a fighter pilot. And how long were you in the British Air Force?
Tom Sheppard: I was in the RAF for 25 years. I started off at Cranwell, which is very lucky to get in there. That’s Royal Air Force College, where they train career officers. And I came out of there and went on to a fighter squadron, and [00:04:00] as a Cranwell graduate, they tend to give you a series of challenging jobs anyway, so again, you benefit from that, and then I went into squadron, went on to the, as well as being a pilot, I was also the, what they call the sea flight commander, which looked after the technical side as well, which it broadened my, my horizons quite a lot.
Scott Brady: Well, and I can see that that. Not only that, that discipline around being a pilot, but what you would have gained for insights around planning and logistics in that, in that position of leadership. I suspect that that helps your future expeditions.
Tom Sheppard: It did in point of fact, when I was in, in Cyprus, that was the first thing that I applied myself to was getting a sort of mobility plan. There were Beverly’s and Hastings aircraft, cargo aircraft. And if we deployed anywhere, we would have to have X number of, of items of technical equipment [00:05:00] and, and gun packs and all kinds of stuff. And I made plans of, of these aircraft and sure enough, we, I can’t even remember why, why we went there actually, but we deployed to Jordan, just over the road, you know, from Cyprus, it wasn’t exactly the dark side of the moon. But we went there and suddenly in the middle of the night, you know, the, the flight commander came and said, Hey, you still got those drawings? I said, Well, yeah, I have as a matter of fact, yeah, and off we went. And it worked.
Scott Brady: I guess the first expedition that I’d like to talk about is, is one of the most notable ones that you’ve completed, which was the first successful West to East crossing of the entire Sahara from ocean to ocean. And what, what inspired that trip?
Tom Sheppard: By that time, I had done a number, a large number of desert trips in, in the Sahara in particular. And that’s right, I remember now, it’s all coming back to me, yes, some things do come back to you eventually. And it was, [00:06:00] can’t remember the chap’s name now, but a Frenchman who had gone into what they, what he named as the Mauritanian Empty Quarter. And that was sort of like terror incognito, really, and no one had sort of been right across it. And I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be, wouldn’t it be great to go across there and, and carry on. And then I was searching for some, I mean, you can’t do that just for the hell of it, you know, it’s a pretty expensive hobby. I thought, well, you know, what can we do that’s useful? I contacted all manner of people, universities in the world, geographical society, and so on. And they came up, oh, I can’t remember how it arose now, but anyway, we, it turned out that there hadn’t been a complete coast to coast gravity survey done before, and that was how I met up with Jeff Renner, who was the scientist on the trip, as well as a great, I mean, he was British Antarctic Survey, so he knew all about operating in remote areas [00:07:00] and teamwork and all that kind of stuff, but he was immaculately thorough In, in what he did. And while we were all buzzing about, you know, getting bogged or un bogged or being cooked or sorting out the water or whatever. Jeff was there looking. We used to pull his leg actually, cuz his, a gravity meter is a device of enormous value. Frighteningly expensive. He came in in a shock proof vibration, proof box. And when he put it on the grid, he had to put it on the ground. Then he had to look through. And we used to pull his leg, but he was looking through to the devil. But he went on and he got this, it was unique. I mean, he got recognition from the Royal Geographical Society. So that was how the scientific aspect of the trip came.
Scott Brady: Well, and that genuinely, I think, shifts from an overland adventure to an expedition. Once you’ve either incorporated some degree of scientific weight to the trip, or you’re providing [00:08:00] some medical support. You’re doing some greater good than just being like I do, which is I tend to most of the time just be an adventurer mucking about, but, but it’s, it’s genuine these expeditions that you’ve done because they incorporated so many other things, like for example, you worked with UNESCO on the cave, the cave art and the rock art.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, that was after one of my trips to, well, a number of my trips to Libya. It occurred to me that there were these cave paintings there, all around the Jebel Uweinat, which is the, we used to call it NASA’s corner, because we, on our aircraft, we couldn’t go across Egypt, so we flew around that to get to Sudan, Khartoum. That mountain there, Jabal Uweinat and Akinu were absolutely alive. I mean, literally alive with cave paintings, [00:09:00] rock art, carvings, and that kind of thing, all around the place. And it, the, what that really said to you about the, the history of that place was the, was indicated by the, the carvings themselves. There was one, there are lots of carvings of cattle, long horned cattle, and giraffes.
Scott Brady: Which is fascinating.
Tom Sheppard: Which, which indicates what, what it had been like in the past. I mean, when we went through there, when I went there on my first visit in 1960, and I did another two visits after that. It was very barren. There was a spring, there was still a spring there, and in fact, on the first, yes, the first trip I went down there, there were actually some people living there. So there was some, heaven knows how, carving out a living. Equally, though, it was on a traffic route from northern Sudan into Libya. Which [00:10:00] a lot of, a lot of labor, went that way. Trucks went there. And there was a customs post and guards and so on and so forth on, on the corner.
Scott Brady: That makes sense. Looking 1975 Trans Sahara expedition, What were some of the, the key learnings that you had, because that is such an ambitious undertaking.
Tom Sheppard: Well, you’re, you’re right. You know, there was some learning to do and some preparation to do and what that involved. I thought it would be smart to do a reconnaissance, you know, I’d heard about the Morian empty quarter and it sounded a bit of a challenge. This was 1973. Now my first trip in the desert had been in 1960 with the Royal Air Force Regiment. That was my very first trip. And the Libyan Sand Sea was a nice sand sea, because the sand was friendly, inasmuch as it wasn’t so soft and [00:11:00] fine, and not so, sort of, wind, quite as windblown. Well, it was windformed, but not windblown. It behoved, and having heard what Mauritania was like, I thought we’d better go and take a sniff at this. And it’s a question of the long range, you know, how can you, how many, 800 miles, have you got enough fuel to do that? What vehicles are we going to use? A nice, agile vehicle like the Range Rover would go there like a bunny rabbit, you know. But it would run out of fuel about a third of the way across. A four ton truck would carry the load, but it was a bit of a, the power weight ratio wasn’t, wasn’t up to it, and so on. So basically what we did in 1973, I might add, I got, and I couldn’t have done this without the sponsorship of the RAF. The RAF recognized the benefit to servicemen, per se, of organizing expeditions in challenging conditions, such as, as the desert, and logistically challenging conditions and that kind of thing. So to cut a long story short, I managed to persuade the RAF [00:12:00] to, A, to learn to obtain a Bedford four ton truck, that we could use as comparison A. Comparison B was the 110 Land Rover, which was kind of one ton, no, no, about three quarter ton, but all the loaders over the back axle. Then there was the Range Rover, which would go there like a bunny rabbit, but it wouldn’t carry the fuel. So, enter, stage left, RAF Hercules aircraft, into which we would cram these vehicles. Oh, no, you won’t, said the man. Why not, I said, because they won’t fit. So what we had to do then was to take the wheels off the Land Rover, put the Land Rover on, on to the top, correction, start, put the Land Rover on top of the Bedford truck, then take the wheels off to lower it down so it didn’t hit the roof, and then take the Bedford truck with the Land Rover in. And then the Range Rover in behind that. So off we [00:13:00] went. And we landed at a place called Arak, where the Mauritanians, lovely people, and no less so were their soldiers and gendarmes and all the rest of it. So we landed one day at Arak. The message, of course, hadn’t actually got through that we were coming. So here we are, a foreign invading force, you know, complete with MC and all that. And these lovely Mauritanian soldiers coming up and saying, hey, can we, what can we do for you now? So there was a certain amount of negotiation that went on. But it’s kind of a long story. We got about, I suppose, 200 miles into the empty quarter. Not without some problems, of course. Inevitably, the Range Rover galloping ahead, you know, on deflated tires and so on. The Land Rover, hacking it, but with certain problems due to the load distribution and still three quarters of a ton, not taking enough fuel. And the Bedford [00:14:00] carrying, you know, a million jerry cans. And, and the food in the kitchen and, and so on and so forth. Get that, managing it in four wheel drive, but having to be towed every now and then. Tandem towed, Range Rover at the front, Land Rover, Bedford. All together, woomph, and then out, out it came. So we had several of those and that gave me a very good idea of, of what, what the terrain was gonna be like. And formed my idea, Dennis, to the kind of vehicles that we needed.
Scott Brady: And just happens to be that Land Rover released a new vehicle.
Tom Sheppard: Just happened. Yeah. I couldn’t believe my luck. I heard about that because the, you know, we, we looked at, looked at the one turn Land Rover and said, nah, it isn’t gonna do it. And the, the power weight ratio on the Bedford wasn’t, wasn’t any, but just at that time the, FBRD, Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Unit had passed for production the forward control Land Rover 101, which [00:15:00] being built for air dropping was very lightweight, lightweight. The cockpit was an ergonomic catastrophe, actually, because, you know, there was about 50 ways you could, you could cut yourself or bruise your leg or, or something like that. The steering wheel was about this, but it did the job, and the, the main payload, which, comprised four 45 gallon drums, that’s 400 liter drums of fuel, could sit right in the middle between the front axle and the rear axle. Ideal weight distribution. No problem at all, strapped down and so on and so forth.
Scott Brady: And they were V8s, were they?
Tom Sheppard: Sorry?
Scott Brady: Were they V8s?
Tom Sheppard: Yes, they were. V8 engine, sitting right there to the driver. And, and warming him appropriately in the sun. And there was even, by, by then further stripping it down, taking the top off, taking the windscreen off and all that kind of thing, we could mount the sun compass, which is what we were using, the principal navigation aid, mount the sun compass right [00:16:00] there, free to go to the sun for the shadow, for the, the gnomon and, and navigate with. And for the driver to see. So it was an ideal setup.
Scott Brady: For those that are watching on YouTube, you’ll see these images that we were able to get from Tom that showed the sun compass, which this would have all been pre GPS. Did you also use any celestial navigation?
Tom Sheppard: Yes, we did. That was the thing. I had a great, great friend of mine, Phil May, who was a then a corporal in the army, the British army, down in Salisbury, and he taught navigation to people, and he was as bright as a button, very, very sharp indeed, and a really nice guy, very calm, very proficient, we had him as the, the overseer on the astro shots, star shots, you would have to have at least three star, Three star shots to get a fix. [00:17:00] Now, as often as not, I mean, when on my subsequent trip, I was, if you got one or two of them cocked up, something like that, you’d have to do another one. You’d spend all night, you know, doing them. And I was taking on, on my, my later trip in 78, I was doing, being less proficient than Phil, I was doing anything up to five. Or six star shots to try and get a decent cocked out the intersection lines of the of the three position lines Had to make a small top hat as we call it.
Scott Brady: Sure the sun compass would essentially give you a bearing Which is what you were primarily navigating.
Tom Sheppard: Yes, that’s right with the ingenuity of the sun compass it is actually beyond, praise the Coles, I don’t know who, I don’t know very much about Mr. Coles, but he deserves to go down in history. All the instructions were on, on the face of the compass. You could give it to a chimpanzee and he’d say, oh yeah, I don’t know the time of year, time of day, sun time, greenish mean time, this kind of [00:18:00] thing. You just set it all, set it up all on the, on the face of the sun compass, slide the known one up and down, move it round to the heading you wanted, drive with the compass on the, on the movable reference item. And there you are. You had to be careful that every 15 minutes as the sun went round, you had to change. So in fact, technically you were actually, you were not going in a straight line. You were going in a series of shallow arcs, but you were getting there and it was dead accurate.
Scott Brady: Incredible. And to, I think about today, the luxuries that we have for travel, I can navigate by GPS. I can have all of the, I showed you this morning on Gaia GPS, all these layers of maps.
Tom Sheppard: No law against it.
Scott Brady: Yeah, but it’s just, it’s, it is fascinating and to me it just shows, you know, how much more proficient you had to be because you were going into, I mean, there was not even any satellite communication, you would have probably UHF radios would be the extent.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, [00:19:00] it was sort of long wave radio, actually. We had to bound aerials and everything else. And we had the chap there, Kevin, who could do the Morse code and all that, all very professional and everything else. So we kept in touch with the people at home there.
Scott Brady: When you finished that trip, what were the couple of either modifications to the vehicle or equipment that you brought along that you thought, this is very special, I’m gonna use it from now on. Is there anything that you really.
Tom Sheppard: I think it, it reaffirmed my faith or my faith in the sun compass. It’s proved, why wouldn’t it? The validity of having sound astro shots as backup. It emphasized the fact, that you couldn’t get good astro shots if there was cloud. So I had to double bank on most things. But, you know, navigation wise, I mean, again, to do the, the Astro [00:20:00] shots, you had a pack, a pack of books about, about that deep and about that, that long old tables, you know, the Astro tables, the mind boggles as to who wrote the book.
Scott Brady: I know, it’s impressive.
Tom Sheppard: Or wrote in inverted commas. Somebody had to do the mathematics for all that.
Scott Bady: Yeah, truly impressive. And then you think about Shackleton and his crew in this tiny dory. Going across the ocean somehow taking these, these headings.
Tom Sheppard: That’s right. Yeah, cold hands and the, the climatic, climatic problems they had were, were about four times what we had. Truly. You know, we had very high temperatures, but, it was livable. You could work.
Scott Brady: Yeah. The men and women who’ve come before us and what they’ve accomplished is just truly unbelievable. So you finished this very notable expedition and it received high praise. It was [00:21:00] even used in Rolex advertisements and it was, you know, it was, it was documented well.
Tom Sheppard: Royal Geographical Society gave me the Ness Award, which I was really quite, quite happy about. Team event, but you know, they gave it to me, but yeah.
Scott Brady: And then there was a video that came out on that.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, I’ve seen it.
Scott Brady: It’s quite good.
Tom Sheppard: As well as leading the trip. I was also the chief cinematographer. So I had to, went with, with Jeff down to again, it was an army unit down in the south of England to learn the, you know, the tenets of shooting films and cutaways and zoom shots and, you know, trying to get things in perspective and above all in, in the desert, no, keeping the cameras clean. And keeping the sand out. Yeah. I was, I was very pleased to note that Anglia. television as it was then. When they got the, when they got the [00:22:00] film, they said, we can’t believe how clean this is. And I would spend actually about an hour in the, in the afternoon with, with a, with a squasher, with a, with a, you know, blowing sand off the lenses and making sure that the, and then we had to cut, keep the film cool. The, the film stock had to be kept cool. And I mean, it was exposed. It had to be kept cool. And then it had to be mailed out of the country. The first thing was after the empty quarter crossing, when we got down to Kano, we, we put a whole stack of film in the post.
Scott Brady: Oh my gosh.
Tom Sheppard: And prayed that it would get through and everything else.
Scott Brady: And it did.
Tom Sheppard: It did. It got through. You can imagine the customs people. Oh, what’s this, you know. But it got through. And we shot some, more footage along the way and mailed that back from Khartoum. And again from Cairo because we had to get the inevitable shot by the pyramids, you know.
Scott Brady: It’s a wonderful film. And, and I’ve, I have found that a few times on, on YouTube, it looks, [00:23:00] it’s.
Tom Sheppard: Oh, really? Oh, God.
Scott Brady: Well, and speaking of cinematography and photography, one of the things that the initial impression is of course, being impressed by your, by your CV, by your expeditions, but the more that I’ve gotten to know your content, especially for Overland Journal, it’s the, it’s the stunning images that you’ve captured. And you have a very unique way of setting the vehicle as a, as a minor character in a very beautiful place. So it’s this sense of place that you’ve captured in your imagery that I find so exceptional. Is, is photography one of your great loves?
Tom Sheppard: It certainly is. Absolutely. Yeah. Jonathan Hanson, whom I believe you know, and I think most people in the expedition world knows. He’s always pulling my leg about, cause I have got this thing about wide angle lenses. And I’ve just got an 8mm Sam Yang lens, which, you know, you can take a picture of the back of your [00:24:00] head just about with this thing. But the optics are superb, and it does give you a truly dynamic and inspiring new view. Things that you would not have looked twice at. You know, take it to a wide angle, a fisheye lens, and say, Hey, look at that. Yeah, quite unusual. You know, stop it down to f22 and get the, get the sun sparkle from the sun and all the rest of it. You can include the sun in the shot because heavens, our whole life is influenced by the sun. Why not put it in the shot? Photography is very much my thing. Very much my thing.
Scott Brady: Some of your books that you’ve produced that, that maybe people don’t even know about is like, for example, Quiet for a Tuesday, which is just a, it’s a beautiful volume, and a great title. And then the other one is, The Nobility of Wilderness. We just spent some time looking at some photos on your, on your computer from that and it, they’re just beautiful, truly.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, I must admit it, it, you can’t take a good photograph unless you’re [00:25:00] inspired by the subject. And if you have also got a camera that you really chime with, technically and, and physically and functionally, then, you know, you, you won’t get anywhere, but I’ve, as I say, the, it’s, it’s difficult not to be inspired by the desert and photography, particularly with the, with the light you get there with the sun, when the sun is about, there’s one shot I took with a, a fisheye, lens, and it’s deliberately pointed up. No, it wasn’t a fisheye lens, it was a very wide angle lens, very wide angle lens. It was pointed up so the horizon is curved. There’s one vehicle there, the sky, there’s a hallowed gradient on the sky going from pale blue right up to dark blue, and the sun is in the shot. And that actually encapsulates really, in a harsh way, the, you know, the other angle of, on the desert.
Scott Brady: Which is the sun constant.
Tom Sheppard: You know, you don’t, you don’t [00:26:00] fool with that kind of thing. And it really gets the message across.
Scott Brady: It does. And your images, they speak to the grandeur of Algeria and Tunisia and Libya, where these places that you’ve traveled, and so few people have been able to experience, my, my total time in Algeria was minutes because I had accidentally crossed the border. So, I would love to go back and I would love to spend the time like you have there.
Tom Sheppard: It’s terribly sad, the situation in Algeria. It really is. I mean, the scenery there is, if you forgive the expression, is to die for. It is, would you hope you wouldn’t. It is just in a class by itself. Gigantic rock outcrops that you get all smoothed over. The mind, you look at it, the mind boggles. You think, what is the temperature gradient of that after three months of high summer? What are the thermal stresses in it? And you can see the thermal stresses. They’ve, they’ve peeled away. You get [00:27:00] an exfoliation at the top. The, the outer layer cracks away and it slides down to the bottom. And you get all this detritus around, around the bottom there. But you’ve still got this enormous rock outcrop there. Algeria is in a class by itself.
Scott Brady: What an incredible place, truly.
Tom Sheppard: Again, and it isn’t all really hot and unbearable, because if you go down to Taman Rasset, for example, you’re up in the Hogar Mountains, and the scenery is just spectacular. And the temperature at 5,000 feet, you know, is very tall. There’s a little monastery there up the road from Tamanrasset and you climb up and the monks there must have really enjoyed themselves, I think, because, I mean, well, what a place to be.
Scott Brady: One of the questions that I really wanted to ask you is that in all of these journeys that you’ve done. This incredible career of travel, how has that changed you as a person?
Tom Sheppard: I’m not sure that it has changed me as much as reaffirmed to me, by [00:28:00] which I mean, I think it all started when I was about 10 years old. My father was a tea planter up in the top right hand corner of India. We came back in 1946 in after a partition and on the train from Calcutta to Bombay. It’s a long old journey, and I overnight, journey there, and I woke up at, ten years old, woke up about five, five o’clock in the morning, the, the rest of the family were asleep, and I looked out of the window, we were in the desert at that time, and that that really did it. That really did it for me. It, it nailed it. And it’s been the same ever since, I think. Yeah.
Scott Brady: You know, the deserts can do that for us.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah. The, the space, the cleanliness. I mean, there’s a line in the Lawrence of Arabia, where in inspirational film. where he, Lawrence says, God, I love this place. And he, [00:29:00] he really got it when he’s also on his camel singing, singing on his camel and echoing off the, off the mountains in, in Aqaba. It’s, it’s like nowhere else. And that’s actually where the Algerians, I think, have got to be careful how they handle it. You know, I don’t want to sound exclusive or anything, but you don’t want… How can I put this tactfully? No, I can’t put it tactfully. You don’t want a noisy rabble. Going into, into the, into the desert and leaving litter. You want people who really appreciate the beauty of the place.
Scott Brady: Respect it.
Tom Sheppard: And respect it. Yeah, yeah.
Scott Brady: It seems like that those formative experiences that we have in our youth, and for you, you were able to do what you were meant to do.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, as I say, that was, that was the impression formed on that train coming out from the east of Bombay, and it stayed with me ever since. And I flew some transport commander as a supernumerary pilot [00:30:00] initially, you know, flying over the desert, and you look down and that is absolutely tear jerking. It really is. You see the dawn coming up and the long shadows cast by the dunes and everything. And the first time I flew over Jebel Uwein at NASA’s corner, that mountain on, on the bot there really, it really, it reduced me to tears. It really was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
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Scott Brady: You’ve had the opportunity to drive many different vehicles and which, you know, everything from these original Range Rovers to Ford controls to. To Defenders and G Wagons and everything else. Which one was your favorite? Not the one that necessarily worked the best, but the one that you just loved?
Tom Sheppard: Oh, I think unquestionably the G Wagon. When I got my G Wagon it, which would’ve been no, around 2000, year 2000, they were making the G Wagon 4 61 as a van, so it got this immaculately conceived driveline, you know, which was a [00:33:00] lockable front diff, lockable back. Difference. Change on the move. Please God, make every vehicle capable of doing that. You can change on the move from low range to high range. Essential when you’re getting out of really soft sand. And you cannot then stop to fiddle about with gear levers. So it had all the driveline functionality that you needed, plus it was a van, and it would carry a ton and a bit. That, I think, tops the list. Coming up remarkably close, I’m just thinking of that original Ranger. That original Ranger I had was a development vehicle. We’ve got to give it some, some, some space. Yeah, like, like broken, track rods, and think, and think, oh, and, and the fuel pump went, oh my god, yeah. But that, that had potential, again, sadly, like the, the G Wagon, it’s gone down the [00:33:00] money grubbing route of producing a over specified luxury vehicle for people who never even dare go off road. But that, that Range Rover had, had the potential to, to be a, to be a winner, but it wasn’t. The next one down, I would say, the next honest vehicle, surprisingly for many people listening to this, is the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk 2 liter diesel. A very modest looking vehicle. It looks like an ordinary sort of school run wagon, but my word, the only thing it lacks is great, it could do with a bit more ground clearance. But, The gem of that is, and understated and unrewarded and unrecognized, is the ZF automatic transmission. It’s got a transverse engine, so you’ve got very little in the way of space. I went round the G Wagon factory, And they, the, there were the chassis there being, being laid out. And they said, this is the, this is the one with the new, new seven speed. The seven speed [00:34:00] transmission was about this long. And I thought, wow, terrific. And it was practically colliding with the rear axle. What they’ve done in the, in the Renegade is produce a nine speed gearbox. 12 inches wide and you think that is impossible. This is ZF. Nobody ever says, Hey, ZF, terrific. They should do. They should hold up the flag.
Scott Brady: That is a good trend.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah. Because it is absolutely outstanding. There wasn’t an initial production problem when they had to transfer for numbers had to transfer production to USA. Because he did, didn’t go right to start with, but the basic design is there as produced by ZF and then they got the production up to it.
Scott Brady: And then the traction control and all of that works quite well.
Tom Sheppard: It does. It’s got, it’s got a diff lock, hasn’t got a front diff lock, but it’s got a locking diff in the middle. In effect, it is an eight speed [00:35:00] usable range of gears in point of at more like seven, because you come out of the garage and 100 yards down the road it’s in third gear. It starts off in second. First is kept for high days and the holidays and sand that’s that deep. And you can lock the rear diff. You can go into full time four wheel drive. It will revert to four by two all on its own. It’s got everything selectable, beautifully ergonomically placed and written. And, and laid out.
Scott Brady: Oh, that’s wonderful praise for the vehicle. I like them. They’re, and they’re quite space efficient. They’re a little box.
Tom Sheppard: Oh, yes.
Scott Brady: A little box with wheels.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah that’s right. Yeah. I’ve taken the backseat out of mine. And when I took it to Algeria, I took the backseat out and I did a fairly comprehensive platform mod inside. Four jerrycans of fuel, two jerrycans of water, whole lot of storage, little things, cupboards that lift up, and all the rest of it. And I can sleep in it as well. In the UK when it’s cold, I can put the passenger [00:36:00] seat forward, and I can put a sleeping bag inside, and even when it’s cold outside, you just… Crack the windows down a little bit again. Beautiful. Perfect. Beautiful.
Scott Brady: The thing that I remember about the G Wagon the last time that I was here was how minimal the modifications were to it. You had things that you had learned over 40 years that worked in the desert. And I think it’s helpful to kind of work through Some of those things. I remember one of the things that stood out to me was you did have a backup battery, but it was connected with a manual switching separator. What’s your motivation or what inspired you to go about it that way?
Tom Sheppard: I can’t clearly remember, it will probably have been the fact that I didn’t have the sensitive equipment required to know when to switch from the main battery to the backup battery.
Scott Brady: Yeah, it was so simple and reliable. It was just behind the driver’s seat.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, that’s right. [00:37:00] Yeah, yeah, it’s right. I’m trying to remember what, what, what was running off it. A lot of things. Oh, that’s right. The interior lighting.
Scott Brady: Yeah, and I think your GPS ran off it.
Tom Sheppard: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. The navigation and the interior lighting.
Scott Brady: And then you had, and then you had this other. Very clever, roof mounted, you know, kind of ventilation system that you installed on the roof, and it just would kind of ram air into the cabin. Very clever.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah that’s right. And I’ve done it, and we’ve got pictures of that. I also, I did initially on a Land Rover, a 90 inch Land Rover. Just a hood. Basically, I was using the air that had to hit this very steep windscreen and go up the windscreen. And that’s all it had to do. So you didn’t, you never got rain going into it, but so the, the intake was actually horizontal. Like that. So the air went in there and then a couple of, eyeball things in. It worked. No power, no fan, no nothing. Fantastic. And it was fantastic.
Scott Brady: Yeah, very simple. [00:38:00] And then when you camp in the desert, I don’t know if this is something that you still do, but in some of your photographs, it shows you sleeping on a cot. Is that your preference?
Tom Sheppard: Yes. Yeah. Well, practical terms, you couldn’t sleep in the vehicle because it was full of jerry cans and things like that. I was loathe to clobber up the roof with the heavy drag inducing rooftop tents and things like that, from which you couldn’t see anyway. The joy of sitting on a, on a cot, a camp bed, but only about that far off the ground. Yeah. Is that you could turnover. I always slept with my feet facing south. So I would find that the constellations went over like this. So I could tell I could wake up in that. I didn’t need to look at my watch. I knew where the plow was or, or some of the other constellations. I could say, Oh yeah, it’s about, I’ve got another couple of hours to go here. And [00:39:00] absolute magic. And, and to, to just open your eyes and see the stars. You know, it was a shame to close your eyes actually. And in the moon moonlight of course. It was just unbelievable, you know?
Scott Brady: So those are the rewards of not locking yourself away in a tent or in the vehicle. And the desert really lends itself well. One of the things that I do like about sleeping out under the stars is, On the occasion that you get a little bit of rain, you hear that. It’s amazing how we’re still through evolution. We know that sound, that little pitter pattern of the rain.
Tom Sheppard: Absolutely. Right.
Scott Brady: And we wake up quite easily from that.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah. That, that’s right.
Scott Brady: Yeah. Yeah. It’s, it’s so special.
Tom Sheppard: In fact, one time on, on that trip with the Range Rover and the trailer, which was logistically and practically challenging shall, shall we say. It was so windy one night I couldn’t sleep on, on the ground because I would, I was part of being part of a sand dune. So I slept, I perched my mattress, strapped my mattress to the top of the trailer. You know, I was chuckling all the [00:40:00] time. I said, this could not get any worse. I slept on top of the trailer, on the mattress, and then halfway through the night, it pitter patter, pitter patter, and I just, I said that, even I’ve slept out in the UK in, you know, temperate zones, unquote. Where you’re liable to get rain anyway, and you, you, there’s a, you know, a waterproof, sleeping bag you can get into. And, and it’s fine, you know, you just button it down and you say, okay, rain away, get under.
Scott Brady: The next thing that I was, was hoping to talk about was The Vehicle Dependent Expedition Guide. You’re on what edition now?
Tom Sheppard: Six.
Scott Brady: Edition six?
Tom Sheppard: Sorry, well, no. Well, it’s the sixth edition, sort of. I suppose really it’s probably the seventh, but it is called edition 5A. Because I made some very small additions to take care of issues with the Garmin. Careful as I say this, Garmin. equipment, which we’d had given [00:41:00] trouble. And I wanted to straighten things out because the trouble looked worse than it was. If you could, you could identify what was giving trouble, and that was completely separate from the accuracy of the navigation, which is probably the important bit. So my message was, you know, It’s fine. It’s, it’s working off satellites up there, which are absolutely spot on. But some of the onboard equipment inevitably is not so expensively engineered as a satellite is. And you’ve got the bit that matters. So I wanted to incorporate that in the thing and also a glancing blow. I mean, very, very early days yet, but I have to mention that the Rivian electric pickup, which at the time was, and that was what about nine months ago now, at the time was the only sort of sensible. They, Rivian seemed to have addressed the right thing. But it’s still heavy. [00:42:00] And my caveat was, what about the tires? You get this big, heavy vehicle. Okay, it’s got the power weight ratio, but has it got the tires? The tires don’t seem to have caught up. Now, it may well be that Mr. Rivian is saying, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I wouldn’t mind some 900 by 16s on this rather than 750s. But nevertheless, it’s 77 plus, of course. You can’t get, take jerrycans with an electric vehicle.
Scott Brady: Yeah, there’s limitations to it. Having driven the Rivian for many months, it’s, it’s exceptional. It would, it would give you a laugh for sure.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, some fresh thinking there. Really, I’d be very interested in your view.
Scott Brady: Yeah, it’s, it’s a very special vehicle. And we took it, we took a Rivian SUV to the most remote point that you can travel to on a road in North America. And it had just enough range to do that. And they really are quite capable to your point though, the sand would be its nemesis because they’re, they’re almost 9, 000 pounds. [00:43:00] And it’s a 20 inch wheel, so you can only air them down so far.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, that’s right. With a thin tire on it, that’s the thing. They want bigger wheel arches, and the wheel and tire industry needs to catch up with this issue. If they’re going to go, which they will have to, they’re going to have to address, you know, off road vehicles with electric. When you say you went to the extreme of range, were you a nervous wreck when you were getting near home?
Scott Brady: You know, it’s, range anxiety, it’s a thing. You, you really, because there’s not an easy way to solve it. You know, with an internal combustion vehicle, you can even stick your thumb out and maybe a rancher comes by that has some extra fuel. Or, or you can take a jerry can and go into the town and come back with fuel. With the electric vehicle, it requires a very specialized solution. Which has to be.
Tom Sheppard: That’s right. Yeah. What sort of range were you, on, on that trip? We did almost 200 miles of off-road [00:44:00] driving.
Tom Sheppard: So it’s a hundred out and a hundred back?
Scott Brady: No, it was, it was a hundred out, and then we took a slightly different route. To go out. The one advantage that the electric vehicles have that’s really interesting is its ability to regen. So anytime you’re going downhill, you’re actually getting energy back into the battery, which is quite interesting. It’s something that an internal combustion vehicle can’t do. Of course, the consumption goes way down, but you’re still, the engine’s still purring along and it’s not putting power back into the vehicle.
Tom Sheppard: But is that not just a question of putting back what you lost going up the hill?
Scott Brady: Pretty much. Yeah, and of course, there’s some some overall loss Just because it does take a lot more energy to go uphill then the regen can provide your down, but it’s a it’s a new technology and it’s fascinating. I mean, it’s not gonna be it’s not gonna be the solution to cross the Sahara yet, maybe someday, but not yet.
Tom Sheppard: Everybody writes about that we’re waiting for the big battery [00:45:00] breakthrough, and I think that that’s it, isn’t it, really, to get the weight down. They’re getting very much better than they were, aren’t they?
Scott Brady: They really are. They really are. They keep getting more and more refined around that for sure. Yeah. I think that it’s been fun to watch the Vehicle Dependent Expedition Guide continue to get updated because The first volume was so significant and substantial that a lot of times those kinds of books never get kept up to date, whereas between you and Jonathan’s help, you’ve been able to keep, for those that are listening, Jonathan Hanson, who’s involved with the Overland Expo and 7P International, He helps.
Tom Sheppard: Absolutely with invaluable help and a solid perspective on some of the things that I’m saying.
Scott Brady: He’s very accomplished.
Tom Sheppard: I said, Hey, Jonathan, what do you think? And he says, yeah, he’s very tactful there.
Scott Brady: Oh, yeah, of course. He’s a true gentleman and a great ambassador for what we love to do.
Tom Sheppard: Absolutely. Yeah.
Scott Brady: So Jonathan is included in some of the newer, newer [00:46:00] volumes of the book.
Tom Sheppard: Yes. Yes. Indeed.
Scott Brady: Yeah. So one of the things that I find is so interesting about the book is that you do go into a lot of detail around the supporting equipment. So clothing, cooking, sleeping, shipping, you go into all of these supportive logistical components of, of vehicle based travel. So those that are listening, I would highly encourage that you go. It’s desertwinds.com, is that right?
Tom Sheppard: Yes.
Scott Brady: And take a look at the book. I think Jonathan and Rosanne’s might still have some copies available.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, I was particularly pleased, actually. Got a bit carried away, actually. I spent a time in the Air Force as a test pilot, and alongside the arrangements at Farnborough was the Aeromed Centre for the RAF, and one got terribly analytical about everything there, and about clothing, and for pilots, and so on and so forth.
That caused me to rather go to town on the clothing side of things. And I was very pleased. I wondered if I’d overdone [00:47:00] it actually. I was very pleased though to hear from somebody in the clothing industry who said, Hey, look, this, yeah, this is, this is okay.
Scott Brady: Well, it helped it. I think it helped me. And I think many others, you know, inform a good baseline of decision making around equipment. The other thing that I really like about your vehicle dependent expedition guide is it shows mostly stock vehicles accomplishing these significant feats. So it reminds people that you don’t really need to, nor should you, heavily modify a vehicle for long expeditions. Has that been your experience? You want to avoid heavy modifications?
Tom Sheppard: The manufacturers have a problem on their hands. Like the, the new Land Rovers, for example. When I heard it was coming out, I almost ordered one blind. But when I saw it, I thought, oh my lord, you know, it’s about 20% bigger than I would want. Isn’t ideal for, well, it’ll do an exhibition, but it doesn’t have a front diff lock, and you’ve got to be [00:48:00] realistic and say, well, the guys who are paying the bills for this thing. Yeah, at the factory and putting in all the design work, the production equipment, everything. They’ve got to get that money back. So they’ve got to sell a lot of these things. So they’ve got to sell to a lot of people, not just the expedition people. So things like that have rather lowered its expedition capability, I think. But to answer your question about modifications, I think in general, any kind of long range or even medium range expedition, you’re talking about taking out the back seats and using that for cargo. Unless it’s very short range. Now, also, there is, there are, if you’re not strapped for payload, if you’re not really pushed for payload or, or up to your neck in jerry cans of fuel and everything, you’ve probably got the payload to have a roof tent or something like that. And in the so called temperate zones, you could have a roof tent and get into it. And [00:49:00] you’re A, you’re out of the way of insects, snakes, and that kind of stuff. And you’re, you’re protected from the rain. And that kind of, plus you can peep out, you know what I’m saying, it’s not very nice out there. So, yeah, it’s kind of horse, it’s for course, I think anything long range, I would say, yes, you have to do modifications. Anything short range or medium range, you could probably add accessories, provided they’re not too heavy. I have a thing about external add ons, you know, being realistic about it and people with families and that kind of thing. Then, yeah, a roof tent is very accurate. Provided, again, the weather is not too windy. You see these pictures in advertisements on the back of magazines, and there’s people there, we know, they’ve got the vehicle with the bedroom upstairs, and there’s a huge awning. And I think, you know, if the wind goes above five knots, this whole lot is going to finish off.
Scott Brady: With you in it, maybe, huh?
Tom Sheppard: Which happened to me in the desert with my good friend, Jeff. It was very [00:50:00] warm indeed. It was about 44 centigrade, but dry, so it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. But we thought, oh, well, I think we’ll, how are we going to camp tonight? And so we said, well, let’s camp up on that hill there. So we camped up on the hill to catch the breeze. As we said, before, before you could say, boo, there was a whirling, whirling whirlwind coming up, which took, we, we unloaded a lot, a lot of kit at that stage. We should, then the wind then distributed over the surrounding countryside.
Scott Brady: Oh my God.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah. I mean, these adverts are all very well, but what about when the wind Blows.
Scott Brady: So no things, conditions can change very quickly.
Tom Sheppard: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
Scott Brady: Yeah. Which is why a lot of times sleeping inside the vehicle is your best choice. If you have room for it. Yeah, you have room for it.
Tom Sheppard: I had a Suzuki Jimmy.
Scott Brady: Yeah, those are fun.
Tom Sheppard: What a sweetie. What a little sweetie. I mean, it looks like son of G wagon. It does the look of it. It’s an awful shame. It came to the [00:51:00] UK and I thought I would’ve, I again, I would’ve bought one. Unfortunately, the petrol version didn’t accord with our emission laws. And that kind of, and also the, the gearbox, the automatic gearbox wasn’t just the top of the top of the range there.
Scott Brady: No, it wasn’t.
Tom Sheppard: It was nominally four. It was more like three, which in practice turned out like two.
Scott Brady: Yeah. That was my experience.
Tom Sheppard: If they’d put a, if they’d put a really economical, low emissions engine in it and, and a decent, a zf gearbox. That would’ve been the catcher dam. The thing about it was small as it was, you could sleep in it. No problem at all. Why? Because the seat, both seats, but certainly the passenger seat back fold backwards, not forward. Which I had to do in the Jeep, you have the, the back goes forward. So you’re actually sleeping at an angle like that. In the, in the Jimny, it goes towards the back of the vehicle. So you can sleep on it and it’s long enough to take a [00:52:00] six footer. No problem at all.
Scott Brady: Fantastic. Fantastic.
Tom Sheppard: And you, you’ve got all this light around, you just crack the windows down about that. Get the air shares beautiful. So good. Absolute gem of a vehicle that one.
Scott Brady: So for someone that is new to Overland Travel, what would be a couple pieces of advice that you would give them? Someone that was getting ready to start their own journey like you have?
Tom Sheppard: Know what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to be persistent in getting decent explanations about things. Above all, have an eye for detail. If someone accuses you of being a granny or a nitpicker. Say that’s fine. That’s what it’s about.
Scott Brady: Yeah, and it’ll get you home.
Tom Sheppard: Because it’s the detail that really counts.
Scott Brady: Absolutely. No, that’s great advice, Tom.
Tom Sheppard: Thank you. Yeah, that’s right.
Scott Brady: You still have the Jeep?
Tom Sheppard: Yes.
Scott Brady: And, and have you put any thought to your next adventure that you’d like to do? [00:53:00]
Tom Sheppard: It’s difficult. As I say, politically, where can you go? But I want to go. I would love to go back to Algeria. But it just is not for various reasons, you know.
Scott Brady: Doesn’t work.
Tom Sheppard: To do with here and prevailing circumstances that it’s it’s not going to happen i don’t think but in the meantime i’ve i’ve got it i admire the engineering and the the humble elegance of the design round headlights, remember round headlights?
Scott Brady: What a gem.
Scott Brady: Tom, thank you so much for taking the time with me today. It’s been an absolute joy to hear about your adventures. To share your story with our audience, [00:55:00] I would highly encourage those that are listening, take a look and see if you can find a vehicle dependent expedition guide for yourself. It is an incredible volume. It is, we have all called it the Bible of overlanding for a very long time. And it’s a deserving attribute.
Tom Sheppard: Oh, you’re very kind. And this companion book, 4×4 Driving, which hasn’t required, because it’s, these are tenets which are sort of hallowed. Well, thank you for having me, and I hope I haven’t bent your ears too much.
Scott Brady: No, I wish that we could spend all day recording this, because there’s so much to learn from you, Tom. You’ve been such an inspiration for me. You’ve reminded me of the importance of planning and logistics. And I’ve referred to your book throughout all of my expeditions around the world or, or my adventures around the world. And, and I’m just so grateful that we could spend the time today.
Tom Sheppard: Scott, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Scott Brady: Thank you, sir.