We are the Bell family – ordinary people who enjoy the extraordinary. 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 the Serengeti, Tanzania in our Defender 130, we became restless and insatiable. We realised that the overlander addiction was too strong to ignore and eventually decided to take 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.
I am Graeme, born in Johannesburg, South Africa but I consider Cape Town home when not travelling the planet. In December 2016 I transformed the Land Rover Defender from a standard double cab into a camper with through access, a pop top and sleeping for four in anticipation of the next adventure, driving from the United Kingdom to Asia. I am a jack of all trades including mechanic, cook, author, photographer and driver.
Luisa is the high powered crazy glue that keeps the unit tight. She navigates as badly as Columbus did but manages to redeem herself by attending to Graeme’s beer and meat addiction. An aspiring photographer, she is fond of great food and red wine, she can be found where those are available, in bulk, on special.
Keelan is the young warrior, the large little bull fighting for domination in the kraal. He has long flowing golden locks and is the apple of his mothers eye and the desire of every Latin American schoolgirl, their Moms and Aunts. Women have been known to inhale sharply and exclaim Dios Mio! when first meeting the young Adonis. To his credit he is a gentleman and pretends not to notice. When not envying his fathers beard he asks questions about space and time travel and designs zombie proof fortresses.
Jessica is sweet, gentle, caring, generous, loving and has the power to hypnotize and enchant any animal she meets. With one stroke of her hand any beast will fall to the ground and present its belly for scratching. She has perfected passive aggression and we pity the boy who falls under her spell for he will be yet another pet for her to pet. She will have to wait another 20 years to find out.
Where Have we Been
We have been overlanding internationally since 2010 and to date have driven, solo, from Cape Town to Kenya and back, a 25 000 kilometer journey which gave us the opportunity to tour South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. Namibia, in particular, is an overlanders paradise.
After chewing through life’s rubber umbilical cord, we extracted ourselves and shipped ourselves and the Land Rover to Uruguay where we completed both a circumnavigation of South America and an (almost) linear journey from Argentina to Alaska via Central America. We toured every country in the Americas except El Salvador. We covered 125,000 kilometres and the journey took four years.
Travelling as a family
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 but we love each other dearly.
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.
If nothing else, the kids 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). 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 an American 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 was manufactured in 2003 and has a TD5, turbo diesel five-cylinder engine, with ECU, and has been absolutely reliable; touch wood. She now has 330 000 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 learnt, 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.
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.
Our style of Travel
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 meet people you would not normally meet and go places where many don’t go.
Long Term Plans
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 learnt 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. In 2017 we will drive the converted Land Rover from the UK to Asia and a circumnavigation of Australia in 2018 would be a dream come true as would our eventual, victorious return to Africa.
We have self published two books as a collaboration of Graeme the author and designer and Luisa correcting Graeme and doing absolutely everything else.
The first book - ambitiously titled, We Will Be Free, has been very well received and reviewed and tells the story of our journey from Graeme’s point of view.
The second book, a crowdfunded A4, full colour “guide”, Travel the Planet Overland, was created with the sole goal of inspiring and instructing others as to how, they too, can travel the planet overland. This book was recently rated as the best overlanding book ever printed by the esteemed Overland International group.
The third book, yet to be named, will be published in late 2017 and will be a follow up to We Will Be Free.
When not writing our books, we write articles and gear reviews for a select few publications and generally do whatever is needed to stay two steps ahead of the wolf.
Originally published in The Rolling home Journal - Issue Three. Available here.
You can follow the Bell family on their adventures here